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Modernism, Realism: Hayashi Fumiko’s Metropolitan Vagabondage (1930)

Serialized in the first years of Japan’s modern Shôwa period (1926-1989), Hayashi Fumiko’s wildly popular Diary of a Vagabond (Hôrôki) recounts, in playful turns both confessional and elusive, its author’s formation in the provincial mining communities of southern Japan and the booming Tokyo metropolis of the 1920s. A testimony of personal life events written in an accessible vernacular style identifiable as feminine in voice, Hayashi’s Diary adapts a narrative genre that had been deployed to great effect by both Heian-era (794-1185) court ladies and generic stylistic innovators whose artistic output, as Thomas Lamarre has shown, contributed to an emergent nexus of literary cultures in the East Asian archipelago of that time. During the Heian-era efflorescence of the arts—on our wager, a treasure of classical precedent for global modernism’s long view of history—it was, however, most often aristocratic women’s scriptive language, composed in the lexicon of “nativist” phonetic simplicity (kana), as distinct from the “continental” ideograms of male-identified Chinese script (mana), that demonstrated the unique graphic sensibility of a femininized writerly hand—(w)onna no te or (w)onnade.[1] Sei Shônagon’s Pillow Book (Makura no sôshi; c. 996) and Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari; c. 1010) stand as exemplars of that period and genre. Around 1930, Hayashi Fumiko’s modernist (modanisuto) revival of Heian-era aesthetics in her Diary marks a signal instance of global modernism’s vast socio-realist imaginary—the inextricability, in other words, of global realism from the world of modernism.

While the political inflections of Hayashi’s subaltern participation in a gendered subset of modern literary culture are powerful, I suggest reading Hayashi’s text both from afar and up close in the terms of “distant” global modernism and “local,” if globally embedded, realism.[2] Of course, this logic of itinerant “global” form (the novel, for instance) and situated “real” content (material and social ontologies) borrows from Franco Moretti’s seminal essay “Conjectures on World Literature” (2000). Yet as Moretti notes, his own sociological “conjecture” was indebted to Fredric Jameson, who was, in his turn, in the early 1990s, adapting material from Karatani Kôjin’s deconstructionist account of the “origins” of modern Japanese literature.[3] Despite its conceptual debt to a reading of modern literature in Japan, Moretti’s model has been critiqued for its diffusionist model of Anglo-French exemplarity and inattention to critical nuance.[4] We can supplement Moretti’s account of distant reading, then, with Harry Harootunian’s history of “co-existing or co-eval modernity” in Japan’s interwar period. Signally, Harootunian, in a Marxist cultural frame, moves beyond theories of a “retroactive” or “alternative” modernity that impose a hierarchy of value in comparative studies of the transnational twentieth century.[5] As it reveals some theoretical affinities with Western ideologies of modernity, Harootunian’s notion of a “co-existing or co-eval modernity,” in the context of “modern” interwar Japan, also aligns with Shu-mei Shih’s logic of imperialist, “Japanized Orientalism” on the scene of Sino-Japanese relations in Republican China’s May Fourth Period (1915-1921).[6] Taken together, Harootunian and Shih afford a broadly global and regionalist theoretical frame for situating Hayashi’s realist Diary as a singularly modernist-metropolitan product of the early years of Japan’s expansionist Shôwa period.

Modern(ist) Temporalities and Global Realisms

In a recent consideration of Cold War-era revivals of thirties/forties’ realism versus modernism debates, Joe Cleary historicizes “Eastern bloc” versus “Western bloc” polemics over realist inheritances—for the Soviets, Georg Lukács as spokesman of the working class, and for the Americans, Erich Auerbach as patron saint of wordliness—as a clash between the postwar ideologies of communism and capitalism. At the same time, in Cleary’s account, the antiestablishment experimentalism of modernist literature provided some of the core tropes of emergent postcolonial critique.[7] As these remarks make clear, realism and modernism do not sit inert as literary-historical signifiers, impervious to sociological change and contextual revision, but rather reconfigure themselves ever and again in new global contexts.

