National / History | THE LIVING PAST

The Meiji Era and the soul of Japan: part 1

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

‘Japan’s first modern novel” was published serially between 1887 and 1889.

A magazine article of 1887 helps us get our bearings: “It is now over 20 years since the Restoration; our Meiji society will soon have gone through a whole generation. … The ways of the East will disappear; the ways of the West will soon overtake us. The period for destroying the old will end and the time for building the new will be upon us.”

The novel’s title is “Ukigumo” (“Floating Clouds”) — which strikes rather an odd note. The Meiji Era (1868-1912) was characterized by pell-mell modernization, industrialization, commercialization and devil take the hindmost. “Floating Clouds” fell by the wayside. There was no time for them. Before we even open the book, therefore, we know, more or less, that the hero is an antihero: sensitive, intelligent, idealistic, sincere, loving — a hopeless failure. To the wayside with him.

“Ukigumo” and its author, Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909), are largely forgotten nowadays. Read today, the novel falls flat, its interest more historical than literary. A crude summary of it might run something like this: Nice boy (Bunzo) falls in love with nice but superficial girl (Osei) and wages a contest for her heart with Noboru, a “new man” of Meiji — bold, enterprising, stupid as a post but with success written all over him because he, unlike Bunzo, can bow and scrape to his official superiors without degrading himself in his own eyes. He’ll go far; Bunzo will go nowhere. Though the novel ends without revealing which of the two gets the girl, the smart money would be on Noboru.

Thin as this seems to us, Futabatei’s first readers would have seen in it things we no longer do: a new type of novel of new types of people in a brand new Japan. Marleigh Grayer Ryan, in an exhaustive introduction to her translation of “Ukigumo,” quotes strange praise from a leading critic of the day: “There is nothing especially funny or amusing in the novel. It is not magnificent or elegant. It is a banal, domestic novel.”

That’s praise? Yes — because, the critic continues, “although the events in the novel seem extremely random, limited, trivial and pedestrian, (Futabatei) observes them with his penetrating eye, portrays them, analyzes and explains them. … ‘Ukigumo’ is a study of the human mind; its author is a master of analyzing human emotions.”

The minds he studied, the emotions he analyzed, are our key to the soul of Meiji.

Bunzo, son of a provincial samurai who has failed to adapt to the new post-samurai world, is sent at age 15 to Tokyo for a modern education. He lives with his uncle, aunt and cousin. The cousin is Osei, who, herself educated in the modem manner, taunts Bunzo for his shyness with her. When he pleads fear of gossip, she says, “You have to expect some difficulty when you destroy the traditions of 2,000 years.”

It’s not just him, she laments. Western-style liberation is in the air, one has only to seize it, but it takes courage, and how many have it? Even her girlfriends at school “just pay attention to liberal ideas while they’re in school. Once they’re out, they allow themselves to be dominated by their parents and go off to their husbands’ families. … I find it discouraging to think I’m the only one who’s really liberal.”

It’s all a sham, Osei is a silly little thing giving herself avant-garde airs, but Bunzo’s heart is won, and they might have made a happy enough couple, but suddenly catastrophe strikes. Bunzo loses his job. Connections made at school had got him into a government department as a lowly copying clerk, but an internal economy measure, familiar in our own time under the euphemism “restructuring,” claimed him among the victims. Noboru, his colleague, survived — and in a lecture he delivers to the disconsolate Bunzo, he shows why: “Unreasonable or not, you can’t go against a superior.” A good subordinate knows his place, swallows his pride if he has any, fawns, flatters — knowing that in a decade or so he’ll be in the boss’ place, fawned upon in turn.

That’s Meiji, Futabatei seems to be saying. That’s modernity. How can Bunzo, intelligent but indecisive, more thoughtful than energetic, find a place for himself in times that favor the Noborus of the world?

The thought recurs, as one reads the novel, that Futabatei should have written his autobiography instead — he’s a much more interesting character than Bunzo.

Born like Bunzo into a samurai family, Futabatei as a teenager breathed yamatodamashii — Japanese spirit, patriotism. Seeing Russia as Japan’s main external threat, 17-year-old Futabatei in 1881 entered a new government foreign language school as a student of Russian. There he made the discovery that changed his life: Russian literature.

That’s what made a writer out of him — and a translator, for in his own day his translations of Russian masterpieces were as famous as his fiction. “Ukigumo” was, in a sense, his attempt to write a Japanese Russian novel. He failed — and knew it.

Part of the problem was that he took on more than the Japanese literary language of the time could handle, lumbered as it was with creaking pseudo-Chinese formalisms that made the thoughts, emotions, tragedies and triumphs of “banal, domestic” people seem — as Futabatei was among the first to realize they are not — beneath serious literary attention. His was the pioneer’s fate. He cleared ground for the next generation but remained imprisoned within his own.

His family’s poverty only embittered the sense of failure that dogged him. He was famous but penurious, and yet refused to write merely for money. Writing was art; art was above money — otherwise it was commerce. Better not write at all. In 1889, in black despair, he forsook literature for a government public relations job. He was 25. He soon made peace with his new circumstances but in dark moments must have wondered: “Have I become another Noboru?”

The first installment of a two-part series. The second part will be published on March 20. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is now out.

Coronavirus banner