Tayama Katai’s “The Quilt” as an I-Novel Short Summary

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            Tayama Katai’s “The Quilt” is regarded “as the prototypical shishosetsu” (Fowler xvi) and is often discussed as the first marker for the emergence of the genre which influenced almost every other writer/genre of the period. Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit in her book “Rituals of Self-Revelation: shishosetsu as a literary genre and socio cultural phenomenon” says “ ‘Futon’ is considered to be not only the first work of the genre but also a model…” (Hijiya-Kirschnereit 14). Fowler says, Katai’s “Futon (The Quilt, 1907), more than any other single text inspired a reading of the sh?setsu that challenged its fictional autonomy and thereby set the modern Japanese letters on a course that continues… to the present day” (Fowler 103). However, “A precise measurement of its influence is perhaps impossible, but the critic Toru did not exaggerate a great deal when he declared in 1950 that only three major Post-Restoration authors (Natsume Soseki, Koda Rohan and Izumi Kyoka had written no shishosetsu. It is a form in other words, with which nearly every early twentieth –century Japanese writer experimented at some time in his career; each had to come to terms with its legacy, its attractions, and its pitfalls” (Fowler xvi).

What is Tayama Katai’s “The Quilt” about?  How is it a Shishosetsu?

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The Dark Theme of the Novel

The subject matter of the “The Quilt” is typically Shishosetsu. With Charles Darwin, Katai considers hereditary a determinant factor in the development of one’s character. He goes beyond realism to probe into the forces that influence the actions of his central characters. The supernatural, the idealistic or the symbolic have no place in his novels.  The subject matter of the novel is imbued with sexuality and pessimism and borders on the dark and the uncouth. Therefore, “The Quilt” is an undisguised account of the almost soul destroying passion that a teacher feels for a young and beautiful girl student committed to his care and who admires him. He is forced by concerns with proprietary and the position of trust he occupies to conceal his feelings and do what he thinks is right for his student. The conflict between passion and duty presented from a third person perspective with authorial intimacy that underlines the dark vein that runs through the shishosetsu

“For three days he had been struggling with that torment. Part of him had a sort of strength that made it impossible for him to abandon himself to indulgence. He always regretted being controlled by this strength, but sooner or later he was always beaten and forced into submission by it. For this reason he was obliged always to taste the bitterness of standing on the outside of destiny, and was considered by society to be a correct and trustworthy man” (Katai 50).

Later when he realizes that his student has a lover and that she is attracted to youth rather than to him, Tokio is shattered.

“He was sad, truly deeply sad. His sadness was not the sadness of florid youth, nor simply the sadness of lovers. It was more profound and greater sadness, the sadness inherent in the innermost reaches of human life. The flowing of moving waters, the withering of blossoming flowers—when encountering that irresistible force which is deep within nature, there is nothing wretched nor as transient as man” (Katai 55).

His conviction that Yoshiro has lost her virginity to Tanaka provokes him to entertain purely exploitatively sexual thoughts about her:

“He was furious to think how he had done his serious best to help their love, yet all the while having Yoshiko taken from him body and soul by some student. If things had reached that stage—if she had given up her body to Tanaka—then there was no need for him to respect her chastity as a virgin. It would be in order for him, too, to make a bold move and satisfy his sexual desire…” (Katai 89)

Interwoven into this basic tale of conflict, are related issues that “include the problem of “identity”, the trauma of Westernization and the correlation between the present and the past (and by extension the future), which continues to confront the Japanese people, compelling them into a perpetual negotiation between preserving tradition and being modern” (Hijiya-Kirschnereit 17).

Tokio is a lonely man. He had been “completely disillusioned of the pleasures of newly wedded life” (Katai 38). His work and his life had ceased to hold any attraction for him. “As for his monotonous existence, he was thoroughly and absolutely bored with it” (Katai 38). In short, his identity had been all but eroded in the grind of domesticity and he was even bored with “searching for foreign novels to read” (Katai 38).  Even nature seemed to conspire to make his “banal life even more banal” (Katai 38).  So Tokio observes:

“His was the anguish which in reality every man feels in his mid-thirties. Many men of this age flirt with low –class women for the sake, in the final analysis, of curing this loneliness. And many of those who divorce their wives are of this age” (Katai 38).

