Archive for the ‘Japanese literature’ Category

This is my third and final post on the Wahon Literacies workshop held at UCLA & UCSB a few weeks ago. As I mentioned in the previous posts, the workshop was dedicated largely to discussions of book history, and of shifts in scholarship towards a greater appreciation of not just the text (the content), but the book as a whole, in its production, circulation, usage, and material history otherwise. This last post begins with a few scattered different thoughts, but after that, I get into a discussion of what it is we should be doing in our university departments, in our graduate training.

We talked a little bit about connoisseurship skills, though I really would have liked to do more of this. One thing we did touch upon is how to look for damage or defects in the printing blocks. Most often these will appear as tiny gaps in the printed portions; they are especially easily noticeable in the solid black lines that frame every page. Finding such a defect shows that the book is from a later impression, after the blocks have gotten worn to some extent. Finding the same defect in the same place in another copy of the book shows that the two copies were printed with the same block. However, as was explained, finding a copy without that defect does not always mean it is an earlier impression, from a pre-damaged block. Rather, it could be from a later impression, from repaired or remade blocks. Through a technique called kabusebori, a printed page could be used to create new blocks, either as replacements for blocks lost in a fire, or as a means of creating blocks from which to publish pirate editions.

A break in the black frame around a page, indicating a damaged woodblock. Click through for the fuller image.

The workshop ended with each professor sharing some final words of wisdom, and/or anecdotal stories of how they got to be where they are, in terms of academic interests, or approach. Unno Keisuke-sensei shared with us that earlier in his academic career, he had five different advisors, advising him five different things. I share this because I think any graduate student can likely sympathize. Unno had one professor emphasizing that he had to focus especially on thinking about the historical context surrounding whatever text or object he was working on. Another said to focus in on the texts themselves, reading very closely, carefully, and deeply. Another told him to read broadly, surveying lots of texts. A fourth professor told him to focus most on his own purpose, the purpose of his research effort. Finally, his final advisor told him he simply had to do all four at once. This is certainly a pressure I feel myself, to read deeply, but also broadly, while keeping in mind my specific purpose (esp. in terms of theoretical, historiographical, or conceptual angles), but also the broader historical context.

The same page opening as above, loaded with kuzushiji.

Of the entire workshop, one of the things I think I found most stimulating and engaging was a final discussion (in English, thank god) about the role of “Wahon literacies,” in the sense of intense focus on kuzushiji and kanbun reading training, in Japan Studies scholarly training today. This is a narrow element of a broader issue I have been very much weighing and thinking about for years. The focus on theory and broader cross-cultural issues so privileged in American academia means that none of us can ever be truly as expert in our particular fields of specialty as we might be otherwise. This could very easily be the subject of an entire blog post unto itself, and it is certainly something I have spoken about with my officemate, and certain other colleagues, at length. I have been feeling for some time that I would likely be happier in an East Asian Studies department than a disciplinary one – whether History, or Art History – because as much as people love to talk about interdisciplinarity, we don’t actually practice it much, and indeed most of our seminars run along a different axis, trying to address a given theme, or Theoretical or conceptual issue, across many different periods & places, in the hopes I guess of (a) being accessible to as many History students as possible, and (b) because of some disciplinary privileging of thinking & working cross-culturally, cross-geographically, cross-period, as if each of our subjects of study is really just a case study for some broader, more global understanding of broader themes. Sure, there’s great validity to that, but what about moving along the other axis? How much more could we accomplish if we worked alongside fellow Japanologists, in a variety of disciplines, rather than so heavily alongside fellow Historians (or Art Historians) in a variety of geographical and chronological specialties? If we brought together experts on early modern Japanese art, architecture, literature, theatre, music, politics, economics…. now *that* would really be something. This is why the AAS (Association of Asian Studies) conference is so much more engaging and productive each year than the AHA (American Historical Association) or CAA (College Art Association). This is why these workshops at Cambridge, and at UCLA/UCSB the last couple months have been so invigorating. Don’t get me wrong, there is incredible value in just about everything we do, and I am immensely grateful for all that I have learned by TAing World History, Western Civilization, and Writing, and by doing field exams on Chinese history, Pacific & Hawaiian history, and Performance Studies; and I have also learned a lot from some of the random seminars I have taken, such as in travel literature, gender in theatre & music, and museum studies. Historiography was a waste of time. But, I cannot help but wonder where I would be, what kind of scholar I would be, if I had devoted all of that time to studying Japan and Okinawa more extensively, studying kanbun, sôrôbun, and kuzushiji more extensively, and perhaps even taking more courses across disciplines, not that anyone was really stopping me from doing the last.

When we spend so much of our time reading Marx and Foucault, and thinking about transnationalism, post-modernism, and identity politics, and taking courses along disciplinary lines rather than focusing on the cultural and historical context of our specialty, and especially at a university that offers travel funding only for conferences & research, and not for language or workshops, when and how am I supposed to learn how to read this? And to learn about the material culture, political events, and social constructs the text refers to?

The privileging of broader conceptual concerns also means that scholars in Literature and Art History are today discouraged from doing work on individual works, or individual writers/artists, which used to be the bread & butter of these fields. Obviously, it is for the better in many ways that these fields have expanded past that. But, despite post-modernism telling us that nothing is ever black & white, that all things are a bit of this and a bit of that – or perhaps precisely because post-modernism advocates this more complex view – we cannot seem to be tolerated to go do those kinds of focused studies, even if we do it alongside a broader discipline, or field, which continues to do the broader concepts. As one professor at the workshop pointed out, no one ever did write a focused study in English on Saikaku, the biggest name in the Edo period literary canon, and now that time is past, and it simply cannot be done in the current academic environment. As a result, I don’t really know, since this isn’t my field, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is no single book, or body of books, that one can go to for anything approaching a “definitive” treatment of Saikaku’s biography or ouvre, but only essay after essay examining his works through this or that theoretical lens, within the broader context of this or that -ism or -ality.

Meanwhile, Japanese scholars continue to put out wonderfully thorough treatments of individual subjects, describing them in detail and depth, without the obligation of coloring the entire project through the lens of a particular capital-T Theoretical approach, or argumentative aim. It’s hard to write anything that can ever come even anywhere close to being the definitive book on a given subject, when every book has to leave out vast swaths of aspects of the subject, simply because they’re not relevant to one’s argument.

Thank god for movable type.

This focus on disciplinary and theoretical training, over intensive linguistic or culture-specific training, explains in part the reason why, to a very significant extent, scholars in the West relied heavily upon Japanese scholars to transcribe manuscripts into movable-type published texts, and to otherwise catalog and detail the complexities of the historical subject. Western scholars, whose language abilities and cultural/historical knowledge paled in comparison to those of these Japanese scholars, then simply read the Japanese scholarship, and based their analytical, conceptual, or theoretical arguments on these secondary sources, combined of course with at least some direct in-person examination of primary sources. Now, don’t get me wrong, I find myself doing much the same. Things have surely changed dramatically from many decades ago, when many of the top scholars in East Asian Studies didn’t even read Japanese or Chinese at all, or read modern but not classical, and/or had never traveled to Asia. But, I’m not sure they’ve really changed completely; such, after all, is the conversation we’re having here right now. Here I am, so many decades later, and the resources to learn kuzushiji, kanbun, etc., not to mention to develop true fluency in Japanese like many scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries couldn’t even imagine, are so much greater, more widespread, more easily accessible. And travel and lengthy research stays in Japan are likewise quite accessible compared to the days of yore. And yet, here I am, with theory classes, TAing, and all sorts of other things getting in the way of me developing a more truly expert, deep, thorough, expertise in these things. After this workshop, I truly have a renewed drive to get to Japan, and to spend as much time as I can over there from now on, whether in diss research, or as a post-doc. The US system simply does not prepare students adequately in a depth of historical/cultural knowledge, let alone in language skills.

