An Intellectual Giant of Meiji Japan

Suematsu Kenchō

Suematsu Kenchō was born in 1855 in the village of Maeda in Buzen province, now part of Yukuhashi city, Fukuoka prefecture, the fourth son of the village headman. From an early age he studied Chinese classics under the local Confucian scholar Murakami Butsuzan at his private school Suisai-en. In 1871, at the age of seventeen, he traveled to Tokyo on his own, where he stayed as a live-in student and devoted himself to his studies. Here he met the later prime minister Takahashi Korekiyo, who was in a similar situation. Suematsu taught Korekiyo Chinese classics, and Korekiyo taught Suematsu English. Suematsu translated articles in foreign newspapers and sold them to the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun (now the Mainichi Shimbun), eventually becoming a newspaper reporter. In 1875, thanks to the president of the newspaper, Fukuchi Ōchi, Suematsu was introduced to Itō Hirobumi. The soundness of Suematsu’s editorial stance and his overall ability were recognized, and he became a bureaucrat in the central government at the young age of twenty.

In 1877 the Seinan War (also known as the Satsuma Rebellion) broke out, and General Yamagata Aritomo had Suematsu recruited into the Imperial Army, where he drafted a document addressed to the leader of the rebellion, Saigō Takamori, urging his surrender. The document was so well written, both logical and full of understanding of the rebels’ position, that it was view by the recipients with high regard.

In 1878 Suematsu was posted to Britain as a diplomat. While working at the legation, in order to further his studies he entered Cambridge University where he studied Western culture, particularly historiographic methods, and received a degree in law.

After returning to Japan in 1885 he rose steadily in the bureaucracy, and in 1890 he was elected to a seat in the First National Diet, thus entering the world of politics. At a relatively young age he took part in the drafting of the Meiji Constitution, and as a politician he served as Minister of Communications and Minister for Home Affairs, in addition to being a member of the House of Peers and a Privy Councilor. During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 he was sent to Britain to explain Japanese culture and the meaning of the war through the publication in English of such books as A Fantasy of Far Japan, The Rising Sun, and The Japanese Character. They were well received and effective in gaining French and English backing. Aside from such activities as a diplomat and politician, Suematsu also achieved much through his energetic endeavors in the fields of culture and literature. In 1888, at the age of thirty-four, he received a doctor of literature degree from the Minister of Education, and the number of publications he produced throughout his life reached some 150. As a writer, Suematsu was prolific in many genres—Chinese poetry (kanshi), Japanese poetry (waka), translation, and criticism. Below we give a summary of his work in the fields of scholarship, culture, and art.

Of Suematsu’s achievements as a translator, by far the greatest is his translation of The Tale of Genji under the title Genji Monogatari: The Most Celebrated of the Classical Japanese Romances, published in London from Trubner & Co in 1882. This was some forty years before Arthur Waley’s renowned translation of Genji, and needless to say the first time for this Japanese classic to be translated into English. The book was given a new cover and reprinted as a paperback in 1955 by the Charles Tuttle Company (London). In 1879, three years before Genji, Suematsu published Chinggis [Genghis] Khan in London, which recounted the legend of how the Japanese hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune escaped plots against his life in Japan, fled to Mongolia, and became Genghis Khan. This was most likely the first book written by a Japanese in English and published abroad. In 1882 he translated Dora Thorne by the British novelist Bertha M. Clay into Japanese under the title Tanima no himeyuri, and it became a bestseller. In 1906 Suematsu’s A Fantasy of Far Japan was translated from the original English into Japanese as Natsu no yume: Nihon no omokage.

In 1879, while he was studying in England, he published a collection of poetry called Meiji teppeki-shū (Meiji Era Iron Walls Collection). This brought together poems he had written in Chinese while serving in the Seinan War, which format, being a student of Suisai-en, he excelled at. Around this same time he tried his hand at translating Byron and Shelly into Chinese. In 1882, while at Cambridge, he published Shelly’s To a Skylark in Chinese. After returning to Japan in 1886, he published a collection of Chinese poems titled Seihyōshison.

