Gregory Polakoff, Programme in Comparative Literature
Finding the "Energy from Within": Modernization as a Narrative of Education and Self-Development in Japan
In a 1911 lecture entitled "Civilization and Modern Day Japan", the famous Japanese novelist Natsume Sôseki claimed that Japanese civilization was at the verge of a "nervous breakdown". With little experience as a regional power, a protracted period of relative isolation, and no colonial presence on its soil, Japan took direct responsibility for its debut into modernity. The anxiety that Sôseki observed resulted from Japan's decision to actively pursue a course of modernization an often debated phenomenon whose 150th "anniversary" is being celebrated this year through the commemoration of its first trade deals with America. This project will examine what many early twentieth century Japanese intellectuals believed was at the root of a cultural crisis and examine the broader implications of the solutions they offered in modern Japan and in other developing nations worldwide.
Most of the texts I will examine are a part of I what I believe constitutes a distinct literary genre that flourished after the turn of the century: novels of education and self-development or what scholars of German literature call the Bildungsroman. The primary concern of these Japanese Bildungsroman is the role of educated young men in shaping the consciousness of a modern, and hopefully "healthy" Japan. The adoption of the German literary form is significant as it indicates the desire to achieve an enhanced national consciousness through self-critique, organic growth, and education, as reflected in the prototypical protagonists of Goethe, for example. The Japanese writers I will discuss include Natsume Sôseki, his literary "rival", the novelist and former Surgeon General Mori Ôgai, novelist Nagai Kafû, and key philosophical figures such as the young Nishida Kitarô.
A central theme, which I believe pervades all of the fiction of this genre despite its diversity, is in a passage of Sôseki's lecture in which he suggests a preemptive measure against a "nervous breakdown". Sôseki states that Japan should continue to "modernize", but driven by "internal motivation" as a flower opens, the bursting of the bud followed by the turning outwards of the petals" rather than "external motivation". Sôseki cites the European Renaissance, which he and many Japanese intellectuals of the day believed represented the apex of a civilization motivated by the expression of primarily Western ideas and cultural practices. The word naihatsuteki "internally motivated" describes something that radiates energy from within, or the biological concept of endogenic growth. However, Sôseki characterizes Japanese civilization as "externally motivated" or exogenic; Japan has developed primarily in response to demands, pressures, and technologies that originate from foreign cultures.
Despite the concern that Japan develop through internal motivation, these writers share a powerful fascination for Western ideas and offer compelling suggestions of how these ideas can be adapted to achieve an "internally-motivated" Japan. Goethe's notion of Bildung, the "Übermensch" of Nietzsche, theories of evolution, individualism, and Hegel's idea of history as a dialectical and teleological process, are among the most influential ideas I will examine through a study of their reception history and the often liberal and creative ways they were interpreted by Japanese intellectuals. As the majority of the European texts I will study are either German or English in origin or introduced to the Japanese writers through German or English translations. My strong background in German and Comparative Literature will provide me with the skills necessary to make this project successful.
Perhaps Sôseki's simple model of "internally" versus "externally" motivated societies provides the possible foundation for fresh analysis of not only the literature of early twentieth century Japan, but for "rogue" and "developing" nations that are consistently measured by the economic, political, and social benchmarks of "hegemonic" Western nations. I believe that this primarily literary and philosophical study can provide insight into possible solutions for these very practical problems through a study of how the "coming of age" of a developing nation's consciousness can be affected by narratives of self-development and education, in tandem with established yet not always completely effective empirical methodologies offered by the social sciences.