“Vernacular in danger – also in Japan…”

and there are growing concerns that under the dominance of English, the Japanese language could slowly vanish,” says the Japanese Bohemist, translator and professor at Kobe University Tatsuo Ishikawa in an interview about Bohemist studies and Czech literature in Japan.


Tatsuo Ishikawa

Tatsuo Ishikawa

Ishikawa participated at this year’s September seminar aimed at foreign Bohemists and translators in the Czech Republic, which is organized on an annual basis by the Czech Writer’s Guild in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic in support of publishing original works of Czech literature abroad.

How is the field of Bohemist studies faring in Japan at the moment?
All in all, there are only about five active Bohemists per se in Japan. The late Eiichi Chino (1932–2002), who’s fairly renowned in the Czech Republic as well, was our first specialized Bohemist. He had a Czech wife and studied at Charles University for ten years. Subsequently he worked as a linguist and translator. Before him, there was a translator, though not an academic Bohemist, called Kei Kurisu (1910–2009) who translated a fair amount of Czech literary works into Japanese, for instance Hašek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. Another Bohemist is the professor Itaru Iijima (1930), who’s eighty years old and works as a linguist and translator, translating Czech literature into Japanese, mostly the works of Karel Čapek. I’m the third Bohemist and there are also a few younger ones.

Previously, there hadn’t been a department of Bohemist studies in our country save for a Russian department, which has had a long tradition in Japan. There’s a department of Czech at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies established in 1991 largely thanks to professor Chin. There are two teachers, a historian and a linguist working there now, but there’s no literary scientist there. Each year, fifteen students are admitted to this department and they also have postgraduate courses.

This university is the only one with a Bohemist department. There’s also a Slavic department at Tokyo and Kyoto universities, the best schools in the country. Three professors teach at the department of Slavic studies at Tokyo University, which expanded from the Russian department in 1994 – two of whom are experts on Russian and Polish literature. One of the professors focuses on Russian literature alone but none of them is s Bohemist though. At the department of Slavic studies at Kyoto University, newly established in 1995, there’s only one professor – a linguist who specializes mostly in Old Slavonic, Polish and Russian languages – hence no Bohemist there either.

I graduated from Tokyo University – the Russian department at the time, but I also studied at the Philosophical Faculty at Charles University in Prague. Currently I teach at the department of European cultures at Kobe University. My colleagues study and teach English, German or French cultures, while I primarily focus on Czech, Russian and Slavonic cultures in general, as well as the Russian and Czech languages.

It’s us – specialized Bohemists – who translate the Czech literature into Japanese but there are also some translators who are not based at universities.

What is the awareness of the Czech literature in Japan? Which Czech authors have been translated so far?
People know about the Czech literature in Japan. Viktor Fischl (Avigdor Dagan) was translated several years ago and Jaroslav Hašek, Julius Fučík, Božena Němcová, Jan Neruda even long before him… Karel Čapek and Milan Kundera, in particular, are popular with most of their works having appeared in Japanese translations. Kundera’s books, however, are mostly translated from French. There are also translations of other Czech authors as well. For instance I translated Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud A Solitude , the first literary translation of Hrabal in Japan. It came out in a print run of thousand copies in an Eastern (and Central) European literature edition, which had already brought out several volumes (approx. five), including a Polish and a Serbian novel. The first edition of the translation of Too Loud A Solitude is out of print. There was a second edition in a print run of eight hundred; 1,200 copies have been sold altogether.

Previously, I published translations of some of Hrabal’s short stories in a Japanese literary magazine, which, however, was not exclusively Czech or Eastern European in focus. The publishing house, which brought out Hrabal, is based in Kyoto and its editor is very interested in this author. He wants to publish his selected works, so we are working on it right now.

You don’t necessarily solely focus on the Czech literature but primarily on the Czech philosophy…
I started to study Czech thinking and wrote a book on Masaryk entitled T. G. Masaryk a český duch(T.G. Masaryk and the Czech Spirit), which received wide acclaim and was awarded the famous scientific and artistic prize Suntory (Santory gakugei sho). The book also sold well. In short, it presents the history of Czech thinking from the Hussite times to the Czech National Renaissance to T.G. Masaryk because Masaryk drew inspiration from both the Czech Reformation and the Czech National Renaissance.

I’ve also written about Masaryk’s ideals (for instance the humanitarian ones) or his ideal of democracy. My book České národní obrození: Obrana rozmanitosti aneb ontologie malého národa (Czech National Renaissance: In Defense of Diversity or An Ontology of a Small Nation) has been published recently. The most important motif of this work is the “bridge” to the present because right now large languages have the dominant position, especially English. Smaller languages and cultures are in danger.

It’s interesting that you study the Czech National Renaissance at a time when the Czech national consciousness remains strikingly low…
Even in Japan, the national consciousness, identity, tradition and vernacular are all vanishing… The question is what is the meaning of smaller languages and cultures these days. The Czech language is almost exclusively used in the Czech Republic save for tight-knit regions inhabited by immigrants and emigrants, same goes for Japanese. When we travel abroad, we cannot communicate in our mother tongue.

Even in our country people speak English at international conferences and gatherings; the number of lectures in English at Japanese universities is persistently increasing; more and more Japanese experts write their works in English; some Japanese parents send their kids to English-speaking “international schools”, while our boys apply to the best US universities like Harvard straight after finishing secondary schools.

How can Czech literature be of use to Japanese readers?
I think the Japanese don’t have the sort of humour the Czechs do. We tend to be more serious. But when you’re serious all the time it’s difficult to stand a difficult situation. Right now there is a fierce competition between companies, schools and universities, which is influenced by the American system. People are stressed out from this. The works of both Hrabal and Škvorecký possess a grotesque spirit with a message that humour can help us endure even the most adverse circumstances. We are lacking such a grotesque tone in Japan and we are also not as self-deprecating as the Czechs. When the Czechs come to Japan, they sometimes joke around and the Japanese don’t really understand them.


Interviewed by Jaroslav Balvín for CzechLit