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Transnationalism, Pound, and Japanese Modernism

Ryan Johnson

If, as Josephine Park declares, “contemporary modernist studies has staked its present relevance on the transnational turn,”[1] a magazine devoted to a preeminently transnational modernist is well placed to survey the new territory of this scholarly mania. If the question of how well Pound knew his stuff when talking about East Asia has dominated the field (Bush 2016, Hayot, Park, Byron),[2] the question of what was going on in Chinese and Japanese literature while Pound was imaging the Far East has not received comparable attention. This one-sidedness is not unique to Pound studies. At the recent MSIA at Aoyama University, Aaron Gerow implored us to understand Japanese modernism from a Japanese perspective. If we are seriously to consider modernism as an international movement, or to entertain the possibility of multiple modernisms, then, Gerow reasoned, we should be prepared to listen to Japanese scholars who might introduce concepts and texts that our current definitions of modernism cannot easily digest. The inclusion of Kazuko Nagamori’s essay on Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s 谷崎潤一郎 “Himitsu” 「秘密」[“The Secret”] in this issue of Make It New seeks to redress this imbalance and to further this dialogue.

Nagamori positions “Himitsu” as the starting point of Japanese modernism. Christopher Bush points out that “the range of [modernism’s] application and its relevance to East Asia remain subjects of debate.”[3] Where ‘modernism’ in the Anglosphere denotes a relatively tight group of artists self-consciously working, often together, to reject Victorian and Edwardian aesthetic models in light of cataclysmic events such as the Great War, the term in Japan is more diffuse. If it refers to the change brought about in Japanese literature thanks to Western influence, then the starting point of Japanese modernism may well predate its English counterpart to encompass the Meiji-era work of artists such as Mori Ōgai 森鴎外, Tsubouchi Shōyō 坪内逍遥, or Natsume Sōseki 夏目漱石. Yet the sentimentalism associated with many of these authors seems distant from the traits typically associated with ‘modernism’ as we know it. A more persuasive approach is to view Taishō Modern, especially in the aftermath of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, as the origin of Japanese modernism. The spread of cafes, cinemas, trams, and other forms of “modern” life, a spread accelerated after the destruction and rebuilding of Tokyo after the Earthquake, looks more congenial to standard understandings of modernism and its contexts. Here, New Sensationalism 新感覚派 [shinkakuha], a literary movement perhaps best exemplified for a foreign audience by the early work of Japan’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature, Kawabata Yasunari 川端康成, emerges as the most obvious correlate to English modernism. As Bush notes, shinkakuha took inspiration from several contemporary European movements including Surrealism; yet, like most all “modern” Japanese literary movements, retained a “proximity to popular culture. Rather than signalling a sphere of high, elite art distinguishing itself from the popular, modanizumu always had strong ties to popular culture, including cinema, cabaret, and detective fiction.”[4] Even at the spots of greatest resemblance, crucial contextual divides drive Japanese “modernism” away from modernism in the West.

Nagamori’s essay does not aim to settle this debate. Rather, she demonstrates that Japanese modernism might indeed be best placed earlier in the century. The characteristics of shinkakuha, she mentions, are already present in “Himitsu.” The unnamed narrator, to whom I will refer as “Watashi” [“I”], takes pleasure in dressing up as a woman in modern Asakusa. The pleasure he finds is not only in the sensation of the female kimono on his skin, but also in the thrill of being mistaken for a woman by passersby. Nagamori reminds us that the long Japanese history of cross-dressing, a phenomenon not associated necessarily with homosexuality but with the frisson of opening the body to multiple identities, was targeted in the Meiji era by officials who did not wish to be embarrassed by disapproving Western visitors. Devouring foreign literature in a Shingon 真言 temple, wandering the streets of modern Akasuka and visiting cinemas while taking part in a practice identified with an old Japan meant to be surpassed, Watashi seems to embody the plural identities of modern Tokyo, and the conflicts upon which later Japanese modernist movements founded themselves.

Nagamori’s insistence that Japanese modernism begins with “Himitsu” echoes similar claims made by critics of other media. Surveying the history of twentieth-century Japanese art, Michael Lucken wonders whether the modernity that swept in with the Great Kantō Earthquake does not have roots extending back to the previous decade. Considering the emergence of nostalgia for the Edo period, Lucken writes:

Les quartiers populaires, du côté d’Asakusa notamment, avaient été réduits en cendres et toute une partie de l’«atmosphère» du passé avait disparu avec eux. A grande échelle, l’importance de cette brutale coupure est indéniable. Cependant, lorsqu’on considère les choses dans le détail, tout un ensemble de signes montrent que dès les années 1910 une envie de mieux connaître cette époque déjà lointain était en train de murir chez les intellectuels et chez les artistes de la nouvelle génération.[5]

The illusory past that Nagamori describes Watashi searching for in the labyrinthine structure of Asakusa may be read of an example of this early nostalgia for a bygone city and way of life. Granted, Lucken is not talking about modernism as such, but the past that he describes as arising out of comparison with modernity is the very one that Nagamori views as integral to modernism in Himitsu. Here we may see one of the elements of Japanese modernism arising: the clash of new Western technology and modes of life—that were, in many instances such as with cinema, actually found earlier in Japan than in many Western countries—with early Japanese customs. The clash creates a fictive Japanese past after which people yearn. This complicated double movement makes someone like Watashi consciously out of time and yet, in his situation between a bewildering present and a newly created past, a man of his time, of “modernism” or modernity. Watashi’s eventual move to the heart of the old city, a move to a place that Nagamori suggests Watashi wishes to transcend time and space, is both a rejection of modernity and a performance of it. After all, the very desire to escape modernity by way of the past, to find a way forward by breaking the rules of linear time, is a modernist move if ever there were one.[6]

The inclusion of Nagamori’s essay here, then, is not to give us an insight into the “Japan” that Pound knew, but to illuminate aspects of Japan and Japanese literature as they existed just before Pound’s fateful encounter with the Ernest Fenollosa manuscripts. Not only that: Nagamori’s work reminds us—a reminder we perhaps still need—that the contours of Japanese literature are not themselves fixed, a stable and passive entity against which the flux of English modernity defined itself. Rather, Japanese modernism, both as a moment in literary history and as a field of enquiry, is as contradictory, volatile, and invigorating as any found in Europe or America. It is a field that has rested long outside of the purview of Pound studies, but one with which we will now be able productively to grapple.


[1] Josephine Park, “The Transnational Turn,” in Mark Byron, ed., The New Ezra Pound Studies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019, p. 182.

[2] See Christopher Bush, “’I am all for the triangle’: The Geopolitical Aesthetic of Pound’s Japan,” Paul Stasi and Josephine Park, eds., Ezra Pound in The Present. Bloomsbury, 2016; Eric Hayot, Chinese Dreams : Pound, Brecht, Tel Quel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004; Josephine Nock-Hee Park, Apparitions of Asia: Modernist Form and Asian American Politics, Oxford University Press, 2008; Mark Byron, “Ezra Pound and East Asian Art,” in Roxana Preda, ed., The Edinburgh Companion to Ezra Pound in the Arts, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019.

[3] Christopher Bush, "Modernism in East Asia," The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis, 2016. doi:10.4324/9781135000356-REMO17-1

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Working class neighborhoods, Asakusa notably, had been reduced to ash and with them a part of the “atmosphere” of the past had disappeared. At large, the importance of this brutal rupture is undeniable. Yet, when we consider things in detail, a multitude of signs show that from the 1910s a desire better to know this already long-gone epoque was in the process of evolving among intellectuals and artists of the new generation.” [my translation] Michael Lucken, “L’Art d’Edo: Un art du vigntième siècle,” Cipango: Cahiers d’études japonaises no. 12 (2005), p. 283.

[6] See Park, pp. 183-185, for more on how Pound himself makes such a move to deform time and space.