Culture: Do you know “A Dog of Flanders”?
June 3, 2006 36 Comments
If you ask Japanese people what they know about Belgium, they will probably reply: “Oh yes, beers and chocolates”. But you would notice their somewhat quizzical look, indicating they do not really have a clear image of the country.
Then try this: “Do you know about Flanders?”
This time their reaction would be different. Their eyes would light up, and nodding strongly, they may start talking about Antwerp, not realising that the city is actually located in Belgium. They may start praising the beauty of its cathedral and to your astonishment, even embark on a precise description of the famous paintings by Peter Paul Rubens which can be admired inside.
Some of them might even begin to cry. By now you would feel totally confused, having no idea what caused them to become so emotional.
The name “Flanders” (Vlaanderen in Dutch, Flandre in French) refers to a region in northern Belgium and a constituent part of the federal Belgian state. But the word instantly reminds Japanese people of a particular story called “A Dog of Flanders”. In Japan, everyone, both young and old, knows exactly what happened to Nello and Patrasche in the cathedral of Antwerp on a cold winter night.
A beautiful and sad story
The original story “A Dog of Flanders” was written by a British-French author named Ouida, also known as Marie-Louise de la Ramée (1839-1908).
The book tells the story of Nello, an orphan boy who lived in a hut in the suburbs of Antwerp with his ailing grandfather and a dog named Patrasche. Nello earned money by selling milk in Antwerp, and Patrasche pulled the milk cart everyday. Despite poverty, they were the best of friends and very happy.
Nello was a naturally talented artist. He could not buy any painting tools but wanted to become a famous painter like Rubens, whom he admired very much. His dream was to see Rubens’ paintings in the cathedral one day. But these paintings were covered by heavy curtains, and he could not afford to pay a silver coin to see them.
Happiness did not last long. After his grandfather died a week before Christmas, Nello was falsely accused of causing a fire. Driven out of the small hut with no money, he went to the cathedral on Christmas Eve. Patrasche ran after him. The door was open by chance, and Nello saw Rubens’ paintings at last. On the following morning the young boy and his faithful dog were found frozen to death, tightly hugging each other in front of the paintings.
A tremendous success in Japan
This beautiful story itself follows a strange destiny.
Ouida spent only a few days in Antwerp in 1871. Her book was published the following year in Great Britain, and later went across the Atlantic to be distributed in the United States.
When she died in 1908 in Italy, the New York Times ran a lengthy obituary about her life and work. Ouida was depicted as a lover of dogs who spent most of her earnings on her beloved pets.
A Japanese diplomat, Masujiro Honda, who was stationed in New York, was touched by the article. He was fond of dogs too.
So he sent the English-language book titled “A Dog of Flanders” to his friends back in Japan. In his letter, he wrote: “This story is a masterpiece and the Japanese will love it.”
And they surely did after Honda’s friends translated the book that same year. It became one of the most well-known children stories for many generations.
Nippon Animation made an animation series based on the story in 1975. It was broadcast on national television, and children watched it at home every Sunday evening. As the story was nearing its end, the television station started receiving thousands of telephone calls and letters from children viewers, pleading: “Please don’t let Nello die!”. An emergency meeting was held, but after a long debate, the producers finally decided to be truthful to the original plot.
The series was a tremendous success, and since then, it has been shown on Japanese television again and again.
Jan Corteel’s mission
In 1982, Jan Corteel was working in his second year as a tourist officer in Antwerp. He can clearly remember the day when a young, tall Japanese boy came into his office at the Central Station. The boy asked him a question which would eventually change the rest of his life.
“A Dog of Flanders, do you know?” the boy inquired in odd English.
Jan was born and bred in Antwerp but had never heard of it. “You mean the Lion of Flanders?” he said, referring to the symbol used by the Flemish army on 11 July 1302 when they defeated the French army during the landmark Battle of the Golden Spurs.
“No, no. Not lion. Dog!”, the boy insisted.
Jan had to admit that he could not help him.
Later, Jan asked his colleagues at the tourist office. “Oh yes, they are looking for the dog for some reason, the Japanese tourists,” replied one colleague with a certain nonchalance, adding: “I think there is a book about it in the library.”
So Jan rushed to the library and indeed found an old book written in English. There were no Dutch or French translations. On the record of borrowers on the side of the book cover, Jan noticed that he was the fifth reader in a century.
He read the book over and over again. It was a story of Antwerp, Rubens, and the cathedral. He felt ashamed of not knowing the story. “It was about us. I felt like the world was collapsing on me,” he remembers.
Jan was so devoted to studying the book that everybody thought he was mad.
He wanted to gather all the information available. So, when he would see Japanese tourists in town, he would ask them: “Do you know “A Dog of Flanders”?”
