- Season 2, Episode 6 | Claire Maree
- Season 2, Episode 5 | Vyjayanthi Selinger
- Season 2, Episode 4 | Gabriella Lukács
- Season 2, Episode 3 | Jolyon Baraka Thomas
- Season 2, Episode 2 | Suma Ikeuchi
- Season 2, Episode 1 | Charlotte Eubanks
- Season 2 Trailer
- Season 1, Episode 5 | Morgan Pitelka
- Season 1, Episode 4 | Meghen Jones
- Season 1, Episode 3 | Michael Strausz
- Season 1, Episode 2 | Marié Abe
- Season 1, Episode 1 | Levi McLaughlin
- Japanese Studies Radio Hour
June 18, 2021
Dr. Allison Alexy: Hello and welcome to Michigan Talks Japan, a podcast from the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. I'm Allison Alexy. In each episode I’ll talk with a scholar working in Japanese Studies – across academic disciplines, across time periods.
Today it's my pleasure to talk with Dr. Vyjayanthi Selinger, who is the Stanley F. Druckenmiller Associate Professor of Asian Studies at Bowdoin College. Her research examines literary representations of conflict in medieval Japan, using conflict as the key node to examine war memory, legal and ritual constraints on war, Buddhist mythmaking, and women in war. Her first book is Authorizing the Shogunate: Ritual and Material Culture in the Literary Construction of Warrior Order (published by Brill in 2013) and she is currently working on a new book titled The Law in Letters: The Legal Imagination of Medieval Japanese Literature.
Our conversation today focuses on two articles she has published recently. First we discuss “War Without Blood? The Literary Uses of a Taboo Fluid in the Heike monogatari,” published in Monumenta Nipponica in 2019. Later in the conversation, we shift to consider “The Râmâyana and the Rhizome: Textual Networks in the Work of Minakata Kumagusu” published in Verge: Studies in Global Asias in 2021. We will link to both articles in the show notes for this episode.
Thank you so much for being with me today. I really appreciate it.
Dr Vyjayanthi Selinger: It's my privilege to be here. I look forward to this conversation.
Allison: Me too. So you have given us two wonderful articles. You have already published a book, and I understand you're working on another one. Today, we're going to talk about two of your articles. One of which has already published in Monumenta Nipponica-
Allison: And another one from the journal Verge, which we actually just heard about. In a previous episode, I talked with Dr. Charlotte Eubanks, who is one of the editors of Verge. So that's exciting.
Allison: Can we start with “The War Without Blood” article from Monumenta Nipponica?
Jayanthi: Absolutely. So as you just said, my work is currently focused in three different areas. I have a book project, which is in the early to mid stages on law and literature in medieval Japan. And maybe we'll get to that later. But the two articles that we will be discussing today, one of them has to do with blood in medieval Japan. And broadly where I started was this question: what was blood before it was biopolitical? We know that after the 19th century in Japan, blood becomes very biopolitical. It is tied to ideas of ethnicity and race. But what was it before it was biopolitical? Frequently, the answer in other literary cultures is that blood symbolized power, lineage, and those kinds of things. Medieval Japan is an anomalous case in that blood was not even biosymbolic. It did not symbolize these things. It was taboo and therefore resistant to metaphorization. I decided I would look at the anomalous case of medieval Japan, where blood didn't symbolize all the things we assume it symbolizes and no one had really investigated this. And then to look at the anomalous case of The Tale of the Heike, a 14th century literary text which even among its cohorts is anomalous in its treatment of blood. So to think about the broader question of what did blood symbolize before its biopolitical transformation by looking at this anomalous text in medieval Japan.
Allison: As you were talking, I was thinking it's so hard for me as a white American in the present day, not to think of blood immediately as lineage or, as you say in the article, power. Maybe the best way of comparing sort of this pre-modern Japanese attitude towards blood to the current American attitudes towards blood would actually be with menstrual blood.
Allison: Where in the US, I think for the most part, menstrual blood is understood to be kind of gross. Maybe natural.
Allison: Menstrual blood is not about family or power or lineage.
Allison: Or all these sorts of things.
Allison: It was so hard for me as a reader to get my mind around this thing that feels so intensely symbolic,
Allison: that just was enacted in such a different way in Japan.
Jayanthi: Your question was exactly my question. When I started this article, I started this article thinking naively that I was going to find that blood was gendered: that male blood on the battlefield would be valorized and that female blood would be tied either to impurity or reproduction. This was my, my sort of tentative thesis as I began it. But what I found is that blood is missing. You do a database search for blood references in Heian and medieval texts, and you get very, very few hits and you get very particular hits and nothing. There's a conspicuous silence around blood. Now the number is not zero, but it doesn't appear where you think it might appear. So I went looking in the Tale of Genji, and other classical tales, to see if blood was mentioned at all during scenes of childbirth, for example. I thought for sure that it would be mentioned during childbirth. You know, in retrospect you realize it, it won't. It can't, because classical texts don't talk about the body in that natural way. They don't treat the natural body. They are interested only in the social body. So in retrospect, when it comes to realize that was a naive assumption. But one of the most interesting examples, to me, was a scene from Eiga monogatari, which is a 12th century court tale in which blood is mentioned in the scene of childbirth, let's call it provisionally, but not in the way you expect. And this scene revolves around the queen consort Genshi who everybody at court regards with suspicion. She's not welcomed at court. And there is mention of how she has a miscarriage and there was no blood. This leads to the rumor that she faked her pregnancy the whole time long, because how could a miscarriage not have blood, right? And so the only mention of blood I was able to find in relation to feminine reproduction in these classical texts was to note its absence; that it was missing. It led to all kinds of interesting revisiting of my assumptions regarding blood. And how do you study a missing substance? What can you come to say about a missing substance?
Allison: Do you think it might be helpful to explain a little bit about The Heike perhaps?
Jayanthi: Yes. So The Tale of Heike is a 14th century literary tale that looks back at the 12th century civil war. So it's a retrospective text that is trying to describe this epical shift that happens in the 12th century from largely court-dominated political order to one where the shoguns are ascendant. As a tale that charts the violent transition to this new order, I was interested in seeing how it gendered the body through blood. And then I quickly realized that The Tale of the Heike, the canonical variant, only has 10 references to blood and none of them have anything to do with the wounded body on the battlefield. I just want to let that sink in because when that sank in for me I was like, whoa,
Jayanthi: Only 10 and none have to do with the wounded body on the battlefield.
