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Nyorai is the Japanese pronunciation of rúlái 如来, which is in turn the Chinese translation of tathāgata. The etymology of the original term is unclear, but in the context of the Mahayana Buddhism that swept China and later Japan, it refers to either the original Buddha or another who, like him, made a mercy mission to our world to spread truth and light. Bhaiṣajyaguru 薬師如来 or the “Medicine Buddha”, Amitābha 阿弥陀如来 a.k.a. Amida “Pure Landlord” Buddha, and the Five Dhyani Buddhas 五智如来 are just a few of the nyorai in the popular Japanese pantheon.

Nyorai has also been applied to the Christian God. When Francis Xavier and his retinue arrived in Japan in the 16th century, “Deusu Nyorai” was one of the many attempts made at translating His name (which also included a disastrous dead-end in which He was identified with Vairocana). When Japan reopened to Christianity in Meiji times, this appellation was revived with delight by Akutagawa and other writers, who took the liberty of applying it to Mary and Jesus as well.

But it was Tsubouchi Shōyō who took the logical next step and applied it to secular bringers of wisdom and joy, in a mini-essay collected in his 1896 Bungaku sono oriori 『文学その折々』 (“Literary Occasions”), under the title Gaikoku bi-bungaku nyorai 『外国美文学如来』 (“Foreign-literature nyorai”).


Translators of fine literature, whose works strike me as faithful to the original, I praise with the term “nyorai.” The Meiji literary world is fortunate in already having three nyorai: the English Literature Nyorai, Morita Shiken; the German Literature Nyorai, Mori Ōgai; and the Russian Literature Nyorai, Hasegawa [Futabatei] Shimei. Of late, Uchida Fuchian [later “Roan”], Hara Hōitsuan, and others have also been exerting their utmost efforts in translation. It may not be long before the literary world adds two or three new nyorai to its ranks. I look forward to an ongoing stream of hundreds of arhats riding purple clouds to the heavens, becoming nyorai, and returning to our world; the rains that end this great drought will be something to behold.

Tsubouchi’s imagery is distinctly Buddhist, with its arhats and purple clouds (紫雲), but it’s strictly a metaphor. The traditional-mystical Buddhist “west,” as in Journey To The, has been abandoned. In its place we find the modern West: multi-faceted yet essentially unitary, and possessed of secret teachings that can render its adherents superhuman.

Hyperbole? Well, yeah. But, as Kōnosu Yukiko argues in Meiji-Taishō honyaku wandaarando 『明治大正 翻訳ワンダーランド』, with so many Japanese writers determined to create a “modern” (i.e. Western) literature in Japanese, translations of actual Western literature were hugely influential as both exemplars and taste-setters. For example, the runaway critical and popular success of Wakamatsu Shizuko’s translation of Little Lord Fauntleroy in the 1890s (as “小公子”) was equally a success for the genbun itchi movement (towards the “unification of speech and language,” i.e. away from the archaic written style that almost had to be taught as a second language), which had informed Wakamatsu’s technique. And, of course, it’s no coincidence that two of Tsubouchi’s nyorai are more famous today for their original works in Japanese than their translations — or that the central figure of modern Japanese literature, Natsume Sōseki, was a government-approved specialist in English literature.

Special bonus home-grown nyorai! From Taneda Santoka’s journal circa July 1932:


I like solitude, but it is not un-lonely; at least I have drink to comfort me, namu nihonshu nyorai.


July 22, 2009

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

13 Responses

  1. W. David MARX Says:

    I find it interesting that a vast majority of the most famous writers in Japan have been scholars of foreign literature — either formally like Natsume and Ogai or informally like Murakami Haruki. Most cultural leaders had to have an “ambassador” type role, but now that the complex towards the West is almost gone, will this communication with the rest of the world still be an asset?

  2. M-Bone Says:

    A similar trend runs through anime as well with Miyazaki as a former chidren’s literature research circle member and Oshii claiming to have watched 1000 movies (mostly non-Japanese) in one year.

    “but now that the complex towards the West is almost gone, will this communication with the rest of the world still be an asset?”

    I want to see more Japanese authors looking outside, but finding alternatives to the Japan / West (meaning America and Western Europe) dialectic that has become worse than boring.

    Two good examples of this happening – Isozaki citing Borges and “magic realism” as inspirations and Uehashi Nahoko turning to Le Guinn’s alternative to whitebread “rise men of the West” Tolkien stuff for her “Asian high fantasy” works which are some of the best stuff that’s been done in Japanese kid lit in ages.

  3. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Well, let’s not go crazy here. The involvement of Ogai and even Soseki in Western literature was qualitatively different from anything post-Taisho. They were trying to reboot Japanese literature completely. And they did — so well that work like theirs no longer seemed necessary. In literature the “complex towards the West” has been gone for at least 80 years, with maybe a brief relapse right after WWII. Tanizaki, Kawabata, Murakami (Ryu): these are not ambassadors for the west.

