The reception of American literature in Japan was radically altered after the Second World War. Before the war, only a handful of works on American literature were published, and the status of American literature was secondary to that of British literature. Unlike in Germany, whose occupation at the end of the war was divided among the Allies, the military occupation of Japan was conducted unilaterally by the United States. Under the U.S. occupation, American literature was introduced as part of a cultural policy aimed at the reorientation and re-education of Japanese society under the umbrella concept of demilitarization and democratization of postwar Japan. Such cultural politics was the product of a 1930s U.S. State Department program carried out at first in South American countries and then through the Office of War Information in war-torn European countries.
American literature was introduced through the program of the Culture, Information and Education (CIE) section of General Headquarters, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (GHQ/SCAP). In accordance with the transformation of the U.S. literary canon as the cultural Cold War regime developed, the book selections of the CIE changed from reflecting the multicultural, New Deal ideal (including books under the Federal Writers Project) to incorporating the modernist canon. American books were distributed to CIE libraries established in major cities in Japan, and in 1948, the CIE launched a new program to promote translations into Japanese. Beside the official distribution, there was also a trade in American books—including Armed Services Editions, which were not meant for sale—on the Japanese used book market. What was really pivotal for instituting American literary studies and its modernist canon were the summer seminars sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and held at the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. The Rockefeller report submitted to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1951 was also instrumental in providing a blueprint for the continued cultural program after the peace treaty of 1951 and the end of military occupation the following year.
The introduction of American literature and its newly reformed canon tuned for modernism occurred within the continuum of the political, the military, and the economic. As such, the cultural program was enmeshed with refashioning Japanese subjectivity, and in this sense, American literature and American studies were part of a general cultural politics that was intertwined with the ways of government.
Andrew T. Kamei-Dyche
Reading in Japan has a rich history replete with transformative moments. The arrival of Chinese logographs by the 5th century necessitated the development of reading mechanisms adapting the logographs to the Japanese language which had previously lacked writing. In the Heian (794–1185) court, reading was often a social activity incorporating performance. Small reading communities read romances aloud to one another, while poetry competitions involved intense bouts of composition and reading. During the medieval era (1185–1600), literature spread through the recitation of epic tales with musical accompaniment, while in early modern times (1600–1867) the gradual expansion of literacy combined with a print revolution fueled the emergence of socially and geographically diverse communities of readers. Alongside studies of medicine and Neo-Confucian thought a market in popular fiction flourished. The arrival of modern printing technology at the end of the 19th century ushered in mass-market readership. Cheap printings of classic texts competed with popular serial fiction, both of which were encouraged by newspapers. During the early 20th century, reading came to be seen as an act of self-cultivation but retained a social element as students and educated urbanites read together and discussed literature. Contemporary Japanese society retains a strong emphasis on the social values of reading, understanding reading not primarily as an individual engagement with one’s interests but rather as a means to acquire a consciousness of one’s group and nation. Newspaper readership continues to be enormous, and the influence exercised by newspaper corporations and prominent publishers in Japanese society is significant, shaping not only what is read but how. Japanese manga, meanwhile, continue to enjoy a diffuse range of reading communities that represent considerable wealth and influence. Such communities vary by gender, age, and political leanings, and demand media suited to their own particular reading practices and identities. Technological innovation has also facilitated new reading experiences, such as visual novels, a type of interactive fiction game popular among Japanese gamers. The Internet has given rise to virtual reading cultures, embracing both traditional print readerships and visual novel fandoms, further enhanced by ubiquitous smartphone use among readers of all ages. Tokyo’s book town, Kanda-Jinbochō, is a thriving cultural center, and book fairs and other events are widely celebrated.
