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Japanese Hieroglossia

Jean-Noël Robert

Japanese Hieroglossia

Inaugural lecture delivered on Thursday 2 February 2012

Jean-Noël Robert
Traduction de Liz Libbrecht

Texte intégral

1Today, for the second time in the history of the Collège de France, a Chair in Japanese Civilization is being inaugurated. Thirty-two years ago, on the 29th February 1980 in this very place, Bernard Frank, my teacher in these studies, delivered the lecture that opened up fifteen years of memorable teaching whose influence was felt by many in the following generation. Sixteen years have passed since his tragic death in 1996, a period which in Japanese Buddhism would be celebrated by a “rite of the seventeenth year”, a ceremony during which, with the healing of time, one recalls the deceased person. If it is permitted to see the academic expression of a secular rite in the solemn gathering that is an inaugural lecture, I may be allowed to dedicate this evening to the memory of this great master.

2It is true that during all these years Japanese studies have never been far from the preoccupations of the Collège de France: the Institute of Advanced Japanese Studies (IHEJ/Institut des hautes études japonaises), which was integrated into the Institutes of the Far East in 1973 along with its magnificent library, and of which I have had the honour of being the director since 2010, and this institute, along with the very active Japan research team which has now been integrated into the Research Centre on East Asian Civilizations, one of the resident research teams at the Collège, demonstrate the continuity and the constant development of this interest.

3A third of a century ago the creation of a Chair of Japanese Civilization marked the slow coming of age of a discipline that had been elaborated very late compared with more prestigious fields of Eastern studies, such as Arabic, Chinese or Indian Studies. Today it would however no longer be necessary to try to demonstrate the importance or necessity of studying Japanese Civilization, so prevalent has the presence of Japan and its culture become on the intellectual landscape of our world.

4It would likewise be anecdotal to make an inventory of it here, however condensed it may be. Yet everyone can see that although the rapid growth of Japanese Studies, starting from the symbolic date of the 1970 World Fair held in Osaka, seemed to mirror that of the country’s expansion in the world’s economy, its – very relative – fading after what was called the economic “bubble” around 1990 was not attended by a substantial decline in its importance within university studies. Rather, its position in what we could call the Western imagination or the modern collective culture rose within this period.

5Thus, beyond the industrial and financial episode of the preceding generation, which is certainly far from over, we see Japan regaining, in a sense, the position of distinction it has always enjoyed in Europe and more largely in the world since its civilization first made itself known – a position that is first and foremost cultural, artistic and intellectual. This was the case at the end of the 16th century, when Japan opened up to the West in the mid-19th century, and now once again.

6I must therefore first express to you all, dear Administrator and colleagues, my deepest gratitude for having, by the renewal of this Chair, consecrated the enduring interest in Japanese culture of an institution, which, as a sociologist pointed out, is not only “highly prestigious”, but also “the acme of the French academic system”. I would also like to thank more personally my fellow academicians and colleagues Jean Delumeau and Michel Zink, for having been the very first to evoke the possibility of a move that at the time seemed to me to be unthinkably impudent, and for trusting me; Nicolas Grimal, whose fraternal joviality did a lot to ease my anxiety; Anne Cheng, who, through her welcome and encouragements, showed unforgettable kindness; and finally – and especially – Pierre-Étienne Will, who presented and supported my candidacy, and who for me was both Virgil and Beatrice in a labyrinth in which I would soon have lost my way, had I had not followed him “si come cieco va dietro a sua guida per non smarrirsi”. The support of these two great sinologists, who so firmly emphasised their appreciation of Japan and its culture, will remain for me one of the most pleasant experiences of the past years. A respectful fondness also brings me to pay homage to a great personality of our studies, Professor Donald Keene, who has always honoured me with a kindliness which I am the first to be surprised by, so little does it seem justified to me.

7Finally, please allow me to pay tribute to two great institutions, the École pratique des hautes études and the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, where I found something invaluable: the companionship and support of colleagues and fellow scholars all sharing the same intellectual adventure whose irresistible attraction has never waned since my first taste of it when I was barely a teenager.

8It now remains for me to prove myself not too unworthy of these signs of esteem and to attempt to illustrate in my teaching what must be understood by “Philology of Japanese Civilization”.


9Although creativity has blossomed in Japan as well as everywhere else in Asia within all the fields of intellectual and artistic life, one observation seems obvious: there is no other country in the Far East whose influence on Europe and America has been brought to bear to such an extent within the historical continuity of its cultural expression. For those who would deem such an affirmation to be too excessive, it would suffice to make a brief comparison between what we know of India and China on the one hand, even just in terms of literature, and of Japan on the other. For the first two countries, the contrast is striking between the long-standing prestige that the antique literary monuments have enjoyed in the West and the disregard from which modern and contemporary writers suffer. Someone will no doubt object here and give me a list of Indian authors, all very famous, to which I will answer that these authors have all chosen English as their language of expression.

10A few years ago an anthology of contemporary Indian literature was published in Great Britain and presented by one of the most eminent writers of the time. This book, which, according to the publishers, was to present to the world the pride of Indian literature of the second half of the 20th century, triggered a bitter controversy in the Indian intellectual world when it was noted that of the thirty-two chosen authors, only one did not write in English. One of the editors had done nothing to attenuate the indignation by asserting in the preface that, since independence, the best of India’s literature had been written in the language of its former colonisers. It is undeniable that Indian literature written in English, which appeared from the 19th century, was perceived outside of India during the course of the 20th century as the leading voice of the subcontinent, to the detriment of the abundant literature written in the neo-Indian tongues, which is nevertheless vigorous and has been constituted in respected traditions for several centuries.

11The same goes for Chinese literature: Zhuang Zhou is passionately read throughout the world, just as the Analects of Confucius are to be found on every educated person's bookshelf. One may know the title or the plot of certain great novels of the 16th or 18th centuries, but while the name of Lu Xun is known beyond the circle of sinologists, very few are the modern writers who enjoy any prominence, and even then, a fair number of them will have written directly in English or in French, without this fact apparently making Western readers hesitate in the least to recognise them as authentic Chinese voices. That a phenomenon of such magnitude should not give rise to any questions has always profoundly astonished me, so much does it appear accepted that to go from a language like Chinese, or any other Indian tongue unjustly dubbed ‘regional’, to one of the great Western languages, and particularly English, is a natural movement of the human spirit. It went without saying at the time of the empires and colonies, when one observed with emotion the progress of the substitution of languages within the colonised elites, even when one had for a long time given up substituting religions. Evidently, this goes even more without saying in our post-colonial and post-modern times, since there are no longer any moral or ideological objections to stem the tide.