Allison: So it would be like having the battle of Gettysburg and nothing or 10 mentions of blood. Is, is, would that be a fair way of-
Allison: Except it goes on for years, I guess, the whole American civil war.
Jayanthi: Right. And then to have Gettysburg narrated without any mention of blood and the only mention of blood being to draw an analogy, you know, someone very weirdly walking and their feet get so tired and their foot starts to bleed. Now that is, there's the actual example from the Tale of the Heike, weary feet and blood, coming out of weary feet. But yes, nothing to do with the battlefield, all to do with weary walking, right?
Jayanthi: It is fairly violent. There are scenes of self-impaling. My favorite scene involves a female warrior, Tomoe, twisting someone's head off and throwing it, so it is not short on violent scenes. But it is short on blood. This broad question of does a war tale without blood re-signify war in any way, because we associate depictions of war with blood. As I said, The Tale of the Heike is anomalous. Other war tales do use blood more than the The Tale of the Heike does. For example, earlier war tales like the Hôgen and Heiji Monogatori, they use what I call vindicitary bloodshed: where it's the traitors who are defeated, who have blood oozing out of their body. And this is, I would say, fairly typical. This is what we would expect, right? That if someone violated the political order, then in the literary text, you want to depict them dying and dying in the most gruesome way possible so that the blood itself marks their loser status. This is what Elaine Scarry talks about using the body, the wounded body, to use the material substance of blood coming out of the wounded body to make immaterial truth claims about power. We are more powerful. We have the right to injure the traitors.
So we have the Hôgen and the Heiji using vindicatory bloodshed. And these come earlier than The Tale of the Heike. They are 12th century, 13th century texts. The Tale of the Heike is a 14th century text and sort of contemporaneous, but slightly later is another war tale called the Taiheiki, which is, dated to the 1380s. And the Taiheiki has bloodshed. It has what I think of as meritorious bloodshed: warriors who die sacrificing themselves, out of loyalty to the righteous and just cause are shown bleeding. Blood there marks their valor and their sacrifice and marks the justness of their cause. But sandwiched in between this is The Tale of the Heike, which as I said, only has ten mentions of blood. The Taiheiki for example has fifty. I mean, that's not much, but it's more than The Tale of the Heike.
What this prompted me to think about was what around the cultural context of blood was changing during this period. So what might I hypothesize is why blood starts to re-signify in this way? Why aren't the texts mentioning it? This is based on the wonderful scholarship of Narikiyo Hirokazu who has written about kegare, or pollution, and changing attitudes of kegare and pollution in medieval Japan. He notes a distinct feminization of blood pollution in medieval Japan. Which is to say, that if you look at pollution codes from the 10th or the 11th century, the pollution of death and the pollution of childbirth is about equivalent with the pollution of death being slightly more polluting. But during medieval Japan, the pollution of childbirth becomes vastly more polluting. It used to require seven days of seclusion. Now it requires 50 days of seclusion. And so there is a shift in weight towards feminizing pollution and having the female sex be their scarlet letter. These are some of the cultural shifts in the signification of blood that The Tale of the Heike participates in. It is also in some sense absenting blood from the wounded body because blood and its pollution is now mostly becoming a female impurity.
Allison: That's incredible. I'm currently pretty angry.
Jayanthi: Yes, agreed.
Allison: That sucks.
Allison: I just read something in The Guardian, but I could be wrong about that, that there was some commercial in the UK that without any graphic pictures taught people to put in tampons and that the ad was pulled because it was vulgar. So this is not exactly what you're talking about, but I'm –
Jayanthi: What is vulgar about the female body?
Jayanthi: It's the female body
Allison: As you were talking and giving that really wonderful explanation, I found myself thinking about Buddhism. And is it important for us to talk about how Buddhism shapes the sense of pollution in terms of blood and, in terms of other pollutions, or should we start somewhere else?
Jayanthi: Yes. I think that's a great point to integrate into this very complex picture of blood. Whether or not blood appears and whether or not it is regarded as a taboo substance is very much a part of Buddhist pedagogy of the body. One of the scholars I like very much, talks about how in the ninth and 10th century pollution used to be external, which is to say, you'd acquire it by coming into contact with death and you could get rid of it through rituals. But that with the ascendancy of Buddhism pollution then becomes bounded inside the container of the body, becomes that much harder to get rid of. Once pollution then becomes something internal to the body bounded by the skin, this then allows for discriminatory discourses against outcasts, allows for discriminatory discourses against people with Hansen's disease. These are the sort of the downriver consequences of pollution becoming very much associated with the body, rather than something external that you could wash away or perform rituals around. The other way I think it's really important to acknowledge the depiction of the body in medieval texts is that all medieval texts are in some sense participating in what I call the Buddhist pedagogy of the body. That is to say that the body is, per Buddhist doctrine, something that is impure. That must be loathed. That through enlightenment, we seek to transcend.
Blood participates in this Buddhist pedagogy of the body. That is, when we see references to blood in visual sources – I'm thinking about, for example, the hungry ghost scroll from medieval Japan. That scroll itself participates in the Buddhist pedagogy of the body. It is showing how gruesome death is so that we learn to spurn the body. So we have depictions of dead bodies, skeletons, and you see blood marking them. We see these visual references to blood in their bodies. And we see that and we realize, oh yes, blood is being used to mark that the body's impure that we must spurn it and seek enlightenment.
Likewise, The Tale of the Heike is participating in this Buddhist pedagogy of the body. What is particularly interesting to me is that The Tale of the Heike, unlike its earlier counterparts or his later counterparts, does not mark the foes with blood. It does not spurn them and castigate them through blood. So my theory is that, as a literary text that describes an epical shift, what it seeks is not vindication, but amelioration. What it seeks is a resolution to the rancor of conflict. And the way it does it is by removing blood from all bodies, whether, you know, friend or foe, and in the process, allowing all bodies to be able to attain salvation. I say that the bodies in The Tale of the Heike blood is removed from their bodies in salvific anticipation. It wants to give salvation to friend and foe and thus bring peace after a time of rancor.
