Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Far East

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I wish I could say I had a large selection of Chinese, Korean and other literature, but who am I kidding? My main contact with the ‘Orient’ has been via Japan. I’ve tried to stay away from my obvious favourite fiction, however, like Dazai Osamu or Genji Monogatari or Mishima Yukio. None of those are obscure enough…

Charles A. Moore (ed.): The Japanese Mind

I was rather smitten with this when I first started studying Japanese, but in the meantime I’ve recognised it for what it is: another brick in the wall of the myth of Japanese uniqueness. This – in a simplistic nutshell – is the propensity for both Western and Japanese historians, anthropologists, literary critics, philosophers and social scientists to claim that Japanese culture is so different from anything else that it is impossible for anyone outside Japan to truly understand it (or make any valid critical study of it). The words ‘enigmatic’ and ‘paradoxical’ appear so many times throughout this book. While I agree that Japan can seem quite alien to those who have grown up in the Western canon, there are so many Korean and Chinese influences, Buddhist influences and similarities of Shintoism to other pagan religions. Besides, can it not be said of any culture that it is quite unique (especially in the way it mixes and matches and borrows from others)?

This is not the cover page of the edition I have, because that one is white and does not come out well against the background.

Fujiwara Teika (ed.): Hyakunin Isshu – transl. and annotated by Iulia Waniek

A Hundred Poets with One Poem Each (the literal translation of the title) is a Japanese anthology of poetry from the early 13th century. Many of the poems, however, are much older, going back to the 7th century, and the reason why we still have them today is thanks to Fujiwara’s tireless enthusiasm in collecting them. It remains to this day one of the most popular poetry  books in Japan – there is even a New Year’s card game based on intimate knowledge of the poems. The edition I own has each poem in Japanese plus translation, and a bit of commentary/history alongside each one. The poems were translated into Romanian by my former sensei at university, a talented Japanologist and now a good friend. For those of you who are not fluent in Romanian – really, how can you NOT be? – you can read the poems in English, with lovely illustrations and explanations on this site.

Theatre performance

Ruxandra Marginean Kohno: The Creative Tradition of Nō Theatre

I can’t resist boasting about another of my talented friends – a former classmate at university, who went on to complete her Ph.D. on the Nō Theatre in Japan, at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. Proving, once and for all, that Japanese culture can be understood and interpreted in a fascinating way by a Western scholar. The author goes beyond the ‘obvious suspect’ which is Zeami (one of the greatest actors and creators of Nō), looking especially at ways in which this type of theatre has been adapted and modernised following the massive cultural changes of the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan opened up to the Western world. Ruxandra has a special affinity with theatre, since both of her parents are actors, and she effortlessly weaves in references to Eric Hobsbawm, Umberto Eco, Foucault and Gadamer. This is a revised, bilingual version of her Ph.D. thesis (Japanese/Romanian), published in Romania in 2009.



29 thoughts on “Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Far East”

  1. Oh you are SO wonderfully eclectic MarinaSofia. The theatre one would probably interest me most – though I adore the idea of a card game based on knowledge of poetry.

    1. To be honest, I was rubbish at that card game, just didn’t know more than 2-3 poems by heart. But I’m sure if you are Japanese and halfway paying attention at school…

  2. Second thought, re your observations about cultures all borrowing from each other and influenced by each other…It’s rather the only HOPE for us, isn’t it, to be open to the other, to dialogue with the other, and to allow contact to change and widen our perspective. Perhaps the grit of an alien idea working on us to create a new pearl. The more we try to isolate ourselves into ideas of purity, the more we are likely to stultify, fossilise….And much, much worse. In the arts, there’s a kind of dynamism when ‘new’ and established ideas and influences meet each other, and a reconciliation of opposites comes out of that struggle

    1. I couldn’t agree more. Example of that is eating together at college in Cambridge: cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary conversations with all ages, which would give rise to the most interesting and brilliant discussions and ideas. (I was at a post-graduate, international college; it might be less the case if you have an undergraduate college stuffed to the gills with boys from Eton and Harrow).

