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The Animal Court: A Political Fable from Old Japan [Paperback]

Jeffrey Hunter
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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4.0 out of 5 stars A pleasant oddity Nov. 21 2003
Format:Paperback
Shoeki's brief book is not a particularly novel topic: humankind under examination, and found wanting. What is unusual is his approach, and the specific targets of his barbs.
'Court', by the way, seems to have the sense of 'Imperial Court' rather than 'Court of law'. Animals of the several kinds meet, and Shoeki creates clear precedence among the lords and under-lords, the generalissimo (I wish I knew what word led to that translation), and all the other ranks within each kingdom. Shoeki establishes the proper role for animals of each type - including the roles of predator for the larger and prey for the smaller. The humor lies in showing how behavior proper to an animal is quite unsuitable for a human, no matter how common it may be.
The whole story is backed by hundreds of years of folklore about each animal, combined with alchemical beliefs about the five elements (fire, air, water, metal, and wood), plus a huge mythology or philosophy of Shokei's own. The story was written in the 18th century. Scientific thought was well established in Europe back then, but seems not to have been as strong in Japan of that day. The contrast is fascinating, even if Shoeki is not an accurate representative of his time.
Most interesting, though, was Shokei's choice of targets. Shinto priests came under fire. Buddhists of the half-dozen major schools took more of his sarcasm, as did doctors. Shokei outdid himself, though, in repainting Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu, and Chuang Tzu as criminals against the proper humnan spirit, as parasites on society, and as breeders of other human parasites. Other historical masters are less well-known to Western readers, but suffered the same fate at the hands, paws, wings, and fins of Shokei's menagerie.
As I said, I wonder about parts of the translation.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A pleasant oddity Nov. 21 2003
By wiredweird - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Shoeki's brief book is not a particularly novel topic: humankind under examination, and found wanting. What is unusual is his approach, and the specific targets of his barbs.
'Court', by the way, seems to have the sense of 'Imperial Court' rather than 'Court of law'. Animals of the several kinds meet, and Shoeki creates clear precedence among the lords and under-lords, the generalissimo (I wish I knew what word led to that translation), and all the other ranks within each kingdom. Shoeki establishes the proper role for animals of each type - including the roles of predator for the larger and prey for the smaller. The humor lies in showing how behavior proper to an animal is quite unsuitable for a human, no matter how common it may be.
The whole story is backed by hundreds of years of folklore about each animal, combined with alchemical beliefs about the five elements (fire, air, water, metal, and wood), plus a huge mythology or philosophy of Shokei's own. The story was written in the 18th century. Scientific thought was well established in Europe back then, but seems not to have been as strong in Japan of that day. The contrast is fascinating, even if Shoeki is not an accurate representative of his time.
Most interesting, though, was Shokei's choice of targets. Shinto priests came under fire. Buddhists of the half-dozen major schools took more of his sarcasm, as did doctors. Shokei outdid himself, though, in repainting Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu, and Chuang Tzu as criminals against the proper humnan spirit, as parasites on society, and as breeders of other human parasites. Other historical masters are less well-known to Western readers, but suffered the same fate at the hands, paws, wings, and fins of Shokei's menagerie.
As I said, I wonder about parts of the translation. I also wonder whether Shokei had trouble sustaining his initial writing energy. Each chapter is shorter than the one before and, I think, less sharply written. Still, the book as a whole is delightful. The commentary within is interesting, but the 18th century social and scientific Japanese thought behind the book is what really held my interest.
4.0 out of 5 stars Humanity is guilty! Aug. 31 1997
By wolfie@netpci.com - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is another boonie dog book review from Wolfie and Kansas. We like the Japanese people, because the Japanese tourists we have met on Guam pet us and pose for pictures with us. Ando Shoeki's fable "The Animal Court", written in the eighteenth century, gives us another reason to like Japan and its people. In Shoeki's parable, the birds, beasts (mammals), creatures (insects, reptiles and amphibians) and fish each hold an assembly to discuss human society and compare it to their own. Some of Shoeki's ideas are strange, both by the standards of his time and place and ours. Nonetheless, he has a positive attitude towards animals. For example, he asserts that we dogs are sages, because both dogs and human sages yap at shadows.
The blurb on the back cover of this book describes it as Swiftian. In some ways, it would be more accurate to describe "The Animal Court" as Orwellian. In George Orwell's "Animal Farm", "[t]he creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again, but it was already impossible to say which was which." The animals in Shoeki's tribunals compare human society to their own, and find very little difference. One of the few differences, according to Shoeki, is that the behavior of beasts is largely guided by instinct, while humans make a conscious choice to behave in a beastly manner
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