12There is a marked difference with what one could observe, at least until recently, among Western readers of Japanese literature. One is struck by the extent of their interest, spanning almost the entire millennium of the history of Japanese literature – a history that is certainly incomparably shorter than those of India and China, though I do not think that the reason lies therein.

13One must ask oneself how it is that readers can dive into the world of the Tale of Genji and into the world of Mishima with the impression that they are entering one and the same culture – a culture that would seem to reflect a mentality which has endured over centuries. One could no doubt argue that this question concerns Western readers and not Japanese culture in itself, which could in no way be held responsible for any bias held about it. It seems to me, however, that such an attitude is based on an accurate – though not necessarily uttered or expressed – perception of an essential feature of this culture, which is the feeling that the language has a historical continuity. Here again, one will find that this feeling is one of the most common, at least within the great languages of civilizations that have developed in the Ancient World over thousands of years. It is nevertheless rare to see it so clearly reflected in the very history of the language as it is in Japan. The reason is that, from the moment it became a literary language, Japanese entered a dialogical relationship with the Chinese language, which was the great vehicle of the continental civilization, and this relationship has been sustained to this day. This is even the most striking and constant feature of the dynamics of Japanese civilization. Of course, such a seemingly general and pretentious affirmation would need to be supported by concrete examples.


14The year 1968 was rich in events, but the one that will remain the most important for our studies was unquestionably the attribution of the Nobel Prize in Literature to the Japanese novelist Kawabata Yasunari. Several things were apparent in this award: first of all, it was the second time in history that the prize was awarded to an ‘Asian’ writer in the broadest sense, since the first to have been celebrated this way, fifty-five years earlier, had been the Indian  or more exactly Bengali  poet, thinker and novelist Rabindranath Tagore. So many years had passed since then that it now seems difficult to comprehend that one could have ignored for such a long time the other Asian literatures, which are particularly robust in their Chinese and Japanese expressions. The other noteworthy fact was that it was a Japanese person who had had the honour of being Tagore’s successor. It would probably be somewhat of an exaggeration to imagine that in Japan or India there had been a widespread feeling of cultural continuity between the two writers. However, one has to remember that Tagore had for a while considered the idea that Japan could be the model for an original cultural development for Asia, even though he had in the end been disappointed by his travels there. One would probably also need to look for international political reasons to explain this choice, although I admit that they elude me. However, the fact is there and cannot be erased from history: one of the most famous novelists of his time in Japan was elected in front of the nations as the eminent representative of Asian literature.

15Biographies concur to emphasise the intense embarrassment that this decision occasioned in Kawabata. This was not just a matter of modesty; he was profoundly convinced that there were contemporary writers in Japan who would have been more deserving of this tremendous recognition. What probably embarrassed him above all was the obvious fact that he would from then on be considered within the entire world’s intellectual circles as the representative par excellence of all Japanese literature, from its very beginnings. It is the total awareness of this responsibility that is reflected in his speech on accepting the Nobel prize in Stockholm on 10 December 1968.

  • 1 It is the edition used here: Utsukushii Nihon no watashi  Sono josetsu, Kōdan-sha gendai shinsho, (...)

16Written and read by the author himself in Japanese, it was translated and delivered in English by the American Japanese Studies specialist Edward Seidensticker, who aptly represents this perception of continuity in Japanese culture that I am attempting to describe. As a translator of the great 20th century writers Nagai Kafū, Mishima Yukio and Kawabata, he devoted the end of his teaching career to translating the Tale of Genji, thereby going back to the source of Japanese literary writing. One can well imagine that this speech did not remain without a response in Japan. It also created quite a stir in Europe, as everything concerning the Nobel prize in literature usually does. However, both within its country and abroad, the speech was not fully understood, and people were mostly inclined to read into it the width of the gap that separated East and West. I must admit that I had been very disappointed by it while in my early studies of Japanese. In its pages I was only willing to see an almost provocative exoticism, the intellectual equivalent to what in the Chinese novel was called “the school of mandarin ducks and butterflies”, a lazy resorting to traditional imagery, no doubt done to impress the Swedish bourgeoisie. I have completely changed opinion since then. However, it is true that the extraordinary subtlety deployed by Kawabata in these pages gave the listener and then the reader every opportunity to be misled. The fact that, at least in Japan, the speech was regarded as a decisive text beyond the circumstances which gave rise to it can be seen in the fact that it is still available in an independent paperback edition, along with its English translation1, whose differences with the original would in themselves deserve a small study. It is therefore relevant to ask ourselves what the author had wanted to tell us.

17For a start, the title he gave to his speech is almost impossible to translate; a true crux interpretum, it is childishly simple in Japanese, but all the efforts to render it in French reveal themselves to be artificial, convoluted or ridiculous. 美しい日本の私: Seidensticker chose to translate it by “Japan the Beautiful and Myself”. I will not insist here upon the presence or not of a comma after “Japan”; it appears and disappears depending on the edition and would then make us understand “Japan, the Beautiful and myself”. It appears difficult to better – in its straightforward simplicity – the translation that I found on the internet and which presently seems to have gained the approval of the virtual world: “I from beautiful Japan”. However, I will prefer here to hark back to the late François Berthier, who had proposed a long time ago “The Japanese aesthetic tradition whence I come”. Almost a paraphrase, this title has the great merit of conveying the logical relation that is essential here between each word, and thus of translating rather precisely what Kawabata announces. Too precisely even, because he almost gives us – too early – a key for deciphering the speech: it will indeed be about the relation between a Japanese form of beauty and the writer himself, whereas the original words suggest rather that Kawabata intends to talk about the beauty of Japan in terms of a country: “Japan the Beautiful”.

