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  • The Undiscovered Country: Text, Translation, and Modernity in the Work of Yanagita Kunio by Melek Ortabasi
  • Fumihiko Kobayashi (bio)
The Undiscovered Country: Text, Translation, and Modernity in the Work of Yanagita Kunio By Melek Ortabasi. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. 329 pp.

Yanagita Kunio (1875–1962), author of Tales of Tōno (1910), is one of the most prolific scholars in Japanese folklore studies. He traveled throughout [End Page 363] Japan, gathering folklore preserved by locals for generations, and then proceeded to publish a number of monographs based on his countless excursions. Because of his extensive body of work, Japanese academic communities place him in high regard as a folklorist. In contrast, a popular postwar misconception about his “work’s serviceability to [Japanese] nationalism” (6) during wartime still hinders researchers from appreciating his achievements. Consequently, reactions to his work are still mixed or sometimes, unfortunately, rather negative.

However, Melek Ortabasi’s insightful Undiscovered Country breaks through the aforementioned still-lingering misconceptions, providing us with a fresh view of Yanagita’s academic world. Ortabasi painstakingly explores what motivated Yanagita to examine Japanese folklore and folkways. Her book offers readers a stimulating look at Yanagita’s richly cultivated views of Japanese culture. To scrutinize Yanagita’s motivation in writing his monographs on different facets of Japanese culture, Ortabasi focuses on his collection of works as a “translation” in terms of literary theory. By viewing his collected works through this lens, she considers Yanagita to have been a translator who attempted to verbalize characteristics of Japanese indigenous culture and the underlying national identity, including folklore, folkways, and language.

Ortabasi’s application of the translation concept is the first attempt to analyze Yanagita’s obsession with chronicling Japanese culture since his publication of Tales of Tōno (1910), which is based on stories narrated to him by his Tōno-born informant, Sasaki Kizen (1886–1933). This translated approach is a refreshing view on Yanagita’s research into Japanese culture for folklorists. Ortabasi says, “None . . . has compared his [Yanagita’s] approach to that of the translator. . . . I argue that translation is both a literal practice and an extended metaphor in Yanagita’s work, which engages so closely with this particular discourse” (11). By using this method throughout her book, Ortabasi thoroughly illustrates Yanagita’s role as a translator who devoted himself to communicating to his readers what characterizes Japanese culture as the national identity. This applied not only to the intelligentsia but also to general readers, including children.

Before the publication of Tales of Tōno, while serving as a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce (1900–1919), Yanagita had already established an interest in how to write “as one sees, as one hears, without embellishment or lies” (29–30) as “sketching style” (29) in Japanese language for articulating things as they were. Therefore, in addition to her examination of Yanagita’s way of verbalizing “the present-day reality” that he believed each supernatural story represented, Ortabasi focuses on his writing style as well: “the apparently old-fashioned [Japanese] bungo (neoclassical) style Yanagita adopted consistently through Tales of Tōno” (29). As Ortabasi [End Page 364] outlines the historical background of “the development of a modern vernacular writing style” (28) and a fact that “in adopting bungo for Tales of Tōno, Yanagita seeks a style to match the content of the stories [of the Tales of Tōno, which contains 119 stories] he wishes to relate” (49).

Ortabasi’s pioneering approach to Yanagita’s “present-day reality” effectively demonstrates that Yanagita was committed to refining his bungo, or neoclassical Japanese writing style, to best outline the local folklore as substantially informative about an undiscovered country. For example, Ortabasi mentions tale 22, one of the bewildering stories in the book, that “serves as a good example of Yanagita’s resistive bungo technique” (31). She adds, “The conciseness of this tale, which is actually one of the longer sections in Tales of Tōno, demonstrates that premodern style was not necessarily synonymous with overembellishment and circumlocution” (32). However, despite this fresh and insightful remark on Yanagita’s bungo style, Ortabasi does not always put enough emphasis on what...


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pp. 363-366
Launched on MUSE
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