Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    Writing about ‘The Lost’ or ‘Old and New’ or Japan ‘Off-The-Beaten-Track’ in English is an enduring publishing trend that goes back to at least 1878[UPDATED: 6-17-2024]

    Writing and publishing books about Japan is not a new phenomenon and some of the themes, such as the alleged paradox of and contradictions within Japanese society are not new either.

    Many such themes have endured for over one hundred years, or more. Authors have continued to attempt to decode Japan, with wit, insight and elegant prose, for readers for years, comparing the present to the past, and searching out new unique things in Japan never written about before in English or pockets of rural Japan never ‘explored’ before.

    The British explorer and travel writer Isabella L. Bird (1831-1904), for example, wrote Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An account of Travels on Horseback in the interior including visits to the aborigines of Yezo and the Shrines of Nikko and Ise in 1881 after she visited Japan in 1878, with the aim of introducing new aspects of Japan to Western readers.

    She writes about visits to bookshops, colleges, missionaries, Japanese women and the moral codes they are bound by, a glimpse of domestic life, and even includes descriptions, that would not be publishable today, of Ainu people comparing some to The Missing Link.

    Another early example is Percival Lowell (1855-1916), an American intellectual and businessman, who lived in Japan for a few months and visited the country many times, who wrote a travelogue in 1891 titled: Noto: An Unexplored Corner of Japan, as well as others books on Japan and the Orient.

    In 1913, Lord Redesdale (1837-1916), a British diplomat who was based in Japan in the 1870s, comments in the introduction of A Tragedy in Stone and other Papers on this publishing trend:

    “Many books are being written about Japan old and new: every tourist writes his impressions or those of his native guide, mostly illiterate and uninformed; and so I felt the less hesitation in endeavouring to crystallise some particles of truth as a set-off to against all this Dolmetscherei – interpreter’s fribble”.

    “Even a trip among the fairy-haunted mountains of Hakone, in days when there were no railroads, no telegraphs, no hotels, and when we travelled with an armed escort – for there were not a few ronin about, desperadoes whose blades were a thirst to drink the blood of the hated foreigner – may be of some amusement to the myriad journeyers who now have at their command all the comforts and something more than the security of the West”.

    “But for these I must say that they pay a price in the sacrifice of much that was original, much that was picturesque, and the old-world, and unforeseen.”

    Many authors today, as in the past, are aware of the challenges of writing an original book about Japan, but still feel compelled to pick up the gauntlet by putting their thoughts and impression to paper.

    In fact so many books had been written about Japan by 1900 that one US-based Japanese journalist saw this in itself as a publishing opportunity and wrote a book titled Japan and the Japanese in 1904, summarising them.

    Harold and Alice Foght, two America educators, who despite all this and being fully aware of the risks, like so many others today, decided to take up the challenge and wrote in the preface of their book Unfathomed Japan, published in 1928:

    “We are fully cognizant of the fact that of books on Japan there is no end – many that are truly scholarly, the result of painstaking research. But alas! Also many that are mere impressionistic nonsense, or else wholly biased and prejudiced, either describing the Japanese as new race of supermen or making of them a nation of knaves – dishonest, crafty, and untrustworthy.”

    Their book includes chapters and headings on: Purveyors of Untruths, Low Degree of Adult Illiteracy, A Visit to an Ainu Village, The Geisha Suicide Rock, An Education Institution After My Own Heart, Helen Redell’s Leper Hospital, and Children Do Cry in Japan.

    Despite his views on books about Japan, Lord Redesdale was happy to share his own impressions and memories:

    “Already the Japanese themselves talk of the days previous to 1878 as mukashi, “the olden time,” and they speak dubiously of what took place then, much as we might talk of the events of the period of Heptarchy. It was strange indeed, when I returned to Japan six years ago with Prince Arthur’s Garter Mission, to be more than once cross-examined as to what did or did not take place mukashi. When the Mayor of Tokyo got up a representation of one of the old Daimyo processions for the Prince’s benefit, one of the Princesses turned around to me, a foreigner, and said: “You must often have seen such sights mukashi; is this all correct?” Many books are being written about Japan old and new….

