Japanese Utopian Literature from the 1870s to the Present and the Influence of Western Utopianism(*)

By Moichi, Yoriko | Utopian Studies, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Japanese Utopian Literature from the 1870s to the Present and the Influence of Western Utopianism(*)


Moichi, Yoriko, Utopian Studies


THIS PAPER OFFERS A SURVEY of modern Japanese utopian/dystopian literature, especially in terms of its relationship with Western models and influences. Japanese literature after the Meiji period--from around 1870 to the present day--cannot be considered in isolation from literatures of the West, and this literary background poses us the question, among others, of how Japan has perceived Western concepts of utopia in creating its own utopian literature. By describing the development of Japanese utopian/dystopian literature from the 1870s chronologically, taking as literary examples some of the better known novelists such' as Akutagawa, Mishima, Abe, Oe and Murakami, this paper aims to offer a new perspective on the distinctiveness of Japanese utopia.(1)

This historically-based examination leads me to suggest that there is an absence of "a constant tug-of-war" (Chang 225) between reality and unreality in Japanese utopian literature. In other words, Japanese utopia lacks what Vita Fortunati, in her essay on George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, defines as the prime characteristic of utopia:

   The essence of utopia is to be found precisely in this shifting of position
   between a projected environment which is not reality and the actual reality
   to which the projected environment is in opposition. Utopia is thus a game
   played between the two poles of reality and fiction. Both the strength and
   the weakness of utopia rest in the basic underlying ambiguity of the genre.
   (110)

Inadequate tension between "the two poles" in Japanese utopian literature may lead to the conclusion that utopia is, consequently, a distinctively Western form. However, another approach would be to consider, as suggested by Hui-chuan Chang in his essay on Chinese utopias, that the weakness of Japanese utopia is nothing less than a product of that "ambiguity" of the genre. Some of the problems entailed in modern Japanese utopias may suggest not only the fact that Japanese utopian/dystopian literature is still underdeveloped as a literary genre, but may also point to the generic confusion in critical studies of the definition of utopian literature.

In her The Emergence of Modern Japan (1989) Janet E. Hunter observes: "The active involvement between Japan and the Western world which began in the 1850s has been so important for both that a consideration of Japan's place in the world order is an appropriate starting point for any discussion of her recent history" (15). In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry, an official commissioner of the US government, arrived in Japan to initiate relations with this isolated country. Perry's arrival with a huge squadron of four ships was effective; the reopening of Japan's contacts with the Western world naturally caused the Japanese to be aware of their vulnerability to threats of western superior forces, which eventually led to an ambition to achieve equal status with the Western countries.

Zest for Western principles and ideas became current in the Meiji period (1868-1912). A few individuals who travelled abroad to see Western culture, technology and society noted that Japan, having spent more than 150 years in isolation, was militarily and economically weak. Naturally, "westernization" or "modernization" became a popular aspiration under the slogan "Western technology, Japanese values" (Hunter 19). Wide-ranging social reforms were accomplished between the Meiji Restoration and the promulgation of the Imperial Constitution, during which a parliament had been created in 1889, and an elected assembly was opened in 1890. As a consequence of these social reforms, the Meiji period is often described as the most "utopian" era in modern Japanese history.

In this most utopian time, foreign and domestic utopian texts were in vogue. Supported by the constructive intention to establish a new society, Japan in this era imported Western novels as a kind of "Western technology". …

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