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date: 17 August 2017

The Influence of American Literature in Taishō and Prewar Shōwa Japan

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: democracy, detective novel, fantastic, modernism, popular literature, proletarian literature, Shōwa literature, Taishō, literature, translation

From Taishō Literature to Shōwa Literature

Haruo Satō (1892–1964), a poet, novelist, and critic who has come to be viewed as an emblematic figure of Taishō literature, declared in 1950 that literature in this age “tried to restore the aesthetic senses and morals that Meiji naturalist literature had radically broken up, and then restore them on the foundations of the realization of identity that naturalism had introduced.”1 The “aesthetic senses and morals” that Satō talks about here are to be found not only in the aestheticism propounded by anti-naturalist writers like Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1886–1965), Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892–1927), and Satō himself, but also in the humanitarianism that formed the basis of the Shirakaba (White Birch) School of writers that included Saneatsu Mushanokōji (1885–1976), Naoya Shiga (1883–1971), and Takeo Arishima (1878–1923).

If the “realization of identity that naturalism introduced”, as Satō Haruo put it in 1950, —or to put it another way, the potential of the concept of “identity” that gradually awakened during the Meiji era—can be said to have blossomed and flowered in the Taishō era (1912–1926), then that “identity” had to acquire political and social freedom and equality. The extensive desire for democracy in the first half of Taishō was called “Taishō democracy.” Events like the Rice Riots (Kome-sōdō), popular uprisings fueled by the soaring price of rice in 1918 after World War I, gradually revealed the political and class nature of Taishō Democracy. Disciples of Sōseki Natsume (1867–1916), such as Toyotaka Komiya (1884–1966), Yoshishige Abe (1883–1966), and Jirō Abe (1883–1959), attacked naturalism while advocating new concepts of personalism, intellectualism, and liberal arts education. It is here that the principles of Taishō liberal arts ideology (Taishō Kyōyō Shugi) were established, which were markedly different from those of the traditional Confucian concept of personal cultivation (Shūyō). Grounded in modern humanism, Taishō liberal arts ideology was the culture of a highly educated elite that aimed, through the extensive absorption of Western philosophy and literature, to achieve a well-developed personality.

Entering the latter half of the Taishō era, liberalism was slowly replaced by ideas of socialism. In Japan, socialism was then divided into three main types: Marxism, anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism, and democratic socialism. Although these three ideologies came together briefly in 1920 under the banner of the Japan Socialist Union, there was soon repeated squabbling and division, mainly between the Marxists and the anarchists/anarcho-syndicalists; the latter then declined, and in 1922 the Japanese Communist Party was formed under the guidance of the Soviet Union’s Comintern by members including Toshihiko Sakai (1871–1933) and Hitoshi Yamakawa (1880–1958). The party disbanded in 1924 and re-formed illegally, before finally going on a path toward its complete destruction.

During the course of this development and fragmentation of the socialist movement, proletarian literature, because it portrayed a reality that more or less conformed to Marxist principles, was advocated and practiced as an effective means for promoting class struggle. Based mainly around literary journals such as Tanemaku-hito (The seeders), Bungei-sensen (The literary front), and Senki (The battle flag), the extraordinary extent of proletarian literature’s influence—especially on the intelligentsia—continued up until 1931, when Japan instigated the Fifteen-Year War with the Manchurian Incident.

The Great Kantō Earthquake in September 1923 (Taishō 12) wrought devastating damage on Tokyo, especially the old shitamachi (downtown) quarter. The disaster became a major cut-off point, dividing modern Japanese culture before WWII into pre- and post-earthquake, as it destroyed the shitamachi and wiped away the last vestiges of the old capital, Edo. In October 1924, a year after the earthquake, the first issue of Bungei-jidai (The literary times) was published by a coterie of new writers, including Yasunari Kawabata (1899–1972) and Riichi Yokomitsu (1898–1947). This new artistic group, better known as the neo-sensualists (Shin-kankaku ha), was united in its rejection of the methods of traditional realism and proletarian literature while also being sensitive to avant-gardism, which had become a worldwide phenomenon after World War I. Over the next decade or so, the neo-sensualists adopted techniques of modernist literature as they attempted experiments in writing style and ways to express sensations.

Together with the taste for modernist literature as represented by the neo-sensualists, there were also advances and divisions in popular literature that continued into the prewar Shōwa era. From the latter half of Taishō, the spread of modern individualism after the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) helped create an awareness that an emergent zone called “society” clearly existed between the state and the individual—and this society was a collection of individuals that was essentially different from the state. The concept of “the masses” (taishū) was established when this stratum called society that had steadily materialized since the Great Kantō Earthquake blended with urban and consumer culture. The term taishū was widely popularized around the time of the earthquake. The “masses” were at once workers and consumers. As well as being the object of political organization, they were also new cultural receptors, readers, and purchasers.

In 1926 (Taishō 15), a group led by Kyōji Shirai (1889–1980) began a magazine called Taishū-bungaku (The popular literature), and in July that same year Chūō-kōron (The central review), the leading general interest magazine of the time, put together a special edition on popular art and literature. Taishū-bungei, or popular art and literature, which had developed from traditional Japanese tales transcribed into book form, was now supported by a new class of readers that materialized as the mass urban and consumer society coalesced after the 1923 earthquake. It came to be recognized as a new genre in opposition to pure literature. Popular literature was practically synonymous with historical novels and was seen as separate from Tsūzoku-shōsetsu (popular story), which referred to contemporary fiction. It eventually was renamed as Taishū-bungaku (popular literature) and diversified among a wide range of genres, including tales of the fantastic and bizarre, political novels, scientific fiction, and city novels.

In 1918, the same year that witnessed the publication of Jirō Abe’s Santarō no nikki (Santarō’s diary) omnibus, the so-called bible of the Taishō liberal arts ideology, the left-wing philosophy society Shinjin-kai was formed under the leadership of group of Tokyo Imperial University students who were influenced by the Russian Revolution and the Rice Riots. The guiding light behind the Shinjin-kai was Sakuzō Yoshino (1878–1933), who as a professor at the university and a leading thinker of Taishō democracy had promoted Minpon-shugi (democracy). It was around this time that what might be truly defined as Taishō was properly established, embodied by the three unique developments of the period: Taishō liberal arts ideology, Taishō democracy, and socialist ideology. Two years earlier, in 1916, Natsume Sōseki had died, and four years later, Mori Ōgai (1862–1922) passed away. This meant that around the same time as what was properly Taishō was established, that which was Meiji came to a de facto end.

Translated American Literature in 1919 (Taishō 8): From Walt Whitman to Jack London

In 1921, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa made two comments about American literature that deserve attention. First, he claimed, “Since Whitman, artistically barren America has sought genius in other countries.”2 Thus he recognized the poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) as a genius who appeared in the “artistically barren” land of America. Even though he is not mentioned by name here, it should go without saying that, for Akutagawa, another genius, and one who preceded Whitman, was Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849). Second is Akutagawa’s reference in 1921 to the fact that America was influencing the Japanese literature scene when he said, “There are perhaps signs that in recent years Japan’s literary circles . . . are being influenced by American trends.”3

In the Taishō era, among American writers, it was Poe and Whitman who drew the most respect and interest from Japan’s literati. 1919 (Taishō 8), the turning point of the era, coincided with the hundredth anniversary of Whitman’s birth, and many magazines put together special features on him; as in many other countries at the time, events—including one in which Akutagawa participated—were held in Japan in May to mark the anniversary. Whitman had first been introduced to Japan by Sōseki Natsume in 1892.4 With his poetry that powerfully affirmed life and living, Whitman offered a model of colloquial-style free verse, and this appealed to modern Japanese poets like Hōmei Iwano (1873–1920) and Kōtarō Takamura (1883–1956). In Japan, the period in which Whitman’s influence spread most widely was the Taishō democracy. Poets from the School of Popular Poetry (Minsū-shi ha), which was an important influence in Japanese poetic circles at the time, regarded him somewhat simplistically as a democratic ideological poet who was humanist, optimistic, and self-affirming.5 Whitman fever reached its peak in Japan in 1919 with the publication of two partial translations of Leaves of Grass by two different poets from the School of Popular Poetry, Shōgo Shiratori (1890–1973) and Saika Tomita (1890–1984).

In fact, self-affirming individualism in modern Japan dates back to the end of the Meiji era. In 1910 (Meiji 43), the year of the High Treason Incident (Taigyaku jiken), in which twenty-six socialists and anarchists were arrested on suspicion of an assassination plot against the Meiji emperor, and of Japan’s annexation of Korea, the political foundations for imperial Japan were put in place, and the country’s rudder was turned clearly toward colonialism. That same year, a group of writers including Saneatsu Mushanokōji, Naoya Shiga, and Takeo Arishima, who were all alumni of Gakushūin, an educational institute for the children of the nobility and imperial family, published the first edition of their literary journal, Shirakaba (The white birch). In 1914, Sōseki Natsume gave a lecture titled “My Individualism” at Gakushūin in which he asserted that the ethics of the individual surely supersede nationalism, and he named this stance “jiko-hon’i” (egocentricity). Sōseki’s idea of “egocentricity” was succeeded by the Shirakaba school of writers as a position of complete self-affirmation based on humanitarianism, individualism, and idealism.

Takeo Arishima discovered Whitman while he was studying in America, and the American poet’s works resonated so deeply with him that Whitman became the touchstone for Arishima’s own life and literature. Arishima superimposed Whitman’s way of living—freely and naturally, doing whatever one’s innate soul commanded—on to his own beliefs in jiko-hon’i. He wrote works such as the full-length novel Aru onna (A certain woman, 1911–1919), that grapple with the theme of fate as pursued by the modern self. Arishima also made it his life’s work to study, translate, and introduce Whitman to Japanese readers. In 1923, however, when his second collection of translations of Whitman’s poetry was published, Arishima took his own life, and this in effect brought down the curtain on Whitman’s popularity in Japan.

Mark Twain (1835–1910) was another American writer to which Arishima turned his attention. In his later years, Arishima adapted Mark Twain’s short story “Is He Living or Is He Dead?” into a play entitled Domomata no shi (The death of Domomata, 1922). Twain had been sporadically translated or adapted since the Meiji era, but his works had not managed to exert any sustained literary influence in Japan because the conversational, slang, and humorous expressions in the original English were difficult to translate. One rare exception of someone able to get to the essence of Twain was the humor writer Kuni Sasaki (1883–1964). Only in 1919 was the first translation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), completed by Sasaki, published.

