Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


Upcoming Japan-related Events at the University of Chicago

Apologies for the dearth of posts recently: it’s been a busy couple of months. The coming weeks and months promise to be just as busy, with many exciting Japan-related events on the horizon here at the University of Chicago. If you’re in the area, please consider joining us for some of the following events:

March 11: William Marotti (Associate Professor, History, UCLA) will be giving a public lecture on “Perceiving Politics: Art, Protest, and Everyday Life in Early 1960s Japan” (5:00 p.m., Wieboldt 408). He’ll discuss his new book, Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan (Duke University Press, 2013).

March 15-16: Remediations II: A Japan Anthro Workshop. Michael Fisch has organized this exciting event, featuring presentations by a number of up-and-coming Japan scholars. I’ll be a discussant for Panel 2: “Rethinking the War Machine: Remediations of Violence.”

April 22: 2013 Najita Distinguished Lecture in Japanese Studies with Ueno Chizuko(5:00 p.m., International House). A public lecture by the respected sociologist and influential feminist critic, one of Japan’s leading public intellectuals.

April 25-26: “The Cold War in East Asia,” a conference organized by our graduate students featuring a number of guest speakers. I’ll participate as a respondent for one of the panels.

May 10-11: “The Russian Kurosawa,” an innovative event organized by Olga Solovieva that brings together specialists in Russian literature, Japanese film, and other disciplines to reconsider Kurosawa Akira’s film adaptations of Russian literary works. The event will include free screenings of several of Kurosawa’s films.

Spring quarter will also see screenings and events surrounding the films produced and distributed by Art Theater Guild, the primary force in independent Japanese cinema during the 1970s and 80s.

October 18-20: The Association for Japanese Literary Studies Annual Meeting: Performance and Japanese Literature. The call for papers and other information are available here.

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Looking Back on 2012 (Part Two)

July brought many exciting developments. I was promoted to full Professor and became chair of my department at the University of Chicago. The Japanese translation of Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon came out from Byakuya Shobo. At around the same time, the discovery I helped make of some previously unknown 1950 Sacramento concert recordings by Misora Hibari, Kasagi Shizuko, Yamaguchi Yoshiko and many other Japanese singing stars became big news in Japan. I was apparently a featured item on television “wide shows” for a couple of days; I’m told that at least one of the shows introduced me with a photograph that was not actually of me. The Japanese edition of the book was well received, too; dozens of newspapers and magazines ran favorable reviews.

The whole family flew to Tokyo in late July. I spent a couple of days doing press interviews at my publishers’ offices in Takadanobaba. On July 29, Satoko and I were able to participate in one of the largest anti-nuclear demonstrations of the year, a march that started from Hibiya Park and ended up surrounding the Diet building. We celebrated the children’s birthdays up in Sendai with Satoko’s parents. With the help of a reporter from the Kyodo Tsushin wire service, I was able to get a copy of the 1950 wire recording of her Sacramento concert to 92-year-old Yamaguchi Yoshiko, who gave an interview about how delighted she was to hear it. As a result, once again I showed up in newspapers across Japan.

We returned to Chicago in early August. I recorded a segment for public radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” which was broadcast nationally later in the month (you can listen online here). We brought the whole family to a terrific play,”The Death of Harry Houdini,” at the House Theater. We ran up to Minnesota again to celebrate what would have been my father’s 75th birthday on August 15, and while there I saw another ballgame at Target Field. I also got to see one of my old favorite local bands, the Flamin’ Oh’s, play a show at Mears Park in downtown St. Paul. Back in Chicago at the end of the month, we attended the opening night “Tribute to Ella” with Dee Alexander, Frieda Lee, and Spider Saloff at the Chicago Jazz Festival. I returned again on the last day of the festival to catch stellar sets by the Steve Coleman Group and Pierre Dørge And The New Jungle Orchestra–two more favorite musical discoveries of the year.

