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.