Japanese Classics in a Time of Contagion
The National Institute of Japanese Literature (NIJL) houses thousands of volumes of classical Japanese literature, and is currently in the process of building a digitized image database of many thousands more. Many of these books depict vividly, not only in prose and poetry, but also with abundant, beautiful illustrations, how people in times long past fought natural and man-made calamities, and how they attempted through the process of recovery to regenerate their own communities. Some of these details may still be applicable to the present day.
I have made a short here hoping to share with you a few glimpses of that legacy. Although it would certainly be better if you could come visit NIJL in Tokyo and get involved in some of our public art and cultural projects, we are currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the meantime, we have uploaded digitized versions of many texts on this website, which you can access free of charge without having to log in. Please don't forget to check out our https://www.nijl.ac.jp/pages/cijproject/en/ page after watching this clip.
Just like the ancestors of current day Japan who put their resources together and survived catastrophes, the time will come when we too can all look back on the current outbreak of the corona virus. Among the deep legacy of Japan's literary, linguistic and artistic history, I hope you too may find one or two seeds of hope to make the days and weeks following feel somehow less isolating.
Director General, National Institute of Japanese Literature
April 22, 2020
<The full text of video message>
(What is NIJL)
Hello, I'm Robert Campbell. I'm the Director General of the National Institute of Japanese Literature. We call it NIJL, or "nyjel". I don't think most of my listeners today have ever heard of it probably. We're a public inter-university research corporation here, located in Japan in Tokyo, a bit to the west of the main part of the city.
We started out as a public institution about 50 years ago, and our mission is to archive the incredible legacy of Japanese pre-modern books. There are over 600,000 or 700,000 titles of books. If you put that into volumes, it's like millions and millions of volumes of woodblock print or handwritten books which come down through the ages and survive in Japan right in the basement of our institute in the stacks. This is usually not open up to the public, but I'm here because I'm the director and I want to talk to you today, and this is a really good place to do it. You can see that I'm surrounded by 200, 300, maybe 400-year-old Japanese texts.
What we try to do here at NIJL is to digitize every text that survives all over the world from the pre-modern era. 1868 is the Meiji Restoration, so we take that year as the beginning of the modern era. So late 19th century is when modernity began in Japan by historical standards. And what we're trying to do is make lots of data, collect a lot of bibliographic and research data together with images, actual images of the texts themselves, combine them together, and then put them online.
I really hope that everybody has a chance to take a look at our website after you watch this video today. There are all sorts of resources that are available there for looking through tens and tens of thousands of items from the Japanese legacy of literature and all other sorts of other genres as well.
I'm here in a very, very lonely spot. You can see not a lot of people around me. Usually, this area is full of librarians coming in to find books for people who have come to our library, which is upstairs, from all over the world to deepen, to reach into this incredible wealth of resources that we have. But, as it's true of other major libraries and museums and institutions and shops and stores everywhere throughout Tokyo today, we're closed. We're in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. And here in Tokyo as well at this institution itself, I've asked my staff, maybe about 120, 130 bibliographers and scholars, everybody, to stay at home and to work from home.
So I'm here today alone in the stacks and I want to offer everybody the chance to... While you in different areas all over the world, I imagine, while you're at home, staying safe with your children, with your family, by yourself, thinking about what's going to happen to us in the months and the years to come, after we finally get through this pandemic, I want to offer a few hints about how to dive into and use the legacy of Japanese history, especially Japanese literary linguistic and artistic history in order to find ways to get through this natural, partly manmade disaster that we're all in the middle of right now.
Japanese old books have a lot of different characteristics. They're similar to books that are from China and Korea from hundreds of years ago, but they have their own characteristics as well. And I can think of three things about Japanese books which make them rather rare and interesting to us today when we're thinking about how to use a historical legacy as a common human resource as we go forward in the years and the decades to go.
One of them is the fact that Japanese people really, really document everything very, very carefully. We have documents from over a thousand years ago of how nature existed, how it changed, astronomical, very, very detailed maps and literary descriptions of the cities in Japan, and how people formed relationships, love, rivalry, how people fought in the war. Japanese people, perhaps because we here in Japan have a lot of natural disasters, are very, very careful and very, very close about observing things very, very objectively and keeping records of them.
There were whole families of nobles in the 11th century and the 12th century whose job was basically to write diaries of what was going on in court, what was going on in nature, the world around them, of course, things having to do with, for example, infective diseases like we're going through right today. That's one thing that's very, very unique about Japanese literature. It's full of very, very fine details about how people lived, how they struggled, and how they attempted as a society to reconstruct themselves or regenerate themselves after different disasters occurred.
Another characteristic of the old Japanese book is that it's full of illustrations. I mean, lots of books from Europe illuminated Bibles from the middle age, and a lot of Chinese texts, Korean texts also have lots of illustrations, but Japanese literature is basically inseparable from illustrations and pictures of what's going on in the story itself. We have lots of satirical parody illustrations of real people, historical figures that come up in literature. There are illustrations of kabuki actors who look like the characters, who are pictured as the characters in novels that were written in the 17th century, in the 18th century, in the 19th century.
