Hermann Hesse and Japan

A Study in Reciprocal Transcultural Reception

by Neale Cunningham (Author)
©2021 Monographs X, 340 Pages
Series: Transnational Cultures, Volume 4


Hermann Hesse once stated that his Japanese readers understood him best among all his readers worldwide – a little known fact among readers of Hesse in the West. This book examines Hesse’s reception in Japan and of Japan in the context of a transcultural reception process. It traces the different phases of Hesse’s reception in Japan and contextualises this reception in terms of the regional setting of East Asia and the cultural authority of imperial Japan. The role of transcultural mediators as figurative nodes in the world literature system is analysed, with a particular focus on the key role played by Hesse’s «Japanese» cousin, Wilhelm Gundert. Finally, Hesse’s epistolary exchange with his Japanese readers is unfolded to show how deep affinities arise, which result in the creation of a type of «spiritual» capital. This epistolary exchange, together with the translation of the Zen bible Pi Yen Lu by Wilhelm Gundert, inspired Hesse to write a series of three unique Zen-poems as a means of expressing a lifelong search for transcendence.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Wilhelm Gundert: Hermann Hesse’s ‘Japanese’ Cousin. His Influence and Mediation
  • Chapter 2 The Reception of Hermann Hesse in Japan: Imperial and Domestic Gateway
  • I Japan’s modernisation, the empire and cultural authority: Shaping Hesse’s East Asian reception
  • II Hermann Hesse’s reception in Japan: Translations and forms of reception
  • Chapter 3 Hesse in Transcultural Dialogue with His Japanese Readers
  • Chapter 4 Hesse’s Zen-Poems: Beyond Das Glasperlenspiel to the Transcultural ‘Essence’
  • Conclusion: Hermann Hesse’s Reciprocal Reception of Japan
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index


Figure 1: Jugendgedenken: An exhibition at the Gunma Prefectural Museum of Literature in the spring of 2014. Photo by Neale Cunningham.

Figure 2: Types of correspondence in the Hesse-Japan-Konvolut.

Figure 3: References to Hesse’s major works in the epistolary corpus.

Figure 4: Young Japanese readers inspired by Hesse’s Unterm Rad. Reproduced with permission from the Hermann Hesse-Stiftung in Bern & the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.

Figure 5: Japanese reader’s drawing of persimmon tree and rural structure. Reproduced with permission from the Hermann Hesse-Stiftung in Bern & the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.

Figure 6: Japanese reader’s drawing of Bodhidharma. Reproduced with permission from the Hermann Hesse-Stiftung in Bern & the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.

←vii | viii→

Figure 7: Japanese reader’s drawing of Ryokan’s dwelling in the bamboo grove. Reproduced with permission from the Hermann Hesse-Stiftung in Bern & the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.

Figure 8: Japanese reader’s poem and representation of Buddha. Reproduced with permission from the Hermann Hesse-Stiftung in Bern & the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.

Figure 9: Musical composition and drawing of school by a Japanese reader. Reproduced with permission from the Hermann Hesse-Stiftung in Bern & the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.

Figure 10: Japanese text and reader’s drawing of a lady in a palanquin. Reproduced with permission from the Hermann Hesse-Stiftung in Bern & the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.


I am deeply indebted to my PhD supervisor Professor Ingo Cornils who, through constant support, encouragement, guidance, insights and valuable feedback and conversations on drafts during the writing process, made it possible to shape and complete this project. I would also like to express my heartfelt thanks to Professor Stuart Taberner for his advice and feedback on drafts of the original thesis. Beyond my academic advisors, I wish to extend my profound gratitude to Dr Irmgard Yu-Gundert and her husband who graciously accepted both me and my partner, Tomoko, into their homes in Seoul and Berlin for inspiring discussions about Hesse and her grandfather Wilhelm Gundert. I would also like to record my appreciation for the members of the Hermann Hesse-Freundeskreis/Forschungsgruppe Japan, particularly Professors Yoichi Yamamoto, Hiroshi Tanaka and Asao Okada, who fielded questions about their work and extended an invitation to present my own research at their annual gathering. Thanks to Volker Michels for welcoming us to the Editionsarchiv in Offenbach for a wonderful afternoon and for his gifts of newspaper cuttings and books pertinent to my research. I would like further to mention the staff at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach and at the Schweizerisches Literaturarchiv in Bern for their friendly, efficient service in providing archival materials for inspection.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach for its kind permission to use unpublished archival materials on deposit in the Handschriften-Sammlung. I would also like to thank the Hermann Hesse-Stiftung in Bern for its kind support. I extend my gratitude also to Laurel Plapp at Peter Lang Oxford for her patience and guidance as well as to the anonymous readers for their perceptive feedback.