In September things started gearing up in my new role as department chair, but on a stormy night we saw Bruce Springsteen give a fine concert up at Wrigley Field, and when the Twins swung through town early in the month I ran over to New Comiskey Park to take in a game. Late in the month I filled my car with grad students and drove to Kalamazoo for the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs meeting at Western Michigan University.

Classes started in October. I taught two seminars this past fall–one on Japanese literary discourses of “furusato” (hometown), the other on Japanese cultures of the Cold War. As usual, I learned a great deal from the students in both. Extracurricular activities slowed down as I resumed full-time teaching, of course, but I still managed to get out now and then. In early October, I saw a nice set by guitarist Wayne Krantz at Martyr’s and later in the month caught an intriguing performance by shamisen composer Kimura Shunsuke. In October, I attended the Association for Japanese Literary Studies meeting at Ohio State, reconnecting with many old friends and meeting some new ones. I also enjoyed the opportunity to make a presentation about the 1950 wire recordings at the annual Humanities Day celebration here on campus in Hyde Park.

We had a quiet Thanksgiving at home, with me preparing the turkey as usual. In December, we enjoyed a show by Leo Kottke up at SPACE in Evanston, as well as a terrific performance of Barber’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony by the CSO. I made another trip to Los Angeles to give a talk at UCLA and to film an interview about the 1950 wire recording of Misora Hibari for a television special which was broadcast in Japan on the BS-TBS network on December 7. We spent Christmas with family in Minnesota, quiet and relaxing. On Boxing Day, we went ice skating with a big group of my cousins and their children.

Later today we’ll bring our 2012 cultural calendar to a close by attending the acclaimed production of “Annie” at the Paramount Theater in Illinois: the last few years, our family has made a tradition of attending a musical in the week between Christmas and New Years. We also have tickets to see the opening night of Buddy Guy’s annual stand at his own blues club downtown later this week, and we’re off to Second City a few days after that for some comedy.

It really has been a blessed year for us: writing this up has helped remind me how lucky I am. I’m surrounded by a supportive family, wonderful friends and colleagues, students who keep me on my toes, and a city that bustles with creativity and energy. As usual, I have compiled a long list of New Years’ resolutions, but I won’t bore you with those. Suffice it to say that I am looking forward to 2013.

Let me end by wishing you joy, peace, and health in 2013. Thanks for stopping by.

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Looking Back on 2012 (Part One)

I have several projects with looming year-end deadlines. I really should be working on those this morning. Which, of course, makes this an excellent time to devote instead to an update here. 2012 is fast winding down. What kind of year was it?

A fine and memorable one, thank you. Not without its bumps and bruises, of course, but those just help remind me that I’m alive. I end the year feeling gratitude and hope.

The first half of 2012 found me on sabbatical. In early January, I flew to Seattle for the MLA convention. I saw old friends, sat in on some good panels, caught the film “The Descendants” in a cinema across from the hotel–and accepted the Scaglione Prize for the translation I co-edited of Natsume Soseki’s Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings. Later that month, I flew up to Ann Arbor to participate in a faculty workshop, and a week later I presented a talk at another faculty seminar at Northwestern University. The month ended with Satoko and I enjoying a performance by Westside blues legend Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater at SPACE, the little-club-that-could up in Evanston.

In February, we caught Ricardo Muti conducting the CSO in Franck’s Symphony in D minor and then, a few days later, I attended the University of Chicago Folk Festival, featuring Billy Boy Arnold. The most exciting event of the month: my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, came out from Columbia University Press. I heard many nice things about it from people–to the point that I started to worry that it must not be very good. If something you write doesn’t piss anyone off, how interesting can it be? But later I heard through the grapevine that a number of senior scholars in my field hated it. I felt reassured. In late February DePaul University hosted a fun workshop based on the book for Chicago public school teachers.