Allison: It seems like what you're arguing is that after this period of really violent civil war, and as you say, changing of the epoch. In this narrative, part of the work is not papering over the conflict but repairing it. And emphasizing the end of it, as opposed to stirring the conflicts up again. And the way that the Tales do that is by rendering the vast majority of people bloodless so that this natural but polluting characteristic doesn't get attributed. Is that a fair way to say it?
Jayanthi: Yes, exactly. You want to wipe away the traces of blood from friend and foe so that everyone moves to a peaceful resolution and salvation. The caveats to this kind of argument, which I had to think through, was genre, right? This is all something we contend with. The Tale of the Heike has the closest relationship to Buddhist tale literature. More so than the Taiheiki and more so than Hôgen and Heiji monogatori. Does genre explain its particular grammar of the body? Absolutely. The fact that it dwells on the final end moment. When you read The Tale of the Heike in class and an introductory seminar, or even in a Japanese high school, what you frequently look at is these really famous death scenes. It's a totally different conversation about how it is those death scenes that get canonized as the representative scenes. There's great scholarship on when that happens: some around the turn of the 20th century and some post 1950s. What should we regard as our heritage? This is not to detract from the fact that the death scenes are given particular literary shaping. They are very interesting to read. And in all these death scenes, of aristocrats not the average soldier, but the death scenes of the aristocrats, and in particular the aristocrats of the losing side, they are given very salvific death scenes. Before they died, they face the west towards the Buddha, say words that will allow them to enter salvation. So genre, of course, plays a role in shaping its depiction of the body, but I think genre is absolutely part of it.
To take up a prominent counter argument that I engage: there is a historian Morten Oxenboell who talks that the reason that scenes are formulaic and less violent than you would suppose is because these texts are pitched to aristocrats and they are showing 14th century aristocrats what Morten Oxenboell calls guidelines on appropriate aggression. That when you don't wield much violence, but when you do you wield it in this aestheticized way. To be sure these texts are portraying 14th century warrior aristocrats in this flattering light. You wouldn't want them to look gruesome and violent and vicious. True enough, but that doesn't fully explain why blood is absented. It explains why the violence is muted, but it doesn't explain why blood as this substance is absented.
Allison: I cannot stop thinking about the American Civil War and parallels with it in terms of, what it takes to rebuild a union, to create a nation that feels like a solid nation. But I was also thinking like this idea of sort of the way the Confederacy was treated as the lost cost cause,
Jayanthi: The lost cause, yeah.
Allison: Right. You know, and sort of these, the beautiful noble deaths of the losing aristocrats
Allison: As is sort of represented as this beautiful noble thing. Of course they died, it may be in battle, but they did so with nobility and on a path to salvation, as you say.
Jayanthi: Yeah, I think it's a really interesting analogy to help understand because 13th century, 14th century Japan is so far from most people's knowledge base, right. But we all think about the Civil War and in the news, we have a lot of lost cause arguments. We see variations of lost cause arguments, but it is a great analogy about how lost cause arguments tried to portray in retrospect, the civil war as a momentary rancor between brothers. And to give it a familial framing so that the larger questions of slavery, et cetera, get elided to frame it solely as a familial conflict. You know, it doesn't fully map onto The Tale of the Heike, but The Tale of the Heike is likewise trying to paper over a huge convulsion by telling the story as a conflict between two families, it also uses familial logic in this interesting way. And it does so to say that what happened is not a huge conflagration that changed the political order in substantial ways but to say that it was one lineage losing and another lineage winning. It's another way to use the logic of family and lineage to frame huge transitions and elide larger historical questions.
Allison: Wow. What an incredible answer. That's really cool. Thank you for letting me run with that. I appreciate it.
Allison: I was wondering if you wouldn't mind talking a little bit about the research methods you used to develop the argument that you share in The War Without Blood article. How do you do this research?
Jayanthi: That's a great question: organically, right? So I started with a broad question: What was blood before it was biopolitical? So I started with the database method. I was like, I'm going to get some kind of sense by looking at databases of literary texts. I'm gonna look at literary texts between the 11th and the 15th century. I'm going to set these cool tags. Like I was all gung-ho ready to go digital humanities on this, but what do you do with an absent substance? What do you do with something that is purposely absented? As I said earlier, the references to blood in these databases were linked to, what I would say, other traditions of understanding blood. One is the scriptural tradition of using blood to write scripture to mark one's piety. A second was this poetic idiom of blood tears that comes from China. You know, examples of nosebleeds come up. Scriptural blood, which also comes from the Chinese Buddhist and one could say back to India, although it really acquires a certain kind of meaning in the Chinese Buddhist tradition. So I would look in these databases and find these mentions of blood, which, because there were so few and so prototypical; oh, here's blood ink and here are some examples of that. Um, here is blood tears and here are some examples of that. By and large blood tears was the most common expression. Now, blood tears aren't really blood, right? It's a particular metaphorization of blood where you're saying that you cried with so much grief or so much piety or so much feeling at the loss of somebody that instead of tears, it was as if you were weeping blood. The database method failed me because how do you talk about a substance that is absented?
Then I decided that I would speak about blood as a zero signifier. This is Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney's idea. And it has to do with taboos and purposeful absences in Japanese culture. It was a great idea. So I thought I would speak about blood as a zero signifier. That is something that is purposely absented and because it's purposely absented, it's shockingly taboo when used. I showed in my paper that the 10 mentions of blood in Heike monogatori, The Tales of the Heike, which had nothing to do with a wounded body. Instead, blood played this recusative function. Recusative is somewhat synonymous with accusative. That blood was absented from all the scenes you'd expect it, from death or any other kind of scene, and then used just 10 times and purposely use just those 10 times to mark errant sons, men on the losing side who have betrayed their family's legacy in one way or another, men on the losing side also who cry tears of blood, haemolacria, and at least in two instances to signal danger. So we know from, anthropological scholarship, from people like Mary Douglas, that societies warn of things by pointing to the pollution of political and social bodies. Her famous quote is “a polluting person is always in the wrong.” I noticed that many of the 10 instances in The Tales of the Heike had to do with marking who was in the wrong even while providing them redemption. There are ways in which redemption is also provided to them. Because as I said, the Heike monogatori is largely an ameliorative text not a vindicatory text. Interesting ways it singles out certain people, marks them as wrong, while eventually providing redemption for them.
