Professor and award-winning novelist Anna Ogino has a vision for literature’s place in the 21st century. Ogino has charted a unique path that has led her from 16th-century French literature to Japanese rakugo storytelling, and she believes that such diversity is essential for understanding what she calls “the true meaning of literature.”
French Literature & Japanese Rakugo
I specialize in French literature, specifically the 16th-century Renaissance era represented by François Rabelais. But I am also a writer of modern Japanese literature. Sometimes it feels like a juggling act, where I’m constantly swapping hats and jumping between two different worlds.
With so much on my plate, it may seem like I'm faking my way through this juggling act, but reading beautiful French prose most certainly informs my creative process as a Japanese writer. As rewarding as it can be to have such varied interests, I must confess that it can be difficult to manage my time.
I mention Rabelais because his writings, with their comical rakugo-like style, are what first got me interested in rakugo. I assumed that studying the rakugo storytelling process would help inform my studies in Rabelais, and that initial assumption has led to an almost 10-year-long career as a rakugo storyteller.
As I continued my studies I began to find, believe it or not, many similarities between rakugo, which originated in Japan in the late 18th century, and the 16th-century French literature I had developed such a passion for. There is actually one Rabelais story in particular—The Wise Fool—that bears a striking resemblance to The Stingy Man, a rakugo makura, or short prelude that leads up to the main performance.
In The Wise Fool, a porter enjoys the wonderful smell of a goose roasting while eating his bread. The porter is then confronted by the cook, who demands payment for the porter’s salacious sniffing, which he sees as nothing short of stealing. The porter naturally refuses to pay, and the king’s jester is brought in to settle the argument. The jester’s solution is to take payment for the goose, which the porter reluctantly turns over. But instead of giving the money to the cook, the fool merely lets him hear the sound of the coins clinking.
The plot here is almost identical to The Stingy Man, but instead of roasted goose, grilled eel is the source of the wonderful smell that a neighboring man uses every day to compliment his simple bowl of rice. After almost a year of this, the cook demands payment from the man for all the times he has “stolen” the smell of the grilled eel. The man responds to the accusation by letting the cook hear the clinking sound of his coins, just like in Rabelais’ The Wise Fool.
We can see that these two stories share the same wit and humor despite being written hundreds of years and thousands of miles apart. I like to think that this why my rakugo performance of The Stingy Man went over so well at the Inextinguible Rabelais Colloque International in Sorbonne, France, last year.
What it Means to Study at Keio
Keio University, in my opinion, is very liberal—and not just in regards to the curriculum. Outside of teaching, I am a writer and a rakugo storyteller, as I’ve said, and am also involved in quite a few other projects. The school knows this, and yet they still let me do as I please. How often are we afforded such freedom?
To touch on the curriculum, in the Faculty of Letters we have a total of 17 majors. Beyond literature, there are majors in philosophy, history, social studies and even experimental psychology, which is decidedly scientific. So it really is a very open faculty, with a broad spectrum of studies across the humanities and sciences. Even in the Department of French Literature, where I teach, we have students who pursue literature while others choose to focus on linguistics or more specific cultural studies. Such a broad range of studies allows us to accept and welcome a wide range of students who may have what appear on the surface to be quite unrelated interests.
Since the very beginning, Keio has retained founder Yukichi Fukuzawa’s spirit of jitsugaku, which was Fukuzawa’s desire for “practical learning,” his desire to break free of the Confucian ideals that were the basis of most scholarship in 19th-century Japan. This is why jitsugaku encompasses more than just law and economics and extends into the humanities. For more than a century this has been the Keio way: the belief that our understanding of an issue will be limited, or hindered, without a comprehensive understanding of the fundamentals of what it means to be human. With this kind of holistic approach to learning, we can begin to appreciate the true value of literature.
The Science in Literature and the Literature in Science
Until now, humankind has all but focused on the seemingly endless possibilities of science. Now I believe it is time to start thinking about the limits on the possibilities of science alone. Consider the field of bioethics, for example, which can only exist at the intersection of the natural sciences, ethics, and philosophy. When successful, these collaborations feel inevitable, and the borders begin to blur. These borders, after all, are of our own creation. This kind of interdisciplinary approach is nothing new. Scholars of the Renaissance era did not build borders between literature and science, and Rabelais himself was a writer, of course, as well as a doctor and a monk. He took care of people spiritually as a monk, cared for their physical condition as a doctor, and sought encyclopedic knowledge as a writer.
Renaissance philosophy conceptualized the body as a microcosm and the soul as a macrocosm, though they were considered to co-exist and be of equal importance. I feel that modern philosophy needs to return to this kind of thinking. We can no longer afford narrow-mindedness, and need broad perspectives and tolerant minds to define who we are and where we stand. I believe that can be achieved by studying in a diverse, multi-disciplinary way.
Students in the Faculty of Letters are required to pay attention to the latest trends in science, just as literary sense is now nothing short of a requirement for science majors. In this sense we can see literature as bridge. It belongs to the humanities, where the spirit of humanism thrives, and it challenges us to consider what it means to be human in the context of the times. As science and technology continue to advance our understanding of the mind, literature will be a bridge that connects that understanding to the heart. That, to me, is the true meaning of literature.
Anna Ogino Anna Ogino is currently a professor of French Literature at Keio University. An acclaimed writer and novelist, she has been awarded Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa (1991), Yomiuri (2001), and Ito Sei (2008) Prizes for her work and is a member of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
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