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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 2 The Reception of Hermann Hesse in Japan: Imperial and Domestic Gateway


This and other chapters challenge the belief in a smooth sequential process in Hesse’s reception of Asian literature and philosophy, and his reception in Asian countries, that traces a pathway from India to China and onwards to Japan. In fact, I argue that Japan was the cultural fulcrum around which Hesse’s East Asian reception took place, not China, and it was with Japan and his Japanese readers with whom Hesse most deeply entered into a transcultural dialogue. The discussion in the first part of Chapter 2 demonstrates that, in order to understand Hesse’s reception in East Asia, we must acknowledge the more than four-decade-long dominance of imperial Japan in regional cultural relations, the linguistic legacy of these cultural power relations, which also extended for decades into the post-war period, and the influence they exerted upon the reception of Hesse’s literary works in East Asia.

Germanist Adrian Hsia is arguably the leading Hesse scholar regarding Hermann Hesse’s relationship with the culture of East Asia, and his monograph Hermann Hesse und China, originally published in 1974, updated extensively in 2002, is the sole standard work that can be consulted by Hesse researchers around the world on matters regarding Hesse’s interest in the region’s culture, philosophy, religion and the impact this interest had upon ←95 | 96→Hesse’s literary production.1 Hsia summarises the importance of China to Hesse as follows: ‘One tends to overlook that Hesse himself emphasized a number of times that he was searching for something in Indian philosophy but...

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