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Tayama Katai’s the Quilt the Ancestor of “I-Novel”


At the end of the nineteenth century, Japanese literature experienced many striking moments. In particular, in the late 60th, it endured the most deplorable declines under the governance of Emperor Meiji. The famous authors were doomed to resort to writing books about formless and meaningless gossips.

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So far, having been the center of literature and enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the art and literature of modern Japan experienced continuous attacks from those who despised any deviations from the so-called “pure Japanese” within the period between the reign of Meiji and Russo-Japanese War (Keene 13). Hard social, political, and cultural conditions contributed to the rise of the Naturalistic movement in literature seeking to emulate a credible everyday reality, as all things and feelings were represented as a matter of fact.

Being flourished in the first decades of the twentieth century, Japanese writers and poets were attempting to set the new standards of writing and expression. The introduction of democracy and individualism gave rise to “I-novels” manifesting the liberation from moral and cultural constraints in the methods of writing. Writing about oneself, which is the core of “I-novel”, unveiled and explore a greater concern for Western traditions of wiring about human nature, love, and sexuality.

The rise of the first “I-novels” is represented by the novel Quilt (Futon) written by Tayama Katai. Katai’s work is “the self” drama where he expresses his affection for a woman who is his pupil. In general, the “I-novel” device used in literature was, on the one hand, an effective way of representing the veritable nature of human behavior and deeds and, on the other hand, this combination of the self and the native language impregnated the flashbacks from the history and authentic traditions of the Japanese people.

The Development and the Main Characteristics of Japanese Literature

The modern era of Japanese literature development was preceded by the early modern literature being rich in genres and movements. This period witnessed the extreme rise of literary work, thus creating an important cultural center in Japan. Even though there was an insignificant influence of Westerns culture, the country sensed a tangible invasion of Chinese vernacular stories. The profusion of genres and styles was encapsulated in the works of Japanese writers and poets.

In particular, Ihara Saikaku, the founder of the modern novel in Japan, presented a mixture of vernacular issues and humor in his tales. Further, Jisppensha Ikku also experimented with travelogue and comedy. However, the presentation of the material world and current events of society was replaced by a more refined and intellectual style called yomihon.

The emergence of historical romances written in prose, commonly known as “yomihon”, endured the Chinese impact as well. This genre of writing emerged in the eighteenth century and was first introduced by Ueda Akinari, the author of Tales of Moonlight and Rain (Shirane 268). Applying mixed and original Japanese-Chinese style, yomihon genre was used to describe and analyze the world beyond the current reality thus referring to the history and traditions of the past, devising sophisticated plots, and providing a new type of extended narrative. The most outstanding yomihon writers were Tsuga Teisho, Takebe Ayatary, and Ueda Akihari who were largely concerned with Chinese vernacular fiction whose main philosophical idea was reduced to the Confucian school of thought (Shirane 269).

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Throughout the period, the Japanese could witness the evolution of this style from authentic, religious, and philosophical issues to a new elegant style that differed considerably from the Chinese-Japanese mixture introduced by Tsuga Teisho. In general, yomihon was presented as an attempt to escape from the monochrome reality and liberate the literature from social and cultural constraints.

The sharebon, the comedy style in the second half of the eighteenth century in Japan, was distinguished by the humorous and even satirical approach in narrating the stories. This style derived from other preceded styles like ukiyo-zoshi and was shaped definitely in the Meiwa era (Shirane 303). In the course of the evolution of thoughts and styles, sharebon was divided into several dimensions. The sharebon-oriented writers would write about everyday life problems in an ironical manner; they also satirized the traditions and customs. There were types of sharebon works that specifically highlighted the manners and the order of life.

At this point, a writer was presented as a connoisseur of the life philosophy and origin of specific culture and customs in Japan. Therefore, writers’ main target of ridicule was those connoisseurs of Japanese traditions. Addressing the modern device of the twentieth century, “I-novels” contains similarities with sharebon in terms of a deviation from cultural and traditional authenticity.