Allison: Would it be fair to say that Heike monogatori itself and, then these particular instances of highlighting blood, are almost like exceptions that prove the rule?
Jayanthi: Exactly. Exceptions that prove the rule that blood is taboo. Because it's taboo it shall not be spoken about except when you want to purposely break the taboo.
Allison: The tales themselves are basically, a war tale or series of war tales, but it's about emphasizing the new peace.
Allison: And so therefore, we're going to tell the story of certain moments of violent disruptive behavior. But again, those are the exceptions that prove that we're in a good moment of peace now.
Jayanthi: Yes. That we have achieved a period of peace after that convulsive civil war.
Allison: Is this also part of what the book you're writing right now is about?
Jayanthi: That's a great transition. So yes. So my first book looked at how literature portrayed the epical shift of warrior power. This new book looks at how once warrior power is established, how literary texts responded to that change. And the most significant change was changes in the legal sphere. The medieval shoguns, in order to establish and cement their authority and also to manage the unruly coalition of warriors they now governed, to provide structures for them, for their authority, appease them, and sometimes keep them in check. For all those reasons, they instituted these new legal codes. My hypothesis, and, no one has looked at this, is how literature then responds to these changes. In the field of Japan Studies, the study of law has largely been within institutional history. How did institutions create laws? How did institutions implement laws? How did they enforce them? those are the questions that largely get asked. And literary texts, if they are considered at all, which they're not, are understood passive traces of such legal changes. What I want to argue, as I did in my previous book, is that literature participates in these cultural flows that shaped this understanding of law, family, and society. I argued in my previous book that literature doesn't reflect history, but actually participates in the understanding of history. I am taking a similar kind of intuition that literature participates in these cultural flows. For example, the kinds of questions I'm asking now is: do medieval Noh plays exploit the dramatic tension of a legal dispute. Are they, in some sense, a kind of courtroom drama? So I'm analyzing two Noh plays right now that are, in my view, if you let me are courtroom dramas.
This play that I'm looking at, it's called Hachinoki. Hachinoki is a Noh play about a warrior who has fallen on hard times because he didn't get recognition from the Shogun. He had tried to fight a lawsuit to get his lands, that belong to him, restored to him. But either his case is languishing in the courts. We don't know. This is a part of the background. We don't know. All we see in the play is that he is down on hard times. The Regent, who is sort of a right-hand man to the Shogun, is traveling around the countryside, just checking in on the people. Stops in at his house, notices how hard his life is and notices his generosity in burning three very prized objects, his three potted plants. He sacrifices his three potted trees, cuts them down and offers them as firewood. So this is the first act of the play, where the warrior performs loyalty. But in the second act of the play, the Regent manufactures a military emergency, asks all the men to mobilize. Of course, our man shows up and he is rewarded with three estates whose names reflect the three trees he sacrificed. All's well that ends well. People look at this play simply as, oh, this is, shoguns being compassionate, administering justice in a compassionate way. But what's interesting to me is act one, not act two. And what's interesting to me, is why is this case languishing? What is unsaid within the context of the play? And how does the play use extralegal means to grant justice? What's the tension between documentary evidence – which this guy lacks. That's why he's not able to prevail in the legal climate – what's the tension between documentary evidence and oral oaths, which is what he's able to provide, in a manner of speaking by sacrificing his trees. So what's the tension between the documentary and the oral as this play imagines the legal climate. These broad questions of what social costs does jurisprudence impose and what social benefits does it confer as these writers think about it. What is the literary idiom for justice and corruption? What are the metaphors used? The legal domain often only looks at legal instruments like wills, but literature often uses more affective instruments of successorship like souvenirs, katami. I look at how literature sort of counter proposes a kind of just legal world. So uses legal idioms and proposes its own.
Allison: I would very much like to have you back on this podcast to talk about that book when you're ready.
Jayanthi: Thank you.
Allison: I'm just on the edge of my seat.
Allison: This sounds incredible. And it also, very selfishly, it dovetails with my own research about, about law, and law and family lives in the present moment. So it's a very different context.
Jayanthi: Well, perhaps then what we share, and it's something I think about as a kind of like, 30,000 foot question in relation to my book project, is there's often this stereotype of the Japanese people as being conciliatory and not litigious. But you only have to go to the medieval period. You don't have to travel very far even to see they're extremely litigious. This is not a society built on conciliation. To me, I want to rip apart that stereotype as well.
Allison: Absolutely and my current method for doing that is to really pay attention to the kinds of things you were talking about earlier, the work it takes to repair or cover over or paper over a conflict.
Allison: So the social and the legal and the literary, all of that work that you have to do to pretend that the conflict you've just been having for hundreds of years is not that big a deal or is totally solved.
Allison: And really the work it takes to do that. My work is about family conflicts, you're absolutely right. There's a really pernicious stereotype that Japanese people in the current moment, but also sort of kind of for all time, are non-litigious or are less litigious and that's wrong and that's bad and it's unhelpful as a stereotype.
Allison: But at least in my work there's another layer to it where a lot of people in a lot of different cultural contexts are wanting to minimize conflicts that happen within families. So beyond Japan, there's a kind of parallel stereotype that family conflicts are somehow a different kind of conflict and they shouldn't be the kind of problem that you take to the courts or take to a lawyer. Of course, we know that lots of people have to. But I think this is one of the reasons why it makes it hard in many cultural contexts to notice, say, domestic violence as violence as opposed to, quote unquote family problem where you just, oh, well, hey, you guys all have to figure that out. I feel like there's a strong, possible analogy between stereotypes of Japanese attitudes towards law and attitudes towards conflicts in families.
Jayanthi: Right. Actually, you know, that's exactly where I started. So the most famous Noh play, the most aestheticized, is a play called Kinuta and it opens with a woman suffering because a husband's away fighting a lawsuit. I have these questions I'm wrestling with about like what does it mean to depict a family drama by having the husband absented? No doubt implicitly fighting a court case about some kind of succession problems within the family, right? Most medieval lawsuits were about: they don't deserve to inherit. I need, I deserve to inherit, like these were family disputes. So I'm wrestling with these questions too. Like what does it mean to paper over family conflicts about successorship and yet have that be the opening gambit of a play that's about family and the suffering woman?
