The allure of the historical—confessions of a translator

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2013/05/30 Column

The allure of the historical—confessions of a translator

by Ian M. MacDonald

Historical fiction has been a mainstay of the Japanese literary scene since about 1000 AD, when Murasaki Shikibu penned the opening lines of her classic Tale of Genji:

In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty's Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor.
(Translated by Royall Tyler, Viking Penguin, 2001)

Or has it? Is the world's "oldest novel" also the world's oldest historical novel? A debatable point, but given the prevalence and popularity of historical fiction (rekishi-shosetsu or jidai-shosetsu) in Japan today—the amount of ink spilled, the amount of paper consumed in its creation—it is one worth considering.

According to Royall Tyler, Genji's most recent English translator, another clue to the fact that Murasaki's story is set in the past is her hero's mastery of the kin, a Heian-period musical instrument imported from China. In the story, an aging Genji bemoans that the kin's popularity has declined during his lifetime; by Murasaki's day it was no longer played. From this Tyler concludes that Genji is set approximately a century before Murasaki lived, placing him closer in time to the real-life lothario Ariwara Narihira, the supposed hero of The Tales of Ise.

The revival of Genji's literary fortunes in the Taisho and early Showa periods through the modern-Japanese translations (gendaigo-yaku) of Akiko Yosano and Jun'ichiro Tanizaki coincided with the rise of modern historical fiction, of which Eiji Yoshikawa was the most prominent practitioner. Yosano and Tanizaki would each go on to translate Genji two more times. And in the postwar period Fumiko Enchi, Seiko Tanabe, and Jakucho Seto'uchi added their own versions. As of 1999, gendaigo-yaku of Genji had sold a combined 8.6 million paperback copies in Japan (source: Asahi Shimbun, January 9, 2000). Meanwhile, Yoshikawa's thrilling retellings of warrior epics such as The Tale of the Heike, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Miyamoto Musashi became bestsellers in the '30s, '40s and '50s, paving the way for Ryotaro Shiba, Shuhei Fujisawa, and countless other historical novelists.

Granted, few readers either in Japan or the West probably think of Genji as true historical fiction—that is to say, a story set in a time significantly prior to, and different from, that in which it was written. After all, what is 100 years compared to the intervening span of 1,000? The world of the Shining Prince is Murasaki's world. Her characters were most probably modeled on people—or personality types—with whom she was all too well acquainted. In this sense her "in a certain reign" can be seen as a kind of "all persons fictitious" disclaimer (e.g. "any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental"). As with a roman à clef, this thin veneer of history is a way of putting distance, or deniability, between herself and her story.

Now for a disclaimer—or a confession—of my own: until relatively recently the vast offerings of historical fiction available in any corner bookshop were, so to speak, a closed bunkobon to me. My introduction came about ten years ago when I undertook to translate the first volume of Kido Okamoto's detective series, Hanshichi torimonocho (The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi in English), a self-styled "Sherlock Holmes of the Edo period." Serialized on and off in various magazines between 1917 and 1937, the 68 stories are set in Edo of the mid-1800s and pay tribute to a bygone era, the last vestiges of which were rapidly being effaced by modernization even as Okamoto wrote. Though less removed in time (about 50 years) from his fictional sleuth's adventures than the century that separated Murasaki from her protagonist, Okamoto seems to be describing a world entirely different from his own.

Hanshichi's resemblance to Sherlock Holmes is more than a passing one, his adventures being transcribed by a Watsonian amanuensis in the form of a young journalist to whom he spins his yarns. The series' enduring popularity has as much to do with its vivid evocation of the past as with the solving of murders, which the sleuth pulls off with Sherlockian panache and melodrama, often as much through luck and street smarts as clever deduction. Kido conjures up urban spaces, landscapes, even wildlife (e.g. snakes, hawks, and river otters), not to mention people, food, legends and customs that had faded from the memory of 20th-century Tokyoites. Hanshichi traces a virtual map of Edo as he solves his cases, places that one can still visit today, albeit in much altered form. For undoubtedly one of Kido's intentions was to inspire his readers to go out and rediscover Edo for themselves. Today, Hanshichi and other period fiction has spawned a publishing sub-industry in maps, walking guides, and other books that enable one to retrace Edo/Tokyo's literary past, either on foot or from the comfort of an armchair.

Hanshichi has remained in print ever since the stories were written, today being sold primarily in the pocket-size bunkobon format. In 1998 Chikuma Shobo came out with a handsome six-volume boxed set, now only available secondhand, complete with annotations, illustrations, and maps charting the inspector's literary peregrinations. More recently, since 2011, Madoka Shuppan has published three volumes of Hanshichi's adventures in the larger tankobon format, adopting an entirely new approach to the series. This nendaiban rearranges the stories according to when the events described took place (instead of the random achronological order of their original serialization), and adds a historical perspective on the actual events that form the backdrop to many of the tales.

Thanks largely to the popularity of Hanshichi and a string of imitators, detective stories have since become a staple of the historical genre. One recent example is Aiko Kitahara's Inspector Keijiro series, Keijiro engawa nikki, of which 12 volumes were published from 1998 to 2008. From 2004 to 2006, the Edo detective's adventures were dramatized in 30 episodes for NHK's Friday Historical Drama (Kinyo jidaigeki). Like Kitahara's other works, compared to Hanshichi these stories offer the greater realism and psychological depth that today's readers have come to expect. I first encountered Kitahara's work when I translated her 1993 Naoki Prize-winning Koiwasuregusa (The Budding Tree in English). There is something familiarly modern about this collection of six stories about Edo-period working women—a calligrapher, a ballad singer, a schoolteacher, a restaurateur, a hairpin designer, and a book illustrator—trying to balance romance and social pressures with their careers.

Kitahara's approach to historical fiction is echoed by Shuichi Sae, whose Edo shokunin kitan (Strange Tales of Edo Artisans) won the Gishu Nakayama Literary Prize for historical fiction in 1996. This collection of well-researched stories about a locksmith, kite maker, basket weaver, puppet maker, carpenter, cooper, and female acupuncturist, among others, features plots spun around the fascinating technical aspects of each craft. Together Kitahara and Sae suggest a relatively new trend in historical fiction, a welcome break from the traditional tales of samurai and geisha that readers of Japanese historical fiction, especially in the West, are used to. But even the traditional depiction of samurai as warriors is changing. In Shuhei Fujisawa's 1985 novel Kaze no hate (The End of the Wind), for example, a group of samurai attached to the civil engineering corps of a rural fief must undertake a land reclamation project, on which the economic future of their clan depends, while contending with internal political factions that threaten to derail it. These petty bureaucrats of the Pax Tokugawa provide a convincing analogy to today's office drones.

The century or so from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries was a fertile time for popular fiction, especially ancient legends of warriors from Japan and China that provided a thin veil for depicting current figures and events. This was prompted by the oppressive nature of the Tokugawa regime, which made writing about the present dangerous, potentially leading to heavy fines and even jail time for authors and publishers if their work displeased the authorities. It seems fitting, then, that this period should provide the material for much of today's historical literature, a defining feature of which is that perhaps, like Genji, it is less an escape into the past than a lens for viewing the present.

Ian M. MacDonald (1968–) grew up in the United States and worked and studied in Japan during much of the 1990s, eventually earning a PhD in Japanese literature from Stanford University. He is the translator of the abovementioned The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi and The Budding Tree, and the forthcoming Tales of the Ghost Sword by Hideyuki Kikuchi, in addition to several non-historical works. Now based in Singapore, he is currently translating a book about Niccolò Machiavelli by popular historian Nanami Shiono. He eventually hopes to translate the remaining five volumes of the Inspector Hanshichi series.