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Kajin no Kigu: changing the language changes the mind

Updated: May 20, 2022

Tim Harper's Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire contains lots of fascinating forgotten stories which can surprise and delight even an old Asia hand like me.

Perhaps one of the most delightful to my mind has been that of Shiba Shiro, a gentleman warrior from the defeated side of the Meiji Restoration, who went on to study abroad and write Japan's most important political novel, Kajin no Kigu, usually translated as Encounters with Beautiful Women. This novel, a story of a Japanese traveler meeting beautiful Irish and Spanish women and learning from them about Western Imperialism was translated into Chinese by none other than Liang Qichao, one of the leaders of China's Hundred Days Movement -- the very last serious attempt to reform Qing government before Chinese elites turned against the dynasty.

In this Chinese translation, the book went on to make a great career as a great influencer among all Chinese reading elites of the time, not only Chinese, but also Korean and Vietnamese.

Interestingly, the novel is completely forgotten today.

As Atsuko Sakaki tells it, several things have conspired against Kajin no Kigu, Japan's most famous political novel (think Disraeli), condemning it to oblivion.

Perhaps the most important one was the sea change in the literary language of Japan: as the nation turned away from Kanbun (a form of classical Chinese) and Kanbun Kundoku (“Chinese writing Japanese reading”) to modern vernacular, texts written in the old format became inaccessible to the next generation.

But as high brow literary activity turned from using the old language to using the new, it itself began to change and become more like the literature heretofore written in the vernacular: mainly, popular romances, fairy tales, and racy "men's books." After all, if you are going to write in the vernacular language, you cannot help feeling that, in order to sell, you should provide more of the product which already sells.

(Do you publish on Amazon? Do you feel pressure to write more like those who already publish there?).

Even if, like Natsume Soseki, you are conversant with the old style (kanbun kundoku), when you change your language, you adjust to its register. You feel you have to write to the market rather than shape it.

I imagine this was an important issue in the minds of literary practitioners at the time, and was probably the motivation behind Tsubouchi Shoyo’s influential essay Shosetsu shinzui (The Essence of the Novel, 1885), a piece of literary theory which, in effect, declared that human emotions and social mores are the only suitable concern for any novel. In other words, as we would say today, to be a proper novel, a book must be a piece of chicklit. (I..e. sound like Zola or Trollope): no more political novels, please.

Sadly, I do not read Kanbun with sufficient degree of fluency to read Kajin no Kigu for pleasure. But deathly bored as I am of constantly having to read about love and relationships and heroes saving the world, I would gladly read a political novel for a change. Especially since, as Sakaki tells it, the author of Kajin no Kigu, Shiba Shiro, had a far more nuanced view of the West and Japan than the the authors who came after him.

Most of the foreign exposure of the Japanese authors one reads about (fellows like Natsume or Nagai or Kawabata or Mishima) was extremely shallow -- mainly due to language barrier) ; and their views, as a consequence, tended to focus on creating an imagined, monolithic, heterogeneous view of the "shallow and materialistic West" (as they wanted to see it) in opposition to the "profound and spiritual and fundamentally mysterious Japan" (again) whose essence can only be grasped by natives (of course!) and only via special intuition (and therefore cannot be explained).

(I.e. "we know that we are justified to feel superior, but it is not possible to explain why").

Unlike those puerile efforts, Shiba Shiro's was a serious one: he actually did study abroad, not just dabble: he learned languages, studied at Harvard and received a degree from Wharton.

As my co-reader said, he was an actual person, not a tourist. Tourism, she says, is what one does to see the world and learn nothing in the process.

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