My love of Japanese literature is an open secret, and I’ve managed to acquire quite a personal library over the past decade or so, including several anthologies and short-story collections. One of these is the Modern Japanese Literature anthology (edited by Donald Keene) I read and enjoyed a few years back, a slightly dated, but still fascinating, overview of writing in Japan after the introduction of Western ideas. But what about before the hairy barbarians forced Japan to open its borders? What was happening with the country’s literature pre-1868? Well, as it turns out, Keene had that covered too, and today’s post sees us taking a journey through time to while away a few hours in the company of the country’s all-time literary greats – ikimashō!
Anthology of Japanese Literature: from the earliest era to the mid-nineteenth century is a collection of J-Lit ranging from the dawn of literary time up to the start of the Meiji Era in 1868. In terms of genre, the anthology has a little of everything, with various types of poetry, long and short prose pieces, a number of diary extracts and travel thoughts, and examples of several kinds of dramatic styles. I won’t lie to you; it can be rough going at times (particularly for the beginner), but if you look hard enough, there’s something for everyone here. The book is organised chronologically using the traditional Japanese periods, starting with a few surviving texts from the Ancient Period (pre-794AD), including selections from the Man’yōshū, the classic anthology of ancient poetry, and a few tales from the Kojiki.
That wasn’t really for me, but when the anthology moves on to the Heian Period (794-1185), there’s a world of delights in store, from an extract from The Tale of Genji and a look at The Diary of Lady Murasaki, to glimpses at The Pillow Book and The Sarashina Diary (AKA As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams). Most of the pieces here were written by women, and one I hadn’t tried before was Kagerō Nikki, another diary work by a woman known only as the Mother of Michitsuna, in which the writer laments the cruel treatment she receives at the hands of her husband:
But the following month I received a shock. Toying with my writing box one morning just after he had left, I came upon a note obviously intended for another woman. My chagrin was infinite, and I felt that I must at least send something to let him know I had seen the thing. “Might this be a bill of divorcement,” I wrote, “this note that I see for another?”
‘Kagerō Nikki’, p.98, translated by Edward Seidensticker (Grove Press, 1955)
Alas, more proof that little has changed over the past thousand years or so…
Moving on to the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) brings us to one of my favourite Japanese classics, The Tale of the Heike, a far-eastern Iliad full of warriors and divine retribution, with the extract given here (telling of the death of Atsumori) providing an excellent taste of the style of the work. A rather different tone is to be found in An Account of My Hut (AKA Hōjōki), a collection of Kamo no Chōmei’s melancholy musings. Having left civilisation behind in the search for a little tranquillity, the writer uses his time to reflect on the ups and downs of life in the middle ages:
The Abbot Ryūgyō of the Ninnaji, grieving for the countless people who were dying, gathered together a number of priests who went about writing the letter A on the forehead of every corpse they saw, thus establishing communion with Buddha. In an attempt to determine how many people had died, they made a count during the fourth and fifth months, and found within the boundaries of the capital over 42,300 corpses lying in the streets. What would the total have been had it included all who died before or after that period, both within the city and in the suburbs? And what if all the provinces of Japan had been included?
‘An Account of My Hut’, p.203, tr. Donald Keene
It all makes for a sobering reminder of the precarious nature of existence, which was even more fragile in times gone by.
The Muromachi Period (1333-1600) is represented by a number of different literary genres, with Yoshida Kenkō’s Essays in Idleness providing a slightly more optimistic and humorous equivalent to Kamo no Chōmei’s earlier laments. Many of the choices in this section deal with Nō plays, with Seami Motokiyo first describing the secrets of the art before several examples (including another look at Atsumori’s demise) are presented. Perhaps my favourite of the pieces in this section, though, was The Three Priests, an excellent story in which three holy men meeting by chance at Mount Kōya reveal why they renounced the world. The first has a sad tale to tell, having lost his love to a random act of violence:
“And was it not entirely on account of me that she, a court lady, had been put to a pitiless sword before she was twenty? Imagine if you can what feelings tormented me! If I had known of the danger to her, no demons could have frightened me. I would have charged alone into three hundred, five hundred, enemy, so little did I value my life. But the deed occurred without my knowing of it, and I had been powerless. That very night I shaved my head and became a priest. It is now some twenty years that I have lived on this mountain, praying for the repose of her soul.”
‘The Three Priests’, pp.326/7, tr. Donald Keene
It’s a powerful story, but when the second priest takes his turn to talk, there’s a big surprise in store…
The final part of the book takes us on to the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868), providing extracts from works by popular novelists. There are several pieces here by Ihara Saikaku, a writer known for his tales of amorous men and women, and I was also taken by Jippensha Ikku’s Hizakurige, a humorous novel featuring two friends on the road (with definite shades of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat). Finally, there’s some writing by one of the most famous Tokugawa writers, Takizawa Bakin, with a short extract from his novel Shino and Hamaji, in which an honest man is forced to part from his fiancée by devious relatives.
As my preference is for prose writing, I’ve mostly focused on novels and short stories so far, but there’s a whole lot more to be enjoyed. Haiku lovers will be delighted by the inclusion not only of some of Bashō’s best work but also of his travel diaries, while other readers might be more intrigued by Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s musings on puppet theatre. One excellent inclusion here is his play The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, a Japanese Romeo and Juliet that most people would enjoy.
As you might have surmised by the many links in the post (particularly in the Heian era section), I’ve already tried several of these works, and one weak point of the anthology is that a few of the translations can be a little dated (something I’ve already covered in my post on The Diary of Lady Murasaki). However, that’s certainly not always the case. While Arthur Waley’s take on the ‘Yūgao’ chapter of The Tale of Genji might be rather loose in terms of faithfulness, it makes for a great read, and the many pieces written by Keene himself are also excellent. In fact, we should be grateful for all his work on the anthology; first published in 1955, I’m sure this took a monumental effort to put together.
In short, I thoroughly enjoyed getting back to my Japanese literary education, and I’m sure I’ll be leafing through the book again at some point. It wasn’t all to my taste (especially the poetry), but I discovered several new books I’d like to try, and my Penguin copy of Essays in Idleness and Hōjōki has already joined the many volumes of my personal J-Lit library on the shelves. In fact, I’m sure there’ll be more added to the collection very soon – proof that the anthology has done its job 🙂