Musical Discoveries and Two Translations

Just recently I watched the first two installments of the new Ghost in the Shell OVA (titled “Arise”). One of the many great aspects of the new OVAs has been the outstanding musical selection. Today I’d like to introduce two songs (artists) from the series (both EDs) and my translations of the lyrics.


Miyazawa Kenji, Strong in the Rain


(Image: Bricks with ceramic fragments, Arita, Japan)

While interpreting for some visitors from the USA recently, Miyazawa Kenji’s poem 「雨ニモマケズ」(Strong in the Rain) came up in conversation–as one would expect, they had never heard of it. The poem, which had already been a widely-known perennial favorite in Japan for decades, became almost ubiquitous in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake.  As simple as the poem is, I decided I would just jot down my own translation. And, having already gone that far, I thought I would also upload said translation here.

Strong in the Rain by Miyazawa Kenji (November 3rd, 1931 [?] – published posthumously)

Strong in the rain
And in the wind
And in the snow and in the summer heat
Lacking desire
Never angry
Always smiling quietly
Eating only four cups of brown rice daily
With miso and some vegetables
Watching, hearing, and understanding carefully in all things
Without including oneself in the equation
And never forgetting
Tucked away in a small thatched hut
In the shade of a primordial pine forest
When a child falls sick to the east
Going to care for them
When a mother grows weary in the west
Going to shoulder her bundles of rice stalks in turn
When someone is dying in the south
Going to tell them that they have nothing to be afraid of
When there is a fight or a dispute in the north
Going to tell them to stop bickering because it’s foolish
Crying in times of drought
Walking falteringly in cold summers
Called simple by everyone
Never praised
Never worried over–
That is the kind of person
That I want to be

Sketch of a Mental Image: Spring and Ashura

Sketch of a Mental Image: Spring and Ashura*


The phenomenon of myself
is a blue illumination from a
temporary organic alternating current light bulb.
(A compound of every transparent spirit)
A blue illumination
from a karmatic alternating current light bulb
burning so certainly yet
flickering restlessly, restlessly
along with landscapes and all things.
(The illumination is preserved       the bulb is lost)

This is a faithful sketch of a mental image
twenty two months
from the direction I perceive to be the past
each individual chain of shadow and light
(All things flicker with me
And everything perceives simultaneously)
preserved until now
in lines of paper and mineral ink.

People, galaxies, Ashura, sea urchin—although these
consume the dust of the universe        breathing air or salt water
and a vivid ontology could surely be conceived for each
in the end they are nothing more than a landscape of the spirit.
Yet each of these faithfully recorded landscapes
is just as it has been recorded and
if that is nothingness than this is just as nothingness itself is and
it is shared to some degree by everything.
(Just as everything is all that is within me,
it is also all that is in each and every thing)

But contained in the Holocene epoch of the Cenezoic period’s
enormously bright accumulation of time
within the light-dark shading that is equivalent to no more than a mere point
(or a billion years of Ashura)
these things which were supposed to be so faithfully recorded
already change their structure and disposition.
Yet nevertheless it is possible
that myself and the printer have a tendency
to perceive these things as unchanging.
Just as we perceive our sensory organs and
landscapes and people
And just as we merely perceive in common,
Records and history            geological history—
the various data of each—
(according to the limitations of karmatic space and time)
amount to no more than our perception.
Perhaps in another two thousand years
a geology two thousand years different will develop
according to overwhelming proof that emerges steadily from the past
and we will think that roughly two thousand years ago
the blue sky was filled with colourless peacocks
and up and coming collegiate scholars will excavate exquisite fossils
from among the frozen nitrogen in
the top layers of the atmosphere
or perhaps even mankind’s enormous invisible footprint
will be discovered
on the face of layers of sandstone from the Cretaceous period.

Each of these hypothetical propositions
will be asserted within the fourth continuum**
as the nature of the mental image or even time itself.

January 20th, Taisho 13 (1924)

Miyazawa Kenji

Translator’s notes:

*Ashura – One of the six domains within the realm of desire from buddhist cosmology (part of the 31 paths of rebirth); the beings within this realm. Asura (jealous gods), like humans, are both part good and part evil. Their life is more pleasurable than that of humans, but they are plagued by envy, etc.

