Literary walks are recommended for discovering the charm of works

Every year I offer a course of lectures entitled Walking in the Urban Space at the Liberty Academy, the recurrent education institution of our university.

Although they are called lectures, we do not only sit in the classroom but also step out of it and visit places related to works and writers. By doing so, we reread Japanese modern literature from the perspective of urban spaces such as Tokyo.

There are several aims of this course, but I personally feel that I want to extend this attempt to younger generations and do something about the trend of young people turning away from literature.

For example, if I ask students how many books they read per month, 50-60% answer that they do not read any, and 20-30% answer that they read one book approximately. If I ask this question to students in any other university, the situation is almost the same.

Moreover, if the students are not from the School of Arts and Letters, they have almost never read any of the so-called masterpieces in the history of literature.

I think there are various causes for the decreasing interest in literature. One of them is that it is difficult to visualize literature works by just reading the letters. In other words, the young in the visual generation cannot visualize the story world with letters only and find it difficult to understand the fun of appreciating works.

Therefore, I think that it may trigger them to have a new interest in literature if they can feel the story world in a more realistic way by actually visiting streets and places where the works are set, instead of only following letters.

Let me take the famous work by Soseki Natsume, Kokoro (1914) as an example. If we visit Zoshigaya Cemetery, where the story was set, we can feel the death of the character realistically. Our interest in the author increases as well because there is the grave of Soseki himself. By being conscious about someone’s death, I think we can visualize the world of the story more vividly.

Through such experience, by feeling closer to literary works, I am hoping that young people’s increased interest in literature will lead to their motivation to read other works further.

It could be said that this is a significant utility which the attempt to reread literary works from the urban space perspective has. Furthermore, also for literature fans, I think that repeating such literary walks can allow them to generate new recognition or various kinds of awareness concerning works.

The reason why I came to think like this is that traditional literature studies focused on writers, and locations of the story were regarded merely as backgrounds and were not valued so much and slighted for understanding of works.

In fact, the discussion revolved around reading and understanding the world of stories based on the writer’s biography and reading the sentiment of characters. I think many of literature fans also often appreciate works from such a perspective.

However, there was a Japanese literature scholar who proposed a new method by which reading and understanding literature works from the perspective of place. This is Ai Maeda, a Japanese literature scholar who published many writings from the 1970s onwards.

Thinking about the story from the place of work by Ichiyo Higuchi

In recent years, a concept called chirei or genius loci has become known. Hiroyuki Suzuki, a historian of architecture says that chirei means something like a memory of a land or an association connected with a land, and the cultural, historical and social memory which the land has.

Each land has some sort of atmosphere. I think terms like “power spot” also come from this kind of feeling.

When we think about Japanese modern literature from the concept of this chirei, we can see that many of the structures or themes of stories are connected closely to the land in which the work is set.

For example, many Japanese modern literary works are set in Tokyo. Towns in prewar Tokyo were places where the social gap was explicitly shown.

Liberty Tower at Meiji University is located in Surugadai, Kanda, Tokyo. The Thirteenth Night by Ichiyo Higuchi (1895), is a story about Oseki, who is a daughter of a poor samurai family, living downtown, down the hill of Surugadai. Oseki was fallen in love with by and married Harada, a high-ranking official, and started living in a mansion in Surugadai.

However, Oseki was bullied and oppressed in various ways in the upper-class house, and she could not bear the suffering. She went to her parents, who moved to Shinzaka, Ueno and pleaded for a divorce from Harada.

But, admonished by her father, Oseki reluctantly returned to the mansion in Surugadai. On the way, she noticed that the man driving the rickshaw that she happened to ride was Rokunosuke, a childhood friend with whom she had shared mutual feelings. Oseki came to know that Rokunosuke had become desperate and was in reduced circumstances because she married the higher-class official.

The gap between the downtown area where Oseki’s parents’ house was located and the uptown area where mansion of Harada, a high-class official, was located is depicted in the work as their class difference, and the gap impacts the main character Oseki and her family. Rokunosuke, the childhood friend of Oseki, is depicted as a son of a tobacco store owner in Kanda-ogawamachi. The change in his circumstances is stressed by his move from Ogawamachi, a commercial area, to Asakusa, where there were many cheap lodgings. Thus, by knowing the meaning of where they live, the reality of the story will be shown more vividly.

In fact, streets and places are not only the background. The atmosphere and history of the place influence the creation of characters and convey their thoughts and minds more realistically to the reader.

Growing Up (1895-1896), again by Ichiyo Higuchi, depicts the subtle loving feelings of an innocent girl and a boy. But the story is set in Yoshiwara area. Yoshiwara, which had been a red-light district since the Edo period, is a so-called town for adults. Why did Ichiyo write a story about an innocent girl, based in such a town where women were living in severe circumstances?

Stressing the contrast of courtesans and a girl, perhaps she wanted to express the fateful pain and sadness of what the girl’s growth led to, the innocent girl also ending up as a woman in the red-light district.

It is not only this girl’s fate, but also the fate of boys who had no other option than having to inherit the family business and could not resist it. And it is also painful for people living in the Yoshiwara neighborhood.

If we visit this Yoshiwara area in the literary walk and encounter a part of the remaining red-light district times, we can feel anew the atmosphere of the story and the minds of characters more closely. That could also be the work of chirei, which transcends time.

Interaction of place and work

In his work, Soseki Natsume writes in very much detail about towns in Tokyo. By writing in detail, like what is there in which block and what is there along which slope, he seemed to feel that the reality of the characters and works were being built up.

Other Japanese modern writers such as Ogai Mori, who made a map of Tokyo by himself, Kafu Nagai, who took a walk almost every day in the streets of Tokyo, seemed to have a sharp sensitivity to capture the relation between the place of the city and the story.

Places stimulate people’s imagination, and stories which were generated by such imagination keep updating the power of chirei of the land. I think such interactions exist.

Literary walks, which give us a world view of the story through specific places, are both old and new, and a rich skill, bringing new interest in literature by rereading literary works from the urban space perspective.

In the literary walk based on Eirei no Koe (The Voices of the Heroic Dead) by Yukio Mishima, when we visited the monument (at the side of Yoyogi Park) of soldiers executed in the February 26 incident, a female participant suddenly started to cry.

When we read Eirei no Koe, which depicts the chagrin of young officers executed and being stigmatized as insurgents, despite standing up for changing Japan, believing in the Emperor, and then actually stand in front of the monument, by the interaction generated between the work and the place, a strong imagination of the world of the story seems to arise.

Why do we need to read literary works in different times? For example, the situation of girls and women depicted by Ichiyo Higuchi is unthinkably harsh under the current idea of gender equality and human rights awareness.

However, there are adolescent feelings and the sadness of women living in adversity, which we can relive, even if the times have changed, and perhaps they are evocative for us.

Or, someone who seemingly lives his/her life without any problems, triggered by a small event, can sometimes discover the reader himself/herself unexpectedly, from the story of struggles in anxiety and pain.

Of course, everybody has his/her own fun in reading and appreciating literary works. However, if he/she is not yet aware of the best part of it, it is quite a pity.

Through looking at the literary works from the viewpoint of streets, land, or places by literary walks, if we could feel the reality or three-dimensional appearance of the story, which could be difficult to understand just by following the letters, the fun of reading literary works could increase further.

Moreover, if we can make a new discovery or gain awareness from it, I think we can start to see the significance of reading literary works in our own way.

* The information contained herein is current as of December 2022.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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