18However, the contents of these few pages has nothing to do with that: in fact, the author keeps to literature, nothing but literature, a modern term which he uses very little (three times) in his speech, often preferring to use poetry, that is to say, the literary form par excellence in pre-modern Japan. This plainly shows in which tradition the novelist that he is, above all, means to place himself, and one can imagine how his following affirmation was received: “The Tale of Genji is the greatest Japanese novel of all times, to which no other novel comes close; that long-term work of such modernity should have been written in the 10th century is a unique miracle...”. We have here almost the exact opposite of the situation in India, where only the modern writers who wrote in English were considered by prominent critics. Kawabata buttresses his argument by citing two other works along with Genji: The Tales of Ise and Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book, which he affirms “ruled over” the following eight centuries of literature and “shaped Japan’s tradition of beauty” (I am purposefully translating in a literal way). It is then indeed about literary beauty that Kawabata intends to talk when, on this exceptional occasion both for him and for the culture that he is thereby forced to personify, he is able to present his idea of Beauty to the world.

19He does this by sprinkling his speech with Japanese poems of a traditional form, short pieces of five verses whose main constraint is to avoid the use of Sino-Japanese terms, which it must be remembered represent, just like the Franco-Latin vocabulary does in English, two thirds of the current lexis. He cites sixteen poems all in all; seventeen if one includes the repeat of the first one, which is remarkable for a speech that was not supposed to last for over an hour. Of course, one can wonder about the effects that this bombardment had on the attentive Swedish audience, and in this respect remember the words of the critic Etō Jun: “Whereas the members of the Swedish Academy probably expected Mr Kawabata to build a conceptual bridge between the East and the West, no doubt they saw a yawning gap open up...” However, they were certainly not the only ones, so much did Kawabata choose to confound everyone, even those who ought to have shared what seemed to be his tacit assumption: the conviction that classical poetry is the foundation of Japanese aesthetics. Because for who is convinced of this, and even for a staunch modernist, there would not have been a shortage of other more illustrious examples in which everyone in Japan would have recognised a masterpiece worthy of being proclaimed to the whole world.

20Yet the first poem – and first poet – thrust at the audience without a word of introduction, is that of a Japanese monk of the 13th century, Zen master Dōgen. Although he counts among the most illustrious monks of Japan’s very rich Buddhist history and is perhaps the most famous in the West for having been the author of one of the most important and abstruse Buddhist works written in Japanese, even his most enthusiastic admirers would not assert that he was a poet of genius, especially when modern critics generally concur to refuse him the authorship of most of the Japanese poems that have been passed on under his name.

21In the same breath, Kawabata cites another poem, the work of one of Dōgen’s contemporaries, albeit from another school, the great monk Myōe, whose poetic works of undisputed authenticity have a better reputation than those of Dōgen. The three following works are again by Myōe, followed by five poems by Ryōkan, a Zen monk from circa 1800, two poems by Ikkyū, another Zen monk of the 15th century, and so forth. Thus, the great majority of the poets cited or mentioned by Kawabata are Zen Buddhist monks, as are most of the authorities he cites.

22Without having to get any further into the details of the distribution, one already perceives that the aesthetic universe in which the novelist recognizes himself is fundamentally Buddhist. Even though he does not proclaim it so explicitly, the order of his speech precisely demonstrates that Japanese poetry, calligraphy, the art of tea, the art of flower arranging, the very scenery in which the monk-poets move, have Buddhism as their backdrop, more especially represented by its Zen tradition. Once we have seen this, however, will we really have got to the bottom of what Kawabata wanted to tell us on this unique opportunity that he had to address the world, the Western world as it happens, as the sole representative of Japanese culture?

23His speech, which may have seemed so disconcerting in Japan because of the gap he deliberately created with the literary and intellectual preoccupations of his time, and so largely incomprehensible abroad due to what could hardly have been taken for anything but a kind of exoticism that was both expected and opaque, is nevertheless remarkably structured. It offers in its very wording all that is necessary for its interpretation, and for understanding those Japanese aesthetics to which he claims he belongs.

24Dōgen’s poem which opens the speech appears rather ordinary:

  • 2 Haru ha hana / natsu hototogisu / aki ha tsuki / fuyu yuki saete / suzushikarikeri. The text is t (...)

To spring the flowers
to summer the cuckoo
to autumn the moon
to winter the snow
in its cold radiance2.

  • 3Honrai no menmoku”.

but the title that goes with it and which Kawabata gives straight after is more intriguing: “The Original Face3”.

25The poem by Myōe which he reads next repeats, together, two terms that were dissociated in the first poem, Winter and the moon, with snow too, of course:

  • 4Kumo wo idete / ware ni tomonau / fuyu no tsuki / kaze ya mi ni shimu / yuki ya tsumetaki.”

Coming out from the clouds
to accompany me
the winter moon
how piercing the wind
how freezing the snow.4

26At the same time we are given the note in which the monk explains the circumstances in which the poem was composed: while he was engaged in a cycle of Winter meditation which obliged him to go to a hermitage in the mountains in the middle of the night, he got the impression, on emerging from his contemplation, that the moon was escorting and protecting him along the dangerous path where howling wolves could be heard.

27The title of the first poem, which is a highly significant Buddhist term that we will have to return to, and the note about the second poem, both clearly indicate that we are encouraged to focus our attention beyond the “mandarin ducks and butterflies” aspect, which many sometimes feel a bit embarrassed about, on another interpretive dimension. Not only does Kawabata repeat the first poem in full a few pages later, but he repeats its last verse near the end of his speech while at the same time citing the fragment by Myōe “to accompany me / the winter moon”, and his very last sentence mentions once more the term “Original Face”, to highlight that the poem whose title it is and which celebrates the aesthetics of the four seasons, is in actual fact firmly rooted in Zen.

28Thus the first and last sentences of the speech answer one another, and the ultimate proposal, in which the omnipresence of Zen Buddhism is reaffirmed, confirms this beyond all doubt. One can but notice how much this poem means to Kawabata in his demonstration. However, just to accept this by relying on an aesthetic sensibility that is beyond us would be too easy. Surely such a strong framework spanning the length of the speech must be there to uphold something.