Right: The mission statement of the University of the Ryukyus, emphasizing the search for truth, making contributions to regional and international society, and pursuing peace and cooperation. Things that Shimomura Hakubun and all too many others, with their narrow-minded focus on engineering and corporate competitiveness, would like to see eliminated from Japan’s universities.

Some of the professors at the workshop suggested that as Western scholars have continued to take greater and greater advantage of access to Japan, and as the average level of ability among Western scholars has risen – combined with the demographic shifts in Japan, political shifts de-valuing and even seeking to gut entirely the humanities, and cultural shifts such that fewer and fewer students are interested in historical research – the modes of Western scholarship have come to become more powerful in the field overall. This division of labor has broken down, and Japanese scholars have either chosen, or felt pressure, to really begin paying attention to Western scholarship, perhaps even emulating our more argument- and Theory-driven philosophy. And yet, most Japanese scholars still retain a level of expert knowledge and skill that we do not – having handled hundreds more historical objects than us, having read hundreds more manuscripts, having engaged so much more deeply, in so much greater detail, than we have. For all of these reasons, and others, Japanese universities continue (at least for the moment, under the current trends) to shift towards bringing in more and more international students, and international lecturers. This is a good thing for someone like myself, as I think I’d really like one of those lecturer positions. But it also means you have an increasing body of students who are even less thoroughly familiar with Japanese history & culture, and less skilled in Japanese language, than their native Japanese counterparts. It means that for there to be next generations of scholars who are highly skilled in kuzushiji, and highly experienced in handling historical objects and examining them with a connoisseurial eye (for age, damage, earlier vs. later printings, forgeries, etc.), as the last generations of scholars have been, there is an increased need for engagement between Western scholars & students and these Japanese masters (and not only for Theory!). It is with this in mind that UCLA organized to bring these three professors from Tokyo for this event, and that UCLA is planning additional similar events in coming academic quarters / years.

All photos my own.

Read Full Post »

I’ll return to my Chinese history book reviews, and talking about the tribute system, shortly. But, in the intervening time, I have just recently attended an intense week-long workshop at UCLA & UCSB on the subject of “Wahon Literacies.”

“Wahon Literacies” (和本リテラシー) is a movement both within Japan, and overseas, amongst scholars of Japanese literature, book history, and so forth, to expand scholars’ familiarity with Japanese books (wahon), and scholars’ ability to read the books. This includes several different aspects, from training in kanbun, kuzushiji, and so forth, as seen in the Cambridge program I recently attended, and also a renewed attention paid to the materiality of the book and awareness of the history of publishing, book production, and so forth, imploring scholars of literature and art history to go beyond the content of the book (the text, and pictures), to consider the book as a whole, as an object, and within a wider social and historical context.

The UCLA/UCSB workshop centered on bringing three scholars from Tokyo, to lead participants in lectures and hands-on activities, discussing book history and the like. To my surprise, we did not train in reading skills at all, but instead focused on the other half of Wahon Literacy, though perhaps I should take this as welcome, since a continued focus on textual reading skills, though absolutely crucial, still misses half of the equation.

I’ll be honest, I had a very difficult time following the lectures in Japanese. So, for me, I guess it was more an experience of practice in immersion in listening to Japanese lectures, than it was about really engaging in stimulating discussion on the content. Even so, a number of interesting and important points emerged.

Two different editions of an Edo period book. If you click through and look closely, you’ll note that it’s not simply that the blocks were more or less worn out when printing the image for the left side, but that in fact the text on the right side differs entirely, both in content and in style (“font”). Which one is earlier? Which one is the true original text? Can we, should we, even speak of a “true” version and a less- or non-true version? Who made these changes, when and why?

One is that when examining books, or indeed any historical material, you need to determine, and keep in mind, what format the object (or text) was in originally, and how and why it might have changed over time to come into the format you currently hold. This is something we historians take as one of our basic skills, a core element of our approach, but still, we often forget or neglect to think of it, and it is good to be reminded. Over the course of Japanese history, countless works were dispersed, or collected, or remounted, into scrolls, books, and folding screens. The vast majority of works we handle are also copies, whether manuscript or printed, and may be in different formats, or differ otherwise, from originals.

This summer, I myself examined a pair of books in the British Library which were clearly originally scrolls, and a scroll in the British Museum which may have had some of its sections rearranged in the past. I was also shown by Prof. Laura Moretti a series of albums in her personal collection which collected up a wide variety of ephemera – single-sheet objects, the equivalent of posters, flyers, pamphlets, newsletters, handbills – into a more permanent form. Countless examples of important historical documents, often saved as examples of fine calligraphy, are today extant as incorporated into scrolls, or folding screens, where they might have originally been individual sheets, or sections of other scrolls or books. Even within original Edo period printed books, one must be very careful as to whether the book one is holding is a second or later printing, as these vary widely, and typically are dated to when the blocks were originally cut, not when that copy of the book was printed. Variant versions of any sort of book are known in Japanese as ihon (異本).

A modern replica of a handscroll of, I believe, the Gosen Wakashû (“Later Selected Collection of Japanese Poems”), originally compiled 951 CE. What version is this a replica of? When was it written? By whom? Why did they copy it out? For whom? How was this later copy used? How might it differ from the original in format, in style, in content?

But, that’s not to say we need to devote our attentions to eliminating later variation in a quest to discover the “true” “original” unblemished version of a text, for analysis. Done and past is the time when literature studies (or art history) need concern itself exclusively, or chiefly, with analysis of individual texts in true, original, forms. To the contrary, scholars are now realizing that analysis of a text need not be limited to the original, and are turning towards thinking about why later copies were made, their provenance, etc., not only for the sake of being more careful in one’s research on the original, but also as a research topic unto itself. Scholars used to restrict themselves to studying a variety of later copies of the Man’yôshû, for example, solely in order to determine, best as they could, the authoritative version, and then scrutinizing the themes and so forth of that version. But today, for the first time, we are told, they are opening themselves up to considerations of, for example, why people in the Heian period copied out the Man’yôshû, and why they did so in the way they did. Or, to take another example, how did people of the Edo period, even more centuries removed from the original, understand or think about this ancient poetry collection? Such topics do indeed seem to be trending, so to speak, these days, as I know a good number of graduate students not only in Literature studies but in Theatre and Art History as well, looking at how older themes or texts were transformed, remembered, used, thought of, or referenced in later periods.

One aspect of this is to ask, and to keep in mind, why it is that books come to exist in all these various, changed, forms. Why are books copied? To preserve them, to make copies available for wider access, and/or to practice one’s calligraphy (in the act of hand-copying out the book), among other reasons. Why are books taken apart and their contents dispersed? To reformat them into albums, handscrolls, hanging scrolls, or folding screens, often in order to take select portions of the original work as examples of great calligraphy, to preserve, admire, and copy or emulate. Further, we learned that with the rise of the elite popularity of tea ceremony, in the Muromachi period, there came increased demand for folding screens and hanging scrolls which could be displayed in one’s tearoom, in order to demonstrate one’s cultured refinement. Books can also be collected up into anthologies, or other sorts of collections, altering their format. What looks like a single bound book may actually contain a number fascicles, originally intended as separate volumes. Books, of course, can also be (re-)published, changing a manuscript into a woodblock printed text, or changing a manuscript or woodblock-printed book into a modern-typeset book, for wider accessibility.

