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The Japanese Connection

Mitsuharu Matsuoka The first place one thinks to head when researching 19th-century English literature is probably not the Internet homepage of a 44-year-old university professor in the Faculty of Language and Culture at Nagoya University in the heart of Japan.

But today, Mitsuharu Matsuoka's Web sites, including 19th-Century British Authors, The Dickens Page, The Gaskell Web, Gissing in Cyberspace and the Brontë Sisters Web, are highly regarded by the international academic community. Matsuoka began creating his Web resources in 1995 and has carved out a name for himself in the sheer volume of information and resources his sites offer. They are linked to from most every site nationwide dealing with Victorian literature, from Oklahoma State University to Rutgers to the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Married, with two children (Julie, 10, and George, 7), Matsuoka has been teaching for 16 years, the past nine at Nagoya. He specializes in 19th-century English literature and the cultural and social history of the Victorian age.

Masterpiece Theatre talked with him about his interest in Victorian literature and his critical assessments of Elizabeth Gaskell.

When did you first become interested in Britain and Victorian 19th-century literature?

I graduated from Hiroshima University in 1975; my graduation thesis was about Charles Dickens. My primary author of interest remains Dickens, and most of my academic papers are about him. I became interested in Gaskell when I moved to Nagoya in 1992. And last year I had a Japanese translation of eight Gaskell stories issued from the most prestigious publisher in Japan, IWANAMI.

Is Victorian English literature widely studied in Japan?

Yes, in translation. English literature used to be connected to English education in universities. I mean, many university teachers adopted English literary works as teaching materials for teaching English itself. But now too much emphasis is being put on the communicative aspects of English education, while English literature (except 20th-century literature) is kept away from the classroom. Dickens and Gaskell, for example, are considered too difficult for our students in the original English.

Teachers in American literature classrooms often have difficulty getting their students excited about these Victorian works of fiction. How do you get Japanese students interested?

In terms of difficulty, Victorian literature is much less popular than modern American literature -- Hemingway, for example. Almost all of the famous literary works from the UK and the USA have been translated into Japanese. This is why our students can get interested in them even though they are very poor at reading English.

Victorian English literature seems to depict a society and culture quite different from that of modern day Japan.

In terms of an afflicted society and culture, Japan is 100 years behind the UK. This is why the Victorian society is quite similar to modern Japan. The Victorian society has various kinds of problems from which we can learn a lot of things.

Today, technologically speaking, the UK seems farther behind the times than Japan, but this is a great misunderstanding. Ten years ago, Japan was the most prosperous country in the world -- like the UK after the Industrial Revolution. Now Japan is suffering in a great depression -- the bubble burst. Speaking with an athletic metaphor, Japan seems to be running a little before the UK, but Japan is in actuality a lap behind.

Have you found any interesting similarities or parallels between the Japanese and English cultures?

Japan imported a lot of culture from the UK a century ago, such as the parliamentary system and traffic rules. Both countries are quite like each other in geographic terms -- they consist of our main islands surrounded by the sea.

Elizabeth Gaskell is not well known even within the English-speaking world. How did you become interested in her work?

Because of her relationship to Charles Dickens. [Gaskell was published in Dickens's Household Words and All the Year Round.] She is far less famous here in Japan also, but she is much more known here than in any other non-English-speaking country. I think this is because a lot of translation is available here, the product of our country's English education. A lot of university teachers have researched English authors.

In your opinion, how does she measure up to her contemporaries -- the Brontës, Austen, Dickens, etc.?

In literary criticism, I don't know whether the time will come when Gaskell can measure up. In morality, however, I believe Gaskell can lead us to a better place than any other novelist. Her works are worth reading when we feel depressed in hard times, while they do not deserve as much academic research. In my opinion, Dickens's works accept any kind of interpretation, but Gaskell's do not.

Do you think being Japanese gives you a different perspective on Gaskell and her contemporaries?

I must say Japanese scholars are very slow to read her works in comparison to native readers. We are handicapped by the foreign language. But we can see a lot of reading pitfalls that the native reader falls into. We can suggest many specific readings because we spend a great deal of time reading through a single novel. Talking of different perspectives, there are certainly some advantages we have in interpreting her works. We are quite different in considering silence, for example.

Have you ever been to Knutsford? What were your impressions of it?

I went to Knutsford more than 20 times during my sabbatical year (1996-1997 at Manchester University with Alan Shelston as my supervisor). The year offered me a Rotary International scholarship; my Manchester counselor lived near Knutsford. I paid a lot of visits to Joan Leach, the "Cycling Cyclopaedia of Gaskell and Knutsford."

I have nothing to complain about Knutsford, but its modernized aspects. I produced my "Walk Around Knutsford, Past and Present" after my many visits.

Tell us more about your work on your Web sites...

Almost of my spare time in my university office is spent on voluntary work on the Internet, such as maintaining the literary Web sites and digitizing literary works. I have almost completed the digitization of all the works of Gaskell, Gissing, and the Brontë sisters.

When digitizing Gaskell's works, I used the Knutsford edition because it has no copyright. I asked a lot of Gaskell scholars for their cooperation with other materials.

I devote as much of my time to it as my wife does to taking care of our children!

What is your favorite part of the Web site?

The message boards, especially Dickens.

If you could sit down and have a conversation with Elizabeth Gaskell, what would you ask her?

I would like to visit her at her Manchester home and apologize for the liberty I took in digitizing all her works. I hope she would forgive me because the digitization has enabled perusal of her novels all over the world.

If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one work of 19th-century English literature with you, what would it be?

A Christmas Carol by Dickens or Cranford by Gaskell.

If you could only have one book of any kind with you, what would it be?

The Complete Victorian E-texts (a CD-ROM edition of my own making) and my laptop computer!

Visit Mitsuharu Matsuoka's homepage.

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