Monday, 17 April 2017

The Man Who Came After Soseki

The wonderful Dr. Laurence Williams, who teaches English Literature at Tokyo University, posted an intriguing picture a couple of days ago of the grave at Zoshigaya Cemetery of his name-sake predecessor at Tokyo University, "Dr. John Lawrence", together with an amusing commentary. It seems that Tokyo University still lovingly tend the graves of their former professors, which is touching.

I hope Laurence won't mind if I write a few words of my own about "Dr. John Lawrence" who taught English literature at Tokyo University from 1906 until his death in 1916.

John Lawrence may today be an almost completely obscure figure, but he played a fascinating role in Japanese literary history. It's fairly well known that in early 1903 the great Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) - having been groomed for the position with two years study in London - took over as lecturer in English Literature at Tokyo University from the renowned Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). The appointment met with vociferous opposition of Hearn's students, who were hugely disappointed that the popular Irish writer was being forced out.

Despite being initially regarded with suspicion, Soseki soon turned things round and began to attract his own devotees at Tokyo University, even if his lectures were dauntingly analytical compared to Hearn's more artistic approach. Yet Soseki found his teaching burdens at the university increasingly onerous. He was also a lecturer at the First Higher School (a kind of proto-university and feed college for the super-elite Tokyo University): indeed his first wish had been to be a full professor at the First Higher College, but instead he was merely offered lectureships at The First Higher School and Tokyo University.

Soseki taught at Tokyo University alongside a foreign lecturer called Arthur Lloyd and, in a more minor capacity, a precocious literary scholar and poet called Ueda Bin, a Hearn protege brought in to quell the resentment at Hearn being released. The Japanese government's masterplan to replace Western scholars like Hearn with native talents like Soseki and Ueda Bin appeared to be working fine.

But soon everything started falling apart. For one thing, Soseki was increasingly turning against teaching and being an academic: in July 1906 he turned down a professorship at Kyoto University. Soseki wanted to be his own man and speak with his own voice and began pouring out creative works. He wanted out of Tokyo University, but since Soseki had been sent as a government paid scholar to England for two years, he felt rather guilty to just abandon his position. But if some distinguished foreign scholar on a full professorship was to come in to take his place...

At this point, the faculty decided to appoint John Lawrence, an associate of Professor Ker at University College, London, an expert on Medieval Lecture whose lectures Soseki had attended while in London in 1901 (Soseki did not think much of them). When Lawrence arrived in Tokyo in September 1906, he was 55 years old and spoke no Japanese. He had a wandering academic career that had seen him study and work in Paris, Berlin and Prague. He was taking over teaching duties from the greatest intellect of modern Japan: Soseki formally quit in February 1907.

More than that, Soseki's colleague Ueda Bin also quit in November of 1907 to go and study in Europe. The English faculty suddenly had no Japanese teachers at all and the chief responsibility for teaching lay with Japan-rookie, John Lawrence.

Just to add to the mayhem, it turned out that John Lawrence wasn't actually any good at literary criticism, indeed didn't do criticism at all. Lawrence belonged to the "old school" who believed that teaching about literary works consisted not in analyzing them with a fresh eye, but rather in drowning oneself in the minutiae of linguistic and historical details. (I think we all know a few scholars like that today...)

If you enter the world of Soseki's 1908 novel "Sanshiro" (pictured left), in which a student from Kyushu comes to Tokyo University to study English literature, there are clear references both to the fuss surrounding Soseki taking over from Hearn against student protest a few years earlier, and to the current style of classes under John Lawrence. Soseki indeed parodies Lawrence in a description of a class in which Sanshiro learns the Anglo-Saxon etymology of the word "answer".

Lawrence's speciality was such matters as Gothic (an extinct Germanic language) and Icelandic. There is a hilarious account in Nogami Toyoichiro's novel "Mina" of a character based upon him reading a Robbie Burns poem with his students and being asked what the Scots word "stroan't" meant. To his mortification, Lawrence had to explain it meant "urinated".

Unlike Hearn and Soseki, Lawrence published very little, but although he was not particularly admired by his undergraduate students, he was free of the occasionally abrasive personalities of Hearn and Soseki, whose creative impulses were at odds with the strictures of academia. Lawrence by contrast was perfectly suited to university life. He introduced seminars to the English Faculty, though students were required to pass exams to participate in them and only the most linguistically gifted students were accepted into his inner circle. But he would be treasured by a generation of top flight scholars of English literature, such as Saito Takeshi, who would go on to dominate critical studies over the following half century.

The genius short story writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke and playwright Kume Masao - two of Soseki's closest later disciples - were also graduates of the department under Lawrence. They are pictured here, Kume left and Akutagawa second right, alongside their fellow Tokyo University students future novelist Matsuoka Yuzuru second left - who went on to marry Soseki's eldest daughter - and the future writer Naruse Seiichi on the right. The four of them founded a literary magazine, "Shin-shicho" (" A New Trend of Thought") together.

The calibre of the teaching staff at the English Literature department of Tokyo University - boasting figures like Hearn, Soseki and Ueda Bin - was unsurpassed anywhere in the world. It was an extraordinary poisoned chalice for John Lawrence to be asked to take over from such huge talents.

Touching as it is that Tokyo University still tend the graves of their former professors, I can't help thinking the university should take greater pride in its exceptional literary heritage. Might I suggest it sometime run a symposium when it both celebrates and explores the story of English literature at Tokyo University and how it transformed the literature of modern Japan?

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