Origins of Modern Japanese Literature has been read by scholars both in Japan and the US as one of the best works of literary criticism of modern Japanese literature. Karatani Kōjin, the author of this book, discusses some of the crucial issues of the term that we know today as “modern” Japanese literature. Engaging his discussions with western as well as Japanese critics, Karatani talks about the construction of this term in relation to nationalism, modern self, and modernity. The reason he wrote this book, based on the preface he wrote for the Chinese translation of this book, is that he had a serious doubt about the reception of Japanese modern literature in late 1970s, which equated this term with national literature.
Karatani states, that modern Japanese literature was constructed by intellectuals in Meiji 20s as a way to challenge authority and established culture norms. However, 90 years later, writers who engaged themselves in the construction of modern literature, such as Natsume Sōseki, became an iconic figure of national literature and his novels were adapted into national textbooks written for high school students. While the spirit of modern literature lies within its power to undercut, challenge and destroy the voice of authority, the reception of Natsume Sōseki as a model of national literature foreshadows the death of modern literature, which according to Karatani already happened in early 2000s, the time when he wrote this preface.
Although Karatani had a pessimistic view of modern Japanese literature, I believe that the huge influence and the multiple language translations of this book show that questions and doubts about the equation of modern literature with national literature have already taken place not only in Japan but also in other countries. Intellectuals from China and Korea, who have the very same concern that Karatani has about modern literature, agree with him. While Karatani talks about how modern literature in Japan began to take share in early Meiji period as a way to reflect writers’ concerns about Japan’s westernization and modernization after Perry’s ship arrived Japan in 1853, I believe same logic can be applied to the reception of Karatani’s book in China and Korea.
That is to say, the arrival of Perry’s ship gave the Japanese an opportunity to consider their position in the world vis a vis the West, the image of which was new to them. Similarly, Karatani’s book brings possibilities for intellectuals in China and Korea to think about modern literature in their own countries vis a vis Karatani’s framing of modern literature in Japan. The Other not only forces but also gives us a change to think about our “self,” that is, who we are, our country, and our nation.