Japan novelist and Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909): Inspired by Russia

Japan novelist and Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909): Inspired by Russia

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times 

The Japanese novelist Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909) was shaped by the Meiji Period (1868-1912). This period of Japanese history was revolutionary – from regional wars and nationalism – to opening up to new Western ideas – to a brutal anti-Buddhist period that witnessed vast numbers of Buddhist temples being destroyed.

However, for artists, writers, and other areas of culture, the Meiji Period provided the opportunity to visit nations, learn international literature, and study a plethora of different art forms. Hence, for Futabatei, the world of multi-ethnic and multi-religious Russia would enlighten his literature and social soul.

His novel, Ukigumo (The Drifting Cloud), is acclaimed as the first modern novel emanating from Japan. This concerns the psychological nature of the four main characters. Thus the ideas of freedom, individualism, and other important areas are expressed within a limited time span. 

Futabatei mastered the Russian language. Hence, he was well versed in Russian literature. Therefore, he translated various works of Andreyev, Garshin, Gorky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and others – to various degrees.

Indeed, during his early period in the 1880s, he especially read the works of Belinsky, Dostoyevsky, Goncharov, and Turgenev. 

Given the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) angle and his love of Russian literature, the war provided a duality – he was known to be nationalist when younger and wanted to join the military. Yet, many of the writers he read focused on anti-war themes, were reformists and highlighted a humanist agenda that emerged within the social consciousness of Japan and Russia in this period of history. 

The literature of Futabatei, his early nationalism, failing the military exam three times, the Russo-Japanese War, and other areas highlight a complex character. 

He sadly passed away from tuberculosis in 1909. 

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