    This isn’t to say that important artists haven’t looked outside Japan for inspiration. But that happens worldwide; it’s not a complex. Mishima loved Yeats, but that was because of what Yeats was doing (volk-based mythology), not the mere fact that Yeats was western and famous. Miyazaki has made telling quality stories for children his life’s work, plus he lives in a country with an unusually marked interest in children’s lit and music; it would be weird if he _wasn’t_ interested in how the outside world does it.

    All of this is completely different from Group Sounds bands covering and respectfully emulating imported records and visiting acts. (In the case of Miyazaki and Oshii in particular, if anything the West has a complex towards them!)

    (High) fantasy is an interesting subgenre, but really, I wouldn’t say that Japan’s output was deferential to “the West”; rather, fantasy authors worldwide are all still struggling to escape the bog of Tolkein.

  4. M-Bone Says:

    I would be the last one to compare Oshii and Miyazaki to GS. As you mentioned, it would be very strange if those guys had not paid any attention to the outside. I see it more in terms of engagement than ambassadorship.

    Marxy’s suggestion goes well for other some high literature – Oe and Endo come to mind as people who carried on elements of the Natsume / Mori “dialogue” with the West (Endo with a form of moralizing ambassador behavior) – but of course circulating at the very same time were people like Abe Kobo and Kaiko Takeshi who were interested in offering something very different. There are people that you could say have done it lately as well like (the horrid) Yamada Emi.

    We can’t, however, escape the fact that in the “golden age” of film, the “Westernized” Kurosawa (competing with John Ford, channeling Tolstoy) was not as popular or as critically acclaimed as Ozu or Imai Tadashii – two directors who didn’t seem to be in dialogue with the outside at all. Manga also quickly rejected the basic visual style and narrative tropes of American comics.

    “fantasy is an interesting subgenre, but really, I wouldn’t say that Japan’s output was deferential to “the West””

    Japanese sword and sorcery fantasy strikes me as having gone from D&D (Lodoss War, Crystania, Guinn Saga – am I missing anything pre 1985 or so?) to parody (Slayers, Orphen, Bastard) without having stopped at “literature”. There have been alternatives – I was very, very surprised to read that Miura Kentaro’s “Berserk” was not inspired by the British “Warhammer” thing – seems like an example of two ideas/world views being worked out in two different places at the same time (perhaps both as a rebellion against Tolkien – although I think that Miura’s was probably more of a second hand rebellion). And now “Moribito” and “Twelve Kingdoms” seem like really good alternatives although when it comes to escaping Tolkien’s Christianizing (perhaps backdoor, through the pastoral), Japanese have had an unfair advantage.

    In any case, it is really exceptional that the major Japanese fantasies of the “Harry Potter” decade have been Asianized, politicized, S&S epics. Perhaps Japanese kids get enough schoolboys with powers in Jump and Sunday.

  5. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    IMHO any discussion on Japanese fantasy literature must mention Yamada Fūtaro and his ninpōchō series. It has been redone again and again with names like «Ninja Scroll», «Basilisk», «Yagyū Jūbei», «Y+M», «Naruto» &c. (Also a strong influence on heavy metal group Onmyō‐za).

  6. M-Bone Says:

    I’ve read the Ninpocho stuff (and if we are going to include Yamada, have to include Shirato Sanpei as well), but discussions like this one usually draw a line between “high fantasy” (Tolkien, things that look like The Song of Roland but with elves) and so called “low fantasy” (not a quality judgement) which is set in our world or one that mirrors its politics and social structures (Conan and The Dark is Rising, Sangokushi, the Alsan novels in Japan). Of course, these are vague critical categories, but most of the Japanese ninja stuff, as well as much fantasy involving Shugendo / Onmyodo, is down to earth, gritty, and involves actual historical figures so I think that we have to consider it as something very different than the elves, magic, and dark lord style.

  7. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Yamada Eimi always struck me as engaged with “Roppongi” rather than “the West”…

  8. M-Bone Says:

    Or a bar near a military base. However, she has written a few things – like the collection “Soul Music Lovers Only” – that are entirely set in the US without any Japanese characters. There she uses the omniscient narrator rather than her “ho” persona to deliver laughable desciptions of the other in the buff or living free or whatever. She seems to be arguing across her works that Japanese people would be better off if they abandoned Japanese social norms and lived like… her silly cartoonish representations of black people. She has written about her work as encouraging Japanese people to “break out”. It strikes me as an “argument” about engagement, not necessarily a coherent one, however.

  9. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Now I kind of want to read “Soul Music Lovers Only.”

    Returning to Leo’s point, off the top of my head, what if we think about a “greater high fantasy” which is about lenses overlaid on history rather than specific details like elves, barons, and wizards? For example, Tales of the Otori would fit very nicely into a Greater High Fantasy category. Superficially, it draws heavily on Japan and Japonisme (geography, proper nouns, politics, technology — even the magic is ninja magic), but if you leach out the local color and look at the skeleton alone, it’s a standard, mildly magical, farmboy-makes-good fantasy series, set in a heroic fictional world.

    I don’t think I’ve read any Ninpocho, but if it was as influential as Leo says and it works along similar lines, you could view it as a Meiji-esque appropriation of the _tools_ of Eurocentric “high fantasy” for Japanese purposes, while leaving the _content_ well enough alone. Just like most of the Meiji authors wrote books along the lines of the foreign Serious Literature they’d read, but about Japanese people in Japan.

