Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
If you read any Japanese literature from the Meiji period--the late 1800s and early 1900s--it quickly becomes apparent that Japan's rapid modernization in the wake of the Meiji Restoration had a profound impact on the authors of the time. Again and again in the works of authors such as Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki appears angst about and ambivalence towards Japan's changing landscape, with new ideas clashing with old and (as a result of Japan's importation of knowledge and culture from Europe) Western thought clashing with Eastern. Many characters in the literature of this time period spend a great deal of time thinking about Japan's transformation and their place within it, sometimes celebrating the country's rapid growth and sometimes lamenting the perceived loss of traditional values and ways of life.
This concern with the costs and benefits of modernization was so profound that its influence did not end with the end of the Meiji period. Even long after Japan had joined the ranks of the "modern" nations of the world, the idea continued to appear in literature--to the point where it's still an exceptionally common theme in today's Japanese fiction. While the approaches to and details surrounding this theme have grown more nuanced over time--not always, for example, clearly delineating between old and new as pre- and post-Meiji--it is fairly rare for Japanese fiction to avoid the idea entirely, especially when an author is trying to do more than just entertain. The cost of modernization, as a thematic idea, is everywhere. You see it in both highly literary offerings--like Nasu Kinoko's novel Kara no Kyoukai and Atlus's video game Persona 4--and in relatively frivolous works like Capcom's Ace Attorney series and Level 5's Professor Layton games. You see it in popular works with mass appeal--like Kawahara Reki's Sword Art Online novels or Tanigawa Nagaru's The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya--and in relatively obscure series such as the P.A. Works anime Hanasaku Iroha and Ayatsuji Yukito's novel Another.
A Glorious Bundle of Contradictions
There are as many takes on this theme as there are authors who have written about it, and it's certainly not an idea that's unique to Japan, but Japan's rapid industrialization has both cemented this clash between new and old at the forefront of the nation's literary consciousness and provided a useful metaphor for the idea, in the form of the clash between Eastern and Western images. Often (though not always), when a work of fiction addresses the new-and-old dichotomy, it will symbolize the idea by contrasting Western clothing, music, traditions, and what-have-you with their Japanese equivalents. Kara no Kyoukai gleefully wraps this expected symbolism into its mess of often-indecipherable-but-wholly-purposeful paradoxes by twisting the usual symbolism of Japanese and Western objects and then blending the two.
The most obvious usage of this twisting of symbolism is in the attire of one of the two protagonists of the novel, Ryougi Shiki (pictured at left). Shiki always wears an elaborate kimono--a traditionally Japanese outfit that is now only worn in public for ceremonies and other special occasions. In this way, the reader is cued to expect Shiki to be a representative of the old and the traditional--but she is, in fact, the exact opposite of this. Her clothing choices are highly odd in the context of present-day society, and what is usually a symbol of comfort and traditionalism instead becomes a visual representation of Shiki's status as an isolated outsider within her community. It is the other protagonist, Kokutou Mikiya--who dresses in plain but thoroughly modern clothing--who embodies the calm normalcy typically associated with traditionalism.
In addition to this, Shiki often wears a red Western-style jacket over her kimono--which is even weirder than the fact that she's wearing a kimono to begin with--creating within Shiki's own outfit a clash of Eastern and Western, traditional and modern. The reason for this clash is too complex to examine in detail in this post--suffice it to say that paradox is an exceptionally important thematic idea within Kara no Kyoukai--but on the surface level, at least, this pokes at the concepts of old and new that have pervaded Japanese literature for the past 150 years or so. Judging by the strong Taoist themes that run underneath Kara no Kyoukai, this use of paradox is probably meant to imply that the distinction between old and new (and Eastern and Western) is fundamentally a faulty one, and that the old and the new are inextricably linked and not fundamentally different, which is somewhat of an unusual take, but not a wholly unique one--a similar argument, albeit approached from a difference angle, rests at the core of Sword Art Online. Regardless of what Nasu is trying to say with this contrast, identifying its significance requires being aware of the importance of the prevalence of the clash between modern and traditional in Japanese lit.