On the first day of March we watched Pierre Boulez lead the CSO in a wonderful performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The next morning I was off to NYC for meetings. Then on March 10-11 I co-hosted a conference in honor of my colleague, Norma Field, who retired at the end of the 2011-12 academic year. “What March 11 Means to Me” brought together an amazing group of public intellectuals from Japan for personal and philosophical reflections on the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster: Amamiya Karin, Komori Yoichi, Ryusawa Takeshi, Takahashi Tetsuya, and Yokoyu Sonoko. The following week, I traveled to Toronto for the AAS annual meeting, where I chaired a roundtable discussion on the 1950 wire recordings of Japanese performers in concert in Sacramento (more on those anon).

In April, I was back in NYC for a lecture at Columbia University. While there, I saw the acclaimed revival of “Death of a Salesman” with Philip Seymour Hoffman and caught up with a few old friends. Back in Chicago, we attended a lively concert by Rodrigo y Gabriela and a fine performance by the Alvin Ailey dance company a few days later. Later in the month, I drove up to the Twin Cities to visit family and friends, catching a Twins game while there and a Beloit Snappers minor-league game on the drive home. During the month, I also finished up an article on Natsume Soseki’s conception of world literature, which appeared in the May/June issue of the Iwanami Shoten journal Bungaku.

On May Day I joined the protest march that started out from Union Park and made its way past the site of the Haymarket Massacre (the historical origin of May Day) before ending at a rally downtown. A few days later, we caught a live performance by one of my favorite musical discoveries of the year: Kids These Days. The group manages to combine rock, funk, jazz, and hip hop and make it all work; their debut album Traphouse Rock came out later in the year and was one of my favorite records of 2012.

Later in May I attended the Atomic Age II conference at Chicago. It featured a keynote address from Koide Hiroaki, one of the most important critics of Japan’s “nuclear village.” The next day, we joined a group to visit the nature preserve in the western suburbs where the remains of Chicago Piles 1 and 2 (the world’s first nuclear reactors) are buried. Later in the month we caught a surprise cameo appearance by Ray Davies at a public television benefit concert, and then I was off to Tokyo for a quick one-week visit. During that trip, I attended the May sumo tournament, met a number of scholars, visited libraries and bookstores, and stopped by an exhibit of photographs by Mike Nogami. After coming back to Chicago, I survived the NATO conference shut-down of the city, dragged the kids to the reunited Beach Boys concert at the Chicago Theater, and enjoyed a Millenium Park performance by Kelly Hogan (another key musical discovery of the year). We ended the month by catching Court Theater’s production of “Angels in America” with Larry Yando’s memorable turn as Ray Cohn.

As June began, I flew to Los Angeles to join in the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. It was lovely to catch up with old friends from UCLA, and while there I got to meet and chat briefly with one of my childhood heroes, Daniel Inouye (RIP, Senator Inouye). It turned out that he was one of the 442nd veterans involved in inviting Misora Hibari to Hawaii in 1950 for a charity concert–which led in turn to the 1950 Sacramento concert recordings. Another quick trip to Minnesota followed, and I was back home to catch the last day of the Chicago Blues Festival, including an uplifting headliner set by Mavis Staples. During June we also caught the CSO a couple times, including an eye-opening public rehearsal led by Ricardo Muti, and we visited the Roy Lichtenstein exhibit at the Art Institute. But the cultural highlight of the month was the acclaimed production of “The Iceman Cometh” at the Goodman Theater, with an ensemble cast so strong that the supposed stars, Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane, mostly just blended into the scenery.

July is when things really got busy. I’ll write about the second half of the year tomorrow. In the meantime, I really should get hopping on those year-end projects….

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This and That

Posted in Books,J-Pop,J-Rock,Japanese literature,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 10th, 2012

Apologies for the lack of updates these last two months. Not only have I returned to teaching from my sabbatical, I’ve also become department chair. Life is busy, in other words–but it keeps me off the streets.