Concerning waka (tanka) poetry, in 1897 Suematsu wrote an article for the magazine Taiyō titled Bungaku bijutsu-jō no iken (An Opinion concerning Literature and Art). In this article he argued that contemporary poetry had fallen into a plight of weak-willed indecisiveness, that it evaded the arduous work of polishing and perfecting, and that by misrepresenting itself as naturally rhyming verse it was leading waka down the path to triviality and banality. Yosano Tekkan responded to this in the Yomiuri Shimbun by saying, “Recently there have been some people, perhaps unfamiliar with the developments in waka in the last five or six years, who make claims that slander present-day poets.” In response Suematsu immediately began a lengthy series of articles in the Yomiuri titled Waka o ronji, kanete Yosano-kun ni kotau (Thoughts on Waka, and an Answer to the Young Mr. Yosano). These articles were collected and published as Kokka shinron (A New View of Waka).

As a critic, the first of Suematsu’s works we should mention is his 1886 Engeki kairyō iken (Opinion on Reforming the Theater). After returning to Japan in 1885 he joined with Fukuchi Ōchi, Morita Kan’ya, Ichikawa Danjūrō, and others to establish a society for reforming the theater, and in the following year made public an opinion paper under the society’s name. According to the theater scholar Kawatake Toshio, who highly regarded the reform movement, “[Suematsu] was the proposer of the Theater Reform Society and the producer of the kabuki play that was performed before the Emperor, something which had been unthinkable until then. More than this, however, he was situated in the center of the Meiji Restoration and was able to present the government’s view of theater in the most concrete terms as theory, as organization, and as a movement. It was through these undertakings that Suematsu created a historical moment that would be of tremendous importance for the direction that theater would later take.… With only slight exaggeration, it can be said that modern theatrical theory and modern theater itself, as well as even the shingeki theater, were brought dramatically nearer to realization due to the Reform movement.”

In addition to the above, for one year during the time he was in England, Suematsu submitted in 1884 a series of articles to the Nichi Nichi Shimbun in the form of letters to Fukuchi Ōchi, which were later published as Kagaku-ron (Essay on Poetry), as well publishing a proposal for modernizing Japanese writing (Nihon bunshō-ron). These works were later included in Meiji geijutsu bungakuron-shū (Collection of Meiji Aesthetic Critical Writing), edited by Hijikata Teiichi, as part of the complete literary works of the Meiji period published by Chikuma Shobō from 1975, together with Bijutsu shinsetsu (An Explanation of the Truth of Art), edited by Ernest Fenollosa, and Bimyō gakusetsu (Theory of Aesthetics), edited by Nishi Amane.

As a holder of a master of laws degree, Suematsu published such works as Yusuchiniānusu-tei kintei Rōma hōgaku teiyō (An Introduction to Roman Jurisprudence as Authorized by the Emperor Justinian) in 1913, Gāiusu Rōma-hō kaisetsu (Gaius’s Exposition of Roman Law) in 1915, and Urubiānusu Roma hōten (The Ulpian Code), as well as specialist studies such as Minpō shōkai (A Detailed Explanation of Civil Law).

In 1883, while still at Cambridge, Suematsu published two studies on ancient Greek classics: Girisha kodai rigaku ippan (An Aspect of Classic Greek Science) and Girisha kodai tetsugaku ippan (An Aspect of Classic Greek Philosophy).

Suematsu also published a textbook teaching morals to children as well as the supplementary readers Kōtōshōgakkō shūshinkun (Moral Principles for Higher Primary School) and Shūshin jokun (Moral Principles for Women). After the Imperial Rescript on Education was issued in 1890, he wrote the commentary Chokuyu shūshinkyō kaitei (A Guide to the Principles of the Imperial Instructions), among other works.

