Representations of Disabilities in Contemporary Japanese Literature
October 2023 - ongoing
The project takes a cultural studies approach to disability. It understands disability as a heuristic moment through which cultural practices and social structures can be examined that would otherwise remain hidden.
Due to Japan’s low fertility rate and labor shortage, disabilities have recently become more relevant in society and (labor market) politics debates. Diversity and equality, too, play an ever-important role in public discourse. At the same time, disabilities have become more visible, e.g. in the context of the Tokyo Olympics/Paralympics 2020 as well as in literature and the arts.
The discourse on the field of labor is of particular importance concerning disability. As a socio-cultural phenomenon, disability is intertwined with labor, with forms of its organization, and with prevailing perceptions and norms. Firstly, labor has a formative effect on almost all aspects of an individual's life and identity. Secondly, labor is currently of particular significance—both against the background of recent debates about digitalization, shortage of professionals, or work-life balance, as well as given the substantial number of recent works of Japanese literature dedicated to this topic. Thirdly, our current understanding of disability, its rise as a term and concept, is closely intertwined with modernization processes and, in particular, with the normative notion of a self-sufficient individual capable of working.
Depictions of disability have been addressed in literature since its beginnings. Well-known examples in modern literature include Max Frisch: Gantenbein (1964), Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818), Victor Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke: 侏儒の言葉 (The Words of a Dwarf, 1927), Mishima Yukio: 金閣寺 (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1956), Tanizaki Jun'ichirō: 春琴抄 (A Portrait of Shunkin, 1956). While social science research on disabilities is already available, representations of disabilities have rarely been researched in Japanese literature. A study on literary representations of disabilities within the context of labor has not yet been published. This project aims to contribute to closing this gap and to provide a Japanese perspective on interdisciplinary literary disability studies.
Representative works of fiction that depict various forms of disability will be analyzed. For example, the protagonist of コンビニ人間 Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Murata Sayaka exhibits conspicuous features that can be read as signs of autism and thus of a psychological disability (see research article in Bunron, No. 10, 2023, in German). The novel ハンチバック (Hunchback, 2023) by Ichikawa Saō tells the story of a physically disabled woman who imagines other possible lives through writing. It also questions prevailing assumptions about disabilities.
The project examines how disabilities are designed linguistically, stylistically, narratologically, and motivically in representative literary works. It analyzes how they are functionalized, in which cultural and social contexts they are inscribed, which assumptions and patterns of thought underpin them, and, finally, which entanglements with other dimensions of identity and fields of discourse apply.