29The Dōgen-Myōe sequence at the beginning is repeated at the end in reversed order: Myōe-Dōgen, but it is reinforced by a quote of a remarkable length, taken from a famous account of Myōe’s life attributed to his disciple Kikai. In it is related a conversation that is meant to have taken place, in a way that is hardly historically plausible, between Myōe and Saigyō. Saigyō, also a monk, is by far the most illustrious poet among those mentioned by Kawabata, although – paradoxically – he does not cite any of his poems in his speech. One of the architects of the poetic revival around 1200, he left a large number of works inextricably linked to the Buddhist doctrine. He is also the hero of a pseudo-biographical volume of the 13th century, in which his religious practices and their links to his poetry are described, and which is echoed in the excerpt chosen by Kawabata.

30Here again, one can only wonder what he had in mind when he proposed as the finale of an already abstruse presentation a passage of such complexity that even in Japanese it is difficult to understand for anyone unfamiliar with Buddhist vocabulary. Let us nonetheless take the risk of examining a few of its sentences.

31Saigyō first declares to Myōe that his own poems are very different from the standard ones: “flowers, the cuckoo, the moon, the snow, all of these phenomenal signs which, in the abundance of creation, strike the ear or meet the gaze, do so by their inanity”. He carries on: “when I celebrate the flowers, I do not really think about the flowers, when I celebrate the moon in my verses, I do not really think about the moon”.

32Then what is he doing as a poet? He tells us: “Even so, all of these sentences that I compose are ‘words of truth’”, and his last affirmation is staggering: “All of these poems (uta) are the true form of the Thus Come One”, that is the supreme Buddha.

33One will have noticed that the four models of poetic subject matters given by Saigyō are the same as those listed in the poem by Dōgen with which Kawabata opens his speech and whose title is “The Original Face”. Even though the novelist does not deem it necessary to highlight this, it is clear from that point onwards that what counts for him in a Japanese poem is not nature as such, which is the apparent theme of the poem, but the linguistic act that founds it. The poem is equalled to the “word of truth”, a Sino-Japanese translation for the Sanskrit word mantra, which has been adopted in the West in its most trivial usages, but which means a set of phonemes that are taken to mysteriously represent the very essence of the Buddha and his teaching. One must bear in mind that, like in classical Latin, truth and reality are but one here, since this is about ultra-phenomenal reality, whose substance is the very substance of Buddha.

  • 5 Nyorai no shin no gyōtai; there is no reason here to dwell upon the other meanings of the latter t (...)

34The four objects of nature evoked by Dōgen are therefore to be understood in the light of the title, “The Original Face”, which is repeated in Kawabata’s last sentence. Because of its position, a parallel is drawn between it and the last words of Saigyō’s long quotation: “The true / real form of the Thus Come One”.5 If the terms differ, it is because they belong to different currents of Buddhism. The first is specific to Zen; the Sino-Japanese word that is used means “face, appearance”, but also “nature, disposition”. “Original Face” immediately refers to the eternally debated question of the Buddha nature that is buried in the heart of all existing beings. On the other hand, the expression “true form of the Thus Come One” takes us to the world of Buddhist esotericism, which in Japan is first and foremost represented by the school known as the “Words of truth” (Shingon-shū), the very word that is used in the quotation attributed to Saigyō to define Japanese poetry.

35In this context, the Thus Come One evoked here can only be the “Great Sun” or Dainichi in Japanese, Mahāvairocana in Sanskrit, the supreme Buddha of esotericism, which Medieval Buddhism had narrowly linked to the very name of Japan. The two terms thus refer to one same reality, which we will define here as the Buddha nature present in phenomenal nature. However, the link between these two extremities is nothing other than speech, and the mediate between the Great Sun and the four seasons is the Japanese language itself, the means of expression of the poem. To compose a poem is to pronounce a mantra and thus reveal the Buddha nature that is hidden in the world.

36We have here the affirmation of a reality to which language affords access and which seems very far from the opinion that is commonly formed about Buddhism. Incidentally, it is amusing to note that, at a time when the Japanese of the intellectuals was becoming riddled with French and English terms, Kawabata only used one in his entire speech: nihilism, only to stress straightaway that it has nothing to do with what he is talking about.

37However, most amazing is the importance, which appears excessive at first, given here to the Japanese language through this “act of language” par excellence that is Japanese poetry.

  • 6 Yuima-gyō; Chinese text in The Taisho shinshu Daizokyo, Tōkyō, 1931, vol. XIV, no. 475.

38It is true that the full scope of Kawabata’s intention could not be grasped, so great was the gap, not only between him and his Swedish audience, but also between him and his Japanese colleagues, many of whom certainly did not understand the content of this speech despite its well-built composition. One must remember that for years he had been spending his studious leisure time reading Buddhist texts in classical Chinese and Japanese, which also explains why the only non-Japanese text that he quoted literally in his speech was The Teaching of Vimalakīrti6, one of the most read sūtras by laymen literati in China and Japan in ancient times.

39The fact that he preferred to illustrate his thought process mainly with works by monks also gives us an indication of how he wants us to read it. In fact, one can find in the texts of medieval Japanese poets many elements which Kawabata’s words seem to echo back to. If his words fell upon a perplexed and admiring audience – even an irritated one in Japan – it is because most have lost the culture which would have allowed them to understand. And yet it would take but a step back in time to find in a more ancient Japan what would appear to be the ultimate source and justification of what Kawabata was trying to explain to us.

40While he openly claims belonging to the Buddhist tradition of Zen, as we have seen, the long excerpt that he reads at the end, like a kind of finale prolonging indefinitely the purport of the preceding quotes and references, is fully situated in the esoteric dimension of Japanese Buddhism. This is highlighted by the parallel he draws between poetic composition and mantras (shingon).

41If we go back to this tradition, which was one of the most influential in the history of Japanese culture, we come to the great figure of Kūkai (died 835), an illustrious monk who not only travelled to China, whence he brought back “secret doctrines”, but also came to be seen as a true “cultural hero”, linked to the invention or transmission of a large number of traditional arts and crafts. Among his texts of great value that were handed down to us and which were all written in a stylistically sophisticated form of Classical Chinese, many directly concern a theme that could be defined as “mysticism of language”.

