When translating, leave currency in the original units

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:00 pm

Money hiding Swords I’m using Ivan Morris’ translation of Saikaku’s The Life of an Amorous Woman and other Writings this semester1, but one thing which is bugging me right off the bat is his habit of translating money into Pounds Sterling by converting the Tokugawa money to rice and then converting the rice to yen and the Yen to Pounds at the 1963 rate.2 Needless to say, neither I nor my students have any intutitive sense how much £16.70 in 1963 is worth today, but that’s what he says one gold Ryo is. According to the first historical currency calculator I could find, that’s about US$335.24 now. But that’s assuming that the original gold-rice/rice-yen calculation is worth anything….

I’d much rather have had a discussion about relative purchasing power, but here’s my best (quick) guess:


  1. Thanks, Alan! []
  2. Appendix II, “Money in Saikaku’s Time” []



Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:53 pm

One of my general exam advisor/examiners has passed away: Donald Fleming who was Harvard’s preeminent intellectual historian for many years. I studied European intellectual history for the exam, which entailed sitting through his two-semester sequence on 19th and 20th century European thought and working through carefully selected (by him) portions of his absurdly long bibliography on the subject. I’m sure I’ve told the story before about how my heart stopped, briefly, when he put not one, but two bound photocopied volumes on the desk — dozens of pages in each — of single-spaced references, sorted by topic. Then came the paring down: His selections depended on your interests, to some extent, and it ended up being about the same 80-100 books that my other fields entailed.

He was a classic “ivy-covered professor,” the kind I didn’t think really existed until I met him. His office was filled with books. I don’t mean that he had full bookshelves: I mean that he had his bookshelves (which covered both of the long walls of the office) double-lined, and that nearly every horizontal surface in that office was also covered with stacks — one foot or more — of books. There was a fairly narrow path from the door to the table (I don’t know if he had a desk in there or not: I don’t remember seeing one, but it could have been hidden!), which then branched into two paths, one to each side. The table itself had a clear space in the middle, running across from one chair to the other. In his defense, I’m fairly sure he knew where everything was: I saw him on at least one occasion pick a book off the shelf without having to search for it.

His lectures were polished over decades: he always ended within seconds of the stroke of the clock-tower next door. He’d come into the classroom, mount the stage, remove the podium, open his briefcase, take out his notes, then create his own podium by setting the briefcase on end, and putting his notes on top of a portfolio on top of his open briefcase. He could barely see over the thing, and his students could barely see him. Took a while to understand him, as well: he had a vocal affectation that took me several lectures to figure out. It wasn’t an accent, though I did waste some time trying to figure out what accent it was, so I could understand him.1 After a week or two, I got used to it. He did not use TAs, because no graduate student could possibly know enough to satisfactorily discuss all the material in the course, but he did use graders. His study guides for exams were as bad as his reading bibliographies: page after page of possible essay questions, dozens for each one that would be on the test, covering nearly every topic in every lecture and every reading for the semester.2 There was no textbook: just his lectures and a stack of primary readings.

When I started at Harvard, I thought I was going to study intellectual transmission: how ideas came from the West into Japan. Al Craig advised me to pick general exam fields that supported my dissertation goals, so I took Fleming to get a foundation in the ideas that were coming into Japan (and Iriye, for diplomatic history). It was a good choice: I had no background in European or intellectual history outside of some introductory philosophy, and since Harvard had no required historiography course (and nobody suggested that I take it anyway), I had to get some theory somehow! So I got a pretty good dose of conservativism, liberalism, Marxism, linguistic theory (very different from the phonology/morphology we studied as undergrads!), social science, modernism and my first taste of post-structuralism. Since a lot of historical theory has to do with applying these theories in historical contexts, I think I made a good choice. (From a teaching perspective, it was a godsend: I never would have made it through Western Civ without it, though a general field in European history might have been more useful. Or a field in Chinese history; that would have been good, too!) From Fleming’s point of view, I was starting from near-total ignorance, and I know I barely made it through Generals (A friend saw me during the brief break in the middle of the two-hour session and said I looked “green.” Felt it, too.). As a friend pointed out, there wasn’t a lot of feminism in the mix, nor women at all; I’d started getting familiar with that as an undergrad, and my social science friends made sure I got more. Fleming was one of the early scholars to write on environmentalism, but that didn’t really show up in the surveys much, either.

