Shanghai between the world wars is a fascination of Westerns, the Chinese themselves, but also the Japanese. The zeitgeist of 1920s Shanghai is reflected in the appropriately named Shanghai by Riichi Yokomitsu.
Serialized between 1928 to 1931, the novel takes place in 1925, following the lives of Japanese expats living in Shanghai. There’s Sanki, a white-collared bank clerk, Koya, a businessman in the lumber industry, his brother, Takashige, the foreman of a cotton mill, and Yamaguchi, a politically-minded architect. These men voice different beliefs but are bound by the commonality of their Japanese nationality. Sanki is aimless and suffers from existential angst, looking for meaning in the urban isolation of Shanghai. A fitting analog for the Japanese bourgeoisie of the 1920s, obsessed with Western modernity and culture, but lacking a purpose in life.
Koya and Takashige represent the view of Japanese imperialism, i.e. the more influence Japanese business has in China, the more it benefits the nation. As such, Koya plots to put a British timber competitor out of business, and Takashige sees his Chinese factory workers as a mere means to an end of enhancing Japan’s prestige.
Yamaguchi is the most complex of the characters, representing the pan-Asianist view that was beginning to take hold in many Japanese intellectuals and even among military officers. This view held that only the Japanese Army and Navy were powerful enough to liberate Asia from the yoke of Western colonialism and lead it into a new golden age – under Japan’s tutelage, of course. This view was exemplified in Kanji Ishiwara, an Imperial Army officer who, in 1931, was one of the masterminds behind the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.
Yokomitsu himself was a pan-Asianist, but Shanghai is never propagandistic. The city itself is a place of melancholy loneliness, with the expats searching for an elusive meaning to their humdrum lives. The sights, sounds, and smells are interlaced throughout every paragraph, unsurprising since Yokomitsu was part of the Shinkankakuha, or the New Sensation School. A popular movement among Japanese writers in the 1920s and 1930s, the New Sensation School strived from realism and objectivity. An unfortunate byproduct of this is that we never really feel connected to or “in the shoes” of any of the characters. We are merely observing what happens to them.
The female characters of Shanghai are even sadder than their male counterparts, a notch above prostitutes. There’s dimwitted Osugi and scheming Oryu, two women working at a Japanese bathhouse, frequented by Sanki and the others. Miyako has it a little better, being a taxi dancer at Shanghai’s famous nightclubs. Most intriguing of all is Fang Qui-lan, a seductive Chinese Communist, who represents China’s growing resentment toward colonialism.
The contradiction of the Japanese expats being Asian but also colonialists themselves is apparent to the characters. The fact that the novel is written from a Japanese perspective adds to its value as a time capsule, given most non-Chinese literature about Interwar Shanghai is seen through Western eyes. Shanghai’s International Settlement was controlled by British, Americans, Italians, and Japanese, who would later use it as a launching pad for two destructive wars – both in 1932 and 1937. As mentioned, this novel takes place in 1925, on the eve of the May 30th Movement, an anti-imperialist uprising in Shanghai, which targeted foreign-owned businesses. This historical event serves as the climax, and our characters are caught up in the maelstrom.