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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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Chapter 1 Wilhelm Gundert: Hermann Hesse’s ‘Japanese’ Cousin. His Influence and Mediation


For my birthday I also received greetings from Japanese students in Tokyo who had just listened to a lecture about me. For the connection with Japan, where Siddhartha became very well known, I have to thank mostly my friend and cousin there, Wilhelm Gundert. 1

‘I thank and bow deeply before the master of the avenue of the marksmen!’2 Hermann Hesse opens a letter with barely containable joy and respect towards his cousin Wilhelm Gundert in September 1960. Hesse is writing about the publication of the first volume of his cousin’s seminal work: the translation into German of the Chinese Zen bible Pi Yen Lu as the Bi Yän Lu: Niederschrift von der Smaragdenen Felswand.3 The letter reveals ←47 | 48→Hesse’s role and participation in the translation, and, as he sees it, the nature of his cousin’s accomplishment:

I have participated in so many ways and so intimately in you, your life and thinking, but also in the gradual emergence of this monumental work, that I, even though I am neither sinologist nor a researcher of religion, may be permitted to thank you publicly for this gift of the highest order, although the rest of my life is too short to exploit the contents and its manifold magic.4

The excerpt demonstrates the closeness between Hermann Hesse and Wilhelm Gundert. The cousins were often together in childhood, they corresponded regularly with each other throughout their lives, apart from a period of estrangement during...

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