In 1919, one more translated work that is important in the context of the history of Japanese-American comparative literature and Japan’s history of translation was published. This was Yasei no yobigoe (The call of the wild, 1903) by Jack London (1876–1916), translated by Toshihiko Sakai,6 a pioneer in Japan’s socialist movement. At the time, Sakai was running a literary endeavor called Baibun-sha (hackwork agency), which also undertook translation work, as a way of making a living during what was a bleak period for socialists following the High Treason Incident. He turned his attention to London’s writings because he liked London’s skillful portrayal of the psychology of animals and added overtones of the struggle for survival, saying, “People know that London is a famous novelist in America and a socialist, but there are several of his novels in which he adroitly depicts the minds of animals. And in those novels one can see a fascinating determination.”7

Jack London’s literature, which tried to answer the question of the roots of instinct, desire, and life, and examined the extent of society and nature’s influence on them, used a lucid, dynamic, and well-paced style, and was backed by stories with mass appeal that could be read in one sitting. These characteristics of style and popular appeal overlapped in many ways with Sakai’s extremely conversational style of translation, which was like a written form of public storytelling. In Japan, the heroism in the face of an implacable Mother Nature in London’s original was likened to the heroism found in Japanese historical novels and other popular fiction. Sakai’s translation of London was well-received by the general readership and also attracted the interest of many authors and intellectuals. In 1926, Sanjūgo Naoki (1891–1934), who later gave his name to the Naoki Prize, proposed a new way to categorize popular literature. In addition to crime and mystery novels and science fiction, he added a third variety that offered philosophical content using material that would grab the attention of general readers, and he included Sakai’s translation of Jack London as a fine example.8

For modern Japan in the early half of the Meiji period, American literature served as a model for civilization, enlightenment, and modernizing thought. In addition, from the passion for Ralph Waldo Emerson, who inspired an egocentric spirit of independence and self-reliance in Tōkoku Kitamura (1864–1894), Doppo Kunikida (1871–1908), and Hōmei Iwano in the latter half of Meiji period, up to the adulation of Whitman, there was also a tendency to seek from it a foundation for ideas of self. However, as Akutagawa would suggest, from around 1919 to 1921 it became apparent that American literature, in particular the American novel, had graduated from being regarded as no more than a sub-branch and imitator of British literature to being understood as American literature proper. It was then that the ideology of the Taishō liberal arts education, modeled on German and French philosophy, ideas, and literature, was being replaced by socialism and popular urban culture, and the impact of World War I had led to traditional European culture losing its legitimacy; it was this that allowed the cultural rise of America as a vast, growing democracy based on the principle of popularization.

Edgar Allan Poe and Taishō Literature

According to Haruo Satō, “Meiji was the era of copying foreign culture . . . Meiji literature was produced under the influence of foreign literature.”9 If Meiji was the period when translations and adaptations of foreign literature occupied a position at least equal to that of original works, then Taishō was the period when foreign works were not just translated or adapted but also acted as a motivating force to drive the creative activity of many writers in various ways. The American writer who most profoundly fulfilled that role of motivator was Edgar Allan Poe.

Yonejirō Noguchi (1875–1947), who went to America in the 1890s and, inspired by Poe’s poetry, ventured into producing his own poetry, came to prefer Poe’s prose in the Shōwa era, saying, “Compared to his prose . . . it must be said that the substance of his poetry is thin.”10 This claim by Noguchi reveals that Poe’s reception in Japan during the Taishō era was focused almost exclusively around his prose. Between 1907 and 1909, Sōseki Natsume published three short articles discussing Poe, but he did not place any particular importance on his poetry. Sōseki acknowledged Poe’s originality in establishing the short story as a genre, and was astounded by the precision of his method and wealth of his imagination that described “conditions of another world” with “portrayals that are clear and precise, and at times scientific.”11 This view of Poe was inherited virtually wholesale by Sōseki’s apprentice, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. In a lecture given in 1921 titled “Tanpen-sakka toshite no pō” (Poe as a short-story writer), Akutagawa drew a comparison between Defoe and Poe and argued that Poe’s essence as a writer lay in the fusion of realistic method and romantic material, and that it was Poe’s modernity and prescience that developed Defoe’s method of verisimilitude into psychological realism. Poe’s description of the short story as a composition that must have total unity of effect resonated with Akutagawa, and he tried to implement this in his own writing. And Akutagawa’s interest in Poe as a short story master would lead to his interest in Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?).

Within the current of anti-naturalism, Taishō era writers like Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Haruo Satō, and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa responded to the themes and methodology of Poe’s literature in different ways according to their own respective talents and sensitivities. They produced many outstanding works that emerged from Poe’s positive influence. Three translations of Poe’s short stories that played an important role in giving these attempts direction were actually secondhand translations from German contained in Ōgai Mori’s collection of translated short stories, Shokoku monogatari (Tales of many countries, 1915).

The groundbreaking detective story “Byō in-yokochō no satsujin-han” (The murders in the Rue Morgue, 1841) is concerned with ratiocination but also possesses an intricate narrative structure characteristic of the modern novel, which brings the reader into the text and describes the process in which the detective works backwards to identify the perpetrator, then explains the route to the truth to the other characters in the story and the reader by tracing the course of events in reverse chronological order. “Uzushio” (A descent into maelstrӧm, 1841) is both a fantastical adventure narrated in the first person in the form of a verbatim account and also a story concerned with ratiocination, as the protagonist tries to escape death through a calm appraisal of his situation. “Jū san-ji” (The devil in the belfry, 1839) is a satirical piece in the burlesque style, something that is rare in modern Japanese literature, and it ridicules excessive rationalism and standardization. Being a keen reader of Poe’s “Bon-Bon” (1835) and other such stories, Ango Sakaguchi (1906–1955) carried on this burlesque tradition, and in 1935 he wrote the prose farce “Professor Wind.” It is almost as if Ōgai Mori was trying to enlighten contemporary Japanese literary circles, as the perspective and scope in variety of styles and themes in these three Poe short stories influenced modern Japanese literature beyond the horizon of Taishō literature into Shōwa and postwar literature.

Besides these three very different types of short stories introduced by Ōgai Mori, it is perhaps also useful to invoke the concept of the “fantastic” as proposed by critics like Tzvetan Todorov in order to uncover what Taishō era authors saw in Poe. The “discourse of the fantastic,”12 which is based on a dialogic structure between the real and unreal, and gradually makes readers aware that a completely different reality to the one portrayed on the surface may have been possible, could be said to be an effective and appealing method against realism for Taishō writers who hoisted the banners of aestheticism and anti-naturalism.

Among the various themes in which this discourse of the fantastic displayed its power, there are two that were influenced in no small degree by Poe and fascinated Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Haruo Satō, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and other Taishō era writers. The first is what may be called literature of “fantastic topography,” in which a fantastical, aesthetic world close to our own is portrayed; Haruo Satō’s literary debut, “Supein-ken no ie” (The house of the Spanish dog, 1917), is perhaps the finest example. Satō mentioned two landscape garden tales, “The Domain of Arnheim” (1847) and “Landor’s Cottage” (1848–1849) as two of Poe’s prose works that he particularly liked, and it is clear that “Supein-ken no ie” was inspired by the latter. Without doubt, Satō is the writer from that era who connected most profoundly with Poe in terms of sense and intellect. At around the same time as Satō, Jun’chirō Tanizaki was also inspired by “The Domain of Arnheim” to write “Konjiki no shi (The golden death) (1914). Furthermore, Poe’s picturesque descriptions of the timeworn mansion in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) also show their influence in Tanizaki’s fantastic short story “Majutsu-shi” (The magician) (1917).

Taishō era writers also enjoyed The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) by Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) and Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839), and they attempted a number of variations on the theme of doppelgängers using them as models. Examples include Haruo Satō’s “Shimon” (A fingerprint) (1918); Junichirō Tanizaki’s “Kin to Gin” (The gold and silver) (1918), published in Chūō kōron (The central review); and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s “Kage” (Shadow) (1920). Tanizaki’s “Tomoda to Matsunaga no hanashi” (The tale of Tomoda and Matsunaga, 1926), which personified the cultural conflict between Japan and the West, is the most successful novelistic example of this theme. The advance of machine civilization and the phenomenon of rapid urbanization around the time of World War I, and the accompanying transformation in the structure of space and time and creeping sense of isolation, gave the theme of the fragmentation of self a new reality. It is for this reason that, under Poe’s influence, this cluster of dopplegänger stories appeared in Taishō-era Japan.

Poe and Shōwa Literature

Poe continued to influence modernist Japanese literature from the latter half of the 1920s to the 1930s, primarily through his critical theory. Attention was also focused on him as the founding father of Japan’s indigenous detective fiction, which was now booming. This reception can perhaps be described as an exact reflection of the state of Japanese literature in the 1920s and 1930s, when the rise of popular literature ran parallel to the conflict between the new artistic group movement and proletarian literature.

Whereas in the Meiji era, the poet and English literature scholar Bin Ueda (1874–1916) defined Poe’s value to world literature by describing him as the father of French symbolism, science fiction, and detective fiction, the literati in the Shōwa era, including the critic Hideo Kobayashi (1902–1983), saw Poe as a forerunner of modernism and placed him in the same tradition as the French symbolists, such as Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898) and Paul Valéry (1871–1945). They also examined Poe’s works of criticism as well as Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848), in which he outlined a grand cosmology. In 1931, Shin’ichi Makino (1896–1936), a writer of fantasy stories based on ancient Greece and the European Middle Ages in which dreams were gently interwoven with reality, collaborated with Hideo Kobayashi on a translation of Eureka, which was then serialized in a magazine. In 1935, he worked with Kazuo Ogawa on another joint translation of the work, this time published in book form.

In the manuscript of Akutagawa’s speech “Pō no ichimen” (“An aspect of Poe,” 1927), he refers in English to the title of Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), an essay Poe wrote to provide a deductive demonstration of the creative process behind his poem “The Raven” (1845). The thorough awareness of his own methodology that Poe reveals in his critical works was more than merely an elaborate creative theory. As more and more modernist trends in art and literature were imported into Japan, it was only a matter of course that Poe’s methodology came to be considered together with modernist literary theory and Russian formalist critical theory. It was the neo-sensualists who understood the potential contained in Poe’s stance in “The Philosophy of Composition,” focusing on language’s power of evocation and emphasizing the formal side of literary works

In 1928, in a challenge to proletarian literary theory, Riichi Yokomitsu claimed that the essence of any work of literature is in its form, namely a rhythmical line of letters. Quoting Poe, he strongly argued for the formal autonomy of literary works and a conscious method of composition. In quick agreement with Yokomitsu was Yoichi Nakagawa (1897–1994), who put Poe’s name alongside that of the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovskii (1893–1984). Yokomitsu’s interest in formalism prepared the ground for the ensuing encounter with Paul Valéry.

