Interview with the Editors of Johnson in Japan

Johnson in Japan, a new collection of essays exploring the influence of Samuel Johnson and his work on Japanese academic and literary culture, was edited by Kimiyo Ogawa and Mika Suzuki, and published in October by Bucknell University Press. Here the editors speak with Presidential Fellow Nate Freed to discuss the collection and the state of humanistic studies in Japan. (Responses have been edited for clarity and concision.)

Freed: The essays focus on Samuel Johnson’s connection to Japan and Japanese academia. To some, it may seem interesting or unexpected that Johnson is studied so seriously in the country. What is it about Johnson and his writing that attracts Japanese readers’ attention? How is it that Johnson—who, as you write, thought of Japan as remote, strange, and extraordinary—has come to be studied so?

Suzuki: Our whole book might be an answer to this question, and though it’s not easy to fully reply to it in a short passage, I’ll try. As Professor Eto in Chapter 1 shows, Johnson has been an icon—a representative literary figure—to us for a long time, someone in whom we can find something to which to aspire. Those Meiji people—who wanted to learn anything from abroad after Japan opened its doors—set the trend, and we find it was not just a temporary trend; the more we learn with him, the more inviting we find he is. Though Japan was a remote country to him, I dare say his works appeal to us. I assume affinities and parallels that we can feel in his multi-dimensional complexity might be part of the explanation.

Freed: How do you find Johnsonian studies in Japan fitting in with broader scholarship (eighteen-century or otherwise) in Japanese academia? How might the Johnson Society of Japan affect, or even effect, this situation?

Suzuki: A distinguished Johnsonian, Professor Harada, has been the president of the English Literary Society of Japan, one of the largest humanities societies in the country. His extensive knowledge, the clarity of his talks, his wide range of interests, and his general sociability are appreciated well in the greater milieu of Japanese academia and he has been a key figure in maintaining the Johnson Society of Japan. However, the Society recently has been struggling in recruiting new members, which is a shared problem among many literary societies in Japan.

Freed: Yuri Yoshino’s essay focuses on Jane Austen and the Japanese path to Johnson. Some recognize Austen’s “literary debt” to Johnson, and how, through Sōseki Natsume’s reading of Austen, Johnson indirectly influenced Sōseki’s work. How has Japanese academics’ engagement with writers like Austen shaped their understanding of Johnson and the field in general?

Ogawa: Today there is a large number of Japanese academics who are engaged in Austen research, many of whom are now taking interest in Sōseki’s contribution to the spreading of her work in early-twentieth-century Japan. As Yoshino has stated, Johnson’s interest in “engag[ing] in portraits” has much relevance to Austen’s realism. I think that many Austen scholars are able to see one of the key features of modern novels through Sōseki’s literary theory (which is now translated into English). Perhaps his novels such as Light and Dark,which are much indebted to Austen’s realism, also reveal how important Johnson’s legacy was for her and consequently for Sōseki.

Freed: How do you interpret Johnsonian studies’ affecting the way Japanese academics engage with writers like Mary Shelley, given your proposition that Johnson’s work (specifically Rasselas) more directly influenced Shelley’s Frankenstein than previously recognized?

Ogawa: If I am allowed to elaborate on my own experience, Johnsonian studies have literally opened my eyes to a new aspect of Mary Shelley’s novels. Perhaps there is still a shared feeling in Japan that Romantic studies must be explored within a certain field, namely from the pre-Romantic era to the Romantic era (including Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Shelley). Tracing the origin back to the early eighteenth century is not an orthodox method. However, after looking closely at Johnson’s writing, I realized that there is clearly an important genealogy that runs through to Romantic literature. Now that I know Shelley had read Rasselas twice, I can confidently say that she was greatly influenced by Johnson’s pessimism as well as optimism about scientific progress that is portrayed in the novel.

Freed: Your introduction mentions the dilemma around understanding the need for promoting the sciences while still simultaneously promoting and encouraging the critical study of the humanities. What problems do you see potentially arising from an undervaluing of and/or a failure to deeply understand the impact of Johnsonian studies on the social, physical, and life sciences as they are today in Japan?

Suzuki & Ogawa: In 2015 the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology issued a statement that was widely understood as an encouragement to dismiss humanities in national universities. Things have changed over these five years and it seems that the worst is now behind us; students of the humanities have begun to regain confidence in their field’s values. But this year in October, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga denied six nominees to the Science Council of Japan, all of whom are from the humanities and social sciences, and this has sparked a huge debate about why he rejected them. The council, which was established in 1949, is the representative organization of the scientific community—not just those pursuing natural and life sciences, but also the humanities and social sciences. The council’s mission, which is to debate and offer solutions to the important scientific issues of the day, requires input not just from scientists but also from humanities experts. A failure to deeply understand the impact of Johnsonian studies on the social, physical, and life sciences in Japan would lead to cases like this, and we feel that valuing interdisciplinary research—such as Johnson was able to show—would promote the understanding of why both communities need to coexist in harmony.

Johnson in Japan, edited by Kimiyo Ogawa and Mika Suzuki, and with a foreword by Greg Clingham, is available in paperback, cloth, and ebook. To order, visit: