SOAS University of London

Japan & Korea Section, Department of East Asian Languages & Culture

Catherine Ames

BA University of Oxford, MA Birkbeck College
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Catherine Ames
Catherine Ames
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Thesis title:
Demystifying Taishō: Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Narrative Form and the Politics of Cultural Formation
Year of Study:
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I studied French and History as an undergraduate and completed my MA in Japanese Cultural Studies after working in Japan. My dissertation on the 1920s Franco-Japanese writer Yamata Kiku (Japan Forum, November 2008) allowed me to engage with notions of occidentalism, orientalism, hybridity and cultural othering which I take up in my PhD as I look at the politics at stake in the Taishō obsession with culture. Having begun my PhD at Birkbeck College under the inspirational Dr Nicola Liscutin, I was fortunate enough to be offered a research fellowship at Waseda University in Tokyo. I have now transferred to SOAS to complete my study.  All my postgraduate study has been part-time as I work full-time as Head of a French department in a secondary school.

PhD Research

During his lifetime and especially since his suicide, short story writer Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892 – 1927) has been made to embody various ideological positionalities, be it as the Taishō cosmopolitan, the hatefully withdrawn bourgeois aesthete or as the iconic national writer. The irony of this constant reincarnation would not, I argue, have been lost on this critical writer who was profoundly interested in the often oblique ways in which culture can be made to promote certain ideological modes of behaviour.

In my study I show how Akutagawa was most keenly interested in the powerful narratives which were being produced, disseminated and naturalised in the 1910s and 20s to make people do things. Whether it was the myth of the age of the gods as the foundation for the imperial imperative or the severe normativity of new middle-class notions of domesticity, the newly formed reading public were being conscripted to certain ideological positions. Akutagawa also saw that the force of such narratives lay in the complicity between certain types of narrative form and the politics of cultural formation. In particular he saw how the realist mode employed variously in the modern novel, philosophy, history and popular science alike, came to be the means by which a new kind of middle-class subjectivity was disseminated and held sway, all the more powerful in its invisibility. Fundamental to my study is the role of narrative in defining cultural values and the processes by which such hegemonic values are embedded, naturalised and become unopposable. My aim is to present Akutagawa as a sharp and often prescient cultural critic who helps us understand the fraught ideological terrain of the Taishō era as it was being formed through his unpicking of the competing stories which were being told to co-opt and coerce.