Poe also provided Japanese literature in the early Shōwa era with the themes and motifs of urban space and life in the city. The narrator in “The Man of the Crowd” (1840), a flâneur living in a large city who complains of tedium, begins to follow a mysterious man after he spots him while gazing aimlessly out of a cafe window trying to interpret the various diverse meanings of the symbols in the urban environment. This story, which was a sort of prototype of detective fiction and appeared six months before “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” had already been translated into Japanese at the end of the Meiji era by Raichō Hiratsuka (1886–1971), but the wide-scale development of mass urban society after the Great Kantō Earthquake (1923) stirred up renewed interest in it. Ango Sakaguchi published a short-story fantasy called “The Man of the Crowd” (1932) that not only shares the same title as Poe’s work but also has many points in common with its setting. Furthermore, in 1925, at the end of the Taishō era, Rampo Edogawa (1894–1965) borrowed the basic setting used at the beginning of Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” when he wrote “Dī-zaka no satsujin jiken” (The case of the murder on D Hill), the story in which the famed detective Kogorō Akechi makes his first appearance. This was published in the magazine Shinseinen (The new rising generation), which was started in 1920 and became a major stronghold for the development of Japanese detective novels. Rampo Edogawa’s debut story, “Ni-sen dōka” (A two-sen copper coin, 1923), which took the deciphering of codes as its motif, also took hints from another Poe short story, “The Gold-Bug” (1843). Thus the period in which modern Japanese detective novels established themselves overlaps perfectly with the time when mass urban society and popular literature took hold.

Inspired by Poe, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Haruo Satō, and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa were already experimenting with detective novels in the middle of the Taishō era. Their efforts were not just precursors of original Japanese detective fiction, for by focusing on themes such as the labyrinth of self-consciousness and the confusion of the senses through the medium of detective novels, they also demonstrated detective fiction’s narrative potential to go beyond the limits of the genre. Over time these efforts came to fruition, with works such as Akutagawa’s “Yabu no naka” (In a bamboo grove, 1922) and Tanizaki’s Shunkin shō (A portrait of Shunkin, 1933), both of which have an intricate narrative structure based on the process of solving a riddle. In 1924, while citing Poe’s works, Haruo Satō defined the detective novel as something that is based on a “healthy spirit that loves the unequivocal, while also being grounded in a strange mentality that is attracted to the fearful and curiously glorifies evil.”13 The history of detective fiction in the Shōwa era unfurled along an axis of confrontation between this “strange mentality” and “healthy spirit that loves the unequivocal.” Constantly at the root of the debate over whether a detective novel should be a whodunit or abnormal, and whether detective fiction should be art or not, were Edgar Allen Poe, the grandfather of the genre, and S.S. Van Dine (1888–1939), an outstanding writer of the classic American whodunit in the latter half of the 1920s.

From Socialist Literature to Epic Popular Novels

With regard to the introduction of translated American literature to Japan, three particularly vibrant periods can be identified from the end of Taishō and through the prewar Shōwa era. In all three, writers, critics, journalists, and translators played an influential role, a point which is fundamentally different from the reception in Japan of German, British, and French literature, where there was greater involvement by scholars and academia. Compared to scholars, these non-academic types were already deeply embedded in journalism and the media and far more sensitive to what the general reading population was after; as a result, they went on to play a major part in the divergence and development of the genres of popular literature. Also in the media were people like the writer Kan Kikuchi (1888–1948), who founded the magazine Bungeishunjū (The literary years, 1923–1945, 1945–) and was a leading light of the publishing world in the Shōwa era. With his knowledge of the publishing world and insight into the methods of writers like O. Henry (1862–1910), Kikuchi had deep connections with American literature.

The first period is the four or five years at the end of the Taishō era and the start of Shōwa, when Tokyo had recovered from the earthquake and was rapidly becoming awash with Americanism. The writers portrayed in Kazuo Hirotsu’s (1891–1968) short story “Shōwa shonen no interi-sakka” (Intellectual writers in the first year of Shōwa, 1930) complain to each other that the relentless wave of American popular customs and culture pressing down upon Japan is overwhelming the traditional publishing industry. Along with this chronic Americanism, the fashion for Taishō democracy and liberal arts education was gradually being replaced by interest in socialism and proletarian literature. The direct and indirect effects of the proletarian literature movement created a situation in which works by a huge range of writers, from Jack London and Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) to Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941) and Carl Sandburg (1878–1967), were all seen through the same broad lens as socialist literature or as Sentan-bungaku (ultramodern literature). Sentan-bungaku was originally a general label given to 1920s American literature whose distinguishing features were thought to be composed of “jazz, nonsense, eroticism, grotesqueness, speed . . . and machine culture.”14 In 1930s Japan these traits, called ero guro nansensu (the erotic, the grotesque, and the nonsensical), became a catchphrase that pointed to vulgar, decadent mass culture and manners.

Matsuo Takagaki (1890–1940), who was a pioneer in the study of American literature in Japan, claimed in 1940 that American literature was introduced into Japan by two routes. After pointing out that the first was a broad channel through which classical American literature and best-selling books were introduced, he continued, “The second was a rather steep, narrow channel through which many of the liberal or radical authors critical of the American way of life were introduced.”15 According to Takagaki, this second channel was opened up around 1929–1930, but it seems reasonable to suppose that the second channel should be traced to the latter Taishō era when Jack London and Upton Sinclair became defining examples of the socialist writer.

