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  • Death and Poetry:From Shiki to Sōseki (1992)
  • Karatani Kōjin (bio)
    Translated by Robert Tuck (bio)

Karatani Kōjin is one of Japan's most prominent philosophers and literary critics. Educated at Tokyo University, he has also taught at Yale University and Columbia University in the United States. He is the author of numerous works on language, nation, modernity, and postmodernity, notably the influential Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (Nihon kindai bungaku no kigen, 1980; English translation 1993). The essay below, first published in May of 1992, is only one part of his frequent engagement with the work of Natsume Sōseki, dating back to Karatani's first major critical work in 1969, an essay on Sōseki that received the Gunzō literary criticism award.

In this essay, Karatani highlights the importance of Masaoka Shiki's literary thought, particularly his concept of "sketch-from-life prose" (shaseibun) to the prose writing of Sōseki. Having earlier argued that Sōseki did not in fact write novels (shōsetsu) but rather "literary prose" (bun), Karatani carefully teases out a number of ways in which, he contends, Sōseki was the author who most fully realized the ideas inherent in Shiki's "sketch from life." Karatani finds significant differences between Sōseki's approach and that of other writers more conventionally identified as fully developing Shiki's shasei ideas in the realm of prose writing, notably Shiga Naoya and Takahama Kyoshi. As Karatani puts it, "the only person who thought about 'sketch from life' in the sense that Shiki used it and then went on to write novels was Sōseki" (p. 188). Karatani does not limit his discussion to Sōseki alone; the piece also contains a strikingly original discussion of the resonances between Shiki's ideas of "objective" and "subjective" description and the notion of "humor" as developed in the writings of Sigmund Freud, which represents a complete re-thinking of the operations of shasei.

The essay is also of interest for its foregrounding of the largely forgotten connections between poetic genres and the emergence of the modern Japanese novel. Sōseki was hardly unique among modern Japanese novelists in also being a practicing [End Page 175] poet, but few scholars until Karatani have succeeded in drawing out the connections between prose and poetry so compellingly.


Though best known as modern Japan's representative novelist, Natsume Sōseki never tried to write "novels." He wrote literary prose (bun)—that is to say, "sketch-from-life prose" (shaseibun). The various genres we see from I Am a Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru, 1905-6) through Floating in Space (Yōkyoshū, 1906), Pillow of Grass (Kusamakura, 1906), and Botchan (1906) fall into this category (Note 1). It is understandable that these works were not considered to be novels in the literary world of their day, dominated as it was by the Naturalists. Sōseki's uniqueness lies in the fact that he attempted to write literary prose at a time when the modern novel had come to be firmly established. Prior to that, Sōseki had been working on theoretical projects of a sort exemplified by his Theory of Literature (Bungakuron, 1907). Theory of Literature was also a unique project, not just in Japan but in world terms. Yet it was not the case that these works were brought forth all of a sudden on account of Sōseki's "genius." The source from which they came was Sōseki's close friend Masaoka Shiki.1 To understand Sōseki's uniqueness, we must begin with Shiki.

When thinking about the question of the modern novel and unification of written and spoken languages (genbun itchi), we have a tendency to focus unduly on the trails that Tsubouchi Shōyō and Futabatei Shimei blazed—in other words, on those who tried from the first to write novels. Akutagawa Ryūnosuke voiced his objections to this kind of bias:2

But I would speak of the act of writing rather than the act of talking. Our prose writing (sanbun), much like Rome, was not built in a day. It has been steadily maturing ever since the far-off days of...


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