Allison: My first instinct is it must have been very relatable.
Jayanthi: [laughs] yes!
Allison: Can we transition to talk a little bit about the other article that you so generously shared with me? One of the things I found so interesting and exciting about this article was that it feels like it's in a very different historical moment, but you're interested in similar kinds of questions about stories that people tell, the stories that become popular and how they move and then how that movement is recognized or ignored in really important ways. Would you mind telling us a little bit about The Râmâyana's Travels article?
Jayanthi: I'm a scholar of medieval Japan, but I was born and raised in India. And so I had always wanted to look at a comparative question of what, if any literary travels happened between India and Japan in my period of study, which is medieval. I had always wanted to study it. I was a hiatus moment with my book and I said, okay, I'm going to do it now. It didn't take me long to realize that the text that traveled was the Indian epic Râmâyan. And it traveled to medieval Japanese Buddhist primer called the Hôbutsushu. We have a Hindu text making its way into Buddhist discourse. So that it in and of itself is not surprising, but the particulars of how it happened is what interested me. And in particular, the Râmâyana is often claimed as a kind of Hindu text capital H. You know increasingly so with nationalistic discourses in the last 20 to 30 years in India. The fact that it travels, that it leaves variants, or it travels to Southeast Asia, which is the best known case, sort of loops back to a nationalistic conceit, that it's a great text that travels to other places. And so the Râmâyana gets looped into these nationalistic discourses. Even its variation becomes reduced to the authority of a text. The Hôbutsushu is a Buddhist primer so it is picking up stories and anecdotes from various Buddhist sources. And when it includes this story that resembles the Râmâyan, I doubt that they even knew they were citing something called a Râmâyan. It's just a Buddha story that had made its way to Japan. And so in a weird way, the Râmâyan gets bound within its own national context of India and the Hôbutsushu gets bound and studied within its national context, or even, local context of medieval Japan. Studies of the Hôbutsushu compare it to other medieval texts. The larger web of texts in which the Hôbutsushu might participate is not studied that deeply. I mean, of course it's acknowledged that it's borrowing from all kinds of Buddhist sources, but the frame remains often very national.
My first challenge was actually tracing this travel, finding the intermediary Chinese Buddhist texts that likely – we can never say for sure – likely adapted the Râmâyan and then hypothesizing that the Hôbutsushu then borrowed from these intermediary texts. The intermediary text is a text called in Japanese called Rokudojikkyô translated in English as the Sutra and the Six Perfections. So the early hurdles of this work were simply philological like reading sutras no easy task. Reading sutras, translating them in my own language so that I could make sense of the shape of the story. But having mastered that, I started thinking, okay, so am I going to talk about this as an adaptation of the Râmâyan but what does it mean to call something an adaptation? Then I started thinking about where do we get our ideas about origin and adaptation? They're pretty stubborn in the way we talk about things. I stumbled upon this great article that I would recommend by Devin Griffiths about the birth of the humanities and the 19th century and the kinds of ideas, what he calls patterning that, in a whole range of humanistic disciplines in the 19th century, there was a kind of patterning going on. Origin and adaptation is a kind of patterning. Systematic and idiosyncratic is another kind of patterning. But they were all concatenating around 19th century’s ideas of evolution, of genetic trees, lineages of texts. Devin Griffiths’ age of analogy. So by going broad, I could then open up the discussion to say, okay, why do we use terms like origin and adaptation and what are the interpretive stakes? Let's take something like systematic and idiosyncratic. What we're talking about is the systematization of folklore, for example, into a kind of neat genetic tree. And then the idiosyncratic is something that doesn't belong in that tree. Even these attempts of systematization are often thinking about national wholes. That national wholes are often underlying these ways of patterning and these modes of thought that emerge with the 19th century humanities.
As I was thinking through, what do I really mean when I say this is an adaptation, I stumbled upon an exhibition in Japan at the Tokyo National museum. It was an exhibition devoted to Minakata Kumagusu, a polymath who worked in so many fields. Mycology, botany, folklore, Buddhist studies. He was an amazing scholar of his time, although he had a difficult personality. So he often operated outside traditional disciplines. The national museum was honoring the breadth of his work. They used a moniker, a marketing tool. They called him Kumago, basically adding a Google to Kumagusu, his name, to come up with this term, Kumago, because they were trying to, get the viewers at the museum to think about his amazing database-like mind. When I attended the show, I was walking around with another scholar called David Lurie – always it's scholarly conversations that prod us to think further, right? And he prodded me to say, why don't you integrate this? You're excited about this. You should find a way to integrate this. And that then became a moment where I realized I should. Because there's something very unique about the way Minakata Kumagusu thinks about adaptation. He truly has a database-like mind, long before databases existed. He could call upon, oh yes, this story resembles that story. So he was his own folklore motif index. Incidentally, the folklore motif index is only developed in 1910. And Kumagusu’s writing of this article about Râmâyan's travel to Japan is from 1914. So this is the cultural moment he lives in. And he has this amazing recall of folklore and where they come from, where they're going.
I decided that I would use him as a way to rethink adaptation because he at his own moment was posing a challenge to these 19th century models, rejecting, national wholes to see literary travel or folklore travel in what I call in my article a networked literary world across pre-modern Asia. He sees these stories circulating through Chinese Buddhist texts and then making their way to, sometimes, to European folklore. So his most famous article is to show that the Cinderella story didn't originate in the West, but actually owes its origin to a similar tale and the Chinese Buddhist Canon. He had this way of showing that quote unquote European tales actually were based on literary and folkloric travel through pre-modern Asia. And he did something very similar for Japanese folklore as well. He had a whole bunch of articles, but I read closely, in particular, his article on how the Râmâyan gets adapted in Chinese literary sources and then makes its way to the Hôbutsushu.
Allison: And I feel like part of what you were making clear in your answer was how interesting and exciting that is. I guess what I want to say is, is your argument feels incredibly new and nuanced. And also part of your argument is, Hey, we aren't the first people to think this way, right?
