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Japan and Modernity

Japan and Modernity

The Root of Ambivalence

This is the first article of a series, Akutagawa: the Genesis, which is a part of a series named: Japan and Modernity. Whilst the series studies Japanese experience of modernity mostly through the analysis of Japanese cinema, Akutagawa: the Genesis focuses on some of the prominent figures in modern Japanese literature to examine the tension, ambivalence, and dilemma which arose from the way in which Japanese met the challenges of modernisation. Prior to undertaking this project, it is necessary to perform a quick overview of Japan’s modernisation by revisiting some of the key historic events. Thus, in this article, I shall provide a historic overview of Japan’s encounter with modernity in order to clarify the context in which the rest of the series should be situated. I hope that readers are able to obtain a clear sense of what ‘modernity’ means to Japanese by the end of this article.

Whilst Japan made contact with the West and established trade relations with Europe in the 16th century (Japan sold Japanese and Korean sex slaves to Portugal, and mass ordered European guns in return!), and some, like Akira Kurosawa, has suggested that the 16th century marks Japan’s first encounter with modernity, I shall side with the opinion that the fateful event happened in 1854 when Americans forced the Japanese government to open ports for free trade. (The 16th century Portuguese accompanied by Jesuits can be hardly called ‘modern’. Yet, Kurosawa’s point is interesting, and thus, I shall take it up later in a separate article for Post WWII Japanese Cinema I.) Prior to this event, Japanese were secluded from the rest of the world for three hundred years under the rule of Shogunate, which kept the sole point of contact to the rest of the world via Dejima, an island off Nagasaki, as a trade centre. 

Prior to the establishment of the shogunate, Japan was in a state of civil war for some fifty years, and Japanese had no cohesive national identity during the decades of extreme violence; in the period of constant war, suffering, and death, everyone was for oneself and oneself alone. Not even the code of conduct of the samurai warrior survived during this period; fathers killed sons, sons murdered fathers, and subordinates sought to replace their masters by brutal and underhanded means. As the central government was rendered non-consequential, each feudal domain strove to maximise its own power and territorial influence. This prolonged period of violence, cruelty, and death ended with the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate after the fall of Osaka castle, the seat of power of the Toyotomi clan who briefly united Japan. Whilst the Tokugawa Shogunate enforced 300 years of peace in Japan by establishing a totalitarian police state, it also purged foreign influence in Japan and cut itself off from the rest of the world. There is a general consensus in Japan that this period of seclusion created Japan’s unique cultural and social identity; regardless of whether one is for or against this isolationism and how one evaluates the historical significance of the Tokugawa period, it is hard to argue against the view that three centuries of isolation played a decisive role in the formation of Japanese national identity.

That being acknowledged, no identity can be adequately defined without the point of contact with the Other. And thus, the forced abandonment of seclusion by the military threat of Americans equipped with a modern navy was just as important as a lengthy period of isolation in regard to the formation of Japan’s national identity. After carelessly dismissing Westerners as ‘hairy barbarians’ for centuries, suddenly, Japanese found themselves under the threat of Western military superiority. Whilst some Japanese knew about the ruthlessness with which the West exploited the rest of the world, they were slow to respond effectively by introducing a comprehensive reform of Japanese society. This lack of response from the Shogunate prompted the Meiji Restoration, a military coup d’êtat led by samurais who realised the urgent need to modernise Japanese society, especially its military and industry, in order to secure its sovereignty and independence in face of the Western aggression. 

Despite bringing back the Emperor as the head of state, this upheaval is far from a comprehensive political reform or a revolution; it was staged by the ruling warrior class whose main concern was to establish and modernise a Japanese national army, and to introduce modern industrialisation. Despite the magnitude of transformation it introduced to Japanese society and its political system, the Meiji Restoration was not driven by philosophical concepts and did not produce a modern manifesto which is equivalent to, for example, the Declaration of Human Rights. Whilst the end of this massive social upheaval was to secure the national sovereignty of Japan, there were a few who saw an opportunity to fundamentally transform Japanese society during this period of uncertainty. For example, one of the leading figures of this period, Ryoma Sakamoto, who enabled the unified front against the Shogunate by successfully negotiating a truce between warring anti-Shogunate domains, embraced the modern ideal of establishing and safeguarding a democratic and egalitarian society; he was chiefly inspired by the US Constitution, and wished to create a truly democratic society in Japan. Yet, these thinkers were few and far between, and, against the background of what seems to be an imminent existential threat from Western powers, philosophical aspirations never had a chance to take centre stage. In the end, the Meiji Restoration as a movement was nationalist and survivalist in its nature. 


Amazement, Resentment, and Alienation

It is important to note that modernisation was represented to Japanese as a foreign, more specifically Western, paradigm. Whilst Japanese elites embraced modernity, such as its culture, philosophy, and political thoughts, with varying enthusiasm and curiosity, the effect of the initial encounter still remains today. For Japanese, modernity remains something fundamentally foreign, something to which they had to adopt primarily in order to survive. The initial experience of modernity as a foreign threat set the tone of the Japanese attitude toward it: it is an ambiguous mixture of admiration, curiosity, suspicion, and fear. The confusing mix of amazement and resentment on the part of Japanese toward modernity explains many phenomena, such as: Imperial Japan’s drive for military expansion (embracing not only Western science and technology, Japan adopted Imperialism, and tried too hard to prove its mettle against colonial empires); bizarre and extremely cruel characteristics of the Imperial Japanese campaign during WWII (the lethal mixture of modern weaponry and the myth of the Japanese warrior whose code of conduct can be only described as impossibly barbaric and blood thirsty); Japan’s denial of its war crimes during WWII (Japanese would be happy to point fingers at other nations’ war crimes); Japan’s peculiar mixture of exceptionalist national pride and an inferiority complex toward the West; Japan’s ambivalent attitude toward its traditional culture (traditional culture is romanticised in popular culture whilst it is cold-bloodedly discarded in order to satisfy the demand of liberal capitalism); and the recent revival of nationalism amongst the political elite despite what reason and historic experience illustrate.

