Carnegie Mellon University

Trail-blazers, Settlers, and Wonderers

Sungho Cho
Carnegie Mellon University – Japanese Studies


Japanese history has been traditionally identified by different eras that are named after contemporary emperors. Modern Japanese history is known to start since the Meiji era. During the time period, Japan went through rapid Westernization and modernization. As a result, not only the Japanese society was affected heavily, but also the literary works and films demonstrated a great change as well. Since the Meiji era, in various forms of legacies, modern Japanese film and literature have been produced by writers and directors of generations that each represent one of the four modern eras. Every modern Japanese era had its own unique culture, and people’s lifestyles certainly differed from one generation to another. It is also interesting to note that the films and literary works produced by modern Japanese writers and film directors included backgrounds and characters that incorporated the historical atmosphere. Ted Goossen, a historian who studies Japanese history, defines five different generations of literary figures in modern Japanese history (Goossen 1997, pp. xii). Among them, the trail-blazers, settlers, and wonderers experienced some of the most whirlwind changes in Japanese society. The writers and film directors Natsume Soseki, Yusunari Kawabata, Ozu Yasujiro, and Suzuki Seijun, who were trail-blazers, settlers, and wonderers represented modern Japanese film and literature


Japan went through rapid modernization and Westernization during the Meiji era, and the writers and film makers, who were trail-blazers, paved the trail for those who followed them afterwards. As Japan was starting to be exposed to Western culture, the Japanese people were exposed to Western literature as well. Goossen explains, It is hard to imagine the extent of the impact that Western literature had on the first Japanese to encounter it in the late nineteenth century. (Goossen 1997, pp. xii). Before the trail-blazers appeared, most of the Japanese writers read traditional Japanese and Chinese classics and wrote in a similar literary style. However, avant-garde writers like Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki in the Meiji deviated from the long history of traditional literary styles and produced literary works that were influenced by Western literature. They stepped forward to speak to the change and transformation going on around them. (Goossen 1997, pp xiii) They introduced new concepts such as love and individualism, which seemed experimental and risky, and therefore they were called the trail-blazers.

Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro is a novel published in 1914 that demonstrates a great example of the trail-blazers’ footsteps. The Meiji era was from 1868 to 1912, and the novel was published two years after the Meiji era. Soseki spent most of his lifetimes in the Meiji era, as he was born in 1867 and died in 1916. The Meiji period was just when Japan started going through Westernization and modernization. Under the influence of Westernization, Soseki studied not only traditional Japanese and Chinese literary works but also Western literature. He even lived in London for few years for his studies. With his ample experience in Western literature, he published writings that were certainly distinguished from the old, traditional writings. Kokoro illustrates the historical background and the life of Japanese people in the Meiji era. In terms of historical context, the novel depicts certain historical events such as the deaths of Emperor Meiji and Nogi. Soseki also shows how the characters react to the emperors’ deaths and how they think about the deaths.

His novel Kokoro is a great example that shows characters that reflect the trail-blazers’ life. Just like Soseki himself, Senei, his wife, and K are the representatives of the trail-blazers who confronted the significant change in the society. It does not necessarily mean that the characters were writers or film directors, but it means that they are just like Soseki in that they began to be exposed to Western culture. The characters, just like Soseki, suffer due to the societal change. Although Westernization and modernization have some positive effects, the characters undergo internal conflicts due to the presence of two opposing ideologies: individualism and altruism.

Watashi, as a narrative of the story, witnesses how Sensei and his wife live a gloomy life and often talk about death. Sensei also often talks about the miseries caused by rapid modernization. Watashi then also hears about who K was and how K suffered due to a similar problem. Watashi does not directly empathize with Sensei, his wife, or K, yet he is still considerably impressed by their stories and life. Throughout these scenes, Soseki delivers a subtle message that it was not always easy and happy for the trail-blazers to pave the way that no one has ever paved. Just like how Soseki was the first generation that studied Western literature, Sensei, his wife, and K were the first generation to watch Western culture influence the Japanese society greatly. They witnessed how people’s lifestyles changed, how people’s way of thinking changed, and how the old, traditional ideologies slowly vanished. To them, it would have been like losing their previous way of living. Soseki tells us how hard it was for some people to adapt too. He shows how all of the old main characters, Sensei, the wife, and K were suicidal to some  extent. Regarding how tough the characters’ life is depicted, Soseki signifies that it the end of Meiji era was not the most joyful time.

