Religion, nation, art : Christianity and modern Japanese literature
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My dissertation aims to uncover the complex relationship among religion, literature, and national identity by considering the case of Christianity in modern Japan. Although Christianity was never successful in propagating its religious messages to the masses in the history of Japan, the re-introduction of Christianity in the late nineteenth century left a surprisingly powerful impression because, for many Japanese writers, it presented the “Western spirituality” against which they defined their religious, national and even artistic identities. By examining the works of two non-Christian authors, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892-1927) and Yokomitsu Ri’ichi (1898-1947), and one Christian author Endō Shūsaku (1923-1996), I show how the encounter with Christianity was often crucial to sculpting perceptions of Japanese identity, religion, as well as art in the twentieth century. For the cosmopolitan Taishō author Akutagawa, Christianity was one of the motifs that stimulated his artistic production. Juxtaposing Christianity’s “power that destroys,” he celebrated Japanese religion’s “power that re-creates,” likening it to the process of artistic creation. A devotee to art throughout his life, Akutagawa maintained his unfaltering belief that the ultimate creator is art, and not God: he even re-created Christ into an artist in his final essay. Yokomitsu’s last novel, A Traveler’s Sadness demonstrates how Christianity acts as the catalyst for the establishment of Japanese national identity. Written mostly under Imperial Japan, the novel showcases the fear for the loss of Japanese identity in the face of overwhelming Western influence, as well as the urge to establish one, utilizing Ancient Shinto as the source. Ironically, however, it is discovered only when pitted against Christianity, the foreign religion. Endō began his career as an author because he wanted to reconcile his conflicting Christian and Japanese identities. Even though he initially scrutinized his native country of Japan and its religion with his internalized, critical Catholic gaze, his artistic endeavor gradually transformed Endō into what I call a “catholic” Catholic: he came to embrace Japanese religions and heritage without denouncing his Catholic faith. Even though these three authors had different motivations and issues to tackle, their negotiations illuminate how complex and interconnected are the relationships among their religious, national and artistic identities.