How the visual arts shaped Japan’s modern literature

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By the turn of the 20th century, “sketching from life” had become such a popular literary form that the editors of the literary magazine Hototogisu encouraged the submission of prose essays in this liberating new style.

Early on in Natsume Soseki’s 1908 campus novel “Sanshiro” — one of the most important expositions of the inter-connectedness of visual and literary art ever written — a young scientist, Nonomiya, looks up at a long, thin, white cloud floating diagonally in the sky.

“Do you know what that is?” he asks the titular Sanshiro. “That’s all particles of snow. When you look at it down here, it’s not moving in the least. But up there, it’s moving with a velocity greater than that of a hurricane. Have you read Ruskin? … It would be interesting to sketch this sky.”

When people think about the literature of modern Japan, they tend to think that most of its influences have been, well, literary, whether native or foreign in origin. But in fact — as I would like to show in this four-part series tracing the story from the 19th century to the present — revolutions in painting and visual art have played a defining role in the creation of diverse and often unappreciated aspects of modern Japanese literature.

When Japan emerged from two centuries of seclusion to enter the modern world with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it struggled to reform and standardize its language and create literary works that could realistically depict the world in the manner of the Western novel.

The difficulties were considerable — the Japanese language itself needed new grammar, such as standardized verb tenses, the merging of literary and colloquial forms and even the creation of third-person pronouns. (The modern word for “she” — kanojo — was not in common currency until the Taisho Era (1912-26)).

Yet even as Japan was absorbing the influence of the Western novel, it was also undergoing a revolution in the visual arts.

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