Constitutive aporia of literature: the case of Kitamura Tōkoku’s theory of literature

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Immediately before the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1894, one heated debate took place among Japanese intellectuals regarding the question: is writing literature a purposive activity? Confronting Yamaji Aizan (1865–1917), Kitamura Tōkoku (1868–1894) underlined literature’s non-purposive quality. Because of Tōkoku’s strong emphasis on literature’s transcendence, scholarship from the later period oftentimes read Tōkoku’s theory against a backdrop of his biography, idolizing this writer as an ultimate advocator of literature’s autonomy. Even in more recent scholarship, the biographical reading of Tōkoku’s work appears prevailing, reinforcing the primacy of biographical historicization. This article challenges such a scholarly predilection and offers fresh understanding of Tōkoku’s theory of literature as the dialectics of historicity and ahistoricity. What Tōkoku posits as pure literature ultimately poses an aporia; it exists only as an impossibility, whose realizability and sustainability are pre-empted at its gestational moment. Taking pure literature’s aporia as a point of departure, this article delves into the implication of the historical claim of literature’s ahistoricity. Tōkoku’s logic operates in a self-cancelling manner, not to overcome, but to dislocate that aporia. Closely examining Tōkoku’s rhetorical move, this article demonstrates that coinciding formation and dislocation of the aporia is in fact constitutive of the pure literature envisioned in Tōkoku’s theory. Precisely because of this aporia, pure literature can serve not as a divider between, but as a relaying point of, historicity and ahistoricity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)731-755
Number of pages25
JournalJapan Forum
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author would like to thank Atsuko Ueda, Federico Marcon, Ron Wilson, and Wakako Suzuki who have read varied incarnations of this project. The paper was presented at the annual convention of the Association of Asian Studies in 2019. The primary materials used in this article were accessed at the National Diet Library and the Meiji Newspaper and Periodical Archives (Meiji Shinbun Zasshi Bunko) at the University of Tokyo.

Publisher Copyright:
© Copyright © 2019 BAJS.


  • Kitamura Tōkoku
  • Meiji period
  • Yamaji Aizan
  • pure literature (junbungaku)
  • the interrelation-with-life debate (jinsei sōshō ronsō)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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