Today on Project Gutenberg #39

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Romances of Old Japan by Yei Theodora Ozaki

You know what’s always fun to read? Myths and folktales from other cultures. They’re often a fun and accessible way to learn something about people in different parts of the world, and you can find some pretty wild and remarkable stories out there. And with its long history and rich culture, it should come as no surprise that Japan is the source of some memorable literature.

Romances of Old Japan was published in 1920, and the stories within were adapted/translated by a woman called Yei Theodora Ozaki. Her story is actually pretty fascinating on its own. She was Anglo-Japanese, being the daughter of one of the first Japanese men to get a Western education. Ozaki spent her childhood in Europe and her adolescence in Japan, and she traveled back and forth between the two as an adult. Working as a teacher and secretary, she found literary success by adapting Japanese fairytales into children’s books. She also kept accidentally receiving mail addressed to Yukio Ozaki, a politician, and he was also getting her mail by mistake. And in a turn of events that you couldn’t possibly make up, this led to them meeting in 1904 and getting married. No, seriously.

Romances of Old Japan is a pretty cool and fascinating book for two reasons. One, it’s great entertainment. Ozaki’s writing would probably qualify as purple prose by modern standards, but it conveys the larger-than-life feel of these old stories and the extreme emotions coming from pretty much everyone. Take these paragraphs from the first story in the collection, “The Quest for the Sword.” On a dark and stormy night, a samurai named Jurobei comes across two assassins who have been tasked with killing his lord. When they refuse to compromise by taking Jurobei’s life instead, Jurobei attacks.

Overhead the storm increased in violence. The floodgates of heaven were opened, peals of heavy thunder shook the earth with their dull reverberations, and the inky skies were riven with blinding flash upon flash of forked lightning, which lit up the dark forms and white faces of the combatants, and glinted on their swords as they parried and clashed together in mortal strife.

Now Jurobei was an expert swordsman of unusual and supple strength. He defended himself with skill and ferocity, and soon his superiority began to tell against the craven couple who were attacking him. It was not long before they realized that they were no match for such a powerful adversary, and turned to flee. But Jurobei was too quick for them, and before they could escape he cut them down.

Mortally wounded, both men fell to the ground, and so fatal had been Jurobei’s thrusts that in a few minutes they breathed their last.

By this time, the fury of the storm having spent itself, the sky gradually lifted and the moon shone forth in silver splendour between the masses of clouds as they rolled away, leaving the vast blue vault above clear and radiant and scintillating with stars.

Is this over-the-top and kind of ridiculous? Yes. Is it awesome? Also yes.

The second thing that makes Romances of Old Japan a cool read is how Ozaki utilizes her unique background to act as not just a translator of language, but a translator of culture. What I mean by that is, she uses many of the stories as a way to directly explain Japanese beliefs and values in a way that Western audiences can understand. This tends to come up in stories that involve women dying or getting killed in some tragic way, as in “The Tragedy of Kesa Gozen.” The titular Kesa is newly married when her old flame Yendo rolls back into town after some time away. Upon realizing what has happened, he declares his intentions to kill Kesa’s husband. Kesa pretends to help him commit the murder, only to trick him into decapitating her instead. Yes, that was actually her plan. Here’s what Ozaki has to say about it:

This is an interesting psychological point, and is perhaps obscure to the Western reader. The ethical training of a Japanese woman teaches her that in any great crisis she is the one to be sacrificed. Kesa, rather than be the cause of a quarrel which would involve her husband and her mother in a blood-feud with Yendo, puts herself out of the way, and by doing so not only saves the lives of all concerned, but preaches a silent and moving sermon to her kinsman, whose ungoverned conduct is contrary to the teaching of all Japanese moralists.

It is the opinion of some that Kesa really loved Yendo, but her filial obedience obliged her to marry the man whom her mother chose for her. Then, when she found how great was her cousin’s love for her, and knowing that in her heart she returned his love, but that she could not be his without sin, she went gladly to her death, rejoicing, doubtless, that it was by the sword of her beloved she should perish.

This version is the more beautiful and tragic, for we have a woman triumphant in the face of the strongest temptation that can ever beat against a human heart. The invincible yearning of the flesh must have been there, but the soul battled bravely and won. The power of beauty, the joy of conquest in love, these are hers; but Kesa, remaining faithful to duty, by her death places the honour of the family beyond all danger of blemish through her.

Another recurring theme in these stories is absolute loyalty to the lord you serve, to the point of sacrificing yourself or even sacrificing your own child, as the protagonists in “The Sugawara Tragedy” do when they allow their son to be killed in their lord’s place. Ozaki writes that “loyalty was the one great social obligation of the samurai to his lord…this spirit of loyalty often involved painful self-sacrifice.” If a samurai swears fealty to a lord, his family is bound by the same oath — that’s the code.

But not all the stories in the collection are as dour as these, however. You have cute love stories like “The Lady in the Picture,” or “Tsubosaka,” in which a wife’s faith restores her husband’s eyesight. Or maybe you came here looking for weird stuff, in which case you can read “The Badger-Haunted Temple.” That’s the one where a wizard badger disguises itself as various hot women to distract a guy and steal his fish. You know, that old favorite.

I would definitely spend a few hours looking through this book. The stories are fun, the illustrations are lovely and the author’s commentary is informative. It’s just a really cool book all around.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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