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Netland article about Japanese novelist wins Lionel Basney Award

English professor John Netland recently received an award for an article he wrote about Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)
English professor John Netland recently received an award for an article he wrote about Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)

JACKSON, Tenn.Feb. 9, 2011 – An article about 20th century Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo by John Netland, professor of English and chairman of Union University’s English department, was awarded best article in the “Christianity and Literature” journal at a national conference of academics in January.

At the meeting of the Modern Language Association in Los Angeles, Netland received the 2010 Lionel Basney Award For Best Refereed Article from the Conference on Christianity and Literature. His article, “From Cultural Alterity to the Habitations of Grace: The Evolving Moral Topography of Endo’s Mudswamp Trope,” was published in the “Christianity and Literature” journal in 2009.

“(Netland’s article) speaks both to those already familiar with the Japanese Catholic novelist and to those who have yet to encounter him; the former will be enlightened and the latter intrigued,” the award citation reads.

Besides the publication of his article in a journal with broad readership and the recognition of his article at the national conference, Netland said receiving the award had additional personal significance to him because it was named in honor of his former colleague at Calvin College, who was very committed to the organization before he passed away.

“The ‘Christianity and Literature’ journal is a wonderful venue for writing about someone like Endo, since there are not a lot of specialists in Endo around the world,” Netland said. “The readership in this journal has a broad range of interests.”

Endo, one of Japan’s most prominent post-World War II authors, is known in the West as well. Many of his works address the persecution of Catholics in Japan and the struggle to plant the seed of Christianity in the Japanese culture.

In his works, Endo uses the metaphor of a swamp to describe Japanese culture.

“That particular metaphor was not just something he was thinking of off the top of his head,” Netland said. “He’s really tapping into a whole series of attitudes and language and imagery that many Japanese intellectuals in the 20th century were using as a way to describe something unique or exceptional about the Japanese character.”

Netland said he drew from the ideas of Tetsuro Watsuji, a Japanese philosopher who said world cultures are affected by their weather. He said Watsuji made a connection between the culture and the climate of each section of the globe. In the West, for instance, where meadows and mild weather prevail, humanism and the idea of controlling nature arose.

In the East, however, where monsoons and humidity are a frequent reality, Watsuji believed that the cultures and religions of the region encouraged a resignation and subordination to nature, Netland said. Both Watsuji and, at times, Endo seemed to say that there was something in the Asian cultures that made Christianity seem foreign.

Netland’s article investigates Endo’s frequent use of swamps as a means to depict Japan’s relationship with Western culture and Christianity. Netland explained that Endo’s swamp metaphor changed throughout his writing career. In his early works, Endo employs the image of swamps to highlight what he saw as the “mutually exclusive differences between Eastern and Western culture” and to represent the Japanese people as trapped in an “amoral, aimless lifestyle,” Netland said.

By his later works, however, Endo changes the swamp metaphor to depict Jesus’ compassion and salvation to “swamp-dwelling” outcasts — including the Japanese, who do not fit in with Western culture, he said.

“In his deftly argued essay, Netland ushers us into a rich cross-cultural dialogue with much at stake for both Western and Japanese readers,” the 2010 Lionel Basney Award citation reads.

By Samantha Adams (’13)

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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