  • 7 Shō-ji-jissō-gi; Chinese text in The Taisho shinshu Daizokyo, vol. LXXVII, no. 2429.
  • 8 Jikkan-shō, Mount Kōya University editions (Kōya-san daigaku shuppan-bu), 1941, rev. 1966, p. 33-51

42One of them in particular entitled On the Meaning of Phonemes, Graphemes and Reality7, is chronologically situated at the dawn of the Japanese people’s reflection on their language – even though what Kūkai discusses does not directly concern Japanese, but the general question of the capacity of phenomenal signs to express what is real. It contains many elements underlying what Kawabata says of Saigyō’s ideas and which constitute their doctrinal foundation. This fairly short treatise is part of the Collection in ten books8, a kind of breviary of the Shingon school, but it has been read and commented upon extensively. It is not necessary to suppose that Kawabata read it, even though that would not be impossible, for there are very handy editions that are widely disseminated by Buddhist bookshops. However, it suffices here to remember its theoretical importance: this is about nothing less than founding the idea of a direct link between written and oral linguistic signs and the substance of things, which is nothing other than the very substance of Buddha; phonemes, graphemes and reality are one and the same.

43While Kūkai’s intention had been to demonstrate the ontological validity of the “words of truth” or mantras on which esoteric practice was based, subsequent developments, whose result we have in Saigyō’s affirmation on poetry in terms of “word of truth”, show that the Japanese monks had extended the master’s thoughts. This was perhaps inevitable, in the general movement of the Buddhist thought of their country, in order to lead them to validate the literary  and more generally cultural  practices.

44That Kawabata should not have felt the need to explain further his own intention may have been part of the game that he intended to lead in his speech, for it is more than likely that he was aware of the fact that he would not be able to be fully understood.

45However, the fact remains: if one agrees to follow what must be called his line of reasoning until its implicit conclusions – which are founded, it must be agreed, upon true knowledge of the Buddhist sources that he uses – one is forced to admit that, for him, the very essence of the “beauty of Japan” (that was the title which first appeared on the manuscript: “The Beauty of Japan and I”, to be replaced by the words that became the final title, and one must really wonder whether it had not simply been inspired by the song America the Beautiful), the essence of the “beauty of Japan”, I say, is none other than its language.

46Its entire aesthetic universe is contained within its language, which includes both its oral and written dimensions, the theoretical foundation of this identity being Buddhism. The mastery of the Japanese poetic language is the key to Japanese aesthetics, the Beauty that is the “original face” of Dōgen, the “true form” of Saigyō and the “reality” or, for a more exact translation, the “real aspect” (jissō) of Kūkai. These three different terms actually refer to the same thing: to reality, to which language refers back, and which, under its ephemeral and obsolete appearance, is the “word of truth”.

47In the words of Kūkai: “The voice does not unfurl itself in vain, it expresses the name of things; their appellation is called ‘letter’ and their name evokes a substance that one calls ‘real aspect’.” This is the answer that Kawabata gives, when he places himself in the thought tradition linking him to Kūkai, Saigyō, Myōe and Dōgen, to the critics who wanted to see in his work the illustration of the Buddhist concept of “vacuity”. Though he does not challenge the term, he demonstrates in this way just how far removed he is from – even diametrically opposed to – the Western idea of “nihilism”.

48But, having made this discovery, we are still far from having exhausted what Kawabata attempts to convey to us in his speech. What is more, by way of the same process of implying, he reveals in it a whole dimension of the Japanese world of language, no longer theoretical but in action, a crucial dimension in the elaboration of the Japanese civilization.

49By reciting as a second opening poem the verses of Myōe “Coming out from the clouds / to accompany me / the winter moon” and so on, the novelist takes us into the heart of a Japanese landscape that everyone thinks they recognize: the mountain path, the freezing wind, the snow lit up by the moon, the monk meditating in his hermitage. All is there, including no doubt the allusion to Kawabata’s most famous novel, The Land of Snow, one of his two works that he specifically refers to in front of the Swedish academicians. We are thus at the heart of Japanese aesthetics, which shaped him and which he attempts to define.

50However, one does not need to have read much Chinese poetry to remark that the image of the moon keeping a solitary traveller company is one of the most familiar of this literature. It was used many times by the poets of the Tang dynasty (618-907), who later became models for the Japanese authors.

51The first verses of one poem in particular, by the illustrious poet of the 8th century, known in France under the name Li Po, evoke the same image of an animate and friendly heavenly body:

Coming down from the emerald mount at dusk
the moon on the mountain keeps the traveller company

52The very title of the poem, On going down from Mount Zhongnan and Dropping off Wine at the Husi Hermitage, evokes, in a less religious context, life withdrawn from the world.

53There is another one of Li Po’s poems, which is perhaps even better known than the first throughout the Chinese-reading Far-East, called Solitary Drinking under the Moon, in which one comes across the exact two Chinese characters which, when read in Japanese, make up the words “to accompany me, the moon” found in Myōe’s poem.

54The two poems by Li Po can be found in various anthologies of Chinese poetry. These were read, studied and meditated upon throughout the Japanese Middle Ages. It is not necessary for the purposes of our argument that it should be precisely these verses which influenced Myōe, for similar ones are widespread in Chinese poetry. Most importantly, we need to be aware of the efficiency of the linguistic process, which leads to this astonishing result: Kawabata is able to refer, as a Japanese aesthetic model, to a poem whose central imagery comes directly from China.

55And yet the note that Myōe attached to his poem sufficiently says that he is relating a real and personal experience: how the moon seemed to keep him company and to protect him on the nocturnal journey to his meditation hut. All of his readers are – or were – of course capable of recognising the borrowing, and it is not the originality of the image that impresses here, but the intensity of the experience where reality can illustrate literature, and the extent to which the transposition of a Chinese verse into Japanese effectively conveys the experience. What matters is the perfect match that is perceived, through the act of language transposition, between the Japanese language and the Japanese experience of the world or rather the experience of the Japanese world, the “beautiful Japan” of the title.


