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Event Report “Online Round Table Instances of Selfhood in The Tale of Genji and Beyond”

An international round table was conducted as a Zoom webinar in place of an international symposium that was originally to be held over the three days from March 12 to 14, 2020.

A group of Japanese studies scholars affiliated with Paris’s INALCO (Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales) and the University of Paris (formerly Paris Diderot University) have been involved in a new French translation of The Tale of Genji for over 15 years. In parallel, the group has been engaged in a series of research projects lasting for three-year cycles and centered on the novel. For the three-year period from 2018 to 2020, the theme of the group’s research has been mi and kokoro. The large-scale international symposium mentioned above had been scheduled to take place during the final year of the project, in March 2020, building on academic workshops that were held at INALCO in 2018 and 2019. Unfortunately, COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the symposium. However, after several talks between the French institutions and Waseda University’s Top Global University Project Global Japanese Studies model unit, it was decided that the latter would take on the hosting of the event in a round-table format conducted over Zoom. The event took place after a delay of exactly nine months. Most of the originally scheduled presenters and discussants participated from their home countries and regions, allowing for a discussion of mi and kokoro.

The members of the Paris research group had reportedly grown increasingly interested in the concepts of mi and kokoro through their work on their French translation of The Tale of Genji and through engaging in academic events such as workshops and symposiums. Put simply, the concepts of mi and kokoro in classical Japanese literature differ considerably in their relationship with one another from the relativized concepts of the English body and soul or the French corps and âme as considered in Western thought. The word mi is particularly polysemous and multitudinous, sometimes overlapping in meaning with words as diverse as “heart” (in the non-anatomical sense), “person,” and “oneself.” The round table included 10 presentations on this attention-deserving topic of mi and kokoro. Because the round table did not afford the ample time that had been originally scheduled for the symposium, all the presenters sent abstracts of their presentations to those scheduled to participate beforehand. The recipients were encouraged to join the round table having read the abstracts.

国宝源氏物語絵巻 東屋二 (徳川美術館蔵) Wikimedia Commons

Daniel Struve (University of Paris) started the first day with some opening remarks, which were followed by “Session 1:‘mi’ and ‘kokoro’ from Nara to Heian.” Yasuhiko Komatsu (Aoyama Gakuin University), who was to be the keynote speaker at the international symposium that had been planned for March, presented first. He began by describing how the problem of mi and kokoro has been an important theme in Japanese literature up to the modern period, rather than appearing only in classical literature. He then discussed the expansion in depth and breadth of the ideas relating to mi and kokoro from the age of the Manyoshu through Japan’s medieval period, including through explication of images relating to both concepts. The second presenter, Daniel Struve, focused on the concept of mi as it relates to the final heroine to appear in The Tale of Genji, Ukifune. By seeking out and noting the expressions used in the text that relate to the character’s mi, Struve described how the internal drama of this female protagonist is depicted in stark relief. The third presenter, Zhang Longmei (Beijing Foreign Studies University), spoke on the topic of Murasaki Shikibu’s cycles of waka poetry about mi and kokoro—which had also been discussed by Komatsu. Zhang documented the view of the mind and body expressed in Bai Juyi’s classical Chinese poems that considerably influenced the literature of Heian-era Japan, went on to do so with the Confucian view of the mind and body, and then discussed matters such as the differences between Murasaki Shikibu and Bai Juyi’s conceptions. The discussants for each presentation in the order they were given were Michel Vieillard-Baron (INALCO), Hiromi Hyodo (Gakushuin University), and Ivo Smits (Leiden University).

