JSPS Quarterly
No.61 2017 Autumn

Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (43)

Dr. Andrew Houwen
Dr. Andrew Houwen

“Exploring the Relationships between Japanese and Western Literature”

JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, 2016-2018
PhD (English Literature), University of Reading, UK, 2015
MSt (English Literature), University of Oxford, UK, 2011

Coming to Japan from the UK, Dr. Andrew Houwen is conducting research for his JSPS postdoctoral fellowship at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, where his host is Prof. Eiichi Hara. We asked Dr. Houwen about his research activities and life in Japan.

Q: What are you currently researching under your JSPS fellowship?

My current research investigates the relationship between Japanese literature and one of the most prominent American poets of the twentieth century, Ezra Pound. Because of Pound’s centrality in the Anglophone poetic canon, his interest in haiku, a short form of Japanese poetry, has been discussed in great detail. What have not yet been examined, however, are the roots of this interest in fundamental changes to this poetic form that occurred in Meiji-era Japan (1868-1912), and how that shaped his understanding of haiku. My research also focuses on the influence on Pound of Noh a major form of classical Japanese theatre, which had a far deeper and longer-lasting impact on his poetry than haiku; and on Pound’s own impact on Japanese poetry.

Noh performance at Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka
Noh performance at Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka

Q: When and how did you come across this interesting research subject?

I first encountered it when I started learning about poetry as a teenager at a sixth-form college in the UK. One of my friends suggested that I read Pound’s translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry, and that’s what drew me to those cultures.

Q: For our readers, could you explain in what way haiku influenced Ezra Pound and English poetry?

There was a movement created in 1912 in the UK, called ‘Imagism’, by a group of poets that included Ezra Pound. They wished to reform English poetry by emphasizing concision, concretion, and a more flexible rhythm in imitation of French vers libre. These tenets led them to be influenced by Japanese tanka, a genre of classical Japanese poetry, and by hokku, the starting verse of a tanka or a renga (a linked-verse sequence). They translated some of this poetry and wrote their own too. Pound’s two-line poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’, which he described as a ‘hokku-like sentence’, embodied these Imagist principles and has become one of the most famous English poems of the twentieth century:

At Shiki's table at the Shiki-An, Negishi, Tokyo
At Shiki's table at the Shiki-An, Negishi, Tokyo

   “The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
     Petals on a wet, black bough.”

What has not yet been explored, however, is how their conception of haiku had been shaped by the Meiji-era literary reforms led by the poet and critic Masaoka Shiki. He emphasized their concretion, suggestiveness and use of juxtaposition rather than the features of some earlier ones such as wordplay. This conception of haiku remains dominant today. Interestingly, Shiki’s ideas were in turn strongly influenced by Western ideas about writing style. Here we can see two cultures encountering and influencing each other in both directions, and perceive the importance of other cultures in shaping one’s own. The ‘foreign’ lies at the heart of each culture.

Q: Shifting to current societies, should we consider the proliferation of social networks to be the kind of ‘concision’ found in ‘Imagism’?

In relation to Japanese literature, ‘Imagism’ is often only associated with the haiku form, but of course Pound’s interest in haiku, though famous now, was briefer and more superficial than his interest in Noh plays, which he thought could serve as models for ‘a long Imagiste or Vorticist poem’. Concision is not the only aspect of Imagist poems, so brevity alone is not an indication of Imagist qualities. However, Pound and other Imagists were already aware of how apt literary concision was for a faster-moving age. It was in a modern Metro station, after all, where Pound saw ‘the apparition of these faces in the crowd’.

At Tokyo Woman’s Christian University
At Tokyo Woman’s Christian University

Q: Now, could you tell us what the major goal of your research is for your JSPS fellowship?

My intention is to produce a monograph on the findings of my current research along with a collected volume on the subject based on papers to be given at a conference on Pound and Japan that I will organize for 12 March 2018 at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, sponsored by the Ezra Pound Society of Japan. Furthermore, I would like to remain in Japan after my JSPS fellowship in order to continue exploring the relationship between Japanese and English poetry.

Q: How do you find Japan’s research environment?

Tokyo, where I am based, has an excellent range of resources for my research, including the National Diet Library, the Japanese Modern Literature Library, the National Institute of Japanese Literature, and many more. I was surprised at the breadth of materials available at the Yokohama Archives of History, with their collections of English language newspapers published in Japan from the Meiji era, on the pages of which many of the first translators of haiku and Noh appear.

Q: In what context do you think you will contribute to society through your research?

I believe literature to be one of the deepest ways in which we can learn to understand one another better, both as individuals and as cultures. We can also learn to understand ourselves better too: my research hopes to show how important foreign influences are for each culture’s development.

Q: Please give some advice for young researchers who may be thinking about doing research in Japan.

In my experience, Japan is an excellent place to carry out humanities-related research. You will be provided with very good resources and your university colleagues will be friendly and supportive. Moreover, Japan is a beautiful country with so many wonderful places to visit. You will have an unforgettable time carrying out your research here. Learning Japanese is of course important, but having curiosity and an open mind are most essential.

Dr. Houwen’s host Prof. Hara
                                                                          Dr. Houwen’s host Prof. Hara

In interviewing Dr. Houwen, we found it quite extraordinary that what had drawn him to doing research in Japan was the American poet Ezra Pound. Pound had worked concepts of Japanese haiku and Noh into his own poetic style in English. It is at this intersection between East and West literary cultures that Dr. Houwen focuses his research. His study, however, has taken him beyond mere comparative literature, prompting him to ponder, as Pound did, the implications of cultural interweaving-how it reshapes perceptions and can cause one to think more interpretively, as when viewing the faces on the throngs of people in a Tokyo train station.

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JSPS Quarterly No.61 2017