Finally, I wish to thank and send my love to Tomoko for her extraordinary patience and support with this project; without her it would simply not have been possible.←ix | x→

Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologises for any errors or omissions in the above list and would be grateful for notification of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.


This book explores a research theme that is often overlooked in German studies in the West: both the Japanese literary reception of Swiss-German1 writer and Nobel Prize for Literature laureate Hermann Hesse (1877–1962) and Hesse’s reception of Japan. Given the time span from the first publication of his work in Japanese translation in 1909 to the present, and the depth of Hesse’s reception in Japan, a country with entirely different social, economic, political, linguistic and cultural traditions, the paucity of curiosity and scholarly work in English and German in Hesse research is surprising. Although Germanist Adrian Hsia has written at book-length about Hesse’s reception in the Chinese linguistic spaces of East Asia,2 Hesse scholars interested in Hesse’s reception in Japan will find little to read in a European language apart from Japanese Germanist Masaru Watanabe’s short essay in German on Hesse’s Japanese reception for Martin Pfeiffer’s anthology of essays about Hesse’s worldwide reception, which was published in 1977.3 In the ←1 | 2→1980s, Japanese Hesse researchers reached out with German-language contributions on the theme of Hesse’s reception at the International Hermann Hesse Gesellschaft’s colloquia in Hesse’s Swabian birthplace of Calw.4 However, the last contribution by any participant (Masaru Yamaguchi) at the colloquia about Hesse’s reception in Japan was some thirty years ago in 1988. The most recently published proceedings of the fourteenth International Hesse Kolloquium in 2013, for example, contains nine articles, all by European contributors (seven German, one Swiss and one English) on the theme Stufen der Selbstfindung (Stages of Self-discovery).5 This broad concern with the aesthetic and bibliographical qualities of Hesse’s writing is mirrored in the twelve volumes (2004–2020) of the Hermann-Hesse-Jahrbuch (Hermann Hesse Yearbook), which is published annually by the Internationale Hermann-Hesse Gesellschaft (International Hermann Hesse Association): in earlier volumes (1–9) all but two contributors (Adrian Hsia and Soon-Kil Hong) are Western academics. This problem is addressed somewhat in more recent volumes 10–12 with contributions by Chinese scholars.6 ←2 | 3→However, not one of the articles is concerned with Hesse’s dialogical relationship with Japan. The evidence suggests an inward-looking ‘turn’ in recent Western Hesse scholarship, which remains largely silent about Hesse’s Japanese reception and his reception of Japan.

The trend towards ‘navel-gazing’ and close reading among Western Hesse scholars seems to be counterintuitive in a world which is globalising and more tightly networked through rapid technological developments in transport and communications. Indeed, in his 2004 essay, Ein Glasperlenspiel im Internet: Hesse lesen im globalen Zeitalter (A Glass Bead Game: Reading Hesse in the Global Age), Germanist Ingo Cornils argues provocatively that Hesse anticipated the field of modern communications in a globalised world in his glass bead game.7 Cornils reaches the conclusion that ‘reading Hesse in a global age means being part of an international community, perhaps not exactly the Eastern Wayfarers …, but nonetheless of a spiritual family’.8 Indeed, the people constituting this international community of readers have purchased over 150 million copies of Hesse’s books worldwide in more than seventy languages,9 sales and licenses for translations which have helped to keep the renowned Suhrkamp Verlag in business since the 1970s.

