Russian literature: An important and popular media to disseminate ideas in Japanese anarchism

In the book Anarchist Modernity, the author Sho Konishi reveals the interplay of Japan and Russia in the formation and evolvement of anarchist ideas. On the side of Russian thinkers, like Mechnikov, are fascinated with the cause and result of Meiji Ishin. His view on modernity and civilization is based on the observation of Ishin later influenced Kropotkinism and Japanese intellectuals who would turn this vision into one of the most important conceptual foundations for modern cultural life in Japan.1 On the side of Japan, a huge amount of translated literature flows across the boundary of these two nations and becomes popular and very influential among Japanese thinkers. That’s why Sho Konishi pays particular attention to translation as a methodological strategy. Russian literature is an important medium for the intellectual communication between Russian and Japan. These translated texts are very popular among Japanese readers, even some of the texts are banned by the government, they are still circulated by readers privately. Reasons for their importance and popularity among Japanese anarchists are the unique function of Russian literature and the cultural foundation of Japanese anarchism.

Literature and novels can become important media are not just because they are more entertaining than any other genre. In TSFL, the program established by Mechnikov and continued by Russian revolutionary exiles, translation courses are taught, many graduates from this program later become active participants in translating Russian literature into Japanese. One of the most prominent figures in this group of people is Futabatei Shimei.2 Compared to the literature style in other nations, Russian literature carries the responsibility of educating the people and improving society. Writers in Russia are convinced that literature should contain intellectual and ideological meanings and they will act as the tool of awakening people to fight for a better life and world. Philosophy, ideologies, and thoughts are expressed through literature.3 Futabatei also shared this similar thought: “To awaken the people, they had made the pen into the point of a spear. There was a difference of only one step between the pen and a bomb.”4 The belief in the capability of literature also affected Chinese writer Lu Xun, who imitates Gogol wrote A Madman’s diary in the hope of awakening Chinese people. Russian literature is an honest mirror of Russian ideology, by investigating what kind of Russian literature is popular among Japanese anarchists, Sho Konishi is able to find out what kind of ideology or thoughts was welcomed and embraced by them.

The other reason why Japanese anarchists are attracted to Russian literary works is because of their social and cultural focuses. The themes of Russian literature are mostly social, cultural, and religious. For example, Tolstoy’s Resurrection has a focus on the social and everyday life aspect with religious elements, a nobleman comes to realize the miserable life commoners live in. Japanese anarchists have the focus on people of the society rather than the people of the nation. Both Kotoku’s definition of the concept of heimin and artists Yamamoto’s creative print Ryofu (Fisherman) reflect this idea.((Ibid, p. 169-70.)) Anarchist revolutionaries do not aim to reform the political structure, they believe that only social revolutions can ultimately improve and change the lives of people, and advance the civilization process of humans, any form of government cannot achieve this goal. The emphasis of Russian literature fits the core idea of Japanese anarchists. This similarity becomes the motivation of Japanese anarchists to be more interested in and to promote the reading of Russian literature.

These inner qualities of Russian literature, as the carrier of Russian ideology and the lens of looking into commoners in cultural and social life, are factors of its importance in disseminating ideas in Japan, especially its influence on Japanese anarchist movement.

  1. Konishi, Sho, Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013, p.32. []
  2. Ibid, p.130. []
  3. Liu, Wenfei, E Guo Wenxue Yanjianglu, The Commercial Press, 2017, pp.185-6. []
  4. Konishi, Sho, Anarchist Modernity, p83-4. []