Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


The Birth of a Scholar

Posted in Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the August 7th, 2010

Greetings again from Tokyo, where we continue to melt in the heat and humidity.

At the party following our workshop on early postwar Japanese literary criticism at Waseda University last week, one of the graduate student participants asked the professors attending an interesting question: at what point in your career did you start feeling like you were an actual scholar (she used the Japanese phrase 「本物の研究者」) as opposed to a mere student?

I enjoyed listening to everyone’s responses. For me, I flashed back to 1994, when I was doing my dissertation research in Japan. I was interested in the connection between novelist Shimazaki Toson and the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Toson owned a couple of books by or about Bergson, and when I visited the Toson Kinenkan museum in Magome, they were kind enough to let me examine his copies. When I opened one (the 1936 Japanese translation of Bergson’s The Two Sources of Morality and Religion), I was shocked when a handwritten letter dropped out from between its pages. I wasn’t the only one to be surprised: the museum curator who was helping me nearly jumped out of her shoes.

It turned out to be nothing of major importance. A simple one-page note, it was from the book’s publisher and addressed to Toson, a cover letter sent along with the complimentary review copy of the volume. But until I came across it on my scholarly quest, no one even knew of the letter’s existence. In fact, probably the last hand to touch that letter before mine was that of Toson himself, who had tucked it away into the pages of the book (which I bet he never actually read) more than half a century before.

In sum, it was about as minor an archival discovery as there could be. Yet it was undeniably an archival discovery, one that I had made and one that seemed to verify my credentials as an actual scholar of literature–at least in my own mind.

I doubt I’ll turn up anything quite as interesting on this pass through Japan, but I’ll keep my eyes open.

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