Michi and Meiji

Nobuko Albery

  • Principles of Classical Japanese Literature edited by Earl Miner
    Princeton, 281 pp, £25.00, August 1985, ISBN 0 691 06635 3
  • The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature by Earl Miner, Hiroko Odagiri and Robert Morrell
    Princeton, 570 pp, £39.50, March 1986, ISBN 0 691 06599 3
  • Mitford’s Japan: The Memoirs and Recollections, 1866-1906, of Algernon Bertram Mitford, the First Lord Redesdale edited by Hugh Cortazzi
    Athlone, 270 pp, £18.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 485 11275 2

I once received this stern admonition from an English editor: ‘If you intend to be a Japanese novelist whom we are translating into English, okay – I accept your manuscript as it is and will get on with publication. But if you wish to be considered an English writer, then you must rewrite. Don’t narrate to us, show us. And-then-and-then is not the way we want a story told.’ Ah, but I had been fed on the stodge of and-then-and-then all my life! In the course of the gruelling process of rewriting to show rather than to tell, I soon realised that we Japanese have a congenital difficulty in understanding the Western sense of ‘a plot’. To us a plot means suji, nothing more than a line, a sequential flow, which Professor Ueda, in a chapter in Principles of Classical Japanese Literature, explains is an antithesis of ‘plot’, in which the law of causality unites all the parts into a whole. This characteristically Japanese principle may seem more incidental, associational and irrational than its Western counterpart, so it is not surprising that Westerners often complain of meandering formlessness in Japanese novels, music, dance and theatre: but the Japanese in return find the implacable advance of a logical, causal plot suffocating. It seems to leave little room for the appreciation of what to them is the indispensable joy of any artistic expression – ma, literally ‘pause’ or ‘breath’. A Western play that drives helter-skelter towards a causal dénouement within a matter of two hours strikes them as jejune, they who adore sitting through a five or six-hour-long performance of kabuki, during which they pay blithely little attention to plot, logic or plausibility but delight in its incorporation of disconnected scenes from lengthy plays – to the point of knowing every line and gesture by heart.

The great modern novelist, Junichiro Tanizaki, wondered if Japanese writers lacked the physical strength to construct a long plot, whilst Kafu Nagai emphasised the unpredictability of the Japanese climate and the resulting tendency to believe in coincidence and fate. Yasunari Kawabata, the Nobel Prizewinner, felt that pre-modern Japanese writers refrained from constructing a tightly wrought plot because they viewed life as formless and structureless. A further theory, in my rude opinion, concerns money. In the land where the morning paper Yomiuri boasts a circulation of seven million, celebrated authors vie with one another to write serialised novels for newspapers, which guarantees an excellent steady income and an eventual best-seller. And what other form is better suited for this purpose than the and-then-and-then narrative? But the authors must not idle or run out of steam. Unfortunately many do, and the Yamanoue Hotel in Kanda, the literary district of Tokyo, is famous as the place where these tardy authors are locked up by anxious editors. Yukio Mishima, who was known to be seldom late in delivering his manuscript, joked that his body-building was a gesture of defiance against the limp, greenish, unslept writers sequestered in the Yamanoue Hotel.

Whilst I remain somewhat sceptical about the aforementioned writers’ opinions, Professor Noguchi in his chapter on the great classic The Tale of Genji is most convincing when he says the structurelessness present in our writing is chiefly due to the fact that the earlier Japanese novels were more recited narratives than written tales. This explains not only the ‘indefinable quality without order and purpose’ which we cherish in terms of time and space in literature but also the polyphonic flexibility or, to put it crudely, the confusion over who in which world or context is speaking to whom at a given moment as the narrator’s voice and the fictional characters’ utterances creep in and out of the narration and the dialogue.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in