Higuchi Ichiyō and Bungakukai

File this one under “research notes,” by which I mean things I think about a lot but about which I don’t have the wherewithal to write an article or conference paper. Sorry.

We know Higuchi Ichiyō 樋口一葉 now as a tragic figure, and a famous one. She appears on the 5000-yen ($50) bill in Japan and is widely read in classrooms, if perhaps not for fun due to her difficult writing style. Appearing on the money in the twenty-first century is not too shabby for a young author who died at 24 in 1896, just as her star was rising in the Tokyo literary world.

5000-yen bill

Ironically, Ichiyō herself grew up with modest means, running a convenience store and teaching poetry on the side to help make ends meet. Her father died when she was young, so she was essentially supporting her entire family at the time she died. Not only was she one of the most impressive writers of the Meiji period, she had serious hustle.

Ichiyō was a kind of star among the mostly male Meiji bundan 文壇, or literary establishment, of her time. She began her career being published in journalist Nakarai Tōsui’s 半井桃水 short-lived, three-issue Musashino 武蔵野 magazine, but as the story goes, quickly moved on to the legit literary world and into magazines like the well-circulated Bungei Kurabu 文藝倶楽部. Then, tragically, we lost her all too soon.

This skims over something I discovered quite by accident: her time with the Bungakukai 文學界 coterie, led by Kitamura Tōkoku 北村透谷 and Shimazaki Tōson 島崎藤村, among others who would not go on, like Ichiyō herself, to be so famous after 1900. During my dissertation research, I happened to look at both Tōkoku and Ichiyō as case studies of posthumous compilation by friends, and so I skimmed through a whole bunch of Bungakukai magazine to glean something about Tōkoku and his coterie’s activities before his death. I was surprised to find that, despite the narrative I’d ingested about Ichiyō being a part of the mainstream bundan almost right away, here she was: story after story serialized in Bungakukai, a coterie publication belonging squarely to the first-generation Romantics.

What was Ichiyō doing there? I still don’t have a good idea, which is why this post is a research note rather than a conference presentation or article. What implications do her presence among writings by Tōkoku and his colleagues have on our interpretations of Ichiyō’s writings, and of her as an author? I honestly haven’t read enough of either the contents of Bungakukai or Ichiyō’s work (despite her being a subject of my research! that’s book history for you!) to even begin to analyze it.

But it reminds me of a point I tried to make in my first article, about the promotion of Ihara Saikaku at the same time, actually by the very same people who posthumously promoted Ichiyō. Not a coincidence, I think. (Not to mention that critics compared Ichiyō’s work to that of Saikaku, in the Meiji period and also later.) People like writer Kōda Rohan 幸田露伴 and publisher/editor Ōhashi Otowa 大橋乙羽 were profoundly influential at this time, and I would argue that what they were doing was more than promotion of others. It was self-promotion.

How? Because if they can make Saikaku and Ichiyō into legitimate, popular authors, and at the same time present them as “belonging” to themselves in a way, they reflexively associate those newly popular authors with themselves as discoverers or mentors of a kind. Ichiyō becomes a protégé of Rohan and others, someone whose fame they can bask in even as they can brag (after a fashion, even if not explicitly) that they were the ones who found her, who brought her to the world. Ichiyō is the bundan‘s author. She belongs to them, and no longer to the Romantics.

I say this because Rohan was the editor, and Otowa the publisher, of Ichiyō’s Complete Works immediately upon her death, and if we look at Ichiyō only in book form (as one does, now, due to accessibility and other factors), we see her association with these two and others in their circle, such as Saitō Ryokuu 斎藤緑雨, Ozaki Kōyō 尾崎紅葉, and even Mori Ōgai 森鴎外 (who might not be the first person who comes to mind when one says “Ichiyō,” but there he is, writing criticism along with Kōyō and Ryokuu and Rohan for Mesamashigusa めさまし艸 and serving as its editor with Kōyō). Yet even if Ōgai isn’t someone immediately associated with Ichiyō now, either socially (which he was) or in terms of literary analysis, I would say that based on very simple narratives of Ichiyō that now circulate, we associate her even less with Kitamura Tōkoku and Shimazaki Tōson and the Romantic movement in general.

Was Ichiyō a first-generation Romantic? It may be beside the point here; she was publishing in their preeminent magazine, but was it because it was simply a way to get published? Did she herself affiliate her work with Romantics? She isn’t a part of their coterie in editing the Works of Tōkoku after his death (shortly before hers), and isn’t remembered as one rambling in the countryside of Odawara along with the rest in essays memorializing Tōkoku at the same time. So, perhaps she is not.

But that doesn’t mean that a review of Ichiyō’s Complete Works didn’t appear in the pages of Bungakukai right after its publication in 1897. Yet we may overlook it in favor of the co-authored review in Mesamashigusa by more famous and mainstream writers that are now socially associated with her. We may not remember her association with Tōkoku and friends as much as we remember the almost-scandal of the one with Nakarai Tōsui.

I do recognize that specialized scholarship on Ichiyō such as that by Yukiko Tanaka, Rebecca Copeland, and Robert Danly does highlight Ichiyō’s association with the Bungakukai coterie — and I could be completely off-base here with my account of her not being recognized as part of the world of the Romantics in general. But I also would argue that we don’t take that association into account nearly enough in our interpretations of her texts, and interpretations of what Ichiyō means as an author. When I read “Takekurabe” たけくらべ, which was first published in Bungakukai and is her most famous work now, I didn’t get a lesson in how it appeared alongside Romantic writing. And what would it meant for readers to encounter it there? Who was her audience when it first appeared? Readers of Bungakukai (and they were probably the same ones as those who were contributing!) first, other critics second.

It comes back to a point I hammer all the time, my hill to die on: look at first editions. I don’t mean first book editions. When it comes to the nineteenth century and even beyond, not just in Japan but in the West too, we’ve got to look at serialization, magazine publication, newspapers, and the context of the works we’re interpreting. Without that, we have a hugely anachronistic view of what was going on and how those works were received and reacted to, and we cannot possibly understand the reality of literary history without it.

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