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  • Obsessions with the Sino-Japanese Polarity in Japanese Literature
  • Wiebke Denecke (bio)
Atsuko Sakaki . Obsessions with the Sino-Japanese Polarity in Japanese Literature. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006. ix, 269 pp. Hardcover $59.00, ISBN 0–8248–2918–2.

This book is for lovers of perennial problématiques and for treasure hunters in search of texts and people that have fallen to the wayside in diversely enticing ways: A Japanese official—traveling to China in search of his late father who has just been reborn as a Chinese prince—ends up having a child with his father's mother, a Yang Guifei–esque consort, who is herself about to be reborn as the child of her Japanese stepsister. There is a female poet of kanshi, Sino-Japanese poetry, whose image became tarnished by rumors about her romantic liaison with her patron. A Spanish woman and an Irish woman, well versed in Xiao Tong's Literary Selections, Qu Yuan's Encountering Sorrow, and the Classic of Poetry, compose kanshi in Philadelphia to entertain their Chinese and Japanese male friends. Who is the Japanese official? The protagonist in The Tale of Middle Councilor Hamamatsu (1060), an imaginary travelogue written in the vernacular (wabun) that spins out complex fantasies of the cultural impact of the Japanese in China. Who is the slandered kanshi poet? Ema Saikā (1787–1861), whom Sakaki puts on par with Murasaki Shikibu, but whose kanshi oeuvre was underrated because she wrote in a predominantly male genre, as a protégé of the sinologist and kanshi poet Rai San'yō (1780–1832), which gained her equal amounts of admiration and contempt. Who are the Spanish and Irish women? Protagonists in Shiba Shirō's (1852–1922) political novel Unexpected Encounters with Beauties (Kajin no kigû), which was wildly popular in its own day but looks now like a swan song of literary production in Sino-Japanese (kanbun), which has rapidly faded during the twentieth century as a medium of social distinction and communication with other East Asian countries.

These are only three out of a wealth of thought-provoking snapshots and plots of Japanese literary engagement with China between the tenth and the twentieth centuries, through which Atsuko Sakaki's new book guides us with a sweep of force. Her book transcends ordinary boundaries: those between fiction and fact; real places and imaginary spaces; protagonists, beasts, and historical figures; wishful and virtual history. More important, it wants us actively to undo the boundaries and binaries that Japanese created in representing themselves and what represented China for them. Sakaki identifies four binary metaphors that have dominated Japan's vision of China and Chineseness: China as the foreign and exotic (versus Japan as domestic and indigenous); China as intellectual, conceptual, abstract (versus Japan as sentimental, spontaneous, material); China as masculine (versus Japan as feminine); China as traditional and rigid (versus Japan as modern and variable). Most of these binaries go back at least to the Heian period, as Sakaki's book vividly [End Page 360] shows. But their systematic and unrelenting enforcement and ostracizing power in deciding who belonged and did not belong into an indigenous, purified literary canon that represented the modern Japanese nation is of modern origin and intent. Although nativism and modern nationalism amputated Sino-Japanese literature (kanbun) from the national canon of Japanese literature and reinforced what Sakaki calls the "Sino-Japanese polarity," the ensuing death of kanbun, the productive literary language of Japan for not quite one and a half millennia, has neutralized this polarity. This might be in part what Sakaki means when she says in her introduction that the conclusion to her book "was written with the anticipation of liberation from the stake of the 'Sino-Japanese polarity'" (p. vii). In preparation for that step, which goes beyond the boundaries of the book, she shows how contingent, malleable, and imaginary the configurations of the Sino-Japanese polarity have been. Sakaki does not mechanically cover a millennium of Sino-Japanese literary engagements, but uncovers a string of thought-provoking showcases. The Sino-Japanese polarity is to her more than just the contrastive dialectics between "Japanese" (wa) and "Chinese-style" (kan) elements in the...


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pp. 360-368
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