The Beat writers, especially Jack Kerouac (1922–1969), William Burroughs (1914–1997), Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), and Gary Snyder (1930–), have been well known in Japan. Though Snyder’s differences from the other three, such as his West Coast background and a reformist and edifying stance, are obvious, here we choose not to be fussy about the application of a name, and simply follow his inclusion as in Ann Charter’s The Penguin Book of the Beats (1992). The Beat writers have been eagerly translated and read in Japan, though they are not a common focus of academic literary study. They exerted influence on writers and artists, in particular in terms of a rebellious attitude toward the conformist society and formalized artistic conventions prevailing in Japan. One conspicuous aspect of their impact is that it is part of the influx of American popular, mainly youth, culture since the 1950s, involving jazz, folk, and rock music, as well as numerous films depicting antiheroes on the road. Some Japanese poets, most notably Shiraishi Kazuko (1931–) and Yoshimasu Gōzō (1939–) were directly inspired by the Beats, and others unwittingly formed parallel developments. Assessing their specific achievements requires considering the historical context of modern Japanese poetry. The Beats, in turn, were attracted by Eastern cultures and religions, especially Buddhism; Snyder through his stay in Japan for the practice and study of Zen Buddhism had direct contact with Japanese poets, academics, and activists. Generally speaking, Japanese today, though they usually have some inkling of what Zen is, are not necessarily aware of the Buddhist heritage informing their basic worldview. Still, literary manifestations of what Alan Watts termed “Beat Zen,” in particular Kerouac’s, are not dissimilar to the religious attitude of many Japanese toward the world, which tends to seek to intuit a sense of enlightenment or salvation here and now, beyond humanly delimited distinctions and preconceptions.
Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s gunboat diplomacy provided the Japanese with the first known opportunity to observe a major American performing art inspired by black culture: the minstrel show. The “Ethiopian entertainment,” held on the USS Powhatan, presented “Colored ‘Gemmen’ of the North” and “Plantation ‘Niggas’ of the South” to shogunate officials four times in 1854. While this performance initiated a binational cultural exchange, the 1878 tour of the Fisk Jubilee Singers was an epoch-making event; the group’s successful concerts, given in three cities, offered Japanese audiences their first opportunity to appreciate genuine African-American artistic pieces—spirituals, distinguished from blackface minstrelsy.
The Japanese attitude toward African Americans at this initial stage was a mixture of pity and wonder. A growing self-awareness of Japan’s inferior status vis‐à‐vis Western nations, however, gave rise to a strong interest in slavery and racial oppression. The popularity of studies focused on American race problems since 1905, including multiple versions of the biography of Booker T. Washington, attests to prewar intellectuals’ attempt to define the position of the Japanese people by both analogy and contrast with African Americans. In the meantime, a partial translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), serialized from 1897 to 1898 in a liberal paper, the Kokumin, and a translation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) in 1921 paved the way for Japan’s introduction to the New Negro literature, the first major body of black writings gaining in popularity in the American literary market in the 1920s. Successive publications of works by W. E. B. DuBois, Walter White, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes in translation in the 1930s generated a distinctive artistic backdrop comparable to the American Jazz Age. Various authors of the era—from novelists to haiku poets—learned about literary motifs informed by blackness and began to elaborate their own racial representations to delineate the affectional substructure of modernity.
Even though World War II briefly disrupted the expansion of the Japanese literary imagination through the creative inspiration of African Americans, a translation of Richard Wright’s Native Son within the year of the original publication (1940) signifies the persistence of interest throughout the war period. Indeed, defeat in 1945, resentment over the subsequent U.S. occupation, coincident remorse for their country’s imperial aggression, and anger at its eventual rearmament following the Korean War, in conjunction, reoriented postwar authors toward the development of black characters in diverse works over the following four decades. In addition, the civil rights movement facilitated studies in African-American literature in universities from the 1960s onward. Today, African-American literature is one of the most popular areas in English departments in Japan; one can find virtually every subject from the slave narrative to rap music in undergraduate course syllabi.
Modern Japanese literature emerged as Japan asserted itself as a military-industrial power from the end of the 19th through the early 20th centuries. The subject of modern literature was worthy of a seat at the table of the world’s powers, or so goes the story of a literary canon all too often focused on the legitimacy of elites. But modern literature is not only about a male alienated intellectual failing to have a satisfying relationship. During the international “red decade” (1925–1935), proletarian writers in Japan as elsewhere sought to harness and transform the technology of modern literature in order to represent the hitherto un- or underrepresented women and men, peasants and factory workers, elderly and children in order to bring the masses into consciousness of their collective power. For a decade, nearly every writer in Japan engaged the energetic but often divided proletarian movement as they sought to grasp the challenges of a rapidly modernizing society, transformation in the family and gender, dual economy, worldwide depression, and escalating imperialism.