They're all sorts of different ways that Japanese people, especially Japanese people who didn't have a very high level of literacy, used the illustration together with the written word in order to gain information, learn about one's history, and also to prevent and to assure that people will stay safe through different sorts of calamities that occur or catastrophes that occur through history. That's another characteristic.
The other one is, Japanese literature is basically a mixed media kind of discourse. In other words, we don't get just literature in the way that we have in the United States or Britain or Latin America or China. When you go into a bookstore or a library, you know exactly what's going to be there. Literature is literature. Science is science. Astrology is astrology, perhaps.
Japanese books tend to seep over. The contents seem to seep into each other so that if you're looking at a book, a botanical illustrated book, you'll see poems in. Some collections of poems are also about things that were going on in nature at the time and about industry and things like that. Things get really, really mixed. They're very, very collaborative. And that's something that's fascinating for us today because we're able to digitize to turn a lot of these words, but also the illustrations into data that can be shared and mined through artificial intelligence and used in ways that people really couldn't imagine even 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.
So, the whole legacy of all of these books that you see around me are where we have this enormous project right now to build an international collaborative network of pre-modern Japanese books, which will have 300,000 titles. Millions of volumes of books online, already hundreds of thousands are already up there, but we'll be finished in about three years. We're building this enormous digital resource for everyone to use beyond the humanities and beyond scholarship.
So today, in the middle of this very, very trying time that we're all sharing together, I really want to invite people to delve in and to open up, first of all, through our website to see what Japanese books actually have to offer for us today. Okay?
Japanese books also have a lot of really good information about things that we're interested in. For example, from the 17th century on in Kyoto or Osaka or Edo, a lot of recipe books get published in Japan. For example, there's one book right here, which is really interesting. It's called 100 Rare Recipes of Tofu . It's this really, really small kind of really nice book, which was published by woodblock print in Kyoto in the late 18th century and it has precisely 100 recipes of how to use tofu as food. It's a really nice illustration in the beginning here of women at a shop outside of Kyoto who are broiling tofu on sticks with miso sauce on top of them to sell to people. Okay?
It's really, really funny. It's interesting. There are illustrations, there are little stories that come together, and it's very, very useful. Some of the recipes are really simple. You just cut up the tofu, and put some ginger on it and some soy sauce and there you go. But then there are some recipes that require two or three days of fermenting, re-fermenting the tofu and making sauces for it that are really, really complicated. So it's like tofu recipes 101 all the way up to graduate school in one book. It's fascinating.
A lot of books that we see around us have a lot to do with the hurdles and the problems and the difficulties that we face today living in the modern world. Japanese people, as I said earlier, writers really tend to write down everything really, really closely, observe everything. And for example, all of the literature about infective diseases, some of it is like really, really serious, very, very... here's one sort of rigorous for the time. This is a late 18th-century book of how to prevent and treat measles, which was published in Kyoto in the late 18th century. Some of the books are very, very serious.
But also, in the middle of some of these horrible infection disasters, people would need to get some sort of release and to laugh and to be able to see themselves objectively and question what they're actually doing. And through that, to gain a sense of solidarity, Japanese people in the 18th century or the 19th century, when they're going through, for example, a measles epidemic, they knew that they needed to make distance. The notion of social distancing was here in Japan. There weren't any good drugs, no antibodies, obviously no penicillin, so people will just have to wait it out. But there were systems within the society of how to take care of people who couldn't take care of themselves because they were poor because they didn't have access to other cultural capital. How to gain your footing again after the disease has left you and how you return to society, how to rebuild the society.
Authors, novelists, comic novelists, playwrights, all took on these topics as a source for creating stories. And some of them really are... I mean, I don't want to sound like I'm just speaking off the cuff or I'm taking things lightly, but Edo writers would find laughter in almost everything in life. For example, there's this one novel which was written by a very popular light comic novelist named Shikitei Samba, published in Edo in 1803. I've translated the title as A Comedy of Measles. Measles at the time was a deadly disease, but he's writing the short story, which turns measles and the infection and the way that people deal with it into something that's kind of funny, and then we can sort of laugh at and get our grip on perhaps through laughing with people around you. Okay? It starts like this:
Since summer began, men, women, just about everybody in their thirties, it seems, has been groaning out this one song: "I've got no time to sleep. Wish the doctor's meds keep me alive 'cause measles won't go."
Everything they drink or eat is tasteless. It has no taste and all they can do is wait it out, isolated, alone, counting the 12 days until symptoms abate. Neither prince nor pauper is spared. Nobles hide behind their beaded curtains, but the pungent smell of medicinal herbs beats out the fine, sweet fragrance of aloeswood incense.
Further down the ranks, a stableman has coughed himself into a fine, husky voice which fits his vocation. That rasp, however, may stop his horses in their tracks, but the coughing never stops, and continues to torture him day-in and day-out.
