Japan

Meredith McKinney, our pre-eminent translator of Japanese classics – among them Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, the poetry of Saigyō Hōshi, the memoirs Essays in Idleness by Yoshida Kenkō, and Kamo no Chōmei’s Hōjōki (Record of the Ten Foot Square Hut) – has delivered another marvel of absorbing, elegant scholarship. Travels with a Writing Brush crosses the country of old Japan, from north to south and from east to west, and is a quintessential travel book. It goes to places, and shows them – except that the latter is not quite true; you would not go to this book to see things objectively so much as to cue to them imaginatively.

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Our tutor in Japanese conversation at the Australian National University in 1968, rather than listen to us mangling his language, used to write the kanji for all the political factions on the board, with a Ramen-like chart of connections looping between them and multiple interest groups ...

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In his 1998 book, Japanese Literature as ‘fluctuation’ (‘Yuragi’ no nihon bungaku), Komori Yōichi deconstructs the concept of ‘modern Japanese literature’ by examining the Encyclopedia of Modern Japanese Literature (『日本近代文学大辞典』), an impressive work that, despite its six volumes ...

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The Wild Goose by Mori Õgai, translated by Meredith McKinney

by
December 2014, no. 367

Elegantly evoking Japan with cream paper and ink-painted foliage on the cover and inside pages, this slim paperback from the small Braidwood publisher Finlay Lloyd is headed by the single, bold character for ‘wild goose’ (karikarigane). The events recounted in Mori Õgai’s novella occur in Tokyo in the late nineteenth century, in the area north of Kanda around Ueno’s Shinobazu pond, near the residence of the Iwasaki family and the campus of Tokyo Imperial University. A map shows the regular walks taken by Okada, a medical student, along meticulously named streets and lanes, past temples and shrines, restaurants and bookshops, some of which are still there. According to the seasons, the residents in this small area silently change their screens, blinds, and shutters, able to look out while remaining barely visible.

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Patrick Holland makes his plans clear in the first sentence of Riding the Trains in Japan (his fourth book and first work of non-fiction): ‘I arrived in Kyoto in the middle of the national holiday called O-Bon, the Japanese All Souls, when Buddhists believe departed spirits may return to earth and when ancestors and the elderly are honoured.’ His subjects and themes have been identified: himself, the people and places of Asia, Eastern spirituality and tradition, and the transient nature of life and all of its cultural accessories. The opening also reveals Holland’s technical approach: a willingness to conflate personal anecdote with documentary observation, the minutiae of daily life with the grandness of tradition, and the material world with a spiritual one. Clearly, he wants to test the conventional form of travel writing.

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The Japanese tactics in today’s export war are identical with those they employed so successfully in 1941–42 against a bigger army than theirs in Malaya: they attack individual units ‘with surprise and with our strength concentrated’. This is one of the two leitmotifs of Russell Braddon’s book. The other is his notion of Japan’s ‘hundred years’ war’. During his years of captivity in Changi between 1942 and 1945, Braddon was told once by a Japanese officer: ‘This war will last a hundred years, Mr Braddon. I’m afraid you will never go home.’ Later, after the Japanese surrender in August 1945, when he was about to leave Changi, he passed a Japanese officer who was being escorted into the gaol. ‘In a spirit half of elation and half of spite I turned and shouted, “This war last one hundred years?” “Ninety-six years to go”, he called back; and neither of us bothered to bow.’

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