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Japanese Literature

For many years the only Western anthologies of Japanese literature have been W.G. Aston, A History of Japanese Literature, published in 1899, and Michel Revon, Anthologie de la Littérature Japonaise, about 1930. Both have been translated into practically all European languages of importance. Neither is reliable for modern times. Both could stand considerable improvement of their translations. There is still only one comprehensive study of Japanese poetry of all periods, Georges Bonneau, Yoshino, not yet completed, in French. This is an extraordinary situation, for not only is Japanese one of the world’s most important literatures, it is one of the most engaging. It is not everyone who likes the Finnish Kalevala, or the Shahnamah of Firdausi, but few indeed can be so ethnocentric as to be repulsed by The Tale of Genji or the poetry of Hitomaro. One of the great troubles with the widespread appreciation of Japanese verse has been the vulgarity of most translators, especially those who have found it necessary to use rhyme. Japanese poetry is, like that of Mallarmé or Anyte of Tegea, a poetry of sensibility. In the hands of a literary oaf sensibility turns instantly into sentimentality just as subtle verse turns to doggerel. Japanese literature is unquestionably one of the world’s great traditions. It contains the greatest work of prose fiction in any language, The Tale of Genji, dozens of poets the equal of Mallarmé, two of the best books of pensées, the Hojoki and the Tsuredzuregesu, one of the very greatest erotic novelists, Saikaku, a whole species of drama of sensibility, the Noh, unknown elsewhere, and one of the finest romantic dramatists, Chikamatsu.

Donald Keene has managed to gather all this, and much more, up in one volume of 450 pages without making a collection of snippets and fragments. In Anthology of Japanese Literature he really gets across the meaning and flavor of Japanese writing, in each example and as a whole. He even conveys something of a sense of its scope. He has selected translations, many of them his own, which are both accurate and in good taste. There are sizable chunks of the novels and “notebooks” — a favorite form in Japan — whole plays, and many pages of poetry, almost all of it poetry in English as well as Japanese. Certainly there is no better introduction to Japanese literature in any language except Japanese, and few better in that.

Modern Japanese Literature is, as a job of editing, equally judicious, equally comprehensive, with the same high standards of translation. Unfortunately, Japan has produced no major writer, in any medium, in the last hundred years. By major I mean “like Horace or Baudelaire,” not “like Eliot or Hemingway.” Few of her writers have risen above the dead level of Western popular reputations. Again, the modern Japanese writer operates under certain disabilities. His tradition is one of sensibility. However great, Genji does seem a little hysterical in comparison with the vastly humane Chinese novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, let alone Don Quixote. Classical Japanese literature has one very conspicuous lack — guts. It is not, cannot be, salty, or “of the earth, earthy.” It lacks the broad humanity which has its roots in the large bowel and the gonads. I know that I will be told that the haiku writers of the Yeddo Period had this — especially Bashô and Issa. But you have to be Japanese to believe that Zola’s La Terre can be condensed into 17 syllables.

Now it is very easy, in literature as in life, to cross from sensibility to neurasthenia and sentimentality. This is the besetting sin of most modern Japanese literature derived from the native tradition. There are still others handicapping the forming of a new tradition derived from the West. Not least is a kind of utter misunderstanding, the sort of failure of intercultural communication we know for instance in Pope’s Homer. For this reason Western influences tend to operate on the level of the least common denominator, the formula, the stereotype. Possibly this is the reason the Japanese are so good in the media of the mass culture where nothing but stereotype is expected — photography, movies, commercial art, sex novels. All too often, unfortunately, ambitious imitations of Picasso or Max Ernst tend to look like commercial art too, and the imitations of Shelley or Éluard to sound like the lucubrations of the Lonely Housewife School of Poetry Club Imagism. Japan, incidentally, is one of the few countries where poetry clubs and outfits like P.E.N. are taken seriously. There is one thing about Western culture, you can’t take it at its face value without making yourself ridiculous. I do not think there is any question but that the primary problem for Japan is not the assimilation of the West — it has been sufficiently assimilated, but the restatement of the native tradition in terms negotiable for the creation of a totally new cultural synthesis. Of course this is such easy advice to give from the sidelines, but it is nonetheless true. So the stories and poems with the deepest roots in Japanese soil are usually the best. On the other hand, there is too large a class of pseudo-archaistic writing, of which the popular retelling of the Heike Monogatari by Eiji Yoshikawa, which I reviewed recently, is an example — this is just conventional costume romance, not refounding of a tradition. That is the trouble, most Japanese literature of the past hundred years is conventional. If it is naturalistic, it is conventional naturalism. If it is surrealistic or proletarian, it is conventionally so. Most of it is just plain conventional, like a story picked at random from the pages of the Atlantic or the Partisan Review, of any year, from the days of Frank Stockton to those of Flannery O’Connor. I suppose the word for this is provincialism, and by and large Japanese culture today is still a provincial outlier of Paris and New York. Still, there is something else, a core of Japanese sense and sensibility which is almost always there, however thin, ultimately irreducible, and, at least sometimes, still the creative center of the work. What this means is that although Japan may be provincial now, she will not, barring international catastrophe, be so forever. In fact, it is my personal belief that it is in Japan, even more than in China or India, that a great new cultural synthesis is beginning to take form.

My only criticism of Donald Keene’s second volume is that he does not give adequate representation to Japanese surrealism and other modernist idioms, and to the proletarian school of pre-war days. True, they are derivative, but that granted, they are very good, better than much of the conventional, in the ordinary sense, poetry and prose he does give. I would have printed some Katue Kitasono, a modernist poet very well known in the West, more of the exquisite traditional poetess Yosano Akiko, more of the wry modern haiku, in fact more poetry generally. Inadequate or dated as it is, Bonneau’s Yoshino, volume 10, Lyrisme du Temps Présent, is much better, at least for the pre-war period. The best prose on the whole is traditional in feeling, Takaboku’s Romaji Diary, Junchiro’s Thin Snow, Fumiko’s Tokyo, the famous shocker by Osamu, Villon’s Wife, and the selection from Takiji’s Cannery Boat, the best Japanese proletarian novel, often compared with Traven’s Death Ship (which is the best of all).

I should say that the first volume was practically perfect, its selections could be changed but slightly and they could hardly be improved. The modern collection is more than adequate, but it is more easily disagreed with.


This review of Donald Keene’s Anthology of Japanese Literature and Modern Japanese Literature (Grove Press, 1955 & 1956) originally appeared in The Nation (15 December 1956) and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1956. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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