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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary history

The Rise and Fall of
Modern Japanese Literature

John Whittier Treat

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To purchase The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature

Title: The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature
Author: John Whittier Treat
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2018
Length: 304 pages
Availability: The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature - US
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Our Assessment:

A- : interesting approach (and choice of examples), fascinating provocative analysis of modern Japan

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Australian Book Rev. . 3/2019 Mark Gibeau
The NY Rev. of Books . 16/8/2018 John Nathan

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The complete review's Review:

       John Whittier Treat's The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature is, at least in its basic framework, a literary history in ten chapters (and a Conclusion-extra). Focused almost entirely on prose fiction, and specifically the novel, Treat proceeds step by step from the time of the Meiji Revolution (1868) to the near-present. He does not aim for an encyclopedic overview, but rather centers each chapter on a significant work or author, more interested in larger trends and context -- the evolving role and place of fiction in Japanese society, and the changing ways literature mirrors and reacts to contemporary events and life. While some chapters do focus on familiar authors and works -- 'Sōseki Kills a Cat'; 'Yoshimoto Banana in the Kitchen'; 'Murakami Haruki and Multiple Personality' --, Treat also uses less well-known (especially abroad) examples, and devotes little space to many writers that are generally considered more significant: even authors of the stature of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke and Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari barely figure here. In part, this is because Treat can assume some familiarity with the biggest names, such as Kawabata, but it's mainly because his focus is different from the usual literary history, which tends to be more concerned with reputation and influence, while Treat's interest is in showing the broader function and role of Japanese (fiction) writing across the years.
       Treat notes that histories of modern Japanese literature more or less inevitably start with the work they call the first modern Japanese novel, Futabatei Shimei's 1887 Drifting Clouds (浮雲, whose English translation was, in fact, published under the title: Japan's First Modern Novel ...), but he begins with Kubota Hikosaku's Torioi omatsu kaijō shinwa (鳥追阿松海上新話), a newspaper-serial story from the late 1870s. It is an example that allows him to look at the proliferation of newspapers during the Meiji Restoration, the search for -- and categorization -- of content, and new attitudes towards and possibilities of reading. Treat begins with a lengthy summary of the story itself, but that is only part of the story he is interested in; the content is of interest, but literary quality (or, for example, the question of the story's veracity) are secondary in his consideration of the significance of the text and the burgeoning role of newspaper-serial stories in Japanese society.
       Similarly, the second chapter focuses on Higuchi Ichiyō's 1896 novella Child's Play (たけくらべ), which is: "the story of adolescent Midori on the verge of her induction as a prostitute into Tokyo's most famed and notorious licensed quarter". The subject matter, and how the story was received, allow Treat to discuss the rapidly changing Japanese capital -- especially the change in economic structures towards the Western-capitalist model --, and specifically the changing role of (and possibilities for) women.
       A chapter on 'Imperial Japanís Worst Writer' allows Treat to discuss Japanese colonial rule in Korea, and the literature arising there and out of that -- an interesting side story on the development of Korean literature, as well as underlining yet again (in Treat's opinion) how Japanese literature is nothing more than: "a parochial national literature". His main example here is the promised 'worst writer' of Imperial Japan, Kim Mun-jip -- who he suggests:

is not one of the Japanese language's better-known writers, or Japanese literature's better-known fictional characters, but he is both.
       And Treat goes on to state ("polemically", he admits), that Kim's アリラン峠 ('The Arirang Ridge'): "might well be the worst work of Japanese literature published between the early 1930s and the end of the empire in 1945". Yet its varied awfulness also makes it an ideal exemplar for him and his points.
       In the chapter on 'Creole Japan', Treat looks at post-war Japan and the role of the United States -- and the English language --, such as with the fundamental changes that arose out of the imposition of the (American-written) constitution. The main example here is Shishi Bunroku's 自由学校 (available in translation -- though Treat elides this -- as School of Freedom (2006)). In 'Beheaded Emperors and Absent Figures' it is a notorious 1960 short story by Fukazawa Shichirō, 風流夢譚 ('The Story of a Dream of Courtly Elegance'), that includes the beheading of Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko and led to the author being forced into police-protected hiding for five years that is the main example of a shift to a new sense of inviolability of the imperial household, subject matter that had previously not raised eyebrows put off limits.
       If most of Treat's main examples are of lesser-known works, many not even translated into English, he does also center several chapters around ones that are both popular and better-known abroad. Popularity, and how and why these works have generated such widespread interest, is, however what primarily interests him: the Sōseki novel he focuses on, for example, is I Am a Cat -- "hardly a contribution to the modern Japanese literature of the time as much as a statement of disagreements with it" -- that remains (arguably somewhat surprisingly) immensely popular to this day. Meanwhile, two of his modern examples are of works and authors whose literary qualities Treat does not hold in high regard.
       Treat looks at the phenomenon that was Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen -- "Japan's first intellectual global commodity ", he suggests --, perhaps best summed up by the fact that:
her award from Kaien for best new writer of the year was an exceptional event in Japanese literary history not on account of her youth -- submissions to literary prizes in Japan are fairly swamped by adolescent hopefuls -- but because, in the published summary of their deliberations, none of the judges praised the work. At a loss of what to say about this scant story so redolent of Japan's low-cultural female adolescent (shōjo) culture, the judges seemed resigned to award the prize on the basis of their nebulous impression that they were witness to something new in Japanese literature -- even if they did not know exactly what, and even if they were disturbed by that fsilure of reading.
       Murakami Haruki of course can't be avoided, but Treat quickly makes clear his opion of him:
Murakami is not thoughtful enough to be postmodern (though he would like to be) and does not have a unique style (it's familiar, recycled American literary minimalism). At home he has been described more accurately as a "smug, affected writer"
       But with a body of work: "characterized by bifurcated worlds", Murakami is ideal as example of what modern Japanese literature has come to for Treat.
       Treat doesn't end on this rather downbeat note, of Murakami and Banana's "global dullness", but rather points to Sayonara, Gangsters-author Takahashi Gen'ichirō and his approach in his varied work (largely not available in English translation ...). And while he discussed the role of manga in an earlier chapter, Treat specifically points to one work (cited by Takahashi as well), Numa Shōzō's five-volume 家畜人ヤプー ('Yapoo, the human cattle'), as still relevant and illuminating.
       In this study, Treat does not limit himself to literature: the chapter on the I-novel also considers portraiture in painting; the chapter of post-war American influence uses the musical-entertainment example of 'Kasagi, Queen of Boogie', while the role of television is considered in the re-visioning of the imperial family. While Japanese literature is the focus, Treat often acknowledges its secondary status; The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature is in fact a broader study of Japanese culture and society, with well-chosen examples from current events -- political and social -- over the period covered.
       Treat does have penchant for citation, a leaning on authority that at times verges on the comic in its excess: over the course of one three-paragraph section (pp.88-9), for example, he quotes Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, Gramsci, and Foucault (as well as referring to numerous other writers and scholars), and practically every page is crammed with references beyond the primary material under discussion. It can be overwhelming, and there are certainly parts where one wishes he had not felt such incessant need to invoke all so much authority but rather had simply relied on his own formulations.
       Along with the citations come the many (end)notes -- but these are pure citation, and it's regretable that, when for example he provides a reference for the sentence/statement: "In 1876, the government founded the Technical Art School to introduce Western art, where a number of talented European artists taught", it is only bibliographic, pointing to the relevant source material, without naming any of those artists,
       The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature is a fascinating study, and Treat's approach largely successful and engaging -- though at times its reliance on so many works that remain inaccessible to English-speaking readers and its refusal to engage with that which is more familiar can feel stridently willful. This is not an introduction to modern Japanese literature in any conventional sense -- a reader coming to it without any background comes away without the slightest sense of the roles and contributions of, for example, Tanizaki or Mishima (save the latter's suicide) -- but in many ways that's also welcome. If some of this is familiar, Treat's approach is nevertheless so fresh that it truly is a work that forces the reaeder to reëxamine well-worn ideas about Japan, and offers many new insights and perspectives.
       Yes, Treat is terribly opinionated, and barrels ahead with a take-no-prisoners approach, and, yes, there's a great deal here to take issue with, and aspects of the book are frustrating -- but there's a lot to be said for all that (except the peculiarly scholarly style when Treat falls all too heavily-handedly back on that). The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature is among the more impressive cultural-social studies of recent years, both very good reading (for the most part) and thought-provoking, and it is well worth engaging with; often aggravating (in the best ways ...), it is a text that is meant to challenge -- and does so gleefully --; indeed, it seems entirely unavoidable for anyone interested in Japanese studies (whether literary or political).

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 June 2018

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The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature: John Whittier Treat: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       John Whittier Treat taught at Yale.

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© 2018-2022 the complete review

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