Yet, in the West, especially in Germany, Hesse scholars still have to spend much time and energy defending, justifying and legitimising the ←3 | 4→current relevance of their work to professional readers such as critics, journalists and academics in the field of literary studies. The (in)famous Spiegel article of July 1958 entitled Im Gemüsegarten (In the Vegetable Garden), which portrays Hesse satirically as an eccentric old man doting on his garden and cats, concludes with a damning quote by Musil: ‘All very understandable. The only strange thing is that he had the weaknesses of a greater man than would befit him’.10 The negative tone of the article paved the way for public dismissals of the relevance of his work and the dismantling of symbolic capital in the terms of the prestige afforded to Hesse’s work in the media as well as in tertiary education and German studies research.11 A case in point is the literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who in an 1990 collection of essays (Nachprüfung (Review)) entitled his two discussions of Hesse’s work (or, according to Reich-Ranicki, ‘Hermann Hesse, Unser Lieber Steppenwolf’ (Hermann Hesse, our beloved Steppenwolf)) Seele und Geschäft (Soul and Business) and Ein Beitrag zur deutschen Sentimentalität (A Contribution to German Sentimentality).12 As Bourdieu points out, one of the general properties of the cultural field is ‘the symbolic struggles waged within it’.13 The energy and time spent in defence of reading Hesse in the contemporary world, while a valuable and necessary task, might be better re-directed if scholars became more interested in researching and writing about Hermann Hesse’s global relevance.

It behoves Western Hesse scholarship to reach out to develop relationships with the huge international community of Hesse book-buyers and readers and to conduct research on the phenomenon of Hesse’s global reception. As Western scholars, we should be intensely curious and interested in understanding how literature can link human beings as readers across the globe in an international community, beyond the political boundaries of ←4 | 5→the nation, and seek to learn how the works of a European author can free themselves from national cultural parameters and gain an international autonomy. The existence of this community of like-minded Hesse readers that cuts across all the different linguistic and cultural communities, breaking free from national dependencies and national divisions, demonstrates that human beings share very similar concerns and interests regarding the themes in Hesse’s work, such as the natural environment or personal growth and development as an individual, which suggests a promising common basis for working together on the problems that threaten humanity.

Moreover, if we care to look, we find that recent developments in related academic fields are pointing the way for us. In the field of world literature, academics are looking beyond the traditional domination of canons of European and American literature to accommodate a process of globalisation and expansion of the literary universe. World literature theorist David Damrosch writes about ‘the contemporary shift [in world literature] from a focus on the Old World to a broader picture of the whole world’,14 and illuminates his discussion with instances of non-Western literature, including writing at length about Japanese classics such as Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji.15 Moreover, Pascale Casanova in The World Republic of Letters argues provocatively for us to imagine a new literary space and a new literary universality.16 Using Franz Kafka as an example, Casanova points out the distance between ‘the literary (and political and intellectual) space in which he produced his texts’ and ‘the corresponding space in which his work was received’ in the literary universe.17 In what she terms ‘the literary present’, contemporary generations of readers appropriate and use Kafka’s texts in their own different ways, whether for studies of ‘autonomy, formalism, polysemy’ or ‘modernity’ in this new global literary space.18 While not ignoring a historicisation of Kafka’s writing, in ←5 | 6→which Kafka contributed to a national literature through his exploration of Jewish identity, Casanova opens up the concept of new universal literary space in which we can fruitfully discuss the global reception of a European writer such as Hesse. In ‘Conjectures on World Literature’, Franco Moretti discusses the structure and inequalities of the world literature system in terms of the literary forms of an ‘Anglo-French core’ meeting the local reality and local content of a periphery in the modern period since 1750, thereby identifying a literary ‘division of labour’: ‘national literature, for people who see trees; world literature, for people who see waves’.19 By ‘trees’, Moretti means the branching of language families and comparative philology, while the wave is used in the sense of a ‘wave of advance’, that is, ‘trees need geographical discontinuity’, whereas ‘waves dislike barriers, and thrive on geographical continuity’.20 While not a central argument of this book, the present project contributes to thinking about a potential global ‘turn’ in Hesse scholarship, shifting the focus of inquiry from the aesthetics of national reception to the global literary space from which a reader in a particular linguistic and cultural space around the world may draw upon a text for local, personal activation and appropriation.

