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Literature across languages

Part 2: From Japanese to English

This is a follow up to our previous post on the history of literary exchange between Japanese and English. There we discussed the first novels to be translated from English as well as the various attempts to render Hamlet into Japanese. This time we explore the reverse, how and when Japanese literature made its way to the Anglophone world.


Writing in the New Yorker Roland Kelts recalls this remark from the popular Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami:

“I sometimes don’t think I understand American readers,” Murakami told me in Boston several years ago when trying to parse why a novel that he loved, Tim O’Brien’s “The Nuclear Age,” was widely panned in the States. “I sometimes think they’re missing something.”

Haruki Murakami is undoubtedly one of the most successful Japanese writers translated in English. What does it say that the writer himself doesn’t understand the basis of his own success? In the history of translation from Japanese to English we find that this kind of shared appeal across languages and national contexts doesn’t come easily. Best-seller lists, let alone canons, match only rarely.

We live in a publishing world characterized by the success of Murakami’s novels, but we can identify two prior phases in which Japanese literature arrived in the English-speaking world. These were precipitated and conditioned by changes in society and politics. Unsurprsingly, the arrival of the Meiji government in 1868 is our point of departure. Although the rigid controls over Western imports and exports were relaxed, the imbalance of literary exchange which prevailed during the Nagasaki trade persisted. From the Japanese perspective, the Meiji and Taisho periods saw a flourishing of engagement with English-language poetry, novels, and dramas, with pioneering figures like Tsubouchi Shoyo, Natsume Soseki, and Mori Ogai producing translations and groundbreaking new literature from their encounters with the West.

“Arthur David Waley” by Ray Strachey, oil on board, 1925-1937, NPG D252 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Figures like Lafcadio Hearn, Arthur Waley, and Basil Hall Chamberlain are representative as Western mediators of Japanese culture and art in this initial period. Hearn’s contribution includes the translation of folk tales and, famously, ghost stories in The Boy Who Drew Cats and Kwaidan respectively. While oral sources played a role, these represent genuine translations of Japanese texts, as Hearn writes in the 1904 introduction to Kwaidan:

Most of the following Kwaidan, or Weird Tales, have been taken from old Japanese books. . . . One queer tale, “Yuki-Onna,” was told me by a farmer of Chōfu, Nishitama-gōri, in Musashi province, as a legend of his native village. Whether it has ever been written in Japanese I do not know.

Waley’s output is perhaps more sophisticated. His translation of The Tale of Genji is still appreciated today and marks, with some caveats, its first complete translation in English. Waley’s stature is even more impressive given that his knowledge of the classical Japanese and Chinese language was gained through self-study and without ever visiting either country. Chamberlain’s contribution to the translation of Japanese poetry is relevant to our discussion. However, his translation of the Kojiki is more significant and, together with Waley’s translation of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, sits somewhere between the literary and the historical, complicating the question of what constitutes literature in the first place.

We can observe—at the sociological level—of this initial flow that the British predominated in accord with the position of the British Empire at the turn of the century. This claim is more easily substantiated outside the field of literature. The British Foreign Office fostered many of the pioneering firgures of the field of Japanology, like William Aston and Ernest Satow. Our aim here is to highlight literature but the writing of grammars, memoirs, histories, and cultural guides were numerically more significant. When Japanese literature found its way into English it was far from contemporary.

The title page of the English edition of Nami-Ko (Hototsugi)

Exceptions existed. Hototogisu (The Cuckoo) was a popular novel published in serial between 1898 and 1899 by Kenjiro Tokutomi. It was published in English with the title Nami-Ko: A Realistic Novel in 1904, translated by Sakae Shioya and E. F. Edgett. It is perhaps the first Japanese novel to be an international bestseller, receiving translation in many European languages, and surely places it among a small number of novels at the time to have received a truly global reception. The novel’s introduction in English attributes its success, as the appended subtitle implies, to the “absolute truth of the story, in the careful and unsophisticated working out of details, and in the faithful pictures of Japanese life of the present day,” a symptom of the naturalist/realist trend in literature. But it also paints a familiar picture of the ideological position that Japan occupied at the time, “its existence and possibilities as an independent nation asserted itself. . . . the old samurai spirit wedded to the broad principles of humanity.”

