Translator Roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 1

May GLLI Blog Series:  Japan in Translation, No. 6 (part 1)


Phyllis Birnbaum: I am very happy to announce the publication of Volume I of Ryōma! The Life of Sakamoto Ryōma:  Japanese Swordsman and Visionary. This is the first English translation of Shiba Ryōtarō’s legendary best-seller Ryōma ga yuku, which has sold more than 24 million copies in Japanese since publication in 1966!

Ryōma! was released as an e-book on Amazon late last month.

We have been fortunate to have three distinguished translators working on what will be a four-volume series:  Juliet Winters Carpenter, Paul McCarthy, and Margaret Mitsutani.  Takechi Manabu has been our project adviser, and I am the editor. Takahashi Akira has generously financed the entire project.

To celebrate the publication of Volume I of Ryōma! I asked the translators to share their thoughts about translating this monumental work.

My first question: Who is Sakamoto Ryōma and why is he important in Japanese history?

Paul McCarthy: Sakamoto Ryōma was one of the great “makers” of the 1868 Meiji Restoration (though he was killed several months before it took place).  The Restoration in turn is the great turning point in Japanese history, transforming the country from the pre-modern (or, as some historians say, “early modern”) to clearly modern.

Ryōma! tells the story of Sakamoto Ryōma, who starts out as a low-ranking samurai from the countryside, but then goes off to hone his swordfighting skills in faraway Edo (present-day Tokyo).  While he is in the big city, United States Commodore Matthew Perry arrives off the shores of Japan in 1853.  The novel shows Ryōma becoming increasingly involved in Japan’s response to this shocking event.  Japan was forced to open itself up to “barbarian” Westerners, who increasingly became a part of Japanese life. Though the Westerners were welcomed in some quarters, others took grave offense at the sight of these outsiders in Japan, and the threat of colonization loomed large.

The debates raged: Overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate and “return” the emperor to his position of power? Then, wielding swords, beat the foreigners back? Or, gather as much knowledge from the West as possible, open up Japan without restriction, and bring it into the modern world?  Ryōma! follows our hero as he tries to answer these questions.

Juliet Winters Carpenter: Ryōma is famous as a sword-wielding samurai but even more so as a great mediator, someone who was able to earn people’s trust and bring former enemies—the domains of Satsuma and Chōshū—together in an alliance that made it possible to topple the shogunate. At a time when Japan was swept by fear and vitriol, and life was cheap, he displayed both great vision and great restraint. Though his prowess with the sword was unequaled, he never killed anyone. He did not have the stereotypical samurai eagerness to die in a righteous cause but was firmly committed to life. He was a man of great curiosity and had an open, practical mind.

Ryōma is also remembered as the founder of Japan’s first trading company, in 1865. Before his assassination two years later, at thirty-three, he had formulated a political guideline for the new government. No one knows what he might have accomplished if he had lived on into the Meiji years, but as it was, his brief life changed the world by paving the way for Japan’s entry into the modern world.

On a lighter note, he is also remembered for marrying the woman who gallantly saved him from certain death by running naked from the bath to warn him of attackers, and for taking her on Japan’s first honeymoon.

Phyllis: Why is Shiba’s novel so important to the Ryōma legend?

Paul: The great fame and popularity of Sakamoto Ryōma in today’s Japan owes in large part to Shiba’s novel. I should point out that Shiba gets credit for popularizing Ryōma in Japan, but the American scholar Marius Jansen established Ryōma’s importance in his Sakamoto Ryōma and the Meiji Restoration, published even before Shiba’s novel. This is a Western scholar’s extremely impressive contribution to Japanese studies.

Ryōma! is a very skillful blend of historical fact and imaginative fiction (giving us the thoughts and feelings of the characters even when they cannot be objectively known).  It is fast-paced and reads very well—a page-turner.  There is much about Japanese politics at the end of the Tokugawa period and just before Meiji, but there is also a lot of humor and eroticism. It makes for a varied novelistic menu.

Phyllis: Why do you think it Ryōma! has been so popular among Japanese readers?

Margaret Mitsutani: During the 1960s, when Ryōma! was being serialized in the Sankei Shimbun newspaper, the mood in Japanese society was basically optimistic. The serial started in 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, which signaled Japan’s reentry into the international community after the war. Whereas previous novels or plays about Sakamoto Ryōma had depicted him as a rather gloomy, introspective man, Shiba’s portrayal has a kind of lightness or buoyancy that very much fits the mood of this time. Another intriguing aspect of Shiba’s Ryōma is that he sometimes seems to reject traditional Japanese values. For instance, he’s utterly against the idea that “a samurai’s sword is his soul”; he also says that a man should remain detached and not let himself be bound by giri (obligation to others). At a time when many Japanese were eager to be free of traditional values—which many believed had gotten them into the war—this was probably an added attraction.

