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Inaugural Lectures

From Medieval Buddhist Poetry to Twentieth Century Japanese Thought

Jean-Noël Robert
p. 25

Notes de la rédaction

Excerpts from the Inaugural Lecture 2 February 2012

Source: La lettre, no. 33, May 2012

Texte intégral

1One must ask oneself how can readers dive into the world of the Tale of Genji and into the world of Mishima with the impression that they are entering one and the same culture – a culture that would seem to reflect a mentality which has endured over centuries.

2One could perhaps argue that this question concerns Western readers and not Japanese culture in itself, which could in no way be held responsible for any assumption we may have about it. It seems to me, however, that such an attitude is based on an accurate – though not necessarily uttered or expressed – percep­tion of an essential feature of this culture, which is the perception of the historical continuity of its language. Here again, one will find that this feeling is one of the most common, at least within the great languages of civilizations that have developed in the Ancient World over thousands of years. It is nevertheless rare to see it so clearly reflected in the very history of the language as it is in Japan. The reason is that, from the moment it became a literary language, Japanese entered a dialogical relationship with the Chinese language, which was the great vehicle of the continental civilization, and this relationship has been sustained to this day. This is even the most striking and constant feature of the dynamics of Japanese civilization.

3The year 1968 was rich in events, but the one that will remain the most important for our studies was unquestionably the attribution of the Nobel Prize in Literature to the Japanese novelist Kawabata Yasunari. Several things were apparent in this award: first of all, it was the second time in history that the prize was awarded to an ‘Asian’ writer in the ­broadest sense, since the first to have been celebrated this way, fifty-five years earlier, had been the Indian – or more exactly Bengali – poet, thinker and novelist Rabindranath Tagore. So many years had passed since then that it now seems difficult to comprehend that one could have ignored for such a long time the other Asian literatures, which are particularly robust in their Chinese and Japanese expressions. The other noteworthy fact was that it was a Japanese person who had had the honour of being Tagore’s successor. It would probably be somewhat of an exaggeration to imagine that in Japan or India there had been a widespread feeling of cultural conti­nuity between the two writers. However, one has to remember that Tagore had for a while entertained the idea that Japan could be the model for an original cultural development for Asia, even though he had in the end been disappointed by his trip there. The fact is there and cannot be erased from history: one of the most famous novelists of his time in Japan was elected in front of the nations as the eminent represen­tative of Asian literature.

4Biographers concur to emphasise the intense embarrassment that this decision occasioned in Kawabata. This was not just a matter of modesty; he was profoundly convinced that there were contemporary writers in Japan who would have been more deserving of this tremendous recognition. What probably embarrassed him above all was the obvious fact that he would from then on be considered within the entire world’s intellectual circles as the representative par excellence of Japanese literature, from its very beginnings. It is the full awareness of this responsibility that is reflected in his speech on accepting the Nobel prize in Stockholm on 10 December 1968.

5Written and read by the author himself in Japanese, it was translated and delivered in English by the American Japanese Studies specialist Edward Seidensticker, who aptly represents this perception of continuity in Japanese culture that I am attempting to describe. As a translator of the great twentieth century writers Nagai Kaf, Mishima Yukio and Kawabata, he devoted the end of his teaching career to translating the Tale of Genji, thereby going back to the source of Japanese literary writing. One can well imagine that this speech did not remain without a response in Japan. It also created quite a stir in Europe, as everything concerning the Nobel Prize in Literature usually does. However, both within its country and abroad, the speech was not fully understood, and people were mostly inclined to read into it the width of the gap that separated East and West.

  • 1 It is the edition used here: Utsukushii Nihon no watashi – Sono josetsu, Kōdan-sha gendai shinsho, (...)

6It is true that the extraordinary subtlety deployed by Kawabata in these pages gave the listener and then the reader every opportunity to be misled. The fact that, at least in Japan, the speech was regarded as a decisive text beyond the circumstances which gave rise to it can be seen in the fact that it is still available in an independent paperback edition, along with its English translation, whose differences with the original would in themselves deserve a small study1. It is therefore rele­vant to ask ourselves what the author had wanted to tell us.

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1 It is the edition used here: Utsukushii Nihon no watashi – Sono josetsu, Kōdan-sha gendai shinsho, 1969 (2009, 56th edition).

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Référence électronique

Jean-Noël Robert, « From Medieval Buddhist Poetry to Twentieth Century Japanese Thought », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2015, consulté le 16 novembre 2018. URL :

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Jean-Noël Robert

Philology of Japanese Civilization

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