The research into Hermann Hesse’s reception of Japan presented demonstrates that he was motivated to write in a new, concise way about novel spiritual experiences in the form of lyrical poetry (Zen-poems), just one year before his death in 1961, contrary to the received wisdom in Hesse scholarship that his literary production was over once his last novel Das Glasperlenspiel was published in 1943 at a time when Hesse was in his mid-60s. I suggest that we recast the way we think about Hesse’s literary production – 1943 should no longer be seen as the year after which his literary production stopped in meaningful terms, and we should modify our view that Das Glasperlenspiel is a final, crowning achievement and the non plus ultra of his literary production.21 Although he overlooks Hesse’s singular ←6 | 7→Zen poetry, a lonely voice in Hesse scholarship, Michael Kleeberg, expresses a comparable point of view. He writes: ‘Hesse publicly “retired” after the Glass Bead Game and sure enough did not write any further novels but did write hundreds of pages of autobiographical prose, which for me, according to intensity, if not amount, represent the high point of his works.’22 The research also raises some questions regarding a field currently being explored in German studies clustered around the concept of ‘lateness’ in literary production, which not only but also coalesces in the idea that an ageing author may be concerned overly with the proximity of death,23 or that ‘older writers more frequently incline towards remembering’.24 Hesse has, of course, concerned himself with the themes of ageing and old age from different perspectives, for instance, in the short essay Über das Alter (About Old Age) (1952),25 or in the poems Stufen (Stages) (1941)26 and Der Alte Mann und seine Hände (1957) (The Old Man and His Hands).27 Germanist Stuart Taberner, in his seminal close reading and study of the old-age styles of Grass, Klüger, Wolf and Walser, also identifies a casting back typical of old age, and how a writer’s life-review is ‘reconfigured as old-age style’, and he asks (this is a central theme in his argument) how this ←7 | 8→literary performance might ‘relate to a world that may have changed far beyond its presumptions?’28 Hesse’s Zen-poems, written just over a year-and-a-half before his death in his mid-80s, granted also the late performance of the outcome of a decade-long, intensive transcultural dialogue between the author and readers in the Japanese linguistic and cultural community, represent foremost a casting of contemporaneity, that is, an instantaneous spiritual insight transformed into lyrical poetry. These poems also represent a casting forward towards the new potential offered by this insight in terms of subsequent literary production and a philosophical approach to living life, not just in the serenity of late literary style, but also in a transcultural form of enriched identity elevated beyond locality and the situatedness of a single linguistic and cultural community.

The work at hand

From the outset, beyond all the metrics and data which underpin the project, it became clear that a central aim of this book would be to explain why Japanese readers demonstrate such a great affinity with Hermann Hesse, and, equally, why that affinity was reciprocated to such a large degree by Hermann Hesse. How could it be that a European author’s reception in Japan starts early in the country’s modernity in 1909 and continues, over a century later, to the present day? Why is it that Hesse’s reception in Japan has been lengthier and deeper than it has been even in countries that neighbour Germany and Switzerland? And how has this reception process occurred, and who are the people facilitating this reception process? Finally, what is the mechanism behind the transcultural aspects of the reception process and how has a transcultural understanding been so emphatically achieved?

