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Comparative Literature Studies 39.4 (2002) 282-292



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Vision or Creation?
Kojima Usui and the Literary Landscape of the Japanese Alps

Nobuko Fujioka


An English mineralogist William Gowland (1842-1922) of the Imperial Japanese Mint, in his pioneer account of the "Mountains of Hida and Etchu" in the Handbook for Travellers in Central and Northern Japan, described the pinnacled ridges as something that "might perhaps be termed the Japanese Alps" (Handbook 265). 1 Gowland explored the hidden mountains in the remote corners of central Japan in the late 1870s, when modern maps of the region were still in the making. What he saw in these utterly foreign mountains in the Far East was probably nothing but a diminutive shadow of the glorified Alps whose beauty and sublimity his compatriots had played the greatest part in exploring in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The mountain ranges in front of his eyes were not yet the "Japanese Alps," one of the sights in modern Japan renowned for its scenic beauty.

The English had actually "made the Alps," argues Jim Ring in his recent survey How the English Made the Alps. 2 These mountains, once regarded by Europeans as nothing but a dismal obstruction dividing Europe with their horrifying heights, came to be seen as an epitome of natural beauty. The Alps were transformed from "mountain gloom" to "mountain glory" through the works of the Romantic poets and of their successor John Ruskin, 3 and most notably through the "invention of mountaineering" 4 as "an end in itself, an opportunity for adventure, a physical, intellectual and emotional challenge, almost a way of life" in the mid-nineteenth century (Ring 58).

These peculiar facts about making of a landscape illuminate a classical question of how humans see, or do not see, the world around them. In his Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, Karatani Kojin proposes that "the [End Page 282] notion of 'landscape' developed in Japan sometime during the third decade of the Meiji period." 5 Neither the landscape of the Japanese Alps nor all the other celebrated landscapes as we see them now existed until around the turn of the century. 6 In the literary tradition of Japan, which is thought of as being full of sympathy with nature, natural beauty was in fact not to be seen and described, but to be envisioned in highly stylized words. Karatani asserts that for "so many centuries Japanese recognized as landscapes only the famous places celebrated in literature" (52). In the long tradition of not seeing with the eye, the discovery of landscapes meant liberation from the traditional way of perceiving the world through literary text.

It is in this context that the literary creation of the Japanese Alps by Kojima Usui (1873-1948) should rightly be discussed. As Karatani points out, "once a landscape has been established, its origins are repressed from memory," and soon it "takes on the appearance of an 'object' which has been there, outside us, from the start" (34). Indeed, this is precisely what happened to the Alpine landscape in Japan. Around the turn of the century, Japanese started to perceive the outer world with the newly-acquired scientific-aesthetic eye of the modern West. Even more importantly, some writers and poets, including Usui, were beginning to have a certain confidence in delineating it in the new style of language that grew out of the genbun itchi movement of the late nineteenth century. 7 Entirely new landscapes thus gradually began to take shape in various corners of the country, while their origins were forgotten.

As the origins of the Japanese Alps were forgotten, so was the memory of the man who devoted his literary career to the creation of the grand landscape. The aim of this paper then is to revive the memory of Usui and re-evaluate his significant literary contribution to modern Japanese literature in its formative years.

Just as Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland 8 was "the bible for English tourists" seeking the charms of the alpine landscape in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1528-4212
Print ISSN
0010-4132
Pages
pp. 282-292
Launched on MUSE
2002-11-15
Open Access
No
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