Largely overlooked during the Cold War, this important decade of modern literature has experienced a well-deserved scholarly and popular revival in a period of 21st-century precarity, protests against privilege, and questioning of media and representation. Two exemplars from proletarian literature—Hayama Yoshiki’s “The Prostitute” (1925) and Miyamoto Yuriko’s “The Breast” (1935)—offer a frame to apprehend the richness of genre, voice, storytelling, experimentation, and ethics in proletarian literature, a vital part of modern literature.
In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry opened not only the doors of a “double-bolted land” as Herman Melville called Japan in Moby-Dick (1851) but also the possibilities of modern literature. While it is a half-Chinook, half-Scot American called Ranald McDonald who smuggled himself into Japan in 1848 and became the first teacher of English in the country, Gerald Vizenor, a distinguished Native American novelist, completed a postmodern novel Hiroshima Bugi: Atomu 57 (2003), remixing Moby-Dick with Matsuo Basho’s haiku travelogue Narrow Road to the Far North, Lafcadio Hearn a.k.a. Koizumi Yakumo’s Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, and Ranald MacDonald’s Japan: Story of Adventure. After the opening of Japan, Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834–1901), one of the founding fathers of modern Japan, visited Europe and the United States of America, and decided to Westernize his own country. Being the first translator of Thomas Jefferson’s composed “The Declaration of Independence,” Fukuzawa published a million-selling An Encouragement of Learning (a series of seventeen pamphlets published from 1872 to 1876), in which the author emphasized the significance of sciences and the spirit of independence in the way comparable to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (1837) and “The American Scholar” (1841).
While Professor Thomas Sergeant Perry, a great nephew of Commodore Perry, started teaching American literature in 1898 at Keio University, which Fukuzawa established, Yone Noguchi (Noguchi Yonejiro, 1875–1947), a great admirer of Edgar Allan Poe and Matsuo Basho, became famous as a cosmopolitan poet in the United States, receiving good reviews for the first collection of poems all written in English, Seen and Unseen (1896). It is highly plausible that his correspondence with Ezra Pound provided the latter with a key to promoting the poetics of imagism. Following the example of Noguchi, Nishiwaki Junzaburo (1894–1982), another cosmopolitan poet famous for the translation of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, studied English literature and philology at Oxford University and published in 1925 the first volume of poetry Spectrum in London. Thus, Ezra Pound, who once admired Yone Noguchi in the 1910s, came to recommend Nishiwaki as the finalist for the Nobel Literary Prize in 1957.
The year 1955 saw the first postwar climax of transpacific literary history. William Faulkner, a major American modernist and recent laureate of Nobel Prize in Literature, paid his first visit to Japan in the summer of 1955, giving a series of seminars in Nagano. Speculating on Japanese culture, he gave an insight into the literary affinity between Japan and the American South in an open letter entitled “To the Youth of Japan.” American as he is, Faulkner shares the memory of lost war with the postwar Japanese, for he came from Mississippi, part of the Deep South, the very defeated nation in the Civil War. Without this memory of lost war, Faulkner could not have developed his apocryphal imagination. Therefore, it is very natural that Faulkner’s visit to Japan invited quite a few major Japanese authors to develop their own apocryphal imagination, ending up with major works published in 1973, the year of Oil Shock, all inspired by Faulkner’s double novel The Wild Palms (1939): Endo Shusaku’s Catholic novel Upon the Dead Sea, Oe Kenzaburo’s nuclear novel The Flood Invades My Soul, and Komatsu Sakyo’s science fiction novel Japan Sinks. Noting that the year of 1973 also saw the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, we could well locate here the genesis of transpacific postmodern literature in the 21st century.
Since the country’s decisive defeat through the acceptance of the unconditional surrender in 1945, Japanese novelists have been working in the shadow of America. The American Occupation from 1945 to 1952 set the essential tone of the postwar Japanese chronotope, and authors have had to address their problems through it. Postwar Japanese novelists needed to familiarize themselves with the explicit meaning of the national and ethnic experience of the defeat in the total war. They had to come to terms with the inevitable outcome of being re-incorporated into the international world according to America’s scenario for achieving a new global hegemony. On one hand, this meant severance from the military past and rebirth as a pacifist and capitalist trading country; on the other, it meant disruption of the cultural continuity as a nation and rapid evaporation of the memories of the war crimes.