The protagonist’s awareness of western literature and his reference to “great’ works while in keeping with the tenets of the shishosetsu also serves to highlight the characters feelings and the underlying dark theme of the novel. As Soon ng points out in his essay “Tarrying with the Numinous: Postmodern Japanese Gothic Stories”:

 “Some of these issues—all of which revolve around the “self”—include the problem of “identity”, the trauma of Westernisation, and the correlation between the present and the past (and by extension the future), which continue to confront the Japanese people, compelling them into a perpetual negotiation between preserving tradition and being modern” (Soon ng 2).

Tokio is a writer. He has read a lot of western literature and has been greatly impressed by them. He sees parallels with his own life in Hauptman’s Lonely People.  He appreciates the loneliness of the protagonist in that novel, his un-understanding wife. In fact, he begins to live the life of the protagonist the moment his Yoshiko appears on the scene.  “He had read the work some three years before,…since then he too had been a lonely man. He didn’t go so far s to try to compare himself to Johannes, but he did feel, with great sympathetic understanding, that if such a woman as Anna, Johannes’s student, appeared, then it was only natural if things ended in such a tragedy” (Katai 37). When Tokio’s wife comments on Yoshiko’s modern ways, he dismisses her as “old fashioned” and encourages her to be western in her outlook on life.

Tokio would also proudly preach this ideal to Yoshiko. “Nowadays women have to be self-aware. It’s no good having the same sort of attitude of depending on others as the women in the past. As Sudermann’s Magda says, it’s hopeless if you go straight from your father’s hands into your husband’s, with no pride in yourself. The modern woman in Japan must think for herself and then act for herself.” He would go on to tell her about Ibsen’s Nora and Turgenev’s Elena, about how rich in both feeling and willpower were the women in Russia and Germany, and would then add, “But self-awareness also involves self-reflection, so you mustn’t simply go throwing your willpower and ego about recklessly. You must realize that you have full responsibility for your own actions.”(Katai 45).

Naturalism and “The Quilt”

In the naturalist treatment of his subject matter Katai was influenced by Zola. Zola attempted to find explanations for human behavior in natural science and was skeptical of organized religion. Fowler quoting Zola points out that Zola regarded the novelist as a stenographer who “forbids himself to judge or draw conclusions; Nature is all we need…we say everything; we no longer select, we do not idealize” (Fowler 105). Katai espousing Zola and his naturalism is concerned with irrational motivations for human behavior that is manifested as sexuality and violence. However, “Katai….differed plainly from [the]…French precursors, because the latter would not hesitate to generalize about the whole range of human experience,” and he [Katai] was not intent on universalizing experience. He was focused on individualizing it and projecting it as close to the “real” as possible using the language as a transparent and flexible medium of expression. Fowler observes, “The notion that the writer’s task was to transcend everyday life by a process of modification (as Zola put it) or ‘illusion” producing (as Maupassant put it) was precisely what Katai resisted  most, conditioned as he was by non-teleological narrative tradition, by an intellectual climate conducive to private musings, by a movement to rid sh?setsu of fabrication in order that it might take its place among the more prestigious literary forms, and perhaps by the language itself, which as we observed so clearly privileges the narrator’s consciousness in the written reportative style, whether first-or third-person” (Fowler 107).

The Autobiographical in “The Quilt”

            Many of Katai’s audience were aware that the protagonist of The Quilt has been presented with an irony.  The readers were naturally drawn Tokio with whom they felt an affinity and a sympathy. Therefore, it is no wonder that Shimamur Hogetsu (1914) said “This work is a bold and outspoken confession of a man of flesh” (In Tomi Suzuki 70). This was interpreted as an ‘expression of self’. A few read the novel as an autobiography written in third person.

Hence it is not surprising that many critics regard the protagonist Tokio in The Quilt as Katai himself. This is because of there is often a strong and “intrinsic relationship between work and context” in Japanese literature (Hijiya-Kirschnereit 14).

However, is the novel really autobiographical? Katai himself pointed out in 1909 that he “had no particular motives” nor was he making a personal confession in the Futon or The Quilt. He insisted that it is not an autobiographical novel. He says:

It was not a confession. Nor did I deliberately select those ugly faces. All that I did was present reality as I had found it in life…My only concern as an author was to know to what extent I had succeeded in depicting that reality, to know to what degree I had approached the truth through my writing” (Suzuki 91).

