The Beat writers, especially Jack Kerouac (1922–1969), William Burroughs (1914–1997), Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), and Gary Snyder (1930–), have been well known in Japan. Though Snyder’s differences from the other three, such as his West Coast background and a reformist and edifying stance, are obvious, here we choose not to be fussy about the application of a name, and simply follow his inclusion as in Ann Charter’s The Penguin Book of the Beats (1992). The Beat writers have been eagerly translated and read in Japan, though they are not a common focus of academic literary study. They exerted influence on writers and artists, in particular in terms of a rebellious attitude toward the conformist society and formalized artistic conventions prevailing in Japan. One conspicuous aspect of their impact is that it is part of the influx of American popular, mainly youth, culture since the 1950s, involving jazz, folk, and rock music, as well as numerous films depicting antiheroes on the road. Some Japanese poets, most notably Shiraishi Kazuko (1931–) and Yoshimasu Gōzō (1939–) were directly inspired by the Beats, and others unwittingly formed parallel developments. Assessing their specific achievements requires considering the historical context of modern Japanese poetry. The Beats, in turn, were attracted by Eastern cultures and religions, especially Buddhism; Snyder through his stay in Japan for the practice and study of Zen Buddhism had direct contact with Japanese poets, academics, and activists. Generally speaking, Japanese today, though they usually have some inkling of what Zen is, are not necessarily aware of the Buddhist heritage informing their basic worldview. Still, literary manifestations of what Alan Watts termed “Beat Zen,” in particular Kerouac’s, are not dissimilar to the religious attitude of many Japanese toward the world, which tends to seek to intuit a sense of enlightenment or salvation here and now, beyond humanly delimited distinctions and preconceptions.
Why have so many Japanese people been fascinated with one of the most distinctively “American” writers, Mark Twain? Over the past hundred years, Mark Twain has influenced Japanese culture in a variety of ways. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe claimed that Huckleberry Finn was one of the “roots of his inspiration as a writer” and called Huck one of the heroes who means the most to him in world literature. However, it was often necessary for Japanese writers to “Japanize” Twain’s works in accordance with the cultural and political norms of contemporary Japanese society. For instance, Kuni Sasaki’s Huckleberry Monogatari (1921), the first Japanese translation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, significantly bowdlerized Huckleberry for Japanese juvenile readers, following the period’s genteel conventions of juvenile literature. In Jiro Osaragi’s samurai novel Hanamaru Kotorimaru (1939), an adaptation of Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, the elements of didacticism, rigid class hierarchy, and patriarchal relationships, all significant in contemporary imperial Japan, were particularly emphasized. During the American occupation after World War II, a number of Japanese juvenile translations of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn appeared. They not only idealized Tom and Huck as democratic American heroes, but also considerably tamed them out of concern that those untamed heroes might justify juvenile delinquency, which was common in the post-war moral confusion. In the sphere of Japanese popular culture, Twain is everywhere. Twain and the characters in his works frequently appear in popular science fiction, television commercials, musicals, repertory theaters, documentary films, and theme parks. An animated TV series depicting Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer achieved record-breaking popularity among Japanese children in the 1970s and 1980s. These popular cultural adaptations sometimes reflected the changing trend of Japanese juvenile television anime and the development of themes in late 20th-century Japanese society, such as the empowerment of women and increasing awareness of the necessity to represent blacks.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were fascinated by Asian philosophies and religions. The two American philosophers discovered “Asia” in their own Transcendentalist views of nature and human ethics. Beginning with the works of Frederic Carpenter and Arthur Christy in the 1930s, American scholars have undertaken comprehensive studies of the ways in which Oriental ideas and religions, such as Neoplatonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Persian poetry, Confucianism, and Daoism, influenced American Transcendentalism. In this global age, Emerson and Thoreau, as transnational figures, have come to be given a great deal of attention.
Few scholars today realize that the works of Emerson and Thoreau were widely read by Japanese intellectuals during the Meiji and Taishō periods (1868–1926). The Japanese highly admired the spirit of independence and freedom advocated by the two Concordians. Although studies of their reception in Japan have been made, and many of their writings have been translated, the strength of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s influence on Japanese readers may not yet be fully understood.
