If you are like most Western book collectors, you probably have little familiarity with Japanese literature. Perhaps because the Japanese language relies on three different writing systems (two of which are syllabary systems), this writer has encountered few private collections of Japanese literature that were not assembled by native speakers of the language.
This is unfortunate, for not only has Japan produced some of the world's greatest literature, it has produced some of the earliest surviving forms of world literature. Among these are one of the earliest surviving examples of the novel (The Tale of Genji); one of the world's earliest surviving examples of a story involving time travel (Urashima Tarō); Man'yōshū, one of the world's earliest surviving poetry anthologies; and Konjaku Monogatarishū, a 31-volume compilation of very early folktales from Japan, China and India, of which 28 volumes survive.
Western book collectors might be more familiar with Japanese literature if such literature were widely translated into Western languages, but such is not the case. The Japanese language is only partly to blame for this situation. History, too, is a culprit.
For over two hundred years, from ca. 1633-1853, Japan was largely isolated from the West. This at the very time when much other world literature was undergoing enormous change, and when the products of such change were being translated into a wide variety of European vernacular languages.
By contrast, the first translation of Japanese literature into German didn't take place until 1847. (Because August Pfizmaier's translation of Ryutei Tanehiko's 1821 story Ukiyoe Six-Paneled Folding Screen included reproductions of the original Japanese text and illustrations, this work became the first Japanese text ever printed in Europe from movable types, the font having been cast in the previous year, at Pfizmaier's direction, for the Imperial printing office in Vienna. The copy to your left is via the Tokyo Printing Museum.)
The Tale of Genji, the work of Japanese literature perhaps best known to Western book collectors, did not receive its first English-language translation until 1882, and its first complete English-language translation (by Arthur Waley) did not see its sixth and final volume published until 1933.
For reasons both linguistic and historical, then, most works of Japanese literature, like most Japanese authors, remain virtually unknown in the West. The exceptions (think modern Japanese authors Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami, for example, or Nobel Laureates Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburō Ōe) stand out precisely because their works have been translated into numerous Western languages.
This blinkered neglect of Japan's literary traditions by the West, though, may slowly be changing. In 2002, Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs launched a bold initiative to better promote Japanese literature worldwide. The Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP) is designed to promote Japanese literature of the past 150 years by arranging overseas publication in a variety of (mostly Western) languages. As of 2010, 121 titles had been selected for translation, with more to come. (The publishing cycle is such that new titles are selected roughly every two years, which means that in 2012 we likely will see a new round of titles selected.)
Besides English, initial titles have been published in French, German, Russian, Portugese and Turkish. To insure the highest quality translations possible, JLPP also instituted, in 2011, the 1st JLPP Translation Competition.
So far as this writer has been able to determine, this is the very first translation of many of these titles into any Western language. A ground-floor opportunity for book collectors so inclined....
The arrival of Spring reminds us that there is a long and distinguished Western literary tradition that we have, to date, inexplicably neglected. Though it has various incarnations (e.g., bucolics, idylls, eclogues and the like), the tradition as a whole most usually is called pastoral literature.
A 2006 BBC Radio 4 presentation defined the tradition as
offer[ing] a conventionalised picture of rural life, the naturalness and innocence of which is seen to contrast favourably with the corruption and artificialities of city and court life. Pastoral literature deals with tensions between nature and art, the real and the ideal, the actual and the mythical, and although pastoral works have been written from the point of view of shepherds or rustics, they have often been penned by highly sophisticated, urban poets and playwrights.
The tradition encompasses a wide range of poetry, prose and drama, and while it may no longer be as vibrant as in centuries past, the sheer variety of what has been written over the past two millenia insures that many book collectors still avidly seek exemplars for their shelves:
Modern readers often encounter specimens of pastoral literature without ever being aware of the long and distinguished tradition behind it:
...And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;
A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.
Christopher Marlowe's posthumous poem, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (above), is a well-known example of such encounters.
Perhaps the best-known English-language work of pastoral literature is Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes' Calendar, although the tradition may be traced as well in the works of English literary giants like Shakespeare and Milton, modern poets such as W. H.Auden, even novelists and short story writers like William Goyen: