Category Archives: Research

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.

Manga Review: Mushishi

Primarily, Mushishi is a manga centering around Ginko, a “Mushishi” loosely translated as a Mushi-man, or Mushi-user, who travels the Japanese countryside assisting in cases where members of local villages are plagued or haunted by “Mushi.” Japanese speakers will recognize the word, “mushi” which means “Insect” or “Bug.”  But in this case, mushi are elemental spirits, granular creatures of spiritual energy that affect humanity in a variety of ways, from causing illness to trapping spirits in haunted moments in time.

Volume 1 introduces us to the world of the mushi and those who are impacted by them.  As a shamanistic figure, the main character, Ginko, has the supernatural ability to diagnose and restore balance to those who are under their power.  From giving potions to invoking supernatural rituals, Ginko also resembles an exorcist.

Like many current supernatural-based manga, this series reflects various aspects of Japanese folk religion, mythology and traditional kaidan, or ghost story.  Interestingly enough, instead of ghosts, the supernatural forces are the mushi.  Unlike traditional hauntings, mushi do not have the same traditional stories, such as being attached to unfinished business in life (Muyoh and Roji), being connected to places where horrific accidents or murders happened (Suzuki Koji’s original Ring, Spiral, and Loop trilogy.) or death due to abandonment, perhaps remembering dead warriors (Kwaidan-Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Tales of Ghostly Japan, Lafcadio Hearn)

We could say that the concept of elemental mushi is a new one, but is more deeply connected to these traditional concepts.

Art wise, Mushishi is very engaging and detailed, well worth enjoying.  Set in pre-modenr times, it is evocative of timeless Japan–the Japan of the past, but with elements today.  The rich scenery and beautiful vistas create an immersive world. The story, however, feels disjointed at times, and hard to follow.  Rather than in a postmodern Murakami Haruki-esque open-endedness, I found myself a bit confused as to what was going on–not the conclusion of the narrative elements.  The manga did not tell the story with its artwork as well as others.  The dialogue was very detailed in explaining the various mushi and their effects, but the background and the mystery felt a bit lacking in explanation.

On the whole, the series is worth your while, but may require a bit of work to understand the plot and the activities going on. 

Yuki. Mushishi, vol 1. Del Rey: January 2007, 240 pages

空中庭園 (Hanging Garden) and 空白 (Kûhaku) as social commentary

33203328cd8859a45b9990zmIn class, I had my students read Chin Music Press’ excellent Kûhaku and other stories from Japan (2004) paired up with watching “Hanging Garden” or Kûchû Teien (2005). Where Kûhaku gives a broad spectrum of personal narratives concerning Japan, from both native and gaijin perspectives, Kûchû Teien is kind of a Japanese “FUBU” (For Us, By Us) movie that contains a strong social commentary.

At the same time, Kûhaku is a fantastic little book. The binding is a thick, grey canvas, embossed with color and thick, black lettering. The inner leaves are crimson, and the pages are at least 40# weight. The text of the book is a bit charcoal, on paper that has more of a yellowish tinge. There are color pages, especially in the poem/graphical journey for which the book is named. Kûhaku leaves the reader feeling uneasy, as if something is out of place. It is akin to that jet-lagged feeling you get after step off the plane at KIX, expecting it to be early in the morning, but the sun is just getting ready to set. Some essays deal with the Marxist superstructure/dialectic tension of a Confucian society. Others flat out vomit up honne when you are least expecting it. Especially engaging is David Cady’s Canned Coffee, where he chronicles the experiences he had whilst enjoying…er…imbibing various types of canned coffee. Equally valuable are the “Floating Feeling” series; three essays that explore the plight of various Japanese housewives. Also, Roland Kelts’ Oyaji Gari piece is most helpful, especially when dealing with the concept of きれる (kireru): losing it when you can’t take the pressure any longer.

Reading Kûhaku in conjunction with “Hanging Garden” is especially suitable for understanding Eriko’s (the main character’s) plight. Eriko lives in a fantasy world she has created for herself because she finds her own lived experiences to be too painful to accept as “reality.” She has schemed to build the “perfect” family where no one has any secrets, true honne, if you will, but ends up being completely false and “obsessed” with the lie she lives. Her husband cheats on her with a variety of women. Her daughter is trying to experiment with boys. Her son is almost a hikikômori, or shut-in, who lives in the simulation of reality he has created for himself on his macbook. Her mother is a bit of a free-spirit, and old baba who speaks her mind and is not afraid to make waves. Each member of the family has some major societal disfunction; but by the end, the family realizes its pretenses and resolves their problems in a tepid way. The movie is just claustrophobic, with an almost-happy ending; a good example of a superflat movie that deals with the postmodern social issues that some families face. There is hope at the end, but built on what? Trust? Faith? Faithfulness? Freedom? More like old-fashioned Confucian resolve and some phenomenological twists. The mother is reborn after she leaves her womb of her false reality, and the family is there for her to re-engage. But at what cost?

Some have compared it to American Beauty, and I think this is a fair assessment. It is important to examine postmodern Japan through the lens Japanese themselves are using to understand their own context. Instead of jumping to conclusions and saying, “All Japanese are X,” it is better to say, “These types of problems exist in society, and here is how some Japanese understand them.” As westerners looking in, we always run the danger of fetishizing or synecdochizing Japan based on slivers of stories that make their ways to our shores.

Disturbing, endearing, and enchanting, I cannot recommend these works enough.