56We are here at the heart of the subject. As we know, we have no way of gaining access to a state of Japanese culture that is devoid of any Chinese influence. What’s more, it is highly doubtful that any such state ever existed. The Japanese language is nevertheless as different from ancient Chinese as one can imagine. In many ways it resembles more closely the European languages that are more familiar to us. However fascinating the question of the very origins of the Japanese language may be, it is far from being resolved. More recent research seems to confirm its continental  and therefore not Austronesian  origin. What is called proto-Japanese is believed to have been in contact for a long time with certain Tungusic languages, ancestors of Manchu, of proto-Korean and other languages from the Korean peninsula that disappeared after being supplanted by Korean, and probably with Chinese too. The striking similarities that one finds between Japanese, Korean and Manchu appear to be the fruit of this prolonged contact, rather than the result of belonging to a hypothetical Altaic family of languages whose existence is not standing up to the scrutiny of linguists. Evidence of these contacts is eluding historians for now. However, as we can posit that, all things considered, they took place in recent times, around the beginning of the Christian era, there is hope that a fortuitous discovery of written documents will one day confirm them, as some historical clues already do. We do, on the other hand, have a rather good idea of the way the writing was handed down in Japanese culture once the newcomers had settled down in the archipelago.

57Two points at least make his transmission stand out: first of all, it was freely consented to and not imposed by an occupation or a foreign tutelage; next, it led to a profound transformation of the original system, a reform that was already latent in certain uses of Chinese writing, but which was carried through to its final stage of development.

  • 9 The Kojiki or Chronicle of Ancient Things of 712.

58As soon as important and stable enough centres of power were in place, the Japanese began to import Chinese culture from the continent, first via the Korean kingdoms, which had inherited some of this culture thanks to the Chinese military settlements and the close ties resulting from them, and then by developing direct diplomatic relations with China during the Tang dynasty. The first great literary monuments of Japan date back to the first half of the 8th century. Although they outwardly present themselves as written in Chinese characters, in reality, they already embody  especially for the earliest and most important one for learning about ancient Japanese religion9  a deep osmosis between the two languages.

59However, even from that dawn of Japanese literature, we already have, emerging in a state close to that of perfection, the Japanese syllabary as it is still used to this day. One could even say that it was more rigorously applied at the beginning as, apparently, it did not involve the aesthetic concerns that made its use more complex and resulted in the use of hundreds of signs for transcribing forty-seven or forty-eight phonemes defined from the outset, until modernisation in the 19th century curbed this proliferation.

60When speaking of the written culture of Japan, one often talks about a dual system. However, we must realise that there are in actual fact two written languages that exist together: the classical Chinese language and the classical Japanese language, which differ radically from one another. That they are both orally produced in Japanese, according to a process that I will not describe here, does not detract in any way from this fundamental fact that gives Japanese culture its originality.

61We are not dealing with bilingualism, which describes a situation in which two written and spoken languages of equal importance exist alongside each other, such as Dutch and French in Belgium for example, nor with diglossia, which implies the coexistence of a noble and a vulgar state of one same language, states that are differentiated according to their uses, as in countries where Arabic is spoken. Here, the situation is more complex: the prestigious language is not only preserved in the founding texts handed down in Japan, whether Buddhist or Confucian, but also cultivated throughout its history by the literati of the archipelago, many of whom expressed themselves, when writing, in classical Chinese.

62Moreover, a classical Japanese language developed very early on, whose principal distinctive trait was to become its independence regarding the Chinese language. Although this independence was an objective linguistic fact from the start, it was nevertheless very carefully and consciously preserved, even exaggerated, by the Japanese literati who made it the first Japanese poetic expression par excellence, the language of waka.

63However, the linguistic and graphic difference between the two expressions conceals in its depth a unity that one could even describe as essential if it were not in fact a carefully elaborated and constantly evolving device. By playing on the concreteness of writing and the reading processes, the literati were able to create the illusion of two separate dimensions, each one peopled with its own phenomenal beings, animated by its own lives and by necessity, while one is in actual fact the reflection of the other, transposed by language and writing.

64This is how the sequence of two characters in Li Po’s Chinese poem, pronounced hangetsu in Sino-Japanese, becomes tomonau tsuki in the Japanese poem. If something is being camouflaged, it is so only on the surface, for no Japanese reader of the time would have been deluded. This process, on the contrary, highlights the very passage from the world of Chinese culture to that of Japanese culture.

65This is not simply about translating, for a translation aims to create an independent text which should no longer refer back to its original. In the case of the Sino-Japanese language relation, the substantial link is never broken and the transposition into Japanese always keeps the richness of its Chinese source, to which it can always be referred back. This transposition process also concerns vocabulary: the most common Japanese poetic terms are loaded with the meanings that they have not only in Chinese poetry, but also in the canonical Buddhist texts which often provide the poets with their source material.

66And this is not fortuitous, because it is religious conceptions which validate the relationship between the Chinese and Japanese languages. Studied on its own as a language of the Sacred Scriptures of Buddhism, Chinese, which at the same time conveys Indian thinking, is the language of the universal order, of a dharma that is nothing other than the physical and moral cosmos.

67That does not mean to say, however, that Japanese is considered to be a vulgar language with no supernatural scope. While Chinese is the language in which the words of the Buddhas and of the Indian gods were handed down, Japanese is the language of the kami. These Japanese divinities are the protagonists of what we could call, opposite the Buddhist cosmogony, the Japanese “microcosmogony”, the mythology recorded in the archipelago’s earliest literary monuments. The waka, the Japanese poem, as the archetypal preserve of the language, was created by the gods themselves, and it was to record it that the national syllabary was developed. What is said in Japanese is thus the equivalent of what is written in Chinese, but adapted to what the Japanese people can assimilate. The particular has the same content as the universal; only its more limited extension distinguishes the former from the latter.

68This mode of transposition, which is linguistic and above all poetic, to the extent that poetry was considered to be a Japanese act of language par excellence, has spread to other fields in the arts, history and the sciences. It has provided a kind of model of interpretation of all phenomena, wherein all that first appears constitutes only the envelope of a reality that Man is invited to discover: the superior meaning behind the words, the Chinese or Indian places beyond the Japanese landscapes, and the ancient archetypes behind the modern works of art.

69It is through contemplation that Man gains access to this other dimension, to the “primary truth” or “authentic truth” (shintai), as it is called in the Buddhist texts, as opposed to the “vulgar truth” (zokutai). Numerous medieval texts liken the composition of poems to Buddhist meditation and invite the reader to understand them as such, by revealing the Chinese and Indian Buddhist truths behind the “pure” Japanese words.

