Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"How Would You Define Japanese Modernism: An Interview with Suzuki Sadami"

Here’s Suzuki Sadami 鈴木貞美 (1947- ) in an interview with Raquel Abi-Samara, addressing the question, What is Japanese modernism? Suzuki traces its origins to the early 17th century, setting himself apart from critics like Karatani Kōjin and Nakamura Mitsuo (one might even throw Donald Keene in there) who see literary modernism as coinciding with historical “modernity,” i.e., Meiji Westernization. Suzuki holds that Japanese modernism should be limited neither to Westernization, nor to the “narrow sense of European modernism,” which is but one stage in its development. Suzuki proposes a re-periodization of the contemporary (gendai) as well, which he sees as beginning not in 1946 in the wake of Japan’s defeat but in 1920 with the advent of mass culture. Periodization of literary history, he notes, need not always coincide with that of cultural history.

In the first half of the interview, Suzuki walks us through some of terms. First, there is modanizumu モダニズム, which entered into common use around 1926. The term is derived from the word modan モダン, which

appeared for the first time in an essay on the “modern girl” movement in England in a women’s magazine 1923, and it quickly came into wide spread use circa 1926. The word was applied to many new styles of art and everyday lifestyles in urban settings, influenced from Europe and America at the time. The word “modan” was used to establish a new and different definition of the modern and to draw a distinction between it and an earlier katakana word, namely “haikara,” which also meant being fashionable in the European— namely, Victorian—style. The word haikara had come into use in Japan in late nineteenth century, its origin deriving from the word “high collar” in English. (Suzuki, 1-2)

There is also kindai, which until the Meiji period simply meant “recent,” as is the case in Fujiwara Teika’s Superior Poems of Our Times (Kindaishūka 近代秀歌, 1209). But by Meiji, the word came to refer specifically to the process of Westernization and the construction of a “capitalist nation-state.” To avoid confusion with the historical use of the term (which, like the term kinsei 近世, included the Edo period), the word was pronounced “kondai” when specifically referring to the Meiji period. The compound term kingendai 近現代 was invented later to encompass everything from Meiji to the present.

Though terms like kindaika 近代化 (“modernization”) and kindaishugi 近代主義 (“modern-ism”) didn’t appear until later (the latter was first used by Kaneko Chikusui in his 1911 essay “The Origins of Modernism”), the process itself had in fact begun much earlier. Like Ishikawa Jun, Suzuki speaks of the essential modern-ness of the Edoites, who were among the world’s most literate, and whose city was the world’s most populated by 1710. The emergence of a “national language” (kokugo), too, preceded that of the European nations. And in the arts, Suzuki points out, traces of a modernistic realism can be seen in the writings of Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), Ishida Baigan (1685-1744), Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693), and in the Edo-era shinkei 真景 landscape paintings, “in which the artist actually copied real scenes as opposed to those imagined in one’s head” (Suzuki, 5).

To be frank, however, I don’t see why Suzuki feels the need to cite examples of pre-Meiji realism in order to prove that Japan was modern before Westernization. Who ever said realism was a precondition for the modern? Is not much of European modernism in fact a reaction against the old notions of mimesis and realism? Also, the claim that Chikamatsu practiced a kind of realism is rather dubious given that Chikamatsu himself stated that realism should be avoided at all costs, as it would “permit no pleasure in the work.”

I’m late for my orthodontist appointment, and I still haven’t said a word about the second half of the interview, so I’ll just briefly mention a few of the topics discussed:

*the reciprocal relation between Japanese tradition and European modernism
*the built-in ambiguity between subject-object in Japanese grammar, writing
*the many ways of looking at Kajii Motojirō’s “Lemon” (1925)
*the war years: what really happened vs. the American triumphalist version of history scripted by the IMTFE
*Japanese universalism, militarism and the Taishō vitalism
*and some thoughts on how “the tradition” is, more often than not, creatively invented.

Aside from some clunky phrases and the occasional typo (e.g., “the poet Noguchi Yonejirô (1975-1947)”), this interview is an excellent introduction to the subject of Japanese modernism, and we should all thank Professors Tyler, Suzuki, and Abi-Samara for making it public.


Anonymous said...

You have an orthodontist? But you don't even have braces.

Ryan said...


I wore head-gear for years, but it only worsened my over-bite, so I'm still required to wear a retainer at night.


Anonymous said...


Is it for the over-bite that you talk so funny?

-Josh Lander

Ryan said...


Yes, Josh. It is for the over-bite.


Anonymous said...

Ryan, Jill, Josh,

This might interest you all. It's a book by Sharon Minichiello, called: Japan's Competing Modernities: Issues in Culture and Democracy, 1900-1930,M1


Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Ryan, Jill, Mary, Josh,

ばっしI learned when I heard the nurse and doctor say it over and over

ha ha now I get it and laugh. but my interpretation was that they were a tool you stuck out at times for benefit or attention. a statement of intention if you will.

Josh Lander

Anonymous said...

your overbite would have been much worse had Dr. Tadano not made you wear that head gear for 3 years. We have movies of you Christmas morning with your head gear on. Mother

Mother said...

Hi honey,

Today is Aunt Joyce's funeral in Dewey, AZ, which is where her daughter Joanie lives. We are driving up with Grandpa and Terry. Brett is staying home because he has a 4:00 group meeting. He is responding very well to his program, I am so grateful. Shelby will come and hang out with him here until then-- they take Aki to the dog park a lot. It is very cute. . . He would die if he knew I told you any of this--ha, ha.

I just called Nicole (Aunt Vasgan's daughter) in Toronto; today is her birthday. Yesterday was Grandma Hasmig's birthday; I thought about her all day. Life is so strange, I believe we are more energy than we are physical, and sometimes I feel my grandma's presence so much.

Monday morning I am making biscotti with Donna Rossa, minor Arizona celebrity. She is taking the day off. I have been doing a lot of holiday baking. I will call you again on Monday night. I look forward to our conversations. Oh, and Brett was on instant messaging with Bridgette McCain last night. She is a student at ASU now. Brett told her to tell her sleazy politician father to pass the Dream Act! She said she would relay the message. I am so upset with the Republicans here. Oh well.

All else is fine.

Miss you and love you,