Proto-Genbun Itchi in Edo & Early Meiji


A review of A Heteroglossic Theory of Proto-Genbun Itchi in Edo and Early Meiji Writings, by Kelly J. Hansen.

Historians and historiographers of modern Japanese literature have long debated the fraught relationship between “reality” and the language in which it is inevitably encoded and described. A teleological view of literary modernity often presumes a clean break between ossified tradition and modern innovation. Accordingly, analyses of the various calls for mimesis and linguistic transparency subsumed under the name genbun itchi have largely focused on the Meiji era as a period of such rupture — a time during which earlier views of language and representation were abandoned in favor of new (largely European-derived) theories of literary realism. Kelly Hansen’s 2009 dissertation challenges this reductive viewpoint by highlighting points of continuity and development across the perennially contested “early modern/modern” cultural divide. Through her theorization and discussion of “proto-genbun itchi,” Hansen deconstructs genbun itchi’s mystique as a privileged discourse standing distinct from earlier Japanese literary history and situates it in a larger context that acknowledges connections with Meiji Japan’s often suppressed literary past. Rather than search for a decisive origin or foundational work (such as the oft-celebrated Ukigumo of Futabatei Shimei), Hansen’s theory of proto-genbun itchi explores the overlooked connections that are suppressed or effaced through the creation of such an origin. Her dissertation effectively traces a “growing awareness of the gap between the spoken and written languages” (p. 6) from the beginning of the Edo period through the early Meiji.

Hansen’s introduction begins with a re-examination of two works conventionally identified as starting points for discussion of the nascent genbun-itchi “movement”: Futabatei Shimei’s Ukigumo (the first installment of which was published in 1887) and Tsubouchi Shōyō’s Shōsetsu shinzui of 1885. The former is particularly important to Hansen’s discussion as a “self-proclaimed attempt at a Western-style realist novel” (p. 3) — one held up by Meiji-era and contemporary critics alike as the decisive point of rupture between Edo-period belles-lettres and a new literature predicated on notions of bunmei kaika. Hansen challenges this characterization and introduces the theoretical constructs she will use to situate the work within a larger field of linguistic experimentation — much of which, she argues, built upon Edo-period observations about literature and language. Of particular importance to Hansen’s definition of “proto-genbun itchi” are a re-examination of the term “realism” as it was used by Meiji-era writers and literary theorists, and an important distinction between “transparency” and “opacity” as a way of considering linguistic discourse apart from questions of realism and literary mimesis.

Chapter 1 provides a thorough survey of secondary scholarship relating to Ukigumo and the critical corpus of both Futabatei Shimei and Tsubouchi Shōyō. Hansen demonstrates the degree to which recent scholarship on these writers has focused on these works within the paradigms of bunmei kaika and Japanese interest in Western literary models. She argues that this traditional interpretation obscures a far more complex discourse about language and representation in the early Meiji and mystifies Ukigumo as a sui generis progenitor of genbun itchi. Hansen suggests that this characterization ignores both alternate theoretical trajectories explored by the contemporaries of Futabatei and Shōyō, as well as the necessity of examining pre-Meiji discussions of the status of language in evaluating the historical significance of Futabatei and Shōyō’s corpus.

Chapter 2 challenges the paradigms presented earlier by focusing on Edo-period discussions of language, script, and linguistic diversity. Of particular importance to Hansen’s discussion is Edo-period Japanese scholars’ troubled and evolving relationship with the Chinese language in which the texts comprising a classical education were written. Hansen presents a number of philological challenges to “Chinese linguistic hegemony” (p. 78), including the work of Itō Jinsai, whose focus on “ancient meanings” (kogigaku) was related to his interest in applying the contents of texts to everyday (Japanese) life. The second section of the chapter analyzes the ideas of Ogyū Sorai, whose philological research highlighted the lexical, syntactic, and morphological differences between the Japanese and Chinese languages. Building upon the research of Yoshikawa Kōjirō and Emanuel Pastreich, Hansen argues that Sorai’s rejection of Japanese glosses (wakun) and insistence upon approaching Chinese texts as a foreign language created a foundation for later scholars to claim parity or even superiority for the Japanese language vis-à-vis Chinese. This idea is developed in Hansen’s subsequent discussion of the kokugaku scholar Motoori Norinaga.

Chapter 3 moves from the philological research of Edo-period classical scholars to the commercial sphere with an examination of heteroglossia and linguistic experimentation in popular literature. Hansen provides surveys of the print industry and trends in education and literacy, and connects these categories to the reading public’s increased (albeit often indirect) involvement in discussions about linguistic representation. She identifies dialogization and heteroglossia as defining features of Edo-period written production and emphasizes the increased awareness of a gap between archaic written forms and vernacular dialogue. In looking forward to the Meiji period, Hansen is particularly interested in the binary between transparency and opacity she described in her introduction. Interest in contemporary society and the increased use of vernacular-derived written language might be used to characterize writers on either side of the Edo-Meiji divide. However, Hansen’s discussion of popular literature in the Edo period demonstrates the degree to which authors were interested in the “opaque” polysemic effects of intertextuality, relationships between text and illustration, and humorous manipulation of kanji and kana glosses. Hansen concludes that an examination of these works reveals that the desire for “transparency” voiced by literary experimenters in the Meiji period cannot be understood as a question of using colloquial-based dialogue alone. On the contrary, authors of gesaku in particular were interested in the obfuscating or linguistically problematic (and therefore humorous) effects of colloquial language.

Hansen’s final chapter chronicles Meiji-period interest in transparency through an examination of the rise of the newspaper industry and the concomitant shift from woodblock printing to movable type. Engaging previous scholarship by Maeda Ai and Peter Kornicki, Hansen considers the effects the reformatting and realignments necessitated by transference to movable type would have on a reader accustomed to the gestalt relationship between image and text in woodblock prints. Her study returns to Futabatei Shimei’s Ukigumo with the primary intention of positioning the novel alongside the many experiments with voice, narration, and syntax carried out by Futabatei and his contemporaries — experiments whose critical intention or focus has largely been effaced by Ukigumo’s later canonization. The study concludes with a call for a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between early Meiji-period experimentation and Edo-period discussions of language and literary representation. Kelly Hansen’s study fits in well with a growing body of scholarship devoted to the deconstruction or demystification of boundaries between the modern and premodern in Japanese cultural production, and her dissertation effectively and eloquently proposes a method for reconceptualizing these lines of demarcation.

William C. Hedberg
University of North Carolina-Wilmington

Primary Sources

Futabatei Shimei, Ukigumo
Tsubouchi Shōyō, Shōsetsu shinzui
Itō Jinsai, Gomō jigi
Oygū Sorai zenshū

Kanagaki Robun, Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari

Dissertation Information

University of Hawai’i, 2009. 275 pp. Primary Advisor: Joel Cohn.


Image: From Shikitei Samba’s Ukiyoburo, Waseda University Library.

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