Review of Hanatsumi Nikkei in BCLT’s “In Other Words”

Flowers of Italy: A Japanese Intellectual’s Journey to Europe by Masaharu Anesaki; translated with an introduction and annotations by Susanna Fessler (Fukuoka, Japan: Kurodahan Press, 2009) xxvii + 336 pp. £30.00

Should this book, so beautifully produced, carefully translated, annotated and introduced, be regarded as a mere curiosity, of interest only to scholars of Japanese culture? It is, after all, nothing more than a travel-diary, written by a Japanese scholar, perhaps still known in Japan and amongst students of Japanese Buddhism, but surely not of interest to a wider audience? The translator makes a strong case for its importance beyond the narrow readership to which it might be thought naturally to appeal, showing that the very personal record of Anesaki’s travels in Italy in 1908 holds up a mirror not only to the thoughts of a Meiji gentleman, consciously immersing himself in Western culture, but also to the period itself. This is not just another travelogue, but represents the attempts of a humane thinker to see the common links which exist in human feelings as they express themselves in art, religion and in the human response to nature. The diary follows the long-established Japanese travelogue tradition of inter-mixing both poetry and prose, and those points at which the author expresses himself in verse are like bright intense sunbeams in the soberly philosophical whole. Anesaki visits Florence, the City of Flowers, immersing himself in its art-works which make him a ‘citizen of its world’; Assisi, to visit the grave of St. Francis, whom he reveres as a master; Rome, where he contrasts the pomp and state of the Papacy with the simplicity and overflowing good humour of the Franciscans, who appear to him to be very much like Zen monks; Ravenna, to visit the tomb of Dante, where ‘the remains of such a great poet’ make the place seem ‘all the more precious and sacred’; and Venice where he feels stifled by its opulence and decay but feels hope in the green fields and rain-soaked foliage that surround the city. All of this is delightful, but the inclusion of his essay “How Christianity Appeals to a Japanese Buddhist” as an appendix to the work helps the reader to ground the free-flowing insights of the diary-form in the deeply compassionate philosophical thinking of a man who can say: “Truth is one, but its modes of expression cannot be so.” This was a mind which could travel the world recognizing both essential human similarities and the manifold nature of the expression of this essence.

Antoinette Fawcett, “In Other Words” Summer 2010 (No. 35), British Centre for Literary Translation.


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