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Culture: text and images in Japan

One of the ways of understanding another culture better is to examine what people experience when they read a text, or look at an image. Leiden experts have a lot of knowledge in this field, for example on culture in ancient Japan.

Handwriting "Japanese and Chinese poems for recitation", ca 1200, an anthology of Chinese and Japanese poems collected by a member of the Japanese royal court at the beginning of the eleventh century.

Literature and identity

Professor Ivo Smits is fascinated by Japanese culture and how this culture was experienced in previous centuries by the Japanese themselves. He conducts extensive research on Japanese authors between 1000 and 1300 who wrote in Chinese, and how their works were received in their own country.

‘It’s an exciting episode in Japanese history because this was when people first started to think about what it meant to be Japanese. On the one hand the Japanese felt part of East Asia (they shared Chinese as a literary language with neighbouring countries), while on the other hand they were also seeking their own identity. The works that were produced at that time also play an important role in modern-day Japan because people are looking to ideas from this period in the current discussion about Japanese identity.’

The Japanese continued to write in Chinese until the twentieth century. These works in Chinese tell us a lot about the ideas and feelings of Japanese authors throughout history because they permitted themselves greater freedom in the literature written in Chinese than in literature written in Japanese. ‘In poetry, for example, authors wrote about all kinds of weird subjects. There are 19th-century poems, for example, about a Dutch ship entering the harbour, or the new medium of photography. Japanese authors writing in Chinese were also freer in how they described emotions.’

The study of Chinese works by Japanese authors is, moreover, important from a cultural-historic perspective. Many Japanese people today are in danger of forgetting that the standardised national language was not introduced until the end of the 19th century and that literature before then was written in Chinese.
Smits also conducted research on works in Chinese that were written by the Japanese. “They read in Chinese but had to present in Japanese. School pupils still do the same today.”

A second area that Smits is interested in relates to the social customs relating to literature: How do people attach meaning and value to a literary work? Why did Japanese politicians in the Middle Ages, for instance, devote so much attention to poetry? 


Finally, Smits studied the imagination of the Japanese people. ‘Take the period around 1800, when the Japanese started to see paintings and drawings from Europe. In the first instance, they were impressed by techniques that they themselves had not yet mastered, like copper etching or applying perspective. At the same time, they were at a loss to know how to interpret some of the images they were seeing, such as angels, for example. They understood that Europeans did not have wings on their backs and that these images could therefore not be true to life. But what did they mean, then? And were the Japanese able to replicate the techniques needed to produce such images?

A further subject within the theme of imagination was the representation of gardens in Japanese poetry. These were mostly a non-realistic portrayal of a landscape where the characteristics of nature, as these were understood by the Japanese, were magnified.

The research on literature, images and the imagination offers common ground for better understanding Japan’s cultural development in the past and the present. But, Smits stresses, this is not the only reason for exploring these sources. ‘That would not do justice to the amazing thoughts and emotions that authors recorded with their words and images. What really matters is getting into the heads of the Japanese who lived centuries ago, which is in itself a fantastic experience.’

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