Suzuki Shintarō in 1925, age 30,

just before his departure for France.


As I wrote in an earlier blog entry, last summer I paid a long-overdue visit to J. Theodore Johnson, Jr. a favorite professor of mine who taught me French literature when I was an undergraduate at the University of Kansas and who first introduced me to Proust. When I arrived at his house in Lawrence in June, Ted had a present ready for me from his bookshelves: a book of essays by the Japanese Proust translator and scholar Suzuki Michihiko.[1] Professor Suzuki had sent the book to Ted in 1986, the year I graduated from high school. I had heard of Suzuki and knew he had translated Proust but I didn’t know much more about him than that. Feeling a new connection to Suzuki through Ted, I looked him up, and learned that he was the second Japanese scholar to produce a solo translation of À la recherche du temps perdu. I also learned that he is the son of Suzuki Shintarō (1895-1970), a pioneer of French literary studies in Japan. In the Wikipedia article about the elder Suzuki I read that he had built a beautiful book-lined study in Tokyo that had recently been turned into a museum. I had plans to visit Tokyo this fall, so I put the museum on my list of things to see and booked a hotel within walking distance of the Suzuki Shintarō Memorial Museum.

On a sunny Saturday in September, my first full day back in Japan since the pandemic began, I went for a guided tour with the museum curator, Nagashima Rika. I was the only person on the tour, so I had Nagashima-san all to myself. She was extremely knowledgeable about Suzuki père et fils, and hearing her stories, told with crinkling eyes beaming at me above her face mask, I became fascinated by this pair of scholars: the father a specialist on the French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and the son who has spent his life working on Marcel Proust. From here on, to avoid confusion, I will call the two Professors Suzuki by their first names: Shintarō, the elder, and Michihiko, the younger.[2]

In this post I share some of what I learned from that visit and from additional materials that I have read since coming back to Boston. Most of it is taken from a wonderful book that Nagashima-san recommended in which the younger Suzuki tells the story of his father’s career and the family wealth that made it possible for him to indulge his taste for beautiful books.[3]  I have also begun to read two memoirs by Michihiko in which he describes his own very different experiences growing up and becoming a scholar after his family lost its property in the postwar land reforms[4]. Arriving to study in Paris in 1954, just as France was pulling out of Vietnam and the Battle of Algiers was beginning, Michihiko thought deeply about his position as a Japanese in the era of decolonization. He read Jean Paul Sartre and Franz Fanon alongside Proust and his critical reflection on the history of Japanese imperialism led him, on his return to Japan, to become an outspoken critic of discrimination against resident Koreans.  All the while, he continued his work on Proust. For Michihiko, these two activities were closely connected. He sees Proust as a fundamentally democratic writer whose work has something powerful to tell us about the ethics of writing about and engaging with people who are different from ourselves. For Michihiko, Proust is also a stunning example of how one writer gained a critical perspective on his own egotism.[5]

As I read about Michihiko and his father, I began to glimpse many ways in which their relationship was deeply informed and paralleled by the complex relationships among the French writers whose work they introduced to Japan.  Michihiko’s book on Shintarō and his own two memoirs form together a kind of Sartrean double biography: an attempt to describe the material, historical, cultural, and political conditions that shaped the two men’s worldviews and their aesthetic sensibilities to make them the scholars and people they became. At the same time, these books tell a fascinating history of French literary studies in Japan over the last century. I have enough material by now for three or four essays on the subject, but I thought I would use this blog entry to tell some of Shintarō’s story during the early days of French literary studies in Japan. I reflect along the way on some scraps of poetry I remember from studying French literature in Kansas, and I return at the end to say a few words about Proust in Japan, and  Michihiko’s Proust translation as well.


Shintarō’s College Days

The son of a wealthy rice merchant from Saitama Prefecture, Suzuki Shintarō studied French literature at Tokyo Imperial University starting in 1916. The University had started the program in 1892, and as was typical at the time they hired a non-Japanese as its first professor, a Frenchman named Émile-Louis Heck (1866-1943).  By all accounts Heck was a kind and knowledgeable teacher, but interest in French was limited before the first World War and only twenty students graduated from the program under his instruction. Shintarō entered as part of a record-breaking incoming class of four students. But by his second year the other three students had stopped coming to class, which meant that Shintarō was often the only student in Heck’s classes.