An opening from “A book of drafts by the brush of Sakuragawa Jihinari himself” (桜川慈悲成自筆稿本), easily the most beautiful book we looked at during the workshop. Hand-painted (not a woodblock or modern printed copy) images, accompanied by calligraphy & poetry for each of the 53 stations of the Tôkaidô. Art historians and lit scholars working together could do such great work to analyze the pictures, calligraphy, and poetry, as well as the book itself, bringing it all together. For such a beautiful book, I truly would love to see the results of such investigation. I wish I had taken more pictures – this was one of those rare pieces that I really wish I could have owned it, and gone through it time and again.

One thing I do wish we had discussed further in the workshop is the question of what literature scholars and art historians have to offer one another. If lit scholars are moving in the direction of paying greater attention to materiality – to the object itself, the paper, the book, the format, and not only the text – well, art historians are making that shift as well. So, how can we work together on this Wahon project? I think this could have been a fascinating conversation. But, unfortunately, there were surprisingly few art historians at the workshop.

Prof. Michael Emmerich’s description of the role of imagination in thinking about these books made me think that maybe we art historians and literature scholars have more in common than we might normally think. After all, to begin with, each of us is only looking at one portion of the book – the text, or the images – and is only now beginning to start looking at the whole. All the more reason we should be working together! Where were all the art historians at this workshop!?

But, getting to what Emmerich shared with us, it was a personal anecdote about handling an Edo period book while in Japan many years ago. As he held it, he noticed a grey hair lying in between the pages. How long ago was that hair deposited there? Could have been last year, or it could have been an Edo period reader, whose hair happened to fall into the book. Thinking about this hair, and this hypothetical Edo period reader, the scene suddenly comes alive for us, and the book itself, as the actual physical object that has transcended all this time, gains renewed power, or attraction. It is precisely this sort of thing which got me so energized for History, and Art History, to begin with. Who held, read, this precise copy before? Who were they? Where did they live? Where did they sit while they read? Were they maybe drinking tea, or saké, while reading? Is this their commentary in the margins? Or someone else’s? How did they read it? A little at a time? Slowly, with difficulty? Or quickly, and with great interest? How did they keep the book? Stacked up nicely, carefully, on a shelf or desk? Or carelessly left around? Emmerich further shared with us a story about buying a whole stack of old books, and then afterwards (possibly?) being visited by a ghost. Though we might be hesitant to believe in actual ghosts, or curses, actually following books around, this too brings to life, or brings to further attention, the value, the energy, the spirit these books have, having survived through so many ages, passing through so many hands.

A number of book wrappers, most of them for volumes of Jippensha Ikku’s Hizakurige, or “Shank’s Mare.” It’s been really bugging me that I can’t remember what these covers are called in Japanese. But, while I guess maybe we don’t have this practice too much today in the States, in early modern Japan, books often came in light paper wrappers. And both because of their fragility, and their cultural ephemerality – do you keep the shrink-wrap, or indeed the cardboard boxes, for most things you buy? – few of these survive. So to see a whole stack of them was really something. The differences between what’s rare in US collections, and what’s utterly common in Japanese collections, never ceases to amaze me.

At another point in the workshop, Emmerich also suggested that, as long as we are talking about the books themselves, and their production, distribution, circulation, and so forth, might we not also consider a history of access to books? There is certainly a lot to be discussed about the most recent developments, in digitization – as more materials become more widely available digitally, many archives/libraries/museums are becoming more reticent to allow access to the actual objects. And we did discuss this to a certain extent. It is certainly a pressing issue for us today, in the practical and methodological side of what we are doing as scholars.

As to the question of where and how books and other materials might be best preserved – an issue connected to that of digitization – this is maybe just sort of an anecdotal aside, but Prof. Ogawa also spoke of how it was quite common in the pre-war era for a great many historical books to be kept not in the university library, or archives, but in professors’ individual offices. During the 1923 Great Kantô Earthquake, which devastated much of Tokyo & the surrounding area, and in which over 100,000 people were killed, he related that a great many pre-modern and early modern materials were lost simply because they were in professors’ locked offices, and no one immediately at hand (or perhaps no one at all but those professors) had the keys to the room.

In any case, without diminishing the importance of considering issues of contemporary practice today, and where we are heading in terms of document storage and access in the future, from the historical perspective, as a historical object of consideration, it is also interesting, and arguably quite important, to think about the history of collecting, including the ways in which, even prior to the advent of the modern museum, library, or archive, there were comparable institutions collecting and preserving objects, and restricting access – just think of Imperial or shogunate official collections, such as the Tokugawa shogunate’s Momijiyama bunko, or the private collections of samurai, court noble, and commoner families. We cannot draw such a simple line between the modern and the pre-modern, necessarily, when it comes to the “invention” of the collection, the private library, or the archive. Then, within these pre-modern & early modern collections, there is the phenomenon too, which several of the professors emphasized, of how and when and why an object shifts from being considered a more practical object, of whatever sort, to be read, or used in whatever way, to being considered a “treasure,” to be preserved above all else.

So, ending on a somewhat awkward point, I suppose, but, thus ends my first part of three, in debriefing from this workshop. It certainly left me with a lot to think about: the history of copying and reformatting, how to truly bring considerations of materiality into my own research – not just to be thinking about it, but whether, and how, to actually have concerns of materiality make it onto the page within my dissertation – issues of digitization and access, and perhaps most vexing, how to balance in-depth examination of individual objects (to determine what other copies exist, variations between copies, the precise conditions of production, etc.) with the demands of an academic world that demands broader conceptual analysis and thematic arguments, less grounded in specifics than in wider trends and phenomena.

In my next post, I’ll talk a bit about how to appreciate calligraphy aesthetically. And then, in my third and last post about this workshop, I’ll return to that last point, to talk about how to balance expert training, and deep focused examination, with the kind of broader disciplinary expectations of academia (in the US at least) today.

Read Full Post »

I’ve been interested for quite some time now in the canon, how it is formed, how it evolves and changes, and its impacts upon our world. I think it comes, in large part, from studying Japan, and Okinawa (and, increasingly in the last few months, Hawaii and the Pacific), and developing a sort of anti-Eurocentric perspective, or even agenda – and thus learning to question the Western canon, and the supposedly universal value assessments upon which it is based. There is a widespread popular belief, I think, that the most famous works, the most well-known works, have achieved that status because they deserve it – because they are genuinely, inherently, of superior quality in some way. And that may well be true for many of these pieces, in one way or another. An art historian expert in the Western canon could likely explain in quite some detail just what it is about Michelangelo’s David, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers that make them just so worth elevating. But what the art historian recognizes that I think the average person on the street never questions, is that these works came to be appreciated in this way, for these reasons, at a particular time. Just because something is a classic today does not mean it was always a classic – someone made that decision, that distinction, at a given time, and pushed it forward, pushing it into the canon through exhibition display, critical publication, emulation of style, referencing, or by other means.

In his new book The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, Michael Emmerich argues that this is what happened with the Tale of Genji. People today, both in Japan and around the world, count the Genji among the greatest works of Japanese literature, and at least insofar as it is oft-claimed as the world’s very first novel (and written by a woman, no less!), has gained a place in the canons of world literature, being often touched upon, if however briefly, in survey courses and survey textbooks of world history, global art history, and world literature. It would be easy to believe that the Genji has always held this status, at least within Japan; I have no doubt that a great many people do believe so. And, the great numbers of paintings, poems, and other visual and literary artworks throughout Japanese history that make reference to the Genji would seem to support this. Emmerich, however, argues that the Genji – though perhaps relatively well-known among elites – was not popularly well-known or well-read among the masses until as late as the early 19th century. Where scholars have been for years and years describing the Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji (“A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji”), an illustrated book published in 1829-1842, as a “parody” of the Genji, making humorous references to the Genji and presenting amusing twists on the interpretation of characters and events in the original text, Emmerich suggests that in fact, for the majority of readers, this was not a twist on a well-known classic, but something brand-new, introducing them to an ancient story of which they were previous unaware – in short, Emmerich claims it was the Inaka Genji, and its popularity, that led to the “original” Tale of Genji attaining the canonical position it holds today.

