Books / Reviews


Soseki leaps to defense of Japanese literature

by Michael Hoffman

Most people probably have a list of universally acclaimed geniuses, icons and luminaries whose greatness they simply fail to appreciate. “Am I stupid?” you wonder — or do claims of greatness tend to be inflated?

Topping my personal list, as far as Japan is concerned, is novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916). His novels ( among them “I Am a Cat,” “Botchan,” “Kokoro”) are classics. He ranks among the great writers of the 20th century.

I don’t like him. My fault? His? It doesn’t matter. But “Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings,” an anthology of Soseki’s nonfiction edited by a trio of U.S.-based scholars, is a fascinating volume. Soseki was an academic before he turned novelist, and his research led him to pose and probe the question “What is literature?”

Japanese literature, he urged, must defy rampant Westernization and defend Japan’s native character. Of four universal ideals — beauty, heroism, goodness and truth — the West, he asserts, has stunted its growth by rejecting all but the last. Japan, he warned, must not follow its example. It’s one of numerous insights you find yourself pondering long after you’ve closed the book.

Books enlarge the mind by casting doubt on received wisdom. “Fascism” is a term of abuse today, but once it was an idea with a future, as historian Janis Mimura shows in “Planning for Empire.”

Japanese fascism of the 1930s threw up no Hitler or Mussolini. and, though statist and anti-individualist, never descended to the sadistic depths we associate with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

Its leading thinkers were technocratic, uncharismatic bureaucrats who saw totalitarianism as the only realistic response to the grim 20th-century realities of “total war,” mass industrialization and the need for technological solutions to Japan’s “resource poverty.” We’d be living in a different, darker world today had their vision prevailed.

To conclude on a Zen note rather than a fascist one — “Purifying Zen: Watsuji Tetsuro’s Shamon Dogen,” translated by Steve Bein, resurrects a 1926 biography of the 13th-century Zen monk Dogen, father of the Soto Zen sect and its unrelenting effort to “cast off body-mind.” A book of baffling but bracing wisdom.