The Drifting Cloud

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The Drifting Cloud, known as Ukigumo (浮雲) in Japanese, was a novel written in 1887 by Futabatei Shimei, often called the first modern Japanese novel. The novel was published in two sections in 1887 and 1888. The novel only contains four characters, prioritising the development of characters over plot. The novel contains criticism of growing materialism in the Japanese society.

The story centers around a young man named Utsumi Bunzo, the son of a direct vassal of the Tokugawa shogun. The novel has no ending because apparently, Shimei did not want it to end with a happy ending. Additionally, he also did not finish the book because somehow he didn't really know if a career as a writer was worthwhile. He gave up writing altogether despite his obvious talent and the novel was never completed. He made a comeback as a writer twenty years later, but the novel was never completed. This book, while it was never finished, strongly influenced fellow authors in his day with its realist style, and its depiction of anomie is memorable.


The novel describes the changes in the relations of the four characters: Bunzo, Omasa, Osei and Noboru. Bunzo, a 23-year-old man is fired from his job as a government official. Omasa, with whom Bunzo has been living since his fifteenth, blames him for this. She is disappointed that her plans to let her daughter, Osei, to marry him won't go through. She states the venturous and dynamic Noboru, friend and colleague of Bunzo, as an example. Noboru's ambition attracts both Omasa and Osei, and Bunzo starts to regard him as an enemy. Noboru then offers to use his influence on Bunzo's boss to persuade him to reemploy Bunzo. He, however, regards this as an insult to his honour, and has to contain himself to keep from hitting Noboru in the face.

Reflecting upon this incident, Bunzo realises he has to undertake action, a deed that would prove his decisiveness and courage to restore Osei's faith in him. Fruitlessly contemplating this for a while, he realises that he lacks decisiveness and returns home, angry with Noboru, and commands him to leave the house. Bunzo's inconsiderate actions only lead to a further distancing between him and Osei, who now has feelings for Noboru. Bunzo retreats humiliated and realises he is responsible for all this.

Fallen out of favor with both Noboru and Osei, Bunzo considers leaving the house. However, he changes his mind and decides to stay, in an attempt to 'save' Osei from Noboru. Eventually, Osei starts getting alienated from Noboru, and smiling again at Bunzo. The novel ends abruptly with Bunzo waiting in his room for Osei to return from her bath, determined to take his last chance with her.[1]

Theme and setting[edit]

The Drifting Cloud is said to be Japan's first modern novel, differing greatly from novels in de 17th-18th century in that it focusses not on actions and deeds, but on psychological exploration of the different characters. Since the bulk of the novel revolves around Bunzo's thoughts and worries, the setting is very confined, with a timespan of only a few weeks and space limited primarily to Bunzo's small room. Individualism, responsibility and freedom are modern themes that were largely unexplored in Japanese literature before Futabatei Shimei's novel.

The novel is also frequently said to be partially based on Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov's satire on Russian society,[2] with Bunzo corresponding loosely with Oblomov, Noboru with Andrei Stoltz, and Osei with Olga. There are, however, great differences as well, as neither Bunzo nor Noboru were from a privileged class of society as opposed to Oblomov, and it was never Shimei's intention to write a satirical novel.


  • Ryan, Marleigh Grayer, trans. (1965) Japan's First Modern Novel: Ukigumo of Futabatei Shimei. New York: Columbia University Press.


  1. ^ Vande Walle, W. Japanese Literature since the Meiji Period (Dutch). 2012.
  2. ^ ja:浮雲 (二葉亭四迷)(Japanese)