From openness to the world to globalization - 150 years of modern Japanese literature

Wednesday 21 November 2018: From openness to the world to globalization - 150 years of modern Japanese literature by Anne Bayard-Sakai, professor in the Japanese language and civilization department of INALCO.

Anne Bayard-Sakai begins by painting the picture of Japanese literature before 1868, the beginning of the Meiji era. The Chinese cultural model still enjoys great prestige but the Japanese authors intend to assert themselves in a specific Japanese culture. For some time, the import of Western texts via their Chinese translations was very important (scientific and technical texts). Despite the closure of Japan in the Edo period, some texts will pass through Nagasaki where a small group of Dutch lived. Between the end of 18e s. and the first half of 19e s. it is estimated that 10 books were imported to Japan, books which are not literary or philosophical works but treatises on medicine, science and technology.
It must be remembered that before the Meiji era, several writing systems coexisted: Sino-Japanese (kanji), classical Japanese (man'yōgana, hiragana et katakana). However, the many homonyms present in Japanese made it difficult to understand the meaning of certain words; hence the interest of kanji. The writing will be standardized only at the beginning of 20e century. In addition, Japanese literature was addressed to a cultivated aristocratic elite and could not be understood by the general population. To further complicate matters, the language used in literature has been a fixed language since 10e s. while the vernacular has evolved and there is nothing to transcribe it. Finally, the circulation inside Japan being very regulated, there were a multitude of dialects. Western texts have arrived in a country that has neither language nor standard writing.

Edition of Jules Verne in Japanese. Hachijūnichikan sekai isshū, KAWASHIMA Chūnosuke, 1880.

Futabatei Shimei.

Ukigumo. Original illustration. Futabata Shimei.

With the liberalization of traffic from 1868, the Japanese will be able to come to the West and the literary texts will also be imported. At the end of 19e century, Western literature, rich in novels, will fascinate because it represents a model of writing and a possibility of expression which was hitherto unknown to them. The first translations of these texts appear from the 1870 years but they are rather adaptations. The plot is preserved but everything is transposed in Japan. This transposition is considered the best way to disclose a body of knowledge that may be political, technical or social. Jules Verne is one of the most translated authors, not for literary reasons but because it is considered that he transmits technical and scientific knowledge. It is also the historical plays of Shakespeare that are translated to show the functioning of power in the West.
From the 1890 years, real translators, speaking enough Western languages ​​will offer faithful translations. This is possible by the creation of the first faculties and the first generation of students who have studied English in particular.
Until the end of the Edo period, the writer did not have an important social status, he was considered an entertainer. We realize that in the West, politics or economics are not the only ways to make a career and that writers can have a real status. So, in Japan, a young and brilliant generation is created who will translate and write. At the same time, the creation of the "unified style" which is a kind of convergence between contemporary spoken language and the written word will allow a whole population that did not know the classical language to access literature. As a result, translations of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dickens, Goethe, Hofmannsthal, Hugo, Zola, Maupassant, etc., appear. This will have a decisive influence on the literary choices that will be made in Japan.
It is mainly the creation of the "unified style" to Futabatei Shimei who was a Russian translator (for geopolitical reasons). He will popularize Russian literature but also use this new form of writing to produce novels. We owe him the first modern Japanese novel Ukigumo (Floating clouds) (1887-1889) whose beginning, still close to classical literature, is modernizing as and when writing. The character is a kind of anti-hero who experiences a difficult life and complicated loves. It should be noted that in its translation of Memoirs of a hunter from Turgenev (which is excellent), we see a naturalistic description of the landscape for the first time in the Japanese language and a new relationship between the individual and his environment. Until then, writing on nature was entirely coded according to strict criteria.

Proust. In Search of Lost Time. K.Yoshikawa.

Yasunari Kawabata.

Oe Kenzaburo.

The "unified style" will however require ten years to set up and generalize.

It should be noted that Japanese literature is one of the most read literatures in the world. A tool sponsored by Unesco until recently, Index Translationum, made it possible to consult all the translations made in the world. We see that in "Top 50" translations from a language, the Japanese comes in 8e position, before the Chinese who is only at 18e rank and is the first of the non-Western languages. On the other hand, on the list of imports of translated texts, Japan goes to 5e rank. It is also interesting to see that for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Japan arrives, there too, as the first non-Western country with two prizes. If we take the case of translations from Japanese into French, we see that out of around 1 imported texts, only 000% are literary, the rest corresponding to sleeves. Conversely, on French texts translated into Japanese, 50% are literary.

To return to the consecration of Japanese authors, Kawabata Yasunari was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. His speech, at the award ceremony, is titled Me, from a beautiful Japan. He presents an exotic image of Japan such as Westerners want to see, Zen, timeless, a cherry blossom Japan, etc. and is connected with a millennial Japan.
Kenzaburō Ōe, when he received the award in 1994 for his body of work, made a different speech with Myself, of an ambiguous Japan: political, economic and especially cultural ambiguity.
Kazuo Ishiguro, a British writer born in Japan, receives the award in 2017, but the Japanese press is quick to talk about Japan's third Nobel Prize. We can see that a link has been created between literature awards and Japanese identity.

The definition of Japanese literature would be written literature in Japan, in Japanese, by Japanese, for Japanese, and yet there is a "Japanese-language" literature written by Korean writers living in Japan who write in Japanese.
Another phenomenon is cross-border writers who are Japanese living abroad who can express themselves in a language other than Japanese. For example, Tawada Yoko, who moved to Germany after graduation, writes in both German and Japanese. She has received literary awards in both Japan and Germany. Mizumura Minae is famous for her work An I Novel from Left to Right written in Japanese but with inclusions of English words. This novel, partially autobiographical, marks the first time that Japanese literature has been printed horizontally.

From left to right. Mizumura Minae.

Das Bad. Yoko Tawada.

Tankobon. Shirin Nezammafi.

Conversely, Ian Hideo Levy, of American-Polish and Jewish origin, writes in Japanese, Yang Yi, Chinese educated in Japan, written in Japanese or Shirin Nezammafi, born in Tehran, who studied at the University of Kobe, expresses itself only in Japanese. These "foreign" authors arouse a lot of interest in Japan and there is a questioning of the Japanese literature which is obliged to take note of the fact that it can no longer be closed on itself.


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