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Sunday, July 8, 2001

Slaying the 'monsters' of Meiji Era modernity

CIVILIZATION AND MONSTERS: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan, by Gerald Figal. Duke University Press, 1999, 290 pp., $49.95 (hardback); $17.95 (paperback).

In his prologue to "Civilization and Monsters," Gerald Figal defines Meiji modernization within the context of the fantastic and supernatural elements found in folk beliefs and practices. As he sees it, these "objects of fantasy and folk belief -- ghosts, goblins, monsters, and mysteries of every sort -- played fundamental roles in the constitution of modernity in Meiji Japan."

He goes on to suggest that the fantastic "is the constant condition of Japanese modernity in all its contradictions and fluidity" and that "whether configured as negative impediment to national-cultural consolidation or as positive site of alternative new worlds, the fantastic allows the modern to be thought."

Specifically, Figal believes that Meiji modernity "was accompanied by an effort to displace or identify diverse spirits with a Japanese spirit," and this "was ultimately embodied by the newly constituted emperor, a modernized supernatural being."

While Figal's goal is to elucidate fantasy's role in the modernization of Japan by looking at a wide variety of sources, including literary, educational and medical discourses, his primary focus is on the works of three Meiji intellectuals -- the philosopher Enryo Inoue (1858-1919), and the folklorists Kumagusu Minakata (1868-1941) and Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962).

Inoue, who founded the "yokaigaku" field of study (literally, "monsterology"), is famous for his blanket condemnation of folk belief as irrational superstition that hindered modern learning and scientific knowledge. The practical application of abnormal psychology was Inoue's greatest tool to rid these "monsters" from a diseased mind. And, as Figal sees it, "this formulation was instrumental in the restrictive management, not the liberating enlightenment, of Japanese individuals in the ideologizing processes of the Meiji state." In this light, Figal examines government-controlled educational and medical policies as ways by which Inoue's theories were actually put into practice.

For example, the promulgation of ethics through an institutionalized school system is seen as a means to control potentially threatening elements in society in the name of eradicating superstition. Similarly, the use of male-dominated Western medical and psychiatric practices is viewed as a way to discredit female shamans and divert power away from the masses.

In contrast to Inoue, Minakata was more skeptical of the powers of science, rationality and progress, preferring unpredictability, inspiration and a Buddhist-oriented worldview based on nonlinear karmic relations. Thus, Minakata was prone to look more favorably on the folk practices that were to become the basis of Yanagita's studies.

Yanagita, the so-called founding father of Japanese folklore, saw "monsters" as nothing less than embodiments of a uniquely Japanese psyche, and his subjective attempts to understand the heart of the common people became, in Figal's view, more "imaginative" or "fantastic" than "scientific." Figal links Yanagita's later studies on ancestor worship, in which people are controlled by an unseen other, to the hidden and inexplicable world of monsters. And this "spiritual belief in ancestors would serve powerful interests in mobilizing patriotic spirit during Japan's war effort and imperial expansion of the 1930s and 1940s." As a folklorist championing the beliefs of the ordinary people, Yanagita may seem to be in firm opposition to Meiji authority, but in fact his view of a unified "fantastic" Japanese spirit marks the beginnings of dangerous ideological concepts.

In the final two chapters of the book, Figal turns his attention to the stories of the fantasy writer Izumi Kyoka (1873-1939) and to Nihonjinron as "supernatural ideology." As Figal sees it, Kyoka's fantasy literature, by evoking an ambiguous hesitation vis-a-vis reality, can be constructed as "a penetrating critique of the route Japan's rationalized modernity was taking."

Kyoka's fiction, in turn, would become an inspiration to Yanagita, offering him a way to seek the extraordinary in the ordinary. At the same time, these alternatives to reality/authority could also be used to affirm a unique Japanese identity that would later become fodder for politically charged Nihonjinron. In other words, for Figal, the seemingly antimodern Kyoka, critical as it was of modern state institutions, can be turned into grist for a Japanese uniqueness ill that feeds the cultural essentialism abetting those same institutions."

Figal's thesis is intriguing, and the issues he raises on the political nature of fantasy are important. Succinct summaries of often difficult philosophical concepts are well done, although more detail and concrete examples could have enhanced the persuasiveness of his broader arguments. For example, what are the "monsters" that the title of the book refers to? Readers unfamiliar with the vast array of supernatural creatures found in Japanese folklore, literature, art and popular culture may come away from this book still wondering just what exactly a Japanese monster is.

Although Figal is more concerned with the conceptual nature of monsters as representatives of an antimodern culture of the mysterious, surely some concrete examples are in order. Explanations of "kappa" and "tanuki," who figure prominently in monster lore, are relegated to a brief footnote. While "tengu" are dealt with in some detail, the exact nature of the numerous legends surrounding them remains sketchy. More illustrations would have been helpful.

Figal uses "monsters" as a translation for both "yokai" and "bakemono." Yokai, the term preferred by current-day Japanese folklorists, is an all-encompassing but problematic word. Bakemono and its more childish derivative "obake," meaning literally creatures who change shape, are also commonly used to refer to a wide variety of otherworldly beings. The historical usage of these words and the tendency of scholars to legitimatize monster research through the use of often inappropriate terminology are important issues skirted in this study. Instead, bakemono becomes a metaphor for a modernity that is constantly changing form.

For the scientist Minakata, bakemono is analogous to the "ceaseless metamorphosis of slime molds and their transgressions of analytical categories." For Yanagita, " 'monster' is understood not so much as a kind of creature as an unforeseen event, an epiphany." And for Kyoka, "monsters [obake] are the concretization of my feelings." What Figal really means here by "monsters" or bakemono is aspects of the strange or fantastic as they conflict with or confirm "modernity." At times, however, the concept becomes too vague or unwieldy, taking in everything from emperor worship to the modernization miracle to images of an exotic Japan.

Also problematic is Figal's overly simplistic dichotomy between an evil and self-serving Meiji authority and the oppressed common folk. Surely not all government policy was meant to ruthlessly exploit the people. To understand Meiji "modernity" and what makes it different from what came before requires a close look at the Edo period.

Unfortunately, Figal, like many of his Japanese counterparts, seems vague on this point. His claim, for example, that "the explosion of bakemono in various cultural productions of the mid-1800s occurred amid a period of social, economic, and political unease" needs more substantiation. The proliferation of grotesque or bizarre "misemono" (sideshows) is touched upon, but no reference is made to Asakura Musei's monumental "Misemono kenkyu" or to Edo documents that would have helped place these bakumatsu misemono in perspective.

Long before the mid-1800s, monsters had already become part of a highly commercialized and sophisticated city culture. Indeed, one could make the case that by the Meiji Era "monsters" and the "fantastic" belonged as much to the mainstream as to any marginal or rural culture. All the same, Figal's stance is not unreasonable considering that these stylish monsters were ignored by the very folklorists who make up the bone of this study.

This review is excerpted from Monumenta Nipponica, 56:2.

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