A Past That Must Be Denied: Borges in Japan

By Ryan SheaApril 28, 2024

A Past That Must Be Denied: Borges in Japan
JORGE LUIS BORGES’S first trip to Japan in 1979 was dedicated to the demons in his father’s library. Borges’s fascination with Japan began—like many of his fascinations—in English books owned by his psychologist father. He would visit Japan again in 1984.

In 1988, Argentinian historian Guillermo Gasió collected articles, interviews, and lectures from Borges’s time in Japan and published them as Borges en Japon, Japon en Borges. The Japanese-to-Spanish translations selected by Gasió present a complex cultural collaboration between Borges and the literary establishment and cultural underground of 1970s Japan, and serve as an intimate tour of the Japanese literary world during the 1970s and ’80s. The Japanese figures who contributed essays and articles on Borges to the slim volume range from the famous to the obscure, from New Wave filmmaker Shūji Terayama to Tatsuhiko Shibusawa, a devotee of demonology and the Marquis de Sade. The selections offer remarks on Borges by Japanese writers and artists, some of whom were already famous in the 1970s and ’80s, while others would develop into major creative icons of post-2000 Japanese popular culture. Unfortunately, the collection has never received an English translation, and several of the original Japanese-language interviews are lost, with only the Spanish translations surviving.

Borges en Japon, Japon en Borges presents how Borges, who revered Japanese aesthetics, was received by the Japanese literati in 1979. Gasió’s introduction provides the background on Borges as “The Writer” and his relationship with Japan as expressed in his works. The volume Borges recalled most fondly was A. B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan (1871), which provided the basis for Borges’s short story “The Uncivil Teacher of Court Etiquette Kôtsuké no Suké.” Mitford’s critical commentary suffers from misinterpretations and outright confabulations, but it was the book’s illustrations that Borges adored as a nearsighted child, especially the wood-print “demons” that filled its pages. These images would inform Borges’s later readings of Japan, which he admitted were largely antiquarian.

Borges’s knowledge of Japan was eclectic, drawing upon the work of Lafcadio Hearn, Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, and the writings of D. T. Suzuki on Zen. Borges reserved his highest praise for Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji. In his essay “My Experience in Japan,” a posthumous contribution to Borges en Japon, Japon en Borges, the author ranked the courtly Genji alongside the Odyssey and Paradise Lost. He saw the novel as an epic of manners, his praise focusing on its psychological elements. While his appreciation for traditional Japanese literature was deep, Borges admitted to a rather superficial knowledge of contemporary work. He knew two authors, largely because of their international reputations (and widespread translation): Yukio Mishima and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Borges’s knowledge of the controversial Mishima seems to have been largely based on media coverage, but he enjoyed Akutagawa’s short fiction, writing an introduction to a Spanish translation of his 1927 novella Kappa.

The elderly Borges represented a foreign parallel to a generation of prominent Japanese writers who had all mostly faded away by the 1970s. That generation had been defined by their use of veiled, confessional pseudo-autobiographies that closely resembled Borges’s Ficciones (1956) in style, such as Akutagawa’s lengthy suicide note “A Note to a Certain Old Friend” (1927). The Argentinian writer was an uncanny equivalent to Akutagawa who had grown beyond maturity, a relic of the early 20th-century literary world. The literary establishment that greeted Borges’s first tour of Japan, whose observations fill Borges en Japon, Japon en Borges, accepted his ignorance of modern Japanese literature. News correspondent and author Keizo Hino discusses the appeal of Borges to Japan’s culture of privacy, describing the intimate power Borges possessed in his essays: “Borges awakens in me a jealous enthusiasm; Borges is mine alone, I consider him a secret subject. Frankly, I don’t like to write about Borges, but I would like to write like Borges.”

Accompanied by his wife María Kodama, who was of Japanese descent, Borges spent his visit attending receptions, conferences, and interviews. He had been invited to the country by the Japan Foundation, and it seemed that not an hour went by without some remarkable public figure shaking his hand. One afternoon found Borges at a lunch with the future Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburō Ōe, while a dinner saw him sitting with esteemed scholar and editor Shōichi Saeki; he also attended a reception with folklorist Kazue Yanagisawa and Buddhist monk Akimasa Sano. Borges, though, found the personalities less remarkable than the statues of the Buddha he would touch and then dream of at night.