Postwar Japanese novelists have turned to American literature, not only for a usable index for understanding “America” as the most fundamentally decisive element of their postwar chronotope but also for something to stimulate their critical and creative imagination or synchronize with their aesthetic sensitivity during their search for an artistic expression under the shadow of “America.” Three influential Japanese postwar novelists have a specific American writer as his inspirational source: Mark Twain for Kenzaburo Oe (b. 1935–), William Faulkner for Kenji Nakagami (1946–1992), and Raymond Carver for Haruki Murakami (b. 1949–). Their relationships with their literary precursors vary relative to their own sensitivities, political stances, and cultural background including class and caste; however, each of these three Japanese novelists has maintained a wide influence in the postwar Japanese literary climate because each has established his own unique way of addressing the most critical problem of “America.” Each of these writers takes his influence from an American writer and learns his own lessons about how to cope with or navigate through a life under the shadow of “America.” During each decade of postwar Japanese history—Oe from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, Nakagami from the late 1970s to the late 1980s and Murakami from the early 1980s to the 1990s—the authors reflect a gradual change in the shadow of “America” because of a change in America’s policy toward Japan from the end of the occupation through the period of Japan’s astounding economic prosperity, to the end of the Cold War and a gradual attenuation of America’s power over Japan.
The several works of American literature set in Okinawa or about Okinawans include travel narratives, war diaries, memoirs, biography, fiction, and drama. Perhaps the earliest, Francis L. Hawks’s 1856 Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, is an account of Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s gunboat diplomacy of 1853–1854 when he forced his demands on leaders of what was then the Ryukyu Kingdom, allowing Americans to land, travel, and trade there. Hawks also provides informative and colorful descriptions of the local residents, architecture, and natural environment.
A century later, Okinawa commanded all of America’s attention in the spring of 1945 during the last and worst battle of the Pacific War. Two Okinawan immigrants to the United States published autobiographical accounts in English of mid-20th-century Okinawa, including the battle and its aftermath. Masako Shinjo Robbins’s My Story: A Schoolgirl in the Battle of Okinawa (2014) describes life in prewar, wartime, and early postwar Okinawa from the perspective of a daughter in an impoverished family. Sold as a child by her father to a brothel in the 1930s, she barely survives the battle after being trapped in a cave collapsed by shelling. Jo Nobuko Martin’s novel A Princess Lily of the Ryukyus (1984) depicts the horrifying ordeal of the Princess Lily Student Corps of high school girls, the author among them, and their teachers, who were drafted as combat medics during the Battle of Okinawa. Writing from the American side of the battle, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Ernie Pyle accompanied U.S. forces as a war correspondent. His account in The Story of Ernie Pyle (1950) begins with American battleships’ shelling of Okinawa and ends the day he was killed by a Japanese sniper on the offshore island of Iejima.
Over more than 12,500 Americans died in the Battle of Okinawa which took the lives of approximately 94,000 Japanese soldiers and 160,000 Okinawan civilians, between one-quarter and one-third of the prefecture’s population at the time. The widespread devastation left most residents homeless, destitute, or both. During the months that followed, the American military placed thousands in refugee camps, sometimes for more than a year, supplying food, shelter (mostly tents), and medical treatment for the wounded and ill. U.S. occupation personnel supervised the distribution of relief aid and the construction of homes and public buildings, but they were also tasked with bringing “democracy” to Okinawa, which many Americans considered feudalistic. The contradiction between American espousals of democracy and policies imposed top-down under U.S. military rule soon became obvious to Okinawans, and to at least some American military personnel. One of them, Vern Sneider, published a satirical novel, The Teahouse of the August Moon, in 1951. Later adapted into two plays and a film, it is probably the best-known work of American literature set in Okinawa. Lucky Come Hawaii (1965) by Jon Shirota depicts the experience of Okinawans in Hawaii, focusing on the strained relations among resident ethnic groups following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the first novel by an Asian American writer to become a bestseller and one of several works portraying the lives of Okinawan immigrants including three plays by Shirota and an autobiography by Hana Yamagawa.
