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Winter 2008, vol 6 no 4

Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology 1600 – 1900
Abridged Edition

edited by Haruo Shirane
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


One of the most dramatic transformations in Japanese history was the transition from the medieval period (thirteenth to sixteenth century) to the early modern era (1600 – 1867), when literary and cultural paradigms gave birth to a whole new body of vernacular literature.
Haruo Shirane

This new anthology with its notes, explanations, and history is an important addition to English language studies of Japanese literature. There are few academic treatises dealing with the subject from a truly intellectual basis as most books these days are geared for those new to Japanese literature, especially those dealing with haiku and tanka.

It is the Shiranes, Cranstons, Keenes, Carters, and others of the same ilk who feed us the meat that goes with the potatoes. To understand Japanese poetry one needs a rudimentary understanding of the Japanese mindset towards its conceptualizations of art in general; not because we want to think and sound like the Japanese but because it's imperative to know what haiku and tanka are: the tools available to make your poetry credible, a thorough knowledge of the structure and schemata of the two genres so one doesn't write realistic Western free verse and prose poems labeling them haiku or tanka; to understand the need for adhering to the S/L/S of haiku and the S/L/S/L/L of tanka, and finally, armed with a historical understanding of the two genres and how they came into being, one can forge ahead to make our tanka and haiku manifestations of our own social memories and realities and to write them in a way that people will remember what we write, major publishing houses will be more open to printing haiku and tanka, and the majority of public schools in America will teach these genres to their students with knowledge, respect and real understanding.

Shirane here in this abridged and highly readable anthology writes of and features the literature of Japan from 1600 to 1900, due to the significance of the change in Japanese politics that gave access of Japanese literature to everyone, rich or poor, opening up the genres for the first time outside of the Imperial court. Shirane's anthology deals with four sub-periods, some of which were productive and others that were inconsistent, conservative, or unable to find an original voice. The 3rd sub-period interested me most because it had a profound effect on Japanese literature.

States Shirane:

The century between the Genroko-Bunsei eras, peaking in the latter half of the eighteenth century, should be considered one of the high points of early modern literature and culture. Significantly this literature is not marked by the kind of realism found in other periods but by a deep interest in other worlds, by a complex fusion of Chinese and Japanese cultures, and by a mixture of elite and popular cultures.

This is something English language Japanese short form poets may want to consider; to go beyond concrete realism, to rise above the mundaneness Shiki berated, and to explore our own perceptions and indigenous beliefs in a creative, informed, intelligent way.

The genres in Japanese literature are inter-related as to their use of aesthetics such as yugen, ma, makoto, and suggestiveness that feeds a reader's imagination versus entertaining him or her and leaving it at that. Good Japanese literature is meant to linger in the mind for the reader to ruminate and explore. I recommend reading the anthology in its entirety, which can aid one in understanding the culture and mindset that gave us Japanese short form poetry and to get a better feel for what separates Japanese verse from occidental verse.

The sections in Shirane's anthology regarding haiku and tanka are exceptional. I particularly enjoyed chapter three, "The Poetry and Prose of Matsuo Bashō," a poet celebrated worldwide but often misunderstood due to well meaning translators and how-to authors who do not have a working knowledge in both modern and archaic Japanese and cannot read the texts of this poet and other poets written in Japanese. When I read books of translations I prefer those authored by translators possessing said knowledge such as Amelia Fielden, Steven D. Carter, Donald Keene, and Edwin Cranston, among others.

Writes Shirane:

The art of haikai encompasses a series of related genres: hokku, linked verse, haibun, and haiga (haikai painting) . . . All these genres embodied what Bashō called 'haikai spirit' (haii). First of all, haikai spirit implied the interaction of diverse languages and subcultures, particularly between the new popular culture and the poetic tradition, and the humor and interest resulting from the socio-linguistic incongruity or difference between the two. Second, haikai spirit meant taking pleasure in re-contexualization: de-familiarization, dislocating habitual, conventionalized perceptions, and their re-familiarization, recasting poetic topics into contemporary language and culture. The haikai spirit was also marked by a constant search for novelty and new perspectives. Finally the haikai imagination implied the ability to interact in a playful, lively dialogue that produced communal art.

Going on to talk about Bashō, a revolutionary poet in his estimation, Shirane states:

Bashō's poetry differed [from the norm] . . . in that the popular culture in his poetry and prose was not that of the stylish men and women of the great urban centers' floating world but that of the mundane, everyday lives of farmers and fishermen in provinces.
Bashō gave a popular genre (haikai) a spiritual or refined content . . . he sought out the spiritual and poetic in commoner culture, giving to the contemporary language and subject matter, particularly that drawn from provincial life, the kind of nuances and sentiments hitherto found only in classical or Chinese poetry. In this way, Bashō was able to raise haikai — which until then had been considered a form of light entertainment — into a serious genre and a vehicle for the cultural transmission that, with the modern haiku, achieved a canonical status.

Shirane's anthology is different from most anthologies in that he provides solid commentary and exegesis on the translations of literature featured in the book.

Throughout the chapter he gives authentic translations of Bashō's poems with commentary that fills in the blanks and leads to a greater understanding of the poetry. Here is an example.

Going out on a beach while the light is still faint:
          akebono ya —          Early dawn —
          shirauo shiroki          whitefish, an inch of
          koto issum               whiteness
Bashō composed this hokku in the eleventh month of 1684, while visiting the Ase area during the Skeleton In The Fields (Nosarashi kiko) journey. Drawing on the phonic connotations of shirauo (literally, white fish), Bashō establishes a connotative correspondence between the semi-translucent 'whiteness' (shiroko koto) of the tiny fish and the pail, faint light of early dawn (akebono). The poem has a melodic rhythm, resulting from the repeated 'o' vowel mixed with the consonantal 's.'

Later on in this anthology Shiranre discusses Issa in depth, and other poets. In chapter 7, he covers comic and satiric poetry, including senryu and kyoka. This is an important chapter because in this day and age many journals, anthologies, and e-zines intermix haiku and senryu without differentiating between the two related genres, thus fostering confusion and misconceptions in the international English speaking Japanese short form poetry community.

Needless to say, this is an important book. As Dr. Sonja Arntzen says on the book's back cover, "This volume provides a cornucopia of early modern Japanese texts, from high to low, the cool reason of philosophy and literary criticism to 'hot' fiction for popular consumption. On the basis of this volume alone, one can mount a comprehensive course in Edo literature."


Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology 1600 – 1900
Abridged Edition
Edited by Haruo Shirane
Columbia University Press
ISBN 978-0-231-14415-5