Investigating further eighteenth-century literature, the literary world experienced the reevaluation of genres. The Japanese readers got tired of mockery and satire; instead, they indulged in the sentimentalist movement. The popularity came to sewa-yomihon, which were also termed as nakibon, “books to cry by”, and was initially introduced by Tamenada Shunsui. Nakibon, and its variant ninjobon, significantly differed from the sharebon as they deviated by structure and the plot. The classic plot for the nakibon novels was the tragic love between a man and a woman who would always overcome the influence of negative forces. Still, the drama in the middle of the story would end happily, as both a man and a woman succeeded in surpassing the obstacles.

Entering the nineteenth century, the Japanese literature presents the kabuki style incorporating and introducing the new male and female characters – “the evil male character ….simultaneously attractive and repulsive” and “the poisonous wife” or “evil woman” (Shirane 455). Nanboku style derived from the previous style by describing society living in a crashing world of material loss and decline thus leaving no place for spiritual and cultural aspects.

This dark and mysterious genre logically gave rise to a ghost-story genre where the main values were concentrated in the individual life energy where strong and ambitious characters were terrifying and evil. Hence, nanboku depicted the dark side of social life that, however, cannot be referred as to a realistic depiction. In general, the ghost story genre partially contributed to the “I-novels” genre where writers were trying to depict the believable reality but not the one that existed.

The Introduction of “I-novel” and its Main Characteristics

“I-novel” is a disputable genre in terms of the themes and the techniques involved in its writing. As the Japanese literature of the first decades of the twentieth century was influenced by the European literary movement of Naturalism, it is necessary to indicate the features that were borrowed by the Japanese authors from European colleagues. The main feature of the Naturalist novels that were borrowed by the Japanese writers was the naturalistic essence itself. In other words, the realistic description of events, dialogues, and the environment which serves as a background for characters should be realistic as if copied from real life.

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The language of the “I-novel” should be clear and understandable excluding any minor possibility of some fantastical or allegoric expressions. However, the literature involves the usage of different metaphors; which should not be treated as an escape from the explanation of the true feelings and emotions.

The character should be realistically described as well which can be done with the help of using the traditional Japanese technique of confession that now is performed through the third-person narration; though the emotions and feelings are difficult to check, the main character should not be too thoroughly considered or too artificial. However, the author’s experience is one of the basic features of the “I-novel” as it presupposes that the work should contain references to other works of literature (the more the better) to introduce the character’s feelings which can be best represented referencing other literary works.

Thus, the dramatic pieces can indicate relationships with other people and difficulties incomprehension of the true nature of the protagonist’s emotions; some events that take place in the referenced works of literature are aimed at creating parallels with the events in the life of the main character of the basic story.

The essence of the “I-novel” lies in the revelation of the author’s experience, emotions, and feelings, though it is performed through third-person narration. However, the main character is an embodiment of the experience and attitude of the author which makes little difference between the autobiographical novel and the “I-novel”. As suggested by Karatani, “Literary confession, however, should not be confused with an act of confession, for in this case it is the form itself that produces the ‘inner life’ that is confessed” (76).

Thus, we can assume that the “I-novel” is the type of self-revelation which is performed in the third-person narration; this technique allowed the Japanese contemporary authors to avoid absolute description of the events from their lives involving some literary approach. However, the main elements of the “I-novel” remain the references to the other literary works, feelings, and emotions of the main character, and some experience from the author’s life that allows him/her to draw from the real events and feelings to make them more realistic and avoid fictional elements.

As a rule, Katai’s novel is regarded as the one which raised a great number of disputes because it contained the concept of sexuality which can now be considered one of the core aspects of the “I-novel” (Karatani 79). As the author of The Quilt had confessed to the affection that took place between him and his young female student, he can be considered an extraordinary writer who had brought something new and not typical to Japanese literature. The more we learn about the principles of the “I-novel”, the more common features can be found between the novel under consideration and the basic features of the “I-novel” writing.

Thus, all the basic features of the modern Japanese novel can be found in Katai’s work concerning its combination of the traditional features of the Japanese literature and the Western literary movement of Naturalism which presupposes the reality and openness of descriptions. So, the author combines successfully the typical features with non-typical ones escaping the elements of the first-person narration, though the author reveals his personal experience in the novel.

