Bridging the Gap to Early Japanese Literature: Translator Peter MacMillan

If you had to pick one book to introduce Japanese culture, what would you choose? For the translator and poet Peter MacMillan, it would be the thirteenth-century anthology Hyakunin isshu, which he rendered in English as One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each. “These hundred short poems tell us almost everything we need to know about the Japanese,” he said in a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on July 26, 2017.

One aspect they convey is the classic importance of ephemerality in Japanese culture. Poem 33 in the collection evokes a calm spring day on which, nonetheless, cherry blossoms are falling. The poet questions the flowers, “Why do you scatter / with such unquiet hearts?” MacMillan contrasted this appreciation of evanescence with the preference for perfection in the West, where great art is often said to live forever. As an example, he offered the closing lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” which claim to immortalize the sonnet’s beloved.

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