Since Japanese have been always ruthless in their modernisation of society, the speed and aggressiveness with which they transformed their society created a deep angst and uncertainty over their national and cultural identity, not dissimilar to the manner in which Germans and Russians reacted to their own modernisation of their respective societies. This historic similarity in the context of modernisation at least partially explains why both German and Russian culture exerted formative influence in Japan before the end of WWII. German and Russian literature in particular played decisive roles in the development of modern Japanese literature. Reactions to the modernisation by the likes of Kleist, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky resonated with pre-WWII Japanese intelligentsia. Like their German and Russian counterparts, Japanese intelligentsia of the early 20th century interrogated their national and cultural identity. And thus they asked questions such as: What makes them distinct from Westerners when they adopt a foreign form of life?; Is modernity superior to Japanese tradition?; Why did Japanese fail to accomplish what their European counterpart achieved, such as the industrial revolution and the advancement of science?; What does it mean to be Japanese in a modern world? 

These questions have been asked time and again from the very beginning of the modernisation of Japan. For example, Soseki Natsume, who was sent to England by the Japanese government in order to become one of the first experts in the English language, and credited as one of the founders of modern Japanese literature, struggled with these questions throughout his career. In his novel, I Am A Cat, Natsume offers a biting satire of the confused process with which Japan’s modernisation advanced through the perspective of a cat adopted by a Japanese intellectual. Generally, his view of modernity and Western civilisation is critical, and he expresses his alienation from this entire process in his autobiographical novel, The Towers of London, which describes his experience during his stay in England. As in real life, the protagonist fell ill both physically and mentally, and he ends the novel with a confession of his wish not to ever return to England. Natsume’s sense of alienation from modernity, specifically Japan’s modernisation, is fundamental to understand Japan’s reaction to modernity. It not only represents the general attitude of his contemporaries; this attitude survives WWII and the Americanisation of post-WWII Japan. 

To fully understand the extent to which Japanese intelligentsia went in order to meet the demand of modernity, one must note that Japanese literature had to rebuild itself to the point that they had to completely reinvent the Japanese language itself. Japanese writers had to abandon centuries old literary and linguistic conventions. For example, Genbun Icchi Movement (Colloquialist Movement) was the first significant shift in Japanese literary tradition in wake of the Meiji Restoration. It advocated to write in ordinary spoken language and abolish the style established in antiquity. It is, however, an attempt which has never been fully realised; instead of using spoken language for literature, the proponents of this movement ended up creating a new style of Japanese writing, a new formality which replaced its predecessor. It is in fact as artificial as the old style, yet close enough to spoken language to make the matter more confusing, and contemporary Japanese writing, whether written for literature, cinema, or TV, still carries this legacy. The gap between spoken language and literary language survives in most language, and that is not a problem in and of itself. Yet, in the case of Japanese, modern writing leaves an artificial impression even to the native speakers. When a Japanese reads or hears conversations in a literary work, on TV, or in a film, one is fully aware of the artificiality of written or spoken lines. This awkwardness signifies the extent to which modernity and its process of implementation alienated the people of Japan from the language, the history, and the culture of their own. In short, nothing feels natural, or authentic, from that point on.


Akutagawa, And His Legacy

However, it is critical to remind ourselves that this ambivalence toward modernity, and the resulting sense of alienation, are not unique to Japanese intelligentsia. They took cues from German and Russian literature, and their 20th century counterpart (unknown to modern Japanese writers and thinkers until the end of WWII), such as Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, interrogate their personal confrontation with the modern human condition. Since I have articulated the way in which their alienation arose in my review of Bertolucci’s The Conformist, I shall refrain from repeating myself. However, reading some of the prominent figures from modern Japanese literature, especially the work of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, illuminates the unique characteristics of, and the limit of, Japan’s modernity. He is best known as the author of In a Glove, which is adopted by Kurosawa under the title, Rashōmon, which in turn is a different story written by the same author. Akutagawa’s impact on modern Japanese literature and culture is decisive, and he represents the dilemma of modern Japan so perfectly that his eventual suicide haunted the post WWII Japanese intelligentsia as the symbol of modern Japan’s failure. As the giants of post WWII Japanese literature, such as Kawabata and Mishima, are defined by the way each of them reacted to Akutagawa’s work and his legacy, the author of Rashōmon is arguably the most important writer in modern Japanese literature. This assessment remains true today, for the fundamental nature of Japanese relation to modernity is unchanged. Thus, what I am going to present with this series is the legacy of this tragic character by means of examining his work, his predecessor Natsume’s, and his descendants’. Whilst the ultimate objective of this series is not to advocate Akutagawa for a non-Japanese audience, if the readers find this series interesting enough to pick up his writing for close reading, there is no better outcome from my effort.