A visual guide to modern Japanese fiction (I)

The diagrams below provide a convenient visual summary of the development of fiction in modern Japan, beginning with the Meiji period (1868-1912) and ending with World War II (1941-45). The idea is to be clear and concise rather than comprehensive and detailed, but the diagrams do reflect what may be considered to be a standard consensus. The diagrams are original, although they have been modeled on diagrams found in such sources as Akiyama Ken and Miyoshi Yukio, eds., Genshoku: Shin Nihonbungaku shi (Bun'eidō, 2016). They may be used freely in printed form as long as an appropriate attribution is given. Online reproduction is prohibited.

Guides used by high school students studying for university entrance exams explain that the key to modern Japanese literary history is being able to associate authors not only with the titles of their major works but with specific schools and/or movements. These schools or movements, in turn, are frequently tied to the literary magazines in which members of the group published their works. The defects of such a schematic approach include the need to memorize the titles of a rather large number of short-lived literary magazines (or different series with the same title) and the awkward fact that individual authors may have stubbornly distinctive styles and thematic interests regardless of their group affiliation.

Generally speaking, group identification may be taken as a reasonably valid approach in the prewar period, even if literary giants like Mori Ōgai and Natsume Sōseki constitute categories of their own (and then get lumped together anyway as a special pair who held themselves "aloof" from the mundane fray). In this view, literary history -- especially from late-Meiji times -- is roughly equivalent to the history of the bundan, the essentially self-defined establishment of "serious" writers. Thus, standard literary histories typically progress chronologically from one group and movement to the next through the prewar period, giving the impression of a neat sequence of development. However, it is important to note the overlap that obtains among the various groups illustrated in the diagrams.

Prewar Japanese fiction

Early-to-middle Meiji period

This period mostly coincides with the "First Experiments" and "Beginnings" sections in the first volume of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature ("mostly" because Japanese sources typically split Naturalism into early and late periods, with the latter representing a more mature -- if possibly flawed -- modern literary sensibility). Specifically with respect to fiction, the "First Experiments" section of the Columbia Anthology includes works in the pre-Meiji gesaku (frivolous) style; a well-known example of the Western-inspired genre of the political novel (seiji shōsetsu); and one of Mori Ōgai's most famous early "romantic" (rōmanshugi) stories. The "Beginnings" section of the anthology encompasses the realistic style (shajitsushugi) of Futabatei Shimei, the reaction against this style (see the following paragraph), and stories by early European-influenced Naturalist (shizenshugi) authors active from the turn of the 19th century who contributed to the establishment of a standard form of modern Japanese literary discourse.

The temptation is to frame the literary history of this period in terms of a cultural dialectic between the West and Japan, and the validity of such an argument can scarcely be gainsaid. Yet (as the editors of the Columbia anthology are clearly aware) including a raconteur like San'yūtei Enchō in the "First Experiments" section detracts from recognizing his substantial contribution to the development of a modern colloquial style, and placing Futabatei Shimei in the "Beginnings" section tends to gloss over the fact that, chronologically speaking, his brand of realism essentially fizzled out and was replaced by neoclassical (gi-kotenshugi) works by Ozaki Kōyō and Kōda Rohan harking back to more traditional characters and thematic motifs as well as to a mixed elegant and vernacular (gazoku setchū) style. This is not to mention the more localized fantastical strain of romantic (rōmanshugi) fiction represented almost uniquely by the work of Izumi Kyōka from around the end of the 19th century.

It is therefore worth emphasizing the fact that the course of literary history never runs straight or smooth for any country, and that exploring the windings and reversals can be as rewarding as charting origins and destinations.


Meiji Fiction

  • gesaku: 戯作
  • hon'yaku shōsetsu: 翻訳小説
  • seiji shōsetsu: 政治小説
  • shajitsushugi: 写実主義
  • gi-kotenshugi: 擬古典主義
  • rōmanshugi: 浪漫主義
  • shizenshugi: 自然主義
Late Meiji and early Taishō periods

This is the period when Japanese fiction is regarded as having become fully "modern," largely because the use of colloquial language was joined to mastery of narrative point of view (Mushanokōji Saneatsu is usually cited as the one who brought the genbun-itchi movement to its culmination in this respect). The movement known as Japanese Naturalism (shizenshugi) turned toward the depiction of a writer-character's inner reality rather than the socially engaged fictional forms imported under the influence of French writers, and this emphasis, in turn, is supposed to have accounted for the shift to the I-novel as the (quasi-fictional) mainstream of the modern Japanese novel (or kindai shōsetsu).

Those opposed to Naturalism from an aesthetic or humanistic standpoint constituted a counterweight to the mainstream, although the distinction was not always clearly maintained by individual writers themselves. The mature work of the otherwise unclassifiable "loftily detached" (Yoyū-ha) giants Natsume Sōseki and Mori Ōgai gets set against the Naturalists, as does the fiction of the "Aesthetes" (Tanbi-ha) Nagai Kafū and Tanizaki Jun'ichirō. Writers interested in bringing psychological realism (shin genjitsushugi) to bear on their portrayals of characters are considered to form a somewhat later third group, although Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (psychologically probing, aesthetic, and confessional in various combinations) serves as an example of how ambiguous such distinctions could become.


Meiji-Taisho Fiction

  • shizenshugi: 自然主義
  • watakushi shōsetsu: 私小説
  • Yoyū-ha: 余裕派
  • Tanbi-ha: 耽美派
  • Shirakaba-ha: 白樺派
  • shin genjitsushugi: 新現実主義
Taishō and early Shōwa periods

The chief new strain of Japanese fiction in this period was proletarian literature (puroretaria bungaku), both in the form of a relatively small number of works produced by members of the working class and as a much larger number coming from the pens of university-educated intellectuals. Politically, proletarian writers were suppressed, so severely in the 1930s that works by those compelled to renounce their earlier socialist convictions have come to be categorized as "conversion literature" (tenkō bungaku), with Nakano Shigeharu being a prime example.

The Artistic School (Geijutsu-ha) writers were often directly influenced by Western modernism or, in the case of the Newly Arisen Art School (Shinkō geijutsu-ha), bound mostly by overt opposition to proletarian writing. Wartime literature (senji-ka bungaku) included reportage from the front (Hino Ashihei), cases of relatively isolated literary activity (Nakajima Atsushi, Tanizaki Jun'ichirō), and outright support for the war effort (Shimaki Kensaku, Tokunaga Sunao). The issues raised by "conversion" and the nature of the relationship between politics and fiction were to affect literary developments in the immediate postwar period.


Taisho-Showa Fiction

  • puroretaria bungaku: プロレタリア文学
  • Shinkankaku-ha: 新感覚派
  • shin shinrishugi: 新心理主義
  • Shinkō geijutsu-ha: 新興芸術派
  • senji-ka no bungaku: 戦時下の文学
  • tenkō bungaku: 転向文学

Diagram by Mark Jewel, Jlit website (jlit.net).