By Damian Flanagan
In Tokyo’s Zoshigaya Cemetery there is a grave of a “John Lawrence,” still lovingly tended by Tokyo University, where he taught English literature from 1906 until his death in 1916.
John Lawrence may today be an obscure figure, but he played a fascinating role in Japanese literary history. In early 1903 the great Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) took over as lecturer in English Literature at Tokyo University from the renowned Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). The appointment met with vociferous opposition from Hearn’s students, who were hugely disappointed that the popular Irish writer was being forced out.
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.
Despite being initially regarded with suspicion, Soseki soon turned things round and began to attract his own devotees. But soon Soseki began pouring out creative works. He wanted out of Tokyo University, but since he had been sent as a government paid scholar to England for two years, he felt rather guilty to just abandon his position. Yet 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, who 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.
It turned out though that John Lawrence wasn’t actually any good at literary criticism, indeed he didn’t do criticism at all. Lawrence belonged to the “old school” who believed that teaching about literary works consisted in drowning oneself in the minutiae of linguistic and historical details.
In Soseki’s 1908 novel “Sanshiro,” in which a student from Kyushu comes to Tokyo University to study English literature, Soseki 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.
The genius short story writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa and playwright Masao Kume — two of Soseki’s closest later disciples — were graduates of the department under Lawrence.
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 tends the graves of their former professors, I can’t help thinking that Tokyo University should take greater pride in its exceptional literary heritage. Might I suggest it sometime run a symposium where it both celebrates and explores the story of English literature at Tokyo University and how it transformed the literature of modern Japan?
(This is Part 28 of a series)
In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.
Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master’s and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of “Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature” (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).