Jameson, for instance, has hypothesized a co-emergence of realism and modernism in early twentieth-century Japan that, in some sense, concretizes Cleary’s insights. In his essay on Natsume Sôseki’s last novel, Light and Darkness (Meian), Jameson proposes that, where “modern irony”—itself often attendant upon the mysteries of linguistic and cultural translation—persists as a literary sensibility in the Euro-American tradition across the realist-modernist nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the ironic modality of the “modernist” Sôseki suggests comparison with the ironic modalities of the “modernists” Samuel Beckett and Marcel Proust.[8] Jameson then turns to a discussion of modernist temporality that has implications for discourses of realism. In a version of the East versus West polemic that Cleary sets up in the context of the Cold War, Jameson writes:

Any speculation about Sôseki ought to include a discussion of whether in Japanese social life in this period there existed the same kinds of bourgeois stereotypes about everyday life that were constructed in the West during the realist period and which had in the modern already entered into crisis and become the object of satirical or Utopian condescension. . . . [O]ne could imagine a situation, in the modernizing East, in which the construction of bourgeois everyday life (the realist moment) took place simultaneously with its modern moment. Indeed, the wondrous rhythms of the daily life of Sôseki’s characters—what Genette called the iterative; what, in Proust, constructs the very idea of a routine and a daily life in the first place—are here seemingly at one with a virtually modernist distension of temporality. (Modernist Papers, 300)

In the case of modern Japan, Jameson speculates that a modernist “distension” of the temporal order occurs more or less simultaneously with the “iterative” narrative conventions of realist verisimilitude. The new experimentalisms of Japanese modernism appear, then, to intertwine themselves with realist practices in a literary-historical dialectic of approximately synchronous historical forces across the global East and global West.

If one were to side with Lukács’s modern realism of social totality over Ernst Bloch’s modern surrealism of social fracture in their 1930s debates over the nature of the aesthetic “real,” then the bourgeois conditions of modernity should always be legible through a Marxist dialectic of unity and disunity.[9] Importantly, this dialectic would reinstate, at a ground level, a larger history of mutually implicated realisms and modernisms. In fact, Lukács’ market-driven flux—public and material as much as private and psychological—is clearly entertained in Hayashi’s modernist-realist narrative. Quintessentially modernist in its temporal fungibility and assumptions of self-reference—“Surrounded by the din of this cafe, it was trying to even write a line in a diary,” one diary entry winks to its reader; and in another, we read, “When I’ve taken care of business, I’ll take out my diary from the period and read it”—yet quintessentially realist, too, in its preoccupation with vernacular socialities and idiolects, Hayashi’s Diary reflects at one and the same time both modernist and realist prerequisites.[10] And Hayashi writes from within a culture that is both external to Euro-America and classically sympathetic with its modern cultural programs, confirming Harootunian, Shih, and Jameson’s insights about East-West convergences. In sum, then, disfigurements of diegetic time work alongside Heian-era allusiveness to make Hayashi’s Diary—itself ironic in its non-aristocratic riff on classical aristocratic literacy—a global modernist text while these same modernist sleights of the time-telling hand make clear Hayashi’s own realist preoccupation with Japan’s cresting imperial modernity around the year 1930.

Lyrics, Histories, Clocks

In the Diary, modernist play with authorial self-reference extends to a “confessional” encryption of modern derivations of classical Heian-era form and language. In the last month that the Diary records, Hayashi’s itinerant narrator makes an entry that registers a striking encounter with a specter from that bygone era: “I stared in fascination at the landlady, whose teeth were blackened like in the old days” (210). Interpellating the reader all along, the story moves toward closure cyclically as it resumes the transitional season in which it began—winter. At close, in the Diary, as the narrator meets the Heian past, a wintry context mirrors, therefore, and reinforces the beginning of the story. And in this seasonal pattern of echo and response, Hayashi adapts the lyrical sounds of Heian-era women’s uta monogatari (poem tales) to her own modernist context (Ericson, Woman, 59–63). In the same entry that observes Heian “blackened teeth,” the narrator sets the scene by referencing the snow that her friend and roommate, Toki-chan, welcomes with a popular song: “Though you see the swirling light snowfall drift, / It disappears, without a trace, an evanescence. / Willows may sway gently / In the spring, the dawn of the heart,” Toki-chan croons. Occasioned by the sentimental space of winter, the vocal register of this girl’s lament is prefigured in the first framing poem of the story—itself redoubled throughout the Diary in the several dozen lyrics interspersed throughout the narrative—that the tanka poet Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912), Hayashi’s near contemporary, provides as a paratextual port-of-entry into the post-preface matter of the tale. Responding to snow, the introductory verse from Takuboku reads, “Alighting at a station at the end of nowhere, / In a bright snow / I enter a lonely town.” So celebrated, Hayashi’s narrator, the writer’s persona in some guise, arrives in the big city in or around the Euro-American “High Modernist” year 1922.[11]