    (The “must not include real people” thing might be fudgeable as a cultural conversion, given that for example the Japanese equivalent of Arthurian legends would be the tale of the Heike and so on — things that can be documented to have actually happened, if not quite so glamorously.)

  10. M-Bone Says:

    Don’t read Soul Music Lovers Only!

    Yamada does, however, fit with engagement with one of those “other” Wests that I mentioned earlier as well as a sort of self-appointed ambassadorship to “blackness”. Really, however, it is the “West” of, say, American non-fiction of the 60s at its worst (think Norman Mailer writing about rippling ebony and primal rhythms). It is at once “black is beautiful” and condescending. However, I can’t think of a single reason to read Yamada other than to get angry at her.

    Tales of the Otori struck me as being more “Eragon in Japan” – failing to break out of the typical fantasy mold, it found a niche by, as you said, going with a Japonisme brand.

    Ninpocho – it is both fantasy and fantastic, however, I’m not sure that this is the right discussion in which to rework two pretty good critical concepts – a type of fantasy that creates a mythical world and a type that pretty much brings some fantastic elements into our one (or one much like it). Don’t want to go too far into anime here but I don’t think that it should be a surprise that Jubei Ninpocho director Kawajiri ended up making the Highlander anime – there are more similarities in style there than with LOTR.

    Where did the Ninpocho style come from? I have not read much in the way of interviews with Yamada Futaro (and if someone has some examples of him talking about his influences, please share) but I don’t see a Tolkien influence or anything (he started publishing his ninja books in the late 1950s – before LOTR was translated into Japanese). Off the top of my head I’d say that he was influenced by older Japanese and Chinese fantasy literature like Hakkenden (he did a retelling of it) and Suikoden, the popularity of Yoshikawa Eiji, the boom in zangyaku mono that was going on at the time (especially in film, but it also saw the publication of Nanjo Norio’s stuff, which inspired the recent manga “Shiguri”), and the ghoulish aesthetic of Yokai art and the similar vibe of some Edogawa Ranpo stuff (he wrote mystery novels before ninja).

    In any case, Yamada Futaro, like Shirato Sanpei (who makes Ninja into Burakumin), uses the Ninja POV to look at feudal society from the margins with the lives of commoners destroyed at the whim of horrible elites. The two sides are not “good and evil”, but rather “evil and pitiful victims of evil”. If there is a European influence here, it is probably the Marxist vogue among Japan’s cultured left in the 1950s – precisely the same trend that saw Nagisa Oshima make a ninja cartoon and Shimabara Rebellion film between his deconstruction of the student movement, Zainichi rights films, and teardowns of the state. All of this alternative stuff comes to together later – Miyazaki and Takahata go with Ainu as their alternative collectivist society in “Horus”, and in the 1980s, we get Ainu ninja lambasting the state in “Kamui no Ken”. This was the part of Japanese history that never got coopted as something for salarymen to study for negotiating hints.

    Who would have thought that we would end up talking about Yamada Futaro and Yamada Emi in the same thread?

  11. Chuckles Says:

    I agree. Its not a complex. Trying to deny that major figures represent cross fertilization is itself more indicative of a complex than the act of foreign inspiration itself. One very funny thing that struck me years ago when reading Bloom was that he located his anxiety of influence within the tradition of Western literature specifically with respect to Shakespeare when it ought to be clear to anyone that such anxieties are cross-traditional. Only in The Western Canon did he really make passing mention of African American, Feminist, Hispanic literature as being located within the sphere of anxiety. The agon, to be Adam in the morning is not just Freud versus Shakespeare or Dante versus Shakespeare – it could also possibly be Soseki versus Proust, but in that case, then, we say its Japan versus West and invoke macroscopic cultural dynamics that have no business being invoked actually.

    PS: I know my previous posts got canned, but I had to chip this one in for whoever sees it and no, I dont have anything to do with the spambots on Meta no.

  12. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    You’re completely right, M-bone, Fūtarō is deeply «low» fantasy —ninja Conan, not ninja LotR. I think I read once someone calling him the «Tolkien of Japan» and never thought too much about how ill a comparison it was. In any case, now that the thread mentioned not only the ninpōchō but Kamui, I’m completely satisfied. (Also I feel you’re probably spot-on with the yōkai art influence, but I’m not a real student of Japanese literature. Yet.)

    As for the «outcasts» angle— it seems to me to be a cross-genre thing, still going on strong; Japanese pop fiction always seem to romanticize the same kind of individualistic loners that would be shunned in real society (the Musashi novels, the typical shōnen hero, &c.), and those are often identified with the poor, the foreign (or alien), the inaka (Dragon Ball’s kid hero: «ore goku da»), and generally the Other. But when you try to talk seriously about outcasts, you end up like Kenzaburo Ōe.

  13. M-Bone Says:

    Ties into some of the trends we were discussing here –

    Dirty, violent fantasy masterwork with great intro by Alan Moore free for a limited time.

    and a Japan connection – Moorcock on Amano Yoshitaka –