Translator of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Korekiyo Takahashi
1883 - 1964
Kuni Sasaki

Kuni Sasaki is described as a pioneer of the humorous novel in Japan. His warm and witty novels, which went beyond mere satire or comedy, were beloved by people throughout most of the 20th century. Novelist Kuni Sasaki spent a quarter of a century at Meiji Gakuin, first as a student and then as a teacher, and it was his experiences here that shaped the starting point of his career.

Kuni Sasaki was a novelist and translator who was born in the Shizuoka Prefecture city of Numazu in 1883. He studied at the College of Meiji Gakuin and then became an English teacher at the the College of Meiji Gakuin before going on to teach English literature as a professor at Meiji Gakuin University after the war. He is renowned as the translator of American writer Mark Twain’s novels Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Kuni Sasaki translated these books during his 30s and 40s, but subsequently began writing his own novels. Many of his books, which include Foolish Younger Brother and Garamasa Don, achieved tremendous popularity as humorous novels of a kind previously unseen in Japanese literature at the time, and quite a few were adapted for the theater. Sasaki was one of Japan’s most popular novelists from the 1910s through to the 1930s.

A pioneer of humorous novels about family life

Critic Shunsuke Tsurumi, who wrote the Shincho Dictionary of Japanese Literature’s entry for Kuni Sasaki, offers high praise for his achievements, describing him as the person who broke free from the “irony-laced comic literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries” and pioneered the genre of “humorous novels about family life in Japanese popular literature.” In fact, in all of Kuni Sasaki’s novels, the kindness of the families therein and those around them is highlighted in witty conversations that enfold the reader in a refreshing ambience. Keita Genji, who was himself highly acclaimed as a writer of humorous novels, later praised Kuni Sasaki’s novels for their readability, witty prose style, and sparkling dialogue, pointing out that the fundamental reason for this was the warmth of the author’s gaze as an observer. Indeed, this warm gaze that enabled Kuni Sasaki to create the unique world in his novels was actually shaped by his encounters with his teachers and teaching colleagues at Meiji Gakuin.

The fact that various people sought to help him nonetheless suggests that Korekiyo was a man of tremendous personal magnetism. Through his connections, he found employment at the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce. Following his subsequent disastrous venture into running a silver mine in Peru, he joined the Bank of Japan, rising to the rank of vice president. It was around then that he was asked to take on the formidable task of selling Japanese Government Bonds overseas to fund Japan’s expenditure on its war with Russia. Covered in Ryotaro Shiba’s novel Clouds Above the Hill, this episode is still well known today.

The author whose career was shaped by encounters at Meiji Gakuin

Kuni Sasaki’s first encounter with Meiji Gakuin came in 1903, when he was 20. After studying at Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin, he transferred into the second year of the College of Meiji Gakuin. Sasaki graduated two years later and immediately enrolled as a research student. He learned English from Americans in exchange for teaching them Japanese and soon moved away to take up a post as a teacher at the Mito City Society of Friends English school. For seven years from April 1919, Sasaki worked as an English teacher in the College of Meiji Gakuin, while also pursuing a career as a writer. After the war, in 1949, he took up the post of professor of English literature at Meiji Gakuin University. He then spent 13 years as a professor before retiring in 1962. Kuni Sasaki’s association with Meiji Gakuin was a long one, first as a student and then as a teacher and professor, and his encounters with people at Meiji Gakuin left a big impression on the writer. In The Reluctant Bachelor, an autobiographical novel published in 1949, Sasaki portrays this scene in which the protagonist, Zenzaburo Maruo, who is about the same age as himself, is applying to transfer to a school called Shirokane Gakuin.

“The reason I write so much in particular about an event of fifty years ago is that my impression at the time was so deep that I can't leave it unsaid. The principal of our native town did not mind a peremptory dismissal of a student of three years’ standing for his first mistake, while the director of the Shirokane Gakuin accepted me unconditionally at our first interview. Knowing that I had been expelled from school, he dared not ask the reason. When I was about to tell it, he cut me short by ‘All right, say no more.’ What sympathetic consideration he showed! He dispensed with what I was most hesitant to tell. He knew I was sorry I had done wrong. That was all he wanted to know. . . what I am today I owe solely to Shirokane Gakuin. One's Alma Mater is unforgettable, so let me tell you something about my school days there.” (Misuzu Shobo, Kuni Sasaki’s The Reluctant Bachelor, Shigehiko Toyama ed.)

“Life is full of follies” However . . .

The principal he refers to was probably Meiji Gakuin’s second president, Kajinosuke Ibuka. With Ibuka’s permission, Sasaki transferred to the College of Meiji Gakuin and studied here for two years. Kuni Sasaki’s time at Meiji Gakuin was fruitful, as he learned a great deal from his foreign teachers and the principal, with whom he was in close contact, as well as from the teachings of the Bible. Indeed, in the words of his protagonist Maruo, “I was full of recollections and gratitude” regarding the slightly less than a year he spent as a research student and his time living in the dormitory, as was the custom for mission schools at that time. The cordial world of the numerous humorous novels he published during his long career as an English teacher at his alma mater Meiji Gakuin truly was fostered in this environment. If Kuni Sasaki had not encountered Meiji Gakuin, he would undoubtedly never have built the unique world of his novels. Sasaki recounted his memories of Meiji Gakuin not only in the form of novels, but also in essays, writing that “I am proud to have studied at Meiji Gakuin.” He also described how once, in a car on his way home from a lecture to which he had been invited, he happened to go down a street beside Meiji Gakuin: “I was filled with an indescribable feeling of nostalgia . . . As we passed, I doffed my hat and bowed my head.”

Sasaki liked to say, “life is full of follies.” However, he never said it with a sense of resignation, sarcasm, or ridicule. Rather, those words betray his profound understanding of and affection for the humans who commit those follies and were intended to encourage us to keep moving forward toward the future.

In 1963, the year after retiring from his post as professor at Meiji Gakuin University, Sasaki was baptized at the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (the Anglican/Episcopal Church in Japan) Holy Trinity Church, Tokyo. He was 80 years old. It was as if he was preparing for the final journey that he could see approaching. The following year, on September 22, 1964, Kuni Sasaki was called home by God, his life’s work complete.

Shincho Dictionary of Japanese Literature (Shinchosha); Kuni Sasaki’s The Reluctant Bachelor (Shigehiko Toyama ed., Misuzu Shobo); A Critical Biography of Kuni Sasaki (Sumi Kosakai, Themis); Life at Meiji Gakuin: Edited by Kuni Sasaki (Gendaishichosha).