[REVIEW] β€œAn Intellectual Exchange: A Review of πΈπ‘‘π‘œ π½π‘Žπ‘π‘Žπ‘› πΈπ‘›π‘π‘œπ‘’π‘›π‘‘π‘’π‘Ÿπ‘  π‘‘β„Žπ‘’ π‘Šπ‘œπ‘Ÿπ‘™π‘‘β€ by James Kin Pong Au

{Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.} {This review is cross-posted on Agora.}

Donald Keene and Shiba Ryōtarō (authors), Tony Gonzalez (translator), Edo Japan Encounters the World: Conversations Between Donald Keene and Shiba Ryotaro, Japan Library, 2018. 137 pgs.

I remember when I was pursuing a Master’s in Japanese literature in London, my teacher in the first modern Japanese literature class asked us to refer from time to time to Donald Keene’s voluminousβ€”more than 1,30 pages longβ€”Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era: Fiction (1984). I was rather perplexed back then, because the size of the book was almost comparable to that of a dictionary. Now as a junior researcher, I consult it whenever I encounter an unfamiliar Japanese literary figure or work.

Shiba Ryōtarō (1923-1996)

Shiba Ryōtarō, on the other hand, is a novelist renowned for his rekishi shōsetsu (roughly translated as β€œhistorical fiction” in English). His signature works such as Ryōma ga yuku (Ryōma Goes His Way) and Saka no ue no kumo (Clouds Above the Hill) demonstrate his incredibly rich historical knowledge. Edo Japan Encounters the World: Conversations Between Donald Keene and Shiba Ryōtarō can thus perhaps be read as an intellectual exchange between two experts in Japanese culture, history, literature, philosophy and religion. Despite the English title β€œEdo Japan”, the period is not restricted to the Edo era (1603-1867), covering also the Muromachi (1336-1573) and Meiji (1867-1912) periods; the subjects covered in the book are broad and substantial, including cultural exchanges between Dutch and Japanese in the Edo era, the transformation of languages in modern/contemporary Japanese literature and the different concepts of God or kami between Japan and the West.

Throughout the conversations, what I strongly feel is Donald Keene’s passion about Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), the Edo Japanese dramatist of jōruri. The dramatist’s name is mentioned more than a few times and Keene professes his love for the play Sonezaki shinjΕ« (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki). He also shares the two approaches he takes when teaching Chikamatsu.

Another thing I find intriguing is Shiba Ryōtarō’s consistent historical perspective of the second half of 19th-century Japan. For instance, in the dialogue Shiba describes the Japanese samurai Sakamoto Ryōma (1836-1867) as β€œuneducated”—lacking any moral training and knowledge of neo-Confucianismβ€”a similar description to the one found in Ryōma ga yuku. Shiba portrays the Japanese statesman and naval engineer Katsu KaishΕ« (1823-1899) as against old thinking, and he tells us how Katsu detested feudalism. Whenever it comes to Shiba’s discussion about the end of Edo or Meiji period, I feel as if reading some sequels of Ryōma ga yuku or side stories of Saka no ue no kumo. Perhaps this is what makes rekishi shōsetsu, particularly Shiba’s works, so different from their Western counterparts, because these works alone are hardly autonomous and Shiba’s essays and dialogues can be regarded as part of the rhetoric in his historical narratives.

Of all the chapters, I am most fascinated by the discussion about Japanese literary history. For instance, in the fourth chapter β€œJapanese Language in Literature”, Keene and Shiba first discuss the loanwords English and Japanese respectively borrowed from French and Chinese, and then move on to talking about Japanese novelists in the Meiji era. In citing prominent Meiji writers such as Natsume Sōseki and Mori Ōgai, they demonstrate that writers of the time were faced with a dilemma as to whether they should write in a classic style or a colloquial one, and how such a struggle was indeed accompanied by the evolving definition of art. This explains the concurrent genbun itchi movement (or the unification of the spoken and written language), after which almost all writing would be in colloquial Japanese from the late Meiji period on.

In another chapter, β€œMeiji Melancholy”, Donald Keene proposes three groups of literati who, living in the Meiji period but having received an Edo education, reacted differently in the face of the sudden importing of European culture. Some either rejected it, others resisted it but still used it, while others still wholeheartedly embraced it. It reminds me of Suzuki Sadami’s similar perspective in Nihonbungaku no seiritsu (The establishment of Japanese literature), where he schematises the Meiji literati in four groups: the first, to which Fukuzawa Yuichi belongs, entirely embraced European civilisation, the second selectively championed Western literary concepts such as Romanticism, the third resisted but attempted to improve Japanese tradition by introducing some European ideas, and the last entirely rejected European culture, celebrating the idea of Panasianism. From either suggestion, I can envisage the difficulty encountered at the dawn of the new era when nobody knew exactly which model to follow. Novelists including Natsume Sōseki and Mori Ōgai experienced countless trials and errors before establishing their own style of writing.

