“Takaoka’s Travels” by Tatsuhiko Shibusawa

Prince Takaoka Prince Takaoka

Tatsuhiko Shibusawa’s 1987 novel Takaoka’s Travels opens like a straightforward volume of history: “On the twenty-seventh day of the first month in the sixth year of the Xiantong era, Prince Takaoka set sail from Guangzhou on a ship bound for Hindustan.” Takaoka was a real historical figure, son of the Japanese Emperor Heizei (ruled 806-809 CE). The sixth year of the Xiantong era places the story around 865 CE according to the Gregorian calendar. Guangzhou has dominated the Pearl River in South China for more than 2,200 years; with nearby access to the South China Sea, it was once a major terminus of the Silk Roads. The historical Prince Takaoka, a Buddhist monk, actually set out on a pilgrimage to Hindustan, birthplace of the historical Buddha, when he was in his mid-60s.

Shibusawa’s narrator relays the story in the dry, straight-forward tone of a historical travel narrative, expertly recreated in English by David Boyd. References to real figures (including Takaoka himself and Chinese Emperor Yizong) as well as extant historical texts (like the Faxian’s Record of Buddhist Lands, Pliny the Elder’s History, and the Classic of Mountains and Seas) reinforce the effect.

Takaoka’s Travels is a thoroughly modern book.

Takaoka’s Travels, Tatsuhiko Shibusawa, David Boyd (tr) (Monkey/Stone Bridge, May 2024)
Takaoka’s Travels, Tatsuhiko Shibusawa, David Boyd (tr) (Monkey/Stone Bridge, May 2024)

On one level, Takaoka’s Travels serves as a crash course in the history of the cultures surrounding the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal toward the end of the first millennium. It can still come as a surprise the degree to which the civilizations east of the Mediterranean were intertwined or just how extensive the trade routes now known as the Silk Roads really were. In Guangzhou, for example


Moored cheek by jowl were ships from Hindustan, Arabia, Sinhala [modern Sri Lanka], Persia—there were even Kunlun boats [used by Austronesian sailors] from the Southern Lands. The men of the port were no less exotic, with eyes and skin of all shades and colors.


(Shibusawa’s narrator and his characters are not troubled by modern racializations. In fact, the prince’s attitudes about “exotic” peoples and even gender and sexuality are consistently open-minded. Despite being a celebate Buddhist monk traveling with a group of celebate Buddhist monks, he comments about a male character discovered to be a woman in disguise, “Man or woman, what’s the difference?”)

The reader soon discovers, though, that Takaoka’s Travels is more than fiction framed as a factual travelog. Like the Englishman Sir John Mandeville’s 14th century Travels, it is a tale full of wonders in foreign places that are impossible to believe. Narratives of travels to “foreign” and “exotic” places were wildly popular in many medieval cultures—whether based in reality or made up wholecloth. Medieval travelers to such places expected to encounter things too strange to be explained. Takaoka reminds himself as they embark


As we head south, things will occur that we could never have imagined back in Japan. Perhaps the world itself will turn upside-down! But I mustn’t be alarmed. As we approach Hindustan, things will only become stranger and stranger. And isn’t that exactly what I wanted?

Takaoka’s Travels is a rich novel unlike almost anything else available in English translation from Japanese.

At the same time, Takaoka’s Travels is a thoroughly modern book. Shibusawa’s dry, straight-forward and faux historical narration leaves room for wry humor throughout the novel. It’s full of crude gags, like the prince breaking wind at inappropriate moments or his companions happily smelling mysterious spheres they find on the ground only to discover they’re scat. Perhaps most amusing and even postmodern are Shibusawa’s frequent and entirely intentional “anachronisms”, such as allusions to historical figures from Mandeville to the 20th century historian Japanese historian Naojiro Sugimoto. (This mixing of carefully researched fact and anachronism calls to mind Fumio Takano’s Swan Knight, published almost two decades after Takaoka’s Travels and released in Sharni Wilson’s English translation earlier this year.) The characters in the novel even comment on these anachronisms, as when one of Takaoka’s companions attempts to express why an animal they’ve discovered in what is now Vietnam cannot be an anteater:


At risk of anachronism, let me explain. The great anteater will be discovered roughly six hundred years from now when Columbus arrives in what will then be called the New World. So how can we be staring at one here and now? Can’t you see its very existence defies the laws of time and space?


(The animal very reasonably responds, “It’s foolish to think that the existence of my kind hinges upon being ‘discovered,’ as you put it, by Columbus or by any other man.”)

Some of the events in the novel don’t take place at all—or at least the truth of these events is left up to the reader. The prince is a great dreamer, and he is constantly falling asleep. Things occur that his companions immediately forget, sometimes when the prince seems to have been wide awake. Other times, something that ostensibly took place in a dream later affects the plot in the waking world. “For the Prince,” the narrator tells the reader, “his dreams [are] memory itself.” The blending of dreams and the novel’s reality fits well in a story that is at the same time so medieval and so postmodern. A character who claims to be able to see the future predicts the fabulous travel narratives men like Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, and Mandeville himself will produce of Asia east of Arabia. One of the prince’s companions responds


Your visions of the future four centuries from now are little more than dreams to us, no more substantial than clouds.

Shibusawa rose to prominence in a post World War II obscenity trial for his Japanese translation of the Marquis de Sade’s novel Juliette.

Some readers might be troubled by certain elements of the plot. Takaoka’s obsession with Hindustan was inspired by his father’s consort, Fujimara no Kusako, who regularly fondled him when he was a boy—much to the prince’s delight. Although she is long dead by the time the novel takes place, Kusako’s presence is still central to the story. Takaoka clearly harbors Oedipal feelings toward her, and her memory affects his actions at key points in the narrative. Many of his dreams, too, are of Kusako. (Readers familiar with the great Japanese classic, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, might recognize parallels between Genji’s relationship with his stepmother Lady Fujitsubo and Takaoko’s longing for Kusako.) One character engages in beastiality, and the prince and his companions encounter a race of half-men created by sexual relations between human women and dogs.

These potentially objectionable plot points are perhaps to be expected from author Tatsuhiko Shibusawa. According to David Boyd’s concise and informative translator’s afterword, Shibusawa rose to prominence in a post World War II obscenity trial for his Japanese translation of the Marquis de Sade’s novel Juliette (in French, L’Histoire de Juliette ou les Prospérités du vice). In English, the title of Shibusawa’s translated Juliette reads Vice Amply Rewarded. It wasn’t so much a direct translation as an abridgement and a rendition; in Boyd’s words, Shibusawa was “accused of making the obscene work even more obscene in translation.” He was found guilty, and remained “one of Japan’s most shocking and powerful voices” for the rest of his career.

Boyd’s afterward also explains that Takaoka’s Travels was something of a swan song for Shibusawa. He wrote it at the end of his life, while he was dying of laryngeal cancer. The final chapters of the novel have notable parallels between the 59-year-old Shibusawa and his 65-year-old hero. When an omen suggests Takaoka may not live to see Hindustan as he has always dreamed, he is unafraid:


While the thought of death [is] certainly on his mind, it [isn’t] something that fill[s] him with dread or fear, only a vague anticipation—as if it [is] something he [is] looking forward to, a new adventure.


That Takaoka can joyfully continue his journey regardless of his fear of impending death is perhaps the novel’s most important lesson.

Takaoka’s Travels is a dying man’s superb exercise of combining fact and fiction ending in a reflection on mortality.

Takaoka’s Travels is a rich novel unlike almost anything else available in English translation from Japanese. It is full of factual historical information about East Asia from a period in time and from a perspective that many English speakers may be less familiar with—and fantastical elements that would satisfy both a 9th century and a 21st century imagination. It is a fitting introduction for English-language readers to Tatsuhiko Shibusawa, a figure who loomed large in Japan’s literary circles of the second half of the 20th century.

It is also a striking reflection on the importance of hopes and dreams—a dying man’s superb exercise of combining fact and fiction ending in a reflection on mortality and how a life’s work can be accomplished even when dreams may be left unfulfilled. “How fitting,” as the novel concludes, “for a Prince as modern as Takaoka.”

Alison Fincher (@FincherAlison) is a student of Japanese and an independent researcher of contemporary Japanese fiction. Read Japanese Literature is her podcast about Japanese literature and some of its best works.