Events | Seminar with Stefan Keppler-Tasaki: “How Goethe became Japanese”

Portland | October 4, 2019

Klaus Pringsheim in Tokyo ca. 1932. Source: Image Archive ETH Zürich, Sign. TMA_1433.

The annual conferences of the German Studies Association bring together over one thousand scholars in the areas of German history, literature, culture, and politics. Thomas Mann House Fellow Stefan Keppler-Tasaki will present and discuss his book “How Goethe became Japanese: Scenes of Transnational Contact with a National Purpose” at the 43rd German Studies Association conference in Portland, Oregon.

In 1818, Goethe wrote to his prince, Duke Carl August: “Japan is anywhere that one knows how to create it.” This meant the creation of gardening conditions that would be agreeable to the Japanese plants, which Goethe successfully grew in Weimar. Nearly everything what Europeans believed to know about Japan in the days of Goethe changed fundamentally through the Japanese nation building process during the late 19th and early 20th century. In this process, Goethe’s saying became true also insofar as Japan proved to be ‘created’ or ‘re-created,’ especially in Japan itself. The ‘know-how’ for this creation came not the least from Goethe’s life and work. Japanese intellectuals from Mori Ōgai, a founding figure of modern Japan, to Osamu Tezuka, the very creator of the Manga genre, drew intensively from Goethe to establish somewhat a Japanese identity—for national self-esteem as well as for harsh criticism on Japan. Given the prominent suicide motifs in Werther and Faust, Goethe became a kind of national author particularly to the so called ‘suicide nation’ Japan. Death testimonies of Japanese individuals from the 1890s until the peak of Kamikaze tactics in 1944/45 provide evidence of that.

In the meantime, the close conjunction of Goethe and Japan was facilitated by European intellectuals such as Thomas Mann and Gottfried Benn, whose 1932 essays on Goethe refer to Japan (Mann) resp. to Buddhism (Benn). Mann, whose brother-in-law lived in Japan since 1931, remodeled Goethe in his essay To the Japanese Youth, a Goethe Study (An die japanische Jugend. Eine Goethe-Studie) according to the image of modern Japan. Benn in his essay Goethe and the Natural Sciences (Goethe und die Naturwissenschaften) commented on the frequent reclamation of Goethe’s world view, particularly of his late poetry, for Buddhist thought. Both essays were textbook pieces in the national colleges of Japan in the 1930s and read by the very youth which was made sacrifice their live in the Pacific War.

The above-mentioned scenes of transnational contact with a national purpose deserve a closer look in the framework of Asian German Studies.


43rd Annual German Studies Association, October 3-6, 2019
Portland, Oregon

Accredited members of GSA only.

Villa Aurora & Thomas Mann House e. V. is supported by the German Federal Foreign Office and Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media.



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