WEAI Author Q&A: Arthur Mitchell 'Disruptions of Daily Life'

March 25, 2021

We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book seriesDisruptions of Daily Life, Japanese Literary Modernism in the World, published by Cornell University Press. The book’s author, Arthur Mitchell is an Assistant Professor of Asian Languages and Cultures at Macalester College. 

Disruptions of Daily Life explores the mass media landscape of early twentieth century in order to uncover the subversive societal impact of four major Japanese authors: Tanizaki Jun'ichirō, Yokomitsu Riichi, Kawabata Yasunari, and Hirabayashi Taiko. Arthur Mitchell examines this literature against global realities through a modernist lens, studying an alternative modernism that challenges the Western European model. 

In highlighting the unbreakable link between literature and society, Disruptions of Daily Life reaffirms the value of modernist fiction and its ability to make us aware of how realities are constructed—and how those realities can be changed.

We thank Professor Mitchell for taking the time to discuss his latest book with us.


Q: First can you introduce yourself and your research interests?

My name is Arthur Mitchell, and for the past 8 years, I have been at Macalester College teaching courses on literature in Japan. My interest in literature began with early experiences of feeling set free through the process of reading creative fiction. It was not so much an escape as it was a feeling that I could see the world anew, with fresh eyes. Since then, I have been fascinated by this power of literature to liberate. Through my academic studies, I have endeavored to find the links between this experience of new vision to struggles for political freedom. My study of modernism in Japan represents my first formal attempt to identify and articulate this link.


Q: Can you introduce formalist Japanese modernist literature? What defines this movement/category? How does it fit in with the wider literary landscape of the time? [‘modanizumu’ vs. ‘modernism’?]

The primary feature of modernist fiction was a pronounced focus on the material aspects of the language in which a story is told: everything from the sibilant sounds of a syllable, the syntax that organizes the concatenation of words in a sentence, or on the largest level the geometrical form of the narrative shape itself. Writers of modernist works were keenly attuned to the way that how something is said is almost more important than what is being said, and they exploited this new prioritization to create vibrant, ingenious, and (I argue) socially subversive works of art. Convention states that modernism as a literary movement began in Western Europe and was subsequently adopted by “regional” nations like Japan that were trying to assimilate into the global structure of power. But I believe the reality is more interesting. Writers of modernist works in both places were responding to the same thing: a form of writing – realism in Europe, the I-novel in Japan – that ignored the material aspects of language, completely prioritizing the what over of the how, even assuming a type of natural and transparent form of narration. This mode of writing, moreover, was complicit in fascinating ways with the spreading of middle-class conceptions of social cohesion and homogeneity. Thus, the insistence of writers on the form of language in their writing was more than just an artistic flair. It was an attempt to expose assumptions that governed the way people imagined their lives.


Q: What did daily life in the late-Taisho, early Showa 1920s look like? And what does it mean to “disrupt” daily life?

Part of what made the 1920’s in Japan such a fascinating decade was that the way in which ordinary people imagined their lives became a subject of social concern in a way it never had before. A burgeoning mass media industry of newspapers and magazines fueled (and was in part fueled by) an incessant topic of public conversation during this decade: how it is that individuals should live their lives. Journalists, educators, and housewives wrote countless articles on how to improve, streamline, rationalize, and Westernize one’s lifestyle as a way to achieve cultural sophistication and contribute to the productivity of the nation. Advertisements used this imperative to sell everyday products like soap and pens. Government agencies were even created to promote these domestic practices of efficiency. “Daily life” (or seikatsu) was the banner term under which these reforms were advocated. The term had been in use for some time but, in the 1920s, the prescriptions for reforming daily life became more minute, more intrusive, and more directed at the whole population that they ever were before. At one point, “daily life” reform was even linked directly to the recovery of the ethnic spirit of the Japanese nation.

Works of modernist literature pitted themselves against these social ideologies of efficiency, discipline, and ethnic essentialism. But they did so not so much through their plots, but through their use of language. Modernist works assimilated the language of daily life reform, but undermined the logic of that language and thereby revealed the ideas they supported to be contingent and constructed instead of natural and normal. It is in this way that modernist literature disrupted “daily life,” taking the reader outside of their sense of normalcy and putting them more directly in touch with real historical conditions.