    “When I left her in 1870 she was busy working out the problems of her own political salvation. I went back in 1873 – she was then learning and toiling, training herself assiduously for the great part she was to play in the world’s history. In 1909 I found a great and heroic nation emerging from a war in which she had shown not only those great qualities which gave success to her arms, but also the magnanimity and self-restraint in victory which are the greatest triumph of the conqueror.

    “In forty years Japan, from being an unknown country, a negligible quantity in the councils of the nations, has raised herself to the rank of a first-rate Power, and from this time forth it is impossible to conceive any Congress, meeting to settle the affairs of the world, at which she should not be represented, and which her statesmen should not have a powerful voice.

    “The Old Japan is dead, but its soul survives in a spirit of patriotism and chivalry as loft as the world has seen. Daimyos and Kuges have disappeared.  The feuds of the clans, the turbulent frettings of the Wave-men, have faded into the past. In the place of these elements of unrest we see the new birth of a novel people bound together by one great and glorious aspiration, following the guidance of an auspicious star leading them to the heights of which their fathers never dreamt”.

    Writing about ‘The Lost’ or ‘Old and New’ or Japan ‘Off-The-Beaten-Track’ in English is an enduring publishing trend that goes back to at least 1878 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    ‘The Life of an Amorous Man’ written by a 17th-century Japanese poet spawned the genre now known as ‘Floating World’ publishing[UPDATED: 1-16-2024]

    Even though the term is thought to have been used for the first time after his death in 1710, the Japanese poet Ihawa Saikaku (1642-1693) and his work written in 1682, The Life of an Amorous Man, Koshoku ichidai otoko, are said to have spawned the Japanese publishing genre known as Ukiyo-Zoshi tales of the floating world.

    This genre of popular Japanese fiction spans fiction written between the 1680s and 1770s during Japan’s peaceful but somewhat rigid Edo period (1603-1868) when the nation was run by Shoguns and mostly closed off from the rest of the world.

    It was, however, a time when many Japanese cultural pursuits flourished including the nation’s commercial publishing – an industry that the Shogun-run administrations mostly encouraged. The genre flourished just as commercial publishing, which had initially started in Kyoto in the early 17th century, was gaining significant momentum.

    The term was first used just for amorous erotic fiction but subsequently expanded to encompass a much broader range of works spanning the world of Japanese courtesans and life more generally in Edo Japan, including in its so-called pleasure quarters. It had fixed publishing formats and was known for its extreme realism and cynicism.

    Saikaku, who was one of the most popular authors of the period, the son of an Osaka-based merchant was from a young age a prolific composer of renga, linked verse; an understanding of which alongside other forms of Japanese poetry and short-form writing are (some argue) essential for decoding Japan’s intellectual and cultural DNA. Tales of the floating world, either written by Saikaka or inspired by him, are now undeniably part of Japan’s cultural DNA.

    Saikaku also wrote Five Women Who Loved Love, Koshoku gonin onna as well as The Life of an Amorous Women, Koshoku ichidai onna.

    Another Saikaku work Twenty Cases of Unfilial Children, Honcho niju fuko, published in 1686, a parody of a famous Chinese Confucian text inspired Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) many years later to pen a series of essays titled Lessons in Immorality,Fudotoku Kyoiku Koza, in 1958.

    In later life, Saikaku’s works became increasingly racy. He also wrote, for example, The Great Mirror of Male Love, Nanshoku okagami, published in 1687 a collection of homosexual stories, which are sometimes cited as an important milestone in Japan’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) related publishing.

    More than 300 years after the publication of The Life of an Amorous Man the Japan-born British author and future Nobel Prize in Literature winner Kazuo Ishiguru used the genre’s phrasing in translation in the title of his 1986 seminal novel An Artist of the Floating World.

