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12 December 2023

Italian civilization in Japan: a historical review of Italian studies in Japan

Giovanni Desantis

The book La civiltà italiana in Giappone: un bilancio storico degli studi italiani in Giappone (Itaria no bunka to Nihon: Nihon ni okeru Itariagaku no rekishi), edited by Giovanni Desantis and Hideyuki Doi, and published by the Italian Cultural Institute in Osaka and Shoraisha Publishing House, Osaka-Kyoto, was released at the beginning of this year. In an exclusive interview with newitalianbooks, the authors – one the director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Osaka, the other a professor of Italian literature at the University of Tokyo – discuss the content of the book.



Hideyuki, why reconstruct the history of Italian culture in Japan from the Meiji era to the present day?


As we all know, the Meiji Restoration in the second half of the 19th century, which corresponds to the Italian Risorgimento not only chronologically but also in terms of historical significance, brought about a radical transformation of Japan’s centuries-old feudal society. To achieve rapid modernisation, the Iwakura mission, during its travels between 1871 and 1873, looked to European models, which were mainly England, France, Germany, the United States and, only secondarily, Italy. But this vision of the early Meiji era was a historically limited view of Western civilisation. We, having produced this book, know that the Italian contribution, far from being marginal, was fundamental for Japan in its march towards modernity. Before this book, there was no coherent, documented study of these issues. You, as a connoisseur of Japanese universities past and present, were aware of this gap. You also knew that the need to document Italy’s cultural influence on Japan was very present among Japanese Italianists, and that is why you involved me and all the other co-authors in this necessary work.


In the light of this new book, how do you see the critical and dialectical effort of Japanese intellectuals when faced with a complex civilisation that is unique among European civilisations, namely the Italian civilisation?


Let’s take the example of Dante, whose reception is discussed in the first chapter by Motoaki Hara, a specialist in the author of the Commedia. Around the 1880s, Dante’s name began to circulate among ‘progressive’ Anglicists: for them, he was a ‘hero’ like Shakespeare, an author to be studied in order to understand European civilisation. At almost the same time, the evangelical Christian intellectual Kanzō Uchimura and his followers considered Dante as “great” and the Commedia as the masterpiece of Christian literature. This orientation of thought included an element of anti-imperialism or anti-nationalism, which was at the root of the persecution that these Christian intellectuals suffered at the hands of the government and the university. Later, the first true Italianists of the early twentieth century produced the first complete translation of the three canticles from Italian into Japanese in 1916 (preceded by several others, translated from English or German), thus meeting the expectations of the more “enlightened” educated public, who wanted a faithful version of Dante’s poem. Even today, three fields of study revolve around Dante and the Commedia: the “comparatists”, who aspire to the Weltliteratur; those who read it in a specific context, such as the Christian context; and finally us, the Italianists. Whatever the case, the Japanese public has always read Dante. There are now no fewer than sixteen translations of the Commedia, the latest of which was published by Motoaki Hara in 2014. Dante belongs to these three fields of study, but he also belongs to every reader: as the late Nobel laureate Kenzaburō Ōe said, Dante is as cosmic as he is personal.


What and how many images, readings or interpretations of Italy emerge from Japanese attitudes to Italy’s cultural and historical heritage?


They are many and multifaceted. Here again, I’ll take just one example from the book. My colleague Francesco Campagnola, in the sixth chapter “From the idea of the Renaissance to Vico’s historicism”, illustrates certain militant interpretations among Japanese critics and intellectuals at the beginning of the 20th century. For them, it was essential to learn about the humanists, particularly controversial Machiavelli and Vico, at a crucial time like the 1930s, when it was thought that, under the militarist regime, there were no longer any ‘liberal’ intellectuals in Japan: in fact, some of them, precisely by studying Italian texts, were preparing, more or less consciously, for the radical change of the post-war period. University students, before being called up to the front, were avid readers of Gorō Hani’s textbook on Benedetto Croce, as my colleague Kōsuke Kunishi has shown in his chapter.


Italian literature and art history, among others. Fields such as philosophy, music, theatre and film also exert influences and create crossovers and blends between the two cultures. 


Divided into three sections, Literature, Philosophy, Art (and Music, Cinema, Theatre), the book has more surprises in store for us in the final chapters. The ninth chapter on music, written by musicologist Manabu Morita, reminds us that Italian music was appreciated not so much as a source of aesthetic pleasure, but as a fundamental component of the school curriculum. Like music, Italian art was also introduced for its political function, writes Motoaki Ishii, apart from the unique and exceptional case of Yukio Yashiro, who compiled the first corpus of Botticelli’s works in 1925. If we then want to talk about crossovers and mixtures, the great success of Italian neorealist cinema in Japan can be explained by the state of physical and moral misery in which Japan found itself at the time, as Satoko Ishida has shown. The book also highlights the role played by Giuliana Stramigioli, who imported neo-realist films to Japan and promoted the presentation of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. The mutual esteem between the two countries in the immediate post-war period gave rise to a new type of relationship, different from the alliances of previous years.


To sum up, what new features do the chapters in this book present?


I think that each chapter contains many novelties and discoveries in the field of humanistic studies in Japan, but – if I have to mention one aspect in particular – the chapters in the philosophical section constitute an unprecedented novelty in the panorama of studies. One example is : the section opens with an essay by Hoshino Hitoshi, who cites a surprising Thomistic contribution in the context of the post-Kyoto school.


What contribution do you think La civiltà italiana in Giappone can make to the development of Italian studies in Japan?


With the publication of the book, we are finally acknowledging the historical presence of Italian studies in Japan. We Japanese Italianists also have a history, which can now boast four or five generations. The book demonstrates the maturity of this field of study and highlights the original contribution of Japanese researchers who have explored Italian civilisation. It is now up to us, in Japanese universities, to preserve this precious heritage and continue along the path laid out by our predecessors. After this book, future studies in this field will surely be regarded with the respect they deserve.



Does Italian studies have a future in Japan?


If we look at the fourth chapter, by Aya Yamasaki, “The world described by women”, we can immediately see that in the current context of the history of women’s emancipation, Italian literature offers a wide range of analyses and comparisons of female characters. Our students really enjoy reading this chapter, which opens up a promising field of study. The study of Italian classics certainly has a future: as Yōsuke Shimoda writes, in recent years there have been many studies of Leopardi in Japan. Finally, Kazufumi Takada, who wrote the chapter on theatre, has just published with your help the first Japanese translation of Dario Fo‘s most representative comedies, a book that makes a fundamental contribution to knowledge of Italy in our country. To come back to our collective volume, it is a premise for a new boom in Italian studies. I would be delighted if it were translated into Italian, which could contribute to a better understanding of the Italian language and culture.