Allison: Which I appreciate. So it's, it's at once very new and patterns that have been going on for a long time.
Jayanthi: Yes. Thank you for recognizing that. His way of thinking, you know, and engaging with it. And I call it a very rhizomatic way of thinking, right? He's not thinking about trees, trees of texts that lead to branches. He's not thinking in those unities. He's thinking very much to borrow a term from Deleuze and Guattari in a rhizomatic way. He sees folklore travel through a very planar and very diffuse spread so that we can’t locate national wholes. What we see is these hypertext that lead to other hypertext without ever having a master hypotext. That's why Kumago as a term, clicked with me.
Allison: Right. I see that now. Before we move on, it might be helpful to articulate the standard interpretation of how texts move before him and frankly, after him as well, right? You said the word whole, and I want to emphasize, I think you're saying that with the w at the beginning, right? So there's this, there's this wholly complete narrative in, say, India that moves to China and therefore moves to Japan. Would you mind articulating more about what you and he are both pushing against?
Jayanthi: Yes. Typically when we think about origin and adaptation, this is to perhaps overstate the case, but we're thinking of an auratic original and an adaptation that is somehow less, or degraded, because it pales in comparison to the original. Certainly the Râmâyan operates in this very auratic way. Its spread to various countries, in fact, confirms its authority, shall we say? And the origin adaptation as a hierarchical concept in that way. It's privileges the origin over the adaptation, which is always a degraded less, thing. Of course, you know, since then we've had Linda Hutcheon and these more postmodern ideas of adaptation. There are a lot of people who've been thinking about this question for far longer than I have. But what I wanted to point out was this rather narrow claim that his thinking about origin and adaptation, texts borrow from each other without ever knowing or acknowledging an auratic original. This is another idea from Devin Griffiths, this tension between homology and analogy. That the reasoning in the 19th century humanities often about homology. That is you see two things that resemble each other. You assume they have a shared ancestor and that's, systematizing in a particular way. Whereas some scholars in the 19th century humanities were thinking more in terms of analogy, not homology, where they were thinking about how one text or one phenomenon can link to another, not to create a genetic tree or a story of a shared ancestor, but linked to them through more proximate forms of relation. It doesn't end up with a story of a shared ancestor.
My claim therefore was Minakata’s own pushback during his time against ideas of homology and ideas of a shared ancestry, to see texts in this vast network where they do not share. The point was to notice that they do not share a common ancestor. They're borrowing interaction. It's all about flows between rather than separation and distinction between them. So another common term we use is localization, right? So we have a global text that somehow gets localized. Here again, we see a kind of hierarchical relationship. The global text is, one that leaves this imprint in a local variation. And Minakata’s writing doesn't work that way. It is not about a global texts leaving its local variation. It is about every text interacting with the prior text in this vast adaptational chain. So that how do you even think about the Râmâyan as a Hindu text, if something that resembles it very much is in the Chinese Buddhist Canon. And then there's another text and the Japanese Buddhist primer they're resembles that. You can't talk about a auratic whole called Râmâyan when you see that these texts are interacting with each other and not with an original.
Allison: That's so helpful. Thank you so much. You've made it really clear that in those assumptions about homology and whole total narratives having a let's call it a clean, pure national origin, that they are necessarily about hierarchy and one global text that then becomes localized. Which is just cannot possibly be how things actually happen. You suggest in the article too perceptions are deeply intertwined with racial expectations. That some people in certain bodies from certain quote unquote civilizations are more able to either produce texts that travel around the world, or frankly, to understand and engage texts from other places. Basically, in a very racist way, some people are just smart enough to do these kinds of movements or facilitate these kinds of movements and other people can't. And I think one of the things you say so nicely is that Minakata saw this, saw the supremacy in these assumptions about the world and refused them.
Jayanthi: He very much wanted to be recognized by the academic establishment during his years in London. And he wasn't. He was a clear polymath. He was amazing. And he was not recognized. His technique is very interesting in the sense that he wields this immense body of knowledge. And when you read him writing into these journals, like the Royal Asiatic Society Journal, for example, he's able to wield what Alan Christie has called asymmetric ignorance. His Western interlocutors seem to have figured out an answer, but that's because they don't know East Asian archives. They never even bothered to look at East Asian archives. Take the Cinderella story, for example, a closed loop of storytelling that was within the European sphere. They have never bothered to look whether the Chinese Buddhist Canon had stories similar to it, which would actually challenge their assumptions, right? So he would often wield his immense knowledge against these racial wholes and racial hierarchies that his interlocutors had.
A great example of this, and I'm grateful to a scholar called Shimada Shingo, who writes in German actually, for pointing this out. As I was working on this article, I stumbled upon Shimada Shingo’s article written in German about Minakata Kumagusu. I couldn't read it, but my nextdoor neighbor at Waseda was a German woman and one day I bought her lunch. So I'd be like, okay, just gloss his argument for me will you? Um, so sheer luck, you know, there that my neighbor could read German and I could say “I need an hour of your time and I will pay you back some other way.” And we did. Shimada Shingo has this really interesting piece on the way Minakata Kumagusu attacked the ideas of these asymmetries. One of the most famous debates that Minakata got in, and we know this because it took place in, I think it was The Royal Asiatic Journal. I can't remember. But yeah, so one of these things where, this debate was taking place in public for everybody to see there is this Western authority of this time called Gustaaf Schlegel. I hope I pronounced his name right. And this Western authority had stated rather confidently that the Chinese animal name loksuma should be translated as narwhal. Now Minakata wrote to him in 1897, suggesting that the Chinese had likely transliterated the Norwegian word rosemare that came from the Latin word ros maris into loksuma. That would make sense, right? They resemble each other in sound. Ros maris, rosemare, and loksuma. Schlegel said there is no way this is possible. There is no way that the Chinese could have known Latin in this way. So he could not imagine a context in which a word had traveled from Europe to China and the Chinese had made sense of it and formed their own word regarding it. Because for him translation only ever worked in one direction. This is also the moment when Schlegel was writing when great Chinese works like the Tao Te Ching are getting translated into English and various Western languages. So for him, he had two presumptions: That cultures were bounded. There could be no transfer of knowledge between cultures and furthermore translation only worked in one direction. Western scholars with their authority could regard East Asian texts and translate them, but he could not conceive of a scenario where translation could work in the reverse.
