01 Welcome

[First published 2 Feb 2009]

I intend to range fairly widely in this column, from musings on the Japanese language, to thoughts from across the range of Japanese Studies, both modern and premodern, with the intention of providing a window of sorts onto Japan and the Japanese. I don’t live in the country, of course, and haven’t done so for almost twenty years (although I’m lucky enough to be able to visit regularly at the moment), so I don’t know much about living there day-to-day, but I have spent over two decades improving my knowledge of the language – spoken and written – and reading and researching about different aspects of Japan, as well as working with colleagues conducting their own studies of a variety of Japan-related topics, so I have a good academic knowledge of the place, and that’s what I hope to provide. After all, sometimes the outsider’s perspective can be clearer than that of someone closer at hand.

I suspect many of you are wondering about the subtitle for the column – 金額からの思い kin’gaku kara no omoi – well, that comes from a famous description of Sheffield, back in it’s nineteenth century days as a one of the most important centres of the British steel industry (‘Sheffield steel’ is still famous in precision instruments, such as surgical scalpels, and the Cutler’s Hall is still one of the city’s major buildings). But I digress: back then the city was described as ‘a grimy picture in a golden frame’, as a reference to the smoke and dirt associated with steel production, situated in some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain – the Peak District – and I thought that ‘Thoughts from a golden frame’ would be a good, if subtle, reference to Sheffield. Incidentally, when Sheffield City Council had its tourist brochure translated into Japanese, ‘a grimy picture in a golden frame’ became simply kin’gaku no naka no e 金額の中の絵 ‘a picture in a golden frame’, forsaking accuracy for the sake of not putting off the tourists!

The Peak District, of course, has been a famous tourist destination for more than two hundred years – fans of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will remember that Lizzie Bennett travelled to its southern parts, in Derbyshire, with her aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs Gardner, and there once more met Mr Darcy at his estate in Pemberley (famously depicted by Colin Firth emerging dripping from a swim in the lake and running into a flustered Jennifer Ehle in the BBC’s 1995 version).  Jane Austen’s writing has been said to have a great deal  in common with that of Murasaki Shikibu 紫式部, the author of Japan’s greatest literary masterpiece, Genji Monogatari 源氏物語 ‘The Tale of Genji’ on the topic of which I’ll say more in a later column.

Sheffield’s own Japanese connection, however, dates back well over one hundred years, as it was one of the sites visited by members of the Iwakura Mission (1871-73) – the famous tour by Japanese government officials and experts to learn about foreign technology, culture, society and economy in order to aid in the Meiji modernisation of the country. In fact, it was possible to see the chimney of the factory the mission visited from my office window until recently. The Mission kept detailed records of their experiences, all of which have now been translated into English as the multi-volume The Iwakura Embassy, 1871-73 : a true account of the Ambassador Extraordinary & plenipotentiary’s journey of observation through the United States of America and Europe (2002: Chiba Japan Documents) with my own colleague Graham Healey as Chief Editor. The visit to Sheffield doesn’t make that interesting reading, but here’s a description of another place they visited:

Amongst the about 650 men of talent assembled, there are white haired elders, calm and virtuous gentlemen, and also prodigiously able youths. During the sparkling debates and orderly explanations, they gaze upwards, lie prone, or sit in silence cogitating deeply, or write letters, peruse documents; some among them even sketch pictures. The opinions are varied, and seem like a hundred brilliant blooms…at the most important moments, they call out, ‘Hear! Hear!’, or an even more essential expression of praise is, ‘Cheers!’, and when they good-naturedly defeat a ludicrous proposition, there are guffaws of laughter; among them yawns can be heard, and men who disagree pay no attention, and scoff, or glance at other drafts; there are even some men who seem to know nothing of their office.

I hasten to say that this translation is mine, and not the official one, but can anyone guess what this extraordinary institution was?

Well, the clue is in the number of men: 650 – and what they do – debate – so I’m sure you can guess that this is a description of the British House of Commons, and the men described are Members of Parliament! How little has changed in 140 years… I think that’s enough for a start; for my next column I’ll stick more closely to the brief and give some thoughts about why a formal Japanese relationship always starts with a jiko shōkai 自己紹介 ‘self introduction’.

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