Still, Hayashi’s narrator does toe the line between Jameson’s account of modernist experiment in narrative temporality and the counter-movements of a contrapuntal realist objectivism, predicated on the stiff architecture of capitalist ideology. First, concerning modernist temporality at a global scale, it is clear at the most obvious level of figural representation in the Diary that diegetic time is bifocal. The time of the narrative is measured in temporal regimes both “traditional” (Japanese) and “modern” (Western). A nocturnal writer, as Hayashi was herself, the narrator observes the time: “Resting my head on the wooden pillow, I heard the two a.m. clacking of wooden clappers by the night watchman from the licensed quarters” (Ericson, Woman, 97; Hayashi, Diary, 204). Elsewhere, in another month, it is an Austrian “cuckoo clock” that tells the hour: “I composed this poem in my head as I lay restless in bed. Downstairs, the cuckoo clock struck three” (160). Compounding this sense of vertiginous temporal bifocalism is the fact that the entries use only the structuring principle of the month to mark their sequence and progress; there are no years or days in Hayashi’s “confessional” history. Proleptically, the non-differentiated cyclicality of Hayashi’s narrative—recurrent wintry seasons, echoic songs—seems heavily prefigured in the symbolism of bodily marking that the young heroine observes, in the Diary’s preface, on a thumbless prostitute who works the local mining precincts of Kyûshû. There, the narrator, then a wide-eyed child, tells, “A snake tattooed in a circle all around [the prostitute’s] belly was sticking a red tongue out at the navel. This was the first time that I had ever seen such an impressive sight” (125). Self-reflexive and meta-diegetic in its modular experiments with narrative time and authorial perspective, Hayashi’s Diary ratifies altogether some of our canonical assumptions about modernist innovation. But it is not only in this way that we may understand the Diary’s preoccupations.

Onna-Femme/Subaltern Feminism

A suffering realist, Hayashi’s heroine often goes hungry, suggesting at the same time the wider socioeconomic implications of that experience. “Despite past declarations about honor in poverty, those last five cheap sweets failed to convince my stomach,” she cries, thickening the refrain of economic struggle that runs through the story. In the same entry, Hayashi’s pseudo-self continues, “Hunger and sex! Could I get a bowl of rice by doing what Toki-chan did? Hunger and sex! Wanting to cry, I chewed on these words” (213). The patent if unstated direct object of Toki-chan’s “doing” is the middle-aged man that she visits in exchange for expensive gifts. Ultimately, as locally conditioned actors within a global network of imperialist modernity, the narrator and Toki-chan have divergent wage-earning trajectories: one becomes a sustainably paid writer and the other a handsomely paid escort. To get to her position as a paid writer, however, our metropolitan narrator of the provinces follows a disjointed path of temporary, low-paying employment in Tokyo. She tries to work at the Italian Embassy, as a nanny for an established Japanese writer, as a peddler of men’s underwear, as a worker at a celluloid doll factory, and, recurrently throughout, as a waitress in neighborhoods bordering the edges of the urban prostitution industry.[12] Exiting regional poverty and entering economic independence at the intersection of global-metropolitan crossroads, Hayashi’s realist-modernist protagonist instantiates a version of Christopher L. Hill’s traveling “figure” in discourses of nineteenth-century naturalism. Hill’s “formal transpositions” of Zola’s Second Empire Nana from discourse and into movable character, or figure, all as a modular reflection of changing social theories and methods of representation, reveal temporal and spatial dislocations of female personhood in the Diary as yet another powerful instance of translatability across the transnational nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[13]