Of the books that Suematsu has left to us, the one to which he devoted the most time and energy was the history of the Meiji Restoration called Bōchō kaiten-shi (History of Chōshū’s Dramatic Resurgence). After being appointed the director of the Mōri clan’s historical bureau in 1897, he made good use of the historiographic methods he had learned at Cambridge in collecting a vast amount of data and presenting it in the most objective manner possible. It took him twenty-three years to finish this opus in 1920. The historical significance of the work has not diminished over time.

As products of his studies of classical Chinese literature during his younger days at Cambridge, there is Shina kogaku ryakushi (A Short History of Chinese Classics) published in 1880 and Shina kobungaku ryakushi (A Short History of Chinese Classical Literature) published in 1882. In addition, there is Ishin fūun roku (Record of the Troubled Winds and Clouds of the Restoration) published in 1900.

In 1873 the English surgeon William Anderson (1842–1900) arrived in Japan at the invitation of the Japanese government to serve as a foreign expert. He had an abiding interest in art and in 1886 wrote what was to be the first full-fledged history of Japanese art, The Pictorial Arts of Japan. It was translated by Suematsu under the title Nihon bijutsu zensho (A Compendium of Japanese Art) and published in 1896. A similar comprehensive history written by Japanese scholars would have to wait five more years until the Imperial Chamber Museum produced its Kōhon Nihon teikoku bijutsu ryakushi (A Short History of the Arts of Imperial Japan: A Draft) in 1901.* Anderson not only had a profound knowledge of art but is also known as a collector. During his stay in Japan he purchased nearly 3,000 works, and in 1881 he donated them to the British Museum, where, even today, they form the core of the museum’s Japanese collection. Recently, this has become increasingly clear due to the research of Princess Akiko, who received her doctorate from Oxford University. Thus the work of William Anderson has undergone reevaluation in recent years and has become a subject of research in connection with Japonisme. Nihon bijutsu zensho has been republished in facsimile in the series Japonisumu no keifu (The Genealogy of Japonisme).

In 1897, with the absolving of the Japan Youth Painting Association (Nihon Seinen Kaiga Kyōkai) and launching of the Japan Painting Association (Nihonga-kai), Suematsu was named president. There were twenty-six members in all, including Kajita Hanko and Araki Jippo. This marked the beginning of the Nihonga (Japanese-style painting) movement. The vice president was the art dealer Hayashi Tadamasa, who introduced European Impressionist painters to ukiyo-e. The origin of Japonisme in France had its roots in the Paris Exposition of 1867, and the introduction of Japanese art achieved full force with the Exposition of 1878 with ukiyo-e serving as a pivotal point. It was then that Hayashi went to France as an interpreter and stayed on to become active as an art dealer. The situation surrounding the evaluation and acceptance of Japanese art as Japonisme was treated in the previously mentioned A Fantasy of Far Japan, from which one can perceive Suematsu’s deep interest in the arts of Japan. In 1918, two years before his death, he published Bungaku-jō bijutsu-jō sankyō shisō kenkyū (Literary and Artistic Research into the Thought of the Three Religions), in which he dealt with Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism in their literary and artistic aspects.

* Kōhon Nihon teikoku bijutsu ryakushi, ed. Imperial Chamber Museum. This was the Japanese manuscript for a French version titled Histoire del’art du Japon, which was published for the 1900 Paris Exposition. The Japanese original was republished for the general public in 1901 under the title Nihon teikoku bijutsu ryakushi in a reduced-size format. It was the first complete history of Japanese art authorized by the Japanese government.

Though a remarkably talented man with a broad international perspective, Suematsu is not a name that is widely known today. On the other hand, however, his achievements during the Meiji period were extraordinary. He could be called one of the great influencers of the period. YUKUHASHI BIENNALE 2021 thus calls for submissions that give substantial, imaginative form to this unique individual.
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