For the proletarian literature establishment, the most significant American writer was Upton Sinclair (1878–1968), who was the founder of the literary genre called muckraking that uncovered social injustices. A succession of Sinclair’s works were translated around the start of the Shōwa era. After Takiji Kobayashi (1903–1933) wrote Kani kō sen (The crab cannery ship, 1929), which described the harsh reality of exploited workers on a crab-canning ship and became the foremost novel of Japan’s proletarian literature, the energetic Marxist critic Hatsunosuke Hirabayashi (1892–1931) wrote an editorial that same year calling Kobayashi (1903–33) “Japan’s Sinclair.” Sinclair’s most famous work, The Jungle (1906), which exposed the inhuman and unsanitary conditions of Chicago’s meat trade, was translated in 1925 by the proletarian writer Hiroichirō Maedakō (1888–1957).16 Suekichi Aono (1890–1961), a leading theorist in the early stages of proletarian literature, asserted that works exposing social problems should be based on investigation, just as Sinclair’s were. The Jungle showed Japan’s proletarian writers how literature could be a weapon for social reform and demonstrated a method for realism based on investigation.

The translator Hiroichirō Maedakō lived in Chicago and New York from 1907 to 1920, writing short stories and essays in English. His talents were recognized by Floyd Dell (1887–1969), and he was also treated with kindness by Dreiser. Having experienced at first hand the dawning of American modernist literature, Maedakō was well aware of the superficiality of Americanism in Japan following the Great Kantō Earthquake. In 1931, when he translated Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis (who was America’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature), he made sure as a proletarian writer to include a line in the translator’s notes dismissing the Americanism in Lewis’s works as petit bourgeois. Even while he adopted this position of criticism, Maedakō had a sense of foreboding that the increasing power of journalism and urban modernist culture, characterized by its rapid tempo, was fundamentally changing Japan’s literature and culture in the latter half of the 1920s. In this Maedakō was similar to Hirotsu.

In the performing arts, Eugene G. O’Neill (1888–1953), who had carried out a number of theatrical experiments and was a symbolic figure in America’s Little Theater Movement, was introduced in Japan during a transitional period for the New Drama Movement in hopes that he would play a role in triggering theatrical reform. O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Beyond the Horizon (1920), was translated in 1923 and performed at the Tsukiji Small Theater, which was the base of the New Drama Movement. Masao Kume (1891–1952), a popular novelist who ranked alongside Kan Kikuchi, immediately adapted the O’Neill play, moving the setting to Japan’s Northeast region and staging it as Kikyō (Returning home, 1924). Furthermore, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa wrote in his “Karuizawa nikki” (Karuizawa diary, September 1924), “Tonight, read O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon. Shallow. Like watching a movie.”17 The period when Akutagawa read O’Neill overlaps with the publication of Sherwood Anderson’s short story collection The Triumph of the Egg. The translator Kinetarō Yoshida (1894–1957), who later wrote children’s literature, regarded Anderson as a realist author who depicted the truth of the soul, but overall interest in Japan toward him was limited to those with aspirations in socialist literature.

The second peak in the introduction of American literature to Japan was around 1930–1931, when interest in Western European modernist literature among the neo-sensualists and others in the new artistic movement also drew fresh attention to contemporary American literature. Matsuo Takagaki, who studied at the University of Chicago from 1919 to 1920, thought that with the so-called Chicago literary renaissance, brought about by writers like Dreiser, Sandburg, and Anderson who had gathered there, American literature was as good as literature anywhere in the world. Takagaki’s interest then linked directly with the social literature of the early 1930s. At the beginning the of the Shōwa era, reasonably priced anthologies known as “En-pon” (one-yen books) were released by certain publishing houses and played a great role in expanding the readership market. Shinchō-sha’s Sekai-bungaku zenshū (Anthology of world literature, 1927–1930) played a part in this phenomenon, and in its second series (1930–1932) it included writers like London, Dreiser, and Sinclair. Alongside this series Shinchō-sha also published The Library of Modern American Literature (1930–1931), which included Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, John Dos Passos’s (1896–1970) The 42nd Parallel (1930), and works by Dell, Joseph Hergesheimer (1880–1954), and V.F. Calverton (1900–1940). The choice of these writers and works can generally be said to correspond to Takagaki’s views on literature. What should also not be overlooked are the translations of Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) and Earnest Hemmingway (1899–1961) that were undertaken by writers in the modernist literature movement, for example Yukio Haruyama (1902–1994), and mainly published in the magazine Shi to shiron (The poetry and poetics, 1928–1933). Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) was translated into Japanese as early as 1930, perhaps reflecting the popularity for war novels started by the Japanese translation in 1929 of Erich Maria Remarque’s (1898–1970) Im Westen nichts Neues (All quiet on the Western Front).

At the beginning of the Shōwa era, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki rediscovered “the special privilege of the novel form”18 in the fun of the plot and structure of popular novels. In “Jōzetsu-roku” (A talkative record, 1927), Tanizaki accurately assessed the charm and value of Kaizan Nakazato’s (1885–1944) epic novel Daibosatsu tōge (The Daibosatsu Pass, 1913–41). In 1936, he again showed his insight when he praised the lucid style, balanced structure, and solid plot of Itaru Nii’s (1888–1951) translation of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931),19 which was published in 1935. With the translation of The Good Earth, the curtain was brought down on the third peak period for translations of American literature. Nii’s translation of The House of Earth (1931–1935)—the three volumes of The Good Earth trilogy—was published in 1935–1936. With interest in China growing due to the Manchurian Incident, and a film version of the original appearing in 1937, this translation became a huge bestseller in Japan. This trend for translations of popular American novels in the historical romance and epic genres, led by the emerging publishing houses of Daiichi Shobō and Mikasa Shobō, reached its apogee in 1938 with the publication of the translation of Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell (1900–1949). It should also be noted that socially conscious authors such as John Steinbeck (1902–1968) and Erskine Caldwell (1903–1987) received attention and were translated during this period.

On July 23–24, 1942, the year after war broke out between Japan and the United States, a famous symposium was held, called “Overcoming Modernity,” at which participants extolled the challenge of “overcoming” the Western ideology of modernity on which Japan’s modernization was modeled. Criticism of Americanism remained at a purely emotional level at this event, and debate over the essence of American literature and culture was surprisingly sparse in both quality and quantity. This fact suggests that the American literary legacy introduced in the prewar Shōwa era had not really taken root within Japanese culture, with a few striking exceptions such as Poe’s influence on Taishō literature, modernistic literature, and criticism, and Sinclair’s influence on proletarian literature. To see the flowering of the potential that American literature offered modern Japan in prewar Shōwa, we must wait for the postwar period.

Further Reading

Aoyma, Takeshi, and Kazuhiko Uranishi, eds. Shōwa-bungaku nenpyō [Chronological table of Shōwa literature]. 9 vols. Tokyo: Meiji-shoin, 1995–1996.Find this resource:

Harootunian, Harry. Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture, and Community in Interwar Japan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Hata, Yūzō, and Yūsaku Yamada, eds. Kindai II [Modern II]. Vol. 6 of Nihon bungei-shi: Hyōgen no nagare [History of expression of Japanese literature]. Tokyo: Kawade-shobō-shinsha, 2005.Find this resource:

Hirano, Ken. Shōwa Bungaku-shi [A history of Shōwa literature]. Tokyo: Chikuma-shobō, 1963.Find this resource:

Inoue, Hisashi and Yōichi Komori, eds. Zadankai: Shōwa bungaku-shi [Symposium: History of Shōwa literature]. 6 vols. Tokyo: Shūeisha, 2003–2004.Find this resource:

Ishihara, Tsuyoshi. Mark Twain in Japan: The Cultural Reception of an American Icon. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Kamei, Shunsuke. Meriken kara amerika he: Nichi-bei bunka-kōshō-shi oboegaki [From Meriken to America: A note on the history of cultural exchange between Japan and America]. Tokyo: Tokyo-daigaku-shuppankai, 1979.Find this resource:

Kamei, Shunsuke. Arishima Takeo. Kyoto: Mineruba-shobō, 2013.Find this resource:

Kuroiwa, Hisako. Pan to pen: Shakaishugi-sha Sakai Toshihiko to “Baibun-sha” no tatakai [Bread and pen: Toshihiko Sakai as a socialist and the struggle of “Baibun-sha”]. Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2010.Find this resource:

Matsuo, Takayoshi. Taishō Demokurashī [Taishō democracy]. 1974. Tokyo: Iwanami-shoten, 1994.Find this resource:

Miyanaga, Takashi. Pō to nihon: Sono juyō no rekishi [Poe and Japan: A history of its reception]. Tokyo: Sairūsha, 2000.Find this resource:

Mizuta Lippit, Noriko. “Poe in Japan.” In Poe Abroad: Influence, Reputation, Affinities. Edited by Lois Davis Vines, 135–148. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Murakami, Haruki. “Introduction: Akutagawa Ryūnosuke: Downfall of the Chosen.” In Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Translated by Jay Rubin. London: Penguin, 2006.Find this resource:

Nakada, Sachiko. Fuso tati no kamigami: Jakku Rondon, Aputon Sinkurea to nihon-jin [The gods of fathers: Jack London, Upton Sinclair and Japanese people]. Tokyo: Kokusho-kankōkai, 1991.Find this resource:

Nakada, Sachiko. Maedakō Hiroichirō ni okeru amerika [“America” in Maedakō Hiroichirō]. Tokyo: Kokusho-kankōkai, 2000.Find this resource:

Nishikawa, Masami. “Ei-bungaku: shōkai to kenkyū [2]: Amerika-bungaku” [English literature: Introduction and research [2]: American literature] in Nihon no eigaku 100nen: Taishō-hen [100 years of Japanese study of English: Taishō era], edited by Nihon no eigaku 100nen henshūbu, 75–90. Tokyo: Kenkyūsha-shuppan, 1968.Find this resource:

Nishikawa, Masami. Amerika-bungaku oboegaki [Notes on American literature]. Rev. ed. Tokyo: Kenkyūsha-shuppan, 1977.Find this resource:

Ōhashi, Kichinosuke. Andasun to san-nin no nihon-jin: Shōwa shonen no “amerika-bungaku” [Sherwood Anderson and three Japanese: “American literature” in the first year of Shōwa]. Tokyo: Kenkyūsha-shuppan, 1984.Find this resource:

Ozaki, Hotsuki. Taishū-bungaku ron [Theory of popular literature]. Rev. ed. Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2001.Find this resource:

Saeki, Shōichi. Nichi-bei kankei no naka no bungaku [Literature in Japanese-American relations]. Tokyo: Bungeishunjū, 1984.Find this resource:

Saitō Hikaru. “Shōwa no eibei-bungaku kenkyū [2]: Amerika-bungaku” [Studies of British and American literature in Shōwa [2]: American literature], in Nihon no eigaku 100nen: Shōwa-hen [100 years of Japanese study of English: Shōwa era], edited by Nihon no eigaku 100nen henshūbu, 84–103. Tokyo: Kenkyūsha-shuppan, 1969.Find this resource:

Senuma, Shigeki. Taishō bungaku-shi [A history of Taishō literature]. Tokyo: Kōdansha, 1985.Find this resource:

Silver, Mark. Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature, 1868–1937. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Tsutsui, Kiyotada. Nihon-gata “Kyōyō” no unmei: rekishi-shakaigaku teki kōsatsu [The fate of Japanese-style “culture”: From the perspective of historical sociology]. Rev. ed. Tokyo: Iwanami-shoten, 2009.Find this resource:

Yagi, Toshio and Takayuki Tatsumi, eds. Edogā aran pō no seiki [The Japanese face of Edgar Allan Poe]. Tokyo: Kenkyūsha, 2009.Find this resource:

Yoshida Hiroo, Sone Hiroyoshi, and Suzuki Sadami, eds. Nihon bungei-shi: Hyōgen no nagare: GendaiⅠ [History of expression of Japanese literature: After war Ⅰ]. Vol. 7. Tokyo: Kawade-shobō-shinsha, 2005.Find this resource:

Yūseidō-henshūbu ed. Kōza Shōwa bungaku-shi [Course books: History of Shōwa literature]. Vols. 1–3. Tokyo: Yūseidō, 1988.Find this resource:


(1.) Haruo Satō, “Kindai nihon-bungaku no tenbō [The revue of modern Japanese literature],” in The Complete Works of Haruo Satō, vol. 23. (Kyoto: Rinsen-shoten, 1999), 267. The naturalist novel of modern Japanese literature, influenced by French naturalist literature, gradually transformed into a novel depicting the author’s own life and state of mind, which came to be called the Shi-shōsetsu (“I” novel) or Shinkyō-shōsetsu (psychological novel).

(2.) Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Tenshin” [Buddhist monk’s snack], in The Complete Works of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, vol. 7. (Tokyo: Iwanami-shoten, 1996), 261.

(3.) Akutagawa, “Tenshin,” 261.

(4.) Sōseki Natsume, “Bundan no byōdō-shugi-sha Uoruto hoittoman no shi ni tuite” [On poetry of Walt Whitman, as a representative egalitarian in literary circle], Tetsugaku Zasshi [Journal of philosophy] 7.68 (1892). Young Natsume Sōseki praised Whitman’s spirit of independence as suitable for republican America.

(5.) Shunsuke Kamei, Kindai-bungaku ni okeru hoittoman no unmei [Walt Whitman in modern literature: A comparative study of Japanese and Western appreciations] (Tokyo: Kenkyūsha, 1970), 539–540.

(6.) Sakai’s translation of The Call of the Wild was first published in Chūgai [The home and abroad] from 1917 to 1918. Sakai had also published an abridged translation of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, or 2000–1887 (1888) in 1903, and an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) in 1906.

(7.) Toshihiko Sakai, “Sanka no yume” [A dream of Japanese mountain nomads], in The Collected Works of Toshihiko Sakai, vol.4. (Tokyo: Chūōkōron-sha, 1933), 222.

(8.) Sanjūgo Naoki, “Taishū-bungaku bunrui hō” [How to classify popular literature], Chūō-kōron [Central review] 41.6 (June 1926): 199.

(9.) For detailed arguments relating to this and the next sections, see the following essay: Ken Inoue, “Nihon-bungaku to pō” [Japanese literature and Edgar Allan Poe], in Edogā aran pō no seiki [The Japanese face of Edgar Allan Poe], ed. Toshio Yagi and Takayuki Tatsumi (Tokyo: Kenkyūsha, 2009), 54–77. Satō, “Kindai nihon-bungaku no tenbō,” 266.

(10.) Yonejirō Noguchi, “Poe’s Weird Works,” Shin-seinen [New youth] 7.10 (August 1926): 62–63.

(11.) Sōseki Natsume, “Honma-Kyūshirō yaku Meicho-shinyaku jo” [Introduction to New Translation of Masterpieces translated by Kyūshirō Honma], in The Complete Works of Sōseki Natsume, vol. 16. (Tokyo: Iwanami-shoten, 1995), 142.

(12.) Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction à la littérature fantastique [Introduction à la littérature fantastique] (Paris: Seuil, 1970). Trans. Richard Howard as The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (New York: Cornell University Press, 1973), 75–90.

(13.) Haruo Satō, “Tantei-shōsetu shōron” [An essay on detective fiction], in The Complete Works of Haruo Satō, vol. 19. (Kyoto: Rinsen-shoten, 1998), 275.

(14.) Jirō Hayasaka, “Translator’s Introduction,” in Sentan-tanpen-shū: Tsuki Kokujin-bungaku-shū [Ultramodern short stories with selected works of black literature], trans. Jirō Hayasaka et al., Amerika sentan-bungaku sōsho [Library of American ultramodern literature series] (Tokyo: Shinchō-sha, 1931), 3.

(15.) Matsuo Takagaki, “Amerika-bungaku no rikai to juyō” [Comprehension and reception of American literature], in Gendai no Amerika bungaku [Contemporary American literature], ed. Matsuo Takagaki, Naotarō Tatsunokuchi, and Takashi Sugiki (Tokyo: Sanseidō, 1941) 51.

(16.) The Jungle was partly translated in 1907 by Toshihiko Sakai. Sakai also translated two of Sinclair’s other works: 100%: The Story of a Patriot (1920) in 1922, and King Coal (1917) in 1925.

(17.) Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, The Complete Works of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, vol. 11 (Tokyo: Iwanami-shoten, 1996), 265.

(18.) Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, “Jōzetsu-roku” [A talkative record], in The Complete Works of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, vol. 20 (Tokyo: Chūōkōron-sha, 1982), 76.

(19.) Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, “Hon’yaku-shōsetsu futatsu mittsu” [On a few translated novels], in The Complete Works of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, vol. 22 (Tokyo: Chūōkōron-sha, 1983), 332.