We might also translate the Marxist-realist dialectic of consciousness and class relations that Lukács puts in evidence in the 1930s to the way Hayashi’s narrator flips often and erratically, throughout the Diary, between hermetic private musing and engaged public language. If Hayashi’s reflective heroine is a kind of revived “Nana” on the political scene of the 1930s, then she skirts, too, the edges of feminist “individualism” on the model of Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts and A Critique of Imperialism,” refracting a counter-imperialist critique which can’t help but be embedded in imperialist-capitalist epistemologies that exploit the lumpen periphery through ascriptions of gender and identity. As the narrator struggles to make ends meet with the few sen she earns as a poet and ad hoc temporary worker, we see these contortions of self in evidence. A spliced diary entry tracks the protagonist’s chronic loneliness as a citizen of the world. Hayashi’s realist stance takes up, therefore, not only Spivak’s call for a critique of feminist individualism but also the spirit if not the letter of her classic postcolonial counter-ideology of non-transparent feminist subalternity. Here, then, free indirect discourse cuts without buffer to indirect discourse: “I was lonely. Worthless. I wanted money. I wished to walk all alone along one of the fragrant acacia-lined avenues of Hokkaido,” the narrator muses to herself; then we read, “‘Are you already up?’” It was unusual for Isori to be calling to me from the other side of the shoji. “‘Yes, I am.’” (Diary, 159). A haphazard transition from inner parole to social langue—a call, beyond the partition of the shôji, to wake up and engage the public—limns in text the heroine’s socio-economic struggle in Tokyo’s social margins, the appeal of escapist reverie pulling against the necessity of getting down to the urban working day.[14] A global realist indeed, the narrator, subsisting in the so-called periphery of metropolitan culture, collectivizes her plight: “There was no shortage of suffering women,” one diary entry summarizes (175).

Global Spaces

To understand Hayashi’s Diary in a twentieth-century world order of transhistorical realist and modernist transmission, we ought to think ourselves out of prescriptive accounts of Japan’s Meiji restoration (1868)—its “opening” to “Western” modernity—and against canonical histories of global-imperialist and global-capitalist exchange. Pascale Casanova, citing Haruhisa Kato, has held that a “phagocytosic” (omnivorous) principal of constant, robust civilizational innovation generates a strong if inscrutable tradition of modern Japanese literature. Of course, in Casanova’s towering story of modern allocations of world literary space, a West-centered emergence of capitalist logics of international competition at global scale and local literary rivalry at local scale affords the socioeconomic grid on which a Paris-centered cultural temporality gets configured as the omphalos of literary modernity.[15] Prior to her death, Hayashi’s late-career desperation to return to Paris, where she had visited in her first blush of success after the Diary’s publication, would seem, on a surface level, to endorse Casanova’s Gallocentrism.[16] But such readings are too easy. As a corrective, Christopher Thorne’s analysis of Casanova’s ultimately colonialist anti-colonial paradigms of thought, in her literary republic’s affixing of “abstract” modernism to internationalism/cosmopolitanism and “concrete” realism to nationalism/localism, helps disaggregate ever further rigid hierarchies of place.[17] Furthermore, where a Eurocentric summary of Japan’s contribution to modernist literary culture is patently inadequate, we should look to Christopher Reed’s recent monograph on global dialectics of queer japonisme. With an eye toward recovering the trope of modernist “alienation” as a positive, radical force involving shifting, opportunistic profit- and pleasure- seeking affiliations with home cultures (Japan or the West) on the one hand and cosmopolitan foreign locales (Japan or the West) on the other, Reed’s multidirectional schema for reading cosmopolitan Japanese culture fits well the multivalent aspects of Hayashi’s global-modernist scope and local-realist imperative.[18] More recently still, Grace Lavery’s queer historiography of Victorian attachments to a “quaint, exquisite” phenomenology of modern Japan, at once temporally alternative and subversive of high-modernist mandates of abstraction, offers fresh new perspectives for the minor world of minoritized subjects that Hayashi’s Diary constructs for its diverse readers.[19]

Sensitivity to an economic politics of transnational exchange, formalized through global-modernist literary techniques, makes Hayashi’s Diary legible at the scale of both global modernity and local realism. Where a playful harkening back to Heian-era cultural conventions betoken Hayashi’s classically modernist deployments of mythological revival, and name the terms of her modernist renditions of narrative time, her engagement with realist modalities of subaltern representation makes her an agent, of a kind, for de-centered voices beyond the global pale. While Hayashi would take a turn toward fascist complicity (itself a perennially modernist problem) during Japan’s protracted Asia-Pacific wars, in the earlier historical moment of the Diary, she is at pains to give literate voice to the otherwise illiterate prostitutes—women from the imperial peripheries of Korea, Manchuria, and Sakhalin—whose histories of sexual labor go untold (Diary, 170–83). That Hayashi does all this from within a framework of simultaneously elite and non-elite modernist and realist discourses makes her a virtuoso writer of the transnational twentieth century.


