[A pdf file of this translation is available gratis at
A few months ago, I reviewed what is probably the first translation into English (at least in America) of a Japanese novel:
In 1880, Shiuichiro Saito and Edward Greey published The Loyal Ronins, a "translation" of one of seven monogatari in Tamenaga Shunsui's I-ro-ha Bunko (The A-B-C Writing Desk), itself published in 18 volumes between 1836-1848. But the meritorious Edward Greey (1835-1888) did not stop there. In 1885, he published A Captive of Love, which, he writes in the introduction to the fourth edition published in 1886, is "not strictly a translation, [but] follows as closely as possible, Bakin's charming Kumono Tayema Ama Yo No Tsuki (The Moon Shining through a Cloud-Rift on a Rainy Night), in the famous writer's quaint style, and gives a general idea of the typical Japanese romance."(*)
When I placed an interlibrary loan request for this book, I didn't know Greey was the translator. I was looking with increasing desperation for any translation of any book by Tazikawa Bakin (1767-1848),(**) held to be one of the four or five leading novelists of the Edo period. The fiction of the Edo period has been shamefully neglected by modern translators for various reasons I am increasingly coming to regard as invalid. An important exponent of the gesaku literature,(***) Bakin was one of the members of the samurai class who with great show held their noses as they wrote their "playful" (gesaku) texts. He was also one of the apparently few Edo novelists who wrote huge epics on the model of the great Ming dynasty novels. (Like Shuihu Zhuan
Kumono Tayema Ama Yo No Tsuki (henceforth Kumono) is not one of these, but his Hakkenden (Biography of Eight Dogs) is reported to be the longest work of fiction in the Japanese language and is regarded by at least some experts as one of the four greatest novels of Edo literature.
In order to avoid total embarrassment in front of his samurai peers (and, surely, because he was also a true believer), Bakin built a strong Buddhist moral and didactic component into his fictions. Indeed, it would seem that Bakin was one of those samurai authors for whom the adventures and the fantasy serve primarily to sweeten the bitter moral pill they want their readership to swallow. In any case, his lofty purpose was appreciated by his fellow samurai and he dropped the pseudonym.
So what of the tale told in Kumono, set in the 14th century? The protagonist, Saikei, son of a pious mother and impious father, finds himself quickly orphaned and then trained as a Shingon Buddhist monk. Unfortunately for Saikei, in the Shingon sect the priests were not permitted to marry, indeed, even touch a woman. The handsome, 19 year old Saikei is lead into temptation and succumbs...
Now Saikei "though outwardly a priest, was inwardly a demon," and the stage is set for a series of very colorfully told adventures in which the fallen Saikei employs his monk's robes to imaginatively swindle, defraud and otherwise take advantage of the pious. The more outrageous Saikei's acts, the more fervently Bakin distances himself from him in his homilies at the end of many of the chapters. But the verve and imagination he uses to invent and describe these acts seem to me to vitiate his admonishments. Speaking of verve, this is the first time I've read a Buddhist service described as if it were a Baptist revival meeting!
Though Saikei is the central figure, the karma of a handful of widely separated persons is tightly intertwined as Bakin shows how the apparently minor frauds committed by Saikei have tragic consequences for people he never even met. Entire chapters are occupied with these other characters who must deal with the fallout and who are quite convincingly drawn. The stories are very entertaining, sometimes funny, and by no means devoid of insight into our poor species.
Coincidence (or, alternatively, karma) is strong in these stories; ghosts and magic, fox and badger spirits are accepted as common if not everyday occurrences. I must admit that I greatly enjoy being transported to this world for a visit. This was the world the pre-modern Japanese lived in, whether or not the magic and the spirits were "real." The book is also full of detailed description of daily life and utensils, rituals and customs. All of this and colorful and entertaining tales - what's not to like? (Though the ending, necessary from the point of view of morality, was a let down.) Why aren't there more translations of this literature?
(*) He loves his commas even more than I... Four editions in less than two years? With a success like that there was reason to hope that he would write another translation to add to his own novels and plays. Regrettably, he ended his own life in 1888. Further information about this rather interesting fellow, a British officer, diplomat, and art dealer who continued his art dealings in New York City while writing prolifically on the side, can be found at the link
It appears from that site that some of his original writings may well be of interest.
(**) He often published under the name Kyokutei Bakin.
(***) I provide a brief introduction to this literature in a recent review of Shikitei Samba's excellent Ukiyoburo