Theses Doctoral

Enchanted Texts: Japanese Literature Between Religion and Science, 1890-1950

Rogers, Joshua

This dissertation explores how emerging understandings of science and religion impacted the formation of the modern field of literature in Japan. I argue that many modern Japanese writers “enchanted” literature, giving it a metaphysical value that they thought might stand firm in the face of modernity’s “disenchantment of the world,” to use the famous phrase of Max Weber. To do so, writers leveraged new anti-materialistic, pantheistic, and mystical ontologies that emerged around the globe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in philosophy, theology, and new fields of knowledge like religious studies. These worldviews were appealing alternatives to “religion,” which many Japanese intellectuals understood mainly as orthodox forms of Christianity and Buddhism, and which had been widely rejected by the early twentieth century under the influence of new scientific and historical hermeneutics. At the same time though, influential voices in the emerging critical discourse of Japanese literature were skeptical of purely materialistic accounts of reality and especially of art, turning instead to new notions of the spirit, the ideal, and the transcendental. I argue that the foundations of literary value and of the social position of the author in modern Japan are rooted in these new ideas about what might be experienced and represented outside the bounds of both scientific materialism and traditional religious dogma.

The texts I examine consist of literary and aesthetic treatises, debates on philosophical and theological issues, and biographical and fictional works, all of which were pivotal to the theorization of Japanese literature and the artist, ranging from early efforts in the 1890s and extending through the tumultuous first half of the 20th century. The first chapter of my dissertation explores how canonical writers like Kitamura Tōkoku (1868–1894), Mori Ōgai (1862–1922), and Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916) wove emerging theories of religion and reality into their view of the capacity of poetry and fiction in the 1890s and 1900s. I show how their idea of the genius, or, drawing from Thomas Carlyle, of the “hero,” ascribed to the modern author the same capacity to perceive beyond the five senses as that identified in the prophets of the world religions. This understanding was based on a shared premise that religious texts were products not of divine revelation, but of a universal, non-empirical type of experience of the “inner heart,” the “ideal,” or the “World-soul,” defined as the essence of the world’s religions yet untethered to any one religious faith and fully accessible to the modern genius.

The second chapter argues that similar ideas penetrated notions of the modern novel and the author through the early 1910s. A new generation of young writers who launched their careers after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War, including Yanagi Muneyoshi (1889–1961) and Mushanokōji Saneatsu (1885–1976), imagined Japanese artists as equal members of a global community of artists by identifying universal truths and beauty as the object of all art, religion, and science. In justifying the universal nature of art, writers argued that figures from Tolstoy to Rodin, and from Jesus to the Buddha, were all engaged in the same creative process. I show that these views provided a basis for Japanese authors to claim equality with their Western counterparts, just as it allowed prominent Japanese feminist Hiratsuka Raichō (1886–1971) to claim equality with male writers, since both nationality and gender were seen as unrelated to one’s ability to experience and represent the non-material aspects of reality.

Similar views of art were employed to imagine the sociopolitical role of the writer within Japan. The third chapter begins with analysis of two leftist intellectuals, Kōtoku Shūsui (1871–1911) and Ōsugi Sakae (1885–1923), who were both eventually killed for their political activity. Both argued that myths, defined by them as both as religious texts and the great works of modern artists, could lead to individual enlightenment, bringing moral clarity for Kōtoku and a new means of experiencing reality for Ōsugi, thus creating the type of subject that could spark political change. Aristocrats Yanagi and Mushanokōji were unsympathetic with the left, but I argue that these two writers similarly attempted to repurpose religious texts to affect social change. By following in the footsteps of the mystics and prophets of the past, while also never directly addressing the existence of the supernatural, they believed that they could create change while also avoiding the pitfalls of religion. I argue that each of these writers drew from religious traditions in their definition of the author’s continuing social and political legitimacy in the midst of the rapid expansion of both leftist movements and of Japanese imperial power in the 1910s and ‘20s.

In the fourth chapter, I argue that across his career, writer Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892–1927) balanced a critique of traditional religion with an interest in non-religious forms of spiritual experience. Akutagawa cast the Christian Church as a colonial organization concerned with accumulating power, yet at the same time drew on the transnational discourse connecting the supernatural to both psychological disorder and to the colonial idea of “primitivity” in order to create ambiguous portrayals of inexplicable experiences and phenomena. Akutagawa also identifies the possibility for “poetic” literature to open the door to a type of extraordinary experience described almost exclusively in religious language, which I argue also influenced his own experiments with aphoristic writing. This chapter provides a new understanding of this canonical author’s views of religious experience and of literature, while also positioning his work as one part of a discursive current with deep roots in modern Japan and across the globe.

In the epilogue, I consider the afterlife of these currents in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. I first discuss how the metaphysical and aesthetic positions analyzed in previous chapters laid the groundwork for some authors to shift toward support for the Japanese state’s embrace of authoritarianism and colonialism. However, even if the emphasis on intuitive knowledge and the deeds of heroic individuals within these forms of knowledge led some towards right-wing politics, the fictional and critical texts of Ishikawa Jun (1899–1987) written in this period provide an excellent example of an alternative path. In Ishikawa’s work, traditional Buddhism and Christianity are objects of incessant yearning, representing an absolute moral and conceptual authority that no longer exists in the grimy wartime and postwar reality. But I argue that parallel to his critique of absolutism, Ishikawa’s characters continue to yearn for something more, and Ishikawa himself identifies a potential for salvation within literature. Ishikawa’s work shows that the idea of an enchanted potentiality within writing continued to undergird literary discourse in Japan even in the face of the massive sociopolitical upheaval of WWII.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Suzuki, Tomi
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 4, 2020