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more, Marina Sofia, about cultures. Yes, each is a little different, with different languages, world views, and the like. But there’s been so much cultural contact, borrowing, and more, that it would hard to say any culture is truly unique. As to your books, that book of poetry looks very tempting…

    1. There has been so much written about the impenetrability of Japanese culture, that no gaijin (foreigner) can ever truly understand it, but dedicated Western researchers have proven otherwise. I believe the poetry book has been translated into English as well, but the website is a great place to start.

  4. Wow. Hats off to anyone, let along a gaijin who writes about No. I found it all completely impenetrable! Kabuki I warmed to, but I say no to No.
    I love that cover of One Hundred Leaves…

    1. I have to admit I prefer No to Kabuki, although Kabuki is more entertaining. There is something about the sobriety and subtle nuances (and yes, I admit, boredom) of No, which I find very calming. It’s like theatrical meditation.

        1. It’s restful… Much like yoga or Tai Chi, which I used to despise as boring when I was younger, but appreciate now.

    1. I’m pretty sure there are a few English translations of the poems. Here is an example I found on Goodreads, but am not sure if it has any explanations and context. And without those, it’s hard to fully understand.

  5. This is an interesting post because everything in it is so new to me. I had not even heard of No theatre previously. I am curious about you learning Japanese. Can you read and write the language? Can you understand it well while reading? Or did you mean studying about the Japanese culture? I have heard it isn’t easy to learn it and I am impressed.

    1. I used to be able to speak, read and write it fairly competently, since I studied it for 4 years and also went a couple of times for summer school in Japan. However, I was always more interested in the cultural aspects rather than pure language or literature, so I went on to study the social anthropology of Japan and lectured for a couple of years mainly in that field (although I also had to replace the above colleague, Iulia Waniek, when she was on maternity leave, and also teach language, literature and history).

  6. I wonder if the people who say Japanese culture is impenetrable and ‘all’ Japanese people are inscrutable are really those who are too lazy to make the effort to find out what the culture is about and how people think. I was very fortunate to travel to Tokyo a few times for work and found local people only too delighted to share knowledge with me – you just had to learn how to ask questions in a tactful way

    1. It’s more a question of the Japanese themselves saying they cannot be understood – and I’m not talking ordinary people here, but academics. It’s a little bit of the mentality of different departments in an organisation, each one claiming that they are unique, present entirely different traits and challenges, so cross-departmental understanding and collaboration and rules cannot possibly work.

      1. I’ve come across that a bit – usually in the context that the Japan team didnt want to implement a change in a process for example and used the argument ‘it wouldn’t work in Japan’ but couldnt ever clearly explain why not

  7. I have a great love of Japanese poetry but would have to scan my book shelves to know if I have any obscure ones. I do have my grandmother’s “White House Cook Book” from around 1900. It’s so fun–all kinds of recipes, remedies and housekeeping suggestions.

    So good to “see” you!

    1. That does sound like a fun book! I don’t actually own that many volumes of Japanese poetry, but many of my Japanese books are still at my parents’ house and I do believe my mother has sold off quite a few of them.

  8. What a wonderful collection! I feel like I’ve been popular rather than obscure recently what with all my prize long-list reading, it’s great to add more unusual titles to the wish-list

    1. I always balance between the very popular (latest crime fiction releases which I review) and the obscure (usually untranslated fiction). Not because I want to be different or difficult, but I suppose I need the variety.

  9. Japanese and Chinese lit are the smallest groupings I have. Loads of French, getting better on German and Australian. Of course, there are also books from many other countries I’m not exactly well-read in.

    1. I’m very low on South American writers (although I went through a period in my 20s when I adored them, but I borrowed them from the library – my department was right next to the Latin American Studies Dept and Library). I’m not that good on Australian writers, though. I’m very disappointed that you don’t get that good a selection of them in the UK – so much for Empire, and all that…

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