The Influence of American Literature in Taishō and Prewar Shōwa Japan
- Ken InoueKen InoueNihon University
In the history of modern Japanese literature, the Taishō era (1912–1926) is retrospectively identified as a period characterized by a liberal arts ideology, individualism, a democratic spirit, aestheticism, and anti-naturalism. In the latter half of the Taishō era, the liberal arts ideology was gradually replaced by socialism. After the Great Earthquake of 1923, Japanese literature was enmeshed in a triangular contest between the old-fashioned “‘I’ novel” (or psychological novel), proletarian literature, and modernist literature (especially the neo-sensualists). This structure of the literary world, in parallel with the rise of popular literature, continued into the prewar Shōwa era (1926–1945).
During the Taishō era, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe were the most influential and respected American writers. Whitman’s writing offered Taishō writers, including Takeo Arishima and poets of the popular poetry school, a model of living that was free and natural and a colloquial-style free verse. But for the modern Japanese literati from the Taishō to the prewar Shōwa era, the most influential American writer was without a doubt Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s works served as a creative inspiration to Taishō novelists such as Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Haruo Satō, and Ryūosuke Akutagawa, many of whom shared a creative perspective that was based on a blend of anti-naturalism and aestheticism. Influenced by Poe, they attempted diverse variations on the themes of the fantastic and of doppelgängers and even experimented with detective stories. Needless to say, Poe helped to establish the detective story genre in Japan through Rampo Edogawa and others. For early Shōwa literati, Poe was a forerunner of modern critical theory.
Among Japanese readers, around 1920, American literature ceased to be read as a sub-branch of British literature and began to be read as American literature proper. From the Great Earthquake and up through the prewar Shōwa era, three distinctive periods can be discerned when American literature was energetically translated and introduced. The first period was from the end of Taishō to the start of Shōwa, when American “socialist” literature—in the broad sense of writers like Upton Sinclair—left a deep mark on Japanese proletarian literature. The second period was around 1930–1931, when contemporary modernist American novels were translated and published in various anthology forms. The third peak came around 1935–1938, when bestselling American historical romances or epics such as Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind were published and gained a large readership.