Thursday, May 10, 2018

Reading Mt Fuji

Review: a new collection of classical writing about Japan’s top mountain.

“Reading works of literature dealing with Mt Fuji is thus essential for understanding the Japanese spirit.” Prefacing a new anthology about Japan’s top mountain, this statement strikes one as remarkably bold. Yet the claim might almost be justified, so compelling is the collection of classical poetry and prose that ensues.

The Literature of Mt Fuji: Japanese Classical Literature is published by Chuo University. Owing to the generosity of the university and whichever government agency sponsored it, the text can be downloaded for free.

An especially big hand here for Columbia University’s Kristopher Lee Reeves and Ngo Vu Nhat Phuong, who did the fairly direct yet fluent English translations. These are presented with the original Japanese texts on facing pages. Thanks, guys!

The collection consists of poems and prose about Mt Fuji from the eighth-century Man’yōshū through to the seventeenth-century haiku poet, Bashō. Selections are arranged chronologically, within three thematic chapters. This helps readers to trace out the ways in which later writers echo and develop the thoughts of their predecessors.

For instance, here is Monk Saigyō’s famous waka, composed while travelling on a pilgrimage to the eastern provinces in about 1186:

風になびく富士の煙の空にきえてゆくへも知らぬわが思ひかな

kaze ni nabiku / fuji no keburi no / sora ni kiete / yukue mo shiranu / waga omoi kana

Just as smoke drifts on the winds over Mount Fuji
Only to vanish – whither no one knows –
So, too, does my soul wander on

A century later, the widowed Lady Nijō alludes to the same poem when she ponders the vanity of life:

How futile that that all these thoughts should be piled onto one like me who must vanish without a trace. Now, when the smoke atop Mt Fuji can no longer be seen, I wonder what – if anything – could be blown by the wind.

Saigyo contemplating Mt Fuji, painting by Hara Zaizen, c.18

The tone is not everywhere so elevated. We have Saikaku (1642-1693) dissing a potential playmate because she takes an upturned bowl for a model of Mt Fuji. There is inept mensuration – “If I were to compare this with the mountains we have in the capital, I would say it is as large as twenty Mount Hiei’s piled atop one another, while its shape is something like one of those little mounds made for drying salt” (Ise Monogatari).

And there is the most shameless flattery, straight from some medieval politburo: “So brilliantly shimmered the peak! One could not help but think the God of Mount Fuji had come to wait upon the majestic presence of our lord, the Shogun” (Procession to Mt Fuji). Indeed, what’s striking about this anthology is the sheer medley of different voices. On this evidence, the Japanese spirit must be uproariously diverse.

Or, as the Hyakumeizan author put it, “Mt Fuji is there for everyone…” You could say the same about this anthology. As the introduction explains, the bilingual presentation was intended “to assist the teaching of works of classical Japanese literature in English”. But the ample and informative notes (again, thanks!) will help both literary scholars and general readers.

For meizanologists, this volume comes along like a proverbial London bus – you wait and wait, and then three roll up together. For years, it seemed, Mt Fuji lacked any English-language write-ups other than a hiking guidebook and some photo collections.

Then, all of a sudden, as if catalysed by the volcano’s accession to world heritage status, along came H Byron Earhart’s magisterial Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan and the Shizuoka-Yamanashi Joint Council’s Mt Fuji: The Wellspring of our Faith and Arts, complete with a foreword by former prime minister, Nakasone Yasuhiro.

And now, as if to complete a triple whammy, here comes this excellent literary anthology. By the way, Chuo University, how about following up with a second collection, to sample the Mt Fuji literature from the eighteenth century to the present? That too would be well worth waiting for.

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