Ueda Akinari translation

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:09 am

PMJS has published William Clarke and Wendy Cobcroft’s annotated translation of Ueda Akinari’s Tandai Shoshinroku, available as a free PDF and also as a book-on-demand from Lulu (and eventually Amazon). I leave the commentary on the value of scholarly networks, non-profit online publishing, and the finally-growing body Early Modern translations as an exercise for our readers, who don’t need me to tell them what they already know.


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” []


Remembering Meiji: Translations

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:26 am

Keene includes several extended reminiscences of Meiji published immediately after his death. Unfortunately, some are included in the original French (pp. 707 and 709). Many thanks to Nathanael Robinson, who generously and meticulously translated these from the 19c formal French. I’ve appended these to the chapter guide for future reference.

Ito Hirobumi:

Whatever might be the causes which helped Japan in its progress, and whatever part we might have had in its success over the years, all that is insignificant when compared with what the country needs from his majesty, the emperor. The imperial will has always been the light that guides the nation. Whatever could be the contributions of those, like myself, who are trying to help his enlightened government, it would have been impossible to obtain such remarkable results had it not been for his great, wise and progressive support that is always behind every new reform.

Suematsu Kencho:

His Majesty provides the steadiest attention to each area of the affairs of the state. Every day, from the early morning till the late hours, he works with his cabinet on public affairs. He knows what matters concern each department, above all that which affects the army and navy. . . . Sometimes he astonishes [us] with his knowledge of events among his people. He takes a keen interest in everything that happens in the major countries of the world, his only desire being to learn from other nations.

The comment of the French editorialist was astute:

The emperor was able, at certain times, to influence the policy of his ministers, because his ability to act and his intelligence were not in doubt. But his main work, which he achieved with remarkable wisdom, was to be the head of state, the living symbol of national life and the public interest . . . . The great kings are not those who, like Philip II, want to manage the affairs of state by themselves, but those who, having placed their trust in great ministers, support them with all the prestige of the monarchy.

Reporter for The Journal (G. de Banzemont)

Mutsu-hito was not only one of the most celebrated emperors of Japan, but also one of the greatest monarchs of the modern world. One need only recall the anguish that gripped the Japanese nation at the first news of the sovereign’s illness. Over several days, the tearful crowd marched, without concern for the torrid heat, under the windows of the imperial palace. On their knees, their foreheads covered in dust, in a common voice, they pleaded with the gods. And as soon as a dull lamp, illuminating the room of the deceased, announced that the monarch passed away in agony, there came the most violent explosion of sorrow that can be imagined.

Ito’s comment seems somewhat noncommittal — “support” and “guides” aren’t specific — but emphasizes the “progressive” modernizing elements of the regime.1 Suematsu, on the other hand, who served as an ambassador and Home minister, is effusive and clear. The “astute” French editorialist presents what could well be a summary of Keene’s own views.2 de Banzemont’s narrative is echoed, but not quite confirmed, by Japanese sources Keene cites, and seems a bit excessive.3

  1. Keene, in footnotes, says that the date of this statement “is not clear” but doesn’t explicitly remind the reader that Ito’s been dead for three years. []
  2. That’s what “astute” means: agrees with me []
  3. At some point, when I have more time, I want to go back to Japanese newspapers of the time. []


Seidensticker’s Passing

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:35 am

I’m not one of those Japan scholars who came to the field as a Japanophile1 , and my preferred literary reading tends to speculative fiction, humorous verse and historical adventures. I’m almost certainly the wrong person to comment on Edward Seidensticker’s passing, but I’ll do until someone better comes along.

If you’ve studied Japanese history, literature, culture or society, the odds are extremely good that you’ve read something translated by Seidensticker. I’ve assigned his works before, particularly Kawabata’s Sound of the Mountain and the abridged Tale of Genji. I’ve read a lot of the other Kawabata and Tanizaki he translated, and it always seemed to me that he was a sympathetic and faithful translator, but a final judgement would have to come from people who know the original works and the process of literary translation more intimately than myself.

I have to admit that I’ve never read Seidensticker’s memoir, so I can’t tell you much more about his life, etc. I can say, though, that his work is one of the great foundation stones of my own career. Not that I drew on his scholarship or ever met the man, but his accessible translations were fodder for hundreds of thousands of students, and the interest they raised sustained the growth of Japanese Studies.2

  1. nor as a Japanophobe. Just curious, really. []
  2. There’s an interesting argument to be had, perhaps, over whether cultural or economic factors are more important in area studies. I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other except to note that they promote very different kinds of scholarship and that we have usually had in Japanese studies a reasonably good balance. []


Akutagawa the Pacifist

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:00 pm

Japan Focus has expanded its mission one more time, this time to include new literary translations! They’ve published a Jay Rubin translation of an Akutagawa Ryonosuke story, The Story of a Head That Fell Off (“Kubi ga ochita hanashi”), which they describe as an “anti-war satire” and put in the context of a large body of untranslated Akutagawa anti-war satires

“Shogun” (The General, 1924), a well-known portrait of a victorious general resembling Nogi Maresuke (1849-1912), the “hero” of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, is a bitter satire of a man responsible for the death of thousands. “The Story of a Head That Fell Off,” set against the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, is an intense cry against the absurdity of war that unfortunately remains as relevant in our barbaric twenty-first century as it was in Akutagawa’s day.

