An ambitious young man of the 1880s, flattering a girl he may want to marry (or may not, if a more advantageous alliance materializes), asks her, “What are you reading these days, Osei?” When Osei in reply mentions “Outlines of the World’s History” by William Swinton, Noboru, the young man, is suitably impressed: “You’re so young and just a woman and yet you study so hard.”
Osei and Noboru are characters in “Japan’s first modern novel” — “Ukigumo” (“Floating Clouds”) by Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909). The core innovation that qualifies it as a vanguard work in a new age is, paradoxically, its banality. Banality is real. It’s honest. Most people are banal. Modernity is banal. It commercializes us, industrializes us, molds us and polishes us. The dashing heroes and black villains of earlier fiction no longer speak to us.
The Meiji Era (1868-1912) was characterized by full-throttle Western-style modernization. “Suddenly,” a disgruntled ex-samurai wrote sardonically of the early phase of the transformation, “everything had to be in the Western manner. All at once, customs were broken and manners changed, and people’s hearts and minds ran ever more frivolous and shallow.”
Futabatei evidently thought so too. “Frivolous and shallow” — that’s how he saw people, and that’s how he portrayed them.
“Outlines of the World’s History” appeared in 1874. What would earnest young Japanese, studying it in preparation for the new life they felt beckoning, have thought of Swinton’s somewhat blinkered notion that “the Caucasians form the only true historical race”? Osei gives us no clue — she’s not “studying,” merely name-dropping; but true it certainly is that Japan, having swallowed the humiliation of a forced “opening” led by the U.S. Navy and its famous “black ships” in the 1850s, was now an eager acolyte of those very “barbarians” whose amoral bullying had not long before aroused deep disgust — sometimes murderous resistance.
Japan needed to remake itself. It needed a rebirth. In the early 19th century the prevailing view — Confucian to the core — had been that moral virtue would keep the encroaching West at bay. That illusion shattered, there followed the headlong rush to acquire Western strength — which meant, it soon became clear, acquiring Western technology, Western manners, Western clothes, Western hairstyles, a Western diet (“guys who don’t eat beef are uncivilized dolts,” wrote one contemporary commentator) — in short, Western civilization, now shorn of its “barbarous” aura.
How far should this go? Very far indeed, said some — among them Arinori Mori (1847-89), Japan’s charge d’affaires in Washington in the 1870s and, from 1885 until his assassination by an ultranationalist in 1889, its minister of education. In 1872, in a book titled “Education in Japan,” he advocated scrapping the Japanese language altogether. Given “the commercial power of the English-speaking race,” he wrote, mastery of English is “a requisite of the maintenance of our independence in the community of nations. Under the circumstances, our meager language, which can never be of any use outside of our islands, is doomed to yield to the domination of the English tongue, especially when the power of steam and electricity shall have pervaded the land.”
Futabatei was not the only writer probing the implications of all this. A far more famous name than his in this connection is that of Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), whose novel “Sore Kara” (“And Then”), published in 1909, is a veritable treatise on the swamping of the Japanese soul by values alien to it. Soseki’s hero, like Futabatei’s, is an anti-hero — a 30-year-old dilettante named Daisuke who, living in shameless comfort off an allowance from his openly contemptuous father, refuses to work because, he explains, “the relationship between Japan and the West is no good.”
What’s wrong with it? “The point is,” he says, “Japan can’t get along without borrowing from the West. But it poses as a first-class power. And it’s straining to join the ranks of the first-class powers. That’s why, in every direction, it puts up the facade of a first-class power. … It’s like the frog that tried to outdo the cow — look, Japan’s belly is bursting.”
That seems a puzzling answer to the question “Why don’t you work like other people?” — but the Japanese atmosphere has become so poisonous to this sensitive soul that, replying to his father’s accusation that he lacks “sincerity and devotion,” he counters, “I am both sincere and devoted. It’s just that I can’t apply these qualities to human affairs.”
The subject of courage comes up. Daisuke’s father is a samurai to the marrow; to Daisuke, the old man’s martial blustering is merely ridiculous. “Daisuke felt an unpleasant taste in his mouth every time he had to listen to such speeches. Courage might well have been an important prerequisite to survival in the barbaric days of his father’s youth … but in this civilized day and age, Daisuke regarded it as a piece of equipment as primitive as the bow and arrow.”
He seems not to have reflected that “this civilized day and age” is the very one he has judged too corrupt to be worthy of his participation in it — the very one whose inner rot justifies his idleness.
But he’s right, of course — his father’s tirades about loyalty, honor, the samurai code enjoining one hold life “lighter than a feather” and duty “weightier than a mountain,” to a young man Daisuke’s age would have reeked of the historical scrap heap.
Soseki shared with Futabatei the fear that Japan, as it jettisoned its past, was losing its soul. Was it really? Or was it acquiring a new soul? Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901) was the philosophical light of the optimistic school. His credo: “Every human being … has, by a law of nature, the property of his own person. … In ordinary language, man is born free.”
A truism, to us, but Meiji Japan had to learn it — the hard way, swimming against the current of an ancient, unfree past. The struggle continues to this day.
The final installment of a two-part series. The first part was published on Feb. 21. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is now out.