Jane Austen and Kanai Mieko: Comic Sisterhood

By Aoyama, Tomoko | Hecate, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Jane Austen and Kanai Mieko: Comic Sisterhood


Aoyama, Tomoko, Hecate


A number of modern Japanese writers--both men and women--have expressed their strong respect and admiration for Jane Austen's literature. Kanai Mieko (b.1947), (1) in particular, has not only written some insightful comments about the works of the English novelist, but also novels and short stories that can be regarded as tributes to or parodies of Austen. This paper examines some of these works with a special focus on the comic elements that are developed and shared by sisters or women within and beyond the text. I will analyse how Kanai weaves stories of comic sisterhood that demonstrate overt or subtle affiliation with Austen. The term 'sisterhood' is used here in the broadest sense not only for biological sisters but also for women's real and imagined community and solidarity. The following discussion will show the ways in which Kanai skillfully subverts the patriarchal canonisation of Austen and other texts, and creates laughter that empowers women.

The Japanese Reception of Austen--as the 'Authority of Realism'

In order to understand the uniqueness of Kanai's stance towards Austen, a brief overview of the reception of Austen in Japan, especially among elite literati, is useful. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, but in another sense unsurprisingly, Austen translations and Austen studies in Japan have been dominated by male scholars, writers and critics. The most prominent and recurring figure is the celebrated novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), whose earlier career was as a Professor of English at the Tokyo Imperial University. In his 1907 book on literary theory he commented that Austen should 'reign for centuries as the authority of realism'. (2) The term Soseki used for 'authority' is the Sino-Japanese word taito, which is coined by combining the first part of Taizan (Tai Shan, the iconic mountain in Shantung Province) and the last part of Hokuto (the constellation known as the Plough, or the Big Dipper). Sino-Japanese words are generally regarded as sounding more masculine, formal, and authoritative than native Japanese words and hence as essential in traditional men's literature and official documents. Soseki's choice of words to describe Austen literature certainly enhances these masculine characteristics and, given that this is part of his Theory of Literature, based on his lectures at the (male-only) Imperial University, the masculine diction is not at all inappropriate. This highest praise given to Austen's 'realism', or shajitsu (literally, copying the real), is contrasted with romanticism:

 
   Old men cannot bear fictive stimuli, while young men wail, 
   brandishing their swords, and drinking heavily, they recite 
   poetry. One cannot but praise their bravery and yet at the same 
   time pity their immaturity. Women like superlatives; even 
   mothers of a few children still unashamedly love slipshod 
   fantasy. Austen was merely a little over twenty when she wrote 
   Pride and Prejudice, and yet she deserves to reign for centuries 
   as the authority of realism. (3) 

The tropes of sword, drink and poetry, accord with the East Asian masculine tradition. (4) Frequent use of distich (old/young; sword/poetry) and hyperbole (hyakudai, literally, a hundred generations, for centuries, eternity) is also standard Sino-Japanese rhetoric although, ironically, superlatives are regarded here as women's predilection. Soseki by no means placed realism above romanticism, aestheticism and symbolism. Neither was he a humourless authoritarian. In fact, his early works such as Wagahai wa neko de aru (I Am a Cat, 1905-06) and Kusamakura (translated as The Three-Cornered World, 1906) are full of humour, satire, and philosophical and aesthetic discussions.

The first example Soseki cites in his lecture/essay on Austen's realism is the entire first chapter of Pride and Prejudice apart from the first two paragraphs and the last paragraph. …

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