Shintarō described his teacher as barely five feet tall and “round as a beer barrel,” with a magnificent beard like the figure on the bottle of a brand of eyedrops that was popular at the time.[6] Heck would always arrive for class exactly on time, commuting by rickshaw from his rooms at the Gyōsei School, a prestigious Catholic boys’ school where he also taught. He would often launch straight into his lecture on entering the room, neglecting to take off his black bowler hat and unbothered by having just one student in front of him. Sitting directly across from his teacher, there was nowhere for Shintarō to hide. Nodding off was out of the question. [7]

Heck was a Marianist priest, and although he never made any attempt to convert his students he was quite conservative in his views.  He preferred the neoclassical literature of the seventeenth century over the enlightenment writers of the eighteenth such as Voltaire and Diderot, a preference that Shintarō fully absorbed. World War I was raging in Europe at the time and Heck lectured on Paul Bourget’s wildly popular 1915 book Le sens du mort, a book that glorified the notion of dying for one’s country.  Insulated as he was from the realities of the battlefield by his family’s wealth and by Japan’s relatively minimal involvement in the war Shintarō seems to have accepted this patriotic ideology without question. Indeed, the war years were a good time for Shintarō. After Heck’s class, he spent the afternoons talking about literature in the famous café on the second floor of the Aoki-dō bookstore, practicing Noh chanting, and playing pool.[8]

Beginning in January of 1917, Shintarō and several of his friends published a literary journal that continued for a total of thirty-seven issues until they lost steam in 1922.  They called the journal “Rosario,” a title they chose not for its religious significance, but because they liked the “round” sound of the vowels and the way the word vaguely reminded them of foreign lands.  Shintarō contributed the first piece in the first issue, a translation of Henri de Regnier’s novella “La femme de marbre,” about a sculptor who makes a statue of a woman he loves obsessively. It was the first of fifteen pieces of original fiction he would publish in Rosario over the next two years, from detective stories, to historical fiction inspired by kabuki plays, to stories featuring the type of aesthete that Shintarō aspired to be. Habitually dressed in a fashionable light green Japanese haori overcoat and hakama embroidered with his family crest, he was an embodiment of Japanese chic (“Iki”). He also sported a small mustache modeled on that of Count Robert de Montesquiou, the French aesthete and friend of Proust who inspired the outrageously decadent characters des Esseintes in Huysman’s À Rebours and the Baron de Charlus in À la recherche.[9]

Among Shintarō’s friends at the time was another wealthy young man, Tatsuno Yutaka (1888-1964). The son of the architect Tatsuno Kingo (1854-1919), who designed Tokyo Station, Tatsuno was seven years older than Shintarō. He graduated from the university’s French program in 1916, the year Shintarō entered, but the two were as close as if they had been the same age. After completing a degree in law, he had re-enrolled for a second degree in French, resolving to make himself a “first-class reader” (ichiryū no dokusha) of French literature.  Tatsuno read fast, going through stacks of French novels and books of poetry and inhaling journals like the Mercure de France and La Revue des deux mondes as soon as they arrived in the mail. Urbane and witty in the Edo mold, he developed a talent for distilling the essence of whatever book he was reading into breezy, entertaining essays in his own trademark style.  Published in the journal Rosario in a series called “Lucky Finds of the Albatross” beginning in 1917, these essays would help earn Tatsuo a position as the first native Japanese professor of French literature at the Imperial University of Tokyo when Heck retired in 1921.[10] Shintarō, who had been working as a teaching assistant without pay, was also hired that year as a lecturer.

The close friendship between Shintarō and Tatsuno was strengthened in those years by their collaboration on a translation of Edmond de Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac, the tragicomedic masterpiece about an unattractive man who writes letters to a beautiful woman on behalf of his good-looking friend.  A play in five acts in Alexandrian rhyming couplets, it was a huge undertaking to translate, especially since neither of the young translators had yet spent time in France or seen a single play staged in French. The two friends began by asking Heck to teach a seminar on the play in early 1917. As they absorbed their teacher’s explanations they made their own way through the text, translating and discussing it line-by-line over the course of two years, from 1917 to 1919. They worked together beautifully, passing the manuscript back and forth and continually revising, never hesitating to critique each other’s work, until they felt they had it right and one couldn’t say who had translated what. In January of 1919 they published the first act in Rosario, with the remaining acts following soon after. In 1922, the publisher Hakusuisha brought out the whole play in book form. The translation still included mistakes, many of which were pointed out by readers. But it worked as a play in Japanese because both Tatsuno and Shintarō brought to it their own distinctive voices, with a stylish downtown sensibility and an ear attuned to the rhythms of kabuki theater. They also relished the process of making it better.  In a new edition published three years after the first, they corrected the mistakes that readers had pointed out and included an afterword in which they promised to continue revising if readers found further errors. As a result, their translation was hugely popular and is still performed today.

The two friends would become the pillars of the French department at Tokyo Imperial University for decades to come. Tatsuno was the big personality, known for his distinctive style as an essayist and for encouraging students to follow their passions. Shintarō, for his part, was the more serious academic of the two, known for his highly rigorous studies of the work of Stéphane Mallarmé, in which he compared multiple poem variants to establish authoritative texts.


Shintarō in Paris

In 1925, Shintarō traveled to Paris. He had three goals for his stay: to see as many plays as he could, to buy books, and to learn medieval French so that he could read the poetry of François Villon (1431-1463?). Once in Paris, Shintarō pursued these goals with a characteristic intensity and with no concern for the cost. He went to see a play almost every night, attending a total of two hundred and sixty over the course of his stay. He bought books by the hundreds, including valuable first editions of works by Paul Verlaine, Stephane Mallarmé, and Arthur Rimbaud. Many of these he purchased from the bookseller and scholar Édouard Champion (1882-1938), whose antiquarian bookstore on the Quai Malaquais doubled as a literary salon, where Shintarō soon became a regular.