Victory in the Pacific War brought Okinawa under American military occupation for the next twenty-seven years, 1945–1972. Forcibly seizing private farmlands, the U.S. government constructed a vast complex of bases to support hot wars in Korea and Vietnam and the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Sarah Bird’s novel The Yokota Officers Club (2001) depicts the bases’ effects on Okinawans and Americans living in close proximity yet in separate worlds during the U.S. occupation. Today, more than four decades after Okinawa’s return to Japanese sovereignty, a grossly disproportionate 74 percent of the total U.S. military presence in Japan remains in this small island prefecture with 0.6 percent of the nation’s land area. Bird’s Above the East China Sea (2015) juxtaposes the ordeals of an American military dependent living on base in present-day Okinawa who contemplates suicide after her soldier sister dies in Afghanistan with a student medic in the 1945 battle ordered to kill herself to avoid capture by the Americans. Drawing on extensive research in Okinawan culture, Bird evokes Okinawan religious beliefs and observances relating to death and the afterlife to frame her narrative and inform her readers.
In the history of modern Japanese literature, the Taishō era (1912–1926) is retrospectively identified as a period characterized by a liberal arts ideology, individualism, a democratic spirit, aestheticism, and anti-naturalism. In the latter half of the Taishō era, the liberal arts ideology was gradually replaced by socialism. After the Great Earthquake of 1923, Japanese literature was enmeshed in a triangular contest between the old-fashioned “‘I’ novel” (or psychological novel), proletarian literature, and modernist literature (especially the neo-sensualists). This structure of the literary world, in parallel with the rise of popular literature, continued into the prewar Shōwa era (1926–1945).
During the Taishō era, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe were the most influential and respected American writers. Whitman’s writing offered Taishō writers, including Takeo Arishima and poets of the popular poetry school, a model of living that was free and natural and a colloquial-style free verse. But for the modern Japanese literati from the Taishō to the prewar Shōwa era, the most influential American writer was without a doubt Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s works served as a creative inspiration to Taishō novelists such as Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Haruo Satō, and Ryūosuke Akutagawa, many of whom shared a creative perspective that was based on a blend of anti-naturalism and aestheticism. Influenced by Poe, they attempted diverse variations on the themes of the fantastic and of doppelgängers and even experimented with detective stories. Needless to say, Poe helped to establish the detective story genre in Japan through Rampo Edogawa and others. For early Shōwa literati, Poe was a forerunner of modern critical theory.
Among Japanese readers, around 1920, American literature ceased to be read as a sub-branch of British literature and began to be read as American literature proper. From the Great Earthquake and up through the prewar Shōwa era, three distinctive periods can be discerned when American literature was energetically translated and introduced. The first period was from the end of Taishō to the start of Shōwa, when American “socialist” literature—in the broad sense of writers like Upton Sinclair—left a deep mark on Japanese proletarian literature. The second period was around 1930–1931, when contemporary modernist American novels were translated and published in various anthology forms. The third peak came around 1935–1938, when bestselling American historical romances or epics such as Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind were published and gained a large readership.
Although largely disregarded since the humanistic turn of ecocriticism at the beginning of the 21st century, nature writing has continued to play an important role in nurturing trans-Pacific, and transnational, literary environmentalism. Euro-American traditions dominate this literary genre, but it nevertheless involves cross-cultural traffic of ideas and thoughts. Its trans-Pacific presence, mostly through American influences on works in Japan, demonstrates in three ways how American nature writing has been cultivating Japanese literary soil and has in turn been nurtured by it, albeit less conspicuously. First, Henry David Thoreau’s influence on Japanese literary environmentalism, especially his philosophy of plain living and high thinking, helped engender a tradition of nature writing in Japan that began with Nozawa Hajime—often called the “Japanese Thoreau”—and has been developed by those who followed, including Ashizawa Kazuhiro and Takada Hiroshi. Second, interactions between pastoralism and a new mode of environmental awareness show that the seemingly American notion of “wild awareness” and the Japanese concept of aware have materialized as a new environmental sensitivity in Japan and in the United States, respectively, reflecting cross-cultural nurturing of environmental ideas, thoughts, and practices. Finally, there has been a subtle yet radical impact of American counterculture on Japanese nature writing, exemplified by Nashiki Kaho’s literary hybridity, based on her integration of the traditional with the radical.