Literary Japan: Kōji's Introduction to Japanese Classics

"Great Wave Off Kanagawa" (circa 1826) by Katsushika Hokusai [Public domain] via Wikimedia.

Words to Live by: Japanese Classics for Our TimesWords to Live by: Japanese Classics for Our Times by NAKANO Koji

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At the International Political Science Association's World Congress 2018 in Brisbane this July, I stumbled upon the market stand for Japan Library, a Japanese publisher focused on translating great Japanese books into English. 

Not knowing what to expect, I bought two hardcover books priced at $25 each. I have read a few translations of various novels and I am rarely disappointed, but this book seems more along the lines of Harold Bloom's and Italo Calvino's works on classic literature, with a focus on Japanese poetry written by Buddhists monks in medieval and pre-industrial Japan. 

The physical book is beautifully presented with a hardcover, dust jacket, ribbon book marker, and paper that is of obvious high quality. The readability of the translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter is superb, and although there may be some things lost in translation, to an amateur like me, you couldn't pick it. 

What I enjoyed most about the work is that Kōji is humble yet powerful in awakening me to classic Japanese literature. Recently, I have had a similar experience with classic Japanese art and music, and I now enjoy the art of Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) and listening to the koto music of Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614–1685)

I discovered these two from Sid Meier's Civilization VI, of all places. But that is not unusual - I discovered my most favourite composer, John Adams, as part of the soundtrack of Civilization III. (It is the only computer game I ever play. If anyone is willing to let me work on the cultural/historical aspects of future releases of the Civilization game series, do let me know! I first played Civilization in 1994 and have occasionally played it ever since. I have learnt more about art, music, architecture, science, warfare, and history from that game than almost any other source. If only I could incorporate the game into my teaching, I could find an excuse to play it more often.) 

I hoped this work would give me a similar experience; and it did. 

The text flows in straight-forward prose, outlining the work of six Japanese literary greats, interrupted by poetry from each of the authors, with commentary by Kōji that never "got on my goat". If anything, Kōji's explanations and personal observations enrich what is already a very rich literary experience. (Kōji was 77 years old at the time this was published. An interesting aside - I know someone who gives their age as the year they are living, rather than the most recently past year. Apparently, it was Japanese custom to give the age of a child as 1 year old in their first year, so I have been forced to accept that this person, who went to primary school in Japan, is not incorrect!) 

There is so much conveyed in this work, it is difficult to give a summary without writing a series of maxims that would rival La Rochefoucauld's. Suffice it to say, my favourite poet from the collection is Saigyō. 

At first, I was not impressed by how the moon and cherry blossoms sent his heart off into the ether, only to return of its own will some time later. I thought this all a bit over the top, but then (p. 173):
Master Mongaku despised Saigyō... If he ever ran into him, he often said, he'd break his skull.
One day, Saigyō turned up at Master Mongaku's temple. His disciples worried what he would do to Saigyō, but the meeting went cordially. Afterwards, Mongaku's disciples asked why their master had gone back on his word:
"You idiots!"Mongaku scolded. "Was that the face of someone I could possibly beat up? It was the face of someone who could beat me to a pulp!"
I, too, was surprised that this ex-warrior, samurai turned Buddhist monk, could be such a poet. It just seemed to be the work that belonged to a sickly, weak yet beautiful man who couldn't hurt a fly. This is what makes Saigyō's literature more remarkable, and Kōji presents the work and the backstory in such a way that the book resonates long after the reading is over. 

I also learnt much about traditional Japanese poetry. The haiku is familiar to most people, but I knew nothing of the other traditional forms, many of which appear in this work, including the various haikai and waka forms. If I were to take a crash course in Japanese literature and Zen Buddhism, this book would be the place to start. Of particular interest is Tsurezuregusa or Essays in Idleness by Yoshida Kenkō. The ideas about happiness, solitude, life and death, and, most importantly, the Buddhist concept of the "here-now" were enlightening. 

What I like most is that Nakano Kōji learnt about his own culture late in life, after focusing on Western literature (particularly Kafka), and has an ability to make comparisons of Japanese thought and philosophy with the ideas I am more familiar with. This made it easy to appreciate the wisdom of the various Buddhist monks without needing a solid grounding in Buddhism to make sense of it. Indeed, the works are far from religious, but are certainly "spiritual" in a universal sense. 

I daresay I will be returning to Japan Library to discover more classic Japanese literature, and I am inspired to try a Japanese novel (translated into English, of course) soon. My next Japan Library work is Self-Respect and Independence of Mind: The Challenge of Fukuzawa Yukichi, a biographical work on the Meiji Restoration-era intellectual.

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