While working on a novel on the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, Ryotaro Shiba wrote in 1967 that one of the prime features he wanted to highlight was the “almost ridiculous optimism” shared by top political and military leaders in Japan during the Meiji Era (1867-1911).
In the chronicle of the war, “Saka no Ue no Kumo” (“Cloud Above the Hill”), the 1993 recipient of the Order of Culture vividly described how these “unprecedented optimists” led an underdeveloped Japan to victory over one of the major European powers of the time.
Almost 30 years after Shiba, who died in 1996, completed the novel, William Naff, a professor emeritus of modern Japanese literature and history at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has been appointed translator of the popular work under a program funded by the Japanese government.
“The Meiji Era, in which such a challenge as the Russo-Japanese War was met by extremely rational, pragmatic attitudes by leaders, stands exceptional not only in Japanese history but also in world history,” the 73-year-old Naff said in a recent interview.
The 1987 winner of the the Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature for translating “Before the Dawn” by Toson Shimazaki, another literary great of the Meiji Era, Naff has translated four of the eight paperback volumes of “Saka no Ue no Kumo.” He is currently in Japan to conduct research for the task.
“As Shiba put it, such pragmatism, which made Japan win over Russia, is backed by the extreme optimism (of the nation’s leaders) that the world is accessible through a rational approach,” he said.
“The book provides the present generation of Japan with a precious lesson — that they are actually a very rationalistic people,” contrary to a widespread view that the Japanese are irrational and peculiar when compared with Europeans, Naff said.
He added that such pragmatism in the Japanese psyche is an indispensable element that sustained the country’s rapid development in the modern era.
This makes Shiba’s book precious material for English speakers seeking to understand the people and history of Japan, he said.
“The book vividly described the prevailing rationalism and optimism of that time in Japan — that everybody could see problems (the country was facing) and could make their contribution,” he said.
But Shiba also wrote that the victory, achieved by taking a pragmatic approach, ironically developed a sense of mysticism among Japanese that drove them to wage war in the Pacific.
The book’s significance does not end by providing insights into modern Japanese history and the Japanese mentality, because, according to Naff, the Russo-Japanese War also had great significance in modern world history.
The war, although not well studied by foreign scholars, was the first modern war, setting the tone for World War I and other wars that followed, he said.
“Also, it was the first victory by an Asian country over a major European power, marking the beginning of the end of the 19th century-style imperialism (of Western countries),” he said. “The (Russo-Japanese) war, in this sense, defined the world in which we now live.”
Asked whether the work can earn a following among English speakers, Naff said it depends on whether he can successfully reproduce Shiba’s writing style.
“Shiba’s style is natural and simple, as if any Japanese speaker can copy his style easily. But to find his voice and keep it alive is actually very hard,” he said.
“His storytelling skills make his writing sound like chatting by a knowledgeable man, and it is difficult to find a voice for him in English.
“As is often said by translators, easy writing is damn hard translating. But I am confident. If I keep Shiba’s style in English, I can win a readership.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.