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A National Subject: The Reception and Instrumentalization of the Western Concept and Genre of ‘Tragedy’ in Meiji Japan

Sun, June 26, 5:00 to 6:50pm, Shikokan (SK), Floor: 1F, 115


The reception of Western ‘tragedy’ – as concept and genre – straddled the dying days of the Shogunate and the Imperial Restoration which peremptorily replaced it. Because the ‘moment’ of tragedy hinges on ruptures in historical, social, and moral continuity, Meiji intellectuals were fascinated by the idea. Hiraoka Toshio has described Meiji as a ‘tragic age’. This belies, however, the contested meanings internal to ‘tragedy’ and their potential expediency. This paper charts tragedy’s reception from 1855 to 1907 to identify the intersections between its understanding and its utility. It argues that one dominant strand configured ‘tragedy’ as a bulwark against universalizing ‘enlightenment’, a tool to construct a ‘national’ subjectivity.

After examining early lexicographical evidence, this paper introduces the Meiji era dramatis personae central to its plot. Ōgai’s rejoinder to Ningetsu’s 1890 pamphlet ‘Theory of Hamartia’ (/Zaikaron/) had profound and unforeseen ramifications. Ōgai defined tragedy as an heroic confrontation with suffering (/hisō/) in contrast to Ningetsu’s conflation of tragedy with the pathetic (/hiai/). While Tōkoku’s 1892 essay ‘On the Concept of the Other World’ (/Takai ni taisuru kannen/) symbolized a resistance to the instrumental view of tragedy, Ōgai – expediently distorted – provided rhetorical armoury to Chogyū. The later’s project, evidenced by his 1895 ‘Fate and Tragedy’ (/Unmei to higeki/), sought to deploy tragedy in a system of national education. Chogyū hoped to mould an independent Japanese subject both anti-Christian and anti-universal, selectively expropriating the ‘tragic’ qualities of courage, perseverance, and acceptance of fate as auxiliaries in a constructive response to a ‘national’ necessity.