Thursday, August 28, 2008

Koda Rohan - 19th century Japanese novelist

Not many 19th century Japanese writers have made their way into English. It takes Donald Keene 300 pages of Dawn to the West, his history of modern Japanese literature, to get to Soseki, the first writer with an international reputation. So, merits aside, there's plenty of writing in the 19th century. What are the merits?

Pagoda, Skull & Samurai is a collection of two novellas and a ghost story, all from the early 1890s, by Koda Rohan. All three stories are interesting in their way, but the novella The Five-Storied Pagoda (1891-2) is especially accessible. That does not sound like such high praise, I know. It's an acknowledgment of my limitations.

A Buddhist temple is going to build a five-storied pagoda, presumably much like the one to the left that I saw at the Senso-ji temple in Tokyo. Two master carpenters (and architects, really), the successful Genta and the pathetic Jubei, both apply to build the pagoda. The saintly abbot makes the two men figure out the problem for themselves.

Rohan was known, and apparently criticized, for stories like these, with real ethical dilemmas and no villains. I find - I think most modern readers will find - the story to be pleasingly complicated. What do we want with a villain?

Jubei the carpenter may be a fool but he is also, we discover, a real artist, creative and individualistic. It's this strain of the story that makes The Five-Storied Pagoda accessible. I'm used to reading stories about artists' problems - their role in the world, the sacrifices they make, or don't, for their creativity. The Five-Storied Pagoda puts these familiar themes in a new context. New to me, anyway.


  1. I read this story in school and them promptly forgot all about Koda, thank you for reminding me to look his work up again.

  2. You've confirmed what I have pieced together, that in Japan this is a famous story, a classic.

  3. Am reading right it!

    Just in case you're interested, Koda Rohan is also the hero of a historical fantasy novel "Teito Monogatari" by Hiroshi Aramata, which was also pretty popular in Japan during the late 80's.

  4. I did not know anything about Teito Monogatati. It sounds amazing. Thanks for the note.