We all react differently to Jane Austen’s books: some of us love them, obsess, and some think she just wrote really unrealistic love stories. Japan, however, developed a unique relationship with the famous writer. Unlike her fellow countrymen’s ambivalence about her talents, Austen was welcomed during the early Meiji Restoration period. Early Japanese scholars and authors believed Austen depicted her works so accurately that she must had been highly regarded in her time. Unbeknownst to them was the fact that Austen was largely unrecognized as a writer during her life; it was not until 1817 that her works amassed a larger readership building the path for what would later be dubbed Austenmania.
Japan was partially closed off under the Shogun rule until 1868 when it became open to Westerners again. Besides making its ports accessible, Japanese officials decided that the country needed to integrate Western ideas, customs, and business models. The campaign was meant to foster creativity and revive the country’s culture that had not contributed to the world ever since it exiled foreigners. Japan even expunged all foreign influence by relocating any Non-Japanese to Dejima, a 130-acre artificial island built in 1634 in Nagasaki. It sounds unlikely that Japanese during the Meiji restoration would even undertake translating or reading Austen’s works; after all, her focus centers on marriages, family dynamics, and social constrictions. How could the newly engaged Japan connect with these scenarios? The time frame between Jane Austen’s death in 1817 to Japan reopening its ports in 1868 is also another point that potentially could had stilted her fame from germinating as her works could had been lost, forgotten, or never been introduced to any eminent university in Japan.
Japanese students in Tokyo University were presented works by Flaubert and Zola and the social and existential ideas of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky that by the time Lafcadio Hearn, an early English literature professor at Tokyo University in 1896, gave lectures on Jane Austen’s “genius” Japanese students resisted him. They thought Austen works were outdated, trivial. Hearn also had his own reservations about introducing the Pride & Prejudice author to Japan, voicing: “I am not sure whether you [the Japanese] could like Austen or not. . . [T]he kind of life described, the suffering and the follies described, would probably seem very strange to most of you.” Hearn was obvious in signaling out that Japanese readers would not understand the nuances around marriages, proposals, and courtships because that was not the culture they followed. Austen’s descrition can muzzle any audience from understanding what is important because some relative background about the time period is needed to notice undertoned jokes. For example, in Emma, Jane Fairfax (the impoverished Miss Bates’s niece whom Emma dislikes) and her aunts arrive after the other guests have dined because they are impoverished gentry, but Emma can dine first as she is gentry. In other words, Emma is the cool lead in the lunch table and no one else can sit until she sits down. Not knowing the social customs, however, did not prevent Japanese readers from engaging with Austen’s wit.
Hearn campaigned for Jane Austen’s canonization in Japan, but it was Natsume Sōseki’s (夏目漱石) that established Japan’s love for her works. Sōseki had a tremendous impact on Japanese culture that he was honored by being printed on Japan’s currency until 2004. Sōseki considered Austen’s writing superior that of any “advanced writer,” declaring she captured reality’s undertone beauty. Sōseki fell for Austen’s writing because it mirrored his idea that nature (that is everyday life) must be presented to readers objectively rather than in florid banter and psychological runoffs. He nurtured Austen’s image in Japan and even based the literary ideal of 側転 きょうし (follow Heaven, forsake the self) on Austen’s novels.
Nogami Toyoichirō (野上 とよいちろう), under Sōseki’s tutelage, translated Pride & Prejudice (高慢と偏見) for a Japanese audience in 1926. Toyoichirō’s wife, who went under the pen name Yaeko Nagomi, proofread her husband’s translations because she read the original English version under Sōseki’s supervision and guidance. During the Meiji restoration, however, some Japanese worried that Western beliefs and customs were dominating their culture, suppressing Japanese from creating a new powerful identity. But Austen’s novels connected with Japanese readers because her works revolved on decision, using sense and logic, and finding happiness by keeping to one’s morals. At the time, the West was courting Japan similar to Mr. Wickham’s flirtations with Elizabeth Bennet: accepting a hasty proposal would only hinder Japan from contributing to the world. Possibly, it was this contrast between Austen’s novels and what the Japanese felt at the time that made her works popular. Yaeko Nagomi (やエコ 和み), for example, was so enamored with Austen’s writing style that she mimicked it for her novel, マチコ (Machiko). She wrote in her journal: “Every time I read [Pride & Prejudice], I admire it more than before…this is, indeed, a novel true to nature…I had hoped that the quality of my next novel would match at least that of Austen… If I reached such a level of accomplishment, I would surely congratulate myself.”
Machiko tells the story of a modern Japanese Elizabeth Bennet, Machiko, who must decide whether to marry the cultural industrialist Kawai (Mr. Darcy) whom she “judg[es] to be incapable of distinguishing” his friends from his enemies or the revolutionary activist Seki (Mr. Wickham), who “attracts her strongly both ideologically and physically.” Machiko, however, unlike Pride and Prejudice, uses the industrial Japan in the throes of economic crisis and workers’ militancy as the main background that propels Machiko to decide between being a industrialist or a revolutionary. Yaeko’s Machiko is one of the earliest spinoffs of Jane Austen’s work in Japan. The second was Kurahashi Yumiko’s 夢の浮橋 (The Bridge of Dreams, 1971) where she fused the Austen story with classical Japanese narratives.
In Japan, it was not until 1950 that Iwanami, a prestigious publishing house, made available a second Pride & Prejudice translation by Akira Tomita. This particular translator saw the book as an educational novel and “the best social novel in the world.” Though Japanese admired Austen’s works and satirical voice, they also made dialogue changes to fit verbal expressions that a Japanese audience would understand better. These translations were commercially successful because they maintained Austen’s witty spirit without changing the entire novel’s flow or adding any archaic language.
The history of Austen’s translated adaptations is important because it let’s us see that even though we are different ethnicities, culturally we value similar customs: morality, justice, and marriage.. Japan made Austen Japanese because her works connected with their literary and cultural beliefs. It was her early admirers and translators that initiated her fame that had it not been for them she would had remained unknown in Japan. Today it seems unrealistic for someone to not know Austen. Japan made her their own, Spain the same, and Americans too, nurturing new readerships and even greater devotees.