It was Borges’s philosophical speculations that drew the Japanese literary world to him, and the critical essays included in the book focus on these elements of Borges’s fiction. Shibusawa, a friend of the deceased Mishima, produced an analysis on Borges’s interpretation of the fable of Achilles and the Tortoise; in Shibusawa’s essay “Zenon of Elea (or the Principle of Borges),” he argued that Borges’s geometric analysis of infinite subdivision revealed an obsession with concentric realities. Shibusawa admired how Borges defined Zeno’s Paradox as one incarnation of the persistent dilemma of infinity in Western philosophy. Another ode to Borges’s philosophical talent was translator Naoki Yanase’s “The Hands of Borges,” which praised the poet’s extraordinary memory, concluding with an invocation of Borges’s “Funes the Memorious.” A translator of James Joyce and Lewis Carroll, Yanase was intimately familiar with Borges through previous interviews and his Japanese translation of the Book of Imaginary Beings (1957) published in 1974. Yanase also partially served as Borges’s interpreter during the tour.

A less orthodox perspectives on Borges’s influence comes from Terayama, who directed such films as Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (1971). Terayama offers a critical review of the little-known movie Borges wrote with Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Others (1974), focusing upon the suffocating library of Roger Spinoza, which dominates the film’s plot. Multimedia artist Katsuhiro Yamaguchi, in his essay “Buenos Aires, the Mirror Street,” is equally taken with Borges’s labyrinthine mind, his meditations eventually inspiring Yamaguchi to contribute an interactive video display to the 1998 The Library of Babel exhibit, named in honor of Borges’s short story, at the NTT InterCommunication Center in Tokyo. Borges’s work was fascinating enough to draw a response from Japanese artists in virtually every medium. Yamaguchi observes in his essay: “Possibly, Borges represents for the young people of Buenos Aires a past that must be denied. That is why we, with another perspective of time and space, can place Borges close to us, despite (or because) Japan and Argentina are geographic antipodes.” The 1979 trip eliminated the physical gap between Borges and Japan, but a spiritual gap between these sites had never existed.

The praise was not lost on Borges, who—according to Kodama in her diary of the trip, included as “I Went with Borges to Japan”—acknowledged the reception warmly, and he would remember his trips to Japan as among the high points of his life. The end of the first trip, in December 1979, even saw the author contemplating the hypothetical poetic novelty of dying in Japan, and he left behind a small poetic corpus, concluding his journey by dedicating seven haiku and a few poems to the country. One poem, “Shinto,” would be translated by Tadashi Tsutsumi and published in the Japanese literary review Umi. This poem reflected a pantheism that blossomed in Borges based on his admiration of Japan’s native religious traditions, with the author seeing a poetic kinship between the endless parade of Shinto gods and his own attempts to define infinity through its manifestation in mirrors and labyrinths.

Borges’s influence on Japanese culture is still being repaid, with novelists such as Haruki Murakami keeping a fascination with metaphysics fresh in the reading public’s mind. Meanwhile, Borges’s highly erudite fabulism has intermingled with the hypermodern surrealism that gripped Japan during the 1990s. Tomihiko Morimi’s 2004 novel The Tatami Galaxy, for example, features a near-infinite apartment reminiscent of Borges’s Library of Babel. Borges’s spiritual presence has even inspired a manga series: Mishima Yoshiharu’s Kodama Maria Bungaku Shuusei (“Maria Kodama Literary Corpus,” 2018). Named in honor of Borges’s wife, the series follows Japanese student Maria Kodama’s adventures with a near-blind boy in their school literature club. Yoshiharu’s manga, which was nominated for the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize, is a distant result of that lasting exchange captured in Borges en Japon, Japon en Borges—which, even after almost 40 years, provides fascinating perspectives on the labyrinthine acculturation of Borges in Japan.

LARB Contributor

Ryan Shea is a New England Tom of Bedlam. His writing focuses on the antipodes of literary culture and the internet. His previous work on digital music history has appeared in French translation in the review Librarioli.


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