Modernity and the Alphabet: Gardener speaks on Japanese modernist poetry

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Yesterday, the faculty lecture series continued with “Language at the Limits: The Global Situation of Japanese Modernist Poetry.” After an introduction from Alan Berkowitz, Professor Will Gardner of the Japanese section of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures presented his work on pre-WWII Japanese poetry. The talk built on work presented in his book, “Advertising Tower: Japanese Modernism and Modernity in the 1920s.”

Later generations of Japan have dismissed the poetry of the ’20s and ’30s for various reasons. The nationalists of imperial Japan saw the works of that time as shallow and fashionable. Their Western inspiration made them embarrassing imitations. After the end of the war, critics denounced poets of the modernist era as not having resisted the rise of imperialism. Professor Gardner first began examining this era in an attempt to contextualize its poetry in the Japan of its time.

Self-identity in Japan underwent a continuous transformation around the turn of the century. This upheaval was rooted in social changes caused by new technology. In the face of modernity, writers of the Meiji period sought to reform the language and establish new literary forms. Through this they attempted to preserve the old while still defining themselves as part of the modern world. Themes of literature often centered on the ordinary aspects of daily life.

This gave way to the Modernist period as Japan continued to change; social mores shifted and the national identity was influence by increased industry, transportation, and a culture of fashion. Poems such as “Album” by Haruyama Yukio juxtaposed images of modern life to recreate the feeling of the times. “The roofs of the churches/ Line up beside the cactus flowers/ A banana-colored zeppelin/clinching a pipe in its mouth.” Even with this understanding of Modernist poetry as a product of 1920s Japan, Gardner insists a wider view is necessary.

New insights are immediately available as the greater geopolitical situation is taken into account. Self-identity was not only transforming because of changes within Japanese society, but also in respect to its new relationship with the wider world. Japan was in a unique “double-colonial situation.” By this Gardner meant that cultural colonization from the West coincided with Japan’s rise as an imperial power in its own right.

These circumstances gave rise to a complicated relationship with the foreign. Japan’s writing systems provide a perfect vehicle for examining these themes. Because of their origins, the four Japanese alphabets carry political and social associations. Kanji arrived from China. Its pictograms are complex and retain the association of their foreign origin. Hiragana is a phonetic syllabary derived from Kanji used to express native Japanese vocabulary. From Hiragana was created Katakana, which can phonetically incorporate foreign words and concepts. This gives Katakana an inseparable non-native tone. Finally, Japan also uses the Romanji alphabet to transliterate Japanese speech into roman characters. While Kanji comes from overseas, it does not carry the overtones of modernity and Westernization inherent to Katakana and Romanji.

To emphasize the visual effect of these systems, Gardner showed how all four alphabets are simultaneously employed in a modern newspaper. The concise authority of Kanji has its appeal for the direct communication of headlines. At the other end, Romanji provides visual contrast and a clear western feel. These various mediums appealed to the Modernist fascination with visual presentation.

The associations of these alphabets were used to comment on Japan’s relationship with the outside world. In “Manifesto on the Alphabet,” Hagiwara Kyojiro heaps praise on the shapes of Romanji as the best elements for defining the modern self. Gardner pointed out several aspects of the poem that reveal its tone to be mocking. Cliches of modern writing and arbitrary associations reveal Hagiwara?s message; idealization of the Western writing system is just as ridiculous as the West?s orientalization of pictographs.

Another example of the choice of alphabet influencing a poems message is Anzai Fuyue?s “Spring.” The entire poem is one sentence. “A single butterfly crossed over the Tartar Straits.” The word butterfly is written is simple Hiragana, which associates it with Japan. The Tartar Straits separate Japan from China. The expression of these words in dense Kanji emphasizes the foreign nature of this place. These two writing alphabets contrast in their associations, but are nevertheless joined together. The form of the poem accomplished this same effect. Its season-word title and terse and allegorical treatment of nature evoke the Haiku. At the same time, the lines are not broken syllabically as with a Haiku. This short poetic form arose under influence from French Modernists. The native and the alien are strung together by this one line.

As was revealed in questions, the several alphabets of Japan reflect a sense of mixed identity. The nation was split between drawing on its own culture and that of the West to define itself. This was complicated even further by Japan’s awareness of its new imperial political position. The Modernist poets were not simply a fashionable product of a materialistic age. They sought to express Japan?s need to move towards an idealized, non-materialist Europe while retaining a connection to Japanese heritage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading