Critical Insights: Modern Japanese Literature Review

“This volume in the Critical Insights series focuses its essays on the enigmatic genre of Modern Japanese Literature. The concept of Modern Japanese is borne on the opening of the insular Japan to Western commercial and cultural trade in the late 19th century. This book provides contextual and critical essays which ultimately act as an excellent (yet noncomprehensive) survey of the genre, working mainly to encapsulate an author’s most important themes and aesthetics.
The essays in the Critical Contexts section provide a good foundation for discussion, pointing to the origins of what is considered Modern Japanese Literature. Two pieces discuss writers Mori Ogai and Futabatei Shimei, who were both influenced by travels abroad and were the first to blend Western ideas with Japanese sensibilities. The other essays in this section examine the geographical development of the new literature through the lens of two very different locations: the bustling capital of Tokyo and the outlying island of Okinawa.
The 11 essays in the Critical Readings section explore a range of writers and topics. Katharina Schmolders examines the works of diarist Nagai Kafu (“Nagai Kafu: The Unwilling Modern Writer”) and his reflections on a rapidly changing Tokyo. Schmolders later looks at Shiga Naoya (“Shiga Naoya: Modern Observer of Human Nature”) whose writings buckled against contemporary Japanese social issues. Other essays examine the unique aesthetics of Modern Japanese Literature, such as George T. Sipos’ review of Nobel Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari and the development of the New Sensationists, or Frank Jacob’s piece on Mishima Yukio and his treatment of the themes of beauty and death. The volume also looks at the works of female writers Kirino Natsuo and Oba Minako, the unique character of Okinawan literature and more.
Resources include a listing of Modern Japanese Literature in English translation, a bibliography, and information on essay contributors (although a chronology would have been a helpful addition). Overall, the volume does an excellent job of opening eyes to the genre melding modern literary thought and style with the deep cultural traditions of an ancient nation.”