The Politics of Writing in Japan

A review of The Politics of Writing: Tenkō and the Crisis of Representation, by YUKIKO SHIGETO.

The phenomenon of tenkō (“conversion”), which typically marks individuals’ renunciations of ties to the Japanese Communist Party under harsh state repression during the 1930s, has often been analyzed through the political conditions that caused it and has been understood according to its narrow definition of party renunciation. In her dissertation, Yukiko Shigeto aims to complicate this understanding not through the causes of tenkō, but by its consequences, namely the effect on writers who were forced to cope with loss of identity and the attendant challenges of representing their subjects. Shigeto’s focus on this “crisis of representation” for writers, when “the rift between representation and the real” are visible (Introduction, p.4), allows her to expand the understanding of tenkō to factor in commitment (or lack thereof) to ideological principles “at the level of writing” (Revised Chapter 1, p. 11).

Shigeto’s study “departs from the understanding of political literature to be only the kind with ostensible political content, and begins thinking of the politics of writing within the seemingly depoliticized literary realm after the dissolution of the proletarian literary movement” (Revised Chapter 1, p. 12). In other words, she asks how the process of writing can remain political through a critical engagement with representation itself. And importantly, tenkō of the 1930s exposed the very crisis of representation (the writer was no longer the self-identified, whole individual, nor could his/her literary subjects be represented as such) and served as a productive engine for literature, a “productive crisis” (Introduction, p. 12).

Shigeto divides the forms of literary tenkō from which writers either succumb or resist into two analytical categories: “representational tenkō” and “absolute tenkō.” The former, inspired by Takeuchi Yoshimi’s discussion of tenkō as a failure to “resist” given modes of being or identification, occurs when one identity or representational category is easily replaced by another, “a way of evading a serious engagement with the crisis of representation” (Introduction, p. 10). For example, when JCP leaders saw a rift between representation and reality with communism, they turned to national socialism. Likewise, when writers of the proletarian literature movement were troubled with the category of “proletariat,” many turned instead to “farmers” and “townspeople” as new representational categories (Introduction, p. 10). “Resistance” to this type of representational tenkō is not to resist state power, but to resist static identification.

Absolute tenkō, which Shigeto aligns with Hayashi Fusao’s theory (and his own tenkō), is abandonment of representation altogether, a plunge “into the ‘outside of representation’” that accompanied the void (“hole”) left with the collapse of Marxist representation. Rather than a mere turn to another representational category, it is the uncritical adoption of a complete system that fills that hole (the fetishized objects of Japan, national polity, emperor), an abandonment of reflexivity and self-consciousness (Introduction, p. 8).

This brings us to Shigeto’s central question: “How did writers engage in writing while persistently resisting the lure of both representational tenkō and absolute tenkō?” (Introduction, p. 11). She considers this question through the writings of Nakano Shigeharu (1902-1974), Kobayshi Hideo (1903-1945), and Shimaki Kensaku (1902-1983) and brings light to the range of success or failure to perform this type of “resistance”—to represent the crisis of representation—through their texts. These authors “struggled to write at the very threshold between representational tenkō and absolute tenkō,” the critical space where “resistance” is possible (Introduction, p. 18).

A newly revised Chapter One deals with Nakano Shigeharu’s “A House in a Village,” where the protagonist Benji has returned to his family’s rural home after his own political tenkō, and refuses to adopt a new identity, which would be to commit representational tenkō. He instead decides to remain ambiguous despite pressure from his father to become a “‘proper’ subject of the family state” (Revised Chapter 1, p. 27). Critical for Shigeto, though, is Nakano’s refusal to represent Benji’s mother, Kuma. In his hesitation to represent the words and interior of Kuma, Nakano is sensitive to the necessary gap in representation between the writer who represents and the subject who is represented. Thus, through negative representation in this instance, Nakano has resisted tenkō at the level of writing (Revised Chap 1, p. 37).

Chapter Two further develops Nakano’s “resistance” through an analysis of his philosophy of language. Shigeto’s intertextual reading of various works by Nakano demonstrates his commitment to language as a moving and living artistic creation formed through the writing process. He strove for “sticky” writing—as he called it—that resists the use of “ready-made words,” pushing instead for the de-familiarization of words and scrutiny of inherited language (pp. 77, 82). This deep engagement with language constitutes what Shigeto calls a “materialist approach to language,” a method that allowed him to continue writing while giving recognition to the crisis of representation. In other words, he did not submit to representational tenkō or absolute tenkō.

Shigeto turns to Kobayashi Hideo’s writing in Chapter Three. Kobayashi had not been a Marxist and thus was never compelled to recant through tenkō. His own postwar denial of any complicity with empire as a writer and intellectual—as he felt he was “just one of the masses”—speaks to his lack of self-reflexivity and unquestioned identification with the reified “Japanese” (pp. 147, 148). More importantly, in his work “Manshū no Inshō,” Kobayashi represented Japanese settlers in Manchukuo only at the level of impression, not interpretation (p. 146). In his attempt to “inscribe the living present” of “ordinary people” without self-reflection, Kobayashi exhibited no struggle to articulate “the thing called Japanese” as a fixed abstract category (p. 156). His projection and identification with this “outside” of capitalist modernity—“outside” of representation because it just exists ahistorically—constitutes Kobayashi’s absolute tenkō and unconscious alignment with the “masses” of popular ethnic nationalism that legitimized Japan’s imperial project.

Chapter Four bridges Shigeto’s analysis of both Nakano and Kobayashi by analyzing the evolution of Shimaki Kensaku’s stance toward representation. While several of Shimaki’s writings exhibit a “forcefulness of representation” that demonstrates uncritical faith in the system of representation (p. 185), only a few years later, his works, “Aru Sakka no Shuki” and “Manshū Kikō,” challenged this logic of representation as he demonstrated “a critical stance to the fetishized object and the language that constitutes it through his work” (p. 205).

Yukiko Shigeto’s dissertation is an incredibly refreshing and sophisticated analysis of what it means for the writer to represent the very crisis of representation. The body of her text expands and develops the analytical categories of tenkō that she established in the introduction while providing a critical intervention into the postwar discourse of tenkō (tenkō-ron) in general, building on and rethinking interpretations of leading scholars such as Hirano Ken, Tsurumi Shunsuke, Kurihara Yukio, Yoshimoto Takaaki, and Takeuchi Yoshimi. Within English-language scholarship, it is a valuable contribution to works by Patricia Steinhoff (on tenkō), Miriam Silverberg (on Nakano Shigeharu), and Rich Calichman (on Takeuchi Yoshimi) among others, and will undoubtedly be a rich text to ponder alongside a forthcoming anthology of Japanese proletarian literature in translation, edited by Norma Field and Heather Bowen-Struyk.

Jeffrey DuBois
Cornell University
PhD Candidate, Department of Asian Studies

Primary Sources

Nakano Shigeharu zenshū. 28 vols. Tokyo: Chikuma shobō, 1959-1963.
Hirano Ken. Bungaku, Shōwa jūnen zengo. Bungei shunjū, 1972.
Takeuchi Yoshimi.  Takeuchi Yoshimi zenshû.  17 vols. Chikuma shobô, 1980-1982.

Dissertation Information

University of Washington. 2009. 231pp. Primary advisor: Edward Mack.

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