Suzuki Daisetsu made a significant contribution to Western philosophical thought by bringing the teachings of Zen Buddhism to the attention of the Western world. He felt deep sympathy with Emerson’s and Thoreau’s views of nature. Influenced by Suzuki, some American and Japanese scholars have remarked on similarities between Zen Buddhism and American Transcendentalism. Until now, scholars in the West have tended to assume that Zen Buddhism was the primary medium of Japanese interest in Emerson and Thoreau, partly because Zen Buddhism was in vogue during the middle decades of the 20th century. While it is true that both Emersonian and Thoreauvian philosophies and Zen Buddhism center on a spirit of seeking the spring of universal spirituality within the inner soul, Suzuki’s emphasis on that similarity may be one reason for the current difficulty in understanding the diversity and complexity of both Eastern and Western philosophies and religions.
In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry opened not only the doors of a “double-bolted land” as Herman Melville called Japan in Moby-Dick (1851) but also the possibilities of modern literature. While it is a half-Chinook, half-Scot American called Ranald McDonald who smuggled himself into Japan in 1848 and became the first teacher of English in the country, Gerald Vizenor, a distinguished Native American novelist, completed a postmodern novel Hiroshima Bugi: Atomu 57 (2003), remixing Moby-Dick with Matsuo Basho’s haiku travelogue Narrow Road to the Far North, Lafcadio Hearn a.k.a. Koizumi Yakumo’s Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, and Ranald MacDonald’s Japan: Story of Adventure. After the opening of Japan, Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834–1901), one of the founding fathers of modern Japan, visited Europe and the United States of America, and decided to Westernize his own country. Being the first translator of Thomas Jefferson’s composed “The Declaration of Independence,” Fukuzawa published a million-selling An Encouragement of Learning (a series of seventeen pamphlets published from 1872 to 1876), in which the author emphasized the significance of sciences and the spirit of independence in the way comparable to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (1837) and “The American Scholar” (1841).
While Professor Thomas Sergeant Perry, a great nephew of Commodore Perry, started teaching American literature in 1898 at Keio University, which Fukuzawa established, Yone Noguchi (Noguchi Yonejiro, 1875–1947), a great admirer of Edgar Allan Poe and Matsuo Basho, became famous as a cosmopolitan poet in the United States, receiving good reviews for the first collection of poems all written in English, Seen and Unseen (1896). It is highly plausible that his correspondence with Ezra Pound provided the latter with a key to promoting the poetics of imagism. Following the example of Noguchi, Nishiwaki Junzaburo (1894–1982), another cosmopolitan poet famous for the translation of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, studied English literature and philology at Oxford University and published in 1925 the first volume of poetry Spectrum in London. Thus, Ezra Pound, who once admired Yone Noguchi in the 1910s, came to recommend Nishiwaki as the finalist for the Nobel Literary Prize in 1957.
The year 1955 saw the first postwar climax of transpacific literary history. William Faulkner, a major American modernist and recent laureate of Nobel Prize in Literature, paid his first visit to Japan in the summer of 1955, giving a series of seminars in Nagano. Speculating on Japanese culture, he gave an insight into the literary affinity between Japan and the American South in an open letter entitled “To the Youth of Japan.” American as he is, Faulkner shares the memory of lost war with the postwar Japanese, for he came from Mississippi, part of the Deep South, the very defeated nation in the Civil War. Without this memory of lost war, Faulkner could not have developed his apocryphal imagination. Therefore, it is very natural that Faulkner’s visit to Japan invited quite a few major Japanese authors to develop their own apocryphal imagination, ending up with major works published in 1973, the year of Oil Shock, all inspired by Faulkner’s double novel The Wild Palms (1939): Endo Shusaku’s Catholic novel Upon the Dead Sea, Oe Kenzaburo’s nuclear novel The Flood Invades My Soul, and Komatsu Sakyo’s science fiction novel Japan Sinks. Noting that the year of 1973 also saw the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, we could well locate here the genesis of transpacific postmodern literature in the 21st century.