In the wake of the massive protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in the summer of 1960, the poet and popular intellectual Yoshimoto Takaakai turned his attention to studying the structure of the Japanese language and the history of Japanese literature. Between 1961 and 1965 he published a series of essays entitled What is Beauty for Language?, in which he sought to develop a universal theory of language that could be used to analyze the totality of expression in Japanese literature. Yoshimoto’s project was an explicit attempt to free linguistic and literary interpretation from the dictates of Communist dogma and exemplifies a broader tendency in postwar Japan to separate the “literary” from the “political.”
This paper examines some of the key concepts and conceptual tensions of this monumental work while considering the broader implications of Yoshimoto’s turn to literary aesthetics following the apparent failure of politics in early 1960s Japan. Yoshimoto pioneered, I show, a novel and influential approach to thinking historically about transformations in literary form that reflected pervasive concerns at the time regarding the relationship between individual agency and social structures. He put forth a conception of literature as the product of both authorial creativity and an ever-evolving linguistic system that articulates meaning regardless of authorial intent. His approach to the aesthetic apprehension of literature promised to connect people to aesthetic objects, but his universal method ran close to reinforcing essentialist notions of Japanese literature.