    And just like Saikaku’s works in Edo period Japan, Ishiguru’s novel set in post-war Japan captured the interests and imaginations of readers but in Ishiguru’s case in at least 40 countries during his lifetime, including Japan where An Artist of the Floating World has been published in Japanese translation.

    Showing again that tales of floating worlds, no matter which age they are set in, can conjure up exceedingly compelling and enduring narratives.

     

    ‘The Life of an Amorous Man’ written by a 17th-century Japanese poet spawned the genre now known as ‘Floating World’ publishing Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Writing about the plight of women in Japan is not a new trend. In the 1870s visitors to Japan were already pontificating on the topic in print[UPDATED: 8-4-2023]

    Like many who preceded her, travel writer Isabella L. Bird (1831-1904) shares her thoughts and observations about Japanese women, following her first visit to Japan in 1878. She writes the following in her book Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An account of Travels on Horseback in the interior including visits to the aborigines of Yezo and the Shrines of Nikko and Ise:

    “She looked intelligent, restless, and unhappy, and, I thought, chafed under the restraints of custom, as she said that no Japanese women could start for foreign countries alone, and she envied foreigners their greater liberty”.

    Bird goes on:

    “A very pretty girl, with singular grade and charm of manner, came on and sat down besides her, equally well dressed in silk, but not a legal wife. The senior wife obtains great credit for her kind and sisterly treatment of her, which according to Japanese notions, is the path to true wisdom. There was an attendant in the shape of a detestable “Chin,” something like a King Charles’s spaniel with a broken nose: an artificially dwarfed creature, with glassy, prominent eye, very cross and delicate, and dressed in a warm coat. These objectionable lap-dogs are “ladies’ pets” all over Japan.

    “My impression is, that, according to our notions, the Japanese wife is happier in the poorer than in the richer classes. She works hard, but it is rather as a partner than the drudge of her husband. Nor, in the same class, are the unmarried girls secluded, but, within certain limits, they posses complete freedom. Women undoubtedly enjoy a more favourable position than in most other heathen countries, and wives are presumably virtuous. Infanticide is rare. The birth of a daughter is far from being an occasion of mourning, and girls receive the same affection and attention as boys, and for their sphere are equally carefully educated.

    “The women of the upper classes are much secluded, and always go out with attendants. In the middle ranks it is not proper for a wife to be seen abroad in her husband’s absence, and, to be above suspicion, many, under these circumstances, take an old women to keep them company.

    “There are many painful and evil customs to which I cannot refer, and which are not likely to be overthrown except by the reception of a true Christianity, some of them arising out of morbidly exaggerated notions of filial piety; but even in the past times women have not been “downtrodden,” but have occupied a high place in history. To say nothing of the fact that the greatest of national divinities is a goddess, nine empresses have ruled Japan by “divine right,” and in literature, especially poetry, women divide the foremost places with men.

    “Japanese women, who even at the worst, enjoy an amount of liberty, considerate care, and respect, which I am altogether surprised to find in a heathen country. It is even to be hoped that things may not go too far, and that the fear of the Meiroku Zasshi, that “ the power of women will grow gradually, and eventually become so overwhelming that it will be impossible to control it,” many not be realised!”

    Another British author, Sherard Vines (1890-1974), who spent longer in Japan and taught for five years at Keio University, a private university in Tokyo, has a very different spin on Japanese women writing in 1931, 50 years later, in his book Yofuku or Japan in Trousers:

    “Ugly Japanese women, like ugly French women, are generally able to cultivate some attraction of manner, whereas the English are inclined to submit to any physical shortcomings, and to take refuge in defiance, educational activities, or the writing of popular fiction.”

    He also writes: “The few “emancipated: and modernised Japanese women I have had the privilege of meeting were entirely devoid of the aggressiveness and self-conscious masculinity that, in the corresponding Nordic type, is sometimes so trying; and they where wholly delightful”.