The names Verlaine, Mallarmé and Rimbaud bring back memories of my French lit classes as an undergraduate in Kansas, when I had the experience of being moved by poems in a foreign language for the first time. I think the first poem I ever read in French was Verlaine’s poem, perennially popular among gloomy teenagers, that begins:


Il pleure dans mon coeur

Comme il pleut sur la ville

Quelle est cette langeur

Qui pénètre mon coeur?


Tears fall inside me

As rain falls on the city

What is this apathy

That permeates my heart?


I remember how exciting it was to understand these lines and to hear for myself how the words mimic the rhythmic downpour of the rain. I saw in the museum brochure that Shintarō translated this poem using a similarly hypnotic rhythm, alternating the lines of seven and five syllables that work best for poetry in Japanese, but with an AAAB rhyme scheme that trails off even more languorously than the original:


Miyako ni ame no / furu gotoku

waga kokoro ni mo / namida furu

kokoro no soko ni  / nijimi-iru

kono wabishisa wa / ika naran


Through the bookseller Édouard Champion, Shintarō met the scholar Lucien Foulet (1873-1958), who agreed to teach him medieval French every Wednesday in order to help him with his third goal: reading the poetry of François Villon. Villon, who killed a priest in a street fight and was often on the run from the law, is the great bad boy of French literature. He was also the greatest medieval French poet. As David Georgi, his most recent English translator, writes, Villon’s poetry is about “the bliss and calamities of love and sex, about money trouble, drinking, life on the road, and learning to get by.”[11] Shintarō had come to know Villon’s work in his classes with Heck, but it was a gripping account of the poet’s fatal fight with the priest Phillipe Sermoise written by Shintarō’s friend Tatsuno Yutaka that really caught his attention. As it happened, Tatsuno had drawn his account of the episode from a 1913 book by Pierre Champion, Édouard Champion’s brother.

I hadn’t thought of Villon in years, but reading about Shintarō’s interest in him I remembered studying his haunting poem “Ballade des pendus” (“The Ballad of the Hanged”) back in Kansas. The poem describes the grisly scene after the speaker imagines he has been hanged alongside other criminals, their bodies left swinging on the gallows to be picked apart by magpies and crows:


Pies, corbeaux nous ont les yeulx cavez

Et araché la barbe et les courcilz…


Magpies and crows have made caves of our eyes

And ripped out our beards and eyelashes…


Shintarō worked on Villon for many years and published his translation of this poem along with others by Villon in a limited edition of 1,000 copies in 1961. The poems came out in a much cheaper paperback edition four years later that described the fifteenth-century poet as “France’s first modern poet.”


Return to Japan

Unfortunately, Shintarō’s idyllic time in Paris came to an abrupt end. After less than a year in Paris, on May 25, 1926, he received a telegram from Tatsuno back in Tokyo.

In telegraphic Japanese , the message read “Chichi kitoku. Sugu kaere” :“Father critical. Come home now.”[12]

Shintarō had to get back to Japan as soon as possible, both to see his father again and to be there to sort out the inheritance should his father die.  Going by ship would take more than a month, so he booked at ticket on the Trans-Siberian railway, the fastest way to Japan at the time. The problem was what to do with all the books he had spent months collecting.  Diplomatic relations between Japan and post-revolutionary Russia had only recently been reopened and rumor had it that passenger luggage was subject to severe checks. So Shintarō took with him only the most valuable and lightweight books he could keep on his person. Among these were first editions of Paul Valéry’s Le Cimitière Marin and Cahier B, and Verlaine’s Les Poetes Maudits. Another thirty or forty books he hid among clothes in five suitcases and entrusted to the Japanese shipping company Nippon Yūsen. The remaining books, over a thousand volumes, he sent by sea mail. It was not a pleasant trip home. He spoke no Russian. It had been only ten days since non-Soviet citizens were first allowed to travel through Russia and Shintarō may have been the first Japanese to do so. He had a two-day stop in Chita, where he was bitten by bedbugs in the hotel, before undertaking the last leg of the train journey that would take him through Manchuria to Vladivostok, where he would finally board a ship to cross the Sea of Japan.

He arrived too late. When he reached Tokyo on June 18, his father had been dead for ten days. There was no time to grieve. It fell to Shintarō as the new head of the family to make the rounds greeting employees and relatives in Tokyo and in their farms in Saitama.  There was also paperwork to handle regarding the transfer of the family property. Fortunately for Shintarō, by July 3 his status as the sole Suzuki heir was official. He now had full control of the family property, though the operations of the business were entrusted to his sister’s husband, leaving Shintarō free to devote himself to his scholarship.  Meanwhile, the five suitcases of books arrived but there was no word about the big shipment by seamail. He waited and waited. Finally, in the autumn he received a notice from the shipping company saying that a shipment of raw cotton on board the ship had caught fire, destroying everything on board. All of his thousand books were lost. These included many that he needed for his work, such as the ten volumes of Godefroy’s dictionary of medieval French, a set it had taken him months to find in the bookshops of Paris. The shock of this loss was devastating for Shintarō, and for a time he was mentally unstable. Knowing what a book lover his father was, his son Michihiko even speculates that the loss of these books may have caused him more suffering than the loss of his father.[13]