This, of course, is a radical enough claim already, questioning and asserting a new understanding of the most canonical classical text in the Japanese literary canon. But what I find particularly fascinating are the various concepts he introduces in the process of addressing this subject.

An early 17th century painting of a scene from the “Ivy” (Yadorigi) chapter of the Genji. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He points out the way we all come to experience, understand, relate to, engage with a given literary or theatrical work differently, because our experiences are mediated by – among other things – different versions, translations, or performances of the work. It’s not mentioned explicitly in the interview, but I am pretty sure that no original manuscripts of the Genji survive today – that means that everyone who has read the Genji in any form in the last few hundred years (or, perhaps, even going back as far as seven, eight, or even nine hundred years ago) has only ever read, at best, a later re-copying. Far more likely, they read some kind of translation or adaptation. Even putting aside manga, anime, TV, and movie forms of the story, which we would all immediately recognize as not being the real thing, relative to those, in comparison to those, we tend to think of whatever translation of it we’ve read – by Royall Tyler, or Arthur Waley, or whomever – as having truly read the Genji. Or, if you’re Japanese (or a reader of Japanese literature), maybe you’ve read it in translation into modern Japanese – Emmerich gets into this, as to how this too is a translation – or maybe you’ve even read it in a modern movable-type transcription of the original phrasing. I’ve actually read one chapter – “Yugao” – in the original grammar. Probably the toughest thing I’ve ever read.

The Genji, as represented on the back of the 2000 yen bill.

But, not only are we experiencing the work through different forms, we’re experiencing it in relation to, in connection to, in reflection of, numerous other impressions we have of the work, based on other media, and on things we’ve heard or read or learned about it. The Genji was everywhere in premodern Japanese art – paintings, poetry, woodblock prints – and today, at least, people learn about it in school, and one can practically guarantee that just about every Japanese knows at least something of the story. Now, I don’t know how much the average Japanese person on the street might be familiar with any of this at all, but speaking for myself, as someone who has never really studied literature at all, I know the Genji through paintings, and through woodblock prints, and through “historical” sites I’ve come across in Kyoto, and this most definitely has impacted my impressions of the Genji. So, in a sense, the work is alive, dynamic, existing in countless variant forms, and ever-evolving; if there can be said to be a true, genuine, original version of the Genji, it is not the only one, and all these others are, in their own way, no less real, for these, and not the original, are the many Genjis that readers (and non-readers) know.

It’s for that reason that Emmerich writes, “The global community of Genji’s readership, and of its non-readership, is ultimately linked – translingually, transnationally, transhistorically – by something its members do not hold in common: Genji.” All of these people – people who have read or are otherwise familiar with the Genji – are by the very definition of the category linked by their association with the Genji; but, each is familiar with a different Genji.

A mural in the underground shopping arcade at Kyoto City Hall subway station.

As for the rest, I invite you to read the Interview with Michael Emmerich on Critical Margins, and Emmerich’s actual book, The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, which itself already has begun to exist in multiple forms – the book itself, as it exists on the page, versus the book as it exists in the minds of those who have some (pre)conception of it based on this blog post, or on the interview linked to.

All photos my own.

Read Full Post »

I’ve added a new link to the Theatre section over there on the right. Much thanks to Prof. K. Saltzman-Li for introducing us to this list of available translations of Noh plays, and to Michael Watson of Meiji Gakuin for compiling and maintaining it. The list includes all 253 plays in the active repertoire, plus a handful more. A powerful resource for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out which plays are available in translation, and where to find them.

And, though the interface is quite plain – it really is little more than a pageful of text, with some links – it’s actually a wonderfully useful resource. Not only does it have the list of translations of a play, but gives some of the basic information about each play – presumed author, schools actively performing it, and the category of the play – as well as, in some cases, a bit more commentary or links to secondary sources discussing the work. If even for nothing else at all, just having such a complete list, easily skimmable in romaji, is a great thing to have.

Watson also provides links to:

(1) an extensive bibliography of Premodern Japanese Texts and Translations, including many writings about Noh by Zeami, Zenchiku, and the like, along with numerous other works, from Muromachi monogatari to poetry collections, diaries, and histories.

(2) The UTAHI Hangyō bunko (半魚文庫) website (all in Japanese), which has pure text transcriptions of over 300 Noh plays.

Below: the stage at the National Noh Theatre in Sendagaya, Tokyo. I think. Please correct me if I’m mistaken. Photo my own.

Read Full Post »

Last week was a good week for super high-profile visitors to our campus. Murakami Haruki, quite possibly the most popular living Japanese author the world over, has been here this term (or this whole school year?) as a “writer-in-residence” with the East Asian Languages & Literatures department. I’ve read and very much enjoyed several of his novels, but I cannot say that I really know that much about him. I guess, I’ve gathered over the last several months, that he seems to be somewhat reclusive. There are rumors that he has something against the Japanese media, and for that reason does not do many (or any) public appearances in Japan, book signings, or the like, and that he tends to avoid the limelight in general. He has been quietly visiting Japanese language and literature classes on campus all year, but up until a few weeks ago, I had not heard anything about any larger public talk, and was given the impression that he most likely would not do one, since it wasn’t something he tends to do. Even at the talk, once he did agree to do it, he seemed quite strict about his personal request – not the venue’s policy, but Murakami’s direct request – that there be no photography or recording of any kind. I was amazed that he was willing to take time to sign books afterwards. I hear that he doesn’t do booksignings in Japan, hardly ever. Huge thanks to Miz Yvette for sharing with me one of her books to get signed – I didn’t bring one, as I didn’t have one to bring (I don’t read fiction during the school year) and didn’t expect there to be a book signing.

Murakami spoke briefly about his thoughts on the process of writing, and such. I had hoped for this to be longer, and more insightful – for this to be the main part of the event. I would have loved to be able to come here and share with you new insights into how to interpret and appreciate his books, or into who he is as a writer. But, I’m afraid I couldn’t really follow most of what he was saying. His English is nearly flawless. That was not a problem. But the content of what he was saying was just hard to follow. Something about being fascinated by beautiful yet completely useless, absurd structures such as the idea of a bridge under water? I’d hoped that someday, years from now, I would find myself in a conversation about Murakami, and could be able to say, “oh, I heard him speak once, and I gained this great insight about his work,” or “.. and he had this great quote. He said…” But, alas, there was none of the that.