    In between the publication of these two books, and even today, much is written, recorded, broadcast and published about Japanese women, some of it well researched that, in a similar manner to Bird, alludes to the fact that the reality is often far more complex than generally imagined and different across different sections of society. 

    An interesting example that highlights these complexities penned by a Japanese author, Toshiaki Tachibanaki, is The New Paradox for Japanese Women: Greater Choice, Greater Inequality, for instance, which looks at how contemporary women have been polarised into elite and non-elite in the name of diversity and freedom of choice, and the impact that employment and marriage status can also play on modern gender roles. But much is still flippant, superficial and headline grabbing.

    That said, Bird’s book, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, written when she was 47 and published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons New York in 1881, as well as the story of her travels in Japan in 1878, was launched as a Japanese manga in 2015, Isabella Bird in Wonderland: Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Fushigi no Kuni no Bādo, creating a new type of legacy for her and her observations of more than a century ago. A bilingual Japanese-English edition also exists.

    Writing about the plight of women in Japan is not a new trend. In the 1870s visitors to Japan were already pontificating on the topic in print Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan experts, Japanologists, commentators, as well as visitors to Japan, have been deriding each other’s ‘Knowledge’ of the nation for over a century[UPDATED: 5-10-2023]

    It is common knowledge that some commentators on Japan and Japan experts like to show off their superior knowledge at any opportunity. Some write about how it was better in the good old days before all the international visitors, some promptly challenge a commentator’s credibility if they have limited Japanese language ability, while others just criticise for the pure fun of it. This human trait is by no means a new phenomenon.

    Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) wrote in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying that ‘the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people… The Japanese people are… simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art.’

    This triggered the following response from Rudyard Kipling’s (1865-1936), who was just 23 and still unknown, on his arrival in Nagasaki in 1889, ‘Mister Oscar Wilde of The Nineteenth Century is a long toothed liar!’ Kipling went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907, with the prize committee citing his writings on Japan as one of the reasons he won.

    But whose views should we trust?

    “A contemporary writer on Japan warns the reading public against two kinds of chroniclers – those who have lived in the Orient too long, and those who have been there as mere fleeting tourists, too short a time,” according to the Preface of Hamilton Wright Mabie’s (1846-1916) book, Japan Today and Tomorrow, published in 1914.

    The preface continues:

    “The former class, he would have, are quite certain to become disillusioned with the passing of first delights and novel discoveries, and so will, consciously or unconsciously, express this aversion in their writing; while the latter class become so enrapt and overwhelmed by the “things Japanese” seen for the first time that they vision and write their impressions through glasses highly rose-coloured, throwing their power of discrimination to the four winds, chatting about cherry blossoms and geisha and tea houses, while they rush pell-mell along well-travelled tourist paths from Tokyo to the shrines of Nikko, and from viewing the Dai Buttsu of Kamakura, and over the ancient Tokaido to Kyoto , and on to Kobe to embank for Shanghai!”

    Perhaps the early visitors to Japan?

    “The knowledge of the average European about Japan was limited to the fact that in some remote corner of the Eastern seas there lived a mysterious nation of cunning craftsmen, skilled in the making of pottery and lacquer, deft workers in bronze and other metals, carvers of wood and ivory, whose masterpieces were eagerly sought after by lovers of art. We heard the wildest tales – stories made in Holland – about a spiritual Emperor and a temporal Emperor, and a form of government in which spying had been brought to a fine art. So crass was our ignorance that even educated men were for the most part under the impression that the Japanese language was identical with, or at any rate a dialect of, the Chinese,” writes Lord Redesdale (1837-1916) in Old and New Japan, 1871.