A More Traditional Example
A few weeks back, I wrote about Hanasaku Iroha, highlighting the variety of its characters and the thematic strength that results from that variety. With its wide age range and its traditional hot spring inn setting, Hanasaku Iroha brushes directly against the same sorts of concerns about modernization that Japanese lit has been tackling for the past century, but without the confusion and contradiction of Kara no Kyoukai's mixed symbolism. Hanasaku Iroha's protagonist is what I would describe (with a completely made-up-on-the-spot term) as a Tokyo Coffee-shop Romantic, a type of character that's fairly prevalent in popular Japanese fiction. This character trope--which also includes such characters as The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya's Haruhi and Sword Art Online's Kirito and Asuna--has two key components. First, the character is fascinated-bordering-on-obsessed with the novelty and color of the modern city, being familiar with the names and characters of various city locales and, of course, having a favorite cafe which the character frequents. Second, the character is optimistic about and excited for the future, actively working to improve the world around them and striving for seemingly impossible but highly aspirational goals.
Hanasaku Iroha's Ohana is a somewhat unusual example of this concept in that she begins the show by moving away from the city, to a small town and to the highly traditional environment that is her grandmother's inn, the Kissuisou. Although she has no say in the decision to move, Ohana isn't fundamentally opposed to this shift. She's pretty well-read--another common trait among the Tokyo Coffee-shop Romantics--and she views the old inn as an inspiring setting and an opportunity to learn and grow. Thanks in large part to her good attitude and hardworking nature, she quickly carves out a home at the inn and learns to love its storied halls, its colorful staff, and its traditional customs.
Calling Hansaku Iroha a celebration of traditional Japanese culture, though, would be a huge oversimplification. The most significant overarching conflict in the show is the Kissuisou's struggle to stay relevant in a continually advancing world. The modernism represented by the city is never far from the old inn, and most of the inn's employees continually work to innovate and grow into the future. The few glimpses we're given of the Kissuisou's past make it clear that, for all its traditional veneer, the inn has itself changed quite a bit over the years, and its long history makes it no less a part of the present day than anything in Tokyo is--which is challenging for certain members of the inn's staff to accept. The long tradition the inn represents is absolutely celebrated and valued in Hanasaku Iroha, but that tradition is always--always--secondary in importance to the lives of the people of the present day. The Kissuisou's goal is not to preserve history, but to make its guests happy and then to provide a family to its employees.
The ending of Hanasaku Iroha is brilliant in many ways, and it plays quite well into the modern-versus-traditional dichotomy. For all the best efforts of the inn's staff, the Kissuisou is ultimately forced to close. The Kissuisou is presented as a fundamentally good place, and watching it close makes the show's ending bittersweet, but Hanasaku Iroha is careful to ensure the ending is ultimately optimistic. The physical location that is the Kissuisou, and the tradition that it represents, is not nearly as important as the attitudes of the people currently acting on the world. While the Kissuisou is gone--along with the myriad other aspects of traditional culture it symbolizes--so long as its spirit is carried on, new things will replace continue to replace it, and those new things will themselves become representative of tradition to future generations. Hanasaku Iroha reminds us on multiple occasions that the Kissuisou was also new once. What seems at first novel and threatening eventually becomes old and comforting.
For a final example of how themes of modernization have influenced contemporary Japanese lit, I'll turn to a video game: Atlus's Persona 4. The game is rich with surface-level thematic ideas that like to throw themselves at you and obscure the more complex ideas hiding beneath, which creates somewhat of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it quality to the game's secondary ideas and concepts. This new-versus-old theme is one of those secondary ideas, and despite having played the game multiple times I did not catch on to the significance of this concept until an entirely unrelated experience I had a few weeks ago, in which I heard someone say a particular French word: Jeunesse.
The word was spoken in context of one of my classes--La Jeunesse is the French title of New Youth, an influential Chinese political magazine from the early 1900s--but when I heard it spoken, I was momentarily confused, as I thought I had heard Junes, the name of a fictional department store chain that plays an important role in Persona 4. The naming of Junes had always struck me as odd, as it looks like a pluralization of the English word June, and but it is pronounced "june-ess" (as opposed to the expected monosyllabic "junez"). It isn't any recognizable Japanese word or an obvious foreign word, so I was stuck with an apparent nonsense name.