The main event of the evening was a reading of two of his decades-old short stories, written around the time of his first marathon, the 1983 (I think) Honolulu Marathon. He read each story in Japanese, alternating sections with Prof. Ken Ito, a literature professor here at the University of Hawaii, who read from an English translation. I thought Murakami should have spoken more slowly, and more clearly, but my advisor said he had no trouble understanding him, and that the speed and style of his reading gave it appropriate energy, character, and drama. So, I guess this says more about my waning language skills than anything else…

The first story, “Mirror” (Kagami), is a sort of ghost story, featuring a school security guard who is attacked by his own reflection in a mirror. The story itself was a bit meh, though Murakami, as usual, reveals his brilliant insights into the strangenesses of everyday life, as he talks about the question of which one is real and which is the reflection; the protagonist expresses his anguish and fear as he finds himself following the actions of the man in the mirror, rather than the reverse. I particularly liked the framing device for this story, which reads as though you have broken into the middle of a much longer story or scene of people sitting around each telling different ghost stories. This is the only one written down and published, but it starts out in media res, if I have my usage of that term correctly, with the protagonist talking about how everyone else has already shared their stories, and he himself has never actually seen a ghost, nor had premonitions, but he did have this strange experience this one time…

The second story I found much more interesting and rewarding. Tongariyaki, awkwardly translated as “Sharpie Cakes,” is a story about a fictional commercial brand sweet or pastry, akin, I imagined in my mind, to Twinkies, though perhaps Murakami had something more traditional in mind, like taiyaki. (Tongari means ‘pointy’, and yaki means ‘grilled’, so, it’s a sort of nonsense word that sounds like it could be a real pastry / treat). I definitely suggest reading the story yourself, and I apologize to just summarize and ruin the ending here, but, essentially, it is about a man who proposes a new type of tongariyaki, a new, updated, version of the classic pastry, and while the staff of the tongariyaki company like it very much, they take him and his creation to a secret room in the company compound, which is full of crows. A very particular kind of crow, which only eats tongariyaki, and only “real” tongariyaki. If his creation is not accepted as being a valid variation, a valid type of tongariyaki, the crows will tear him apart. The story being so weird and fantastic, and humorous, I didn’t quite make the connection until after the reading ended, and Murakami added some extra remarks. My friend turned to me and said “I’ve got some crows like that in my life. They’re called my thesis committee.” It’s true. Substitute scholarship for the tongari cakes, her or I for the protagonist, and the thesis committee for the crows. Or substitute fiction writing for the cakes, Murakami for the protagonist, and publishers & critics for the crows. This is how it has to be because this is how it has always been done, and this is the way we have always liked it. And if we don’t like it, we tear you apart. …. Oh, how I wish I could just write what I wanted to write, and not have to worry about it being accepted.

There was a brief Q&A, in which I think the most interesting question was one about Murakami’s opinions on the quality of the published translations of his works. The fellow who asked the question has published his thoughts on the whole event here. Murakami answered something to the effect of that, so long as you enjoy it, it’s a good translation. Everyone laughed. But the next audience member to speak said that she has read several of his stories in both English and Japanese, and that they read as very different. Maybe this is just a function of the texture, the flavor, the atmosphere, the cultural nuance of the language – but maybe the two versions really are that different. I think it doesn’t really address the question to say “so long as you enjoy it, it’s a good translation.” I could read a story by George RR Martin and enjoy it quite thoroughly, but that doesn’t make it a good translation of a Murakami novel – that makes it a very enjoyable story that’s entirely different from what Murakami wrote in Japanese. … I think he was just disinterested in answering questions, and more to the point, disinterested in revealing anything more about himself, his attitudes, his insights. Which was a shame. That’s truly what I came there for – yes, the special opportunity to simply say that I have seen him speak, have shaken his hand, have spoken to him directly, however briefly – but also for the ability to gain some new or different insights into who he is, his attitudes, his thoughts on writing. His thoughts on culture, or on politics.

Ah, well. shou-ga-nai, as they say. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading some more of his work this summer.

Read Full Post »

I spoke in my last post about a symposium on Chinese Rare Books at which Dr. Soren Edgren of Princeton University spoke extensively. Dr. Edgren also shared some bits and pieces about the history of the book in China, and of the introduction of the book to Japan.

Left: A Chinese bamboo book, open and unfolded to display the contents. This copy of The Art of War (on the cover, “孫子兵法”) by Sun Tzu is part of a collection at the University of California, Riverside. The cover also reads “乾隆御書”, meaning it was either commissioned or transcribed by the Qianlong Emperor. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons & used under the Creative Commons license.

Likely the earliest format of written materials in China that we might describe as a “book” was that of bamboo strips bound together, as seen in the image above. A famous example of this comes from the excavation of the Han Dynasty tomb of the Marquis of Dai and his wife “Lady Dai,” at Mawangdui. I had always assumed that such bamboo strips would be folded together like Tibetan books, which also with very long, narrow pages. However, Dr. Edgren suggested that, instead, such documents would be rolled up, like a bamboo sushi-making mat.

“The world’s earliest complete survival of a dated printed book” is a Chinese work, dated to the 15th day, 4th month, of the 10th year of the reign of Emperor Yizong of Tang, or, on the Christian calendar, May 11, 868. This copy of the Diamond Sutra is today in the collection of the British Library.

It was around this time, or a few centuries earlier in fact, that Buddhism was first introduced to Japan via China and Korea, and along with it, the technologies and styles of printing and bookbinding. The oldest extant Japanese printed works today are copies of the Hyakumantô Darani, or “One Million Pagodas and Dharani Prayers,” produced in 764-770. But I guess those don’t count as “complete dated works,” so the Chinese Diamond Sutra from a century later counts as the oldest. In any case, as with so many other things, older forms of bookbinding survive today in Japan while in China they continued to develop and/or be phased out.

Dr. Edgren noted that, sadly, many Chinese, especially younger people, have very little interest in Japanese collections of Chinese books or other artifacts, mistakenly believing that everything Chinese in Japan got there as the result of WWII-era looting, and that, essentially, one need not leave China to find anything one is looking for – if it exists, there will be examples of it in China. China is, after all, a huge, massive country, with a very long history, tons of artifacts, the Middle Kingdom, the Center of the World. In fact, there are a great many examples of Chinese books, artworks, and other artifacts which made their way to Japan in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and earlier, through (more or less) peaceful amicable commerce, diplomatic gifts and the like. Also, China has seen much turmoil over the centuries, and much development and change in its cultural forms – many things do indeed survive in Japan that have been lost in China, and in fact there have been found examples of objects in Japanese collections that are no longer extant in China at all, such as, to take just one example, early 17th century Chinese erotica books, with certain specific types of multi-color printing techniques, or particular uses of gold or silver that are not seen in any examples extant today in China.

I have already mentioned the 8th century Hyakumantô Darani and 9th century Diamond Sutra, but, returning to the matter of the introduction of the book to Japan and jumping back in time, the Analects of Confucius is known to have been first introduced to Japan via Korea around the 3rd century CE. By the 6th-7th centuries, books, in one format or another (probably mostly orihon? I guess?) were certainly being introduced into Japan, through trade, and especially in the hands of Chinese Buddhist monks traveling to Japan, and Japanese Buddhist monks returning from China.

Shôtoku Taishi is credited with writing a manuscript annotated copy of the Lotus Sutra, known as the Hokkei Gisho, in 615 CE. This manuscript remains extant today, the oldest extant copy of any Japanese text; it was held at the Hôryû-ji temple in Nara for roughly 1000 years, before being presented to the Meiji Emperor in the late 19th century. A number of Chinese texts from around the same time remain extant in Japan as well – many of these are of types not found in China, adding to the diversity of types of texts available (i.e. not only political or religious texts) for researchers to better understand Tang Dynasty documents.

During the Heian period (794-1185), monks such as Saichô and Kûkai, today exceptionally famous and significant historical and religious figures, founders of some of the most prominent Buddhist sects in Japan, traveled to China and returned with various religious texts. The monk Chônen, who traveled to China in 983-986, brought back the first printed copy of the full Buddhist canon to be seen in Japan.

A similar set of objects, the Tripitaka Koreana (Korean printed, i.e. not handwritten manuscript, copy of the full Buddhist canon) and Fuzhou Tripitaka are still held today in the Kyoto temple of Nanzen-ji, along with the 14th century Yuan Dynasty lacquer trunks in which they were originally shipped to Japan.