    Many books are being written about Japan old and new: every tourist writes his impressions or those of his native guide, mostly illiterate and uninformed; and so I felt the less hesitation in endeavouring to crytsallise some particles of truth as a set-off to against all this Dolmetscherei – interpreter’s fribble,” writes Lord Redesdale (1837-1916) in Tragedy in Stone and other Papers in 1913.

    And as for criticism and scorn, it was ever thus:

    Here are some examples of comments this time about Lord Redesdale, a British diplomat and writer, as well as the paternal grandfather to the famous Mitford Sisters, who is reported to have fathered two children in Japan with a geisha, published in the Eastern World from 1892-1907.

    “Lord Redesdale, better known as the former Mr. A.B. Mitford, and as the author of Tales of Old Japan, has accomplished the almost incredible feat of compiling a whole 6 shilling book on “The Garter Mission to Japan.” Lord Redesdale is 70 years of age, That perhaps explains such a cataract of words on an empty ceremony. In a year or less the book will be listed in Smith & Son’s new remainders at sixpence.”

    “As regards “naivete” finally, we are of the opinion that it has all been on Lord R.’s side. What the geisha does not know about the catching of men and the belongings of men is not worth knowing.”

    “If Lord Redesdale will read some of the authors mentioned, or re-peruse the late ones which he may have read and forgotten again, he will know more about the geisha of Japan and her kind than he did before. Perhaps he has at one time or other heard the Japanese proverb kao wa tennin, kokoro oniwa, hey? But old wood ever made the best of tinder.”

    ““Hello, hello!” we hear some of readers exclaim,“ whence all this suspicious, unholy knowledge? “Well, confession is a good for the soul. Let us confess therefore. We have been present at a great number of geisha entertainments in Tokyo…”

    And finally, is antagonism between reporters working for local and international publications that challenge the quality of sources, knowledge and re-cycled reporting of the other a new phenomenon?

    “The “Japan Mail” Returns to its Vomit, October 20th 1906.  On the 21st July last the Japan Mail threw out some lying and slanderous imitations against the ‘local press’ referring to tales of corruption which “ had been current in many months” etc. The Mail itself told those tales, if the obscure insinuations it throws out from time to time can be called “tales,” and then, after some months, it said those same tales had been current in many months. That trick is as old as hired journalism, but we presume that it must still serve some object, which the conductors the reptile press understood”.

    Japan experts, Japanologists, commentators, as well as visitors to Japan, have been deriding each other’s ‘Knowledge’ of the nation for over a century Posted by Richard Nathan
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    By the early 1900s so many books had been published ‘Explaining Japan’ that one author felt compelled to write a book summarising them[UPDATED: 3-22-2023]

    In 1904, Kiyoshi Kawakami (1873-1949), a Japanese journalist based in Seattle, wrote a book titled Japan and the Japanese, where he looked back and summarised how Western writers had opined on and written about Japan.

    He explained his objective as: “I had read a considerable number of books and review articles by foreign writers on various topics connected with Japanese life. It then occurred to me that a compilation of the views of some of the representative foreign writers on Japan would be of great interest as well as benefit to the reading public, especially to younger readers at home.”

    Kawakami includes extracts from writers such as Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904), Isabella Bird (1831-1904), Captain Brinkley (1841-1912), Pierre Loti (1850-1923) and others in his book.

    Japan and the Japanese includes topics and headlines such as:

    The Most Paradoxical Race, The Virtue of the Japanese Woman, Frauds and Tricks of Trade, New Japan: The Schoolmaster of Asia, Lack of Imaginative Power in The Japanese Poet, The Japanese Girl, Indifference to Nudity, Self-Inflicted Ugliness of Japanese Women, First Impressions of Japan, Japanese Cultivation not Civilisation, The Characteristic Peculiarity of Japanese Servants, Foreign Costume as Worn by Japanese Men and Women, Frog-Poems in Japanese Literature, Why Japanese Merchants Lack Commercial Morality, Popular Misconceptions of Japan, Alleged Unchastity of the Japanese Women, Japan Old and New.