“Of course we know. Why don’t you know?”, they all replied. Jan asked them to send him books and magazines from Japan, and soon his office was filled with Patrasche books. It was natural for him to decide to learn Japanese.
Then Jan began to wonder where Nello and Patrasche had actually lived. Ouida did not mention the name of the village, but did write that their hut was “a league from Antwerp.” A league was an old unit of distance used in Europe and equalled about five kilometres. “…on the edge of the great canal”: well, there is only one canal in Antwerp, the Scheldt (or Schelde in Dutch). And from the hut, the spire of the cathedral should rise “in the northeast.” It took him a year and a half of research to reach a conclusion.
It was Hoboken.
Hoboken used to be a village but is now part of an industrial area. Jan discovered that there used to be a large windmill in Hoboken. In the book, it was the place where Nello’s girlfriend Aloise lived with her family. According to local records, the miller who leased the mill had a daughter. She was the same age as Aloise, 12, when Ouida visited the village back in 19th century.
Thanks to Jan’s efforts, a small statue of Nello and Patrasche now stands in front of the information centre in Hoboken. Visitors can enjoy a walk to a rebuilt model of a six metre-high windmill and to a church where according to the book the boy and his dog were buried together. Many Japanese tourists take the 20 minute tram ride from Antwerp to see where their favourite story took place.
In the cathedral of Antwerp, tourists can now see the famous paintings by Rubens, “The Elevation of the Cross,” and “The Descent from the Cross”, without paying any additional coins (but they still need to pay an entrance fee).
Recent statistics prove Japan’s enthusiasm for the city. A total of 22,000 Japanese nationals visited Antwerp in 2003, ranking only second after Americans among non-EU tourists.
After 24 years of devotion to the story, Jan is now widely respected as an expert on Nello and Patrasche. Nobody thinks Jan is crazy anymore. Jan now has a Japanese wife, Yoshimi, whom he married five years ago. Having visited Japan 15 times, he can even explain the story to Japanese tourists in their own language.
When the Dutch translation of the book was published in 1985, Jan wrote in its foreword: “This story has been a ‘secret ambassador’ for more than 100 years.”
“The story has come back to Antwerp at last. It travelled all around the world for 100 years. The Japanese people brought it back to us,” Jan says, smiling.
A true Belgian story?
However, the introduction of the story into Belgium proved no easy task.
In the tale, Nello was born in the Ardennes, and Patrasche was a Flemish dog. Wallonia and Flanders become friends, live in harmony. “It’s a perfect Belgian story,” Jan thought.
So he brought the Japanese animation series to local television stations for broadcasting, but they all rejected it, pointing out that the clothing and buildings looked too Dutch and that they did not really depict “Flanders”. These differences might seem only small details to Japanese animators, but they were too big for the people in Antwerp.
In 1997, Nippon Animation and Japanese film producer Shochiku created an animated movie which was a remake of the successful television series. But this time, the staff first came to Jan for advice because they wanted to be accurate in every detail, so that the new production would also be accepted in Belgium.
After long talks, Jan finally succeeded to convince Belgian national television to broadcast the film. Since 2000, it has often been shown on Christmas Eve.
So may we conclude that Belgian people know the story now and that they too are deeply touched by its sad but heart-warming ending?
No. It is not that simple.
I will tell you why in my next article.
By Masaki Takakura
Masaki Takakura, a staff writer for Japanese national daily newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, is currently doing an internship programme at the European Journalism Centre’s office in Brussels. His speciality is child welfare.
Update 25 January 2008:
Jan Corteel has been arrested for the murder of his Japanese wife Yoshimi.
The Belgian daily Het Belang van Limburg reports that Jan Corteel has been arrested on Wednesday (23 January 2008) for the murder of his Japanese wife Yoshimi in their flat in Antwerp. Neighbours heard the couple fighting early in the morning but were unable to intervene on time. The police did not give any details about the exact cause of death but it seems that a knife was used. Yoshimi Ishii had been working for the past two years as a cleaning lady at the cathedral of Antwerp. (see article)
Update 9 July 2006: Crossroads articles published in Kosovo newspaper
We are pleased to inform our readers that Masaki Takakura’s feature articles about “A Dog of Flanders” have recently been published in Bota Sot, a leading Albanian-language Kosovo newspaper.
Masaki: “It’s fun to act as a bridge between Eastern and Western Europe. Helping to understand each other is something I always dream as a journalist, not just for Europe but for all over the world. I think it is one of the best part of being a journalist. The Patrasche article might help people understand more about Japanese culture and how we think. I found it really meaningful since Japanese people have never been very good at speaking about ourselves.”