To What Extent Is Futabatei's Ukigumo, Japan's First Modern Novel?
During the Meiji period, Japan was faced with a plethora of issues regarding its future. One of these issues was the future of Japanese literature. At that time, novels were still regarded as a third rate art form in Japan, though foreign books were highly sought after by the Japanese public. There were many ways to write Japanese, each system with its own use for specific occasions. And yet, the idea of writing in the style of natural conversational Japanese was considered radical and inappropriate for literature by the general public. Most foreign novels were translated poorly, into a writing style known as kanbun-chô which was mostly based around Chinese loan words. As a result, this style had a very rigid and legal feel, due to Chinese
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Ukigumo was different from other Japanese novels of the same period due to a number of important developments. Firstly, Futabatei participated in the development of the genbun itchi style of written Japanese, and wrote Ukigumo in this style. This was important in allowing for better character personification through the use of colloquial language and standard conversational dialogue. Secondly, Futabatei had concentrated on developing his story around the characters, rather than a contrived plot. In fact, the story takes place in only a few locations, and there are only four notable characters. Thirdly, rather than have the protagonist be a flawless hero or a God, the protagonist of Ukigumo, Bunzô, is human and prone to the mistakes and logical fallacies of a human being. He is in many ways, his own worst enemy throughout the novel, much as we are all subject to from time to time. The result is a very relatable character. At the same time, there are no antagonists in Ukigumo per se. The only possible rendering of an antagonist is the character Noboru, due to the fact that he is competing with Bunzô for the attention of the girl, Osei. However, Noboru is not evil, nor is he malicious in any way towards Bunzô or anyone else within the story. Moreover, Bunzô and Noboru are carefully constructed metaphors to describe the changes Japan faced during the Meiji era.
“The shift is too rapid to be anything but