Conference Description

Rethinking Hihyō: The Politics of Literature and the Literature of Politics in Early Postwar Japan

March 4-5, 2011

In the wake of the disaster of 1945, as Japan was forced to remake itself from “empire” to “nation” in the face of an uncertain global situation, literature and literary criticism emerged as highly contested sites.  Today, this remarkable period holds rich potential for opening new dialogue between scholars in Japan and North America as we rethink the historical and contemporary significance of such ongoing questions as the meaning of the American Occupation both inside and outside of Japan, the shifting semiotics of “literature” and “politics,” and the origins of what would become crucial ideological weapons of the cultural Cold War.

This conference revisits the most pressing problems of early postwar Japan intellectual life, with a specific focus on the role played by literary criticism (bungei hihyō).  Literary criticism in Japan long existed as a unique genre in which broad social, cultural, and philosophical discussions took place via the “literary,” a category that enjoyed an absolute value that is hard for us to imagine today.  Mobilizing this discursive tradition and its unshakeable faith in “literature,” postwar critics carried out a vigorous, sometimes violent, debate over the basic tenets of human subjectivity and ethical responsibility.  They battled to define the potential of revolutionary democracy, the connections between humanism and Marxism, and the proper relationship between literary arts and political activism.  In the process, they established paradigms through which Japanese literature would be understood for decades to come.

We will focus on the famous 1946-7 “Seiji to bungaku ronsō” (the politics and literature debate), as well as on its afterlives in subsequent literary and cultural affairs.  Carried out between writers affiliated with the journals Kindai Bungaku (Modern Literature) and Shin Nihon Bungaku (New Japanese Literature), the dispute involved such figures as Hirano Ken, Ara Masahito, Odagiri Hideo, Katō Shūichi, and Nakano Shigeharu—all giants of postwar intellectual life.

The conference will introduce path-breaking scholarship and new translations that explore this crucial event, as well as its subsequent ramifications in the literary and other fields.   Papers will be presented in English or Japanese.  It is the culminating event in a collaborative research project organized by faculty and graduate students from the University of Chicago, Princeton University, and Waseda University, and follows workshops held at Princeton in March 2010 and at Waseda in July 2010.