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DIJ History & Humanities Study Group


Competing Conceptions of Modern Selfhood

Native Ethnologist Yanagita Kunio and the Meiji-Taisho Literary Community


Melek Ortabasi, University of Washington


Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962) is considered by most scholars, first and foremost, to be the founder of minzokugaku, or quote;native ethnology.quote; In his youth, however, he was a bungaku seinen (literary youth), closely befriended with a number of young authors who would later become key members of the Shirakaba (White Birch) School. These shizenshugisha (Naturalists), such as Tayama Katai and Shimazaki Toson, are those who would develop the so-called I-novel (shishosetsu), an often autobiographical genre that commonly emphasizes the inner thoughts and feelings of an individualized protagonist. Yanagita is often characterized as having bidden farewell to the literary world during his university years: not only did he condemn the confessional narcissism of his peers' novels, but he also apparently abandoned literary form in his own writings. Though his early collection of folktales, Tono monogatari (Tales of Tono, 1909) is considered quote;literature,quote; it is also evaluated by native ethnologists as an indication of Yanagita's growing interest in fact rather than fiction. By fashioning himself a collector of folklore, a simple reteller of stories, rather than as a poet, Yanagita distanced himself from his literary compatriots, whom he felt were engaged more with representation of the self (themselves?) than with addressing contemporary social concerns. While the problem of the modern self, or kindai jiga, is at the center of discussions on the development of modern literature, Yanagita's minzokugaku, with its focus on the historical tradition of the quote;folk,quote; is not included as part of this discussion. However, by trying to preserve oral tradition, Yanagita had a motive not so different from his literary peers: his purpose in rewriting the past was to configure history as raw material for (re)building communal identity. I propose that the dividing line between literature and social science, despite what Yanagita may have argued, does not devolve to a distinction between fantasy and reality. Rather, the Naturalists' attempts at realism, and Yanagita's project to narrativize folk history, both have at their root the desire to represent the modern self. The debate that develops is between alternate versions of reality: whether the self should be a clearly delineated and isolated individual, or a member of a largely homogenous group that shares cultural, and therefore personal, history. By examining Yanagita's early work, notably Tono monogatari and Nochi no karikotoba no ki (A History of Hunting Terms, 1908), in tandem with the novelistic works of his peers, I will illustrate that though the ways self-identity in these works are constructed may seem to have little in common, they in fact engage themselves with the same fundamental problem: where does the self end, and the other begin?

Koordination: Nicola Liscutin

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