At the inception of the project, there were these basic questions and very little prior literature to draw upon regarding Hesse’s reciprocal ←8 | 9→reception of Japan. It very soon became clear that there was not one single answer or approach to the task at hand in view of the overall complexity of a reception process of a European author in an East Asian country. The project would require several approaches, ranging from investigating the clues in Hesse’s own works, scanning the vast amount of secondary materials available on Hesse in English and German, and all the secondary works that could be accessed in the Japanese language for clues to unravel and to start to make sense of the reception process. Reader-reception theory, world literature theory and a sociological approach seemed to offer answers as regards theoretical insights into how readers react to and activate texts and how texts might circulate the globe and be received in the literary fields of different cultures. Moreover, initial work led me along promising, new paths and helped to uncover primary materials in libraries and archives, which led to exciting discoveries about Hesse’s reception process in Japan. Interviews conducted with translators, publishers and students in Japan gave further valuable insights into the reception process and the current relevance of Hesse in Japan. Also, gradually, the realisation dawned that long-term sojourns in multiple cultural communities have helped to make sense of a project that spins threads between traditions and cultural spaces that span half the globe. Ultimately, this book may prise open the field of Hesse reception studies to include a detailed analysis of the linguistic and cultural community of Japan and provide a basis for other scholars to build upon. It also presents evidence and arguments that may impact Hesse studies. The research on Hesse’s reception of Japanese culture also shows that Hermann Hesse did achieve a new level of literary expression and spiritual insight after what is considered his magnum opus, Das Glasperlenspiel. The project may also shift our understanding of transcultural literary reception in a new direction, demonstrating particularly that, hitherto, far too little attention has been paid to unravelling the social ties and networks that explicate the agency unfolded in transcultural receptions in the literary and cultural fields of linguistic and cultural communities that differ from the original contextual community of the text.←9 | 10→

What is a ‘reception’?

In this project, the term ‘reception’ denotes primarily Hermann Hesse’s literary reception in Japan, but also Hesse’s reception of interest in his work in Japan. A reception in a political nation, or better a linguistic and cultural space, is rooted, in this context, first and foremost in the materiality of a literary text – the received object. A reception, however, may also be multi-medial, that is, it is mediated in forms and combinations of forms other than literary texts. For example, Hermann Hesse’s watercolours have long been appreciated and exhibited throughout Japan. In 1998 and 1999, Hesse’s watercolour paintings travelled from Hiroshima Prefecture to the northernmost island of Hokkaido, via the Kintetsu Department Store in Tokyo, where the paintings were exhibited for two weeks in March 1999.29 Twenty-five of the Hesse watercolours from the exhibition were selected for a parallel exhibition, Tabibito Kaerazu (A Traveller Never Returns), which brought together Hesse’s watercolours symbiotically with those painted by Japanese poet Junzaburo Nishiwaki.30 More recently, Hesse’s writings on butterflies in his stories Jugendgedenken (Memories of Youth), and Das Nachtpfauenauge (The Emperor Moth),31 and in an anthology of Hesse’s writings on butterflies, edited by Volker Michels, Hermann Hesse: Schmetterlinge (Hermann Hesse: Butterflies),32 inspired the design and creation of an inter-medial Hermann Hesse butterfly exhibition in Japan in 2009, which, in 2010, then travelled back to Calw, Hesse’s ←10 | 11→birthplace,33 on to the Hesse-Höri-Museum in Gaienhofen on Lake Constance in 2011, where Hesse resided between 1904 and 1912,34 and, finally, in 2013, to Montagnola, where Hesse resided from 1919 until his death in 1962.35 The exhibition continued to be shown at venues in Japan until April 2014.36 The butterfly exhibition is an example of how a reception can cross genres in medial transpositions; in this case, from literary texts to a textually annotated Lepidoptera display, from the printed medium to the inter-medial exhibition of text, artwork, lighting and material butterfly specimens.37 Classical theorist Lorna Hardwick points out that reception studies not only deliver understandings about the culture that receives the text but also equally about the originating contextual culture and the author, whereby recipient and sender communities may enter into in a rich dialogue with one another.38 We can understand and term this process a ‘productive reception’. It is fluid and ongoing in outcome, and is influenced by all the actors involved in the interactive dialogue who shape the contemporary ‘reception’ in the receiving fields. For example, Chapter 3 focuses particularly on how Hesse’s work is received by actual Japanese readers (the receiving subjects), who also enter into an enriched epistolary dialogue with the author, in a process that may be termed a ‘productive reception’. In other words, the process of reception is dynamic rather than passive.39←11 | 12→

How Hesse knew about and why he was fascinated by Japan

‘Arguably, the Japanese understand me best of all, … and the Americans the least. But that is also not my world. I’ll never get there.’40

