“A Tokyo Anthology” is the latest in a series of books that aims to introduce Japanese literature to readers within the context of history and cultural developments. “An Edo Anthology” came out in 2013 and covers the century from 1750. “A Kamigata Anthology” is on its way, taking the story back to 1600. This volume runs from 1850 to 1920, loosely covering the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

A Tokyo Anthology: Literature from Japan’s Modern Metropolis, 1850-1920, by Sumie Jones and Charles Shiro Inouye.
507 pages

Readers may wonder at the necessity of yet another anthology themed around Tokyo, given the preponderance of these collections. In his novella “Slow Boat,” Hideo Furukawa posits the idea that his protagonist is physically and psychologically incapable of leaving Tokyo, and I’m beginning to think it may have been an allegory for editors. Where are the compendiums of Tohoku writers, collections of Kansai literature, Kyushu fiction and Hokkaido haiku?

Taking the capital as the central theme the editors have done a great job of offering something that isn’t already on the market through their selection of texts.

Taking a historicist approach, they have curated a collection of extracts of novels, play scripts, essays, short stories, poetry of various forms and political cartoons that exemplify the concerns of the age and tell the story of the development of Japanese literature into the modern era. Each selection is presented with a biographical essay by the translator, placing the work and author in context. A fascinating in-depth introduction sets the tone. In addition to the now standard historical overview of the arrival of U.S. Adm. Matthew C. Perry and the overhaul of the Meiji Restoration, we’re provided with a meaty cultural history of the period that touches on its various strands of artistic exploration. With a rise in literacy and a tentative movement toward female empowerment brought about by education and an increased awareness of socialism and feminism, along with the introduction of new techniques for printing and publishing, new markets opened up. Literary journals and newspapers that published creative writing blossomed and demand bloomed.

The editors have attempted to focus here on previously untranslated material, drawing on the work of new translators and scholars, adding both to the body of work available for English readers and contributing to the continued growth of that canon. The book is divided into eight thematic sections such as “Crime and Punishment,” “Romance and Eros,” and “The Highs and Lows of Capitalism,” and each choice reflects the creative dialectic that characterized this period. Writers like Oga Mantei actively resisted the new philosophy that swept through his world, satirizing it here in “Toad Fed Up with Modernity,” while others, such as Robun Kanagaki, represented in this volume by two pieces, embraced the change.

It should be noted that the government actively pushed writers to use Western literary styles, making the usual dichotomy of “stubborn dinosaurs” and “radical avant garde” problematic here. Prior to this period, the emphasis was on performance. Besides the popularity of famous forms such as kabuki and noh, the oral tradition was very much still alive. Many of the pieces presented in the first section, “Responses to the Age of Enlightenment,” were designed to be heard rather than read. The abandonment of these traditional forms in favor of page-anchored, realist modes ran with a force that seems inevitable from our current vantage.

Of particular note are two extracts from Ruiko Kuroiwa, the “midwife and godfather of detective fiction in Japan,” whose translations of writers like Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo he saw “as tools of reform” — underlining the tight bonds between the literary and the political in this era.

Similarly, Iwagoro Matsubara’s Dickensian exploration of the capital’s slums, “In Darkest Tokyo,” highlights the ways in which Meiji Era writers were adapting realist forms to the Japanese situation, using literature to draw attention to those who had hitherto lacked representation. Likewise, Shoen Nakajima’s essay “To My Fellow Sisters” is as fiery a piece of feminist rhetoric as I’ve seen, and prompted me to dive deeper into the life and work of this fascinating writer and activist.

Therein lies both the strength and weakness of this anthology: It was put together by scholars and it is mostly to scholars that it will appeal. This would not be a good place to start for the reader new to Japanese literature. But for the academic in search of a research topic, or the well-read Japanophile looking for some new nourishment, this is a well-stocked pantry.

Presumably there is a plan to continue the series, which brings me to my second grumble. This book is subtitled “1850-1920.” The Meiji Era ended in 1912, and only three pieces in this book were originally published between the dawn of the Taisho Era and 1920 — and all of them are from 1913. So why tack on the extra seven years? It is likely the second half of the Taisho Era (to 1926) will be subsumed in the next volume, keeping with the Tokyo theme. The Taisho Era is often ignored by historians and literary editors, but this rich and diverse period surely deserves the same kind of thorough and enlightening treatment that the Meiji Era has received here.

Also, perhaps shifting the focus from the capital would bring some vitality back to a well-worn concept.

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