Fleming was one of the few non-Asianists I dealt with at Harvard, and I think he considered me just as odd as I considered him. I did part of my General Reading year from Berkeley, and when I suggested that we could keep in touch by phone — this was before email was common — he looked shocked, then amused. We never did keep touch by phone: I found a friendly Europeanist at Berkeley who let me sit in on lectures and chat about books. Also Andy Barshay was running grad seminars with a heavy dose of historical theory; that helped, too. At one department party, I think the holiday part of my first year, I was talking to Fleming a bit: he asked me what I studied, and I said “Japan.” He spent a moment thinking out loud what the proper term for me was, then settled on “Japanology,” “like Astrology!” he quipped, very pleased with himself. I got the impression that he hadn’t seen many of us over the years. But it was kind of nice having one classically odd professor.

  1. I thought I was on to something with “Swiss”…. []
  2. Yes, I still use Fleming as an example of how nice I am to my students. Wouldn’t you? []


Dutch Futurists

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:10 pm

Alan Baumler pointed me to peacay’s recent post of Dutch images of 17th century Japan. Some of them are quite accurate — the images of samurai, in particular, are quite nice — and based on the observations of Dutch traders and scholars at the Deshima trading station in Nagasaki harbor. Some of the images are based on Indian or Chinese models (though the tradition of religious statuary shared between these cultures means that they’re not as terrible as you might think). Some are pretty bizarre, but that’s par for the course before the 19th century.

Then there’s the one that stopped me in my tracks:

17c Dutch Engraving of reverse rickshaw

You can find the original here, in the full context of the book. Someone who reads 17th century Dutch might be able to help me, because I’m quite curious about the text at this point. Without it, though, I can only speculate.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, mainly the fact that the jinrikisha wasn’t invented for another two hundred years. Also, Japanese did not use wheeled carts for transporting goods.1. Before that, Japanese traveled mostly by foot and by boat. Samurai travelled by horse, sometimes. Other elites — including samurai, nobles, village headmen, the wealthy — traveled by palanquin (aka litter). Even the transport of commercial goods was mostly by boat and by hand.

While there seems to be some dispute about the origins of the rickshaw, nobody has ever suggested that it developed in the 1600s! I suspect what we see here is a failure of imagination. Having seen images of palanquins and bearers, but unable to concieve of transport without wheels, the illustrator added the — to him entirely obvious and necessary — elements. In the process, he created a shocking anachronism, and if anyone had taken these images seriously, could have radically altered the history of transportation.

  1. Hal Bolitho called Japan’s abandonment of the wheel one of the great mysteries of Japanese history, along with the failure to adopt the chair and the survival of the Imperial institution []


The Relaunching of Sino-Japanese Studies

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 8:05 am

I wanted to post a plug for a project that I have been involved with recently:

Announcing the relaunch of Sino-Japanese Studies online

For fifteen years Sino-Japanese Studies (1988-2003) was published in hard form and distributed throughout the world. It was the only journal of its kind in content, bringing together Chinese and Japanese studies—irrespective of discipline or time period. The relaunched journal will be available open access online and will continue to be the only journal of its kind. It will contain original, refereed articles, translations, reviews, and news from the field. Interested readers and contributors may find further details on making submissions to the journal as well as access the full online archive of back-issues at:


They may also contact the editor directly.

Joshua Fogel (fogel at yorku.ca), editor (傅佛果, ジョシュア・フォーゲル)
Konrad M. Lawson (konrad at lawson.net), web technician (林蜀道, コンラッド・ローソン)

Note: I have announced the availability of the full archive of back-issues here before, but now we are restarting the journal and accepting new submissions.

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