Digital world bids farewell to Soseki

by Janet Ashby

The Japanese press doesn’t seem to have had quite the frenzy of millennium coverage that took place in America, but there were various attempts to look back at the recent past of Japanese literature and to forecast its future. I found two discussions in particular interesting for their contrasting viewpoints.

The December issue of Bungakukai had a highly intellectual discussion of Japanese literature in the 1990s by four literary critics: Suga Hidemi, Shimizu Yoshinori, Chiba Kazumiki and Yamada Junji.

First they discussed the end of literature with a capital L, as it were: a unified literature that could fit into the Japanese literary tradition; and then the reverberations of real-world events such as the death of the Showa Emperor in 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Chiba noted that the situation is similar to that in music, where many artists are selling CDs but there is no single big-name star dominating the era the way Misora Hibari once did.

After discussing the 1990s as a time after the end of history and in some senses a comic replay of the late 1960s and early 1970s, they talked about the impact of the “scripted” Gulf War and of the absorption of people in such reality-based tales as the O.J. Simpson trial in the U.S. or the Satchi boom and other media storms in Japan. In the 1970s imaginary space was smashed and the real exposed. In the 1990s this imaginary space was rebuilt in smaller tales of the imagination and the real covered up.

They agreed that younger Japanese no longer are familiar with the Japanese literary tradition and that authors cannot now write based on a commonly held literary heritage and language. They are now all diaspora authors who have to create their own language and literature. Shimizu recalled a story about Murakami Haruki, symbolic of this loss of words and struggle to find a voice. Murakami reportedly first started writing in Japanese, but after his wife found it uninteresting he hit upon the idea of writing in English and then translating it into Japanese, thereby developing his own writing stance.

The 1990s saw the emergence of writers outside the Tokyo-centric literary tradition, such as several Okinawa-based writers and the Kansai-flavored works of Machida Ko, as well as of authors from a nonliterary background such as Machida (punk music), Yu Miri (theater) and Tsuji Hitonari (rock music). We now have a generation of authors who grew up without sets of world literature and Japanese literature in their homes, in a world where books are competing for attention with music, movies, video games and the Internet.

The four are quite dismissive of J-bungaku, which Suga says stands for junk bungaku. Chiba sees it as an attempt to revive literature commercially by producing more writers. He rather wistfully says the best thing to do would be for publishers to protect writers and make financial arrangements, similar to those Soseki had with the Asahi Shimbun, so that writers could survive while creating at the pace of one book every three years.

After struggling with the abstract discussion in Bungakukai, it was a relief to read the more concrete views of two representatives of the younger generation, in outlook if not age, in the February issue of Gunzo.

Abe Kazushige, author of the so-called J-bungaku and “Shibuya literature” novel “Individual Projection,” and Azuma Hiroki, who recently won the Suntory Prize for a work on Derrida, do not deplore the demise of high culture but take for granted the new borderless multimedia and digital world.

They see a growing rigidity in the literary establishment in the late 1990s, with literary critics simply giving demerit points to works not fitting their preconceptions of what literature should be and making no real attempt to analyze present-day literature. Azuma is particularly irritated by the treatment afforded to Hirano Keiichiro as the savior of Japanese literature, and wonders if it doesn’t represent elements of a PR campaign to attract older readers frightened of youth culture.

Abe then cites an earlier bit of cultural analysis by Azuma as the sort of observation literary critics now seem incapable of making: These days people tend to focus either on things close to them in their everyday life or on things distant from them, like death or the end of the world. Missing is attention to the middle range of things shared societally.

Azuma agrees that the present world of literary fiction is a type of gyokai bunka (company culture) unrelated to what is going on in the real world.

Azuma notes the advent of a new generation which has its own teen culture of dyed hair, body piercing and pagers. He feels it makes them more self-confident and less conscious of the previous generation and its standards. Even though his own generation boasts of its lack of hierarchy, somewhere they are still sensitive to the opinions of literary and cultural critics, to the status of different magazines. (Azuma was born in 1971 and Abe in 1968.)

Azuma is envious of young people who want to both create video games and write fiction. Abe agrees that there are lots of possibilities in the emerging hybrid culture. Azuma and Abe also discuss the cultural splits that started in the late 1980s.

Azuma sees a split into subcultures and otaku, with the otaku strain particularly concerned with Japanese identity, in part as a backlash against the illusion of internationalism in the early 1980s.

Abe felt that division at the time as one of oshare vs. dasai and notes that present-day Internet bulletin board debates of right and left are actually based more on cultural than political difference.