Patterns in the Ashes: Disaster Fiction and the Making of Early Modern Japanese Literature

Patterns in the Ashes: Disaster Fiction and the Making of Early Modern Japanese Literature

David Atherton - Assistant Professor, Department of East Asian Languages & Civilizations, Harvard University

Friday, April 13, 2018 - 12:00pm to 1:30pm
Room 102, Rosenkranz Hall See map
115 Prospect Street
New Haven, CT 06511

The ominous implications of disasters—fires, floods, earthquakes—are clear in the literature of Japan’s medieval period: they portend unrest in the realm, suggest the corruption of the powerful, and underscore the futility of human ambition. When the shogun’s capital of Edo was devastated by fire in 1657, and the imperial capital of Kyoto was shaken by a destructive earthquake in 1662, a little more than a half-century into the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns, the question of how the nascent world of print fiction would treat these two events was therefore a charged one. This talk examines contemporary works depicting the two disasters: Stirrups of Musashi (Musashi abumi, 1661) and The Pivot Stone (Kanameishi, 1662). Both were authored by Asai Ryōi (?-1691), one of the most innovative and influential writers of the world of seventeenth-century print fiction. Ryōi turns to a number of medieval literary tropes in the process of crafting these disasters in words; and yet each of these tropes is transformed in the telling, such that what emerges from the ashes and rubble are not portraits of a polity on the brink, but of a robust realm under wise and steady leadership. Examining how these transformations are effected offers clues to the ways popular print literature formulated new relationships between fiction and information, the secular and the sacred, politics and nature—and encourages us to reassess the blurry line that separates the medieval and early modern literary worlds. 

David Atherton is an assistant professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, where his research focuses on early modern Japanese literature and culture. He is currently working a book project exploring the representation of violence in early modern Japanese popular fiction and theater, and he is in the early stages of a second book project on the imagination of authorship and literary creativity in early modern Japan.