Translating the conversations of the two into English is not easy, especially when the content always involves some culturally loaded phrases and expressions. Tony Gonzalez nevertheless shrewdly reproduces for his readers very highly readable conversations. In Chapter 1, for example, when Keene says he is working on a new English translation of Engelbert Kaempfer’s History of Japan, Gonzalez provides more information in a footnote about this German naturalist and physician (1651-1716)) who lived in Edo Japan, which is helpful for prospective researchers. Elsewhere, when Keene cites the instances of the Chinese-derived word densha (train) and its native Japanese equivalent inazuma guruma in the original version, Gonzalez replaces them with the English words β€œtonesmith” and β€œcomposer” to show the latter is a borrowing from French.

I surmise that Gonzalez might have placed more emphasis on readability than on faithfulness, and he succeeds in this. But bilingual readers might well demand more. When Keene and Shiba talk about Japanese lacking in decisiveness, both cite numerous linguistic examples such as deshō, dearō, and nakukoto mo nai. But in the translated version, Gonzalez merely uses the word β€œprobably” to conclude all the expressions. Curious readers will also wonder why the Japan subject pronoun kisama (you), which is deemed offensive today, was once β€œexcruciatingly polite” when they see the Chinese characters the word uses; the original however shows the combination of the two Chinese characters β€œθ²΄β€ (or ki) (expensive or revered) and β€œζ§˜β€ (or sama) (master). The Japanese version looks much clearer as each of these characters carries an honorific meaning that conveys esteem or respect for a person. 

Even though Gonzalez might have aimed the book at a general English-language readership, the book will still be somewhat difficult for those without prior Japanese cultural and linguistic knowledge. The countless names cited by Keene and Shiba can be frustrating if the reader has no idea about what was actually going on in pre-modern Japan. I personally find the book handy, though. I would recommend it particularly to those who are either interested in cultural and historical Japan or have already taken a course or two about Japanese culture.

What is noteworthy is the format of Conversations Between Donald Keene and Shiba Ryōtarō, a book comprising seven chapters, all in dialogues, a form that is perhaps uncommon in modern American publishing. It might remind readers of works such as Plato’s Republic but in comparison, the Greek classic is far more serious and carries a political and philosophical purpose. Conversations Between Donald Keene and Shiba Ryōtarō is rather a more casual conversational form of exchange, a phenomenon of which has grown in prevalence since the 1960s. Masao Miyoshi has highlighted other similar forms of conversation such as intabyu (interview), toron (panel discussions before an audience) and zadankai (roundtable talks), which are more often published in print. If readers have this in mind, they will understand why Donald Keene and Shiba Ryōtarō seem to ramble around various topics of Japan without any clear conclusion because the verbal intellectual exchange is an end in itself.


Donald Keene (1998[1984]). Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era: Fiction. Columbia University Press.
—– (2013). Donald Keene chosakushΕ« dai kyΕ« kan – sekai no naka no nihon bunka. Shinchosha.
Masao Miyoshi (1991). Off Center: Power and Culture Relations Between Japan and the United States. Harvard University Press.
Shiba Ryōtarō (1987 [1962-1966]). Shiba Ryōtarō zenshu 3-5. Bungei Shunjū.
Suzuki Sadami (2009). Nihonbungaku no seiritsu. Sakuhinsha.

How to cite:Β Au, Kin-Pong James. β€œAn Intellectual Exchange: A Review of Edo Japan Encounters the World​.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 09 Apr. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/04/09/intellectual-exchange/.


James Au Kin-Pong is a Master’s graduate of both Hong Kong Baptist University and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo, writing his dissertation about the relation between history and literature through close readings of East Asian historical narratives in the 1960s. His research interests include Asian literatures, comparative literature, historical narratives and modern poetry. During his leisure time, he writes poetry and learns Spanish, Korean and Polish. He teaches English at Salesio Polytechnic College and literature in English at Tama Art University. His Cha reviews can be found here.

One thought on “[REVIEW] β€œAn Intellectual Exchange: A Review of πΈπ‘‘π‘œ π½π‘Žπ‘π‘Žπ‘› πΈπ‘›π‘π‘œπ‘’π‘›π‘‘π‘’π‘Ÿπ‘  π‘‘β„Žπ‘’ π‘Šπ‘œπ‘Ÿπ‘™π‘‘β€ by James Kin Pong Au

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