The contrast between the older generation and the younger generation is an interesting point in Kokoro. Although Watashi becomes somewhat gloomy and worried as he gets closer to Sensei and his wife, Watashi never appears to be suicidal. However, despite the small generation gap that the readers see, there exists a bond between the older generation and the newer generation. Not only they respect each other, but also they enjoy discussing with each other about various issues, such as modernization, Westernization, the emperors, the news, and etc. Such intimate relationship Soseki depicts signifies that Japan was still one whole society that respected other generations. As Soseki died at the beginning of the Taisho period, he experienced the transition between the Meiji era and the Taisho era. Watashi, who was relatively younger than Sensei, represents a generation in between the trail-blazers and the settlers.


The literary generation that followed right after the ‘trail-blazers’ was the ‘settlers’. The settlers helped modern Japanese literature prosper, whereas the trail-blazers brought in new, innovative styles and concepts for the first time. According to Goossen, “trail-blazers lead the way through uncharted land, settlers farm and build upon it.” (Goossen 1997 pp. xiv) With the settlers, short stories and short journals flourished. The settlers helped settle modern Japanese literature until Japanese literature suffered from the conservative government’s interference. Among the ‘settlers’, there was even a Nobel-prize winner named Kawabata Yasunari. Kawabata was one of the most renowned short story writers. Kawabata was born in 1899 and died in 1972. He lived in multiple different eras, including the Meiji era, the Taisho era, and the Showa era. As a writer who started writing after Meiji era, Kawabata is definitely one of the settlers who followed after the trail-blazers. Like his fellow settlers, Kawabata himself was an educated elite who graduated from the Tokyo Imperial University. According to Goossen, settlers appeared “came of age at the very end of the era of Taisho cosmopolitanism, in the mid-1920s. This was both a good and a bad time to be a writer.” (Goossen 1997 pp. xv) Although many settlers benefited from a publishing boom during this time period, the Japanese government began to interfere with the literary society as the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923. After these impactful events, people begin to value social commitment rather than literary quality. Such change then resulted in a conservative and militaristic government. Writers like Kawabata, who pursued non-socialist objectives soon were suppressed by the government, and the era of the settlers was beginning to fade away like so.

The Izu Dancer was one of Kawabata’s most renowned literary works and was published in 1926 at the end of the Showa era. It is a short story like most of other settlers’ literary works. Also, the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Taisho era can be seen through the background of the story. Like how Kawabata and most of the contemporary settlers were, the narrator in The Izu Dancer is a university student. The narrator is also possibly from an affluent family, as he is not monetarily concerned during the trip. Ever since he encountered a group of travelling performers, he becomes friends with them and follows them until the end of his trip. Kawabata implies that  the narrator is an elite university student, as he is travelling alone with enough finance during his break, and as he is free to go wherever he wants. For example, he follows the troupe wherever they go, and he even stays for an extra night at some town when the troupe decides to stay there for one more night unexpectedly. His high status is also implied when a troupe member Eikichi insists that the narrator stay at a better inn rather than the old inn that the group is staying. Like how the settlers mostly came from a prosperous family and were university-educated elites, Kawabata implicitly depicts the narrator to be a similar person.

Yasunari Kawabata’s The Izu Dancer also deviates from the Japanese traditional literature to an extent. Whereas men and women were supposed to be physically separated as different groups traditionally, the narrator in the short story mingles with a female-dominant group of performers. Although the narrator spends most of his time with Eikichi, the only male in the group, the narrator staying with the group would have been seemed unconventional during when the story was published. Kawabata also makes use of a very brief romance where the narrator falls in love with a young dancer in the troupe until he realizes that the girl is not as old as he previously thought. The narrator immediately loses his feelings towards the young girl upon his realization. The story then ends as the narrator and the troupe say farewell, where the narrator reminds him of Eikichi telling him to come back to visit them again.


The generation that followed after the settlers was the wanderers in the Showa period. Japans went through many gloomy times during the Showa era. The impact of World War II slowly reached the Japanese territory. Goossen says, “it began in 1931 with the invasion of Manchuria, and ended shortly after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, by which time most Japanese cities had been burned to the ground in devastating air raids.” (Goossen 1997, pp. xvi) During these times, the Japanese government accepted militarism and started controlling information strictly. This resulted in severe literary censorship. “Writers could be subjected to imprisonment and ideological ‘reorientation’ if they displeased the authorities by voicing socialist ideas.” (Goossen 1997, pp. xvi) Despite such censorship, however, the wanderers were able to contribute to Japanese literature not only by writing but also by their presence itself. Unlike previous generations, such as settlers and trail-blazers, most wanderers were from working-class backgrounds. As a result, wanderers’ works depicted the lives of citizens of low status rather than university-educated elites.