Printed books began to really take off in China in the Song dynasty (960-1279). I don’t know that much about this period in detail, and I have a hard time imagining publishing, distribution, and literacy being as widespread in 10th-13th century China as in, for example, the extremely vibrant and truly early modern (read: developments in transportation and communication, a certain level of urbanization, etc.) Edo period in Japan (1600-1868), but in any case, by the standards of the 10th-13th century, and certainly as compared to earlier periods, the Song dynasty can definitely be said to have seen a dramatic expansion of publishing and of relatively widespread access (within the cities at least, and within the upper classes) to printed matter.

In 1248, the Japanese monk Tankai had printed in Kyoto a copy of the 「梵網経菩薩戒」, or Brahma’s Net Sutra, which he obtained in China in 1244. This 1248 copy, today in the collection of the New York Public Library, is quite possibly the only remaining copy of a no longer extant Chinese original. The document includes a colophon which explains the document’s own origin, i.e. that Tankai traveled to China in 1244 and printed this copy in Kyoto in 1248.

Later, the Zen temples of Kyoto and Kamakura would produce printed reproductions of Chinese works (mainly religious texts). These came to be known as “Gozanban” (五山版), or “Five Mountains Versions,” as the top five Zen temples in Kyoto, and the top five in Kamakura, were known as the “Five Mountains” or “Gozan.”

Many Chinese books also entered Japan during the Muromachi period (1333-1573) as a result of the vibrant trade between the Chinese port of Ningpo and the Japanese port of Sakai. In 1533, a Sakai merchant family published a commentary-free copy of the Analects of Confucius, for which the blocks are not only still extant, but still in quite good and usable condition; they are stored at the temple of Nanshûji in Sakai.

Around the same time, the Ashikaga gakkô, a Confucian academy established in the 7th or 8th century in what is today Ashikaga City, Tochigi Prefecture, generated a great demand for Chinese books, as Deputy Shogun (kantô kanrei) Uesugi Norizane (1410-1466) worked to restore and revive the school.

Skipping ahead, after the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, the Manchu Qing Dynasty banned many books, for one reason or another, and banned books began flowing into Japan. Though the Tokugawa shogunate never managed to establish any formal diplomatic relations with the Qing (mainly because of Japan’s refusal to kowtow to Chinese superiority/authority within the traditional Sinocentric world order tribute system), by this time unofficial or illegal trade was booming in Nagasaki, as it would continue to do throughout the Edo period.

Dr. Edgren’s lecture left off there… As we get into the Edo period, the Japanese domestic publishing industry takes off. Chinese books continue to be imported, along with Western materials via the Dutch, and other materials as well. I am not sure exactly when it ramps up, but at some point in the Edo period, Japan begins publishing more books than any other country in the world (in terms of number of titles, if not sheer volume of fascicles printed, bound, and sold), a position that I believe it continued to hold continuously through to the present day. Entire academic books have been published on the history of the book in Japan, and I have yet to read them, so that will have to be a story for another day.

Read Full Post »

There’s been so much going on to write about, and I’ve sorely neglected actually doing the writing. Forgive me. Here’s a start on catching up.

The Freer Sackler hosted a symposium a few weeks ago (around July 11-15) on Chinese Rare Books. The 13th was the only day of presentations in English, so I attended only that day. Another presenter, Li Yonghui, was supposed to present that day as well, but had to return to China a day early, so Princeton professor Dr. Soren Edgren generously stepped up to the plate, giving four hours of talks.

The first hour was largely about the history of Chinese books, and the different types of binding, which, though fascinating, is also rather lengthy and complex and well-documented elsewhere. Perhaps one of these days, as part of my reportage on my current Japanese Books Digitization Project internship, I’ll put together a post on such things. Better yet, maybe I’ll just link to an already existing page that does a better job of it than I ever would.

Dr. Edgren is the head of the Chinese Rare Books Project (which, strangely, I can’t seem to find any homepage for, with a basic simple Google Search), which has been working to develop and implement standards for cataloguing Chinese rare books, and assembling a database/catalog, which has now been fully integrated into OCLC/WorldCat, and is also available in a Chinese language version.


As a result of being invested in the subject of Chinese books from the point of view of cataloging, Dr. Edgren touched upon a small number of issues with translation and terminology. The main one being the question of “volumes,” with which I have myself long had difficulties as well. Chinese and Japanese books often use the character 巻 (J: kan, C: juan) to refer to “volumes,” but just as often as not, these are not physically separate volumes, but more like chapters or sections. Or, sometimes, a single 巻 can be divided among separate physical volumes, or, to use a more obscure but more precise English term, “fascicles.”

A fascicle is a distinct physical object, what we would most commonly call “a book,” with its own front and back cover; a fascicle is what you would count if you were counting how many books are on a shelf. Go to the library or the bookstore, and you’ll likely find The Lord of the Rings, just to take an example, sold both as a single, really thick, fascicle, and as three separate “volumes” or “books” – Fellowship, Two Towers, and Return of the King each in its own fascicle.

In the case of Chinese and Japanese books, sometimes a single book will contain sections labeled 一巻、二巻、三巻、and sometimes separate books will be labeled something like 一巻上 and 一巻下 (“first kan, first half” and “first kan, second half”). Most versions of The Lord of the Rings that I have seen in Japanese have been printed in this way – each of the three “books” in the trilogy published as two or three “volumes,” that is, fascicles, labeled as 上 and 下, or 上, 中, and 下, for a total of seven to nine fascicles total for the three “books.” Then there are cases where books are labeled as 一編、二編、三編, a completely separate character, related to the word 編集する, meaning “to compile,” and often used to mark the name of the editor or compiler of a text. There are numerous other such issues, originating from the complexities of the use of a wide variety of different terms.

This is pure speculation on my part, but based on my experience with such materials, I imagine that the difficulties derive chiefly from the matter of rebinding and recompilation. Books are constantly being recompiled into new editions, or simply rebound, for example, in the case of three thin fascicles being rebound into one thick fascicle with a fancier, hardback cover. The number of volumes (i.e. chapters, sections) in a classic text is set in stone, so to speak, but the number of fascicles it may be published in is variable. The “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (三国志, J: Sangokushi), for example, contains 120 chapters, which let’s just say are numbered as 巻 (I’m not sure what character is traditionally used to number them). These 120 巻 have been printed and reprinted, however, in a gazillion different formats, including the 75-volume (read: 75-fascicle) illustrated set from the 1830s-40s that we photographed a few weeks ago. So, do we call this a “120-volume text in 75 volumes”? I suppose in this particular case, the word “chapters” solves the problem well, but that’s really not so easily the case for many other examples…

Stay tuned for another post, in which I’ll share points from Dr. Edgren’s talk on the history of the introduction of the book into Japan.

Read Full Post »

Well, as I don’t think I’ve mentioned at all, I am in DC this summer, interning at the Freer/Sackler Galleries (aka the National Asian Art Museum, and part of the Smithsonian). As of today, I am in my fifth week at the Freer. (Wow, has it been that long already?)

I have been hesitant to post anything since I really don’t know what is and is not cool to share, and wanted to err on the side of caution. Museum work is of course not a matter of national security, but even so, museums’ reputations are fragile, and while the actual art objects themselves may be public domain on account of their age, museums, just like any other institution or organization, like to have control over their own publicity, public image, publications, etc.

But, I have checked with the curator, and there are various aspects that I can freely share.

The museum recently (a few years back) obtained a collection of over 2000 Edo period woodblock-printed books (along with some from Meiji and later). It’s an amazing collection, including some books that seem, as far as “we” know, to be the only extant copies, and ranging from popular literature to books of poetry to books related to kabuki.