The themes of the traditional Japanese novels were based on the experiences of the authors, however, excluding the idea of sexuality can be successfully incorporated into the piece of literature and described with the help of clear and understandable language. In this respect, the “I-novel” by Tayama Katai can be treated as the one which had overstepped the limits existing in contemporary Japanese literature. Furthermore, the author of this innovative novel had managed to make his work a genuine representation of the Naturalist tradition for he made the descriptions and narration as real to life, as it can be theoretically done.

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When the readers find themselves in the room where a lamplight discloses the genuine feelings and intentions of the main character towards his female student (Katai 38), it is impossible to misunderstand the reality which is so purely comprehensible and obvious; in addition, the author references the works of literature that help to understand the events taking place in the main character’s house.

Tayama Katai’s The Quilt as the Ancestor of “I-novel”

When we talk about the concept of the “I-novel”, we mean the novel created by the outstanding Japanese writer Tayama Katai, though some original features can be found in his work including naturalistic descriptions and non-artificial scenes. Moreover, the realistic elements are the key ones while considering The Quilt. When the readers find themselves in the world created by the novel The Quilt written by Tayama Katai, it is impossible to misunderstand some events or words pronounced by the characters of the novel because the realistic nature of this work leaves no space for completing the story for it is clear.

As the traditional approach has shifted the scope of topics that have a right to be introduced in novels The novel The Quilt by Tayama Katai can be considered the genuine “I-novel” due to numerous features which are attributed to the genre of “I-novels”. Though the narration in the story happens in the third person, the events are claimed to have happened in the author’s life. As a rule, the experience of everyday life is the key factor for the birth of a new “I-novel” because it should be a representation of experience, emotions, feelings, thoughts, and all other elements that can be described with the help of a clear language understandably without raising necessity to interpret the events touched upon in the novel.

Clarity and reality are the main features of the “I-novels” influenced by the European tradition in contemporary literature. The story is aimed at introducing the experience of romantic affairs of the author with a girl being his student. Thus, the readers are taken to the realm of realistic descriptions, though while reading it does not seem like analyzing someone’s autobiographic essay. Unlike biographical notes, the “I-novel” suggests a purely literary approach to the explanation of the author’s feelings and reflections. Furthermore, the author uses such techniques as referencing other pieces of literature to make things even clearer and more transparent.

Thus, The Quilt references the drama Lonely People by Hauptmann which introduces the main character as the one who experiences some difficulties in relationships with his wife; this reference is used by Katai to reflect the main character’s feelings because he faces problems that consist in being in love with a young pretty student rather than with his wife. This drama is used to explain that the first idea of the main character was to tell his student about his wife who does not understand him, though he changes his mind and teaches her another literary work – “Turgenev’s short work Faust.” (Katai 37)

This reference is used to show the main character’s feelings towards his young female student and “As he explained to her the part in which the protagonist reads Goethe’s Faust to his former lover, his own voice too trembled with passion” (Katai 38). This fact can be treated as a hidden allusion to his genuine feelings.

The next reference in The Quilt suggests the reminding of The Wind of the Devil, the Wind of Love by Kosugi Tengai (1903) which concerns the student life, and The Golden Demon by Ozaki Koyo (1897) which deals with a love affair. These two references represent the core aspects of the novel regarding the themes and disputable nature of the situation in which the main character is found. All references used in the novel can be considered additional means of providing the reader with a full explanation of the events described in the novel.

This all has been done to tell the readers that all assumptions and ideas are real and there is nothing to be ashamed of as the true feelings should be the subject of confession, especially in literature. As The Quilt can be considered one of the first novels that were written combining the existing techniques of the Japanese literature and the borrowed elements of the Western literary history, the new elements, and some freedom while choosing the topic had contributed greatly to the novelty and originality of the successive Japanese novels as well as of this one.

The Naturalist elements are harmoniously intertwined with the traditional features that can be traced in the contemporary Japanese literature in the novel by Tayama Katai. In this respect, the concept of the “I-novel” leaves some space for further consideration for it is not based on the first-person narration, moreover, it touches upon topics that were not typically attributed to the literary works by Japanese authors. Thus, the novel is based on the concept of sexuality which is represented through the affair of a teacher, being introduced as the main character, and is known as an embodiment of the author’s experience and feelings, with a young female student. It is necessary to indicate that this topic was dwelled on in the Japanese literature in such a clear and open manner for the first time (Karatni 79).

