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Sunday, Aug. 2, 2009

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

When does popular become canonical?


NEW HORIZONS IN JAPANESE LITERARY STUDIES: Canon Formation, Gender and Media (in Japanese and English); edited, with an introduction by Haruo Shirane. Bensey Publishing Inc., 2009, 266 pp., ¥2,800 (paper)

Some scholars would seem to think that methodologies (systems of methods used to focus on particular areas of study) never alter. Other scholars know that the methods change as the area under study enlarges and that ways of looking at the subject are always being transformed by the subject itself.

Scholar Haruo Shirane knows this particularly well and here elucidates some recent methodological arrivals in this interesting collection of papers on the "new horizons" in Japanese literary studies.

He first identifies the areas served by the new perspectives. Among these are the demands of what he terms "material culture," a subject that ranges "from gardens to clothing to food," including a study of "pop lit" and its media following — anything from manga to Hello Kitty to TV commercials.

This calls for new ways to study the transmission of one culture to another "whether it be in terms of texts, ambassadors or food." How then does this impact "the culture's view of itself?" — especially since these trends are interdisciplinary in that they now include a variety of jostling fields (anthropology, religion, political science, economics, art history), the studies of which were hitherto kept separate, one from the other.

One of the first signs of such a change is that the challenge offered what has been thought as canonical. We are familiar with the process. Appreciation of low-class Edo literature and the accompanying ukiyo-e prints was originally noncanonical. It was only later that these were elevated into art and admitted into the aesthetic canon.

While it is true, as Shirane maintains, that the texts canonized (the so-called classics) "were not inherently superior texts but came to be viewed as such because they supported or were supported by existing power structures and social hierarchies," it is also evident that something new is occurring when cosplay and gothic Lolitas are to be met within the graduate seminar.

The popular poet Matsuo Basho, for example, evolved into the canonic master "not only due to his poetic talent but also because of the school (shomon) of which he was the founder." Basho himself might have disagreed (he once said that after a linked verse was finished it ought be thrown into the trash), but whether a poet is read as canonical still depends on the fate of the school to which he belonged.

As new horizons loom, however, the canon widens and the former merely popular becomes the new orthodoxy. Just as Hokusai turned canonic only after his period as pop we can now catch manga in the act of shape-changing, can greet cartoonist Takashi Murakami as a modern master, and take seriously the Queen of Cute, Seiko Matsuda.

The methodological accommodation of these widening fields in Japanese literary studies is consequently one of the warmer academic subjects and these papers probe into the heated recesses of what is occurring. There are 24 of them and all are quite short since their presentations were to occur during a one-day 2007 symposium at Tokyo's Meiji Gakuin University. The length heightens the readability and none of the contributors is allowed to be prolix — quite an accomplishment in a book as seriously scholarly as this.

With Shirane as a guide we are led to where we can begin: examining the glass in this window through which we view the new horizons — the methodologies that define not only how but what we see.

This bilingual book is in general distribution in Japan, but given the parlous state of Japanese bookstores, it might be simpler to order it directly from Bensey Publications. Call 03-5215-9021 and speak with Mr. Mikio Waku.



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