Review: Futabatei Ukigumo

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During the Meiji period, Japan was faced with a plethora of issues regarding its future. One of these issues was the future of Japanese literature. At that time, novels were still regarded as a third rate art form in Japan, though foreign books were highly sought after by the Japanese public. There were many ways to write Japanese, each system with its own use for specific occasions. And yet, the idea of writing in the style of natural conversational Japanese was considered radical and inappropriate for literature by the general public. Most foreign novels were translated poorly, into a writing style known as kanbun-chô which was mostly based around Chinese loan words. As a result, this style had a very rigid and legal feel, due to Chinese loan words generally having this use when used in Japanese text, obviously this was not entirely suitable for writing a fictional story with descriptive verses and convincing dialogue. On the other hand, Japanese novels were most often written in gabuntai, which was very poetic and descriptive, but was still unnatural for prose due to its heavy use of dated vocabulary, and shichi-go chô (5-7 syllable repeated patterns of verse). In his criticism titled Shôsetsu Shinzui, the established translator, and literary critic Tsubouchi Shôyô writes about his observations of the Western and Chinese literary forms, and muses on Japan taking a similar direction.

“Words are the tools of thoughts; they are also their decoration. They cannot be neglected in composing a novel. In China and in the West, the written and the spoken languages are, for the most part, the same, and there is no particular necessity to choose either as a literary form.” 1

Due in part to these writing styles being so dissimilar from the Western norm of writing similarly to everyday speech, translations were very difficult to write successfully and as a result, early Meiji translations failed to capture the essence of the original books which they were translated from. A criticism of Meiji literature written in the introduction of Gaiseishi den, a version of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Rienzi translated by Tsubouchi Shôyô, attacks the majority of Meiji Japanese translations, which he writes are “renditions of the plot” and “do not reflect the essential nature of Western novels” 2. 

Another issue with the literature of this period, was the fact that traditionally all Japanese literature had been excessively plot based, with little emphasis on character progression. Furthermore, the belief that all fictional literature should carry a lesson based on Confucian morality meant that novelists were generally confined to writing to a specific set of rules if their work was to be accepted. Specifically, these stories were often of heroes and villains, with contrived plots often involving chance encounters with Gods to whom the protagonist faces divine tests to prove his or her morality. In contrast, the Western model was to focus on the development of the characters and how they grow and react to their environment. Often when translating Western novels into Japanese, early Meiji translators would omit the emphasis on character progression, exaggerate the story, and attempt to form a moral backbone which, more often than not, was not in the original version of the book.

The basis for a ‘modern novel’, as literary scholars in Meiji Japan considered it, was to be formed upon the Western standard. This can be seen from the desire to adopt a colloquial prose form of writing, rather than to adapt the existing literary styles already present in Japan. Western novels from the same period did not suffer the same constraints due to writing style, and neither were the plots based around unlikely or illogical events which dominated Japanese literature at that time. The Japanese style of writing didactic, morally bound novels is commented on in Tsubouchi’s Shôsetsu shinzui, in which he writes that Japanese novelists “make punishing vice and...
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