Anecdotes from times now past



Edited by Haruo Shirane and translated by Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010, 160 pp., $22.50, paperback)

Ancient texts from Japan are always a pleasure to read. They are filled with some of most fanciful stories available to readers, and provide enchanting tales similar to those in Western folklore. Burton Watson and Haruo Shirane are both knowledgeable scholars and translators of ancient Japanese texts, and are effective in their cherry-picking of the finest stories from classics such as the “Nihon Ryoiki” and the “Konjaku Monogatari Shu.”

While most of these works have already been translated, this collection is shorter and sweet. Watson identifies the basics and essence of the various collections preface to the stories, giving readers a chance to better understand them contained within and how they represent the larger collection they are pulled from. This allows readers to not only enjoy the texts, but find a deeper understanding of these collections.

The quality of the translations itself are fine, and footnotes notify readers of any issue with misinterpretation or omission — with works from more than a millennia ago, entire books have been reportedly lost to time in some cases.

While the book is academic in nature, it falls short of indepth analysis in favor of a lay audience. The stories chosen for the collection are entertaining, and provide a glimpse into the role of Buddhism in the development of Japanese literature, as well as smaller sections on secular writings.

The breadth of topics covered and translated provides a broad view of these collections without requiring a tome the size of a dictionary. Works, such as those from the “Konjaku Monogatari Shu” (“Tales of Time Now Past”), provide a simple look into the whole collection and give a few representative stories. These works cover Indian, Chinese, and Japanese Buddhist anecdotes, but also those of secular life in Japan and history in China.

Combined with a broad coverage of literature from Japan’s ancient times to the very beginning of the medieval Kamakura era, the pieces cover the breadth of Buddhism’s introduction to early Japanese society.

The broadness of the analysis, however, does not forget to mention commoners and the anecdotes provide a scope in understanding Buddhism as it was not only discussed among nobles, but most likely taught to commoners.

While “The Demon at Agi Bridge” is no authoritative reference book to the collections it represents for scholars, it is a simple and fun reader for those new and interested in finding out more about Japan’s oldest tales.

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