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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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Conclusion: Hermann Hesse’s Reciprocal Reception of Japan


This book witnesses Hermann Hesse’s literary reception in East Asia and Japan. There are active groups of researchers in East Asia itself, in Japan, Korea and increasingly in China. These institutionalised literary groups focus upon the translation of Hesse’s literary works and conduct research into the reception of his works in the respective linguistic and cultural communities and aspects of his biography.1 Moreover, Adrian Hsia has written at length about Hesse’s reception in China and Taiwan up to the new millennium in 2000.2 For Hesse scholars in the West, knowledge about his reception in Japan is still often based upon a single essay written by Masaru Watanabe in 1977 for Martin Pfeifer’s edited volume of essays on Hesse’s international reception.3 Gabriele Lück’s 2009 survey of Hermann Hesse’s epistolary corpus provides the reader with an overview of Hesse’s international reception, including Japan.4 ←301 | 302→The information is based upon Masaru Watanabe’s brief essay, which was written some forty years ago, and thus provides no more than a rather outdated ‘broad-stroke sketch’ of Hesse’s reception in Japan. The field of Hesse studies in the West has clearly needed updated information and a more expansive investigation and discussion of Hesse’s reception in Japan.

As established in the Introduction to this project, there are important questions to be asked about Hesse’s popularity as a European writer in East Asia and Japan. And why did Hesse himself feel truly understood by his readers in Japan? That he did so seems astonishing given...

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