This quotation is from Felix Lützkendorf’s 1972 recollections of a 1951 meeting with Hesse at his residence in Montagnola; a rural village high above the city of Lugano in Switzerland’s southern Italian-speaking canton Ticino, and Hesse’s home from 1919 until his death in 1962. On one side of Hesse’s study, reaching to the ceiling, were the bookshelves which housed Hesse’s personal library. Besides valuable first editions of books by authors of the Romantic tradition, the shelves carried a complete collection of translations of Hesse’s works into thirty-four different languages, of which, according to Lützkendorf, Hesse was most fond of the Japanese and Indian translations.41 Lützkendorf’s recollections are, of course, anecdotal and subject to the vagaries of time which affect a person’s memory. Further written documents, however, confirm that Hesse knew how his texts were being received in Japan. In a letter to American Germanist Theodore Ziolkowski in 1955, Hesse adds attributes to his productive reception in Japan, acknowledging that the process is dynamic: ‘I have many more and more diligent readers in Japan as in France, for instance, more readers in France than in England, etc. ←12 | 13→That can change with time.’42 Writing again in the same year (1955) in the form of a foreword to Germanist Kenji Takahashi’s Japanese translation of Hesse’s Gesammelte Schriften (Collected Writings), Hesse notes that, in regard to the reception of European science and culture in Japan, ‘We Europeans are continually surprised by the broadminded willingness with which our science, art and literature is received.’43

In fact, we can go back earlier, to 1922, to find that Hesse wrote about Japan in his afterword to the anthology of stories from Japan he published that year: Geschichten aus Japan (Tales from Japan).44 These stories were selected from A. B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan (1871) and J. G. Kohl’s German translation in 1875, Geschichten aus Alt-Japan. Hesse writes that, ‘The Japan of which these tales tell a story no longer exists’ and that the new Japan ‘had for decades accepted, without also changing its spiritual ←13 | 14→life, the external, technical culture of the West.’45 Hesse’s fascination with pre-modern Japan is implicit in his statements, and he draws parallels between the inner convulsions he detects in both Japan and Germany as traditions and cultural certainties crumble and these societies seek spiritual re-orientation in the post-war world of the 1920s: ‘Today Japan is undergoing inner battles, in struggles for new, viable ideals, in struggles of adaptation, of inner dissolution, struggles that are no less severe than the similar struggles we have faced since the World War.’46 For Hesse, the classic Japanese stories in this anthology are self-contained cultural vignettes of the past, fountains of enjoyment, with their own discrete spirituality and conditions of provenance and demise, rather than documents of a sterile historicity, ‘Treasuring beautiful, consummate cultural vignettes of the past, understanding their spirituality, recognizing the conditions under which they arose and disappeared – that is not a cult of history and hollow scholarliness, rather life-promoting pleasure.’47 In sum, these statements document some elements of Hesse’s engagement with Japan. As the project unfolds in the chapters, we learn that Hesse’s engagement and dialogue with the culture and people of Japan went far deeper.

Theoretical considerations

Much theoretical work tries to understand how readers respond to literary texts and how meaning is created outside of scientific methodology. Martin Heidegger’s student Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) is generally acknowledged as being Europe’s preeminent thinker and writer on hermeneutics; that is, forms of interpretation and knowing outside of the scientific method. His most important work is Truth and Method, first published in 1960 as Wahrheit und Methode.48 The core thesis of ←14 | 15→Gadamer’s hermeneutics is the historical perspective of our understanding. A person is a product of his or her own history and society, that is, the history and the society provide the ‘horizon’ of what he or she knows. Our interpretation of a text, according to Gadamer, is approached from these perspectives. A completely objective interpretation of a text in Gadamer’s thinking is impossible because of these varying perspectives. Moreover, readers cannot go back through time and approach the historical moment of the creation of a text with an ‘unmittelbares sympathetisches und kongeniales Verstehen’ (instant sympathetic and congenial understanding) as proposed by Schleiermacher;49 rather the reader is subject to the effects of history, which have accumulated in the meantime, including the effects of the text being read, such as its contemporary reception process and previous interpretations of the text. In Gadamer’s thinking, a triangulation process takes place involving the historical context of the text, the cultural context of the writer and the historical and cultural situation of the contemporary reader. Gadamer terms these different perspectives ‘horizons’.50 This idea suggests that an understanding, that is, a ‘fusion of horizons’ involving a text by Hesse and a Japanese reader, is unlikely or only partially possible because of the different historical and cultural traditions that operate. However, understanding (the creation of meaning) occurs very well among Japanese readers of Hesse’s texts, but not significantly under the terms Gadamer proposes. Gadamer says nothing about transcultural reception; rather his project is concerned with the connection between experience and logos within Western historical and philosophical traditions.