Tomi Suzuki seems to agree with him while dismissing the importance of the autobiographical element in the novel on other grounds, and saying that Katai was actually interested in an “objective portrayal’ of his character, rather than in a confessional:

“Although some contemporary readers interpreted Futon as an autobiography written in third person, Katai’s own literary concerns at this time were probably focused not so much on self-portraiture as on an “objective portrayal” of a man from a new literary perspective, that of “true Naturalism” which had an overwhelming aura for Katai and his contemporaries. Katai’s primary concern appears to have been objective description of the subjective world of the protagonist; an objective description assumes the transcendental perspective that he called the “subjectivity of great nature” (Suzuki 79)

            However, after a few years, in his literary Memoirs Katai accepted that The Quilt was autobiographical and the protagonist in the novel is himself. This makes the novel truly an I-Novel.

In those days my body and soul were fascinated by Gerhart Hauptmann’s Einsame Menschem. I felt as though [Johannes] Vockerat’s loneliness were my own. Both with regard to my family life and my career, I felt that I had to destroy the old patterns and somehow open up a new path. Fortunately through my imperfect but extensive reading, I had been exposed ot new ideas form abroad, particularly from Europe. I felt that agony of the fin de siecle also manifested itself in the philosophies of Tolstoy, Ibsen, Strindberg, Nietzsche, and other writers. I too wanted to tread the painful path. I decided to fight bravely against society as well as against myself. I decided to try to reveal what I had kept secret, to disclose what might destroy my own spirit. I decided to write about my own Anna Mahr, who cased me to suffer for two or three years, ever since the spring of the year that brought the Russo-Japanese War” (Suzuki 92)

The Language and Structure of the Narrative

To Katai, the nearest one could come to individualizing the experience was creating an actor-audience relationship and using a structure that is akin to the diary, a confessional or an autobiography. So the autobiographical intent in “The Quilt” collapses the generic boundaries between essay, diary, confession and other non fictional forms and presents the narrative as a monologue that faithfully records the experience of the protagonist. While the story remains in the natural realm and is realistic, this technique then exploits the tensions between fictional and non fictional modes of representation to create an autobiographical form that gives a naturalistic presentation of life.  Edward Fowler (1988) commenting on the I-Novel and the characteristics of the genre says:

“…The shish?setsu (more formally watakushi sh?setsu; commonly translated as “I-novel”), [is] an autobiographical form that flourished in Taish? Japan (1912-26). The shish?setsu, narrated in the first or third person in such a way as to represent with utter conviction the author’s personal experience, is riddled with paradoxes. Supposedly a fictional narrative, it often reads more like a private journal” (Fowler xv)

Katai was very conscious of the actor-audience relationship in his fiction. The intimacy between the actor and the audience was also possible due to the homogeneity of the audience and its limited size in the initial years.  The readers could recognize the persona of the author in the fiction’s narrator and this drew the audience closer to the narrator hero and created a bond that was often stronger than the reader’s affection for the text of the narrative. Out of this emerged the concept of Bundan or close literary circle.  Therefore it is not surprising, that while several critics have ridiculed it as “a failed adaptation of the western novel” (Fowler xv), others have “reveled in its difference” (Fowler xv).

“The difference lies not so much in its autobiographical “purity” (as the Japanese literary establishment, or bundan, would have us believe), however, as in its ultimate distrust of western-style realistic representation from which it has presumably borrowed so heavily” (Fowler xv).

Sandra Buckley in her book “Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture” says:

“The I-novel was….formulated as a rejection of popular fiction as well as an attempt to delineate a uniquely Japanese form of writing. Subsequently, the concept of the I-novel served as the foundation for the idea of “pure” literature” (junbungaku) in Japan” (Buckley 204).

The narrative follows the temporal unfolding structure. The novel begins with Tokio’s discovery of Yoshiko’s relationship with Tanaka. The presentation of the inner thoughts of the narrator with third person omnicience creates a commentary on the behavior of the protagonist. This creates greater transparency of the language and enhances its ability to present reality as it is.

“As he started down the gentle slope of that road in Koshikawa that leads form Krishitanzaka to Gokurkusaui, he thought things over. “Well, this is the end of the first stage of my relationship with her. It’s ridiculous to think I could ever have considered such a thing, what with me being thirty-six and with three children as well. And yet… I wonder—can it really be true? All that affection she showed me—was it really just affection and not love?” (Katai 35)

This is an important feature of the I-novel. Hence Katai is often regarded as “the pioneer of the I-novel and as the advocate of “flat description” (heimen byosha) which claims to depict the object “without a grain of subjectivity and without an abstract plot”” (Suzuki 77). This also makes for profound irony in the depiction of the character and the situations he places himself in.

