All posts by Christopher

I'm a visiting professor at Bowdoin College. I teach, write, and discuss Japanese popular culture, language, literature and other topics on East Asia.

Uchimura Kanzō’s “Consolations”

One of the texts I am working through for my dissertation is Uchimura Kanzō’s Consolations of a Christian. It has never  been translated into English before, outside of the two chapters I have translated recently (and a few bits here and there by John Howes and others.)

One of the things I have discovered is just how well read Uchimura was. For instance, in his discussion of failure in his vocation, he devotes a few pages to the story of Henry of Navarre, the “prince of the blood” who came into conflict with the French throne due to his protestant (Huguenot) faith. Uchimura provides many historical details, and even creates an interior monologue for Henry, who was agonizing over whether to end hostilities and bow to the Papacy, or keep fighting for the freedom of the Huguenots. As he ended hostilities, France flourished, and Henry’s Edict of Nantes proclaimed religious freedom throughout France. But, after he died, through the actions of Cardinal Richelieu and others, Roman Catholicism regained its supremacy in the land, and later kings, according to Uchimura, failed in their duties to keep order and peace in France as they did not regard the people and continued to enrich themselves. The ultimate result was the French Revolution. Uchimura concludes that Henry never really loved France since he capitulated, and his capitulation led to the disasters that culminated in Napoleon. Later in the chapter, Uchimura quips that Cromwell may have failed in his attempts to create a more just society, but after his death, the foundation that the unwavering Cromwell laid for democracy and equality shows his actual success. Through his work, Cromwell prevented the revolutions of the 18th century Europe from rocking England.

What were Uchimura’s sources? In my archival work at the Uchimura Kanzō collection at Hokkaido University, I was able to track down what Uchimura was reading and garner much from his marginalia in his Carlyle collection and his Dante. He often quotes Carlyle, (and in the case of Chapter 5 of the Consolations, that makes sense when it comes to his ideas about Cromwell, whom Carlyle praised mightily), but why did he think Henry of Navarre was a failure and that his capitulation caused the downfall of France? This is somewhat unusual in terms of how we think of history…after doing a little digging, I discovered Samuel Smiles’ The Huguenots: Their Settlements, Churches & Industries in England and Ireland

taiyo-9-1896-1
Taiyō, 1896 discussing Uchimura’s Bunmeiron

Smiles–ever the promoter of Protestantism, ever the English patriot–had similar ideas to Carlyle about the role and heritage of English politics in the world. Smile’s narration of events and their outcomes certainly prefigures Uchimura’s. How many contemporary readers have much experience with Carlyle or Smiles? Thanks to digital texts, we can enjoy them now!

But what fascinates me is how Uchimura used these English texts to discuss his own failures vis-a-vis his work and how society viewed his legacy. He brought them to a Japanese audience, then used them to discuss his Christian worldview. Then he communicates his sense of what Japan’s mission in the world should be (bringing culture and enlightenment after social reform). Uchimura, like these faithful figures of old, wanted to hold fast to his sense of conviction and bring his ideas into the future as an inheritance. In addition, he connects the faith of Cromwell, Huss, and others, to Kusunoki Masashige, the faithful retainer who would give his life in the service of the restoration of Godaigo. Late Edo and early Meiji thinkers, as Varley tells us, pointed to Kusunoki as a paragon of loyalty and a key figure in restorationist ideas. He died in service of his conscience. Though Fukuzawa Yukichi called him a failure, others who came after Kusunoki following his example, were latter-day Kusunokis, true patriots, true supporters of the imperial line. Uchimura ties himself to this love of country, and love of his God: being faithful despite failure is actually success.

Kamakura Poetics


Fujiwara no Shunzei wrote “Korai Futeisho”in 1197. This early Kamakura treatise on poetics set the stage for many poetic developments to come. Chiefly, Shunzei discusses the connection between kotoba, or words, and kokoro, which means heart/mind. In the poetic sense, kokoro, according to Shunzei was transmitted from all the preceeding poetic anthologies, such as Man’yoshu, Kokinshu, and Gosenshu. The collective mind/heart of these poets is transmitted to the poet who is considering writing, much like the Mayahana Buddhistic idea of dharma transmission, or the transmission of the Buddha’s mind from Sakyamuni Buddha to disciple, and disciple to other disciple, alluding to the words of the Chinese monk, Zhiyi (538-597.) Kotoba, the words, are vessels for the kokoro. They should be about the poet’s subjective experience, and should display the hidden depths of rhythm and sound. Poetry is not about witty repartees or “empty words and phrases” as the Buddhist path frequently accused it of being. Monks frequently felt that poetry would only lead them down the path of further attachment, getting in the way of their quest for awakening. Shunzei’s idea is that poetry is almost like a sacred transmission of a communal mind, similar to Buddha-mind. This is a rebuke of those who would consider poetry a secular waste of time.

Likewise, following Mahayana ideas of non-duality and no-self, Shunzei says that the dichotomy between kokoro and kotoba is needless. The sugata, or form, of a poem should be the embodiment of both kokoro and kotoba, much like the self is considered non-dualistic (the self is a convenient label for the modes of feeling and awareness humans have, according to Sakyamuni; the self is not real, and is not distinct from anything else in the universe, according to Nagarjuna.) So, the kotoba and kokoro of poetry are not distinct in a poem; its sugata is made up of these elements, This is Shunzei’s “middle way” between old Heian aesthetics of poetry and the austere rejection of poetry by the monastics.

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” – Introduction

If you are interested in seeing “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, you might like to know more about this film’s connection to Japanese culture. The following is a short introduction I wrote after screening the film this week.

Imagine, if you will, day in, day out doing the same exact job.  Imagine performing the same tasks without fail, nonstop. Imagine never complaining about it for one simple reason. It is not that someone is looking over your shoulder. It is not because you are trying to set a good example for those around. It is because you absolutely love your profession.  Imagine having reverence for every aspect of of your job, from the raw materials you select, to the masters you work with, to the tools you use.  Imagine dedicating your entire being to the perfection of one thing: your vocation, or in this case, more than your vocation, your very life’s art.

In the film you are about to see, you will encounter an 85 year old chef, whose way of life is dedicated to providing others with the most exacting, succulent, perfect sushi.  This film demonstrates Zen aesthetics found in traditional Japanese arts.  Ideas such as: less is more, what is absent is more important than what is shown, living fully in the moment is better than waiting for the future, and perfecting the practice of a discipline. These characteristics sprang from samurai and their code, Bushidō, or “The way of the warrior.” Samurai embraced austerity, discipline, hard work, and mental preparation. While the samurai are long gone, such values still hold sway in Japan, even as they practically vanish, living on in the cultural imagination.

But not so with Jiro; he embodies these principles, thereby becoming an example to us all.  This gentle man, who is so dedicated to his , his way, his practice, is certainly an inspiration as he “dreams of Sushi.” His example to us is that indeed, hard work, a dash of innovation, and pounds of perseverance will pay off in the end. Jiro’s courses and arrangement of the meal are described by a food critic as a “concerto,” with an ebb and flow inspired by kaiseki ryōri, an delicate form of traditional Japanese cuisine that goes back centuries. Imagine fare so fine, so exquisite, that it’s like consuming the chef’s “philosophy with every bite.” To be sure, it is a joy to see an accomplished artist’s work, to hear a virtuoso’s performance. Likewise, to eat a sumptuous meal at the hands of a master.

On the one year anniversary of the horrific earthquake and tsunami that stole away so many lives, it is comforting to see these important elements of Japanese culture, to see the expert preparation of these mouth-watering gifts from the sea. While so much of Japan’s coast has been devastated, the Japanese people have been persevering with strong spirits and brave hearts–just like Jiro. So, while we may not be able to travel to Japan and indulge in Jiro’s masterwork, we can at least get a glimpse into his world…and marvel. I hope you will enjoy the show!