We interns are here to take part in something a great many libraries and museums are focusing on these days – digitalization (digitization?) of the collection. So, basically, we’re photographing every page of every book, one by one, in order to make them more available to researchers and the general public, through a publicly-accessible online database which will eventually go up. We’ve got a great system and equipment, devised by Akama Ryô-sensei of Ritsumeikan, who is essentially leading the vanguard in Digital Humanities in Japan, and who gave a talk at our Kabuki Symposium at the University of Hawaii back in November. We received an intense two-day tutorial from Akama-sensei our first two days, and have Dr. Matsuba Ryoko, one of his leading proteges or disciples, as it were, working with us all summer overseeing the process and helping guide us through all our questions and difficulties. Matsuba-san specializes in kabuki and kabuki prints, so you know she’s my kind of person. She also presented at the Kabuki Symposium, and is easily one of my favorite up-and-coming scholars, in the sense that I am very interested in her research, impressed by her work, and eagerly looking forward to her future publications and presentations. I am very excited to be working with her and developing good personal & professional ties, networking, with her this summer.

Right: A complete set of seventy-five volumes of an 1830s-40s illustrated version of the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”

The project may sound quite tedious, doing nothing but turning pages and clicking the shutter over and over and over again all day. And, yes, it is kind of exhausting, if only because of the focus it takes, and the way the room is lit (mostly dark, the only lights being really bright ones pointing directly at the books). But, actually, the books themselves are really fun and interesting, and I’m beginning to notice and appreciate all kinds of things I might not have ever noticed or appreciated before. Ukiyo-e, and especially the monochrome illustrations in books, can start to look quite monotonous after you look at too many of them. But, looking at these books, there are so many wonderful little touches that you start to enjoy. Things that seem innovative and interesting, even if they’re not really. Elements of the picture extending beyond the frame (I saw today a picture of a decapitated head flying out of the frame, the body spurting a fountain of blood), lettering in gold ink, slight touches of color on just one element of a picture, the use of black to indicate night or shadow in just one section, a great variety of calligraphic or other writing styles, including characters in white described in black outline, or characters meant to look like they were carved in stone… A range of techniques as inventive as any you’ll see in American comicbooks, or sometimes even more intriguing and exciting – after all, any standard narrative of the history of comicbook art in Marvel/DC comics will tell you that it wasn’t until the 1980s that certain techniques began to be used, such as breaking out from square panels, the use of splash pages, etc. And while few if any Edo period books are really anything resembling panel-based sequential pictorial storytelling (i.e. “comicbooks”), they do display many of these techniques, including especially the beautiful and dramatic use of splash pages.

I’ve also started to learn a bit about how prints and books are made, techniques, what they’re called, and perhaps most importantly, how to recognize them. Close-looking has never really been one of my strong suits, but in deciding how to best photograph a volume (or, rather, a particular page), we have had to keep our eyes out for silver and gold foil, mica, and other shiny or sparkly treatments; karazuri and other embossing techniques; and the like. Telling the difference between an “original” print and a later reproduction, or between a print and painting, is an important skill of the curator, art historian, or connoisseur, and we’re starting to pick up those skills doing this.

Right: Various sizes of chitsu (帙), a cloth-covered stiff box for Japanese books, secured with small “teeth” of bone or ivory, or more commonly today, plastic.

There are a great many things in this collection to be excited about, one of which happens to be a complete set of the Sangokushi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 三国志) in 75 illustrated volumes, published in the 1830s-40s. While nearly all of the books in the collection are either in traditional Japanese-style boxes known as chitsu, or in more modern/Western wrappers of acid-free board, these 75 volumes are stored in their own wooden box, labeled in Japanese calligraphy 「三国志全部 七拾五冊入」 (“Complete Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 75 volumes”). I don’t know the age or provenance of the box, but whether original (i.e. 150 years old) or not, it certainly seems purely Japanese, and “authentic.” (Meaning, I don’t presume to know anything in real detail about how Japanese traditionally stored books in the Edo period, but certainly nothing about this arrangement screams Western or modern. Nothing stands out as incongruous.)

It will be a year at least, probably 2-3, before these books are available online, but the museum’s current plan is to create an online catalog, publicly available, in which every page of every one of the 2000 or so books is available. I hope in the coming weeks to post more about individual books I come across, and other thoughts related to the project, but I especially look forward to being able to share these images with you.

EDIT: A brief official description of the project from the Freer-Sackler website.

All images in this post, with the exception of the depiction of the chitsu, are my own photos, taken myself. I apologize for the poor quality of the images of the books & wooden box, taken with my iPhone.

Read Full Post »

A few days ago, I finally visited the Kyoto International Manga Museum. It’s a gorgeous museum, quite clean and sleek and well-put-together. It all looks quite new, as well it should I suppose, since it only opened in 2006, on the grounds of a former primary school.

The school folded under perfectly normal circumstances – as is happening all over Japan, and as happens around the world to one extent or another, sometimes there just are not enough children in a community to merit a need for as many schools as there are, and so schools are merged and old school buildings are either destroyed or repurposed. While Tatsunoike Elementary School is hardly a historical monument – no more historical than any other elementary school built and operating since the early Meiji period – I am quite glad that they kept its structure intact, repurposing it rather than tearing it down. The school atmosphere really suits a manga museum quite well, and helps make one feel like a child again, a bit. Piano music piped throughout the building, very similar to the light music reminiscent of the innocence of childhood expressed in Joe Hisaishi’s soundtracks for various Ghibli movies, contributes to this feel.

(The museum also maintains one room as an exhibition on the history of the school, and plaques throughout the museum explain what certain rooms were used for back when it was a school. The principal’s office is maintained just as it was, I guess, more or less, as a showpiece, and the Museum Director’s office is in the Vice Principal’s office.)

On the other hand, I thought the environment and atmosphere a bit sad, in that reverse backwards sort of way that bright, happy music and scenes can be quite sad when the children are gone. Like parts of movies when someone remembers all the wonderful times that were had in a place now destroyed, or with a person now gone. An elementary school devoid of children is a pretty sad place, the cheery music only adding to that feeling, 逆に, rather than dispelling it. Or maybe that’s just me…

In any case, I could have loved this museum’s design and architecture if it were a brand-new shiny steel and glass building in the ultra-modern mode. But I love it just as much if not more like this, with hardwood floors and steps, at least one room lined with tatami (oh how I love that smell), and the furnishings and such in the (closed to the public but visible through the hall windows) principal’s office and such.

The museum consists primarily of shelves and shelves and shelves of manga – roughly 50,000 in all, with another 250,000 volumes in the closed stacks. Though there are some permanent exhibits and temporary exhibit halls, the chief thing to do at this museum, it would seem, is to sit and read manga. A quite enjoyable way to spend a day, I must say, if a bit unorthodox for a museum (if it were a library, there wouldn’t be an admission fee, and there would be a way to take out books; so, really, it’s more like a manga café).

I was, admittedly, disappointed at this, as I don’t read much manga. I never felt particularly confident about my ability to read manga, since they have so much casual language and weird sound changes (much like how Japanese people might have trouble with words like “gonna” that don’t really represent “going to”, or the way things are misspelled to indicate the pronunciation of different accents), and so many strange words and jargon words referring to the magic or spaceships or whatever it may be for a given series. But… after not even trying to read any manga for a number of years, I picked one up (the first volume of Ranma 1/2natsukashii na!), and made my way through the first chapter, moving quickly and smoothly, and smiling all the way. Spending a few hours at the museum could be a fine way to get through series without having to buy all the volumes yourself… it’s a fine atmosphere for reading – clean, brightly lit, welcoming – though there’s no food or drink, and nowhere to really lay down and stretch out.

