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Exploring the past to makes sense of Meiji modernity

by David Burleigh

PILGRIMAGES TO THE ANCIENT TEMPLES IN NARA, by Tetsuro Watsuji, translated by Hiroshi Nara. Merwin Asia, 2012, 252 pp., $35.00 (paperback)

In the Japanese original, “Koji Junrei” (1919), this book is a classic, much imitated and still quite widely read, although it has also been sometimes controversial. Tetsuro Watsuji (1889-1960), renowned as a thinker, was 29 when he made the journey it records, and had already published books on Western philosophy, notably on Friedrich Nietzsche. With this volume he turned in a different direction.

For a domestic travelogue, the book opens somewhat oddly, with reflections on reproductions of paintings in Ajanta that the writer had seen just before departure. But his close attention to these, and his astute comments on them, announce one of the wider subjects with which his book and journey are concerned: he notes the sensual depiction of women, part of “the naturalism specific to India,” and wonders whether it might not represent a bridge between classical Greek art and Buddhist statuary in Japan.

Stopping with an uncle in Kyoto, Watsuji is stirred by the backdrop of Mount Hiei, its misty summit just beyond the temple-gardens of the city. Thus begins his exploration of Japan’s earliest tradition, one that leads him on to Nara, and speculations about the deeper reaches of the past. Already, taking a bath, it occurs to him that “the custom of bathing originated in Asia” and that perhaps “Westerners do not appreciate the subtlety of bathing.” This announces a change.

The change, and in an important sense the purpose of the journey, is a reconsideration of his own culture as set against the new thought and values so precipitately introduced in the Meiji era, after Japan’s opening to the West. Since the book is written as a diary, with dated entries, and was never substantially revised, it presents the young author’s thoughts as they occur. So Nara, after Kyoto, seems to him “much more wide-open, straightforward and unconcerned.”

Meeting up with friends in Nara, Watsuji begins exploring its varied sights, traveling by rickshaw or on foot. A temple on the outskirts fills him with an ecstatic feeling, before he turns to the museum, finding it a muddle in the arrangement of its treasures. There are detailed, deeply appreciative, notes on his impressions of different Buddhist carvings, above all the statues of Kannon. But the more notable speculations come in his discussions of the ancient temple dances from which Noh evolved.

Behind the plays and music, as with the carvings on display, lie continental origins, in China, and even further west in India, and these are the hints that Watsuji picks up and considers. Sometimes quite emphatic in his observations, he is also deeply aware how these ancient temples connect to things long before the new modernizing Japan. Above all, it seems, he would like to discover the spirit of ancient Greece in Japan, a spirit that he thinks may have reached it from afar, even as it faded elsewhere.

Feelings at once of peace and familiarity inform the better moments of this journey of refreshment and return. Standing still, the writer dreams himself back into the past, the first flowering of Buddhist culture in the ancient city: “Imagine what it would have been like to listen to all the temple bells surrounding the capital being struck in unison.” No wonder, then, that Watsuji’s account has been such an important inspiration to others to retrace the journey, as well as an influence on later writers.

The tanka poet Yaichi Aizu (1881-1956) shared many of Watsuji’s ideas, especially about the importance of ancient Greece, and his poems, published later, complement the other’s prose reflections. The haiku poet Shuoshi Mizuhara (1892-1981) went to Nara with Watsuji’s book in hand, and composed lyrical verses about the city that broke with the dominant haiku conventions, creating a new style.

Ghosting this book, too, as the informative introduction tells us, is another volume of travel writing by a European poet. Watsuji refers briefly to the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who went to Italy on a similarly self-searching journey, before settling to his lifework as a poet. Where Goethe went south to examine the origins of European culture, so Watsuji travels to western Japan, to rediscover the sources of the modern country.

Two things are going on here. On the one hand the writer is deeply refreshed by this turning back to what matters most: the intellectual and artistic flourishing that followed the Buddhist enlightenment. At the same time, since that enlightenment came from China, and was transmitted together with its writing system, and a whole range of other cultural intrusions, the diarist is also searching for a way to negotiate the new, and almost overwhelming, absorption of Western science, thought and practice.

The dated entries cease after several chapters, when the author warms to his deepest subject, which is to understand and cherish what has gone before, and wonder how it might accommodate the future. Near the end there is a transfiguring moonlit scene that echoes one in Goethe, and the book closes with rapturous descriptions of Horyuji. Hiroshi Nara has performed a valuable service in making this volume available in English, with ample explanatory notes.

David Burleigh comes from the north of Ireland, teaches and writes, and has lived in Tokyo for more than 30 years.