Beauty and Sadness in Japanese Literature Term Paper

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Beauty & Sadness in Japanese Literature

My Dear Friend,

I applaud you ambition to visit Japan for a summer session of study, and your focus on the distinct works of literature and art to emerge from Japanese culture is admirable. Having devoted much of my own studies to Japanese literature, both in historical and contemporary form, I can honestly say that you are embarking on a personal quest for knowledge that, while beginning on the Japanese mainland, will remain a valued part of your life for years to come. During my own readings of classic Japanese literary works like Natsume Soseki's Kokoro (1914), and Jun'ichir? Tanizaki's Naomi (1947), I have found that the seemingly opposing concepts of beauty and sadness are inextricably linked throughout much of the Japanese cultural experience. From the late 19th through the early 20th centuries, the Japanese people experienced a collective social transformation known as the Meiji Restoration, a period of upheaval which was driven by the adoption of industrialized economic practices and the welcome embrace of Western culture. The often tumultuous transition from the Meiji period of antiquity to a way of life defined by commerce, technology, and other Western ideals was captured brilliantly by the authorial expertise of authors such as Tanizaki and Soseki, authors who managed to encapsulate the internal conflict felt by most Japanese during this highly contentious, and often confusing, evolution in their cultural identity. The duality between beauty and sadness within these works, as Japan experienced a collective awakening that, while exciting and inspiring much of the youth, inevitably left many members of the prior generation regretfully mourning the loss of their traditions and customs, provides the most telling glimpse into the soul of this wondrous civilization that you are lucky to be exploring soon.

The tale of Naomi exemplifies the connection between sadness and beauty by couching these binary conceptions in the process of societal change which the Meiji Restoration entailed. The story of J-ji, an ambitious young salaryman during Japan's move to a capitalist economic system, and the eponymous young women he becomes enraptured with, Naomi presents an allegory for the nation's dalliance with American ways of living following a bitter defeat in World War II. While so many younger Japanese were enthralled by the freedom they believed American ideals would bring, from the liberation of owning an automobile to the thrill of purchasing a ticket to the cinema without fear of reprisals from traditionalists, members of the prior generation were consumed by conflicted emotions towards these overtures from a formerly bitter enemy.

In Naomi, the narrator J-ji finds himself becoming infatuated with a young girl who, in his estimation, represents the perfect fusion of Japanese and American constructs of beauty. When J-ji compares the object of his affections to "the motion-picture actress Mary Pickford" by noting in reverential tones that "there was definitely something Western about her appearance" (Tanizaki 1), the author clearly establishes the sense of overwhelming allure that many Japanese felt in regards to American cultural expression. Later in the novel, J-ji again premises his sense of beauty in the context of American appearance, revealing how he often went "to see Western opera companies and studied movie actresses' faces, cherishing their beauty as though I were seeing it in a dream" (Tanizaki 37). When J-ji finally realizes his goal of entering into matrimony with Naomi, however, his illusions are soon shattered by her insatiable greed, indomitable spirit, and irrepressible streak of independence. As Tanizaki demonstrates so beautifully in Naomi, in Japanese culture beauty is most often an ephemeral notion which cannot be grasped, the soft notes of birdsong reaching one's ear at daybreak, the fleeting flashes of brilliance during the sunset. The futile pursuit of beauty so idealized in Western culture simply leads to tremendous sadness for many Japanese during the Meiji Restoration, as young and old alike desperately attempt to embrace the culture of conquerors after their own has been irrevocably altered.

The deep process of grieving that accompanies every period of great social transformation is also evident in Soseki's Kokoro, which presents the story of an anonymous young man and his Sensei, a wise and venerable teacher who nonetheless suffers from an unspoken wound which occurred in his past life. The relationship of patronage, and eventually genuine friendship, which develops between the reclusive Sensei and his lonesome student, is symbolic of Japan's isolated position on the geopolitical map prior to the launch of World War I. Again, the focus of this exquisitely written Japanese novel is the inevitability of change, and the sadness which accompanies when beauty begins to become ravaged by age. The story of the Sensei in Kokoro is one of a man haunted by his past, and by his unwillingness to change. When Sensei writes in his testament that he "was afraid that a beautiful person such as she could not behold anything ugly and frightful without somehow losing her beauty" (Soseki 181), his cryptic words can be seen as warning for the whole of Japanese culture: when the beauty of this ancient civilization is exposed to 'ugly and frightful' Western ways of living, the resulting collision of cultures will produce nothing worthwhile. The mysterious death of Sensei's friend is also an important plot point to consider, because as the narrator observes, "it was after this friend's death that Sensei began to change gradually ... I don't know why ... (but) when one remembers that the change came after the death, one wonders if Sensei really doesn't know" (Soseki 32). For so many Japanese during and after the Meiji Restoration, the gradual changes in a society predicated on tradition, ritual, and custom must have felt overwhelming, and indeed unbearable, as evidenced by Sensei's climactic act of suicide in Soseki's boldly written novel.

The thematic role of decline and death in Japanese literature is central to the culture's conception of life as a cyclical process, one defined as much by its conclusion as its beginning. In Kokoro, much of the narrative is centered on the traditional gift of inheritance ceded to Japanese men upon their father's passing, as Sensei persistently directs his student to carefully attend to the details of his own inheritance while his father is still alive. As the reader slowly discovers throughout Kokoro, Sensei's keen interest in his student's eventual inheritance is not wholly based on compassion or concern, as the aged teacher was wrongly stripped of his own inheritance by a scheming uncle. As described by Sensei in a particularly tragic scene, "in short, my uncle cheated me of my inheritance. He managed to do so without much difficulty during the three years that I was away in Tokyo ... I was incredibly naive to have trustingly left everything under my father's management" (Soseki 110). While this stolen inheritance was intended to be a gift for Sensei left by his father upon death, the machinations of familial relations and the mysteries of Japanese legal proceedings left the young man with little recourse when his dishonest uncle claimed it as his own. Again, the beautiful optimism of youth has been broken by the realities of the world as it truly exists, which is perhaps the most common thematic device employed within Japanese literature.

Another interesting aspect of Japanese cultural expression can be found in the nation's budding film industry, as many Japanese artists have embraced the visual storytelling medium to capture their critical insights. One particularly intriguing film known as Densha Otoko (Train Man) presents the story of an anonymous young man who uncharacteristically commits an act of minor heroism, before watching as his humble story becomes elevated, and indeed celebrated by the interconnected nature of his internet-based generation. As an admitted otaku, or enthusiastically "nerdish" collector of anime, manga, and other popular culture staples, the eventual Train Man's story began on his nightly commute, after a group of thuggishly drunk men began harassing single women riding the train home. Rather than remain content to observe in silence, as would be fitting of his reserved and shy personality, the young man boldly confronts the women's tormentors, stalling for time until the conductor can be summoned to intervene. Acting to preserve the honor of young women he has never before encountered, the young man is noticed by one of the women, who asks for his home address so a gift can be sent in gratitude. After posting a brief account of his story to the internet discussion group 2 channel, the young man soon finds that the Train Man has gained a wide following of fans, many of whom urge him to view the woman's gifted tea set as more than simple gratitude. The resulting story of tenuous romance which occurs between Train Man and his girlfriend is, like the majority of truly great Japanese cultural expression, one of transformation inspired by external forces. Like the Westernization that occurred during the Meiji Restoration, Train Man's emergence from his otaku shell into a confident suitor was accelerated by the influence…[continue]

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