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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #37 (September 9-15, 2003), page 16.

History of Japan’s writing is more than just books

A History of Japanese Literature: The First Thousand Years

By Shuichi Kato

Translated by David Chibbet

Kodansha International, 2003

Paperback, 320 pages, $23.00

By Oscar Johnson

Special to The Asian Reporter

Though it is cerebral in tone, lovers of fiction and verse as well as serious students of the humanities can find something to appreciate in A History of Japanese Literature. It offers readers a rich treatise, delving deeply into its subject. No doubt a reflection of the author himself.

A poet, former physician, and a "sociologically sophisticated political commentator," according to the author of the book’s forward, Professor Shuichi Kato applies passionate expertise honed at universities in Canada, Europe, China, and Japan to exhaustively consider his topic.

Japan’s literature and history, where they intersect and act as social indicators, are authoritatively accounted for in this reprint of the 1979 original: from early eighth-century codes and creation myths that set class order and a "divine" monarchy, to fifteenth-century poems and dramas by and for the masses. Chapter by chapter, each literary era is meticulously fleshed out with detailed context.

The thread — if not rope — throughout the book is intriguing. Kato dissects early Japan and its writings to reveal what’s indigenous with surgical objectivity. No small task considering the nation’s first written works, style, and script, like the topics they cover (poetry, royal lineage, Buddhism, and Confucian social principles) came from China.

Even as state-bolstered Buddhist art flourished in the eighth and ninth centuries, Kato argues, the religion’s precepts are scarcely found in the period’s dominant literary form of poetry. Instead, a pattern of pragmatic "this-worldliness" persists, such as that found in Thirteen Poems in Praise of Saké, which contrasts the "otherworldliness" of Buddhist thought. For the author, this is one proof that while the faith was popular among court nobles it did not filter to the masses until the turn of the millennium, nearly 500 years after it arrived.

Early Japanese poetry’s tendency to take amorous relationships for a theme, and not critique society or its aristocracy, sets it even further apart from its counterpart on the mainland, according to Kato, who conveys as much appreciation as he does knowledge of verse. The poetically inclined may be pleased to find generous samples of the writings woven throughout the author’s adroit analyses.

Even the cursorily curious are likely to be intrigued by the book’s summaries of works from the late tenth- to eleventh-century "novel era," such as the Utsuho Monogatari or Tales of Utsuho. What is likely the world’s first full-length novel, the author notes, predates its European counterparts by nearly 700 years and offers insight to the daily existence of Japan’s upper crust of that period.

Kato’s synopsis and insights on the story’s prose, magical flutes, and heavenly ascents against a backdrop of realistic court relations is tantalizing. But his scholarly musings on the famed eleventh-century epic Tales of Genji will provoke readers to discover for themselves the amorous adventures of the hero’s bout with fame, fate, and fortune.

"The psychological relationships between men and women who come and go in the pages of the novel are skillfully told, and have considerable charm," writes Kato. But it’s not why the 1,000-year-old book remains a hit. "The Genji Monogatari is a presentation of the emotional condition of human beings conscious that they tread this earth but once: ‘Life is not long, but make the most of it even if only one or two days are left.’"

These and similar insights by the author are perhaps A History of Japanese Literature’s best value to the non-scholarly reader. In opening curious eyes to Japan’s first millennium of writings, it may tempt lovers of poetry and fiction, as well as students of history and literature, to dig up, dust off, and devour available translations of some of these classics.


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