The Fire Next Time

Fortunately for Shintarō, his father’s death had left him with a sizable inheritance, and as he worked through his grief, he determined to use part of it to rebuild his book collection. He began ordering more books, via telegram, from Champion’s shop in Paris. Vowing that this time he would keep his books safe, he commissioned the architect Otsuka Yasushi to design a new study for him. He had it built using steel-reinforced concrete and retractable steel shutters, to protect the contents from wind and fire. Shintarō chose Ōtsuka specifically because he had published articles about reinforced concrete, a material that was not yet widely used in Japan at the time but which had attracted interest in the wake of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. The study was completed in 1928 and connected to a wooden house built in the Japanese style where Shintarō and his family lived. Three years later he placed a steel truss arch on the roof of the study and added a second floor. The children used this large, open second-floor room to play ping pong, and at one point Shintarō set up a net in the room to practice hitting golf balls into. But the real reason he added the second floor was to protect the books in the study below by preventing the accumulation of moisture in the study’s ceiling when he lit the stove there in winter.

I used to commute to Ikebukuro in the 1990s, when I worked part-time at a Japanese dictionary company there called “Lexico.” This was not far from where the Suzuki house museum is located. At the time I didn’t know much about the area, but it turns out to have had a much more interesting history than I ever imagined. Since its formation in 1903 with the opening of Ikebukuro station, the area has been what the anthropologist Jamie Coates has described a “place of multiple mobilities.”[14]  Located on the Yamanote Loop line, it is the entryway to Tokyo from what were once rural areas to the Northwest, which means it was easily accessible from the Suzuki family’s ancestral land in Saitama. Beginning in the late 1920s, the area just west of Ikebukoro station became Tokyo’s first artist enclave, its streets lined with cafés and hundreds of cheaply built artists’ studios with large windows and open light-filled spaces. The poet Oguma Hideo (1901-1940) dubbed it the “Ikebukuro Montparnasse” after the Bohemian neighborhood in Paris. As another recent writer on Ikebukuro has put it, during the interwar period, when travel was expensive but many aspiring artists and writers in Japan yearned for the Bohemian lifestyle, “the closest thing to being in Paris was spending time in Ikebukuro.”[15] As the political atmosphere in Japan moved rightward in the 1930s, the area became known for harboring subversives and dissidents who opposed Japan’s imperial wars. On April 13, 1945, when Allied B29 bombers destroyed Ikebukoro, rumors spread that some of these artists were seen cheering.[16]

Shintarō would not have cheered, but his son Michihiko, who turned sixteen two weeks later, has written that he was relieved to see Japan defeated in the war.[17] There was another reason for the Suzukis’ relief. As the bombs dropped, they stood on a nearby hill and watched their house and the second floor of the study burn. Michihiko recalls his mother saying goodbye to it with a sigh, “We will never live in that house again.” But thanks to its steel-reinforced construction, the first floor of his study survived unscathed. All the books it contained were safe. The trauma of the earlier loss in 1925 had had the effect of making Shintarō prepare for this later, much greater catastrophe. Using a Japanese proverb (“wazawai tenjite fuku to nasu.”), Nagashima-san observed that sometimes the greatest calamities lead to unexpected good fortune.

When the bombing stopped, Shintarō and his family moved into the concrete study, covering its wide-planked wooden floors with tatami mats and taking refuge there while they built a new structure where the old Japanese house had stood. The museum includes some of the carpenter’s tools that Shintarō used himself in repairing the house. Because it was impossible to find such tools in bombed-out Tokyo right after the war, the playwright Kishida Kunio, a close friend who had entered the French program together with Shintarō in 1916, hunted this set of tools down for him in his home town in Nagano Prefecture, where Kishida had gone to escape the bombing. By March of 1946, the new building was complete and Shintarō had his study to himself again. In 1948, he moved a section of the large family house in Saitama to Tokyo, adjoining it to the existing structure. Originally built in the 1880s, this section of the house is a rare intact example of the modernized shoin-zukuri style of architecture, and forms a contrasting pair with the Western-style concrete study. In 1956, Shintarō rebuilt the second floor over the study, completing the structure as it is today.

The Suzuki family donated the study and the attached house to Toshima Ward in 2018, to be preserved along with their contents as a museum dedicated to Shintarō and his role as a pioneer of French literary studies in Japan. Because of its architectural importance, and likely also because Shintarō’s oldest son was an architect, the museum has on display the original blueprints, in beautiful dark indigo blue with white lines, as well as information on the building’ structure and design. Standing side by side, the two buildings – one in Western and the other in Japanese style, the one flowing into the other, a museum both of architecture and of literature – perfectly exemplify Shintarō’s historical role as a scholar and translator who helped introduce French literature and culture to Japan.