Minakata beautifully proved him wrong by showing him the entry in a Chinese encyclopedia where it was very clear that the Chinese working with the Jesuits had translated it. These are the ways in which, one of the ways in which, Minakata would take on the asymmetries, the epistemic asymmetry that the West knew better and that translation always worked in one direction to show that translation worked in a whole lot more complex way. Not just the fact of translation that the Chinese could have encountered a Latin word and translated into Chinese. But I hypothesize that he had a very different notion of translation as circulation. That translation was not about establishing coherence. It was not about saying, oh, that's in Chinese and this is in English. And we've established, not just translated, these words and texts. That we have by doing so established the coherence of Chinese as Chinese and English as English, right? So translation as an act that confirms and redraws national differences.
And Minakata saw it very differently. He saw translation, I argue in my article, as a kind of process. It's the process by which texts circulate. Ergo translation was not about circumscribing national boundaries, but moving between national boundaries. That translation facilitated all kinds of transfer of knowledge, folklore, words. When I read Minakata he anticipates for me much of what some of the scholars I admire say about translation, that it's not simply an exercise in translating words or texts, but it's an instructive problematic. This is I think Dipesh Chakrabarty's word. Or James Clifford calls it an epistemological location that when we translate, we are also reflecting meta-critically on how we think about language and languages and the transfers in between. So it's not about moving from source to target, but about thinking our political place and the political place of languages that we interact with. I see Minakata really posing a challenge to translation as a concept in 1914 by seeing it as a process that facilitates cultural transfers rather than establishing a one-to-one co-relation between these bounded national wholes.
Allison: That's incredible. To take your point about translation as a process. It reminds me a lot of the theory that gender is not something you have. It is something you do, or something that we all do. Rethinking these things that feel like social facts instead as a process and what that means. I have to constantly be reasserting my femininity. It's not like I can prove once that I'm female or that I'm a woman or that I'm a girl, I have to prove it again and again, and again. I'm wondering if you would be willing to talk a little bit more about the implications of thinking about translation as process, as something that is maybe never, never quite finished or a project that's ongoing.
Jayanthi: Yeah, I think it's a really interesting analogy. I do think that when you start thinking about something as process and not established fact, you are talking about all the small acts that go into constituting the larger whole. But also you are pushing back at the idea of coherence, that there is a coherent, that gender is a coherent category, or that any language is a coherent category. And so by focusing on process, I think we see the process itself as a productive space to open up new ways of thinking and opening up new possibilities that are not fixed. So that is certainly one of the ways I think translation as process opens up space and says there are new kinds of relationships we can imagine that were not possible if we think of them as fixed things. We start to think of cultures as fixed things, we cannot see other ways in which cultures interacted with each other. We will not spend time thinking about the vocabulary to describe that cross-cultural interaction. We won't think about, well, when I say origin and adaptation, am I implying a racial hierarchy? What does it mean to use culture? So I think process really opens up a productive space rather than a fixed calcified category.
Allison: Back to what you were saying a little bit ago, I was thinking, as you were talking about this story of a German scholar saying basically, "Well, I don't know much, but I definitely know that Chinese people could not understand Latin. This is the hill that I'm going to die on." How fun and hilarious is that, I believe that's what we call a self-own. That must've been pretty fun to discover yourself. I don't know if you watched it or participated. The Association of Asian Studies had this webinar about Black Lives Matter and anti-Black racism in Asian Studies and in Asia. And at one moment, one of the panelists, a woman named Yasmine Krings, who is a doctoral student at UCLA, made this really interesting point, which is that in East Asian Studies to get a PhD, she is required to, I believe learn enough German for reading or something like that. And her point was maybe we should use some of that time to, say, require critical race theory. I thought it was an excellent point. Of course, every program is different. In no way am I trying to rag on UCLA and she wasn't either. But to think about the fact that people who work in East Asia and learn East Asian languages might still be required to learn German or French or English as these unmarked requirements. Whereas I strongly suspect that people who work in European languages don't have to learn a couple of years of say Chinese, right? So I just wanted to see if you had any thoughts about that.
Jayanthi: Well, I think that's exactly what Minakata was taking on. He was taking on the fact that if you only speak a couple of European languages, then your archive becomes languages, stories, and folklore that are in those languages. You presume that Europe is some kind of whole. You didn't bother to learn Chinese to check whether these stories traveled through Chinese Buddhist texts. Minakata was very much taking on the racialism of the fields at the time. And particularly in relation to languages. If you don't read Chinese, you don't even direct your gaze to the ways in which folktales travel through the Chinese Buddhist canon. So he would have been very sympathetic to this questioning of what languages do we think an academic should know, and then probe a little more, what does it assume about the way in which scholarship will then be generated and studied.
On a more personal note, when I started graduate school, I had to take the Japanese language proficiency test, of course. I took classical Chinese. I took modern Chinese in order to read classical Chinese. I had to take French for reading knowledge. I did all that, but you know, the one language I needed to know to write this article, at least, turn my attention to this article was Sanskrit and that's not required. I'm no expert at Sanskrit. I have like a school level, knowledge of Sanskrit, you know, from what I did in school. But it was enough for me to turn my attention to this question. And so absolutely the languages we learn shape the kind of questions we turn towards and are able to ask.
Allison: Yeah, absolutely. And, also the skills and talent that you bring because of your earlier education are not even, or I don't want to presume, but were not recognized necessarily. And certainly you were able to figure it out and leverage them and put things together that other people couldn't, but that what becomes mandatory and what becomes optional and what becomes maybe nice icing, but not really the most important thing really shapes the kinds of questions that we're asking.
Jayanthi: I think Buddhologists are way ahead of us because they have to study, you know, Pali and Sanskrit and Chinese and Japanese, right? That's their world. So Buddhologists, give them, I give them credit for really doing languages the way Minakata would approve. But I mean, I understand that that the challenges of learning languages are huge. Yes, I invested a great deal of my graduate education in it. I do think, you know, the languages we learn shape the contours of the field we create.