In the hermeneutical field of literary interpretation, Anglo-American reader-response criticism gradually shifted from an emphasis on the author and the text towards paying greater attention to the reader and his or her complex interiority. New Criticism, important particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, was epitomised by the ‘practical criticism’ of I. A. Richards.51 New Critics focused on the text in an act of ‘close reading’, that is, focusing ←15 | 16→on the words on the page, free from associations with history and context, elucidating the poetic elements of a text within a unified structure, and avoiding the authorial intentions of text production.52 Thus, in this approach, the objective existence of the text was prioritised and privileged. In the 1960s, in order to overcome the elimination of writer and reader from the analysis, there was a shift in literary theory towards reader-response criticism and reader-oriented theories.

Reader-oriented theories

One of the early proponents of a reader-oriented theory was Louise Rosenblatt. In Rosenblatt’s analysis,53 if an author is well received it is because there is a correlation between the author’s intention (what the author perceives as the content or message conveyed by the words) and the reader’s intention (what the reader perceives as the content or message conveyed by the words).54 This approach, however, is locked into ←16 | 17→a positivist method of understanding with a ‘causal link’ between the author’s intention and a ‘proper’ reading of the text and explication of meaning by the reader. A significant weakness in the approach is where meaning has to transcend the borders of European and East Asian linguistic and cultural spaces, most often as a translated text, disrupted from its original context.

In the 1970s, a literary theory research group was constituted at the University of Constance, known as the ‘The Constance School’. Two scholars stood out in this school in particular for their work on reception aesthetics: Hans Robert Jauss (1921–1997) and Wolfgang Iser (1926–2007).55 Wolfgang Iser was primarily interested in the structure of texts and their potential effects. He was influenced by Polish philosopher Roman Ingarden (1893–1970), and, similar to Ingarden, Iser was interested in the microcosm of literary reception at the level of the text. In The Act of Reading, Wolfgang Iser posits that meaning is created, ‘As text and reader … merge into a single situation, the division between subject and object no longer applies, and it therefore follows that meaning is no longer an object to be defined, but is an effect to be experienced.’56 Iser also takes up Ingarden’s work on ‘places of indeterminacy’ (Unbestimmtheiten) in the literary text by suggesting that in the communicatory situation, the text is able to influence the ‘dialogue’ by means of ‘blanks’ or ‘vacancies’ (Leerstellen).57 The vacancies condition the reader’s view of themes in the ←17 | 18→text, but require ideational activity on the part of the reader, which eventually builds up and transforms the textual perspectives into the ‘aesthetic object’ of the text.58 The ‘reader’ Iser posits is assumed to be reading the text in the same language as it is written in by the author. While in Japan many scholars and students have read Hesse in German, the majority of Japanese readers read Hesse in Japanese translation, and thus they interact with and activate a Japanese text in which the translator has already ‘filled in’ the ‘places of indeterminacy’ according to his or her understanding of the text and the respective translation style used.

Iser’s ideas are theoretical and a concrete method to test his notions of the reading act inter-subjectively has never been put forth. Thus, his proposals have drawn criticisms from various quarters. For instance, Bortolussi and Dixon point out the circulatory nature of Iser’s proposals regarding text and reader interaction: ‘From his theory of the text he extrapolates a concept of the reader and the reader’s presumed activities confirm his hypothesis regarding the text.’59 However, Iser’s theory does contain seeds which are helpful in understanding a (Japanese) reader’s response to a literary text. For instance, Iser argues in Prospecting that, ‘If a literary text does something to its readers, it also simultaneously reveals something about them. Thus literature turns into a divining rod, locating our dispositions, desires, inclinations, and eventually our overall make-up.’60 This passage does two things. First, it allows us to observe the subtle shift away from the locus of the Iserian ‘halfway position’, that is, a position between the text as an object and reader as a subject, towards the nature and interiority of the reader of the text. Secondly, Iser’s shift towards the interiority of the reader, which he does not develop further, points us towards Norman Holland’s psychological, reader-oriented approach to reader-response criticism.←18 | 19→

