Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


Date of this Version



Japanese Language and Literature: Journal of the American Association of Teachers of Japanese. | Vol. 54 | Number 1 | April 2020

DOI 10.5195/jll.2020.89 ISSN 1536-7827 (print) 2326-4586


Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 United States License.


Known as the exponent practitioner of kokubungaku (national literature), modernist ethnologist Orikuchi Shinobu (1887–1953) readily utilized archaic Japanese experiences as viable resources for his literary imagination. As the leading disciple of Yanagita Kunio (1875–1962), who is known as the founding father of modern folkloric ethnology in Japan, Orikuchi is often considered a nativist ethnologist whose works tend to be construed as a probing into the origin of the nation. He considered the essence of national literature as “the origins of art itself,” and such a critical vision arguably linked him to interwar fascism.1 Nevertheless, his nativist effort as a literatus was far from the nationalist ambition of claiming a socio-cultural unity. On the contrary, Orikuchi invested his erudition to disentangle the concatenation of the nation, religion, and people and thus presented ancient Japanese experience as discursive molecules rooted in each locality. In this regard, his novel Shisha no sho (The Book of the Dead, 1939) plays an instrumental role of insinuating the author’s nuanced modernist revisionism. Within the context of the 1930s interwar period, modernist discourses by intellectuals such as writers and scholars endeavored to search for a fixed identity. For example, Harry Harootunian comments on Japanese people of the time—they tried to configure themselves “in relation to the pre-capitalist origin” through articulation of “a poetics of historical repetition” that could counter the socio-cultural discontinuity that preoccupied the country since the age of the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912). 2 Through Orikuchi’s retrospective gaze upon the remote past, the novel belongs to the collective modernist effort in quest of the origin of a national folk tradition and its experience. As the title symbolically renders, the story invocates the voices of the dead that were left unheard, and as a result implicitly dismantles Japan’s singular ambition to be an empire, an idea propagated during the 1930s.3 In the service of his trans-temporal intervention to the Nara period (710– 794) when the imperial court placed the capital in Heijōkyō, Orikuchi delves into (as Harootunian states) the primordial “origins of art” before “being aestheticized,” and thereby “contest[s] the conception of [ancient Japanese people as] a unified subject.”