    Below are some of Kawakami’s observations and comments:

    “Are we complimented when such an author as this tells the world that Japan is peopled with dear giggling dolls, living in dear little miniature houses made of cardboard, and eating fairy food out of miniature dishes?

    “Have we any reason to rejoice when a man like M. Pierre Loti seems to take Japan as a bright and fascinating freak of geography and ethnology? To be brief, Japan is or at least has been, in the eyes of most of her admirers, like an innocent sweet damsel to be petted and played with, and not like a strong man commanding the respect of all who come in contact with him.

    “To a reader such as he I must explain that those foreigners who have studied and endeavored to understand Japan form a mere fraction as compared with the great mass among which prevails dense ignorance regarding things Japanese.

    “The present war with Russia will no doubt greatly assist in introducing Japan to a vastly wider circle of foreign acquaintances and in doing away with many of the misunderstandings that have been preventing the Westerners from establishing a closer friendship with the greatest of all Oriental races.

    “My labour will be more than rewarded if the foreign reader of this book lays hold of the fact that the Japanese of the new school do not care to be exploited for those old, quaint, and beautiful ‘ things Japanese:’ that they are something else than what they have been; while the Japanese reader bears in mind that upon his shoulders rest the grave responsibility of realizing the Greater Japan which is no longer the habitation of dear little weaklings.”

    Kawakami wasn’t the only Japanese writer who felt obliged to write books in English about Japan and the Japanese.

    In 1905, a Japanese aristocrat, Baron Suyematsu (1855-1920), educated at Cambridge University graduating with a law degree in 1884, for instance, also felt compelled to write books in English in what can surely be described as an early form of ‘myth-busting’ or ‘fake news’ management.

    One of Suyematsu books was titled Fantasy of Far Japan or Summer Dream Dialogues. It was published, by Archibald Constable, in 1905 and he wrote a second book titled The Risen Sun.

    Another famous and important similar example is Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933) who like many emerging Japanese authors of the period was from a samurai background. He was the son of a retainer of a daimyo (warlord).

    Nitobe converted to Christianity and became a diplomat and international statesman. He wrote his famous essay on samurai ethics in English in 1900, before the books by Kawakami and Suyematsu were published.

    Nitobe’s book had a major impact and influenced many including former US President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who reportedly bought copies for his friends.

    By the early 1900s so many books had been published ‘Explaining Japan’ that one author felt compelled to write a book summarising them Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Julius Caesar, published in Japanese in 1883, was the first play by William Shakespeare to be translated into Japanese[UPDATED: 3-1-2023]

    The first published Japanese language translation of a play by William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) was Julius Caesar. It was published in 1883.

    The translation by Keizo Kawashima (1859-1933), which was in fact incomplete, was published in a Japanese newspaper. Nonetheless, it is considered by most experts to be the first Japanese translation of a Shakespeare play.

    Prior to this, quotes from Shakespeare plays, outlines and adaptations had already started appearing in Japanese often from well-known writers such as Kawasaki Robun (1829-1894), a prominent author and journalist who interestingly wrote a book published in 1872 that contains the first recipe in Japanese for making curry. In Robun’s case the Shakespeare play was Hamlet

    In 1884, Shoyo Tsubouchi (1859-1935), a Japanese writer and translator and later a professor at Waseda University, published the first complete Japanese translation of a Shakespeare play, also Julius Caesar. He gave it the title Shizaru Kidan Jigo no tachi Nagorino Kireaji, The Sharp Edge of Freedom’s Sword.

    It was a Kabuki-like adaption more than a direct or literal translation.  Early Shakespeare translations often targeted general readers not academics or scholars and as any schoolchild growing up in the United Kingdom knows Shakespeare is open to myriad interpretation. Tsubouchi published a new revised translation of Julius Caesar in 1913.