This has come up rather suddenly, but I’ll be giving a talk at UCLA next week (Friday, November 16) on “Tokyo Boogie Woogie in California: The 1950 Sacramento Recordings in Japanese and Japanese-American Cultural History” (details available here). In the presentation, I’ll introduce the collection of 1950 concert recordings of Japanese musicians (Misora Hibari, Kawada Haruhisa, Yamaguchi Yoshiko, Watanabe Hamako, Kasagi Shizuko, among others) that I helped authenticate and that were in the news in Japan this past summer (see, for example, here and here). The man who discovered the recordings has now donated the entire collection to the UCLA library. While in Los Angeles, I’ll also be filming an interview for a television special about the recordings that will air later this year. I’ll post details about broadcast times when they become available.

I was also recently a guest on the NPR radio program “To the Best of our Knowledge,” talking about my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop. You can listen to or download my segment here. And don’t forget about the online companion for the book that I’ve put together: I’ve heard from a few people who are teaching the book this all that the webpage was very useful.

The Japanese translation of the book continues to do very well, with nice reviews coming out in many magazines and newspapers (for example, here and here).

In the meanwhile, I am moving on to other scholarly projects: co-editing a two-volume series of new scholarly essays and translations related to early postwar Japanese literary criticism, finishing up a translation of Karatani Kojin’s magnum opus The Structure of World History (Sekaishi no kozo), and returning to a longstanding project that involves rethinking Natsume Soseki in relation to the problems of modern property regimes and world literature.

I’ll try to blog here a little more regularly in the coming months, too. It keeps me off the streets–the wild, wild streets.

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Special Issue on Soseki’s “Theory of Literature”

Posted in Books,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the May 29th, 2012


The May/June 2012 issue of Iwanami Shoten’s journal Bungaku is out now. It’s a special issue devoted to the theme of “Opening Up Soseki’s ‘Theory of Literature'”–in other words, new approaches to Natsume Soseki’s 1907 Bungakuron, his attempt to construct a fully scientific, universally valid theory of literature. The first part of the issue draws from a conference hosted last December by the University of Tokyo and features essays by Komori Yoichi, Joseph Murphy, Noami Mariko, Saito Mareshi, Atsuko Ueda and yours truly. It also includes a transcript of the concluding roundtable discussion from that event.

The rest of the issue includes a number of very interesting looking new articles on the topic by both veteran and younger scholars. I actually haven’t received my copy of the issue yet, so can’t say a great deal at this point about them, other than that their titles are quite intriguing. Check out the full table of contents here (Japanese language only).

The issue can be ordered through Amazon.com’s Japan site, and of course the English translation of Soseki’s Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings is still available.

Even after ten years of nearly constant work on it, I still find Soseki’s Theory of Literature a remarkably interesting, even mysterious, work. I know I will be wrestling with it for many years to come. This new special issue hints that it’s a fascination I share with many others.

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The Current Reading List

Posted in Books,Fiction,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the March 20th, 2012

George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861). My first time to read this since ninth grade English class with Mr. Sanborn. My vague memories of the story revolved around the child Eppie and her sunny influence on the title character; I was surprised to realize she doesn’t appear until halfway through the book. The seemingly realistic depictions of daily life in small-town England before the Industrial Revolution are charming–and the brief visit to a darkened factory city near the end suitably haunting. I’d like to sneak this onto the syllabus for a seminar I’m planning to teach next year on the philosophy of money and literature. Eppie’s angelic golden locks release Silas from his evil worship of gold, leading to (quite literally, the last line tells us) the happiest of possible endings.

Kira Morio 北杜夫, Yurei: Aru yonen to seishun no monogatari_ 『幽霊・或る幼年と青春の物語』 (1954). Kita’s debut novel, a lyrical collage of fictional childhood memories. It has highly comical moments, but at other times is quite melancholic–death always hovers in the background. With hardly any plot to speak of, the charm comes primarily from polished depictions of a child’s sensibility. A passage early on about how the spines of books on the shelves in the father’s study seemed like faces looking down at the hero brought memories of my own childhood flooding back: I’d forgotten how vividly I could recall the books that sat on my own father’s shelves.

Greg Robinson, After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Politics and Life (2012). Most histories of Japanese-American life focus on the wartime internment camps and the developments that led to them. Robinson’s welcome new study takes up the relatively unexplored question of what happened next. He traces the process of release from the camps, one driven by an ideology of “assimilation” that sought to prevent the reappearance of concentrated pockets of Japanese-American populations on the West Coast. (with the surprising result that Chicago briefly boasted the largest population of Japanese-Americans in the continental U.S.). He also provides very interesting material on the relations between postwar Japanese-Americans and other minority ethnic groups, in particular African-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Fascinating.

Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siecle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship (2006). A remarkable study of late nineteenth and early twentieth century nonconformist radical movements in Britain (vegetarianism, aestheticism, spiritualism and homosexuality, among others) as experiments in alternate, explicitly anti-imperial, forms of relationship–as, in other words, experiements in “friendship.” Since writing my dissertation on, among others, Upton Sinclair, I’ve had a strong interest in such movements in the U.S., and Gandhi’s insightful analysis finally helps me make sense of their specifically geopolitical stakes. I now see why The Jungle necessarily includes condemnations of the imperialist Russo-Japanese War alongside its more famous exposé of the horrors of meat-eating.

“What March 11 Means to Me”

Posted in Current Events,Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the March 13th, 2012

This past weekend, we hosted a remarkable event here at the University of Chicago: “What March 11 Means to Me: A Symposium in Honor of Norma Field.” A large audience turned out both days to hear a remarkable array of speakers from Japan reflect on the ongoing disaster in the Tohoku region of Japan.

Ryusawa Takeshi, former editor-in-chief for the Heibonsha publishing house and currently one of the central figures in the East Asia Publishers Conference, was the first speaker on Saturday. He reflected on the role of liberal, progressive journalists in the 1950s in disseminating the doctrine of “Atoms for Peace” in Japan and traced the fascinating history of the benign-sounding word genshiro (原子炉), the Japanese term for “nuclear reactor” that might more literally be translated as “atomic hearth.”

He was followed by Yokoyu Sonoko, a child psychologist and a leading voice on such issues as bullying and hikkomori syndrome (social withdrawal syndrome), who spoke on the mental health costs of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. Her talk included a number of moving stories about how families and individuals already struggling with psychological difficulties tried to cope with the disaster. She also described the rising incidence of PTSD and other forms of anxiety in the months following 3/11. She concluded by speaking about the sense of “hopelessness” shared by many in today’s Japan and on the possibilities for building new connections based on it–especially in response to the very real danger of fascism in today’s Japan.

The last speaker on Saturday was Takahashi Tetsuya of the University of Tokyo, one of Japan’s leading contemporary philosophers and a native of Fukushima Prefecture. He spoke quite movingly of his childhood in the region and his concerns for its future. Using the example of the recent People’s Tribunal trial of Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) and its management, he unpacked the complexities of the kinds of responsibility we need to consider in remembering 3/11. Of course, primary responsibility lies with what Takahashi called the “nuclear mafia,” the business and governmental figures who promoted the myth of absolute safety while neglecting to secure adequate safety measures. But those who allowed themselves to be deceived also bear some degree of responsibility, as do those who had remained indifferent while enjoying the benefits of cheap electricity generated by what Takahashi has called the “sacrificial system” of contemporary Japan.

Komori Yoichi of the University of Tokyo, one of today’s leading scholars of modern Japanese literature and one of the prime figures in the movement to preserve the anti-war Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, was the first speaker on Sunday. He provided a moving account of his and his family’s personal experiences on 3/11 and the days that followed, arguing for the importance of claiming the embodied experience of sense perception (taiken) of the ‘event’ as a kind of experience (keiken) shared with others through language and dialogue. He situated the events of 3/11 against the history of postwar Japan and of his own lifetime, going back to his birth at the time of the Lucky Dragon Incident and the initial promotion of “Atoms for Peace” as an American Cold War ideology.