A Tour of Shintarō’s Study

Shintarō had his desk specially made with a semi-circular hole cut into it where he sat. The chair he designed for the desk has a semi-circular back so that when it is pulled up to the desk, it forms the half of a perfect circle. Sitting inside this circle, Shintarō could set whatever book he was reading directly in front of him and still have room for dictionaries in easy reach, to his left and his right.

The setup reminded me of a story about Masaoka Shiki, the haiku poet I have been working on for many years. One of Shiki’s many pen names was “the otter,” a name he took from an old Chinese story that describes otters lining fish up in a row before eating them; the otter looks a great deal like a scholar surrounded by books.  In the shelves on the wall immediately to the left of his desk, Shintarō kept a set of the multi-volume dictionary of Chinese characters compiled by the great philologist Morohashi Tetsuji. Nagashima-san told me that Shintarō had studied with Morohashi as a boy, and that he took great pleasure in leafing through this dictionary to find the mot juste for his translations.

The walls of the study are lined with glass-fronted dark teak bookshelves that reach to the ceiling. On the right as you enter is a set of books relating to the early days of French studies in Japan. There is a copy of the Compendium of Three Languages [Sango binran, 1854], a trilingual dictionary showing equivalents for Japanese terms in Dutch, English, and French. The Compendium was the earliest dictionary to include English and French terms alongside Dutch, the primary language through which Edo-period Japanese scholars learned about the West. It was published by Murakami Hidetoshi just a year after Commodore Perry arrived with his black ships in Shimoda Bay to open Japan to trade. The entries are arranged according to a system of twenty-five categories used in encyclopedic works in Chinese which was meant to comprise all knowledge of the known universe. Ten years later, Murakami would publish the first bilingual French-Japanese dictionary, this time with the words listed in alphabetical order, a crucial tool for the development of French literary studies in Japan. Next to these volumes on Shintarō’s shelf are the two volumes of Kawashima Tadanosuke’s Shinsetsu: Hachi-jū nichi-kan sekai isshū (1878 and 1880), a translation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. This was the first work of French literature translated directly from the French into Japanese, a significant milestone since most early translations of French literature in Japan were what are called “jūyaku” in Japanese: translations made via another language, usually English.

Like many Japanese literary scholars, Shintarō saw translation as an art and he collected rare editions of important translations. His library includes such classics as Le Corbeau, Stephane Mallarmé’s 1875 translation into French of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” and the poet Nakahara Chūya’s 1937 translation into Japanese of the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud with Paul Verlaine’s famous sketch of the young poet on the cover.

Also on display is a 1949 translation into French of poems from the great eighth-century anthology of Japanese poetry the Man’yōshū. Nagashima-san was kind enough to take this volume down from the shelf for me so I could see the colophon and the inscription by the translator Robert Vergez:  “À Monsieur Suzuki avec les compliments du traducteur.”  

When Shintarō and Tatsuno Yutaka published their first version of Cyrano de Bergerac in 1922, the great novelist Mori Ōgai wrote a preface in which he offered generous praise for their work. Shintarō, who had read Ōgai since his youth and who regarded Ōgai’s late historical novels as a model of scholarship, was thrilled with the endorsement.[18] He mounted Ōgai’s hand-written draft of the preface on a scroll, which now sits open on a table in the study, near a photograph of Shintarō surrounded by smiling actors at a rehearsal of the play in 1951.

A connoisseur of fine paper and printing, Shintarō published a total of eight limited luxury editions of his translations over the course of his career. When he published his rendering of Stephane Mallarmé’s revolutionary collection of poems L’Après-midi d’un faune in 1933, he made it look exactly like the famous French edition from 1876, leaving the title in French with gold-embossed lettering and illustrations by Édouard Manet. But Shintarō’s version used paper of even higher quality than the original: the same Japanese paper, Nagashima-san told me, that was used for the original treaty of Versailles.  When he released his definitive 1960 edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, printed on tokusuki paper and limited to 500 copies, Shintarō used a similar gilt title, this time in crimson. But for this translation he rendered the title in Japanese, “Aku no hana,” a phrase which has itself become iconic in Japanese.

Looking at the cover of Shintarō’s translation, I remembered snippets from a favorite poem in that collection: “À une passante,” or “To a Passerby,” in which the speaker passes a woman on the street, instantly falls in love with her, and never sees her again. It’s not a gay poem, but I think I loved it as a twenty-year-old because it captured the feeling of what I saw in those days, from deep in my closet, as the impossibility of gay love, always moving out of reach. I don’t think I knew the word “cruising” at the time, but I knew what it was, and this is how it felt:


Un éclair… puis la nuit! – Fugitive beauté

Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,

Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?


A flash of light….and then the night! Fugitive beauty

Whose glance made me suddenly reborn

Will I never see you again except in eternity?


