I found an interesting book in the library a while ago that I’d like to introduce before I return it. It’s entitled Japan in Days of Yore and is from 1887.
There are several interesting tidbits about this book. First of all is the translator, Walter Dening: he’s a mathematician and missionary who was friends with Lafcardio Hearn. Second, what on earth is the random text that has been translated here, a samurai tale? Who knows.
The book contains a pull-out illustration at the beginning, an “old-fashioned” woodblock print that is in keeping with both the book’s content and its binding. Despite being a hardback book, the paper is bound in Japanese style, with pages printed on only one side and then folded in half, with the edges bound in the spine, instead of being single sheets printed on both sides. This means that each page edge is a fold, creating “double” pages that one can peek into (although there’s nothing printed on the inside).
This isn’t the only book in the Days of Yore series. There are at least five books, three of which are a three-volume life of Miyamoto Musashi. Japan in the days of yore definitely consists of epic samurai tales. The last volume I’ve found was published in 1906, but even then, the traditional Japanese-style paper binding persists even within Western hardback covers. It’s a fascinating combination of technology, American missionaries, ideas about tradition and past, and the persistence of Edo-period (1600-1867) fiction into the 20th century – even in translation.
Given the dates, these stories are some of the first Japanese literature translated into English. Yet they would have been considered light fiction, adventure stories. They’re not considered the great literature of Japan’s past, like The Tale of Genji (which was first translated by Kencho Suematsu in 1900, contemporaneous with Days of Yore). They’re not even generally read anymore: they’ve disappeared into the mass that is samurai tales from the Edo period, hundreds upon hundreds of titles – not to mention the massive amount of parodic fiction and love stories that also exist from this time. Edo literature is often skipped over these days, save for Ihara Saikaku (who only became part of the canon after these translations were published). We read Genji and Kawabata and Murakami Haruki instead. But at the turn of the 20th century, these stories are what Americans in Japan found worthy of translation and publication, and clearly Japanese publishers felt the same way. Days of Yore came out around the same time as Hearn’s translations of Ueda Akinari’s ghost stories, again from the Edo period. Samurai and ghosts: Japan of yore to American missionaries of the late 19th century, and Japanese translations of yore to us now.