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A History of Japan

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The translation of these works into Japanese kick-started many far-reaching literary developments, such as the recognition of the long structured novel as an art form in the west; the inspiration to experiment with different genres and writing styles; and the conscious effort to represent spoken Japanese in print, getting away from the elegant and dated phraseology of written Japanese used up until that time.

In the 1880s, a focus on translating works by Disraeli, Voltaire and Hugo combined with contemporary Japanese political awareness to create the Meiji 'political novel', which dramatised contemporary issues of statesmanship and nationhood. Tokutomi Soho (1863-1957) criticised such works for their transparent polemics, weak plots and superficial characterisation. It was partly to address such weaknesses that Tsubouchi Shoyo (1859-1935) wrote his famous essay, Shosetsu shinzui (The Essence of the Novel, 1885), arguing for the development of a profound and artistic literature suitable for Japan's modern age. While Tsubouchi was never able to put his theories into practice himself, his work inspired what is generally known as 'Japan's first modern novel'. Ukigumo (Drifting Clouds, 1886-9), written by Tsubouchi's close friend Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909), examines the life of a 'superfluous hero' such as one might find in Turgenev. The reader experiences the thoughts of the hero Bunzo as if privileged to be inside his head. To create a greater sense of immediacy, Futabatei used language closer to spoken Japanese than to the traditional written style. Another innovator of early Meiji was Higuchi Ichiyo (1872-96), whose stories about life in the streets of Tokyo showed a sympathetic sensibility and highly-developed sense of realism. Ichiyo's detailed observations are expressed in a lyrical, poetic language reminiscent of Heian literature. For this reason she is seen as less 'modern' than Futabatei Shimei, who combined psychological realism with linguistic experimentation. Add to this the fact that, where Ichiyo observed the small lives of children, prostitutes and seamstresses, Futabatei took on greater themes of the changing labour force and the rise of feminism, and Ukigumomay well deserve its title of Japan's 'first modern novel'.

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