Amamiya Karin, a well-known activist in the “precariat” and anti-nuclear movements, was the final speaker. She talked about her experiences traveling in the Fukushima region and the kind of unreal reality people now encounter there–when, for example, Tsutaya video rental stores now also offer to lend Geiger counters for personal use. She focused in particular on divides opening up among the affected populations–resentment, for example, that those who lived within the mandatory evacuation zone get greater compensation than those living just outside of it. As a result, the focus of popular anger is shifting away from TEPCO and the government to fellow victims. But she also discussed tactics being used in recent demonstrations to bring together disparate strata into a single, unified force, and showed videos from several recent protest marches.

It was a memorable event and a great tribute to my colleague, Norma Field. She will be retiring from the University of Chicago at the end of this academic year–though we know she will remain an active force for many years to come. Without her, there’s no way we could have brought together all of the people who made the symposium such an intense and inspiring occasion.

Postscript: Here’s local television station WGN’s coverage of an event commemorating the Fukushima disaster last Sunday right after the symposium, including interviews with Amamiya Karin and Norma Field.

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The Current Reading List

Posted in Books,Fiction,Film,Japanese film,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the December 28th, 2011

A few things I’ve been reading as of late:


Jim Harrison, True North (Grove Press, 2004). I’m a belated convert to Harrison’s fiction: I’ve known about him since a girlfriend in high school recommended him, but only started reading his work in the last few years. I inadvertently read Returning to Earth, the 2007 sequel to this, first and found myself mesmerized. So it was with high expectations that I picked this up–but I ended up mildly disappointed. It’s quite good, yes, but not at the level of Harrison’s best. Why? I guess I felt emotionally distant from the characters and from the whole notion of taking historical responsibility for one’s familial past. It’s a fine novel, but Harrison has produced more compelling work elsewhere.

Kirino Natsuo 桐野夏生, OUT (Kodansha, 2002; two volumes). My first foray into the land of Kirino, though I did see the fine film adaptation of this novel a few years back. The suspenseful plot (will our heroines be arrested for their heinous crimes of murder and corpse dismemberment?) works well, but most of all I like the gritty details of contemporary life that Kirino captures better than her more “Literary” peers: what it feels like day after day to endure a shitty night-shift job and a dead-end family life. Despite the, uhm, moral shortcomings of all the major characters, this reader ended up kinda liking them as people.

Steven Ridgely, Japanese Counterculture: The Antiestablishment Art of Terayama Shuji (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). An excellent study of one of the most fascinating figures from Japan’s 1960s, covering his work in poetry, sports writing, guerrilla theater performance and experimental film. Ridgely presents a sophisticated and highly readable study of the multiple ways in which Terayama creatively redrew the boundary between fiction and reality.

How ’bout you? Read any good books lately?

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Revisiting Natsume Sōseki’s Theory of Literature

Posted in Books,Fiction,Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the December 27th, 2011

Last week the University of Tokyo’s Center for Philosophy hosted a symposium on “Globalizing Natsume Sōseki’s Theory of Literature,” commemorating the publication of the English translation of Bungakuron (1907), Sōseki’s remarkable attempt to construct a fully scientific theory of “literature” complete with mathematical formulas and graphs, one that was supposed to be valid at all times and in all places.

In her talk, Noami Mariko (University of Tokyo) spoke on the role of emotion (small f) in Sōseki’s theory, in particular the indirect experience of emotion by the reader of fiction, tracing through the ways Sōseki put this theory into practice in his 1912 novel, Until the Spring Equinox and Beyond. Joseph Murphy (University of Florida) also explored the relation of Sōseki’s (F+f) formula to his fiction, especially the early story “Tower of London,” and talked about the missing, perhaps subconscious, possibility of (non-F, non-f) as an implicit possible permutation of the formula.

