Basil Hall Chamberlain bigraphy, stories - Translators

Basil Hall Chamberlain : biography

18 October 1850 - 15 February 1935

Basil Hall Chamberlain (18 October 1850 – 15 February 1935) was a professor of Japanese at Tokyo Imperial University and one of the foremost British Japanologists active in Japan during the late 19th century. (Others included E. M. Satow and W. G. Aston.) He also wrote some of the earliest translations of haiku into English. He is perhaps best remembered for his informal and popular one-volume encyclopedia Things Japanese, which first appeared in 1890 and which he revised several times thereafter. His interests were diverse, and his works included a volume of poetry in French.

Works by Chamberlain

  • The Classical Poetry of the Japanese. 1880.
  • A Translation of the 'Ko-Ji-Ki'. 1882.
  • The Language, Mythology, and Geographical Nomenclature of Japan Viewed in the Light of Aino Studies. 1887.
  • Aino Folk-Tales. 1888.
  • A Handbook of Colloquial Japanese. 1887.
  • Things Japanese. Six editions, 1890–1936. (A later paperback reprint of the fifth, 1905 edition — with the short bibliographies appended to many of its articles replaced by mentions of other books put out by the new publisher — was issued as Japanese Things.)
  • A Handbook for Travellers in Japan. 3rd ed. 1891. Cowritten with W. B. Mason. (Earlier editions were not by Chamberlain.)
  • Essay in aid of a grammar and dictionary of the Luchuan language. 1895.
  • "Bashō and the Japanese Poetical Epigram." Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, vol. 2, no. 30, 1902 (some of his translations are included in Faubion Bowers' "The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology", Dover Publications, 1996, 78pp. ISBN 0-486-29274-6)
  • Japanese Poetry. 1910.
  • The Invention of a New Religion. 1912. , Incorporated within Things Japanese from 1927.
  • Huit Siècles de poesie française. 1927.
  • . . . encore est vive la Souris. 1933.


Chamberlain landed in Japan on 29 May 1873. He taught at the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in Tokyo from 1874 to 1882. His most important position, however, was as professor of Japanese at Tokyo Imperial University beginning in 1886. It was here that he gained his reputation as a student of Japanese language and literature. (He was also a pioneering scholar of the Ainu and Ryukyuan languages.) His many works include the first translation of the Kojiki into English (1882), A Handbook of Colloquial Japanese (1888), Things Japanese (1890), and A Practical Guide to the Study of Japanese Writing (1905). A keen traveller despite chronic weak health, he cowrote (with W. B. Mason) the 1891 edition of A Handbook for Travellers in Japan, of which revisions appeared later.

Chamberlain was a friend of the writer Lafcadio Hearn, once colleague at the University, but the two became estranged over the years. (quoted from Chamberlain's letters. Chamberlain, in writing to Hearn's biographer, says he never lost his esteem, and wrote a few times to Hearn who had moved away to Izumo, but the letters eventually went unnanswered. Percival Lowell, in his travelogue Noto: an unexplored corner of Japan (1891), dedicated it to Chamberlain.  From the dedication.

Chamberlain also translated the works of Fukuzawa Yukichi and other Japanese scholars into English. During his tenure at the Tokyo Imperial University, he sent many Japanese artifacts to the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford. He left Japan in 1911 and moved to Geneva, Switzerland where he lived until his death in 1935.

Early life

Chamberlain was born in Southsea (a part of Portsmouth) on the south coast of England, the son of an Admiral William Charles Chamberlain and his wife Eliza Hall, the daughter of the travel writer Basil Hall. His younger brother was Houston Stewart Chamberlain. He was brought up speaking French as well as English, even before moving to Versailles to live with his maternal grandmother in 1856 upon his mother's death. Once in France he acquired German as well. Chamberlain had hoped to study at Oxford, but instead started work at Barings Bank in London. He was unsuited to the work and soon had a nervous breakdown. It was in the hope of a full recovery that he sailed out of Britain, with no clear destination in mind.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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