We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Idly Scribbling Rhymers: Poetry, Print, and Community in Nineteenth-Century Japan, published by Columbia University Press. The book’s author is Robert Tuck, an Assistant Professor of Modern Japanese Literature and Culture at Arizona State University who received his PhD from Columbia University’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures.
How can literary forms fashion a nation? Though genres such as the novel and newspaper have been credited with shaping a national imagination and a sense of community, during the rapid modernization of the Meiji period, Japanese intellectuals took a striking—but often overlooked—interest in poetry’s ties to national character. In Idly Scribbling Rhymers, Robert Tuck offers a groundbreaking study of the connections among traditional poetic genres, print media, and visions of national community in late nineteenth-century Japan that reveals the fissures within the process of imagining the nation.
Structured around the work of the poet and critic Masaoka Shiki, Idly Scribbling Rhymers considers how poetic genres were read, written, and discussed within the emergent worlds of the newspaper and literary periodical in Meiji Japan. Tuck details attempts to cast each of the three traditional poetic genres of haiku, kanshi, and waka as Japan’s national poetry. He analyzes the nature and boundaries of the concepts of national poetic community that were meant to accompany literary production, showing that Japan’s visions of community were defined by processes of hierarchy and exclusion and deeply divided along lines of social class, gender, and political affiliation. A comprehensive study of nineteenth-century Japanese poetics and print culture, Idly Scribbling Rhymers reveals poetry’s surprising yet fundamental role in emerging forms of media and national consciousness.
“This is an important book that is impressive in its scope, thorough in its research, and very timely. Idly Scribbling Rhymers provides us with a fresh view of the Meiji poetic scene that is both richly detailed and broadly based. Tuck takes readers on a deeply rewarding tour of areas that are all but unknown in Anglophone scholarship.”
– Matthew Fraleigh, Brandeis University
We thank Dr. Tuck for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove his project.
Where did the phrase “Idly Scribbling Rhymers” come from and why were these poets and their work especially significant in nineteenth century Japan?
It’s a loose translation of an insult that Masaoka Shiki lobbed at Mori Kainan, a respected and politically well-connected kanshi poet, in one of Shiki’s newspaper columns; he called Kainan “an idly scribbling rhymer who completely fails to understand poetic beauty.” In some ways, the fact that the two were lobbing insults around is emblematic of broader political tensions among individual poets in the Meiji period. Kainan was very much an establishment figure, with a job in the Meiji government and access to some of the most powerful people in Japan through a shared interest in kanshi poetry. Shiki, by contrast, was from Matsuyama, a domain that had opposed the factions that later formed the Meiji government, and he worked for a newspaper that spent much of its time attacking said government. As it would turn out, both of these poets ended up being hugely influential figures in Japanese poetry, Shiki for his work in haiku and waka – more than anyone else, Shiki laid the groundwork for haiku and waka as modern genres – and Kainan for his kanshi and broader scholarship. In later life, for instance, Kainan published a magisterial eight-volume set of lectures on the Tang poet Du Fu, and would also tutor the American Ernest Fenollosa on kanshi.
What questions about nationhood and literature inspired you to embark on this study?
I think the role of prose fiction in establishing national imaginations is quite well-studied, certainly in the field of Japanese studies, and Benedict Anderson points to a number of novels in his own classic Imagined Communities. But neither Anderson nor anyone else had really said anything much about how poetry might fit into this picture, and I was very keen to explore what the answer to this question might be. It’s true that the novel rose to prominence as the premier literary genre during Meiji, but almost every Meiji novelist was also a poet at some point in his or her career, and I was certain that poetic genres had something to offer to the conversation on national imaginations.
How was poetry published and shared in Japan during the Meiji period? What kinds of people wrote and discussed it?
The precise answer depends on the genre of poetry, as I discuss below, but broadly speaking newspapers were a major venue pretty much from the start for both kanshi and waka, then later on (from the 1890s or so) for haiku as well. Early on, when he was still in Matsuyama, Shiki and his friends actually created their own ‘magazines,’ known as “circulating magazines (kairan zasshi)” in which they wrote their poetry, then passed the manuscripts around for everyone in their social or literary group to write in their own comments – strikingly similar to a blog and comments section, actually. The advent of large-circulation print media as a venue for publishing poetry in some ways continued this social aspect; when a kanshi or waka verse is published in a Meiji print venue, it’s very common to see a responding comment from another poet as well, so it’s still a communal enterprise. I think the assumption that poetry was a social art, to be practiced in dialogue with one’s fellows, was always there to some degree, especially because most poetry columns accepted submissions from their readers as well.
