A History of
W. G. ASTON, C.M.G., D.Lit.
LATE JAPANESE SECRETARY TO H.M. LEGATION, TOKIO
The Japanese have a voluminous literature, extending over twelve centuries, which to this day has been very imperfectly explored by European students. Forty years ago no Englishman had read a page of a Japanese book, and although some Continental scholars had a useful acquaintance with the language, their contributions to our knowledge are unimportant. Much has been done in the interval, by writers of grammars and dictionaries, to facilitate the acquirement of this most difficult language, and translations by Sir E. Satow, Messrs. Mitford, Chamberlain, Dickins, and others, have given us interesting glimpses of certain phases of the literature. But the wider field has hitherto remained untouched. Beyond a few brief detached notices, there is no body of critical opinion on Japanese books in any European language, and although the Japanese themselves have done more in this direction, their labours are for various reasons in a great measure unserviceable.
The historian of their literature is therefore thrown mainly upon his own resources, and must do his best, by a direct examination of those works which the verdict of posterity has marked out as most worthy of notice, to ascertain their character and place in literature, and to grasp as far as possible the ideas which inspired them. In the following pages comparatively little space has been devoted to what is necessarily a record of personal impressions and opinions, the outcome of rough pioneer work, and having little claim to be considered as mature literary criticism. It seemed preferable, especially in the case of a literature so little known to the English public as that of Japan, to allot ample room to translated extracts, and to such biographical notices as are necessary to show what manner of men the authors were.
The general plan, however, of this series has not been lost sight of. Important writers have been treated at comparatively greater length, to the neglect of many lesser notabilities, and an attempt has been made, in so far as the state of our knowledge permits, to follow the movement of the literature, and to trace the causes which determined its character at particular periods.
Writers on European literatures are entitled to take for granted, on the part of their readers, a previous acquaintance with the leading facts of the political and religious history of the country with which they are dealing. In the case of Japan, however, it has been thought not superfluous to add a few data of this kind, without a knowledge of which it is impossible to understand the course of the literary development.
In justice to Japanese literature, it is right to draw attention to some obstacles which prevent any translations from giving an adequate idea of its merits. The Italian adage is particularly applicable to translators from the Japanese. Even when they have a competent knowledge of the language they cannot possibly reproduce all the metaphors, allusions, quotations, and illustrations which form the stock of the Japanese author, and which are in great part unintelligible without a profusion of explanatory notes intolerable to the reader.
Another difficulty arises from the fact that a Japanese word frequently covers a meaning which is only approximately the same as that of the corresponding English term, or calls up quite different associations. The karasu, for example, is not exactly a crow, but a corvus Japonensis, a larger bird than our species, with different cries and habits. The cherry is, in Japan, the queen of flowers, and is not valued for its fruit, while the rose is regarded as a mere thorny bush. Valerian, which to us is suggestive principally of cats, takes the place of the rosebud as the recognised metaphor for the early bloom of womanhood. And what is the translator to do with the names of flowers as familiar to the Japanese as daisy or daffodil to ourselves, but for which he can offer no better equivalents than such clumsy inventions as Lespedeza, Platycodon grandiflorum, and Deutzia scabra?
In the world of thought and sentiment, the differences, though less tangible, are even more important. Take the Japanese word for conscience, namely, honshin. It means "original heart," and implies a theory that man's heart is originally good, and that conscience is its voice speaking within him. The words for justice, virtue, chastity, honour, love, and many more ideas of this class, although meaning substantially the same as with ourselves, must yet be taken with differences which are necessarily lost in a translation.
When to these are added the ordinary difficulties which beset the task of rendering thought from one language into another, and which are incomparably greater in the case of an idiom so different from our own, it will be seen that it is not possible to do justice to Japanese literature by translation. In the present volume it has often been necessary to pass over the best and most characteristic passages of an author in favour of others which lent themselves more readily to presentation in an English form.
With one or two stated exceptions the translations are my own.
My best thanks are due to Sir Ernest Satow, Her Majesty's Minister to Japan, for lending me most of his extensive library of Japanese books, and also for supplying me from time to time with recent native publications, which have been of much service to me.
I cordially associate myself with previous contributors to this series of histories, by acknowledging the benefit which the present volume has derived from the editorial care of Mr. Edmund Gosse.
Japanese words and proper names have been introduced as sparingly as possible. The system of spelling adopted is that of the Royal Geographical Society. It may be described briefly as "Consonants as in English, vowels as in Italian; no silent letters."
W. G. ASTON.
Page 113, near bottom, read 'the birth of a succession of female children.'
Page 144, for 'carriage,' &c., read 'people who ride in a creaking carriage. Such people must be deaf and are very detestable. When you ride in such a carriage yourself it is the owner who is detestable.'
Short Histories of the
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Edited by EDMUND GOSSE
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