Six books on an earlier Japan

By William Wetherall

A review of three plus three books

Ryusaku Tsunoda, et al., Sources of Japanese Tradition
Donald Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature
Matsuo Basho, Oku no hosomichi

Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan
Tale of the Heike
Saikaku Ihara, Life of an Amorous Man of Five Women Who Loved Love

A version of this article appeared as
"Three Valuable Books on Old Japan" in
Reader's Journal, Summer 1985, page 19

Straight narrative or interpretive histories, though useful as skeletons, fail to flesh out the human forms of premodern Japan that can still be recognized in the country today. Translations of original readings, both complete works and anthologies of representative excerpts, provide more rewarding opportunities to make one's own assessments of Japan's archival treasures, and to discover personal reflections of modern Japan in its past, as it were.

Sources of Japanese Tradition

Sources of Japanese Tradition (1958, Columbia University Press, paperback), edited by Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, is a dry but good place to begin. This two-volume indexed work ( which seems to be out of print but should be available in any library with a basic collection of books in English on Japan) is a carefully guided tour through the primary sources of Japanese history and thought.

Beginning the first volume is an excerpt, from an A.D. 3rd- century Chinese history, describing certain customs of the Wa people, who are thought to have been the dominant ethnic group in the Japanese archipelago. When a funeral is over, for example, "all members of the family go into the water to cleanse themselves in a bath of purification." Accurate or not, this vignette suggests the antiquity of the many forms of ritual (obsessive-compulsive) ablution that can readily be observed in Japan today.

Legends concerning the creation of the Shinto deities who were then (and still are, by true believers) considered the ancestors of the imperial family, are cited from the earliest surviving Japanese chronicles (early 8th-century). Also cited are the myths of the divine origins of the Japanese islands.

Passages from the historically most important of the two earliest chronicles, called the Nihongi in its English translation, portray the political setting of Prince Shotoku Taishi's famous Seventeen-Article Constitution, as one which was fraught with imperial intrigue that spawned numerous murders and assassinations. The early 7th-century constitution, also cited, begins with the exhortation that "Harmony is to be valued, and an avoidance of wanton opposition [is] to be honored." From this one can better understand why Japanese today still tend to extol "harmony" precisely when there is none, or at times of imminent dissension or divisiveness -- which means practically always.

The rest of volume one, and volume two, consist of similarly insightful nibbles from the most nourishing cheeses of Japan's institutional and intellectual history through the middle of the present century. Every excerpt is thematically labeled and is introduced by a brief commentary. If an item doesn't whet your appetite, you can skim until you find one that does.

Anthology of Japanese Literature

Donald Keene's Anthology of Japanese Literature, first printed in 1955 but still available as a Tuttle paperback, is a sampler of wines from the cellars of Japanese expressive writing "from the earliest era to the mid-nineteenth century". From sips of the classics one learns that romantic love was alive and well in early Japan, at least in poetry and fiction, which are sopping wet with tears shed from a cornucopia of sentiments easily recognizable in other peoples and ages. The sentiment perhaps most common to Japanese past and present is simple nostalgia for almost anything remote, lost, or left behind.

It is impossible to doubt that (or why) Hitomaro misses his wife while he is traveling. Undoubtedly some Japanese businessmen whose jobs take them away from their families similarly long to sleep with their wives, though one cannot be certain that all modern Japanese women consider it their marital duty to lie beside their providers "Like the swaying sea tangle . . . Unresisting . . ."

Long before you reach the literature of the Tokugawa period ( 1600-1868), you'll have sensed that beauty, pathos, and laughter are as inextricably linked in the Japanese experience as they are in those of other peoples. But suddenly we are treated to glimpses of a decidedly (and refreshingly) more commonplace Japan through its first truly "mass literature", as epitomized in the stories of Ihara Saikaku, and in the travelogues of Matsuo Basho.

Unlike Hitomaro, who lamented separations from a passionate wife, Basho regretted bidding farewell to close friends and sights of Mt. Fuji and cherry blossoms. He and his traveling companion must sleep not alone, but with their hosts of opportunity -- on one occasion, comensal creatures in a guard's shelter or stable, which inspired the following haiku (or senryu) as interpreted by Donald Keene:

Plagued by fleas and lice
I hear the horses staling --
What a place to sleep!

I failed to laugh until ran to a dictionary to confirm the meaning of "stale". But I have never forgotten this gem, which may not be the earliest but is certainly a candidate for the most memorable vestige of the roots of the scatalogical humor pervasive in modern Japan, even in children's TV fare. Suddenly I understood why The Drifters have survived as many years as they have on Saturday evening primetime, and I instantly became more skeptical of PTA objections to this highly successful comedy group's bathroom antics.

Oku no hosomichi

Basho's Oku no hosomichi, which has let the world hear its urinating horses through numerous partial and complete translations, is worth reading in its entirely. The English rendition by Nobuyuki Yuasa (Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, 1966, Penguin Classics) is the most widely available outside Japan, but Dorothy Britton's version (A Haiku Journey, 1984, Kodansha revised paperback edition), is more pleasurable to read and has a Japanese text.

But either translation will take you on a vicarious trek through some of the most colorful parts of Japan; give you an angle on why Japanese get such a kick out junketing around Japan and savoring the endless varieties of local culture (though not necessarily in the style or the spirit of Basho); and leave you with a strong desire to someday (you'll keep saying to your friends) join the flag-led mobs that are trampling over the roped-off remains of the original route.

Three other original works which should prove more stimulating than scholarly studies that tend to deprive the reader of direct contact with the people of early Japan are:

Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan

W. G. Aston (translator), Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697 (1896, reprinted as Tuttle paperback). An old translation but reliable enough, well indexed. The nearest thing to reading an 8th-century newspaper -- skip what you have no interest in, and enjoy but be wary of the factual accuracy of the rest.

Tale of Heike

Hiroshi Kitagawa and Bruce T. Tsuchida (translators), The Tale of the Heike (1975, University of Tokyo Press, reprinted as Tuttle paperback). Not an especially inspired translation, but the only readily available one. The heavily Buddhistic saga, which has no hero but literally documents the human dramas that occurred on and off the many battlefields of one of Japan's most sanguine civil wars, helps illuminate the rivalries between the autonomous clan-like organs of Japan's seemingly leaderless political state today.

Postscript -- A superior translation by Helen Craig McCullough was published in 1988 by Stanford University Press. A.L. Sadler's older translation is also in ways more pleasurable than the Kitagawa/Tsuchida version.

Life of an Amorous Man

Saikaku Ihara, the Life of an Amorous Man. Or (by the same author) Five Women Who Loved Love. Both reprinted as Tuttle paperbacks. Modern weekly magazines and commuter tabloids have nothing to be ashamed of -- unless it be that the erotic humor of Saikaku's pulp stories outclasses through subtlety that of their modern pretenders.