[1] Thomas Lamarre, Uncovering Heian Japan: An Archaeology of Sensation and Inscription (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 107–13.

[2] See Joan E. Ericson, Be a Woman: Hayashi Fumiko and Modern Japanese Literature (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), 25–33.

[3] See Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” in Distant Reading (New York: Verso, 2013), 43–62, 49–59. I am most indebted to Hoyt Long, at the University of Chicago, for elucidating this connection.

[4] See, for instance, Elaine Freedgood, Worlds Enough: The Invention of Realism in the Victorian Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019). Freedgood attends to Moretti’s misreadings of global critics of national literatures, Karatani Kôjin among them; in this way, Moretti can be seen to perpetuate the myth of an original European genre of the novel, “seamless” in its integration of innovative narrative techniques that effectively capture realist content.

[5] Harry Harootunian, Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture, and Community in Interwar Japan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), xvi–xvii.

[6] On Japan’s “mediation” of Occidental modernism, in Republican China, and “Japanized Orientalism” more generally, see Shu-mei Shih, The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 16–30, 140–44.

[7] Joe Cleary, “Realism after Modernism and the Literary World-System,” Modern Language Quarterly 73, no. 3 (2012): 255–68, 263–66.

[8] Fredric Jameson, The Modernist Papers (New York: Verso, 2007), 307: “The unfurling of a wave of modern irony over late nineteenth-century European culture—beginning with Flaubert and Baudelaire, and then becoming the explicit program of a host of novelists from Henry James to Gide, not to speak of the relativism of newer playwrights like Pirandello or of the point-of-view poets like Fernando Pessoa, with their multitudinous personae—is a sociological event, as well, and signals the porosity of the middle classes to their Others, whether within the nation state, in the form of hostile subaltern classes, or outside it, in the form of the colonized.”

[9] See Georg Lukács, “Realism in the Balance,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, in Aesthetics and Politics, (New York: Verso, 2007), 28–59, 30–36.

[10] Hayashi Fumiko, Diary, trans. Joan Ericson, in Be a Woman: Hayashi Fumiko and Modern Japanese Literature, 119–219, 167, 208.

[11] Biographers agree that Hayashi arrived in Tokyo in 1922 (Taishô 11). With its dynamic modernist engagement of classical voice, Hayashi’s Diary extends and amplifies the purview of Thomas Lamarre’s transhistorical study of Heian-era “cosmologies” of poetic form. Lamarre’s resistance to a post-facto importation of nationalist, “domesticating” discourse on the analysis of classical waka poetry sees an unexpected ally in the Euro-American “modernist raid on the [poetic] frame”—Pound’s fragmentary inhabitations of Sappho, for instance, or his theory of imagiste “superposition” (see Lamarre, 1–10, 127–30).

[12] On the theme of prostitution, in the Diary, as a Derridean transgression of genre that extends beyond considerations of form, see Seiji M. Lippit, Topographies of Japanese Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 164–67, 179–85.

[13] Christopher L. Hill, “Nana in the World: Novel, Gender, and Transnational Form,” Modern Language Quarterly 72, no. 1 (2011): 75–105, 97–99.

[14] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (1985): 243–61, 243–45, 254. In her reading of the analytic affordances of symptomatic, localized predication, Spivak’s famous rejoinder to Freud’s 1919 linguistic diagnostic finds therefore a new, perhaps unexpected, global ally in the tracks of Hayashi’s narrative psyche (see “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988], 272–313, 296).

[15] See Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, trans. M. B. DeBevoise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 87–88, 106–107, 387n27.

[16] See Mushanokôji Saneatsu, “Hayashi Fumiko no shi [The Death of Hayashi Fumiko],” Bungei, September 1951, 18–19.

[17] See Christian Thorne, “The Sea is Not a Place; or, Putting the World Back into World Literature,” boundary 2 40, no. 2 (2013): 53–79, 59-67.

[18] See Reed’s discussion of modern Japanese self-mythologization as “Occidentalism” or “Reverse Orientalism” in Christopher Reed, Bachelor Japanists: Japanese Aesthetics & Western Masculinities (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 10–17, 291–93; see also Reed, “Alienation,” in A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, ed. Eric Hayot and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 11–28.

[19] Grace E. Lavery, Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), 106–12; on Alexandre Kojève’s regard for the always-already snobiste “post-historical” postmodernism of Japan across three centuries, and its foundational relation to his evolving views on Hegel, see Lavery 28–30.