The primary foreign influence on early Japanese socialism was the work of Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), Russian essayist, pacifist and, of course, author of some of the most significant works of 19th century world literature. Although portions of his novel “War and Peace” had been published in Japan as early as 1886, it was in 1889 and 1890 that Japanese translations of Tolstoy’s fiction and philosophy, and accounts of his life, began to appear in Japanese journals.
Tolstoy’s ideas on the individual, religion, society, and politics were of immense influence on the “young men of Meiji,” the generation coming of age in the last decade of the Meiji period which lasted from 1868 to 1912. As the historian Steven Marks puts it: “His writings encapsulated in highly readable form the Russian philosophical stress on the illusory nature of Western progress, and the virtues of either backwardness or delaying the onset of Western modernization, ideas that reverberated throughout the non-Western world.” This resonance was particularly strong in Japan, a nation struggling with many of the same issues regarding modernization, industrialization, and its relationship to the West as Tolstoy’s Russia.
Tolstoy held a deep respect and appreciation for Asian culture, dabbled in Buddhism, and denounced Western imperialism and colonialism, urging non-Western peoples to resist (nonviolently) becoming slaves or puppets to the West and its ideals. His outspoken opposition to the Russo-Japanese War won him many adherents among students, progressive intellectuals, and the Japanese left (including many Christians and Buddhists), while rendering him a pernicious influence in the eyes of the late-Meiji and early-Taishō administrations.
As a result, combined with a more general fear of the growth of radical thought among the young, in the decade between 1905 and 1915 Tolstoy was among those authors whose works were targeted as being detrimental to public morals. To the chagrin of government officials and associated ideologues, however, the Russian writer’s influence continued to grow throughout the Taishō era (1912-1926), so much so that a new term was coined—Torusutoishugi—to describe the popular phenomenon of adopting a “Tolstoyan lifestyle.”
One important legacy of Tolstoy in Japan is his particular concern with the peasantry and agricultural reform. The so-called “rediscovery” of the Japanese countryside in late Meiji is sometimes attributed to his influence. That is not to say that there were no indigenous roots to this turn to the countryside: Zen Buddhism has long held to the ideal of a simple, rustic existence, while the practices of folk Shinto are rooted in visits to rural shrines. Yet the contrast one finds in Tolstoy between the “countryside” as the locus for true humanity and the “city” as the emblem of strife, unease, and suffering, was new to Japan, though it grafted readily onto 19th century nativist appeals to agricultural productivity and peasant life as a solution to Japan’s problems.
Tolstoy and his followers have frequently been labeled “anti-modern,” based on a simplistic conflation of modernity and urban culture. Indeed, while Japanese leftists were attracted to Tolstoy’s agrarian romanticism as a response to Western (bourgeois, urban) civilization, his work contains elements that are distinctly “modern(ist),” including his rationalist interpretation of religion. Despite official disapproval, by the early Taishō there was a feeling that Japan’s adoption of Tolstoy (along with the more obviously modernist Henrik Ibsen) was a sure sign that the country had emerged into the “modern world” and the early Meiji impulse had paid off.
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