Selected Criticism

Japan, Whitman in
Beppu, Keiko
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's observation of the "swart-cheek'd two-sworded envoys" riding through Manhattan on 16 June 1860 ("A Broadway Pageant," section 1) was the first and last personal contact the poet ever had with the faraway "Niphon," which gave him an impetus later to write "Passage to India." Yet the American poet and his writings made a deeper and more enduring impact, over the course of a century, on Japanese writers and scholars. At the time of the Meiji Restoration (1868), political leaders and educators in Japan looked up to "the sacred land of liberty" as a model on which to modernize the country emerging from a three-hundred-year isolation from the Western world. A history of modern Japan, then, is to a great extent that of Western influence and absorption into its traditional culture. And Whitman with his yawp exhorting "Libertad!" seems to embody the very spirit of "the sacred land of liberty" for people in Japan then and now.

Whitman's reception in Japan falls roughly into two stages—the first covering a good part of the Meiji era (1868–1912) through the Taisho period (1912–1925) and the second dating from after the end of World War II in 1945—with a certain lapse in between.

At the beginning, however, American democratic thoughts and radical individualism were introduced and absorbed in political/social spheres rather than in literary writings. The names of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson, outshone that of Whitman until his death in 1892. Coincidentally, that very year Soseki Natsume, then a student at Tokyo University, published in a philosophical journal an essay entitled "On the Poetry of Walt Whitman—an Egalitarian Poet." Soseki read Whitman in the Canterbury Poets Series of Poems of Walt Whitman (1886), and introduced "the representative poet of egalitarianism." The article was a rehash of Edward Dowden's "The Poetry of Democracy: Walt Whitman" in Studies in Literature, 1789–1877. Thus, Whitman first came to be known to Japanese audiences via British scholarship.

From then through the years of Taisho democracy (1912–1925) Whitman and his belief in the absolute freedom of individual man and woman enjoyed enthusiastic reception. Writers of the Shirakaba School, founded in 1910, discovered their kindred spirit in the poet, wrote introductory essays and articles on him, and made various translations of his poems as well as prose works such as Democratic Vistas and Specimen Days.

Kanzo Uchimura, an influential Christian educator, used to give lectures on Whitman before the publication of his Walt Whitman the Poet (1909) and The Poet of Common People (1914). Indeed it is Uchimura's "Monday lectures" that first introduced Whitman to Takeo Arishima around 1898. This most important writer of the Shirakaba School later became a devotee of Whitman and his democratic ideas.

Arishima's interest in Whitman surfaced during his sojourn in America (1903–1906); after his return, Arishima wrote prolifically on Whitman. He also published translations of Whitman's poetical works (1921, 1923), which were revised and went through many printings. His translation of Leaves of Grass, despite its flaws, is still the best of its kind. Furthermore, Whitman's belief in the absolute freedom of an individual human being was transformed into Whitmanesque characters in Arishima's own novels such as A Certain Woman (1911–1913) and The Maze (1918). In this first phase of Whitman's reception, it was writers and poets or educators who were interested in the poet and his writings rather than scholars in academe.

The second stage of Whitman's reception begins after the end of the Second World War, when American democracy was reintroduced. American literature then became an independent discipline apart from English literature at many colleges and universities. The founding of a Walt Whitman Society in 1964 indicates Japanese scholars' interest in and commitment to Whitman. The Society, with a membership of about eighty, has been instrumental in organizing annual conferences and literary events related to the poet. Its newsletter, published annually, provides updated information on Whitman scholarship, foreign and Japanese.

Of various scholarly achievements the most valuable work to date is Shunsuke Kamei's Kindai Bungaku ni okeru Hoitoman no Unmei [The Fate of Whitman in Modern Literature] (1970), which won the prestigious Gakushiin sho (the Japan Academy Prize). Kamei's voluminous book of 648 pages consists of two parts: the first part deals with Whitman in modern European literature; the second examines Whitman's reception in modern Japanese literature, which serves as a magnetic field where Whitman both attracted and repelled the serious writers and thinkers of modern Japan. A few other scholarly accomplishments are Whitman and Dickinson: Cultural Symbols in Their Writings (1981), by Tamaaki Yamakawa et al., and Minoru Hirooka's Walt Whitman and Contemporary American Poets (1987). Each of these works examines Whitman in relation to his time and to later American poets.

In Japan today scholars find a renewed interest in the feminist Whitman. Kuniko Yoshizaki 's critical biography Walt Whitman in Our Time (1992) presents Whitman the feminist thinker. Yoshizaki's book uses much of Gay Wilson Allen's The Solitary Singer (1955), while it emphasizes Whitman's all-inclusive soul that sings "the Female equally with the Male" ("One's-Self I Sing"). Her thesis that Whitman is the first American poet of feminism who wrote for the liberation of woman's soul and body is only too valid. In addition, the 1995 convention of the American Literature Association of Japan, held in Kyoto, featured a symposium on "Whitman and Feminist Criticism."

On the occasion of his retirement from Tokyo University, March 1995, Professor Kamei gave his private Walt Whitman collection to the Gifu Women's University Library, with a catalogue prepared by himself. The chronologically arranged list of some six hundred items of Whitman's writings, bibliographies, books, translations, magazines, and newspapers is in itself an excellent survey of Whitman's reception and influence in Japan over the period of a century since his first introduction in 1892. It is an invaluable collection, together with the Nagamuna Collection of similar scope and interest, located at Konan University in Kobe.

The secret of Whitman's continued popularity among scholars and devotees in Japan lies in his democratic idealism and also in what Richard Maurice Bucke termed as the "cosmic consciousness" which Whitman shared with mystics West (e.g. Blake) and East (e.g. Zen Buddhists).


Allen, Gay Wilson, and Ed Folsom, eds. Walt Whitman & the World. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Kamei, Shunsuke. The Kamei Collection: A Catalogue. (March 1995).

____. Kindai Bungaku ni okeru Hoitoman no Unmei [The Fate of Walt Whitman in Modern Literature]. Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 1970.

____. "The Walt Whitman Collection." Eigo Seinen [The Rising Generation] (March 1995): 12–13.

____. "Whitman in Japan." Eigo Seinen [The Rising Generation] Walt Whitman Special Number (1969): 29–36.

Kato, Shuichi. A History of Japanese Literature. Trans. Don Sanderson. Vol. 3. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1979.

Sadoya, Shigenobu. Walt Whitman in Japan: His Influence in Modern Japan. Bulletin No. 9. Fukuoka: Research Institute, Seinan Gakuin University, 1969.

Yoshizaki, Kuniko. Hoitoman: Jidai to tomoni Ikiru [Walt Whitman in Our Time]. Tokyo: Kaibunsha, 1992.


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