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In search of Japan’s own Shakespeare

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Special To The Japan Times

April 23 marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the greatest dramatist of the English speaking world. The anniversary has a particular resonance here: Few countries in the world have embraced Shakespeare with Japan’s sustained passion.

The Bard in Japan: William Shakespeare was propelled to the status of a worldwide literary icon during the heyday of the British Empire in the late 1800s. In Japan, his influence began to be felt during the early 20th century, when authors turned to his works for inspiration.
The Bard in Japan: William Shakespeare was propelled to the status of a worldwide literary icon during the heyday of the British Empire in the late 1800s. In Japan, his influence began to be felt during the early 20th century, when authors turned to his works for inspiration. | ISTOCK

The great literary theorist Shoyo Tsubouchi (1859-1935) made the first translation of the complete works of Shakespeare between 1909 and 1928, and since then a cascade of new translations have poured forth from the pens of eminent Japanese scholars, translators and writers. The greatest problem facing anyone wishing to read the Bard in Japanese is choosing from so many accomplished translations, including translations into the speaking style of kabuki or the Tohoku dialect.

From 1868 to the end of the Taisho Era (1912-1926), Shakespeare became so naturalized in Japan that he assumed his own Japanese name, “Sao.” Japan’s opening up to the West in the late 1800s coincided with the heyday of the British Empire and Shakespeare’s propulsion to the status of a worldwide literary icon. In the postwar era, some of Akira Kurosawa’s greatest films were influenced by Shakespeare, such as “Throne of Blood” and “Ran,” which were inspired by “Macbeth” and “King Lear” respectively. And Japan’s great theater director Yukio Ninagawa has produced “Hamlet” eight times.

But perhaps the most interesting — and least known — aspect of Shakespeare’s pervasive influence in Japan is the impact he had on some of the classic modern works of Japanese literature, including novels and short stories by Naoya Shiga, Osamu Dazai and Shohei Ooka.

This year is not only the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, but also the centennial anniversary of the death of Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), the greatest literary figure of modern Japan. Soseki was an expert in English literature and also a leading expert in Shakespeare. When Soseki began writing his novels, his intimate familiarity with the playwright’s works revealed itself in each new novel.

It could even be argued that Soseki became a writer thanks to Shakespeare. Soseki mainly restricted his creative output to writing haiku until he was sent as a government-sponsored scholar to London for a two-year stay in 1900. He stopped composing haiku in London and began taking private weekly classes with a reclusive Shakespearean scholar called William James Craig, one of the editors of the Arden Shakespeare series.

Craig had devoted decades of his life to the compilation of a monumental Shakespeare lexicon and soon Soseki produced his own similarly titanic work: the all-encompassing, revolutionary “Theory of Literature” (“Bungakuron”). If Craig’s Shakespeare lexicon was his means of representing the world, Soseki’s “Theory of Literature” would attempt a grand view of literature’s role in radically different ages and cultures.

When Soseki began his literary career in 1904, his “Theory of Literature” and the literary techniques analyzed therein provided the theoretical base for all his subsequent writings, in which Shakespeare would be a constant presence. In “The Tower of London,” one of his earliest stories, Soseki sent his fictional alter ego across the River Thames to enter the Shakespearean world of medieval England, encountering visions of the so-called Princes in the Tower murdered by their uncle Richard III.

Three years later, Soseki resigned his teaching jobs and began working as a professional novelist for the Asahi Shimbun. It was here that he introduced his alluring, scheming protagonist Fujio in the serialized novel “The Poppy” (“Gubijinso”). At one point, she reads aloud from Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” identifying herself as a modern-day equivalent of the Egyptian queen. Meanwhile, her introspective, philosophizing brother, Kono, is strongly linked with Hamlet.

“Hamlet” was indeed the most highly rated Shakespeare play of the Meiji and Taisho eras, and references to it stud the plot of Soseki’s “Sanshiro,” a much-loved 1908 classic about university life — and a favorite of Haruki Murakami. The eponymous young hero is depicted as indecisive and observes the animal-like shapes of the clouds like Hamlet himself. References to Ophelia also abound.

Why did Soseki so repeatedly refer to Shakespeare? One reason is that the Japanese writer set out to measure himself against the Bard and write works that were every bit as timeless. Another reason is that Soseki wished to create characters who struggled with universal problems, like those of Shakespeare, but wished to set them against the background not of Renaissance Europe but modern Japan.

The Shakespeare work that had the biggest impact on Soseki was surely “The Merchant of Venice.” It’s plot inspired Soseki’s 1907 novel, “Nowaki.”

Yet by the time Soseki penned “Kokoro” in 1914 — one of the most famous novels in modern Japanese literature — he made no overt reference to Shakespeare. It is impossible to think he did not rework aspects of “The Merchant of Venice” in this psychological masterpiece: The set up of an older man forging such an intense bond with a younger man that he wishes to cut out his own beating heart and give it to him owed much to the famous trial scene in Shakespeare’s play in which the merchant Antonio wishes to have his heart cut out so that he might lay it down to be treasured for all time by his beloved Bassanio.

One could only wish in this double anniversary year that the literary achievements of Soseki would be as celebrated around the world as his peer Shakespeare. Unfortunately, in English at least, the quality and number of translations — and most particularly the quality of criticism — lags far behind what is available to readers of Shakespeare in Japanese.

While we celebrate Shakespeare’s genius, we should also reflect on how much needs to be done to appreciate the literary geniuses who wrote in foreign tongues.

Damian Flanagan is the author of several books on Natsume Soseki, including “The Tower of London: Tales of Victorian London.”