In Japan Austen’s reputation was slow in establishing itself. By the time she was introduced, our reading public had been familiar with such modern authors as Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Ibsen, and Austen’s realism seemed tame and old-fashioned. The great modern Japanese novelist Natsume Sōseki, however, singled out Austen as a model novelist, stating in his Theory of Literature (1907) that “Anyone who is unable to appreciate Austen will be unable to understand the beauty of realism” (Natsume 107). Sōseki’s eminence ensured that his words carried weight.
One of Sōseki’s disciples translated Pride and Prejudice in 1926, but the translations of Austen’s other works came only after World War II. In recent years Austen studies flourish in the academic world, and, more important, Austen has entered the forum of literary opinion. The noted haiku critic Yamamoto Kenkichi, for example, extolled Austen’s “natural ease” and the balance beautifully achieved between her “malice” and her tolerance (Yamamoto 52). Sōseki and Yamamoto may have seen affinities between the realism of Austen and that of haiku, which cryptically describes daily life with a cool objectivity and often with a humorous turn.
There are modern Japanese novelists whose works show their creative responses to Austen. Sōseki, in his last novel Meian (Light and Darkness), tries to attain sokuten kyoshi, a state of selfless objectivity that he affirms Austen achieved in her novels. Emulating Austen, he utilizes dialogues and letters in presenting his characters and succeeds in exploring the psychological depths (which is more than Austen vouched for) of a married couple whose love is hindered from growth due to their dogged pride.
On the other hand, Nogami Yaeko, in her novel Machiko, adopts the story line and the characters of Pride and Prejudice to describe the inner growth of her heroine. The novel has a satirical tone and is full of detailed descriptions of daily life, and Nogami, unlike Austen, makes clear her views on the social, political, and gender issues of the day, turning a novel of manners into a social novel.
Kurahashi Yumiko, the last to be examined, is a deliberately experimental writer. In her novel Yume no ukihashi (The Bridge of Dreams), she seeks inspiration both from the novels of Austen and from the masterpiece of the classic Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji. She introduces the unreal, the transgressive, and the erotic into Austenian domestic realism, resulting in a radical mutation of the Austen model.
These modern Japanese writers thus respond to Austen with a variety and versatility that do credit to both their creativity and to Austen’s exemplary art. They surely go beyond adaptation, and we feel certain that the creative dialogue that they began will continue.
Natsume, Sōseki. Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings. 1907. Ed. and trans. Michael K. Bourdaghs, Atsuko Ueda, and Joseph A. Murphy. New York: Columbia UP, 2009.
Yamamoto Kenkichi. “‘Jifu to henken’ no bishō” [The Smile of Pride and Prejudice]. Shōsetsu no saihakken [Rediscovering the Novel]. Tokyo: Bungei-Shunju-sha, 1963. 41-61.