70Even the very vocabulary that is used to refer to written characters reflects a hierarchy of languages that is supported by Buddhism: whereas Chinese characters are called mana or “true appellations / real words” during the medieval period, the Japanese syllabary is referred to as kana, “temporary appellations or words”. Usually one hardly notices that the latter term is the Japanese reading of a Chinese compound belonging to the Buddhist vocabulary, meaning “provisional denominations” or, put more simply, “phenomena”. The relationship between the two oral and written languages thus establishes itself according to the plan of the two Buddhist truths: the authentic and the vulgar, the real and the phenomenal, reunited as the texts say, in contemplation.

71One sees how much the comprehension of this Japanese vision of language can lead us to reconsider our usual categories. Although we are here really dealing with a form of “purism”, the way of applying it will necessarily seem paradoxical to us, as purism here is at the service of the assimilation of a foreign religion and a foreign culture; it makes use of a linguistic basis that is reputed to be “pure”, to translate and integrate foreign terms, and even literally transpose them. It has therefore nothing to do with the state of “closure” which, for certain linguists, characterises purism.

72More than that, it is the exact opposite, as these transpositions do not in any way aim to replace the Sino-Japanese terms in the language; the latter have always had and will increasingly have their rightful place in the language and literature. These transpositions are above all a means of deepening foreign notions or of enabling them to take root by pretending they hail from the pristine sources of the Japanese language, as the language of the Japanese gods, thus eventually integrating them into the very substance of the language and culture.

73In Kawabata’s receiving speech for the Nobel prize we witness what may be the last manifestation of this linguistic conscience, which is all the more remarkable because it is proclaimed to the world from a place of singular prominence. No doubt we must now regard it as a swan song perpetuating a cultural vision which has since undergone profound upheaval, but that is another story, to which we should return some day.

74This is therefore what must be understood by “Philology of Japanese Civilization”: not the meticulous and patient establishment of a text from a handwritten tradition, not the examination of the evolution of the lexical and grammatical usages, not the history of the elaboration of the Japanese language – although we must obviously fully take into account the research in all of these fields –, but the full awareness of the history of Japanese civilization as an uninterrupted dialogue, a symphony, in the literal sense, of two languages within one same culture, whose resonances have punctuated its development right from the start.


  • 10 Cf. my essay Hieroglossia: A Proposal, Bulletin of Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, 200 (...)
  • 11 Hyperglossia was used by Sheldon Pollock, who probably gave it up because it was homonymous with a (...)

75I have ventured to revive the ancient Greek word hieroglossia for this use10, perhaps giving in too easily to the temptation to create a neologism, but also prompted by a growing feeling that our vocabulary lacks a word to refer to this phenomenon. Others, who have followed quite independently and only to a certain extent an approach similar to mine, have proposed other terms, such as hyperglossia or linguistic primordialism11. These terms seem less satisfying, for they do not reflect what, to me, is a key aspect of the relationship between the languages: its fundamentally religious dimension.

76I thus call hieroglossia the hierarchical relationship between two or more languages in which one is held to be the primordial idiom in the ordering of the representation of the world and the other, or others, receive the core of their meaning from the first. In other words, the value of the words of one language will be validated by their reference to another.

77This relationship is not fixed in any way; it is constantly evolving, partly due to history itself, but also for a reason that could easily be demonstrated by that same history: every language aspires to become sacred. Although the hierarchical relationship is at first willingly accepted by the host language, one sees a spirit of emulation develop fairly quickly, which pushes the latter to want, in turn, to gain the status of privileged means of expressing the truth of the world.

  • 12 There is a very interesting article on this subject by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi: Persian, the Othe (...)

78We discover this dynamic in the Japanese language, just as we saw it at work in the movement that made the sacredness of the Hebraic Bible move to the Greek Bible, then to the Latin Bible, to take a more familiar example, bestowing on the languages concerned a sacred character that was not so apparent in their former states. The same dynamic shaped the Persian language in the Muslim world, where it gradually gained the status of second holy language of Islam – a status that is to be differentiated from its role as a lingua franca of the Orient12.

79This can very clearly be seen in the history of Central Asia and in Mogul India, for example, where Persian undoubtedly played the part of a great international language but, later superseded by Eastern Turkish and Urdu, remained a literary and religious means of expression. Its hieroglossic importance was rediscovered after the fall of the Soviet Union, enriched or further complicated by new political factors, which only make it more apparent.

80The fact that this is not just a historical oddity, but also a significant element of our time, is made evident by what is going on at the moment in the Far East. In this respect, it is very striking to note the recent spread of a new term in Japanese research, that of “Classical Chinese culture sphere” (kanbun-bunka-ken). It is replacing the more ancient term of “Chinese-character culture sphere”, which could have been criticised for keeping to the technical aspect of the graphical notation system, while it was quite obvious – even in regions where this writing had been eliminated, such as Vietnam or North Korea, or else had seen its position dwindle generation after generation, as in South Korea – that the imprint of Chinese hieroglossia, that is to say the outside validation within these “peripheral” languages of the vocabulary and notions that are conveyed by it, remain for the most part intact.

81Moreover, the current Chinese policy of promoting Mandarin as an international language, which is essentially directed at East Asia and Southeast Asia, buttresses the position of many of the Japanese sinologists, who have tried hard for a long time to impose the study of classical Chinese as a foreign language, and not, when read in the traditional way, as a particular form of classical Japanese and as part of the Japanese literary culture.

82I dare say this movement recalls, in reverse as it were, the separation between Buddhism and Shintoism that was imposed in Japan around the mid-19th century, under cover of modernisation and rationalisation, and which led to results whose terrible extent the protagonists undoubtedly never envisaged.

83We are witnessing at this very moment in Japan two conflicting visions of Chinese culture: one that recognises it as having always been an integrated part of Japanese civilization, which it informs and moves from within, and the other, predominant in modern Asia, that wants to keep it a distance, as a foreign language, the language of China and not the expression of Chinese culture.

  • 13 In his master book The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Pr (...)

84This contrast clearly illustrates the difference between what I conceive as hieroglossia on the one hand, and the linguistic cosmopolitanism as defined by Sheldon Pollock on the other13. Although the two dimensions are frequently superimposed, they almost inevitably split ways and must not be mixed up. Most often, the long-term evolution goes from political predominance to religious prestige: it took fifteen centuries to get from Latin as the language of the Roman legions, to Laurent Valla’s sacramentum linguae latinae, and perhaps as many to evolve from the Imperial Aramaic to the mystical language of the Zohar.