The Changes Contributed to Japanese Literature by Katai’s Literary Work

Based on the above-mentioned characteristics “I-novel” distinguished predominantly by the depiction of genuine feeling and emotions, the new period of naturalism that emerged in wartime evolved into a more rigid naturalistic form. This change has been predetermined by the hard times endured by workers, peasants, women living in a constant struggling. Despite the hard political, social, and economical conditions of that time, the writers still resort to “the self genre” but partially modified and developed into a more distinguished genre called watakushi shosetsu.

The radical change of the “I-novel” paradigm into a more powerful representation testified to Japan’s interaction with the Western literature promoted the full meaning of “the self” discourse (Suzuki 16). Over time, the concept of “the self” and signified master had been changing under the force coming cultural and political circumstances, particularly about the postmodern times.

The new evaluation of the concept of the shosetsu (the self) is identified with the “means of revealing “truth” (shinri) of life and the universe through the “realistic representation” (mosha) of “human feelings” and “human nature” (ninjo)” (Suzuki 23). As it could be viewed, this notion was pierced through the centuries disguised by different concepts.

Therefore, the peak of maturity of the naturalistic movement is attached to the 20s of the past century. This dominant development of cultural and philosophical paradigms had a persuasive influence on the development of modern and postmodern Japanese literature, as it overthrow all the clichés and fixed genres of Japanese writing. Hence, due to the rise of “I-novel” discourse, the modern literature orientations shifted from the themes of authenticity to the rise of the so-called confession style focusing on the autobiographical narration and contributing to the modern image of Japanese literature.

The foundation of “I-novel” by Katai also deposited to the perpetuation of “the self” tradition of Japanese literature for the rest of the twentieth century. This perspective has established the correspondent norms of literary expressions for the present generation of Japanese writers. Hence, one of the most distinguished followers of the “I-novel” tradition is Dazai Osamu who paid particular attention to the presentation of personal experience. There were also other writers such as Oba Minako and Tsushima Yuko.


Concluding, it is worth saying that Japanese literature is rich in its historical development and originality of genres, which had been constantly evolved and mixed. It is also possible to pursue one tendency in the genre, which can be incorporated by the concept of “the self” presented in all genres and styles of Japanese literature. The official emergence of the “I-novel” style is associated with the novel Quilt by Tayama Katai who first introduced the writing about oneself where the first person was unveiled in the protagonists of the stories.

The sophisticated mixture of the description of personal experience and confession and representation of believable reality committed to the paper but not to actual life are, perhaps the main features of this style. In addition to this, the new genre has also perpetuated the steady and fixed tradition of writing thus imparting the works with undertones of confession and authenticity. The significance of this genre also lies in its enormous influence on modern Japanese literature that continued using this device as the core one in writers’ works. This popularity, perhaps, lies in writers’ desire to signify their literary masterpieces and to endow the works with their self.

Indeed, this desire is natural, since the goal of each writer is to render the essence of their lives and leave some inheritance for other writers. Finally, the genre is also a step up to the cooperation with Western and European culture and further impact on future generations of Japanese writers.

Works Cited

Karatani, Kojin. Origins of Modern Japanese Literature. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

Katai, Tayama. The Quilt. The Quilt and Other Stories by Tayama Katai. Columbia University Press, 1981. pp. 35-96.

Keene, Donald. Modern Japanese Literature. US: Grove Press, 1994.

Shirane, Haruo. Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900. US: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Suzuki, Tomi. Narrating the Self: Fictions of Japanese Modernity. US: Stanford University Press, 1997.

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StudyCorgi. "Tayama Katai’s the Quilt the Ancestor of “I-Novel”." December 11, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Tayama Katai’s the Quilt the Ancestor of “I-Novel”." December 11, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Tayama Katai’s the Quilt the Ancestor of “I-Novel”'. 11 December.

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