“Although he had never had a particularly good tolerance for drink he had just drunk heavily and recklessly, and it had gone straight to his head. All at once he recalled how lower-class Russians got drunk and fell flat out asleep on the roadside. He remembered having told a friend that this showed what great people the Russians were—if you’re going to let yourself go, then you should let yourself go all the way! “Fool! How could love possibly make any discrimination between teacher and pupil?” he yelled at himself” (Katai 54)

It is evident from the above discussion that one of the most important characteristics of shishosetsu is the language that is employed in the narrative. The language in “The Quilt” is inherently referential in its nature. Commenting on the nature of shishosetsu literature Fowler says:

“The Japanese as readers of shish?setsu have tended to regard the author’s life, and not the written work, as the definitive “text” on which critical judgment ultimately rests and to see the work as meaningful only insofar as it illuminates the life. The Japanese reader constructs a “sign” out of the signifying text and the signified extraliterary life, with no misgivings about this apparent blending of “intrinsic” literary and “extrinsic” biographical data. Literature which is not “pure” (i.e. literature that does not serve as a window on the author’s life) is relegated to the realm of “popular” reading and considered less worthy of critical attention” (Fowler xvii).

Katai attempts to adopt the language of the Western novel in “The Quilt” and succeeds wonderfully. His style later had a great impact on the genbumitchi style in so far as there was an “overt indication of the grammatical subject” (Suzuki 71).  The third person pronoun is advantageously used to negate the subject and this combined with the sentence endings “blurs distinctions between first and third person narratives” (Suzuki 71). As the presentation of the protagonist moves within, the “grammatical person shifts, before one notices, from third person kare to quasi first person jibun (one’s self, I), creating the impression that the protagonist’s feeling are being articulated directly through his own voice” (Suzuki 71).

“Below just as in the earlier days, stood the same houses and , although the occasional rumbling of a passing train now broke the silence, just as in the old days a light shone bright and clear form the windows of his wife’s house. What a fickle heart! Who would have thought that things would change so much after just eight years?” (Katai 55).


“The Quilt” was the first novel written in the shishosetsu or I-novel genre. It had a great impact on the critical perception of Japanese texts and the structure of the novel. The I-novel began to be regarded as a genre that was in binary, polar opposition to the Western novel. It was characterized as a factual direct expression of the lived experience of its authors, whereas the western novel was a fictional, imaginative narrative. It was, therefore, celebrated for its veracity and reviled for immaturity and critics evaluated the novel as an expression of the author’s experience and of the Japanese society.  To sum up, in the words of Henshall, K.G.

“The Quilt” of September 1907 turned out to be an epoch-making work, ….It not only rocketed Katai overnight into the top division of writers, but it was seen as heralding a new era in Japanese literature and even society in general, an era in which the individual could at least raise the possibility of defying social convention. Certainly it was seen as establishing a new genre, that of the ‘I’ novel. The genre was not new in that it was autobiographical—a feature of Japanese literature from as early as the tenth century—but in the exhaustive extent of its ruthless self exposure and its concern with truth rather than prevailing standards of morality. Katai was accordingly hailed as a pioneer, and as brave to boot” (Henshall 25).

Works Cited

Buckley, S. Encyclopedia of contemporary Japanese culture 2002. London: Routledge
Delacour, Jonathon 2003 Shishosetsu and the myth of sincerity web

Fowler, Edward. The Rhetoric of Confession: Shishosetsu in Early Twentieth-Century Japanese

        Fiction 1988 California: University of California Press
Hijiya-Kirschnereit, Irmela. Rituals of self-revelation: shish?setsu as literary genre and
socio-cultural phenomenon 1981 USA

Katai, Tayama. The Quilt. 1907. Web.


Katai, T. &. Henshall, K.G. Literary life in T?ky?, 1885-1915: Tayama Katai’s memoirs ‘Thirty
years in Tokyo” 1987, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill
Soon ng, A.H. Tarrying with the Numinous: Postmodern Japanese Gothic Stories. New Zealand

Journal of Asian Studies 9, 2 (December, 2007): 65-86.

Suzuki, Tomi.  Narrating the Self: Fictions of Japanese Modernity1996 California: Stanford

        University Press


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