The Christian Century in Modern Japanese Fiction
Christians are a tiny minority in Japan, less than one percent of the total population. Yet Christianity is ubiquitous in Japanese popular culture. From the giant mutant “angels” of the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise to the Jesus-themed cocktails enjoyed by customers in Tokyo’s Christon café, Japanese popular culture appropriates Christianity in both humorous and unsettling ways. By treating the Western religion as an exotic cultural practice, Japanese demonstrate the reversibility of cultural stereotypes and force us to reconsider common views of global cultural flows and East-West relations.
Of particular interest is the repeated reappearance in modern fiction of the so-called “Christian century” of Japan (1549–1638), the period between the arrival of the Jesuit missionaries and the last Christian revolt before the final ban on the foreign religion. Literary authors as different as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Endō Shūsaku, Yamada Fūtarō, and Takemoto Novala, as well as film directors, manga and anime authors, and videogame producers have all expressed their fascination with the lives and works of Catholic missionaries and Japanese converts and produced imaginative reinterpretations of the period. In Holy Ghosts, Rebecca Suter explores the reasons behind the popularity of the Christian century in modern Japanese fiction and reflects on the role of cross-cultural representations in Japan. Since the opening of the ports in the Meiji period, Japan’s relationship with Euro-American culture has oscillated between a drive towards Westernization and an antithetical urge to “return to Asia.” Exploring the twentieth-century’s fascination with the Christian Century enables Suter to reflect on modern Japan’s complex combination of Orientalism, self-Orientalism, and Occidentalism.
By looking back at a time when the Japanese interacted with Europeans in ways that were both similar to and different from modern dealings, fictional representations of the Christian century offer an opportunity to reflect critically not only on cross-cultural negotiation but also more broadly on both Japanese and Western social and political formations. The ghosts of the Christian century that haunt modern Japanese fiction thus prompt us to rethink conventional notions of East-West exchanges, mutual representations, and power relations, complicating our understanding of global modernity.
In Holy Ghosts, Rebecca Suter has produced a well-researched, fascinating, and often provocative study of modern and contemporary fictional renderings of the Christian Century . . . Holy Ghosts deftly elucidates the Christian dimensions of what Suter calls Japan’s ‘anxiety of influence’ vis-à-vis the West; perhaps the logical next step for those building on her accomplishments will be to resurrect some of the Asian ghosts that still remain partially obscured by the binary of Japan and the West that has prevailed in the postwar, Anpo era.
The book’s strength lies in the fascinating collection of media featuring the Christian figures, and in Suter’s analyses of the significance of those figures’ evolving gender and cultural ambiguity. . . . the book succeeds in offering an invaluable study of the ways in which the Christian figures of the Tokugawa period are used by modern authors to reflect and also affect the discourse of their times.
Rebecca Suter combines a sweeping yet critically rigorous imagination with thorough and painstaking research to produce a wide ranging and fascinating book. Christianity in Japan is a challenging and exciting topic and Suter ably explores the varied approaches that Japanese culture has taken towards it, from ‘pure literature’ to manga. Her chapter on the Christian works of the great modernist writer Akutagawa is by itself an impressive contribution to the field of Japanese literary studies. But her work on Christianity in Japanese popular culture is even more provocative. Ranging from the spiritual to the technological to queer theory, she provides us with an exploration of the dynamic between the Christian religion and Japanese culture that is both broad and deep and always dazzling in the intellectual force of its arguments.
In the wake of ‘Cool Japan,’ an increasing number of instant Japanologists have started talking about interactions between Orientalists and counter-Orientalists. But without an understanding of Japan’s historical involvement with Christianity since the sixteenth century, comparisons between East and West make little sense. Holy Ghosts is a highly creative and brilliantly erudite intervention in this cross-cultural controversy. Now that compilation of the Showa Emperor’s annals has revealed his deep respect for the Vatican as the ultimate mediator in World War II, anyone who wants to discuss the cultural history of postwar Japan will find it impossible to avoid starting with Rebecca Suter’s bravely constructed reconsideration of the Christian century.
Rebecca Suter’s creative new book engages concretely with existing scholarship but also extends the discussion of Japan’s Christian literature into bold new territory. Drawing on a wide range of critical work and a compelling array of literary texts—from canonical fiction to popular visual culture—Suter constructs a nuanced argument with an elegance and clarity that make the book a pleasure to read.
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