Poetry and Modernity in Meiji Japan


A review of The First Modern Japanese Poetry, by Rachel Epstein.

Rachel Epstein’s dissertation takes as its primary focus the 1882 poetry collection Shintaishishō 新体詩抄 (Collection of New-Style Poetry), the work of Tokyo University professors Toyama Masakazu 外山正一 (1848-1900), Yatabe Ryōkichi 谷田部良吉 (1851-1899), and Inoue Tetsujirō 井上哲次郎 (1855-1944). Unquestionably an important landmark in Meiji poetic history, the Shintaishishō collection consists of a total of nineteen poems: fourteen translations of English-language poems and five original works. Notable for various innovative experiments with the formal limits of Japanese-language poetry, including the use of rhyme, the collection attempted to fashion a “new style” of poetry for the modern age that made use of, in Yatabe’s words, the “conventional everyday language of the people of our land” (p. 63).

Shintaishishō’s subsequent critical reception has been rather mixed, however; as Epstein notes, “any enumeration of praise for the work is undercut with mention of its flaws” (p.1). In particular, the fact that the majority of the featured poems are adapted from English-language works has caused it to be labelled as “imitative” (p. 7), the product of sheer “faddishness, an episode in Meiji history” (p. 72). The quality of the poetry itself is, moreover, generally agreed to be somewhat debatable: Epstein observes, “There are signs everywhere of reaching, of uncertainty…its poems are not fine” (p. 6). Refusing to take these critical judgments at face value, however, Epstein sets out to approach Shintaishishō’s experimental and perhaps uncertain nature in a positive light, and to explore the collection in its own historical moment. In this vein, the dissertation undertakes to answer a number of primary questions, among them “How did this collection revolutionize…Japanese poetry, on the level of language and also in its presentation? What did it represent for its contemporaries? How exactly was it a foundation for modern Japanese poetry…? And how did it come to be canonized as such in Japanese scholarship?” (p. 3).

For the most part, Epstein’s methodology in addressing these questions consists of careful, close linguistic and formal analysis of the individual poems in the collection, as well as the rhetoric of their presentation and the prefaces by each of the collection’s authors. In Chapter 1, “Person and Precedent,” Epstein discusses the background of each of the three authors and the language and rhetoric of their prefaces, particularly the common focus on the inadequacies of conventional haikai, waka, and kanshi verse, and the need for a new vehicle to articulate the voice of the Japanese people. This is contextualized within a broader analysis of the history of innovation in traditional Japanese poetry as a whole.

Chapter 2, “Bases for Verse,” explores the collection’s handling of rhyme and meter, and the authors’ experiments with the same as a method for preserving what they saw as important features of the English-language poems from which they were working. Epstein locates the author’s experiments within the context of previous attempts at rhyme in Japanese poetry and examples of the use of 7-5 prosody in other contemporary works: among these are Fukuzawa Yukichi’s 1869 Sekai kunizukushi 世界国尽 (All the Countries of the World) and the Freedom and Popular Rights campaigner Ueki Emori’s 植木枝盛 (1857-1892) popular Minken inaka uta 民権田舎歌 (Countryside Verse on People’s Rights, 1879), as well as attempts at translations of Christian hymns using the same prosodic structure.

Chapter 3 develops a more in-depth analysis of several of the poems in the collection, notably those that deal with war and conflict, as well as two original poems by Toyama. The first of these, Battō-tai no shi 抜刀隊の詩 (Poem of the Bared Swords Battalion), is patterned after both Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s (1809-1892) “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s (1807-1882) “A Psalm of Life”; the second of Toyama’s original poems, rather better-known, is on the unpromisingly unpoetic topic of the principles of sociology.

In her treatment of those poems that are translations and her assessment of their innovative features, Epstein frames the analysis in terms of traditional practices of allusive poetic variation, suggesting that in some cases the work is developed enough that it may “[amount] to an original piece” (p. 73). Viewing the war poems, both the original works and translations, and Toyama’s poem on sociology as a whole, Epstein finds both valorization of war and anxiety over the individual status of the intellectual therein, arguing that these poems are thus an example of “puzzling through emotions of fear and excitement by way of poetic composition” (p. 124). This discussion is continued in Chapter 4, “Results of Poetic Practice,” in which Epstein highlights through meticulous semantic and structural analyses of several further poems (among them adaptations of Shakespeare) what she sees as “a strain of reflection on the place of scholasticism in Meiji society, undercut with a mood of uncertainty and anxiety” (p. 128).

The concluding Chapter 5, “Person and Reputation,” switches gears from close reading to consider the Shintaishishō’s reception history. Epstein’s key argument in this chapter is that recollections by contemporary figures such as Kunikida Doppo 国木田独歩 (1871-1908) asserting the wide circulation of the Shintaishishō are erroneous: she contends that rather a different collection, Shintai shiika 新体詩歌 (New-Style Poems, published initially between 1882 and 1884), may have been more important. The Shintai shiika, which was edited by Freedom and Popular Rights Movement activist Komuro Shigehiro 小室重弘 (n.d.), contains in its five volumes sixteen of the nineteen poems that first appeared in Shintaishishō; pointing out that the Shintai shiika did not appear to accord any special status to the Shintaishishō poems or their authors, Epstein suggests that this later work may in fact have been more influential in shaping discourse on the newly emergent shintaishi genre than Inoue et al.’s earlier collection. Drawing her discussion together in her conclusion, Epstein considers what exactly about the Shintaishishō collection can be considered modern, answering that the poems become modern through their subsequent reception history: “[T]he poetry is modern because people have called it modern since modern was a designation. The Shintaishishō is modern poetry because in Japanese texts it is kindaishi [modern-style poetry]. It is as simple as that” (p. 221).

Epstein’s extended attention to and discussion of this often-neglected area of Japanese poetics is a welcome addition to English-language scholarship on poetry of the modern period, especially the Meiji era. Her detailed and exacting readings of the poems are thought-provoking, as are her translations from the Japanese, which adopt the unconventional approach of rendering the English in a style that stays as close to the original Japanese syntax as possible (so as to “retain more of the original semantic ambiguity than they would if [the poems] were translated to conform to English-language word order” (p. 15)). The dissertation will therefore be of interest to scholars working on the history of Meiji poetry and the development of poetic reform movements during the same period.

Robert Tuck
Assistant Professor of Japanese
Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures
University of Montana

Primary Sources
Shintaishishō (1882)
Shintai shiika (various editions)

Dissertation Information
University of Pennsylvania, 2014. 235 pp. Primary Advisor: Ayako Kano.

Image: Composite from cover text of two 1886 editions of Shintaishīka, ed. Takeuchi Takanobu. It reads “shintaishi” (new poetry). Waseda University Kotenseki Sōgō Dētabēsu, www.wul.waseda.ac.jp/kotenseki

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