Norman Holland

Reader-response theorist Norman Holland has turned to cognitive neuroscience as an explanatory tool for the reader’s reaction to a text. In his essay ‘Where is a Text?’ he argues that while the subject-object split, that is, the perceiving of objects ‘out there’, is essential for survival, thinking in this way can lead to confusion when considering a story or a poem.61 Holland cites cognitive linguist Gilles Fauconnier: ‘Our folk theory of language is that the meanings are contained directly in the words and their combinations, since that is all that we are ever consciously aware of. The effect (meaning) is attributed essentially to this visible cause (language).’62 Similarly, affects are thought to be located in text when we discuss how a poem or a story made us feel. This experience of language is illusionary because we experience meaning or perception in an instant through ‘complex intervening neural events’.63 Consequently, for Holland, a reader’s interpretation of a text ‘is really a wholly internal affair, within the reader’s brain’ and thus the ‘reader cannot truly say things about “the” text “out there” in a world that is outside that reader’.64

The ‘internalisation’ and the ‘cognitive turn’ in the field of reader-response criticism discussed above are reflected by Holland’s development of the notion of ‘identity themes’.65 The underlying attribute of an ‘identity theme’ for Holland is the constancy with which it influences the individual’s life, and this constancy means that it colours new experiences and is very resistant to change so that we live our lives based on variations of an almost unchanging central identity theme.66 The solidity of the identity theme rests upon the balance that suits a particular individual, which ←19 | 20→in a negative expression may mean that the individual even acquires ‘a symptom, an inhibition, or a neurosis’, but in a positive expression the individual develops ‘a successful balance of pleasure and unpleasure, defense and relaxation, through love or work (to mention the two great regions for healthy living)’, and once the balance is achieved the individual ‘tends to adhere to it.’67 Beneath any one solution that an individual adopts, there is a ‘tenacious, general structure of drives and adaptations that changes, little, if at all, even under the greatest stresses.’68 Thus, when interpreting literary texts, an individual deals with a text in the same way as he or she copes with life experiences: ‘The reader will filter a text through his characteristic patterns of defence, project onto it his characteristic fantasies, translate the experience into a socially acceptable form, and thus produce what we would call an interpretation.’69

The new perspective Holland brings to reader-response theory is useful in that it surmises that our experience of literature cannot be simply thought of as ‘a discrete stimulus and a definable response’, or a ‘concretisation’ of ‘text schema’, but rather that, according to Holland, ‘each reader will bring all kinds of personal associations and experiences into the relationship between himself and the story’.70 Jane Tompkins adds that the emphasis for understanding a literary reception falls on individual consciousness rather than structuralist ‘systems of intelligibility that operate through ←20 | 21→individuals’.71 Hesse himself lends credence to this approach. Writing to his eldest son Bruno in January 1928, Hesse puts forward his ideas about how an individual’s identity themes shape the response to a landscape, ‘When you paint Ticino with me and we both paint the same motif, each of us paints not so much the bit of landscape but rather our own love of nature, and, in front of the same motif, each person does something different, something unique.’72 In fact, Holland maintains that literature can most sensibly be studied ‘in some human being, the one who made it, the one who is experiencing it, the one who is talking about it.’73

One criticism levelled at Holland is that his approach ignores the ‘introjects’ or internalisations of the alien elements encountered in a text.74 However, Holland’s approach clearly sensitises us to the experiences and associations that individual Hesse readers draw upon in their text reading practices, which then influence the themes that individuals choose to write about in their correspondence with Hesse.


X, 340
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (July)
Hermann Hesse Japan Transcultural Reception Hermann Hesse and Japan Neale Cunningham
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. X, 340 pp., 10 fig. col.

Biographical notes

Neale Cunningham (Author)

Neale Cunningham received his PhD in German Literature from the University of Leeds. He currently lives, works and teaches in Tokyo.


Title: Hermann Hesse and Japan