Numano Mitsuyoshi
Associate Professor, Tokyo University

The Borderline of Japanese Literature and its Changes in the Context of World Literature

Between Two Nobel Lectures

Contemporary Japanese Literature went round radical changes after WWII. In order to understand the nature of these changes, it is essential to take into consideration the changes of the context of world literature of which Japanese literature has become an integral part. It is not much Japanese literature itself as the context in which it is located that has changed.

A clear demonstration of such change can be found by comparing two Nobel lectures by Kawabata Yasunari ("Japan the Beautiful and Myself") and Kenzaburo Oe ("Japan Ambiguous and Myself").

"Ambiguity" which Oe has chosen to describe the present situation of Japanese cultural identity shows that the time of exotic expectations for Japanese literature are gone. There is no defining the complex Japanese culture by any single adjective and thus it becomes inevitably open to world context.

Beyond the Boarderline of Japanese Literature: the Abe Kobo Phenomenon

One of the most influential contemporary Japanese writers, together with Oe, is doubtless Kobo Abe. The enormous popularity and high critical appraisal which Abe enjoied abroad are often explained by the universality of his artistic vision and logic which do not take recourse to exotic Japanese peculiarities and thus transcend the boarderline of the ghetto of that local literature. But at the same time it is important to pay attention to the crucial moment of Abe's background: he was born and raised in Manchuria which cultural climate differed drastically from Japan proper. This background contributed to the formation of the writer who kept critical distance from anything Japanese and who tried to live in Japanese community as in exile. That is why the figure of Abe is now regaining a new aura in our time when we are obliged to reconsider our cultural identity in world context.

New Phenomena of Contemporary Japanese Literature: Hideo Levi, Minae Mizumura and Yoko Tawada

One of the most characteristic phenomena of recent Japanese literature is the debut of such writers who can not be readily put into the traditional framework of Japanese literature. There are writers from America or Europe who writes their works in Japanese and appraised as professional writers only in Japanese (Hideo Levi from the USA, David Zopetti from Switzerland). In his book of essays entitled The Truimph of Japanese Language Hideo Levi maintains that the truimph of Japanese language consists not so much in its growing popularity outside Japan as in the fact it has finally taken off the straightjacket of the modern myth of 'one nation - one culture - one language ideology'.

There are also such Japanese writers who wrote not only in Japanese, but also in some foreign language. For example, Yoko Tawada writes both in Japanese and in German; Minae Mizumura wrote a unique bilingual novel whose heroines speak both Japanese and English and freely switch from one language to another.

The Blurring Borderline between 'Jun Bungaku' and 'Taishu Bungaku'

Another boarderline of Japanese literature to be discussed here is of quite different nature: the boarderline which separates "jun bungaku" (artistic, "elite" literature) from "taishu bungaku" (literature for masses). As the literary historian Jun'ichi Konishi predicted, now the two genres tend to merge with each other and it is very difficult to classify writers. As a matter of fact, the most popular writers today, such as Ryu Murakami, Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, Eimi Yamada, occupy as a rule some place in-between and we can call their novels "chukan shosetsu" (although the term itself, which was originally coined to designate works of prose which do not fit easily either in "jun bungaku" or in "taishu bungaku"). It is worth noting that some parallel tendency can be found in contemporary literature of other countries including Russia. In my view, for example Victor Pelevin's position in Russian literature has much in common with that of Haruki Murakami in Japanese literature. But this is quite another topic for another paper.