Professor Dr. Teruaki Takahashi teaches German language and literature at Tokyo's Rikkyo University. He was at the Universities of Cologne and Bonn as a Humboldt Research Fellow from 1984-86 and in 2004.
Interview with Teruaki Takahashi
In Japanese literature, whether it be classic poetry or today's light reading for people on the underground, pictures play an important role. Kosmos talked to German language and literature scholar Teruaki Takahashi about Japanese traditions, European influence and Japan's special liking for comics.
Kosmos: Professor Takahashi, Japanese characters are more like pictures and painting than the Latin letters of western cultures. So do the Japanese think more in pictures?
Takahashi: I don't believe so. You often use pictures when you are describing something with words. Your inner eye sees the scenes that the words evoke. If you or I wish to write an essay, we will first draw a sort of diagram, a structure containing arrows, boxes or underlined items in addition to headwords to give a graphic impression of the links between the words. What we have here is a very reduced form of a picture. You can't separate human thinking from symbolic imagining, regardless of whether you happen to be Japanese or European.
Kosmos: But pictures are nevertheless still more important in Japanese culture ...
Takahashi: ... and here we can look back on a long history. For example, you will find hardly any page without illustrations in traditional Japanese books. The text and the pictures formed an entity. In the Edo era, which lasted from 1603 to 1867 there used to be specially trained scribes, the Bunjin. Bun means writing, and jin refers to a human being, or person. So the Bunjin was the writing person. But he wasn't only expected to write well. He also had to be able to paint a simple and nice picture of a landscape, and also of flowers, birds or horses. However, this tradition was interrupted.
Kosmos: By what?
“When I was still a child, my mother would always tell me to put the mangas away and read decent books.”
Takahashi: That was due to the growing influence of the Europeans, who drew a clear line between pictures and writing. At the time, this was something quite new for the Japanese, a way of thinking they were keen to import while dismissing the Bunjin tradition as oldfashioned. This is an example of the Eurocentrism the Japanese adopted since they had opened up their country to the outside world in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Kosmos: Is there a link between the Bunjin tradition and the Japanese comics, the mangas, which are so enormously popular nowadays and which many adult Japanese read on their way to work on the underground?
Takahashi: In a way, the Bunjin tradition really does continue to exist in manga culture - despite all opposition. For mangas have long been frowned upon as a subculture. When I was still a child, my mother would always tell me to put the mangas away and read decent books. It was the same with the cinema.Nowadays, films are highly respected as art, but my parents would never have allowed their child to go to the pictures. For them cinemas were pure entertainment that I could only enjoy in secret.
Kosmos: Why are the Japanese so fascinated by comics?
Takahashi: Just looking at a picture is boring, and so is just reading a text. A real work of art incorporates both elements. This was already the case in antiquity. The splendid scrolls from the 12th century about Prince Genji are well-known. They tell his story in selected scenes. Every brushwritten text passage is followed by a colourful picture. But such a tradition also exists in Europe, where illustrations have been used in books for a long time. In the Middle Ages, some tales would be made up almost entirely of pictures. Just think of the splendid illustration of the Poor People's Bible in the 14th century. Combining written texts and pictures is not genuinely Japanese but European, as well. Since the Age of Enlightenment, indeed, since Luther's principle of scripture, educated Europeans have been geared very much to writing. Nevertheless, the tradition of pictures does exist in Europe, too.
Kosmos: And people do show an interest in manga culture. Not only European readers, but researchers as well ...
Takahashi: Younger colleagues in particular have started to examine mangas. My impression is that this has been the case more in the West than in Japan itself. From time to time I myself use mangas translated into German in my lectures on German language and literature. Actually, it is amazing that this issue wasn't given academic attention for such a long time. After all, it has been a major cultural phenomenon in Japan for years. It would be easier to understand Japan if one read its mangas.
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