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Reviewed by:
  • Traditional Japanese Literature
  • Robert N. Huey
Traditional Japanese Literature. Edited by Haruo Shirane. Columbia University Press, 2007. 1,288 pages. Hardcover $75.00/£48.50.

Let me say at the outset that I would never have dared to take on the task of compiling an anthology such as Traditional Japanese Literature, nor do I have the "capital" to pull it off. People have long recognized the field's need for a reexamination of the anthology of premodern literature first put out by Donald Keene in 1955 (Anthology of Japanese Literature: Earliest Era to Mid-Nineteenth Century; New York: Grove Press). Haruo Shirane, however, is one of the few people who could have brokered such a project successfully, not only because he had already laid the groundwork with the "Canon Conference" and subsequent Inventing the Classics volume (Stanford University Press, 2000), but because he has such a wide range of contacts and relationships in the field. This must have been an extraordinarily difficult task even with that kind of backing.

Furthermore—and this is what makes the project a major contribution to the field—with this volume focusing on pre-Edo literature, and its companion, Early Modern Japanese Literature (Columbia University Press, 2002), devoted to Edo literature, he has provided literature teachers and students a much wider a range of voices than has [End Page 181] heretofore been available. The "tradition" has been opened up and can now be looked at from many new angles. Longest overdue for attention has been writing in Chinese, a gap people have been commenting on for thirty years. Shirane also responds to the more recent tendency to broaden the parameters of what constitutes "literature," and by highlighting alternative voices, he seeks to provide a fuller picture of each era's cultural output. As with Keene, the goal here seems to a degree to produce a literary history, and while some today question the validity of such an activity, others, like myself, still believe there is value in providing historical grounding. But the literary history Shirane produces, with selections from works like Ōjōyōshū and Wakan rōeishū, as well as from writers like Hōnen and Abutsu, is much fuller and more nuanced than the older Keene anthology, and provides much more attention to writers previously slighted or ignored. Hats off!

That being said, there would be no point to writing (or reading!) this review if all I had to say was, "Great job!" It is a great job, but what I would like to do here is put a few other ideas on the table that people might want to bear in mind as they use this anthology, and as they assign it to their students.

I guess the biggest single surprise for me was that in organizing the volume, Shirane and his collaborators have adopted uncritically traditional political periodization. There might be pedagogical reasons for this (e.g., why should undergrads be burdened with periodizations that contradict what they learned in history class?—which of course begs the question why such a thing still goes on in history classes!), but at least the introduction could have problematized it. I saw nothing along those lines until a short passage on page 111 that allowed as how the "early Heian period" might be seen as a continuation of the ancient period and the "late Heian period" as the beginning of "medieval."

Second, I'm a little surprised that the editor of Inventing the Classics, who could see so clearly that the Meiji imperial institution was a construct, chose not to dissect the Heian iteration in the same way. In the background discussion for the Heian period, we are treated to the usual story on the Engi era being a "golden age" and Emperors Uda and Daigo successfully holding off the Fujiwara while other emperors could not (pp. 111–12), as if those damned Fujiwara were upstarts, and the imperial institution something sacred. Unfortunately, the book does not expand on who it was in subsequent ages who considered Engi a "Golden Age." Among them would be the Mikohidari house (Shunzei and Teika) and Go-Toba, who were clearly using this trope for their...


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