Among literary professionals and film directors who were either wanderers or influenced by wanderers were Ozu Yasujiro and Suzuki Seijun. They were both film directors, and their works represented the lives of wanderers who lived during challenging times. Ozu Yasujiro was a film director who was born in 1903 and died in 1963. He lived most of his life in the Showa era, and he experienced the impact of World War II. Yasujiro was not able to graduate from a university. Although he tried to enter Kobe University, but he failed to pass the entrance exam. According to Goossen’s description about wanderers, Yasujiro can be identified as one of wanderers, in that he lived in post-war Japan where strict literary censorship was prevalent.

Ozu Yasujiro’s Floating Weeds well represents the lives of contemporary ‘wanderers’ or people who were influenced by such wanderers. Komajuro, who is the troupe’s lead actor and owner, is a typical wanderer’s exemplary. Although Komajuro is neither a writer or a film director, he is similarly a troupe leader who directs a group performance. He is having a hard time managing his troupe due to lack of audience. He also fails to maintain a happy family, in that he is not able to manage a good relationship with both his former mistress Oyoshi. As a patriarchal character, Komajuro has a tendency to control his surround people, and he becomes furious when things do not go as he desires. Because his surrounding people might not like this patriarchal figure, he himself lives a miserable life. At the end, he cares and wants to help his family and troupe members. He fails to succeed both, and he is dismayed. Komajuro’s life resembles most of wanderers’ lives. Like how wanderers had a lot of pressure, Komajuro was under the pressure of having to manage both his troupe and his family. Just like wanderers wandered, Komajuro was a travelling performer who was having difficult times.

Suzuki Sejun was also a film director who was born in 1923 and died in 2017. Like Yasujiro, Suzuki lived during the World War II and the era of wanderers. Either a wanderer himself or a film director inspired by wanderers, Suzuki’s works resembled the lives of wanderers as well. Suzuki Seijun’s Tokyo Drifter depicts the life of a wandering former Yakuza member Tetsuya. His Yakuza boss Kurata disbands his gang, and Tetsuya becomes a lost man who loses his identity. While their rival gang tries to take an advantage from the disbandment of Kurata’s gang, Tetsuya tries to stop this and inform his former boss Kurata. However, in the end, Kurata turns his back against Tetsuya and helps the rival gang try killing Tetsuya. Betrayed by his former boss, Tetsuya ‘drifts’ around Tokyo, not having concrete future plans. The film ends with a scene where Tetsuya deciding to maintain the wanderer lifestyle alone. Such determination is a great example of wanderers’ lives in post-war Japan. Like how wandering writers and film directors had a hard time settling down, Tetsuya is similarly lost and decides to maintain his wanderer lifestyle.


Japan went through drastic social and cultural changes since the Meiji era. Not only Japan was involved in World War II, but also Japan went through rapid modernization and Westernization. Behind these changes, there were writers and film directors that influenced Japanese society heavily. The trail-blazers paved the path for the following generations. The settlers followed directly after the trail-blazers and helped Japanese literature flourish. The wanderers followed after the settlers and helped maintain the prosperous Japanese literature despite the government’s strict literary censorship and the presence of militarism. Through writings and films like Yasunari Kawabata’s The Izu Dancer, Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro, Ozu Yasujiro’s Floating Weeds, and Suzuki Seijun’s Tokyo Drifter, we are able to see the writers’ intention to depict characters’ lives similar to those of contemporary writers and film directors. Their representation of trail-blazers, settlers, and wanderers well resemble the actual lives of each generation. Such representation also well resembles the description provided by Goossen about the three different generations. Japanese history is more impressive to learn when it is done through learning about Japanese film and literature.


Yasunari Kawabata The Izu Dancer (2001).

Natsume Sōseki Kokoro (1914).

Ozu Yasujirō Floating Weeds (1959).

Suzuki Seijun Tokyo Drifter (1966).


Goossen, Theodore W. (1997) Introduction.  In Goossen ed. The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories (pp. xi-xxxi).  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kawabata, Yasunari, and Yasushi Inoue. The Izu Dancer. Charles E. Tuttle, 2001.

Natsume Sōseki, and Edwin McClellan. Kokoro: a Novel. Gateway Editions, an Imprint of Regnery Publishing, 2018.

Ozu Yasujirō, et al. Floating Weeds, 1959.

Suzuki Seijun. Tokyo Drifter, 1966.