Fire and flood

The powerful earthquake that struck Japan last Friday was an awful illustration of a line that sometimes feel so scholarly and bland in academic studies: that “Japanese culture is shaped in part by its geography as a disaster-prone country”. There’s damage by water and damage by fire, and even damage by fire ON water. I could not help but feel I was looking at a live, 3D version of the kanji 災 “disaster”.

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Ihara Saikaku: author vs. narrator

In 1687 Ihara Saikaku, son of an Ôsaka merchant, wrote a book about sexual love between men: the Nanshoku Ôkagami, a title usually translated as “Great Mirror of Male Love”. The “Great Mirror” part is an allusive variation on a theme that started in the 12th century, and signaled to readers that the text was a collection of idealized (not to say fictionalized) biographies—and futher, by Saikaku’s age previous works had made the snippet come to suggest eroticism. When trying to understand the Ôkagami, a modern, foreign label like “homosexuality” can be misleading. The kind of relationship the book celebrates is very specific: a traditional Japanese institution of adult-to-teenager male companionship that we inevitably have to compare to Greek paiderastía.

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