Literature and Reality in the Origin of the English Novel: Japan in the writings of George Psalmanazar, Daniel Defoe, and Jonathan Swift

Lecture Summary

It might be surprising to learn that some important authors in the age of the rise of the English novel frequently mentioned Japan and portrayed her affairs, despite not having any experience of visiting the country at all. Although not a few references to Japan appeared in the periodicals of early eighteenth-century England, the country was almost completely closed to Europeans (except for the Dutch) at the time, and any genuine exchanges between people or of commerce between England and Japan dated back to the early seventeenth century. In other words, when eighteenth-century authors attempted to describe Japan in their writing, they needed to draw upon their creativity and imagination for inspiration, as well as historical documents, hearsay, or the nation’s memories, lacking as they were in actual contemporary contact. However, if such an idea of Japan as half real and half fanciful helped them to produce works which defined a new genre of literary expression, then it is worthy of careful consideration from the point of view of the intersections between literature and reality. I will discuss the function of the idea of Japan in the origin of the English novel, focusing in particular on George Psalmanazar’s An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan (1704), Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (Part II, 1719), and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).


Noriyuki Harada, Ph.D., Professor of English at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University and President of the English Literary Society of Japan (ELSJ), majors in eighteenth-century English literature. His recent publications include “Translation and Transformation of Jonathan Swift’s Works in Japan” in “The First Wit of the Age”: Essays on Swift and His Contemporaries in Honour of Hermann J. Real (Peter Lang, 2013), Full Annotation for Gulliver’s Travels (in Japanese, Iwanami, 2013), “Teaching Eighteenth-Century English Literature in Japan: Purposes, Curricula, and Syllabi (Lit Matters, 2014), An Introduction to Gulliver’s Travels (in Japanese, NHK, 2015), Sexuality and Victorian Culture (co-edited in Japanese, Sairyusha, 2016), and “Literature, London, and Lives of the English Poets” in London and Literature, 1603-1901 (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017).


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