The mood now, on the other hand, is much more pessimistic, with the population shrinking and the economy not exactly booming, yet Ryōma’s popularity persists. I recently discovered that both my dentist—a man in his early forties—and his assistant—a young woman in her late twenties—are both big fans. The assistant wanted to know if I’d gotten to the part where Ryōma meets Ryō yet, so that romance is definitely an enduring attraction. But a more important point might be that with Japan’s prospects for the future not seeming very bright, people feel hemmed in, and once again Ryōma’s lightness, his freedom of movement, seems very attractive.

Ryōma lived at a time when Japan was in crisis, yet he firmly believed if his timing was right, he could get Japan out of that crisis. Young people especially might be reading Ryōma! today and wishing that just such a leader would appear. 

Phyllis: Do you think this novel will appeal to Western readers?  If so, why?

Paul: I find it interesting that Shiba was inspired by a young Hungarian resister to the Communist regime in his native land and modeled his Ryōma on that young man to some extent. Takahashi Akira, the sponsor of our project, has lived and worked in still-developing countries.  He hopes that Shiba’s account of Ryōma’s life, translated into English, might spur young people throughout the world to work for positive change in their own countries. I too hope that some of our readers will find Ryōma’s story inspiring. 

Julie: Western readers who like adventure, romance, and history are sure to be drawn to it. Japanese names and terminology may pose a barrier for some, but we keep things as simple and clear as possible. Above all, the novel shows how one man with a strong belief in himself and a vision to better his country can do just that, whatever the obstacles.

Come back tomorrow for part 2 of our roundtable on the new English translation of the Japanese bestseller Ryōma!

Shiba RyotaroShiba Ryōtarō (1923–1996) is one of Japan’s best-known writers, famous for his direct tone and insightful portrayals of historic personalities and events. He was drafted into the Japanese Army, served in the Second World War, and subsequently worked for the newspaper Sankei Shimbun. He is most famous for his numerous works of historical fiction. Ryōma! is one of Shiba’s masterworks and has been immensely popular since its publication in 1966.

Juliet Winters CarpenterJuliet Winters Carpenter (translator) has lived in Japan for some forty-five years and is a prolific, award-winning translator of Japanese literature. Her previous translations of works by Shiba Ryōtarō include four volumes of Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War and The Last Shogun: A Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Other recent translations include works by Minae Mizumura, Miura Shion, and Nakano Kōji. She is a professor of English at Doshisha Women’s College in Kyoto.

Paul McCarthyPaul McCarthy (translator) is a Canadian-American scholar and translator of modern Japanese literature who has lived in Tokyo for some forty years. In addition to working on Ryōma! and Clouds above the Hill, he has translated story collections by Nakajima Atsushi and Kanai Mieko, and an anthology of contemporary Japanese poetry. He has received major awards for his translations of works by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō.

Margaret MitsutaniMargaret Mitsutani (translator) is a translator and haiku poet who has lived in Japan since the late 1970s. Ryōma! is her first Shiba translation, but her other translations include works by Hayashi Kyōko, Ōe Kenzaburō, Kakuta Mitsuyo, and Tawada Yōko. Her translation of Tawada’s The Emissary was published by New Directions in April 2018. She has been associated with the haiku magazine Ran since 2011.

Phyllis BirnbaumPhyllis Birnbaum (editor) is a novelist, biographer, journalist, and translator who lives outside of Boston. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker,The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She was the editor of Shiba’s Clouds above the Hill. Her most recent biography is Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army.

10339360_10203703467893736_1000817698243960595_oDavid Jacobson organized this series on Japanese literature in translation. He is the author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, a 2017 NCTE notable poetry book. A longtime journalist, David has written news articles and TV scripts that have appeared in the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times and on CNN and Japan’s NHK. Since 2008, he has worked with Seattle book publisher Chin Music Press. An experienced Japanese translator, he is on the board of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

And in case you missed it…

May 1:  Roger Pulvers on Ishikawa Takuboku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 1)
May 2:  Kathryn Hemmann on outsider stories in contemporary literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 2)
May 3:  Deborah Iwabuchi on memorable translations (Japan-in-Translation, No. 3)
May 4:  Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential (Japan-in-Translation, No. 4)
May 5:  Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 5)




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