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  • The Uses of Literature in Modern Japan: Histories and Cultures of the Book by Sari Kawana
  • Timothy J. Van Compernolle
The Uses of Literature in Modern Japan: Histories and Cultures of the Book. Sari Kawana. London: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. 288. $114.00 (cloth); $102.60 (eBook).

Sari Kawana's book, The Uses of Literature in Modern Japan, opens with an anecdote that encapsulates her entire study: in April 2014, Asahi Shimbun began reserializing three of Natsume Sōseki's novels a century after they originally appeared in the newspaper. As Japan's most canonical modern novelist, Sōseki is widely available in bookstores, and most readers nowadays experience his fiction in the small, inexpensive paperback format called bunkobon. Why reserialize them? Kawana does not go into detail on this point, but we can speculate, both from the perspectives of the Asahi and its readers. Perhaps the newspaper garnered more subscribers and drew additional advertising revenue during this venture, but probably more than either it was a demonstration of the cultural prestige of the venerable daily's "backlist." Although Sōseki's fiction appeared in book form immediately after serialization, reserialization suggests that at least some would like to experience the novels as the original Meiji-era readers did: day by day in short installments in the newspaper. As Kawana notes, competition drove other newspapers to reserialize works from their own backlists, novels that were hugely popular in their day. These efforts were not as successful, for these blockbusters of yesteryear had lost their appeal in the ensuing century. We are not, then, witnessing a renewed interest in experiencing the serialized Meiji novel, but rather the desire to experience in a novel way the still widely read fiction of Sōseki. This anecdote sets up the larger problem of why some works flourish while others fade from cultural memory. Kawana's book is, in part, a contribution to our understanding of canon formation, but she focuses on how the "use value" of certain works allows them to find new [End Page 841] readers after the author's own lifetime: "Texts that outlive their authors and extend beyond the general literary life expectancy are the kind of literature for which others can find uses" (3). Often, in the modern era, this usefulness will include adaptation into other media, but Kawana also documents literary museums, school textbooks, and other phenomenon. The study of use value, then, also intersects with reception theory, media studies, book history, and material culture, in addition to canon formation.

The resultant innovative book takes the form of a series of case studies of how literature has been put to use in Japan across the twentieth century. The first two chapters form an elegant pair. Kawana begins with the enpon (one-yen book) boom of the late 1920s and early 1930s, when publishers competed with each other to sell by subscription collections of canonical literature in inexpensive, uniformly bound volumes for one yen each. The publishers also sold or provided as incentives special bookcases for the storage and display of these personal libraries. By studying readers, publishers, and advertisers, Kawana shows how the latter two were able to develop marketing strategies that spoke to the particular cultural needs of readers, especially for self-improvement, social advancement, and national pride. These collections allowed readers "to claim cultural literacy and comprehensive knowledge through book ownership" (47). The extension of personal libraries to a large segment of the population sets up the second chapter, in which Kawana ingeniously mines a diverse archive to document the reading habits of young evacuees from Japan's cities during wartime. Relocated to the countryside, these youth discovered, a generation after their original publication, the now dust-collecting enpon libraries as well as collections of major magazines geared toward youth. The discovery gave these young readers access to more imaginative literary worlds than those allowed by the strict censorship of the wartime state. Kawana is able to show that "texts travel the reading world and find new owners, often in the least expected places and at the least expected moments" (73). It is a compelling study of serendipity.

In some ways, chapter four extends this framework...


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pp. 841-843
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