Allison: And I wonder, if theory, broadly understood, could also be included in that list of languages. So that one can be a specialist in say four languages. And one of them is some kind of theory.
Jayanthi: Yeah. As you know, I went to Cornell for graduate school where it was strongly encouraged that we do theory as our fourth or fifth language, you know, using your metaphor. I often think about the long shadow that training casts on me as a scholar. I think the facile way to think about it is that it gave me frameworks to apply to the study of pre-modern Japan. It's as if you have a theory and then you can apply it. And then we get into sticky questions about, well, is it fair to apply a modern theory to a pre-modern text? I feel that the shadow that it cast on me is not about providing, in a facile way, frameworks that I go on to apply. But rather providing me with the ability to think of everything as a problematic. Take a thing like blood. I am not using modern theories, biopolitical theories of blood, to say that the pre-modern theory of blood is different. It isn't as simple as that. Rather it opens up a way for me to problematize the way in which blood is thought about. To open up critical space is the way I see it and not as anachronistically applying it to a pre-modern context.
Allison: We're just about at the end of our time. And I know it's a really broad question, but I'm wondering if there are any books or articles that you would recommend our listeners check out.
Jayanthi: I'll divide the answer in two parts, one, you know, directly in relation to my conversation today and then more broadly. So directly in relation to my conversation today, as I said, I was putting a plug for Devin Griffiths' work. I think he does a great job of having us look at where does the humanities inherit its models from. And taking that step way back is so important for us to re-regard our place as interpreters and people who use different models. So definitely a plug for Devin Griffiths' work. And as it relates to blood, if people haven't read Jennifer Robertson, also of Michigan. Her work on the politicization of blood formed the starting point to a lot of my thoughts. I think we should think about blood. We should actually think about all the ways in which it signifies. Another Michigan person, Tomi Tonomura, has an upcoming article on the use of the wounded body and blood in the Taiheiki, which also informed so much of my thought in these articles.
More broadly, I can think of a few, the pre-modern literature field, the work I admire, and this list is completely idiosyncratic, but, their work nourishes me, you know, gives me new ideas, gives me excitement that I'm able to move literary scholarship forward, is the work of Susan Klein who has a forthcoming book. She represents a great example of how to use theory as a kind of problematic in thinking about pre-modern literary texts. Elizabeth Oyler, who is, you know, has been a fantastic mentor. And she writes with such grace and integrity and this kind of sincere intent to unpack, literary texts. I also really admire the work of Reggie Jackson. I think, the premodern literature field is getting revitalized by the work of such scholars. Reggie poses questions we've never asked before and forces us to re-regard the texts in a new light. Reggie and I were on a panel together on unfreedom. And I was talking about legal unfreedom and Reggie was talking about how the unfreedom of Noh actors gets inscribed in Noh plays. So really fascinating way to rethink these aristocratic plays by looking at the, shall we call it, these unruly bodies of these outcast performers. So very idiosyncratic list, but people I admire very much.
Allison: That's so helpful and inspiring. Thank you for sharing all those really good suggestions.
Jayanthi: Can I say, say a totally random thing I've been wanting to say.
Allison: Of course.
Jayanthi: So in my research on that Râmâyana, I was looking at this intermediary text, right? The Rokudojikkyô. And I was looking at the context of this intermediary text. It's written by this Sogdian monk who moved all over the place. So his worldview in quote unquote adapting, the Râmâyan was informed by the fact that he had a childhood in India and then some childhood in what would be today's Vietnam and then an adulthood in China. So there's a Sogdian monk called Kang Sen Hui, who moves around all over the place. And it's his worldview because he moved around all over the place that, in some sense, we think is why the Râmâyan or a variant of it finds itself in his Buddhist primer that he writes. But what's interesting about another aspect of the context is that he purposely glosses the story to highlight what is good kingship and an unjust occupation. And what he is, in a coded way, referencing in his Buddhist parables is the unjust occupation of the then Chinese kingdom over what we would today call Vietnam. And the character who leads the historical personage, who leads the rebellion against the Chinese state is a lady called Lady Triệu. And I watched Watchmen and I'm thinking, am I the only one who picks up on that subtext, that Lady Triệu in the Watchman, like tell me there are others who see that, amongst the various ways in which Watchmen can be read that this completely ballsy futuristic inventor is modeled on a gutsy Vietnamese Joan of Arc. So it's a random link, but I wanted to say that.
Allison: I am so glad you did. So full disclosure.
Allison: I love TV but I'm also at a moment in my life where I cannot handle more stress. I know it's extraordinary. I just can't quite bring myself to watch it at the moment. I don't have a smart answer for you. I'm sure you're onto something. I will absolutely include this in the podcast because I hope someone will reply and you will start a wonderful conversation about it.
Jayanthi: But it's one way that my scholarship links up to pop culture today.
Allison: It's incredible. I haven't watched it, so I can't confirm, but how could you be wrong? Of course you're right!
Jayanthi: These are the, you know, unknown benefits of studying pre-modern texts. You suddenly have an inside line on Watchman.
Allison: So thank you so much. This has been such a joyous and inspiring conversation. Thank you so much for sharing your work with me and the listeners. No pressure, but I am incredibly excited to read more of your work and your next book whenever it's ready. No hurry, but please know that I'm very excited and really thank you so much for you your time today.
Jayanthi: And thank you for this awesome fireside chat. It's so great to have a conversation with somebody about one's work, that is not a talk, where you get to explain the kind of things that you might leave out in a talk in this superb conversational format.
Allison: Thanks for listening to this episode of Michigan Talks Japan. If you're interested, please check out our other episodes, which are available where you found this one and through all podcasting platforms. We're always interested in your reactions or comments, so please reach out on facebook or twitter @umcjs. I want to thank the Center for Japanese Studies, Reggie Jackson for our theme song, David Merchant for IT support, and Kyle LaChance for production work. Special thanks to Paul Benham, from Information Technology at Bowdoin College, for solving problems and trouble shooting during recording. This podcast was co-produced by Robin Griffin, Justin Schell, and myself, and edited by Robin Griffin. I’m Allison Alexy and I hope you’ll join us for the next episode, a conversation with Dr. Claire Maree.