In the afternoon sessions, Atsuko Ueda (Princeton University) situated Bungakuron in the context of late nineteenth century literary histories, as well as the tradition of rhetoric studies that Soseki relied on–and the implications his transcending the categories of national language and national literature holds for contemporary area studies scholarship. Saitō Mareshi (University of Tokyo) raised the question of what kagaku means in the context of Bungakuron: science or discipline? He also traced Sōseki’s use of keywords from the Chinese literati tradition of rhetoric, looking in particular at what was at stake in Sōseki’s switch from that vocabulary to the mathematical language of (F+f). I followed with a talk exploring Bungakuron as a theory of world literature, reading Sōseki against his contemporary Rabindranath Tagore, as well as Pascale Casanova’s more recent attempt to theorize a “world republic of literature.” The final speaker, Komori Yōichi (University of Tokyo), explored the specific scientific contexts on the work, noting its connections to early twentieth century atomic theory, as well as the productive gesture Sōseki made in creating a horizon in which embodied sense perception and intellectual understanding were synthesized into a single entity within the bracketed space of (F+f).

We had lively discussions throughout the day, and the symposium was very well attended. My thanks to the organizers, my co-presenters, and to all who participated.

In the meanwhile, the Modern Language Association has announced that the volume has won the 2011 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Scholarly Study of Literature. From the award citation:

Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings, by Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916), provides English language readers with major critical works by Japan’s foremost novelist of the twentieth century. Sōseki aspired to a grand and systematic explanation of literature, focusing on literature’s effects on readers. Based on the cognitive psychology of his day, his account explores how the content of the literary work generates emotional responses. Michael K. Bourdaghs, Atsuko Ueda, and Joseph A. Murphy have done a superb job of supplying the contextual information necessary for today’s non-Japanese reader to appreciate the subtlety and significance of Sōseki’s work.

On top of that, the Japan Times newspaper has just named it one of the “Best Books of 2011.” It’s gratifying to see this project, begun with my colleagues six or seven years ago, reach fruition in this way. Our goal from the start was to get people reading and talking about this remarkable book, and it feels like we’ve accomplished that.

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Blurbing

Posted in Books,Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 21st, 2010

One of the things on my to-do list this past week was to compose a blurb for a forthcoming book on modern Japanese literature. I get asked to do this once or twice a year; often it is for a title that I’ve already reviewed as an external referee, meaning that I’m already quite familiar with the work. I’ve even had a publisher approach me once for permission to use a blurb they had composed by patching together key phrases from my referee’s report. In case you were wondering, we don’t get paid for supplying blurbs, though the publisher usually sends us a free copy of the book once it appears.

There’s an art to writing a good blurb. If you’re too effusive, you lose credibility and might even offend the potential reader you are trying to charm. I remember many years ago reading a blurb on a study of Japanese literature that asserted ‘there is no comparable study in any language.’ The arrogance of this pissed me off: had the reviewer really read all the books on Japanese literature published in Polish, for example, or Swahili? Through no fault of the book’s author, I acquired an unfavorable gut feeling toward the work.

Another time, I was thinking about buying one of Thomas Pynchon’s novels. When I picked up the thick paperback at a bookstore, a blurb on the cover proclaimed it “a 747 of a novel.” I immediately put the book back down and left the store. I hate 747’s. Why would I want to read something that would remind me of stale air, crying babies, bad food, smelly bathrooms, and crabby flight attendants?

In other words, it’s important to find the appropriate tone. Sometimes, I think I get it right — like here, for example, or here and here. The one I submitted this past week was only so-so, I’m afraid.

What’s the worst experience you’ve had with a blurb–either writing or reading it? Or, conversely, has a blurb ever single-handedly sold you on a book? I’d love to hear your stories on this: comments, please.

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