In one brief, startling piece on the political misuse of history, “Kin-shogun” (General Kim, 1922), he incorporated Korean legend into a tale concerning Hideyoshi’s 1598 invasion of Korea.

I admit that most of the Japanese literature I’ve read was translated; I only delve into untranslated literary texts very rarely, but I do try to pay attention to what’s said about literature in other contexts. I’m more than a little surprised that Akutagawa’s anti-war stance never came to my attention before, but perhaps the fact that Akutagawa died in 1927 kept him from becoming a victim of the changing political situation post-1931 and therefore kept his politics a bit under the radar. Also, satire, particularly historical satire, can be very tricky to translate, especially for a general readership which is unfamiliar with the issues, context or style. And literary studies often specifically exclude political history, focusing on aesthetic and “cultural” elements, textual things that avoid the questions of audience and less subtle intentions.

It’s also a bit disconcerting, because Akutagawa is one of the few early 20c authors with which our students have the slightest chance of being familiar, through the famous movie version — and linguistic appropriation of the title to mean a situation of varying accounts — of “Rashomon” (and “In a Grove”, which is actually the story with the varying perspectives).1 It would be nice to have been better informed, and I wonder if my ignorance was common among my colleagues and readers, or if I just missed something obvious along the way.

The story’s pretty good, I’d say. It does have some of that familiar Akutagawa grotesquerie, which allows the characters to go a bit beyond normal polite conversation.

  1. Yeah, I took a look at the Wikipedia article on Akutagawa. It focuses quite exclusively on his more literary endeavors and views, and mentions none of the stories discussed in this article. []


Japanese Culture is global culture

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:38 am

A lot of elements of Japanese culture have become part of the great global mash-up, especially food culture and pop culture. But none, I think, will have the endurance of the little poem that could, the haiku.

Via Miriam Burstein, who’s usually more inclined to blog in script than in verse, comes word of an Academic Haiku Contest: summarize your research in a mere seventeen syllables! Unfortunately, the contest is ending shortly, but if anyone can dash off haiku, I image that our readers can. My own contribution was bilingual:

Yamaguchi no
Hawai deimin ga
Obon kaeri

I suppose you’d like it in English? Let’s see if I can translate it and maintain the Haiku form:

Obon dances bring
Yamaguchi emigrants
back from Hawai’i

[Obon is the a Japanese festival honoring ancestors, a time when families come together. Yamaguchi prefecture was a significant source of Japanese migration to Hawai’i]
“International Labor Migrants Return to Meiji-Era Yamaguchi and Hiroshima: Economic and Social Effects,” under review.

My entry may actually have come too late to count, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun over here. Update: In comments, Jim Gibbon says that there’s a few hours left, until 8pm EST (that’s 3pm, HST), so let’s show ‘em what we’ve got!

Weekend Update: Voting is open through Monday. He’s divided them into four categories so you can actually vote for four favorites! (OK, I’ve voted. Oddly, perhaps, I didn’t vote for my own haiku in the Social Science division. It’s the most technically correct haiku [the only one with a seasonal reference], but there was one I liked more. Go figure.)


Autobiographical Essays by Donald Keene

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 1:43 am

Yomiuri newspaper published a long series of autobiographical essays by Donald Keene which I somehow missed until today. Professor Keene is one of the most important Western scholars of Japanese literature of the past century and is still very active. Appropriately enough, his most recent work, published by Columbia University Press in 2006, is entitled Frog in the Well: Portraits of Japan by Watanabe Kazan, 1793-1841 (BF).

From the historian’s point of view, Keene’s own life and experiences are themselves of great interest. He served the US military as a Japanese translator and interpreter in World War II before resuming his academic studies after the war. Letters by Keene, Otis Cary and others published various as War Wasted Letters, Eyewitness to History, and From a Ruined Empire give us a fascinating look into the early postwar realities of Japan and East Asia. In these essays in Yomiuri Keene shares many more of his stories from his earliest childhood to his thoughts about old age.

I believe the essays were serialized in Japanese in the print version of Yomiuri (「私と20世紀のクロニクル」) but I can’t seem to find the full originals (Commentators in the Japanese blogosphere abound), so perhaps they are destined for publication in book form. You can find a full listing of the 49 essays in English here:

Chronicles of My Life in the 20th Century

Below I have excerpted a few of the passages in the articles that I read through this evening and found especially interesting…


Eloquent oddities

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:46 am

There aren’t a lot of good Japanese-themed quizzes out there….

You Are a Sarariiman!
Or “salaryman.” Whatever. Treadmill off, treadmill on. Most of the sleep you get is on Tokyo’s extensive subway system, since you are putting in 14 hour days. You’re a workaholic who works hard for no overtime. And vacations? Forget about it. You spend most of your trip hunting around for gifts to bring back all of your coworkers.
What’s Your Japanese Subculture?

Moving the other direction, from English to Japanese, a friend sent along this link to a collection of Jabberwocky translations. It’s been a long time since I could summon the mental energy to disagree with someone about their translation of nonsense verse, but apparently there’s a lot of views on the subject, all represented here. Quite a few of the translators appear to be relying on the Gardiner annotations, is all I’ll say, which is … a choice.

Though WWII remains unsettled between Japan and Russia, The Russo-Japanese War has finally ended for Japan and Montenegro.

Finally, in art news, three times. First, an interesting discussion of private art museums in Tokyo illustrates the power of individual collectors and non-canonical thinking. Second, though I can’t possibly get there for the exhibit, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Art of History is a lovely online experience, though I have mixed feelings about the “elegant mash-up” postmodern elements of the art itself. Some of it (including the Hirohito image) is chilling; others (e.g. Henry’s wives) are barely clever. Finally, Ansel Adams’ pictures of Japanese internment camps in the US are available online, fantastic documentation, not to mention photographs.


Yasukuni and Japanese Flags

Rod Wilson and I visited Yasukuni on August 15 to check out the right-wing festivities, which was a pretty…interesting…experience. It was everything you’d expect with the ridiculously nationalistic speeches all day, right-wingers wearing all manner of Japanese military uniforms, jack-booted young wannabe fascists with shaved heads, and the black noise vans everywhere. There was even a choir of elementary school children singing gunka. Rod in particular got some nice photographs because he also went in the morning when the crowds were the largest. Unfortunately we both missed the speech by Ishihara Shintaro, but we did see a speech by an old woman who kept talking about the need to remember the sacrifices of Japanese soldiers and the “onshirazu” of Japanese today. At the climax of the speech, she dramatically revealed that that she wasn’t Japanese as we had thought all along but actually a native Taiwanese, and then wrapped up with an anecdote about how kind and gentlemanly the Japanese soldiers were to her as a young girl in wartime Taiwan, before concluding with a thundering declaration in English saying “Americans go home! Stay out of Japan! Not your Business!” to the roar of the enthralled crowd. Konrad would doubtlessly have enjoyed the chance to hear the speech – apparently some World War II collaborators are alive, well, and still collaborating.

On a related note, Rod and I were pondering how to refer in Japanese to the flag with the radiating rays of sun used by the Japanese navy during the war. We’d heard it referred to in English variously as the “naval ensign” or the more evocative “sunburst flag”, but we weren’t sure about what it’s called in Japanese. We both sort of half-remembered the term “Nisshouki” (日章旗), but it turns out that that is just the official name of the regular Japanese flag more commonly known as the “hinomaru” (日乃丸). Well, we did a little research and found out that the “sunburst” flag is called the “Kyojitsuki” (旭日旗) in Japanese, which makes sense. But the question still remains, what are the best terms to use to distinguish these two flags in English? The best translation for 旭日旗 would probably be “rising sun flag”, but that is problematic because the regular flag is commonly called the “rising sun flag” in English publications and even on EDICT, leaving only “naval ensign” or “sunburst flag” for the Kyojitsuki. Perhaps it would be better to come up with a more accurate translation of hinomaru/nisshouki? “Sun circle flag” perhaps? “Sun disc flag”? “Sun emblem flag”?


More On Event Names

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 6:18 am

Nick’s posting about Japanese and English names for historical events prompted and interesting exchange in the comments. Thomas Ekholm noted that in Kenneth G. Henshalls “A history of Japan” the “Shimabara Rebellion” is referred to as the “Shimabara Massacre” Up until that point we were discussing how the names differ in English and Japanese and why such disagreements arise. In the most recent comment, Abigail Schweber reminded us about the important interpretive dimension of naming historical events that sometimes gets forgotten, especially for older events:

To address the question of what it should be called, we first need to consider what it is that makes this one so special. The number of participants? the number killed? the connection to Christianity? the gathering in and defense of the fortress (distinctly un-peasantish behaviour, that!)? Referring to it as a ‘massacre’ places the focus on the unleashing of government fury during the final few days, diminishing the acts of the peasant participants. ‘Rebellion,’ on the other hand, focusses on their defiance. ‘Protest’ would locate it within the narrative of ikki. It seems to me that any of these could be appropriate, depending on the writer/speaker’s focus.

We are much more used to thinking about these issues for more contemporary events. The most famous examples being events like the “Nanjing Massacre” vs. the “Nanjing Incident” (this goes well beyond measuring the slaughter, as one non-revisionist scholar points out, there is also the problem of it centering everything on the city proper, rather than the surrounding areas that should be included in our narration). The other big one that comes to mind is “World War II” vs. “Pacific War” vs. “Asia-Pacific War” vs. “The Fifteen Year War” vs. “The Greater East Asian War.”

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