“Eight Dogs or ‘Hakkenden’: Part One—An Ill-Considered Jest” by Kyokutei Bakin


English literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries saw a profusion of lengthy, serialized novels by people such as Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray and Elizabeth Gaskell. On the continent Marcel Proust wrote his seven-volume A la recherche du temps perdu, which took him fourteen years to write (1913-27), and of course there’s Tolstoy with War and Peace and Dostoevsky with The Brothers Karamazov. These authors were rank amateurs compared with one Kyokutei Bakin (1767-1848), the Japanese writer who managed to churn out what must be the most mind-bogglingly monumental novel in the history of literature, the Hakkenden, the first part of which, presented here (the translator promises a complete version), came out in 1814. It was finally finished in 1842 and filled 106 volumes; poor old Bakin went blind before he’d finished; like Milton before him, he got his daughter to take dictation, and, again like Milton, produced a great classic, although I suspect Hakkenden has a much larger audience than Paradise Lost. Nowadays, you can watch the movie or buy a manga version, but it’s really much more fun to sample the original novel, due to the way Bakin employs language and the translator’s acute awareness of how he does so, not to mention his attention to Bakin’s sudden changes in style, which jolt readers and keep their attention. As translator Glynne Walley explains, “It is, in many ways, a shaggy dog story, a seemingly endless tale whose very length and convolutedness turn it into a joke.” I’m just hoping I live long enough to read the rest of it!

 The “Eight Dogs” part of the story begins when Lord Satomi Yoshizane, a virtuous samurai who has taken charge over most of the district of Awa after his father’s death in battle and whose family are the heroes of the story, helps out his neighbor Lord Anzai Kagetsura with a supply of rice during a famine. Kagestsura does not reciprocate when his own rice crop flourishes the next year and it’s Yoshizane who needs help. The evil Kagestsura also takes advantage of the famine in Yoshizane’s lands and invades Awa, attacking two of Yoshizane’s castles. This is where the “ill-considered jest” comes in. Yoshizane, whose territory is in a bad way, is on the brink of suicide and finds himself talking to his dog Yastsufusa, who is devoted both to his master and, even more, to Yoshizane’s teenage daughter, Princess Fuse.

“How well do you know your ten years’ debt of gratitude?” Yoshizane asks the dog, “If you know it, then make your way by stealth into the enemy camp and bite the enemy general Anzai Kagetsura to death.” Yoshizane jokingly offers his dog rather bizarre rewards, including land and rank (well, Caligula made his horse consul), but gets no response; it’s at this point that he jokingly suggests that his teenage daughter, Princess Fuse, would marry Yatsufusa if he can kill Kagetsura. “If you do not desire rank or property,” Yoshizane says, “shall I make you my son-in-law—marry you to Princess Fuse?” The dog likes the sound of that idea (he wags his tail); he duly brings Kagetsura’s head back, and Fuse marries him so that Yoshizane can keep his ill-considered promise. She obviously has a high sense of Confucian filial loyalty, besides which her name “Fuse” contains the characters for “person” and “dog,” so it’s fated. After an initial fit of anger which makes him threaten the dog, Fuse intervenes, and Yoshizane resignedly realizes that “The character for concealment that I used to write ‘Fuse’ consists of the character for human followed by that for dog … Well might it be said that the name names the thing.”


Eight Dogs, or “Hakkenden”: Part One—An Ill-Considered Jest, Kyokutei Bakin, Glynne Walley (trans) (Cornell University Press, August 2021)
Eight Dogs, or “Hakkenden”: Part One—An Ill-Considered Jest, Kyokutei Bakin, Glynne Walley (trans) (Cornell University Press, August 2021)

So where do the “Eight Dogs” come from?  Fuse and Yatsufusa go off together, live in the wilderness and eventually attain enlightenment. But Fuse has set conditions, and one of them is that she won’t have sex with Yatsufusa; she finds herself pregnant anyway, but not in the usual fashion, and Bakin doesn’t tell us how she managed to do it. He does, however, describe her giving birth. The Eight Dog Warriors are “the spiritual descendants” of Fuse rather than actual biological ones; when she gives birth, it’s accomplished by her own hand, namely cutting open her belly in a seppuku ritual. As she does so, “out from the wound came flashing a cloud of white vapor. It enveloped the crystal prayer beads that hung from her neck and then was seen to climb into the air.” At the same time, as the beads fall, eight of them remain suspended, until they are scattered in eight different directions by a gale from the nearby mountains. “Truly was this a harbinger of the appearance, years later, of the Eight Dog Warriors,” the narrative states, and that’s all we get for now. However, it’s the most important part of the tale—we have to wait for subsequent installments, though, to see what becomes of all this.

Between these two episodes there’s an enormous amount of action and many new characters are introduced, but there is more to Hakkenden than samurai action. The work is, of course, a family saga featuring the Satomis, but it’s also part historical romance (they were real people) and part morality play. The morality part was important to Bakin, and he uses Princess Fuse to make it come alive in a memorable character who combines Confucian and Buddhist virtues, and, as Walley puts it, “her star turn is highly dramatic, full of action, beautifully narrated and in all other ways satisfying to read, but it is also legible as moral teaching.” The moral teaching here is known as kanzen chōaku, which means “encouraging virtue and chastising vice,” a common trope one can see in pretty much all world literature.

Fuse might end up dead, but morally she wins out. The Confucian part of her virtuous character was derived by Bakin from the Chinese classics which she reads avidly and which are liberally quoted throughout the book; her samurai background supplies her strength, both mental and physical. Fuse also reads the Lotus Sutra, in which Shakyamuni expounds on the nature of Buddhahood and what one must do to attain it. As Walley points out, Fuse demonstrates compassion, one of the main tenets of Buddhism, in the way she treats Yatsufusa, a ”lower” life-form. The Dog Warriors each get one of the eight prayer-beads, which symbolically combine Buddhist and Confucian virtues within them, coming as they do from Fuse’s womb and each standing for one of the cardinal virtues.


The details of this and other literary devices employed by Bakin are discussed in Walley’s very valuable introduction as well as his approach to translating, in which he explains how he decided on what sort of English to use. In addition to “readability and naturalness of expression, which might convey the fascination of Bakin’s story,” he has to deal with “the dazzling play of his style”, which he feels might make some readers see the translation as “stiff and archaic” or “flowery and convoluted.” However, that’s the way Bakin intended the book to be read; Walley employs an English which was used by writers who would have appreciated the kind of style Bakin had, citing Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen as examples. He also mentions more modern writers employing archaic style, such as JRR Tolkien. This approach to language works, because, after all, Bakin isn’t a modern writer, and readers of such books as this have probably read early 19th-century writers and won’t be put off by a few archaisms, especially when they understand the protean nature of Bakin’s style, its idiosyncrasies and oddnesses. A passage expounding Confucian morality, for example, will require different language than a description of fighting samurai rushing madly around trying to behead one another. And it’s there because Bakin’s readers were familiar with it.

These days it’s good to see a translator who aims for a literate audience without striving for a “modern” feel to a book that definitely isn’t modern, which in some cases is little more than pandering to a non-literary audience or making readers feel like they’re being talked down to. As I noted above, there’s always the manga version for them; at the same time, however, Walley includes many illustrations from the various editions of the book, the power of graphics wasn’t lost on Bakin and his publisher, so the visual aspect is taken care of. The extensive introduction also supplies all the background information a reader might need, but, as Walley tells us, Hakkenden “can be enjoyed with little or no background; just skip to the first page and dive right in.”

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.