源氏物語絵色紙帖 總角(京都国立博物館蔵)
ColBase(https://colbase.nich.go.jp/)

The first presenter in “Session 2: Intersubjective Dimension of ‘mi’ and ‘kokoro,’” Paul Schalow (Rutgers University), analyzed the relationships between Kaoru and the sisters Ōigimi and Nakanokimi in The Tale of Genji‘s “The Uji Chapters”, particularly the “Trefoil Knots” chapter. For example, Schalow went in depth about the peculiar expressions used in Ōigimi’s dialog, notably in the scene in which Ōigimi, who has her “mi divided,” says that she intends to join with Kaoru along with her younger sister by ceding the “center of her kokoro” to Nakanokimi. Next, Keith Vincent (Boston University) discussed his hypothesis that Natsume Soseki, who is known for disliking The Tale of Genji, may have absorbed the heterosocial mores seen in Genji based on his homosocial friendship with fellow writer Masaoka Shiki. Specifically, Vincent discussed the resonances between the Genji chapters “Suma” and “Evening Mist” and Natsume’s novels The Gate and Light and Darkness, respectively. The third presenter of the session, Sumie Terada (INALCO), argued that the waka poems of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu function to transcend the boundary between the world of reality and that of dreams—or the boundary between life and death. She discussed how the later writer Izumi Kyoka’s works, specifically “One Day in Spring” (originally published in Japanese in two parts titled “Shunchū” and “Shunchū Gokoku”), employ the words mi, kokoro, and tamashii [“soul,” often in a more supernatural sense than kokoro] with the same intensity as found in such classical works and, in particular, how mi is used in a sense that encompasses existence comprehensively. In this session, Saeko Kimura (Tsudajuku University) was the discussant for the first two presentations, and Koichiro Sukegawa was the discussant for the third presentation.

The second day (December 13) saw “Session 3: ‘mi’ and ‘kokoro’ from Heian to Medieval Times,” in which Edward Kamens (Yale University) started off with a presentation about “the darkness of the heart” based on the poems of Fujiwara no Kanesuke, whose verse is the most frequently quoted in The Tale of Genji. Kamens presented an understanding of the quality of “darkness” with references to examples from Buddhist sutras from China and from various genres of writing from Japan. Expanding the scope of his analysis to cover “darkness” and “darkness of the heart”/“the heart of the darkness” as seen in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Kamens demonstrated the possibilities of intertextual “reading.” Then, Yuki Yamanaka (Toyo University) demonstrated in a presentation on The Pillow Book how that, while there are numerous references to relations of the kokoro between master and servant, how mi is used in references to servants of the court changes between the earlier and latter halves of the period covered by the text. Yamanaka went on to present a new interpretation based on close reading of the section “During the Reign of the Former Emperor Murakami,” which depicts a time that was considered the model for relationships between masters and servants. Next, Hidenori Jinno (Waseda University) captured the psychological and accommodating aspects of the word mi through examples from Kokin Wakashū, Takamura Monogatari, and the “The Broom-Tree” chapter of The Tale of Genji, noting the term’s intersubjectivity and suggesting how it relates to the voice of each tale’s narrator. At the end of the session, Yasuaki Watanabe (University of Tokyo) focused on Saigyo, a poet who lived in seclusion from the secular world, and—touching upon the essence of waka as something composed on the boundary between the ideal and the real—provided a detailed description of the large role that Saigyo and his contemporaries played in the history of waka as “poets on the boundary.” Watanabe also described the appeal of the literary voice present in Saigyo’s waka poetry, which seems to either speak directly to the reader or to take the form of dialogs. The respective discussants for each presenter in this section were Sekiko Sato (Tohoku University), Matthias Hayek (University of Paris), Koichiro Sukegawa, and Hidenori Jinno.

Session 4 consisted of a general discussion moderated by Anne Bayard-Sakai (INALCO) among the presenters and discussants, with questions also fielded from the round table’s virtual attendees. Sakai started off the discussion by presenting her view that literature arises from the tensions between dichotomies such as that of mi and kokoro. Discussions then proceeded after affirmations of the loci of various problems concerning mi and kokoro, including the issue of the universality and specificity of Japanese literature within world literature, issues relating to gender, the terms’ relationship with theatricality, and their relationship with the problem of time, as well as the humorousness that comes with mi, and, concerning kokoro, the concepts of ushin and mushin.

The online international round table drew to a close with remarks by Sumie Terada, who had been a driving force behind the planning of the “Instances of Selfhood” event.

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