Charles De Wolf On:
The Wizard by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
The original title of the story is Sennin, a word originally borrowed from Chinese (Mandarin xiānrén), written with characters suggesting a mountain hermit. An earlier combination, however, hints at one who, like Gonsuke, can fly into the heavens. The term originates in Daoism but also came to be used in a Buddhist sense, Buddhism itself having, in turn, influenced Daoism. One might translate the term sennin as “immortal,” but “wizard” is more inclusive. Moreover, it is more broadly cross-cultural, evoking various popular figures in Western culture, ranging from Merlin and Faust to Gandalf and Yoda. In the Edo period, Gonsuke was such a common male name that it became a quasi-generic term, roughly comparable today to Jeeves. In theory, Gonsuke belongs to the second highest social class: that of farmers, ranking below the samurai but above the artisans and the merchants. In fact, however, as is clear from the story, he is of lowly status and has no doubt fled hardship in the countryside to seek his fortune in the great commercial city of Ōsaka. Mention of Yodoya Tatsugorō tells us that the setting of the story is the 17th century. Yodoya was an extraordinarily rich merchant, whose extravagance led the shogunate in 1705 to confiscate his wealth and send him into exile. The Great Lord refers to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who reunited Japan at the end of the 16th century.