The next phase of Japanese literary transfer occurred following the Second World War. The products of this phase were more thoroughly literary and have become familiar to us today as the emblematic novels of modernist Japanese literature: Junichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, Osamu Dazai. As the character of the texts changed so too did the center of gravity shift from Britain to the United State owing to the concerted effort of American publishers and translators. A generation of young Americans would come into contact with Japan through the war, producing a wave of translations beginning in the 1950s. And it’s hard to overstate the profound role that United State military played in facilitating this; its influence on the exchange can be likened to that of the British Foreign Office and Bakufu officials of the Nagaski trade before it. Two of most recognizable translators and Japan scholars of this period, Edward Seidenstickerand Donald Keene, whose combined translations even in the first decades are too numerous to list here, started their careers at the US Navy's Japanese Language Academy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. They would go on to serve in the Marines and US naval intelligence respectively. Edwin McClellan, a translator of Natsume Soseki, worked translating Japanese communications in Washington. Ivan Morris, who translated Ooka Shohei’s Fires on the Plains (1957) and Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1959), was an intelligence officer in the Navy. Faubion Bowers, a noted scholar of Japanese theater, was Douglas MacArthur’s aide-de-camp during the Occupation. Ultimately it becomes far more difficult to find a noted translator of Japanese from the immediate postwar period who did not in some way participate in the Pacific War or its aftermath.

In some respects this is a story of catch-up. A generation of Americans born in the 1920s would take up a generation of Japanese author’s born around the turn of the twentieth century. Natsume Soseki, a figure of huge literary significance in Japan, who published novels from 1905 until his death in 1916, is a more extreme example of delayed transmission. Despite his stature, his arrival in English was delayed by nearly half a century with a few exceptions. It wasn’t until 1957 that Edwin Mcllelan’s translation of Kokoro was published; in 1968 Tuttle published Botchan translated by Umeji Sasaki. Other authors received more contemporaneous releases. Osamu Dazai’s postwar novels The Setting Sun (Japan, 1946) and No Longer Human (Japan, 1948) received translations by Donald Keene less than a decade from their Japanese publication (both published by New Directions, 1956 and 1958 respectively). Yukio Mishima is an unusual example. Born in the 1920s, he would have been roughly the age of his American translators in the 50s and 60s. If not for his elaborate suicide he would have likely seen his works translated into the twenty-first century. As it stands, he died alongside Tanizaki and Kawabata, men roughly twenty years his senior, giving the impression he belonged to an older cohort.

It becomes increasingly difficult to describe the range of Japanese literature in English after this period within the confines of this article so I will leave off here. Prominent authors Like Kenzaburo Oe and Kobo Abe could be invoked to bridge the gap to the present period, bringing us back where we started: Haruki Murakami. It’s not clear whether there is commensurate event with which to tie this phase of translation. Complicating matters, Murakami’s success in English, with novels like Norwegian Wood (2000) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997) translated by Jay Rubin, came during Japan’s “Lost Decades” rather than boom years. Maybe this is unsurprising given the contemporaneous surge in the popularity of Japanese popular culture in the United States and elsewhere. Regardless, his particular brand of fiction has come to define the appetite of the American market for Japanese literature—for now. But reflecting on the history of literary exchange that we’ve so briefly outlined, we find that the only certainty is that tastes change. Comparing Murakami’s dispassionate protagonists faced with fantastical situations with Tsubouchi Shoyo’s dictum that “a true novelist's skill consists in . . . observing fully and completely human feelings, leaving nothing out, and in making imaginary characters behave . . . like real people” or the commitment in Nami-ko’s introduction to the “absolute truth of the story. . . and in the faithful pictures of Japanese life of the present day,” we find them worlds apart.


If you’re interested in Japanese literature in translation, Stone Bridge Press has a wide variety to choose from. This includes modern translations of classics such as Osamu Dazai’s A Shameful Life, Kenji Miyazawa’s Milky Way Railroad, and Kansuke Naka’s The Silver Spoon as well as new translation of contemporary Japanese fiction from our MONKEY imprint.



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