Making Anne big in Japan: New biography illuminates the fascinating life of the translator who made Prince Edward Island a Japanese tourist hub
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you discover why.”
It’s an adage often attributed (mistakenly) to Mark Twain. The maxim would prove pivotal for Hanako Muraoka (1893-1968). It was after she translated Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper that Muraoka dedicated her life to translating books for Japanese children, known as “family literature.”
Muraoka was in her 30s when she completed her translation of Twain’s novel (Oji to Kojiki) about a poor boy and a noble youth who switch identities.
Published in 1952, Muraoka’s translation of Anne of Green Gables transformed Anne Shirley, the protagonist of the 1908 novel by PEI author Lucy Maud Montgomery, into a near cult figure in Japan. Sparked by the popularity of the novel among Japanese readers, PEI welcomes a steady stream of tourists from the land of the rising sun. The island’s booming sushi restaurant business has been linked to the Japanese enchantment with the province known by the Mik’maq as Epekwitk, “lying in the water.”
Anne’s Cradle: The Life of Hanako Muraoka chronicles the triumphs and tragedies of the woman celebrated as a literary trailblazer in Japan. Written by Muraoka’s granddaughter, Eri, and originally published in Japanese, the volume has been translated into English (by Cathy Hirano) and immerses readers in the history, philosophy, religion and culture of Japan.
About the Canadian missionary women who first arrived in during the Meiji period (1868-1912) who founded the school where her grandmother became enthralled by English language books, Eri Muraoka writes: “Over the first few decades of the Meiji period Canadian Methodist missionaries established bases. … The level of girls’ education in Japan at the time was abysmal. Not only were women deprived of social status, they were required to subjugate their will completely to that of their male kin.”
A humble tea merchant who’d converted to Christianity (Shinto and Buddhism are the major religions in Japan), Hanako Muraoka’s father envisioned a better life for his daughter. In 1903, he arranged her entry, as a scholarship student, to the Toyo Eiwa Girls School. She was 10.
“[His] earnest desire to nurture the budding talent he witnessed in his child would pave the way for Hanako to surpass the class barriers her parents faced and pursue higher education,” Muraoka writes, noting that Hanako had wowed her dad with a tanka poem at age seven.
Initially bewildered by the boarding school’s customs—such as the use of cutlery at some meals instead of chopsticks—Hanako quickly adjusted. A diligent student, she won the admiration of her classmates and Isabella Blackmore, the Nova Scotia-born principal who’d developed the school’s rigorous coursework in English grammar, reading comprehension, literature and Bible study.
“Textbooks used for Japanese studies were virtually the same as those used in other Japanese girls’ schools,” Eri Muraoka writes. “But those used for English studies demonstrated the school’s uniqueness. … Most of the missionaries were highly educated women from eastern Canada.”
The author’s rendering of Hanako’s affection for some her school chums calls to mind the “bosom friend” passages in Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Hanako is overcome with emotion when a pupil (wearing a long-sleeved crepe kimono) grooms her hair.
“[Chiyo] looked dazzlingly refined and even dashing,” Muraoka writes. “She took out a comb and, stepping behind Hanako, deftly redid her hair, tying it with her own ribbon. … Eyes downcast, Hanako blushed, a mixture of shyness, joy, and anxiety churning inside her. … She felt she might burst into tears.”
A frequent visitor to the school’s library, Hanako’s life shifted when she discovered an English-Japanese dictionary on a shelf. “She considered [the dictionary] an outstanding invention, for with its aid, she could slowly decipher the English language. Gradually the world of words from which she had been excluded opened its doors to her.”
Bolstered by her growing oral and written proficiency in English, Hanako read, among other works: Little Women, Robinson Crusoe and the Elsie Books, a children’s literature series about a girl in the antebellum American south.
After graduating from Toyo Eiwa, Muraoka taught English at another mission school and became active in women’s rights issues, including lobbying against licensed prostitution, which was prevalent in Japan at the time.
Muraoka began to study Japanese language editions of classic works. She delighted in a Japanese translation of The Improvisatore, an autobiographical novel by Hans Christian Andersen.
“It read like an ode, rather than a novel,” Eri Muraoka writes. “[The] translation was an eye-opening experience for Hanako. Intoxicated by the enchanting vocabulary and rhythm, she submerged herself in the beauty of the Japanese language.”
Anne’s Cradle details Muraoka’s marriage to a printing company executive and the death of their son, Michio, of infantile gastroenteritis, at about age six. Muraoka assuaged her sorrow by translating The Prince and the Pauper.
“Although she had lost her own son … the flame of motherhood that had burned within her grew … to a broader, more universal sentiment,” Muraoka writes. “Michio’s death became the impetus for Hanako to start … aiming for shinga before shoga, ‘the true self’ over ‘the small self.’”
Michio’s death prompted Hanako to host a popular children’s radio show and raise a niece, Midori, as her own.
In the late 1930s, Muraoka reconnected with missionary friends and colleagues who would flee the country at the outset of the Second World War. The group included Loretta Leonard Shaw, a New Brunswick native who’d spent nearly 40 years teaching in Japan. Before returning to Canada, Shaw gifted Muraoka with a worn copy of Anne of Green Gables and encouraged her to translate it for the girls of Japan.
Eri Muraoka writes: “The story lit up [Hanako’s] heart. The heroine, Anne, was a skinny little orphan girl with freckles and carrot-coloured hair, whose cultural environment and school life closely resembled Hanako’s own. … The dress with puffed sleeves for which Anne pined was the same style as those worn by the missionaries who had taught at Toyo Eiwa.”
With Canada denounced, during the war, as an “enemy alien” of Japan, Muraoka was compelled to conceal her work on Anne of Green Gables. “Regardless of the danger, [she] continued to translate … driven by the desire to prove her friendship to the Canadian people.”
Hanako toiled more than a decade on Akage no An (Red-headed Anne), an instant bestseller. She was 59.
“Through Anne’s words, readers knew the joy of using their imagination, and their admiration for the heroine extended to Anne’s homeland, Prince Edward Island,” Eri writes. “Readers sent Hanako letters, some of which were influenced by Anne’s style of talking. ‘Mrs. Muraoka, won’t you be my bosom friend?’”
Muraoka would go on to translate Lucy Maud Montgomery’s entire Anne series. Having met Helen Keller during one of Keller’s visits to Japan, Muraoka published a children’s biography of the disability rights advocate. It helped educate Japanese society when deaf and blind people were often shunned, Eri writes.
At 74, Hanako made her first trip overseas to spend time with Midori, who was living in the US. “Passersby often did a double take when they saw … an elderly woman dressed in kimono, and gave her a smile. Hanako returned their smiles and spoke to them … in fluent English … an even greater surprise.”
Hanako declined invitations to visit PEI for fear “that reality might mean the loss of the imaginary world in her mind that she loved so dearly.”
At her funeral, in 1968, a mourner placed in her coffin sheets of manuscript paper, her pen and a Japanese copy of Anne of Green Gables “into which [she] had poured her soul,” Eri writes in her poignantly powerful biography.
Nova Scotia’s Bradan Press has also published Anna Ruadh, a Scots Gaelic translation of the novel. Fans of Montgomery’s iconic work included the late Aretha Franklin who, shortly before her death, proclaimed her desire to “see the place” Anne Shirley came from. Sadly, the Queen of Soul never made it to PEI.