    That said, Hamlet was a play that several important Japanese authors translated in this period not just Robun. Ogai Mori (1862-1922), who is known for his contribution to the unification of written and spoken Japanese and for penning the ‘first modern Japanese short story’, for example, published a translation of Hamlet in 1889, something Bimyo Yamada (1868-1910), another famous novelist and poet, had also done the year before in 1888.

    Hamlet has since these early translations had a very special place amongst some of Japan’s most creative individuals and has now been adapted and translated numerous times after its somewhat late arrival in Japanese in Japan.  Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), probably Japan’s most notorious author, also had a go at adapting Hamlet into an illustrated children’s book.

    The celebrated Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), who loved reading and narratives with tragic scenarios and twists of fate, adapted Shakespeare’s plays into films set in Japan including Hamlet which no doubt has helped give further momentum to the interest that Shakespeare’s Hamlet elicits in Japan.

    There have subsequently been countless translations, adaptations, publications and performances of Shakespeare’s plays in the Japanese language, and Shakespearean films attract large audiences in Japan.

    Alongside Lewis Carroll’s (1832-1898) Alice in Wonderland and Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859-1930) Sherlock Holmes, which arrived in translation in Japan at a similar time, Shakespeare’s plays have probably been adapted and translated into Japanese more than any other literary works from England.

    Julius Caesar, published in Japanese in 1883, was the first play by William Shakespeare to be translated into Japanese Posted by Richard Nathan
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    In the late 1880s a series of articles appeared in the Japanese media about ‘Dangerous Books’ for women[UPDATED: 3-1-2023]

    In the late 1880s much was changing in Japan. It was Meiji era (1868-1912) Japan, when the nation was experiencing a period of rapid modernisation and opening up to the West. Foreign visitors to Japan were increasing in number, foreign books and ideas were arriving in Japan and Japan’s first modern novel, The Drifting Cloud by Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909) had been penned.

    Perhaps it is not surprising given this climate and the growing concern that some had about the new direction Japan was heading that articles started appearing about the dangers of fiction and especially novels read by Japanese women.

    A series of articles appeared, mostly written by men, in the press between 1889 and 1890 about the problems of women reading novels and the danger that novels posed for women and the health of the nation.

    The concerns raised were not just about books, but also about the new literary freedom that women were experiencing, about the choice of their reading matter, and also their new ability to publish and write for new publications such as Jogaku Zassshi, the Women’s Education Journal, a magazine launched in 1885 by Yoshiharu Iwamoto (1863-1942) a famous Meiji era advocate for women’s education.

    Books and often ones imported from the West were also starting to become the ultimate ‘must-clutch’ fashion accessories for young women and schoolgirls in a visible outward public expression of these new freedoms.

    There were concerns not just about new and imported publications, but also about the classics, even The Tale of Genji, which had been required reading for over a thousand years for Japanese aristocratic women. Commentators were worried about the temperaments of the female characters and the lusty content.

    Examples of titles of the type of articles that appeared include: Advantages and Disadvantages of Young Women Reading Novels, Young Women And Novels, Problems of Girls Education by Novels, and Behaviour and Morality.

    Some of the concerns raised were: that if girls wasted their lives and energy reading novels they would not be able to live a normal married life; that novels portrayed unreasonable expectations and misguided hopes; that reading would increase divorce rates as fictional men and real husbands differed.

    In a general sense many of the concerns voiced in the 1880s are similar to the ones raised today about the danger of social media, the Internet, and video games. Perhaps they were the click bait of their era designed to help sell magazines and newspapers with their growing female readerships. Even today, the Japanese media enjoy covering scandals and scare stories about the shocking behaviour of high school and university age girls.

    These concerns were, however, also being raised at a similar time to when Western travellers to Japan, such as the British travel writer Isabella L. Bird (1831-1904), were writing about their observations of Japan, with its dangerous corrupting and popular crime fiction, and lack of religious books, as well as their thoughts about the role of women in Japanese society.