Newspaper poetry columns were a big venue; equally, there were a few specialist journals, such as Shinbunshi (‘New Prose and Poems’) and Kagetsu shinshi (‘New Moon and Flowers Journal’), both of which were primarily devoted to kanshi and which were among Japan’s first literary periodicals of any kind. Shinbunshi was notorious for publishing kanshi by government bureaucrats and high officials; later scholars have often been critical of its publisher, the poet Mori Shuntō, for doing this (Maeda Ai calls Shuntō “officialdom’s running dog,” for instance). You had to be quite well educated to read and appreciate kanshi, and so kanshi audiences were often (for example) ambitious and well-educated students, government officials, or classically trained scholars of the Chinese canon.
Haiku was a different story; relatively few newspapers until the 1890s carried it, and until that point, when it did appear in print, it tended to be published in small-scale journals often run by established haikai masters. These masters usually charged their readers a fee in order to publish the reader’s work, so the enterprise drew criticism for perceived venality – all of which contributed to the idea of haikai as a “commoner” literature, as discussed in the book.
In the book, you discuss attempts to cast each of the traditional poetic genres of haiku, kanshi, and waka as Japan’s national poetry. What was the significance of the distinctions between those genres? And, what people and institutions were leading the attempts to define a national poetry?
I think if you’re going to approach the idea of a national poetry, you need to bear in mind that the idea of a holistic concept of simply “poetry” wasn’t there for much of Meiji. You generally weren’t just a “poet” – you were a kanshi poet, a waka poet, or a haiku poet (or, though I don’t talk about it much in my book, a “new-style” (shintaishi) poet). Sometimes there was some overlap – it was quite common for kanshi poets to also write waka, for instance – but before about 1890 or so, it’s unusual to find any newspaper or literary journal that’s publishing all three of haiku, kanshi, and waka – and if they are doing that, usually haiku is in a separate column. So until mid-Meiji, haiku isn’t really considered poetry (shiika, per the term used at the time) from that perspective.
Each genre tended to have quite different practitioner bases and degrees of cultural prestige, and this needs to be taken into account in exploring how they were re-imagined as national poetry. Attempts to make (or more accurately, haikai) into a national poetry actually began very early on, with the Meiji government recruiting a group of haikai masters to help publicize the government’s program of reforms. They did this because haiku was quite widely practiced among commoners; however, later on in Meiji, for people such as Shiki or literary critics at Tokyo Imperial University or working for journals such as Waseda bungaku, that connection to the common people was precisely the problem; haiku couldn’t be national poetry because (as they saw it) it was an unserious genre for ill-educated commoners. So there are class divisions right from the start.
Waka, because of its connections to the imperial court and nobility, and also because of its long history, had a good deal of prestige and a highly credible intellectual pedigree, and there was even an official government Poetry Bureau (the Outadokoro) that was charged with promoting waka essentially as a national poetry in Japan. The creation of the Utakai hajime, the New Year’s Poetry Party that involves waka composition by the emperor and which continues to this day, is an obvious concrete realization of that. On its face, waka seems to be the most obvious candidate as a national poetry, but non-governmental poets such as Shiki and Yosano Tekkan used their own media pulpits to aggressively contest this idea, arguing that waka wasn’t sophisticated enough or masculine enough to work as a national poetry without serious reform. In other words, they were challenging the official government poets’ vision of waka.
Kanshi is in some ways the most interesting; it was highly prestigious well into Meiji, associated with the vast cultural authority of the Chinese textual canon, and required quite a bit of sustained study to master, not least because it required a poet to get to grips with features such as rhyme and tonal prosody that are not derivable from knowledge of either classical or vernacular Japanese – though, as I show in the book, publishers and poets found ways to efficiently educate ever-larger numbers of people in kanshi composition from the 19th century onwards. But especially for scholars working in the emerging discipline of kokubungaku (Japanese national literature), who were mostly men working at or affiliated with Tokyo Imperial University, the idea of a Japanese national literature that wasn’t written in Japanese was highly problematic. Nevertheless, kanshi poets frequently had a strong sense of themselves as public intellectuals, men concerned with the fate of the nation, and so they used their poetry to weigh in on matters of national importance – most notably Kokubu Seigai, whose poems are spotlighted in Chapter 2 of the book.
Who was Masaoka Shiki, and why did you choose to center your study on his work?
Shiki is best known as a haiku poet and newspaper critic; he’s often mentioned as one of the four greatest haiku poets of all time, the other three being Bashō, Buson, and Issa. He was born in 1867 in Matsuyama, on the island of Shikoku, just on the eve of the Meiji Restoration. He grew up in a samurai family, for whom education was extremely important, and was one of a large number of Matsuyama men to leave Shikoku in the early 1880s and move to study in Tokyo. Though he retained strong ties to Matsuyama, he spent most of the rest of his life in Tokyo, beginning to publish poetic work in the conservative daily newspaper Nippon in late 1892, and then joining the newspaper’s staff full-time. For much of the latter half of his short life – he died in 1902 – Shiki had health problems, connected to tuberculosis, which ultimately left him unable to walk or even stand up. He spent almost seven years bedridden, though those were among his most active years in leading what he understood as a reform movement to reshape both haiku and waka.
