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Hermann Hesse and Japan

A Study in Reciprocal Transcultural Reception


Neale Cunningham

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.

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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...

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