Meiji Literature & The Search for Identity

Mori Ōgai’s short story “Maihime” explores a sense of a divided self which hangs in delicate balance between Western freedoms of individuality and the Japanese ideal of national reciprocal unity.

The search for Japanese identity amongst a modern age of colliding cultures led to great introspection in the mid-nineteenth century. Modern Japanese literature is marked by a strong curiosity toward both human psychology and the effect of foreign influences on traditional societal norms. Mori Ōgai’s “Maihime” (The Dancing Girl) explores modern elements of myriad cultures, and introduces the dangerous allure of individuality. Its experiments of identity, questioning of cultural influences, and the absence of the controlling male character are clearly the result of modern curiosities.

“Maihime’s” blaring modernity stems from the delineation of cultural barriers. The story’s protagonist, Toyotarō, is an intelligent, introspective, and indecisive character who stands in stark contrast to the controlling, aragoto men of pre-modern tales. He is caged by his status as an outsider living abroad, and is surrounded by new western fashions and technologies, from which he stands apart. “I [did not] have the nerve to join with those men about town, with their tall hats, their prince-nez, and that aristocratic nasal accent so peculiar to Prussians. Not having the heart for such things, I found I could not mix with my more lively fellow countrymen, and because of this barrier between us, they bore a grudge against me” (11). By exploring these cultural biases and their effect on Toyotarō’s anima, Ōgai brings a decisively modern edge to “Maihime.”

“Maihime’s” contemplative narrative is similarly marked as a truly modern work of literature in its psychological search for the individual, subjective voice. Ōgai draws away from Confucian ideals of past literature in order to explore one’s true nature—the inner self—which seeks to fulfill personal desire over societal obligation. As western influences seep into Toyotarō’s psyche, his identity as a Japanese national begins to muddy. “Perhaps because I had been exposed to the liberal ways of the university for some time, there grew within me a kind of uneasiness; it seemed as if my real self, which had been lying dormant deep down, was gradually appearing on the surface and threatening my former assumed self” (10). No longer satisfied with mere productivity and success (qualities revered in traditional Japanese culture,) Toyotarō warily questions his inner being and becomes torn between his new-found freedom of passion and the former duty toward his Japanese compatriots.

While Ōgai’s explorations of character and culture are indeed modern, his findings ultimately laud ideals which are traditionally, and extremely, Japanese. Throughout “Maihime,” Toyotarō’s sense of a divided self hangs in delicate balance between Western freedoms of individuality and the Japanese ideal of national reciprocal unity. While he manages to escape his caged sense of duty in the arms of his lover Elise, his brief tryst with freedom portrays individuality as an illicit indulgence which is incongruous to one’s identity as a Japanese national. The story’s near fatalistic tone suggests that by shirking his duties and indulging in personal desires, Toyotarō is acting in contradiction to the happiness, productivity, and identity of Japanese society, whose importance is greater than that of the individual self.


Sources

  • Rimer, J. Thomas. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature. Abridged. ed. New York: Columbia UP, 2011. Print.
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