85However, we can see from the example of China and Japan that the tendency can be reversed. One does not need to be a great prophet to foresee that in the next few years in the Far East the importance of this language relationship will increase. It may become antagonistic if it is supported on both sides by a nationalistic vision of its meaning, or else fruitful if it is put back into its historical perspective, where it was an enriching factor for both parties. For let us not forget that it was on the basis of its classical Chinese vocabulary that Meiji Japan developed the neologisms of modernity, which were then taken up by the whole of sinicized Asia.


86This is then – I repeat it by adding another term – what will be understood by “philology” in this course: the study of the constant dialogue, of the hieroglossic relationship that was maintained throughout the history of Japanese culture until the most recent times, the last third of the past century, where the symptoms of its dissolution can be perceived.

  • 14 I must acknowledge here that I was influenced by Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittelalter(...)

87The course will focus on great poetical, religious, literary and philosophical texts and will take us from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. One important aspect of our approach will consist in extending the study of this phenomenon, brilliantly illustrated in Japanese civilization, to other cultural domains: European latinity14, the Arabo-Persian and Ottoman Islamic world, the Russian linguistic universe. It goes without saying that this will require the collaboration of numerous specialists of these diverse fields, and of many others besides. Several colleagues have already expressed an interest in this approach. The Collège de France, with its constant objective over the centuries of dedicating all of its working power to the elucidation of fundamental questions, is certainly the ideal place to carry it out, and more so now than ever before, as the ambitious project of an Institute of Civilizations is about to materialise, which could provide a framework for such research.

88The idea that the study of Japanese civilization in its deepest essence could bring a renewed, however small, understanding of the great cultural movements which shaped Eurasia will be new proof of its fecund originality, which struck the Europeans from the very start when they discovered it.

89A coincidence, if one must speak of coincidence, has us gathered here tonight only a few weeks away from the first anniversary of the triple catastrophe that struck Japan on 11 March 2011. Over and above the deep emotion triggered by the pictures and the eyewitness accounts of incredible tragedies, very strange reactions were expressed, particularly in France, regarding the attitude of the Japanese people confronted with such misfortune: a mix of surprise, admiration and lack of understanding. Their attitude was, evidently, not in accordance with what one would expect from a people in distress, and specialists of Japan had to answer as best they could incredibly naive questions on whether Japanese people underwent some kind of mental preparation for facing natural disasters. Whatever their relevance may be, these questions once again highlighted how Japan, perceived as “The Wholly Other”, fascinates: it is a zone of mystery of which anything can be said, so little does it seem that ordinary reason still prevails there.

90That I should be given the possibility on this symbolic date of beginning a history, in its original meaning, of one of the less understood aspects of this culture entrusts me with an undeniable duty towards those who are living it or have lived it. When faced with the huge gap that needs to be bridged, if ever it can be, I feel a sense of awe, but undeniable enthusiasm too, for the richness of a world where there is still so much to discover.


1 It is the edition used here: Utsukushii Nihon no watashi  Sono josetsu, Kōdan-sha gendai shinsho, 1969 (2009, 56th edition).

2 Haru ha hana / natsu hototogisu / aki ha tsuki / fuyu yuki saete / suzushikarikeri. The text is the one given by Kawabata.

3Honrai no menmoku”.

4Kumo wo idete / ware ni tomonau / fuyu no tsuki / kaze ya mi ni shimu / yuki ya tsumetaki.”

5 Nyorai no shin no gyōtai; there is no reason here to dwell upon the other meanings of the latter term.

6 Yuima-gyō; Chinese text in The Taisho shinshu Daizokyo, Tōkyō, 1931, vol. XIV, no. 475.

7 Shō-ji-jissō-gi; Chinese text in The Taisho shinshu Daizokyo, vol. LXXVII, no. 2429.

8 Jikkan-shō, Mount Kōya University editions (Kōya-san daigaku shuppan-bu), 1941, rev. 1966, p. 33-51.

9 The Kojiki or Chronicle of Ancient Things of 712.

10 Cf. my essay Hieroglossia: A Proposal, Bulletin of Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, 2006, no. 30, p. 25-48. I should no doubt feel relieved to find that, contrary to what I had thought or feared for a long time, I was after all not the first to inflict this term on the modern world. Indeed, as I found out on the Internet, the sociolinguist Conrad Max Benedict Brann had used it as early as 1975 in his article “Language Influences on Pre-Adolescent Nigerian Children: A Typology” (Linguistics, no. 158, p. 7-32). He doesn’t seem to give the word a prominent place, for he inserts it in a series of neologisms including: oicoglossia, ethnoglossia, synergoglossia, academoglossia, paidiaglossia, synodoglossia, agoraglossia, angeloglossia. By caution or pusillanimity, I will keep to hieroglossia. (Cf. Mauro Fernández, Diglossia: A Comprehensive Bibliography, 1960-1990, and Supplements, Philadelphia / Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1993, p. 52).

11 Hyperglossia was used by Sheldon Pollock, who probably gave it up because it was homonymous with a medical term; the second can be found in Harold Schiffman: Language, Primordialism and Sentiment, in Gary B. Palmer and Debra J. Occhi (eds), Languages of Sentiment: Cultural Constructions of Emotional Substrates [Advances in Consciousness Research, no. 18], Philadelphia / Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1999, pp. 25-38.

12 There is a very interesting article on this subject by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi: Persian, the Other Sacred Language of Islam: Some Brief Notes, in Omar Ali-de-Unzaga (ed.), Fortresses of the Intellect  Ismaili and Other Islamic Studies in Honour of Farhad Daftary, London / New York, I. B. Tauris Publishers, 2011, p. 59-76.

13 In his master book The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006.

14 I must acknowledge here that I was influenced by Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittelalter by Ernst Robert Curtius, a book that I had taken with me for my first stay in Japan. Let us add to it, as a healthy confrontation, Sheldon Pollock: “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World”, Critical Inquiry, 2009, vol. 35, no. 4, p. 931-962.

© Collège de France, 2013

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