On December 7, at St Petersburg University, philologist, Slavonic scholar, translator and literary critic Professor Mitsuyoshi Numano gave an open lecture.

Professor Mitsuyoshi Numano has translated works by Chekov, Nabokov, Grin, Dovlatov, Okudzhava and Brodsky – and also Victor Pelevin and Tatyana Tolstaya – into Japanese.  In 2001, along with Grigori Chkhartishvili, better known as Boris Akunin, he worked on the publication of an anthology of works by contemporary Japanese writers, He. New Japanese Prose.  In the preface, he tried to dispel among Russian readers the stereotypes about Japan and to bring his listeners up to date about the country’s contemporary literature.  

During the lecture, Professor Numano talked about the history of Japanese literature and drew a number of parallels with Russian literature. 

“They say that Japanese literature is built on the history, culture and language, but it has many more components.  It is impossible to understand it by resorting to stereotypical labels.”

Professor Mitsuyoshi Numano

“I, for one, am skeptical about trying to determine the cultural essence of a country by boiling it down to a couple of words.  For example, by saying,  “Japan is the country of the Samurai,” you write off, from among its citizens, the sort of man, like me, who is completely unheroic,” Mr Numano noted.

The lecturer built his speech around a number of factors that, in his opinion, have formed Japanese literature. 

The first of these is the long and continuous history.  The earliest Japanese literary masterpieces, which date back to the eighth century, “Records of Ancient Matters” (“The Kojiki”) and the poetry anthology “A Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves” (“The Man'yōshū”), as the professor said, have come down to us in one piece.  This has come about because new forms and styles have not supplanted the old ones but layered themselves on top of them.  In this way, the historical continuity of Japanese literature has arisen, harmoniously combining a number of different tendencies. 

“The most obvious of its singularities becomes clear in a comparison with Russia, where, as Yuri Lotman said, culture has evolved in an explosive way.  When there is an eruption, everything from the past is renounced.  Just think of the futurists,” Mr Numano notes.

A second feature of Japanese literature is that it has been subjected to a strong foreign influence.  From the 9th up to the middle of the 19th century, the country was under the influence of China, as a result of which Buddhism and Confucianism found their way into Japan, by way of the Korean government of Baekje.  What is more, the Japanese, who had no written language, began to use and modify the Chinese characters, and for a long time Japanese literature was bilingual. 

“Russian history of the 19th century was somewhat similar.  In their daily lives, the aristocracy spoke French, and Pushkin, Chaadayev and Tyutchev all published their works in French,” Mr Numano noted.

In 1868, the Meiji era began in Japan.  Opening itself up to the world, the country started to take an active interest in Western culture.  It was then, under the influence of European authors – from Shakespeare and Goethe to Turgenev and Dostoevsky – that contemporary Japanese literature began to develop.

The Meiji Restoration can be compared with the time of Peter’s reforms, when Russia also actively absorbed Western culture and Russian literature evolved from European underpinnings.

Professor Mitsuyoshi Numano

A third factor, according to the philologist, is the climatic features of the Japanese archipelago.  The seasonal changes here are strongly pronounced, and the inhabitants take great pleasure from the beauties of each season, reflecting their delight in the literature.  Seasonal words are an obligatory element in the traditional short poems, or haikus, and special dictionaries of seasonal words have even been put together to help out writers.  

“Such a poetics, with an emphasis on images of the changing seasons, is most likely something purely Japanese, which, in Russia, with its long, harsh winters and fleeting summers, would be very difficult to evoke.”  Such is the opinion of our guest. 

If we divert our attention from the external circumstances surrounding the development of Japanese literature and turn to the text itself, or, more precisely, to the means that are used in it to transmit the mood, then such traits as lyricism and emotional intensity come to light.  “In Japan, there are practically no works of epic literature.  Ever since the Middle Ages, the poetic form of the tanka, expressing neither joy nor laughter but sadness and tears, has prevailed in the literature.  Japanese literature tends more toward internal emotional quests than toward opposition to the society or the history.  Here, sensual expressions rather than rational or moral structures have always been more highly regarded,” the scholar points out. 

According to him, this is why the Japanese sometimes find it hard to understand the religious motifs in the works of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, who constantly turn to the subject of God.  “Although Dostoevsky is very well-known in our country, one critic quipped that the Japanese, unable to make anything out of Russian religion, cannot catch the essence of his works.  This, of course, is an exaggeration, but there is a grain of truth here,” the professor says, pointing out that it was Dostoevsky who gave him a nudge to start learning Russian.  “No matter what it took, I wanted to read this literary giant in the original and to see what he was actually writing about in his native tongue.  This is how it all began.”

For several centuries, according to the lecturer, the following aesthetic categories have been essential to Japanese culture:

  • Mono no aware – “the enchantment, elusiveness and evanescence of life”, a harmonious disposition that arises when the outer, objective world of things and the inner, subjective world of feelings unite into an organic whole
  • Yugen – something elusive, intuitive and almost imperceptible
  • Wabi-sabi – an aesthetic world view describing the beauty of the imperfect, the incomplete and the evanescent

These notions no longer apply to the contemporary, Westernized life of Japan.  On the other hand, the word “kawaii”, which initially was used in relation to children or small objects of beauty, is now gaining popularity. 

“When I recently published a new translation of a collection of Chekov’s stories, I didn’t know how to translate the name of “Dushechka”.  After agonizing over this for a long time, I finally decided to render it as ‘Kawaii’”, the professor admits.

“If you bring all of the key words of Japanese aesthetics into line, from “Mono no aware” to “kawaii”, then we will see something in common:  the desire to achieve unity with the world, the wish to savour deep and elusive feelings, the urge to experience pleasure from small, subtle, hard-to-define, abstract things that are implicitly and metaphorically expressed.  Most important here is the word harmony,” the lecturer explains.

There are many such descriptions in the literature, for example in diaries, which were often kept by spokeswomen for aristocratic families.  In Japan, during the Middle Ages, the social position of women was lower than that of men, but in the literature they come across as having much stronger personalities.

“One more singularity of Japanese literature is that among the distinguished poets there have been many women.  Among them, Sei Shōnagon, the author of the renowned The Pillow Book, and Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote the novel The Tale of Genji, which is justifiably called a monument of world literature,” Mr Numano comments.  “In contemporary Russia, there are also many authoresses and poetesses who are world-famous.  But if we look back to the past, we will see that, in Russia, women began to take part in the literary process only at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.”

Bringing his talk to a close, Professor Numano noted that if you study literature, the most important thing is to read the works themselves.  “I will be immensely delighted if, after this lecture, you will have the urge to acquaint yourself with some Japanese writers and maybe even translate them into Russian.  I would be thrilled if the many facets of the Japanese aesthetics, which are impossible to comprehend through the hackneyed stereotypes of the Samurai and geisha girls, will have become more accessible.”