Rethinking Adaptation in Meiji Japan

I recently read J. Scott Miller’s Adaptations of Western Literature in Meiji Japan (New York: Palgrave, 2001) and am full of Thoughts on Meiji writers, literature, zeitgeist, continuity, and adaptation. Let me express some of them here.

While I greatly respect Miller’s work here, I have to complain that his analysis and argument doesn’t take into account what I’d call the wider Meiji zeitgeist of adaptation: adapting Japanese, and other East Asian (especially Chinese) stories for a contemporary audience. Miller writes, “In a sense, hon’an adaptation may be seen as a method by which Japanese writers took the literary artifacts of the Other and appropriated them, reinvented them, as something Japanese.” (20) I would argue that writers were also taking native literary “artifacts” of past times and remaking them into something that resonated with their Meiji audience, whether those were distant classics or recent Edo fiction that was still popular among a wide range of people. (See, for example, Brian Dowdle’s recent article on Bakin in Meiji, as well as his 2012 dissertation, and my own work on the series Teikoku bunko‘s reprints of popular fiction from decades past in addition to its later volumes of Saikaku’s unearthed texts.)

Why do I bring this up? Because Meiji adaptations of Western literature were swimming in other “reinventions” of “literary artifacts” from past and present, as well as in adaptations of current fiction in other media (such as the plays based on Konjiki yasha, itself an adaptation of an English novel — a connection that was not uncovered until over 100 years after its serialization). This context absolutely needs to be taken into account to understand a “preference” for adaptation over more literal translation, hon’an versus hon’yaku. As Miller aptly points out, literal translation was undertaken for Western non-fiction works, but adaptation used for literature.

My argument would be that while Miller is absolutely correct, he also fails to take into account audience reception. Those reading the works in question, these adaptations of Western fiction, would likely have had little idea about the original works, let alone be able to judge the fidelity of the translations. This is important for two reasons: readers may not have even known that these were adaptations of other works (especially in the not uncommon case of uncredited hon’anmono translations like Konjiki yasha), and would have read and interpreted them in the context of an ocean of other recycled literature, whether that was through reprints of things already familiar to them, retellings of familiar stories, or the first typeset editions of the forgotten Saikaku’s stories. (Again, not too toot my own horn too much here, but I recently published an article on the Saikaku phenomenon — which also explains why it’s on my mind.)

Just as important as asking what writers’ motivations were when adapting Western works they encountered, through whatever means, is questioning how audiences would have received these translations. I argue that they would have received them as just another instance of “fiction” or “stories” — and as native fiction at that. Putting aside translations that explicitly called themselves that (such as the work of the prolific Morita Shiken), these were Japanese works by Japanese writers, and I don’t think they would have been viewed immediately (or, as with Konjiki Yasha, for a century after) as “translations” or “foreign” literature. In fact, with writers like Kōda Rohan and Ozaki Kōyo experimenting in their 1889 Fūrūbutsu and Kyō ningyō (respetively) with Western styles of writing and tropes, and with Futabatei Shimei’s “modern” characters and themes in Ukigumo, would they have even been able to differentiate these two “types” of literature? With adaptations localizing Western fiction to Japan, is there even a difference?

Thus we have come full circle: readers were encountering all kinds of recycled things in literature, and it is understandable if they couldn’t quite get what was recycled and what wasn’t (and if they didn’t even care). In fact, I’ve noticed in just one review of an anonymous novel that the reviewer speculates that the novel might have been a crib of a Western work, but they’re not sure. (The reviewer, too, is explicitly anonymous.)(1) The reviewer seems to care much more about resolving the author’s identity (they decide on Maruoka Kyūka, as much as anything is decided) than about whether it might have been an adaptation/translation or, in that case, where it might have come from. Indeed, this novel (Pauline 芳李) is one of a series of A Hundred New Kinds of Writing 新著百種, all by young Japanese authors, and it strongly implies that it is a hundred kinds of Japanese writing. The series is not A Hundred Translations and no differentiation seems to be made between adaptation and “original” work. Adaptation, here, perhaps is original work after all.

In short, I simply don’t see the strong divide between Western and Japanese literature of Meiji, between old and new, between modern and premodern or early modern, that some other scholars do. I see it as a multimedia mix of crazy variety and freshness, that still carried within it familiar stories and tropes — because of course it would, if writers wanted to appeal to their audiences. Readers were steeped in the present, remembering the past, and awash in the new. The Meiji rupture was far from that, and it behooves us to remember the human daily life that spanned the half-century bridging the first and second halves of the nineteenth century (and beyond) — and that that daily life was the inextricable context for understanding what we now take to be Meiji literature.

(1) Tokumeishi. “Shincho hyakushū dai hachi-gō Pōrīn,” Kokumin no tomo 75 (March 1890): 37-38.

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