Very, very sort of light essay-like. This is the introduction to the story, within the story, you get people, actors, courtesans in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, all of these people who labored with people in front of them depended on people having customers, guests around them, sitting around alone, but then finding out what it's really like to be alone and to be dependent on the people around them. It's this very, very comical story, but it's also very, very touching. It shows the commonality that we all have and how difficult it is to maintain distance and also feel connected to people around you in the same situation.
We have an original book right here. The next course of measles infection came along in the 1820s in Edo, 1824 to be specific. And in that year, another writer wrote another simple short story about measles, a sort of comedy story of measles. This is what it looks like. You open it up. And then there's this woodblock print illustration at the beginning of a drug store - it's a medicine shop - with people coming in and going out, buying lots and lots of medicine - not toilet paper, but medicine - for people who are sick at home. The story, which is written in a very simple script for Japanese people, who perhaps didn't have a very high rate or level of literacy, goes on and on about the different places that are usually really, really crowded and what they look like today at this time.
We know that Edo, which is Tokyo today, was the most highly populated, densely populated city in the world, surpassed London in the 18th century. And so when anything like measles came along, it really, really took a lot of lives and destroyed the economy. And it took a long time again for society to rebound and to recover. But people, again, as I said, were, in a way, used to these challenges and would form their own social circles outside of families or outside of their own domains and so forth to join their forces together with people and to share with them as well.
This book that I have in my hand right now was published in 1858. Precisely 10 years before the Meiji Restoration, the beginning of the modern era in Japan, cholera had arrived as an infective disease from Europe. This book here is episodes about people who were actually struck by cholera and didn't recover.
The frontest piece, this polychrome illustration that you see at the beginning of it, is something that's actually very hard to look at. It's a crematorium on the outskirts of Edo, where a lot of men have brought corpses, have brought the coffins of people. Japanese traditionally have these round barrel-like coffins in order to bury. But so many people felt ill that they needed to cremate them. And at all of the cremation sites, there was not enough tinder and not enough people to actually take care of the bodies themselves.
So, we have this scene here of dozens and dozens of people who passed away that are inside of their coffins with name tags on each of the barrels and people running around trying to figure out how to actually organize it; Japanese metropolitan city dwellers at this period.
This wouldn't be something that everybody would see every day, but would imagine, would see, could imagine what's actually going on beyond their own neighborhood and so forth. And they didn't try to avoid it. They would stare at it and look at the actual reality and share that in part as a warning, as a common way to know that one has to keep one's distance, one has to stay clean, one has to be very, very careful in order not to get sick like this.
A lot of the stories in this book, as I said, are about people who passed away and the way that the people who survived them, memorialized them, and remembered them, and sent them off.
Here's another illustration which is a view from above of a very, very quiet, perhaps Edo suburb, sort of rural district where a young person has passed away, and is being given a funeral by all of the villages nearby. You can see the funeral procession leading away into the distance.
So there are lots of really, really interesting stories here as well. For example, here's an illustration of a story of a very poor couple who lived in the Yushima district at the center of Edo. They were really, really liked by people in the neighborhood. They worked, they didn't have a lot of money, but they both came down with cholera. The man was the main wage earner and he got sicker and sicker. So, his wife began to take on extra jobs. She would work late into the night, and then she became ill as well, and sadly passed away before her husband.
This couple was really liked, respected in the neighborhood. They weren't of high class. Obviously, they didn't have any money, but they were very kind to the people around them. So, when the wife died, friends and neighbors pitched in and they paid for the funeral. The husband wasn't able to attend because he was ill himself. After she was cremated, the monk - you can see here - who's offering prayers to the soul of the woman who had just died at night alone, suddenly turns around and he sees the ghost of the woman who's passed away. It turns into a ghost story.
She's very, very sad. She says that she can't move on to her next life, enter into paradise because she's worried about her husband, whether he'll survive, whether the people around will be kind to him, whether they will allow him to enter back into their society if he gets well together. She comes back and she cries sadly, and she hopes that her husband will be well. We also find out later on reading that people learn about that, and they get together, bring food over and they try to support the man who's been left alone after his wife passes away.
There are a lot of stories, a lot of real documentary records of how people survived, how they reconstituted, or rebuilt society after these catastrophes. And there were also a lot of really, very, very interesting botanical or animal-related, natural-related accounts of what happens when society is broken down, what happens to the environment, how people grow back to that.
All of the books that I've shown you today are on our website. You can access them, download them for free. We also have on repository a lot of articles and essays about Japanese literature from the middle ages through the early modern period and all sorts of ways of actually looking through the legacy, the depth of Japanese culture, and how Japanese people here mingled among themselves, try to put their power, put all of their resources together when trouble occurred and when those troubles went away, how they faced off with each other and try to regenerate and rebuild their societies together.
I hope that you'll be able to, in the meantime until you can actually come and visit us here in Tokyo, to get some courage or to gain some sort of hope or perhaps some sort of seed or seedling for innovation in your own life, looking through and thinking about together with us the very, very sort of deep legacy of one culture's historical documents.
Anyway, hope to see you again live here in Tokyo in the not too distant future.