Shintarō was friends with and a mentor to many of the great writers of his own day, and his study served as a literary salon from the 1920s until his death in 1970. I was happy to see on his shelves a copy of one of my favorite Japanese novels, Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s The Makioka Sisters [Sasameyuki], the story of four sisters in an old Kansai family in genteel decline. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the family’s attempts to marry off the second youngest sister as quickly as possible in order to clear the way for the fourth and youngest to marry before she causes too much trouble. As the sisters sit around chatting and giving each other injections of vitamin B, the novel draws you into its world. Once you are there, you are grateful the book has more than five hundred pages, because you never want to leave. Tanizaki serialized it in Chūō Kōron magazine during World War II, and it is easy to imagine how soothing it must have been to read this novel in those frightening times.  That same quality is also why military censors deemed it too frivolous for publication as a book while the war was on. Nagashima-san told me that Shintarō knew Tanizaki through his friend Tatsuno Yutaka, who went to middle school with the writer. Shintarō had been reading The Makioka Sisters in serialization when he ran into Tanizaki in a café, told him how much he was enjoying it, and asked when the book would be out. It was good he asked. In July of 1944, when Tanizaki secretly self-published 100 copies of the first volume for a select group of friends, he sent one of these copies to Shintarō. That copy, inscribed “with the compliments of the author,” is the one I saw in Shintarō’s study.

The work of Shintarō’s students is also well represented there. Perhaps the most famous is Kobayashi Hideo, the most influential Japanese literary critic of the twentieth century. A 1926 essay of his on “The Suicide of Arthur Rimbaud,” which appeared in a journal published by students and faculty of the French Department at the University of Tokyo,[19] is on display in the study. Among other books by his students on the shelves are beautiful editions of Watanabe Kazuo’s 1937 translation of Villiers de L’isle-Adam’s L’Ève future, Fukunaga Takehiko’s 1947 translation of Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Nakamura Shin’ichirō’s 1953 translation of Jean Cocteau’s play L’aigle à deux têtes. Looking over all these books you can feel the force of Shintarō’s legacy and of the vibrancy of French literary studies in Japan before, during and after the Second Word War.

On the left as you enter Shintarō’s study, across from the dictionaries and the Verne translation, stands a set of pale blue volumes that I remember seeing in Ted Johnson’s house in the late 1980s, one of the proudest accomplishments of Japanese French studies: the first full solo translation of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu into Japanese. The translator was another student of Shintarō’s, the poet and translator Inoue Kyūichiro. Inoue completed his translation in 1989, just over a century after Kawashima Tadanosuke’s translation of Jules Verne.


Proust in Japan

 When I told Nagashima-san that I am a big Proust fan, she said it was a shame I had missed a show on Proust the museum had had up last year to mark the centenary of Proust’s death in 1922. Apparently, the show included a copy of the earliest Japanese translation of Proust in book form, the first volume of Swann’s Way, published by Musashino Shoin in 1931. The translation was by Yodono Ryūzō and Satō Masaaki, two students of Shintarō, who thank their teacher in their translators’ afterword. I managed to purchase a copy of this edition, and when it arrived last week from the bookstore in Tokyo, I saw that Yodono had adorned the inside cover with a line in red ink from François Villon, the poet Shintarō had studied in his time in Paris: the famous refrain “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?”, from Villion’s “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” (Ballad of the Ladies of the Past). Famously translated into English by Gabriel Rossetti as “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” the line is a perfect epigraph to Proust’s novel, which is all about memories of the past. Yodono overlays the French line in red with an archaic Japanese translation of Shintarō’s echoing Villon’s medieval French, printed vertically in black:


Saware, kozo no yuki ima izuku zo ya.

As I mentioned, this 1931 translation of Swann’s Way was the first book-length translation of Proust into Japanese. But some Japanese had been reading Proust already for some time. Proust’s earliest appearance in Japanese was the translation of an excerpt that appeared in French in the Nouvelle Revue Française just before Proust died in November of 1922. Titled “La regarder dormir,” the passage describes the narrator gazing on a beautiful woman as she sleeps. It would eventually make its way into the fifth volume, La Prisonnière, published after Proust’s death the following year. Just a few months later, in April of 1923, a thirty-year old journalist writing for the Asahi named Shigenori Shisui published a translation of it into Japanese with the title “Her eyes [Kanojo no me].” He prefaced the translation with a paragraph introducing the “genius” Proust to Japanese readers and noting his recent death. Shisui’s translation appeared in the journal Myōjō, a literary journal founded by the poet Yosano Akiko and her husband Tekkan.


Michihiko’s Proust

The five windows in Suzuki Shintarō’s study are covered in heavy curtains made of green silk, but light comes in at the top through a set of rectangular stained glass transom windows. These were designed by Shintarō himself and executed by Unosawa Tatsuo, a Japanese master craftsman of stained glass who also did work at the Fujiya Hotel, a grand nineteenth-century hotel near Mount Fuji. I spent a night there later during this same trip with my friend the haiku poet Nanae Tamura. As she and I sat in its elegant, high-ceilinged dining room, I imagined it as a sort of alpine Japanese version of Grand Hotel at Balbec in Proust’s novel.

Each of the five stained-glass windows that Unosawa made for Shintarō’s study shows a pair of animals: two alligators, two doves, two deer, two lions, and two dogs. Each of these pairs of animals is holding up an open book, and above and below these images are the words of a famous line by Stephane Mallarmé, distributed over the five windows:

“Le monde / est fait / pour aboutir / à un beau / livre. S.M.”

“The world is made to lead to a beautiful book. S.M.”

Shintarō’s son Michihiko used images of these windows for the cover of his book about his father.

When Shintarō died at seventy-five in 1970, he was where he was happiest: sitting at his desk in the study, examining a book of Goya paintings given to him by his former student, the Proust translator Inoue Kyūichirō.

Michihiko would begin work on his translation of Proust just after finishing the book of essays that he sent to Ted Johnson in 1986 and that Ted gave to me last summer. Completed fifteen years later in 2001, Michihiko’s was the second full solo translation of Proust into Japanese after Inoue Kyūichiro’s. In an article written in 1987 explaining his decision to embark on a new translation even before Inoue’s was complete, Michihiko expressed his gratitude for all previous translations, including Inoue’s. But he made no bones about the need for a new translation into Japanese.  On reading Inoue closely, he found “hundreds” of places where “my interpretation of the original differed from his,” a tactful way to say that Inoue’s translation was riddled with mistakes.[20]   But questions of accuracy aside, Michihiko wanted to bring across a whole new Proust in Japanese: not a “difficult” writer to be enjoyed only by an elite few but a Proust for everyone.[21]  Whereas earlier translations had kept Proust’s long sentences intact out of a desire to be faithful to the original, Michihiko, recognizing that Japanese lacks the relative pronouns and semicolons that make long sentences possible in French, was not afraid to cut some sentences into smaller units. Rather than slavishly waiting for the period in French, he reconstituted the sentences in Japanese according to the cadence of the reader’s breath. The result was a Proust that could be read easily in Japanese, as Japanese. To make the novel even more accessible, he added plot summaries at the beginning of all thirteen volumes and a wonderful index listing hundreds of characters and where they appear throughout the novel. Professor Nakano Chizu has written that Michihiko’s translation is famous for its clarity and readability and my guide Nagashima-san, who read Michihiko’s Proust, confirmed this view, saying she found his version much more accesible than Inoue’s. [22]

In this sense, Michihiko’s work on Proust can be said to embody a critique not just of Inoue’s previous version but also of his father’s penchant for rarefied scholarship and his privileged position as a wealthy aesthete writing for a small elite. I have more to say about that, but I will save that story for another time. I’ll end for now on the continuity between father and son by noting the strange fact that the line from Mallarmé that Shintarō had etched into the stained glass windows in his study – ” The world is made to lead to a beautiful book” – might be read as a distillation of the great work of Proust’s to which his son would devote his life. Proust, who quotes Mallarmé often, may well have known this line, and indeed À la recherche is itself the greatest example I know of a world that was made to lead to a beautiful book.[23]


I thank Rika Nagashima for sharing her deep knowledge of the Suzukis both during my visit and afterward via email and for catching several of my mistakes. Thanks to Peter Schwartz for his copyedits and suggestions. I am always grateful to BU’s interlibrary loan librarians Rhoda Bilansky and Annie Cheung who went to heroic lengths to find these materials in Japanese. Finally, many thanks to my partner Anthony for his helpful suggestions and for encouraging me to read more about Michihiko.






Works Cited


Coates, Jamie. “Ikebukuro In-between: Mobility and the Formation of the Yamanote’s Heterotopic Borderland.” Japan Forum 30, no. 2 (2018): 163–85.

Hara Tetsuji, ed. Natsume Sōseki shūhen jinbutsu jiten = Biographical dictionary of Natsume Soseki and his circle. Tōkyō: Kasama Shoin, 2014.

Kan, Sanjun. “Tamashii No Ekkyō.” In Dai Go-Hen: Toraware No Onna II, by Marcel Proust, 458–67. translated by Michihiko Suzuki. Ushinawareta Toki o Motomete. Tokyo: Shūeisha bunko, 2007.

Nakano, Chizu. “Proust Dans Le Japon Actuel.” Bulletin Marcel Proust, no. 42 (1992): 136–53.

Suzuki, Michihiko. Ekkyō No Toki: 1960 Nendai to Zainichi. Tokyo: Shūeisha shinsho, 2007.

———. Furansu Bungakusha No Tanjō: Mararume He No Tabi. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 2014.

———. “Hon’yaku No Kanōsei: Ushinawarete Toki o Motomete’ No Zen’yaku o Oete.” Subaru 23, no. 5 (2001): 206–16.

———. Ikyō no kisetsu. Tōkyō: Misuzu Shobō, 2007.

———. “Joshō: Purusuto Henreki.” In Maruseru Purusuto No Tanjō, 11–38. Tokyo: Fujiwara shoten, 2013.

———. Purusuto Ronkō. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobô, 1985.

———. “Taidan: Suzuki Michihiko Ueno Chizuko: Purusuto to Zainichi No Aida.” Seishun to Dokusho 40, no. 345 (2005): 6–12.

———. “‘Ushinawareta Toki o Motomete’ to Hon’yaku No Mondai”.” Yuriika 19, no. 14 (1987): 122–31.

Villon, François. Poems. Translated by David Georgi. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2013.

Watanabe, Kazuo. “Suzuki Shintarō No Koto.” In Hakuchūmu. Tokyo: Mainichi shinbunsha, 1973.

Wong, Aida Yuen. “Ikebukuro Montparnasse: An Avant-Garde Community in the Era of Taishō Democracy.” Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry 39, no. 3 (2023): 339–50.


[1] Michihiko Suzuki, Purusuto Ronkō (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobô, 1985).

[2] NB: I mean no disrespect by this. It is not uncommon in Japanese to refer to literary figures by their given names. The museum brochure also refers to the elder Suzuki as “Shintarō.”

[3] Michihiko Suzuki, Furansu Bungakusha No Tanjō: Mararume He No Tabi (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 2014).

[4] Michihiko Suzuki, Ekkyō No Toki: 1960 Nendai to Zainichi (Tokyo: Shūeisha shinsho, 2007). Michihiko Suzuki, Ikyō no kisetsu (Tōkyō: Misuzu Shobō, 2007).

[5] On the connection between his activism on behalf of Korean in Japan and his work on Proust, see Michihiko Suzuki, “Taidan: Suzuki Michihiko Ueno Chizuko: Purusuto to Zainichi No Aida,” Seishun to Dokusho 40, no. 345 (2005): 6–12. For a tribute to both Michihiko and Shintarō by a prominent Korean-Japanese literary scholar, see Sanjun Kan, “Tamashii No Ekkyō,” in Dai Go-Hen: Toraware No Onna II, by Marcel Proust, trans. Michihiko Suzuki, vol. 11, Ushinawareta Toki o Motomete (Tokyo: Shūeisha bunko, 2007), 458–67.

[6] The brand is “Daigaku megusuri.” The name means “University Eyedrops” and it is still sold today, with an image of a bearded professor on the box.

[7] This account is quoted in Suzuki, Furansu Bungakusha No Tanjō: Mararume He No Tabi. 111.

[8] Suzuki. 114.

[9] Kazuo Watanabe, “Suzuki Shintarō No Koto,” in Hakuchūmu (Tokyo: Mainichi shinbunsha, 1973).

[10] In this regard Tatsuno’s career parallels that of the great novelist Natsume Sōseki, who took over from Lafcadio Hearn to become the first native Japanese professor of English literature back in 1907. Tatsuno knew and admired Sōseki. He also enjoys a dubious distinction with regard to the great novelist. When Sōseki and his wife attended Tatsuno’s wedding on November 21, 1916, Sōseki ate some peanuts that irritated his chronic ulcer. The novelist collapsed the next day and never recovered. He died on December 9. Hara Tetsuji, ed., Natsume Sōseki shūhen jinbutsu jiten = Biographical dictionary of Natsume Soseki and his circle (Tōkyō: Kasama Shoin, 2014). 339.

[11] François Villon, Poems, trans. David Georgi (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2013). xi.

[12] Suzuki, Furansu Bungakusha No Tanjō: Mararume He No Tabi. 190.

[13] Suzuki. 203.

[14] Jamie Coates, “Ikebukuro In-between: Mobility and the Formation of the Yamanote’s Heterotopic Borderland,” Japan Forum 30, no. 2 (2018): 163–85.

[15] Aida Yuen Wong, “Ikebukuro Montparnasse: An Avant-Garde Community in the Era of Taishō Democracy,” Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry 39, no. 3 (2023): 339–50. 344.

[16] Wong. 347.

[17] Suzuki, Ekkyō No Toki: 1960 Nendai to Zainichi. 18.

[18] On Shintarō’s admiration for Ōgai, see Suzuki, Furansu Bungakusha No Tanjō: Mararume He No Tabi. 117-120.

[19] On the formation of this journal and how it established a tendency toward highly specialized scholarship in French literary studies in Japan, see Suzuki. 195-198.

[20] Michihiko Suzuki, “‘Ushinawareta Toki o Motomete’ to Hon’yaku No Mondai”,” Yuriika 19, no. 14 (1987): 122–31.

[21] For Michihiko’s reflections on Proust after completing his translation, see Suzuki, “Taidan: Suzuki Michihiko Ueno Chizuko: Purusuto to Zainichi No Aida”; Michihiko Suzuki, “Hon’yaku No Kanōsei: Ushinawarete Toki o Motomete’ No Zen’yaku o Oete,” Subaru 23, no. 5 (2001): 206–16. Also Michihiko Suzuki, “Joshō: Purusuto Henreki,” in Maruseru Purusuto No Tanjō (Tokyo: Fujiwara shoten, 2013), 11–38.

[22] Chizu Nakano, “Proust Dans Le Japon Actuel,” Bulletin Marcel Proust, no. 42 (1992): 136–53.

[23] After 3,000 pages, Proust’s novel ends with the narrator resolving to write a book and the reader is led to imagine that this book may well be the one he has just finished reading.