Theses Doctoral

Battle in the Village: Literature and the Fight for the Japanese Countryside (1910-1938)

Walker, Jeffrey Tyler

Taking up a discourse of agrarian literature (nōmin bungaku) from its roots in the first decade of the twentieth century through the late 1930s, this dissertation presents the struggle of outsiders to participate in a powerful system of meaning production amidst the consolidation of the power of state, institutional, and media apparatuses to arbitrate rural working class expression. Relentlessly contested and confused even in retrospect, the very notion of an “agrarian literature” has long called for the deliberate and rigorous review that this study provides. Through investigation of the roles of individual actors and close readings of specific texts, it identifies the kinds of stories that could be told about rural places and the kinds of stories that rural places could tell about themselves, outlining in the process a regime of cultural production with implications for the postwar period and beyond.

Studies of Japanese literature between the 1910s and 1930s have long posited twin juggernauts: one a cosmopolitan, bourgeois literature of and for the urban elite, and the other a vibrant new proletarian movement of and for the urban masses. Scholars have accordingly concentrated on these urban-centric categories individually or, occasionally, dealt in the subtleties of their overlap and opposition. This dissertation examines instead the richness and diversity of thought and experience beyond the cities to challenge such readings of Japanese literature during this period. Writing against prevailing scholarly interpretations of agrarian works as alternately romantic figments of an Arcadian idyll or products of festering reactionary backwaters, it sketches the contours of a society and a lineage of literary writing which, for all its geographical separation from the capital, proves no less integral to Japanese modernity.

In 1933 the critic Kobayashi Hideo declared modern Japanese literature a “literature of the lost home.” Critical approaches to writing on rural Japan have subsequently centered the feelings of nostalgia and guilt harbored by the literati who abandoned their rural roots for the booming cities. Nearly all have ignored the reality that for many the “home” was never lost at all. For a century the dominant narrative has excluded those who physically remained in the countryside or actively sought its radical social and political reform by means of cultural practice. Their erasure from history has not only produced an incomplete picture of lived experience in rural Japan during this period, but also severed important threads that link prewar authors and texts with postwar and present day cultural production in the countryside.

Chapter one surveys the career of author Nagatsuka Takashi (1879-1915), focusing on his novel of rural Japan The Soil (Tsuchi, 1910). Members of the contemporary Tōkyō literary establishment, notably Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) and Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916), had courted this son of Ibaraki landowners as their emissary to the Japanese countryside, but despite The Soil’s bold, experimental style, literary elites would greet the novel with indifference ranging into outright hostility. This chapter reads Nagatsuka’s career and The Soil itself—something the novel’s critics often failed to do—to reckon with its rejection by the period’s foremost individuals and institutions. It examines the literary networks that would sanction, or refuse to sanction, cultural production in and on the Japanese countryside for decades to come. Challenging the later scholarly consensus that has approached The Soil as a kind of ethnography, this chapter also situates Nagatsuka’s writing within the high literary world of the late-Meiji period, arguing for its importance to generations of writers and critics who will promote an “agrarian literature” steeped in both radical politics and a self-consciously literary tradition.

Chapter two spans the decade following Nagatsuka’s death in 1915, a period of transforming elite attitudes at the intersection of literary practice and the lived reality of rural Japanese society. With the broadening ideological battleground of the Taishō period (1912-1926) increasingly admitting new materialist conceptions of a rural underclass, artists and intellectuals began to conceptualize art as something of utility for the farmer, a means of solving the “problem” of the countryside within a modernizing nation. The hyper-elite critiques forwarded by Shirakaba group luminaries Arishima Takeo (1878-1923) and Mushanokōji Saneatsu (1885-1976) in the late 1910s would directly inform the activities of smaller coteries including the proto-proletarian journal The Sower (Tanemakuhito, 1921-1923) and the influential Waseda bungaku in the early 1920s, by which time a notion of agrarian literature had gained currency within mainstream literary discourse. Its advocates, who ranged from hard-bitten autodidacts to university professors who could cite Virgil, Theocritus, and Leon Trotsky in the same breath, would promote total societal renewal through a cosmopolitan and forward-looking “literature of the soil.”

Chapter three examines the organizing, criticism, and literary work of Inuta Shigeru (1891-1957), a poor farmer’s son who would become the architect of an oppositional agrarian cultural movement, from the mid-1920s through the late 1930s. A fierce admirer and defender of Nagatsuka—whose birthplace stood barely twenty miles from his own—Inuta’s writings nevertheless illustrate the critical distance of a different generation and social class. Inuta’s career has received scant attention from scholars, and during a time when the stench of fascism has clung to anything associated with so-called “agrarianism” (nōhonshugi) the absence of a full account of his activities has left Inuta and his allies to twist in the winds of accusation. In fact his work was heavily suppressed throughout the 1920s and 30s, and his refusal to collaborate with rightwing cultural organizations during the late-1930s met with condemnation from the highest strata of government. In Inuta’s novels and in his journal The Farmer (Nōmin, 1927-1933), he attacked a proletarian movement he could not recognize, a bourgeois literature he called conservative and mired in feudal mechanisms of oppression, and a state ideology that offered little to the poor farmers of communities such as his own.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Anderer, Paul J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 8, 2019