Monday, August 25, 2008

The Jiro Osaragi Memorial Museum - who?

Last weekend I visited Yokohama, where I strolled into the Jiro Osaragi Memorial Museum and discovered a few surprises, even though almost every word was Japanese.

Almost – some were French. Osaragi was a 20th century Japanese writer who was immersed in French literature. Romain Rolland was a particular favorite, and Osaragi translated Rolland into Japanese. Maybe this is part of the reason I had never heard of Osaragi. Rolland’s reputation is not so healthy now, either.

On one wall of the museum one can see Osaragi’s complete sets of Hugo, Baudelaire, Merimeé, Zola, Flaubert, and others. Only two books in English, both by the author.

These two novels are The Journey and The Homecoming, as far as I can tell his only novels translated into English. The latter book has the distinction of being the first Japanese novel translated into English after World War II. Both novels are actually about the American occupation, so the interest at that time is understandable. Both are in print (both in Japanese and English) in Japan, at least, and both are available for a pittance, used, at Amazon and Powells.

The topical subjects make me curious about the quality of the novels. Are they imitative of styles that are now unfashionable? Are they period pieces, of interest only to students of that time and place? Or is this another fine writer crowded out of the foreign market by the bigger names? Kawabata, Soseki, Tanizaki, and so on. Quota filled. No room for Jiro Osaragi. He also wrote a series of best-selling samurai novels, so snobbery, maybe? More simply, is he worth reading?

He does seem to have a few more of his books available in French. That leads to one of the two most interesting things I learned in the museum, but I’ll save those for tomorrow.

The museum contains Osaragi’s archives, as well as his books and memorabilia. In America, this would all be boxed away in some big university library. In Japan, it’s in a charming, elegant museum* that has its own tea shop.

* Best I could do for a link. Don't bother with the "Official Site" button - it's for - I don't know what. Yokohama tourism?

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