Hearing the word jeunesse spoken solved the mystery: Junes is not English, Japanese, or nonsense--it's a corruption of French! Jeunesse would be rendered in Japanese as ジュネス (Junesu), which is then mis-romanized as "Junes." Mystery solved. There's no way of knowing whether the odd spelling of Jeunesse is intentional--to hide the original meaning--or unintentional--a mistake or miscommunication--but in either case, it's fairly safe to assume that this is the store's namesake. It makes even more sense when you consider the store's slogan in the original Japanese. While the localized English version is a more generic "Every day's great at your Junes," in the original Japanese, the slogan was (in English, amusingly), "Every day young life, Junes." Or, rather, "Every day young life, Jeunesse." The store is meant to be associated with youth, and its name literally means youth in French.
This namesake gives additional meaning to a concern that pops up throughout the game. Junes's recent arrival in the small, traditional Japanese town of Inaba leads to concerns on the part of the townspeople that the town will lose its character and traditions as a result of the influence of the new department store. Their concern is not entirely unfounded--several local business have had to close down due to competition from Junes--and this evolves into a representation of the theme of modernization. Junes--literally "youth"--represents modernity supplanting the tradition that is Inaba's local businesses.
Despite establishing this dichotomy, Persona 4 doesn't really take a stand on whether this modernization is good, bad, or somewhere in-between. Both Junes and the town's small businesses are portrayed generally favorably, but little attention is given to the actual impacts of the cultural shift caused by Junes. Persona 4's contention, rather, is that the fixation on the "dangers" of modernization is ultimately just an excuse to ignore the actual issues that face society. I'll refer back to one of my favorite obscure lines in the game: "Inaba is being invaded by the country of Junes!" While I've historically read this as a play on Junes's functional similarity to Norway in Hamlet (a reading I still maintain), I now think it also reflects on this theme of negativity towards modernization. Persona 4 criticizes not modernization or traditionalism, but rather the concern about modernization. In blaming Inaba's problems on Junes--or on jeunesse, youth and modernization--the people of the town fail to see the actual problems that face the town, and as a result they overlook the things they might be able to fix themselves and fall into a pattern of lazy acceptance.
Persona 4 doesn't push this idea particularly far, but it foreshadows the central theme of Persona 5 to a degree, as Persona 5 revolves around the dangers of sloth and the importance of taking action to remedy the things that are wrong in the world around you. It's possible that this was an idea Hashino (the director of Persona 4 and Persona 5) had sometime before or during Persona 4's development but that he wasn't yet ready to build an entire game around until Persona 5. You can arguably trace the idea in Hashino's earlier works as well, but it's much clearer (and more aligned with the form it takes in Persona 5) in Persona 4. It's interesting to me that this central theme of Persona 5 emerges in Persona 4 in conjunction with the age-old theme that is modernization, almost as if a well-trod and well-established thematic concept is used to lend weight and legitimacy to a somewhat more unique idea.
A Practical Idea
The legitimacy piece, I think, is particularly important. Japanese literature has historically been clearly divided between "serious" literature and "popular" literature. It wasn't until the past twenty or thirty years--largely thanks to authors like Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana--that the barrier between the two has started to blur somewhat, with popular fiction drawing on subject matter and thematic ideas historically reserved for intentionally serious lit. Incorporating such an established theme as modernization creates a mental link (even if a subconscious one) to the great Japanese authors of the past century and might make it easier for some readers to get past the ostensibly pop-fiction subject matter of works like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and treat them with the same care and attention they might otherwise reserve for Soseki and company.
This could also serve to explain the predominant stance on modernization that contemporary Japanese lit tends to take: the traditional is good, but the modern is good, too, and they can coexist. Kara no Kyoukai, Hanasaku Iroha, and Persona 4 all make similar arguments in this regard--albeit in wildly different ways--and in many ways it serves as a form of self-defense. If modern things and traditional things can be equally valuable, then today's literature can be just as important as the great literature of the past, even if contemporary lit takes a drastically different form that may not seem to be acceptable according to traditional views of what serious literature "should" be.
While the Meiji Restoration is long past, Japan continues to be a country where rich tradition and extreme modernism exist side-by-side, which leaves modernization as a rich and enduring theme in the popular literary consciousness. Even aside from its practical implications, it's not at all surprising that this thematic idea appears as often as it does in contemporary literature.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition