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World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867 Review


There are some books that are simply magisterial in their breadth, length, and complexity. But they don’t always achieve an approachable, readable style for the average person on their subject, a style which combines a master’s knowledge of the book with a tone that even the layman can understand and appreciate. Donald Keene’s Japanese pre-Modern Literature, 1600-1800 is precisely the type of book which manages this terribly difficult feat. Its subject is an esoteric one for the Western - and perhaps for Japanese people too, I know little of how familiar the Japanese are with their own literary history - but it manages with great aplomb to do its best to make it approachable, entertaining, interesting, while not sacrificing the rich amount of information and analysis which Keene. Despite - or perhaps because of - its great length, it is well worth the read for anyone interested in Japanese literature or cultural history, ranging from Haiku-style poetry to waka poetry, to Chinese poetry in Japan, to fiction, and to drama.

One of the strongest elements within is its excellent balance of text, literary analysis, broader historical narrative, and the personal histories of the writers and extracts from their works. This is especially so for the parts on poetry. Here, the short nature of Japanese Haikai (which I presume is either a term used previously for haikus or its predecessors) suits the author exceptionally well, as he is able to effectively weave together the poems, analysis of them, and use them to write the story of the author of the poetry. Basho, the most famous Japanese poet, is the best example of this in the book, as his poems and the nature of haikai really come to light, such as the crucial feature of the tension between the fleeting ethereal moment in the poem and the immortal, the unchanging, which is also supposed to be represented. Basho’s famous frog-and-pool poem is an exemplary example of this.

The ancient pond -

A frog jumps in,

The sound of the water


I am not a poet myself (even if I dabble in it from time to time but I have too low of an opinion of my own work to say that I am, and even if Keene’s book did inspire me to make some humorous haikus about my job), and so sometimes the deeper beauty of the poems is lost on me, but Keene does a superlative job of describing why poets view these poems as beautiful. And they are effectively placed in the context of their authors’ lives and their intellectual milieu and upbringing, such as Teitoku’s conservatism and stumbling path to a step beyond medieval poetry, or Basho’s inspiration for his poetry in nature or quotidien scenes of Japanese life, or the feuding struggles between his disciples.

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Related to this is Keene’s masterful understanding of metaphor, allusion, and symbolism in Japanese writing and poetry. Even in works from what are more properly speaking, the medieval rather than modern era of Japan, he is able to tell the references and discern the language of the writer, regardless if they referred to Japanese or Chinese literature, or to the poems and other works that they often parodied. And to understand the delicate word plays and puns of these eras is a great feat in of itself, showing a masterful grasp of Japanese literature.

This obvious familiarity with his subject often aids greatly in establishing the author as an authoritative literary critic. He goes far beyond simply recounting Japanese literature, but furthermore he at length provides for his critical analysis of their merits, of the style, feelings, the originality. It is an opinionated work, one which gives a real sense of envy to readers to plunge into Japanese literature, to experience the writers who began their exploration of the human individual rather than cut out stereotypes of the brothels and streets of Tokyo such as Chikamatsu, or Jippensha with his stories of Travels on Foot on the Tokaido and the travelling duo of Kitahachi and Yakirobei with their bountiful exploits, comic scenes, and slapdash humor, or Saikaku with his elan in the creation of the modern novel in Japan. And poets too, or theatre, where Keene’s descriptions manage to give a feeling of the wonder and drama of the theater to the plays, not nearly as impressive on paper as in action, or his depictions of the characters and nature of poets.

This is what I would give as the greatest credit of the book, in one filled with so many strong suits: its ability to bring literature to life, to make it appealing, to tell snippers or it as stories to pique the fascination of the reader, to make what could have been otherwise such a dry, boring subject into one which bursts with vibrancy and relevance. Certainly, the historical side is very well done too, with its discussion of literature culture, technical features of the theatre or the book industry, intellectual trends, and the interplay between Japanese society and Japanese literature, but literature is in the end written for the most part (if not necessarily in the Confucian tradition, where it functions as a tool of enlightenment and moral teaching, a sort of pill to get down otherwise dry truths), for entertainment, exploration, or the spirit. To mine literature for purely historical reasons is, as Tolkien said, as if to tear up Beowulf as a work of art in search of historical study of Anglo-Saxon history instead of to appreciate it for its own literary values. Keene's accomplishment is to show us the emotions, meanings, and values caught up in literature, its universal resonance which transforms it from being just Japan's cultural preserve to that of the cultural joy of all of mankind: for this alone, his ability to bring it to light, the book is an eternal one which will always be worth the read.

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