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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 3 Hesse in Transcultural Dialogue with His Japanese Readers


The year is 128 A.D., and Lucius Modestus is one of Rome’s premiere bathhouse architects, although he’s recently been having a tough time finding a new design to impress ruling emperor, Hadrianus. For reasons explained later on, he is sucked into an aqua vortex that propels him to present-day Tokyo, where he finds himself mesmerized by the way in which the Japanese (who he refers to as ‘slaves’ and ‘flat-faces’) have refined their national bath culture. Taking inspiration from top-of-the-line Jacuzzis, showers, saunas and hot springs, he travels backs to Ancient Rome and develops a whole new line of public and private baths, rising in prominence under a regime plagued by foreign wars and incompetent successors.1

The Japanese film Thermae Romae (2012), directed by Hideki Takeuchi, is based on a popular manga series of the same name created and illustrated by the Japanese comic artist Mari Yamazaki. The Roman bathhouse architect Lucius Quintus Modestus, played by the well-known Japanese actor Hiroshi Abe, is able to travel through the fabric of time and place by means of an inexplicable ‘aqua vortex’, which transports him from the ancient bathhouses of Rome to the hot springs and baths of modern Japan, and back. The modern bathhouse practices and gadgets in Japan inspire ←177 | 178→the architect to innovate his Roman bathing house designs, and he is able to eventually impress the ruling emperor, Hadrian. The love-interest is provided by a struggling manga artist called Mami. In the second manga series, and...

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