Japan400 commemorates the start of diplomatic, trading and cultural relations between Britain and Japan in 1613. It celebrates the spirit of discovery and mutual regard that has inspired many successful collaborations and a remarkable friendship between two societies on opposite sides of the world.

‘Though separated by ten thousand leagues of clouds and waves, our territories are as it were close to each other.’

(Tokugawa Ieyasu, letter to King James I, October 1613)

The Anniversary website can be found at www.japan400.com

Portrait of the Week

The Japan Society is proud to be associated with Japan400 and will be running a number of events in 2013 that tie in with the history of Anglo-Japanese relations. In addition, a new portrait will be added to this webpage every week to commemorate individuals who have played significant roles in this shared history.

Arthur Waley (1899 – 1966)

Of all the British scholars, writers and translators who have helped to shape our knowledge and our image of Japan over the last century, Arthur Waley is among the first to come to mind. His name is familiar to all students of Japanese culture and also to large numbers of educated readers with no special interest in the orient, who owe to him their knowledge of Japan’s greatest works of literature. From 1919, when he published his first translations from the Japanese, down to the present day, his work has provided a window on the Japanese sensibility and a genuine experience of the richness and the intrinsic value of Japanese culture.

What was the nature of Waley’s achievement? His contribution to understanding between Britain and Japan was expressed in many different endeavours. He made Japanese novels into English classics, his translation of the seminal Tale of Genji became a work indelibly imprinted on the British consciousness. Over the course of his life he introduced Japanese literature to a wider English-speaking audience than it had ever reached before. He was also an expert source of knowledge on Japanese culture and a humane and sympathetic influence on our understanding, as we may see from pieces he published that attempted to correct some popular misconceptions about Japanese civilization.

Equally important has been Waley’s influence on two generations of scholars and experts in Japan. For many who today pursue the study of Japan in many walks of life, he was the first inspiration and a model of humane, sensitive scholarship to which to aspire. He was above all a man of letters, a devotee of literature and, not least, a creative artist. For him, Japanese literature was but one part of that spectrum of writings that constitute the world’s literature and show both the variety and the universality of human experience. His wide knowledge of other languages and literatures informed and deepened his understanding of the Japanese. Without such breadth his insight and understanding would have been diminished. From his wide reading, as well as from his innate sympathy of mind, he surely derived his ability to form those apt analogies that made an alien custom seem at once familiar. He succeeded in translating a whole culture and society along with the words of its literature, and brought Japanese civilization and aesthetics as a truly felt experience into English intellectual and artistic life. His translations, as Virginia Woolf said of Genji, are ‘always filled with the rush and bubble and chuckle of life.’


The full biographies for each Portrait of the Week are contained in the Japan Society series Biographical Portraits (Vols. I – VIII). If you would like to purchase any of these volumes, they can be found online in the Japan Society Shop, with a special discount for members.

Past Portraits Archive

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