I chose to center my study on Shiki partly because I greatly enjoyed reading his polemics on poetry (which I first encountered in Janine Beichman’s wonderful biography of Shiki). It also struck me that Shiki was a towering figure in Meiji literature who had yet received relatively little attention in English. In addition, his work across multiple literary genres – he wrote in kanshi, waka, and haiku, and (though this isn’t widely known) also penned a number of novels and short stories – made him an excellent candidate for exploring poetry more broadly. So did the fact that he worked at Nippon, because Nippon was a newspaper that was at the center of poetic activity in Tokyo during the 1890s. Almost everyone who was interested in the question of how to fashion a modern poetry either worked there or published their poems in its pages at some point.
What kinds of sources and archives did you consult while conducting research for this project?
Meiji newspapers and literary journals were my main sources, along with Kōdansha’s Collected Works of Masaoka Shiki (Shiki zenshū). I spent a lot of time poring over microfilms, since many Meiji newspapers are not yet digitized, and visiting archives in Tokyo and Matsuyama to look at some very early literary journals that aren’t widely known (Shiki and some of his friends published a journal named Haikai in 1893 that lasted only two issues, for instance, and is to my knowledge held only by Tokyo University’s Meiji Newspaper and Journal Archive).
I actually found that reading newspapers via microfilm, as laborious as it could be, was immensely helpful, because I had to actually (so to speak) read the newspaper – to look it over day by day and see what was happening in its pages. If I had had a keyword search available, I think it’s likely I wouldn’t have found a few of the more interesting thing I did stumble across, such as the proliferation of topical haiku in Meiji newspapers.
What findings surprised you in the course of researching and writing this book?
A few things – one was just how widespread poetry columns in newspapers were, since to my knowledge there’s been no attempt to really describe or analyze the role of poetry in print media during the Meiji period. The interactive nature of the space and the relatively porous boundaries between readers and writers of the column struck me as fascinating. I was also surprised by just how political a lot of the poetry was; I had, before starting on the study, had the sense that haiku was almost exclusively about nature and the four seasons – but I found that haiku on topical and political matters were extremely common, arguably more so in Meiji newspapers than “literary” haiku. I was also surprised by how widely read kanshi actually seems to have been, given its reputation as a difficult and abstruse form of poetry; even newspapers that set themselves out as populist and catered to a relatively uneducated demographic sometimes carried kanshi news and verse.
How has the role of poetry in Japanese culture changed since the Meiji era?
Again, the answer depends on the genre. Kanshi in the present day is basically an esoteric hobby or academic interest; mid-Meiji saw an unprecedented peak in kanshi practitioners, but thereafter changes in the Japanese educational system, along with a decline in the relative prestige of Chinese learning, brought about a steep decline from which it never really recovered.
Haiku only gained in prestige as a serious literary form after Shiki’s death, in large part through the work of his two main disciples Kawahigashi Hekigotō and Takahama Kyoshi. In the postwar period, it became unquestionably Japan’s most widely practiced poetic genre, with many schools and masters claiming direct descent from Kyoshi and Hekigoto, and there are still millions of active practitioners in Japan today. Given haiku’s introduction to the English-speaking world and spread in popularity from the 1960s onwards, it’s arguably become one of the world’s most widely composed poetic forms; there’s a certain irony to the fact that haiku is often the only form of poetry taught in schools in English-speaking countries.
Can you tell us briefly about your current research project(s)?
My current project is a complete English translation of, and scholarly monograph on, Rai San’yō’s monumental history of Japan, the Nihon gaishi (‘An Unofficial History of Japan,’ first published 1827). The Nihon gaishi was a publishing sensation during the 19th century; it’s estimated, without exaggeration, that virtually every educated man in the Japan read it. In brief, the Nihon gaishi is a narrative history of the rise of the warrior class – the samurai – in Japanese history, but I like to describe it as the Game of Thrones of 19th century Japan, because it’s told in page after page of breathless prose describing murder, treachery, great battles, inspiring speeches, and warrior heroes. It’s really fun to translate, in large part because of its content.
The thread linking the two projects is one of kanshi and kanbun genres (the Nihon gaishi was written first in kanbun), and of literature and nationalism, since the Nihon gaishi is often credited with inspiring the Meiji Restoration through its portrayal of an emperor-centered polity as the proper and natural way for Japan to be. This, obviously, accorded with the aims of the Meiji government, and they seem to have had a significant role in canonizing the Nihon gaishi as a national classic after the Meiji Restoration. Partly because of this veneration within Japan, the Nihon gaishi was also being read and translated for overseas audiences (specifically, British, French, Chinese, and Russian) and this was happening much earlier than almost any other literary Japanese text, certainly ahead of the Tale of Genji or other Japanese works that have drawn attention as world literature. It’s a large-scale project, but I’m very excited about the contribution it will make to a wide range of discussions in the field of Japanese studies.