Q: In Disruptions of Daily Life, you look at the language of mass media and bring not only a “historical awareness to the language of literary texts,” but also reveal “a literary awareness to the language of media texts.” Can you elaborate on the relationship between literature and the mass media? How do literary language and the social language of mass media overlap or diverge?

In the late 1910’s, some literary critics, at pains to define what Literature was, drew a distinction between language that was used to communicate information (social language) and language that drew attention to itself and was thus used for non-utilitarian purposes (literature). While this was a powerful distinction, it has since been used to help establish a prejudiced hierarchy in which literary art studies, in the disinterested purity of its subject, sees itself above fields associated with utilitarian languages of the mass media. The distinction between literary language and non-literary language, moreover, has been projected backwards to ahistorically delineate literary developments, inventing a divide that was not ever there in the first place.

This book seeks to address both fallacies. Surveys of mass media and readings of literary works in the 1920s demonstrate that there was no obvious difference between the language of novels and the language of the mass media. The formalistic turn of modernist fiction was powerful precisely because of its employment in a narrative that was understood as social language. This corrective, in turn, necessitates a recalibration in the assumptions the field of literary studies brings to the reading of historical texts. First, it insists that an awareness of the way a novel’s language was part of the language that circulated in society of a given time is essential for understanding the artistic power of the work. Second, it demands that we see the way the language of media, far from simply utilitarian, is often just as much invested in shaping the imagination of its readers as any literary text; and often with more practical success.


Q: Disruptions of Daily Life focuses on the works of four particular authors, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, Yokomitsu Riichi, Kawabata Yasunari, and Hirabayashi Taiko. Why did you choose to focus on these four authors?

With the possible exception of Hirabayashi Taiko, all of the writers discussed in this book are canonical writers of modern Japanese fiction (Hirabayashi is just now beginning to get the critical attention she deserves). This was important, because if I was going to make a convincing argument about the development of literary history in Japan, it was necessary to bring in major writers. But ultimately, more than the writers themselves – who represent great diversity in political views and artistic trajectory – were the specific formalist works they wrote during the 1920s. The book argues, after all, that modernism was a historical development within a literary genealogy. You do not have modernist writers, so much as you have modernist works; or writers who responded to and participated in a particular convergence of literary developments with socio-historical events. Thus, the four works I selected – Tanizaki’s A Fool’s Love (1924), Yokomitsu’s urban fiction (1925), Hirabayashi’s “In the Charity Ward” (1927), and Kawabata’s Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (1929-30) – contain the major threads of literary response to historical events that occurred in this decade. A Fool’s Love, Yokomitsu’s urban fiction, and Scarlet Gang, all in their own ways address the issues of daily life reform as they are inflected by the central event of the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake. “In the Charity Ward” references the earthquake, but ultimately focuses more deeply upon the assumptions of gender that undergird and go unquestioned by all three of the other works.


Q: Although your focus is on Japanese modernist literature of the 1920s, you suggest that the disruptiveness of modernist works continues to be relevant, and seek to demonstrate “the dynamic way modernism operated within history as a disruptive practice.” Where else might we look—across history or more recently—to see this subversiveness at play?

In many ways, modernism and its methods of subversion are now outdated. As critics have pointed out, advertisement has absorbed modernist practices, such that the originally radical focus on form and materialism of language is now repurposed to promote national ideologies and sell products. Artists have reposted with the hyper self-consciousness of avant-garde, conceptual art, and camp. These too have in their own ways become absorbed, and their initial subserviseness neutralized or coopted. Finally, today’s media landscape is much more dominated by visual media – movies, tv shows, tik-tok videos – than by textual media. But modernism (and its successors) remain useful and relevant to us because of the suspicion it gave birth to towards the naturalness of the media we are immersed in. It was modernism that first directed our attention to the means of meaning production, and taught us to be critically aware of the invisible and implicit messages that they can and often do contain. It is modernist suspicion, for instance, that can help us to detect the subtle but ubiquitous messages we absorb about gender, race, and economic class that implant and bolster the contemporary systems of inequity. Though the form of media has changed, its place in our lives and its hold upon our psyches has not; if anything, it has gotten many times worse. Modernism is essential to us today as a spirit that continues to resist the claims mass media makes upon our minds, insisting on the possibility and the necessity of a liberated imagination.