    These early Japan commentators often looked back at moral codes, such as the Japanese Code of Morals for Women first published in Japan during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), as well as reading matter and attitudes, that were rapidly becoming outdated. It is no easy task, but these early Japan watchers and commentators were probably less well attuned to the new real currents within a changing Japanese society, and the complex nuances of a large island nation, than they knew or would perhaps interest their readers who were reading about Japan for the first time.

    However, there was no stopping these trendsetting Japanese women, and the momentum they generated for women reading and writing has not ceased since. This was actually in fact nothing new as aristocratic women had been reading and writing highly creatively for a very long time in Japan.

    That said, in 1903, twenty years after these articles started appearing in the press worrying about whether Japanese women would remain ryosai kenbo, good wife wise mother, as per the popular term coined in the Meiji era about what was expected of women, the first Western-style magazine specifically targeting women was launched. 36 years after the first Western-style magazine was launched in Japan.

    This launch of a commercial magazine targeting Japanese women was followed by another groundbreaking launch by five pioneering feminists of a magazine called Seito, Blue Stocking in 1911 that shocked the nation and had issues banned on occasion as they apparently posed a danger to the nation. It covered topics such as prostitution, abortion, women’ suffrage (something they got, universally, approved in 1945) and poverty.

    In the late 1880s a series of articles appeared in the Japanese media about ‘Dangerous Books’ for women Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s ‘first’ Olympic Book, ‘The Fruits of Olympus’, was published in 1940[UPDATED: 3-1-2023]

    In 1932 Japan sent a large team of 115 men and 16 women to the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. They performed extremely well, winning 7 gold, 7 silver, and 4 bronze medals. Japan’s success at this Olympics did not just generate nationalistic pride at home; it also produced one of Japan’s first Olympic literary works, a bestselling novella by Hidemitsu Tanaka (1913-1949), Orinposu no Kajitsu, The Fruits of Olympus (1940).

    Tanaka was an Olympic rower who at the age of 19 competed in the Men’s Coxed Eights. He and his Olympic crew didn’t bring back any medals from the games. But the Olympic experience led to Tanaka’s novella, which unlike his Olympic feats was a major success, creating its own narrative milestone.

    The Fruits of Olympus, a rites of passage novel about unrequited love, is the tale of a young moody athlete, also a rower, leaving his country and representing it on the Los Angeles Olympic stage. It is not a tale of the fruits of success.

    The Fruits of Olympus is not your typical Japanese sports book with an individual becoming a national hero by overcoming every challenge faced through extreme hard work and diligence. Much of the short novel takes place on the boat journey from Japan to the games in the United States.

    The novella, a semi-autobiographical I-novel style work of autofiction, follows Sakamoto, a university rower who doesn’t enjoy all aspects of being part of his Olympic team. The rowers life takes on new meaning, however, during the boat journey to America on which a female athlete (an 18 year-old high jumper) catches his eye and he falls for her. 

    The Fruits of Olympus articulates the anxiety of youth struggling with young love, authority, peer-pressure and expectations. Rowing success is elusive, Sakamoto’s efforts are fruitless and he returns to Japan without fulfilling his dreams; and is unable to rise to the challenge of even telling the high jumper how he feels.

    The Fruits of Olympus was initially published in a literary magazine, Bungakukai, but became more popular in book format, according to academics, after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War – especially among schoolboys.

    Perhaps, as some academics have argued, Sakamoto’s international failure, his skepticism about the strategy and approach adopted, and his inability to articulate his feelings, including those of defeat, reflected how many felt in post-war Japan.

    Since its publication in 1940: popular Japanese sports have diversified to include diving and football as well as rowing; and Japan’s Olympic literature has also evolved in a way that would undoubtedly have surprised but perhaps also delighted Tanaka.

    Japan’s ‘first’ Olympic Book, ‘The Fruits of Olympus’, was published in 1940 Posted by Richard Nathan