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  • In Search of Nature: The Japanese Writer Tayama Katai (1872-1930) by Kenneth G. Henshall
  • Indra Levy (bio)
In Search of Nature: The Japanese Writer Tayama Katai (1872-1930). By Kenneth G. Henshall. Global Oriental, Leiden, 2013. xviii, 248 pages. €98.00.

This book by Kenneth G. Henshall, a noted English-language translator and scholar of Tayama Katai, belongs to the genre of critical biography or hyōden. Covering the entire span of the writer’s life from birth to death, it will most strongly appeal to fellow Katai aficionados. Indeed, anyone who has devoted significant time and energy to researching this key figure in modern Japanese literary history can find something to enjoy in this book, which contains some fascinating details about Katai’s life and works that were not previously available in English.

Needless to say, Tayama Katai is widely regarded as a major figure in the development of Japanese naturalism and the form of confessional fiction that would later become known as the watakushi-shōsetsu. For his place in postwar literary history, Fūzoku shōsetsu ron (Shinchōsha, 1950) by the influential literary critic Nakamura Mitsuo (1911-88) remains an important touchstone. Therein, Nakamura famously identified Katai’s 1907 novella Futon as the fateful misstep by which Japanese literature veered off the path of progress, by failing to properly internalize and enact the lessons [End Page 410] gleaned from modern Western literary realism. Nakamura deployed the term “naturalism” as the foundation for modern realism and cast the watakushi-shōsetsu as a problematic Japanese perversion of the same. At stake for Nakamura was not a mere literary technicality. Rather, it was nothing less than the development of the “modern self” (kindai jiga)—a problem that, in the wake of Japan’s disastrous defeat in World War II, was taken up with a shared sense of urgency by literary critics and political theorists alike.

Whether or not one agrees with Nakamura’s argument, it provides an important key to the intellectual framework that lent meaning to postwar scholarship on Japanese naturalism. Indeed, in lieu of the postwar focus on the “modern self,” it would be difficult to account for the veritable boom in studies of Japanese naturalism that took off in the late 1950s and continued through the mid-1970s. It was at the tail end of this era that Henshall chose naturalism and Tayama Katai as the main subjects for his doctoral thesis. Given the benefit of four decades of hindsight, one cannot help wishing that he had made a stronger effort to situate his work in a broader literary historical context.

Henshall tells us that his book was motivated by a desire to counter the notion that “Japanese naturalism is a failed attempt to follow in the footsteps of Émile Zola’s deterministic and pseudo-scientific form of naturalism” (p. xi), and in the penultimate chapter he presents the case that “the second phase of naturalism in Japan was based primarily on German naturalism,” which shares with its Japanese counterpart “a promotion of the individual and criticism of the constraints of socio-moral convention and tradition” (p. 180). This potentially interesting point would have benefited from a more focused elaboration of its broader ramifications; whether it is integrally connected to the biography of Tayama Katai himself is never fully addressed.

It is rather rare for a span of four decades to intervene between the completion of a doctoral thesis and the publication of a book-length study on the same subject by the same scholar. Henshall mentions that, after many years of focusing on other areas of research, he only recently decided to resume his early study of Katai and Japanese naturalism. Although much has changed since the 1970s, he most curiously prefaces this book with a stark claim to the contrary: “in both Japan and the West, there has been little change in the assessment of Katai and Japanese naturalism” (p. x).

There is something of a Rip Van Winkle effect here, as Henshall is apparently unaware of the literary criticism and scholarship that fundamentally altered the critical terrain during his time away. For instance, Kojin Karatani’s Origins of Modern...


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pp. 410-412
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