In any case, the one main permanent exhibit hall is really quite well-done. The walls are lined with manga organized chronologically, so one can skim the selections and sort of get a sense of how manga developed and changed over time. Actual exhibition displays address a number of fundamental questions and themes relating to manga, including some that we really take so much for granted, it’s great to see them addressed. First, there is a display or two or three on the history of manga. I was most pleased to see that the museum does not take a stand on where manga starts, since basically any answer one could give would be controversial and debateable. Does it start with the Chôju giga, a 12-13th century handscroll depicting anthropomorphized animals and something resembling an early relative of the speech bubble? Or does manga start with ukiyo-e prints? Or with kibyôshi illustrated novels? Or Hokusai’s sketchbooks that he just so happened to call manga (漫画, lit. something like “rambling, aimless, wandering pictures”)? Or does manga start in the Meiji period, with the introduction of satirical political cartoons from the West? That the Manga Museum didn’t set themselves up for being argued against by taking a stand on any one of these was a very smart move in my opinion.

The exhibits also address standards, symbols, and forms, pointing out that a lot of things we take for granted in comics are in fact quite artificial. The convention of the speech bubble, as opposed to the narrator’s speech which goes in a box, for example; and the ways thought bubbles are shown differently. In American comics and cartoons, we show that someone is asleep by having Z’s float in the air above his head; in manga, a small bubble (of snot?) emerges from the character’s nose to indicate they’re asleep. All kinds of lines and marks and symbols appear on or near people’s faces to indicate certain emotions, and lines and shapes can be used in other ways to indicate speed of motion, or great power… A small hands-on bit of the exhibit lets you mix and match eyes, noses, mouths, and other features to sort of show how versatile manga style can be, I guess, and yet how remixed. It’s amazing to realize just how much a certain mouth or a certain nose indicates a certain character type, and yet also how combining a different set of eyes with that same mouth or nose can change the impression of the character type completely.

The exhibit highlights a manga from the 1970s called “Bakabon,” which apparently was quite experimental in how things were rendered inside the panels. Sometimes he would use no words; sometimes no pictures; sometimes a scene would be laid out as if it were drawn as a picture, but just with words placed in different parts of the panel, where the images should be. Characters changed size and art style dramatically, highlighting the artificiality of the medium, but its versatility and value as well. Of course, any expert of American comics (whether he be a scholar or just an obsessive fan) could tell you quite a bit about innovation in the way the panels themselves have been used by various artists over the years, something that goes on in manga as well, but doesn’t seem as dramatically emphasized or as extensively used, even.

A kami-shibai performance rounded out the day; somewhat related to manga, kami-shibai (紙芝居, lit. “paper play” or “paper theatre”) was a street entertainment mainly in the early postwar period. Scenes would be drawn out on separate cards, and a storyteller would show each card as a visual aid while telling the story, serving both as narrator, and delivering all the characters’ lines, in different voices of course. I had never seen kami-shibai before, and actually had a very different impression of it, thinking it was more like shadow puppets, when in fact it’s a bit more like an anime with only one frame per scene.

I hope to post soon a separate post about the Murata Range exhibit that was up in their temporary exhibits gallery.

For now, then, I suppose that’s it. There is of course some controversy over the founding of the museum, since I gather it was sort of the pet project of a politician who is no longer in power… and while the especially strong prominence of manga in concerted, intentional, efforts by the Japanese government to represent the country and its culture, and to exert soft power, etc etc, is certainly bizarre and controversial in its own ways, I think it is great that such a place exists for those researchers who are in fact researching pop culture phenomena… And for the wider public as well, of course.

I’m glad I went and checked it out. If I were living here more permanently, I really might actually make a habit of spending time there, reading through another volume or two or three on each visit, slowly making my way through series without having to buy them myself.

Read Full Post »

The first in a series of posts about things in my own collection, meager though it may be.

Roughly a year ago, I made my way to the Ôi Racecourse (大井競馬場) in Tokyo, where can be found one of the largest flea markets in the city. A gentleman was selling a few old books, in pristine condition, for only 100 yen each. I asked him what kind of books they were, what they contained, but he didn’t know. The majority of the pages were printed reproductions of calligraphic handwriting, and were quite difficult to read. He pointed out to me, however, the publication information in the back cover, which clearly indicated that the books were printed in the 14th year of Taishô – i.e. 1925. I eagerly bought two, though he showed me that he had the whole series of 10 or 15 volumes. Not knowing what they were, and suspecting that they could be exceedingly boring financial records or the like, I stuck to what I had.

Looking at them again, and showing them to a friend, some time later, we discovered that they are in fact Noh utaibon (能謡本, lit. “Noh chant-book”); that is, compilations of Noh plays from which actors practice chanting.

There were hints, of course, that I had not picked up on; though, to my credit, I hadn’t heard of any of the plays before, so I can’t expect myself to have recognized the titles on the cover. Still, there is before each play a page or several of modern movable type printed pages listing the roles, what type of masks are used for them, the setting, a summary of the play, etc. In addition, the author is listed on the back as being Kita Rokuheita (喜多六平太); Kita being one of the major schools of Noh, I might have picked up on this.

But anyway, let’s delve into the text.

Sadly, I cannot seem to find the Japanese text in order to share it with you; if anyone knows of a good resource, I’d be most appreciative. Still, here is the section of Royall Tyler’s translation, from “Japanese Nô Dramas” (Penguin Books, 1992) which corresponds to the first page of this utaebon. For anyone studying Japanese, it may be a fun exercise to look at the calligraphy, and knowing roughly what the words ought to be, based on the translation, puzzle out the Japanese.

(Myôe and companions): Thither the moon, too, makes its nightly way
thither the moon, too, makes its nightly way:
then I will seek the land where the sun goes down

(Myôe): You have before you the monk Myôe of Toganoo. My heart is set upon travelling to China and India, and I must therefore go before the Kasuga Shrine to bid the god farewell. I am just now on my way down to the Southern Capital.

(Myôe and Companions): Mount Atago
and Shikimi-ga-hara detain us no more
and Shikimi-ga-hara detain us no more

While bunraku books are published in a reproduction of the handwriting of the great playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon, I do not know whose handwriting this is. You can see the marks to the side of the characters; like trope in the Torah and other Hebrew texts, this is a guide to the pacing and pitch of the chanting. There are no hard & fast musical notes here that say “chant a B flat” or something like that, just subjective ups and downs, highs and lows. Some kanji have the pronunciation written next to them as a guide. For example, the top character of the last (leftmost) line on this page is 山, meaning “mountain”, and normally pronounced as yama or san; here, though, the furigana characters トリ are written to the right, indicating that it should be read tori instead. Other marks are used as well, to help indicate tempo, such as the katakana トリ (tori) next to the kanji 山 (“mountain”), the top character of the last (leftmost) line on this page. As my good friend Hanna points out, “It means that that part of the text corresponds to a half measure of musical notation that can be more easily seen in drum scores. A full measure is 8 beats (though far more flexible and organic than western music), and a tori, therefore, 4 beats.”

The name of the play – 春日龍神 (Kasuga ryûjin, “Dragon God of Kasuga”) – and page number are written on the edge of each page.

Having taken a course later in the year in reading calligraphy, with an amazing sensei whose name I sadly do not remember, I can now pick out quite a number of characters here and there. What look like scribbles, unique to this person’s handwriting, are in fact very standardized calligraphic forms of the characters. Rather than waste space, though, by just sort of listing individual characters I can make out, let’s move on.

I wish there were a good way in this blog/website static format to follow along the words of the calligraphy, comparing each in turn to the printed (i.e. modern typeface) Japanese and to the English translation. If this were a PowerPoint presentation, I could just point with my mouse or laser pointer, or I could make a gazillion slides of the same image, inserting red lines or circles on each to emphasize a different character.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »