Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 479:
SHAKESPEARE-SAN

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 479.

Today, a Japanese lesson in the value of Western culture. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My wife and I recently visited Japan. We saw so many interesting things. Take the Museum of Western Art in Tokyo: I've always wanted to see Rodin's epic bronze, The Gate of Hell. I've wanted to see his statue of Victor Hugo. Both were there. I saw my first oil by the 18th-century Gothic painter Fuseli.

Of course, we knew the Japanese have been buying Western art. But that museum brought the extent of it home to us.

I suppose I should've seen it coming 30 years ago in a strange old Japanese movie, Throne of Blood. It was about a corrupt Samurai clawing his way to power. He and his wife, propelled by the prophecy of three witches, murdered children to fulfill the prophecy. In the end they died of guilt, madness, and -- in his case -- a chest full of arrows. It was, of course, Macbeth in Japanese clothing.

A Japanese-American friend was born here and trapped in Tokyo during WW-II. He told me he'd sung Beethoven's Ninth with his high-school chorus. When General Doolittle first bombed Tokyo, one of his pilots looked out to see Japanese playing baseball.

The Japanese have found that Western culture -- like Western technology -- speaks to their needs and dreams. Take that old Macbeth movie. Scholars have suddenly found that Tokyo's Meisei University holds the second largest collection of original Shakespeare folios in the world.

Two features mark Japanese buying. One is secrecy. Buyers usually work behind Western agents. The other feature is a willingness to pay whatever it takes. Japanese buyers have driven prices outrageously high.

That's infuriating, of course. But I see things in it I like. For one thing, the Japanese remind us of the universality of Shakespeare, Rodin -- and baseball. They also remind us that your heart shall be where your treasure is. They've developed the finest technologies of preservation to keep these works. Most important of all, they tell us how valuable our heritage really is.

And so the Japanese do with our culture just what they've done with our technology. They remind us that it's a greater gift than we realized. They learn more from us than we thought we knew -- whether it's about building cars or reading Shakespeare. They remind us that the legacy of Western technology and culture is a gift that's worth treasuring.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Otness, H.M., The Movement of Shakespeare Folios to Japan. A.B. Bookman's Weekly, Sept. 17, 1990, pp. 957-960.



from Halleck's New English Literature, 1913


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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