Miyabi Goto

Assistant Professor Japan Studies, University of Kentucky
Faculty Adviser: Atsuko Ueda

The Criticality Of Criticism: Visions Of "Literature" In Meiji Japan


Criticism in Japan's Meiji period (1868–1912) envisioned literature yet to come. In its envisioning, criticism prompted periodization ("modern"), nationalization ("Japanese"), categorization ("literature"), and perceptual standardization ("aesthetic object") of a diverse range of writings from Chinese classics to prose fiction. In this dissertation, I pay particular attention to debates—a crucial site of criticism—of the late 1880s and early 1890s that revolved around literature's boundaries, and investigate how criticism paved the way for modern Japanese literature. The processes and outcomes of criticism's endeavors are the story of this work. Contrary to the assumption that criticism arises in response to literature, criticism in late nineteenth-century Japan arrived prior to literature by offering visions of a modern national literature. This apparently inverted order was tightly connected to the colonial context in which Japan found itself in the late nineteenth century, where having a national literature was considered as a marker of modernization. During this time, debates, typically formed as exchanges of written essays through print media among intellectuals, operated to strip off multiple potential futures of literature. In so doing, these debates facilitated a homogenized vision of literature as a national, aesthetic object that could serve as a modern, independent form of knowledge. Criticism claimed a role of primacy in shaping the onset of a modern national literature, while demanding for itself to be an objective evaluator of literature from a distance. In time, however, practiced criticism betrayed its premise. Many debates, in their attempts to delineate literature's boundaries and their own placement outside of those, disclosed how such a distance could not be withheld. However, in this very inability to maintain the border between literature and itself, criticism began to exercise its criticality. Precisely in failing to fulfill its ostensible premise, the language of criticism mobilized in debates invited rhetoric that was unfit to the time and space within which it was inserted. This dissertation argues that criticism's failure prompted moments of discordance with contemporary discourses on Japan's modernization, and thereby generated a critique against what historically conditioned the emergence of such criticism itself.