Order of the domains within the cycle of reincarnation, according to Japanese Buddhism:
Tendo – God Realm
Jindo – Human Realm
Shurado – Asura (jealous-god) Realm
Chikushodo – Animal Realm
Gakido – Preta (hungry ghost) Realm
Jigokudo – Hell Realm

**The Fourth Continuum – this term appears to involve Kenji’s original interpretation of the sutras and buddhist teachings. Mindstream = Buddhist moment-to-moment continuum of awareness

Note: The term “mental image” seems to have some deeper meaning within the context of this poem. Despite this, I have been yet unable to find any critical discussion of the term as Miyazawa uses it. The term has been used by various artists overtime to describe abstract images symbolic the artist’s unconscious.

Original Japanese Poem:

(ひかりはたもち その電燈は失はれ)


宇宙塵をたべ または空気や塩水を呼吸しながら

記録や歴史 あるいは地史といふものも



Classical Japanese Literature and the New Year

The past few months have gone by between the pages of a number of philosophical texts and books on literary theory, in addition to my usual fare of modern and contemporary Japanese fiction. I don’t have any prior experience with literary criticism as a discipline, so reading about the history of literary theory has been new and challenging. Equally new and challenging, I could say, have been my little forays into more classical Japanese literature since the start of the New Year holiday.

In Japan there is a well known New Year’s game called Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首) or Uta-garuta (歌ガルタ) [see here] which uses a collection of 100 classical poems by the same name. Each poem is divided onto two cards. The goal of the game is to match the phrases correctly. This is done by first arranging all the cards that display the bottom phrases of a poem on the floor or a table. Then, one player reads off the upper half of a poem, and the other players compete to claim the bottom half of the same poem from the pile.

I first heard about the game in high school, and was totally blown away by, well, how cultured it seemed. My admiration remains, although I still haven’t even gotten around to reading, let alone memorizing, the collection of poems. Both Y and I have been interested in learning how to play, and during our stay with her former host family in Sasayama in late December the topic came up. Y’s host mother jokingly suggested that we all play a round–an idea that was quickly chuckled away. But then, Y’s host mother introduced to us one of her favorite poems from the collection, and it quickly became a favorite of ours as well. (Poem 15, by Koko Tenno)

君がため 春の野に出でて 若菜摘む
   我が衣手に 雪は降りつつ

kimi ga tame   haru no no ni idete   wakana tsumu
waga koromode ni   yuki wa furitsutsu

As for the meaning, while I’m sure a quick search would lead to many professional and amateur translations, I decided to just make two poetic translations of my own. Of the two, the first one below recreates, in my mind, an atmosphere closer to that of the original poem, while the second rendition protects the meter (because why not?). In both renditions I’ve moved the first phrase and placed it after the third.

Out into spring fields
I go to gather herbs
   For you

Upon my sleeves
Snow falls gently

Out into spring fields
I venture to gather herbs—
A present for you

Upon my outstretched sleeves, look:
The snows gather quietly

In addition to this poem, Ghibli’s newest animated film, Kaguya-hime no Monogatari, has also piqued my interest in classical Japanese. I went to see the film yesterday evening, and was not only extremely impressed, but deeply moved. It’s the kind of film that I want to show to my (currently nonexistent) children some day. As soon as the film ended I ran over to the bookstore and picked up a copy of Taketorimonogatari (the original story) that contains both classical text, notes, and a modern translation.

Before going to see the movie I had tried to explain to one of my friends what the original story was about. It had been years since I read an abbreviated version in English, and I did a horrible job relaying the tale in Japanese. I’d like to spend some time memorizing classical stories and poems this year, not only as a way of improving my Japanese, but as a way to spend more time with oral narration in general. It’s a great tradition, and it feels like something that has less and less of a place in people’s lives these days. At the very least, it has steadily disappeared from my own life over the years.

What of Japanese Literature After 3/11?

One year ago today I was sitting in front of my computer in Norman, Oklahoma when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck. A stream of real time comments by twitter users in both Japanese and English quickly grew into a flood of first person reports and warning messages washing across the Internet. By morning, formal news articles and youtube videos had joined the news stream, spreading word of the disaster throughout the world. Sitting in my room across the sea, I wasn’t sure what to make of the situation. The earthquake’s magnitude was being revised over and over again, and yet the death count was practically insignificant (there were a number of sources saying that if the earthquake had occurred in any other country, the number would have been unfathomable–of course, over the next week numbers would skyrocket). At the time, the Fukushima nuclear plant had not yet run away with everyone’s attention. But Tohoku had unquestionably been hit by a natural disaster of monumental proportions.

However small the death count provided during the first 40 hours after the quake, I had personal reasons to worry. My first experience with Japan had been a short trip to Sendai, where my host family still lives today. After seeing news of the quake I had immediately contacted my host brother, who was studying in Tokyo, to find out if everyone was ok. I also tried to contact one of my university friends who was studying abroad in Yamagata at the time of the quake. As could only be expected, around 35 hours would go by before I got word from either of them.

In the days immediately following the quake and tsunami, I watched with horror as death tolls climbed and word of the Fukushima situation grew both direr and more contested. Shocked by the magnitude of the disaster, there were many people in Japan and abroad that were left despairing that Japan had ended. But from where I sat at my computer sifting through tweets, video footage, and news reports, the overwhelming sorrow and urgency kept imparting me with the same thought: that from out of this horrific disaster, Japan was bound to produce new literary treasures; from the rubble, the mass graves, the lists of missing people, the friends and family of traumatized survivors, and the invisible clouds of radiation that combed over farmland and weaved through shaken houses and into the lungs of innocent children would come new art, new emotion, and new lessons.

That week in my Japanese film class, my professor showed us Shohei Imamura’s “Black Rain” (黒い雨). The film foreshadowed how those who had suffered from the Fukushima disaster would be treated by their fellow Japanese when they attempted to evacuate to other towns and other prefectures.

Earlier this morning I received an e-mail from the same professor, Dr. Takeshi Kimoto (University of Oklahoma) and felt encouraged to write this entry while I sat listening to the temple bells that were ringing out around my apartment in memory of the disaster.

In the January-February edition of World Literature today Dr. Kimoto has an articled titled “Post 3/11 Literature: Two Writers from Fukushima.” The article points to Ryoichi Wago, with [Shi no Tsubute (Pebbles of Poetry), Shi no Mokurei (Silent Prayer of Poetry) and Shi no Kaiko (Encounter of Poetry)], and Hideo Furukawa’s Uma-tachi yo, soredemo hikari wa muku de (Horses, the light is still pure), as two authors that represent “the first literary attempts to respond to the catastrophe in Fukushima” (p. 18). I have yet to read either of these authors, although I recently picked up some of Furukawa’s writing and hope to start reading it in the near future.

More than just introducing these two writers, however, I thought that the article was particularly interesting because it picks up what I have heard labeled as “Tohoku-gaku” (東北学), which is one local school of thought that reexamines Japanese history, exploring how the Japanese in central Japan have suppressed and/or exploited those living in more remote areas. As Dr. Kimoto points out, Furukawa was interested in this kind of thought, exploring it in his works before 3/11, but Furukawa claims that it was only through his post 3/11 writings that he really came to understanding writing as a sort of “political activity” (also from p. 18).

Personally, I’ve always welcomed writing as a political activity. However there are a lot of people out there who are displeased by any writing (especially writing with a political tilt) done on the subject of 3/11 and the nuclear issue. Which brings me to a brief story I heard about another author who has refocused their writing post 3/11.

Earlier this week I was reading up about how there had been some bashing regarding award winning poet and author Arthur Binard’s title for a lecture in Saitama on International Women’s day. The reason that I looked up the happening was because one of my friends who is heavily involved in the 反原発 (anti-nuclear) movement had been going on about how the cancellation of Binard’s lecture (about how to realize safety in the post 3/11 world) was a suppression of both Binard, and of expression on the Fukushima issue. The title of the lecture that Binard put forth was 「さいたさいたセシウムがさいた」(“It’s bloomed, it’s bloomed, the cesium has bloomed”). Supposedly his reasoning for the title was that it expressed how the difficult nuclear problem has spoiled the joy that usually comes from the coming of springtime, which is marked by flowers bursting into bloom. The 30~40 complaints that the event’s host received based on the title of the lecture (realistically this is not a huge number of complaints for Japan) claimed that the title was insensitive to those who were suffering. According to my friend, the dispute and cancellation was only taken up by one newspaper (the Niigata Nippo).

While a good bit could probably be said about the title-bashing situation in general, one of the things that really stood out to me while I was looking through the various online forums discussing the issue, was that several comments criticized Binard (who has been living in Japan for at least 18 years and is an acknowledged Japanese language poet) by saying that it was too bad that he had been caught up writing about 3/11, as it had spoiled his work.

I, for one, hope that writers keep on writing about the quake and its after effects. Any criticism of an author for doing so feels like it betrays all that has happened here in Japan since that fateful day one year ago.

I can’t help but feel that there is a large population of people who believe that everyone (especially those who have suffered as a result of the Fukuhsima nuclear issue) should just suck it up and go on living without demanding any significant changes. The Japanese government has also expressed this view to some degree or another through policies or statements, and I’ve even seen footage of victims being criticized and belittled during governmental sessions and hearings (eerily reminiscent of rape hearings, really).

The quake and tsunami were a horrific tragedy, offering opportunities born from the losses of many.

This post turned out to be more rambling and negative than I had meant for it to be, but I guess it can’t be helped. In any case, as my Japanese reading skills improve, I’ll definitely be keeping one eye on literature that deals with the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Donald Keene Goes Japanese; 1 Year Quake Memorial Approaches

When I came into the office this morning, several of my coworkers were talking about the Kanji that the legendary Japanologist Donald Keene had chosen for his name. Since I’m not in the practice of watching the news in the morning, and rarely watch TV in the evening (so who can do math?), I didn’t think that it was a conversation begun as a result of any particular event. As a famous Japanologist, it seemed only reasonable that he would have created Kanji to represent his name—heck, I’ve done it for kicks and I haven’t even been alive for half as long as Donald Keene’s career as an interpreter of Japanese culture. I quickly learned, however, that Donald Keene had acquired Japanese citizenship, something that he decided to pursue in the wake of the disaster that struck Japan on March 11th last year.

Donald Keene’s decision to move to Japan after the quake held great significance for many Japanese, and his successful effort to obtain Japanese citizenship made the news yesterday, just three days before the Great East Japan Earthquake’s one year memorial.

The more I think about it, the more fitting the action seems to be. In general, I feel a great deal of personal confusion when it comes to the concept of changing one’s citizenship.  However, at least in this case, Donald Keene’s demonstration of his sincere love and concern for the spatial and cultural sphere known as Japan strikes me as something terrific.

Almost a year has passed since the day that I spent glued to my computer, following the live news feed that Google had put up to stream all the media relating to the disaster. The past year has been filled with difficulties, and many people remain in very uncomfortable positions. I sincerely hope that the coming months will lead to far more progress than has been made since that day when so many people lost so much.

(2009 Japan Times article on Donald Keene:

Enjoe Toh 146th Akutagawa Prize

平成二十四年二月十二日  立春 黄鶯睍睆(次候)

There are already a number of English blogs and news sources that have provided timely coverage of the details regarding the 146th Akutagawa Prize, so I’d like to skip over the general information, and just dedicate my first entry to Enjoe Toh’s winning piece, 道化師の蝶 Dokeshi no Cho.

As a result of both my focus on older Japanese literature and my general lack of experience, I only heard of Enjoe Toh for the first time last month when he was announced as a prizewinner along with Tanaka Shinya. Since a decent number of Akutagawa prizewinners have yet to be translated into English, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Enjoe Toh has already had some of his work translated, appearing in Speculative Japan 2 and elsewhere. Hopefully the trend will continue, and Dokeshi no Cho will enjoy a speedy translation.

The Bungeishunju special march edition hit stores on Friday, so after I got off work I was finally able to go and casually pick up both of the winning pieces for only a fraction of the cost. What with all the drama surrounding Tanaka Shinya and the numerous book reviews describing “Cannibalism” as dark, graphic and disturbing (go figure?) I decided that I’d start off by reading Enjoe Toh’s story, which seemed more appealing.
I’m aware that 道化師の蝶 is being popularly translated as “The Clown’s Butterfly,” but after a read through I can’t help but feel that “The Harelquin Butterfly” would be a far more appropriate title (don’t worry, no spoilers in the following explanation). I have changed the word “clown” to “harelquin” because within the story the kanji for 道化師 is accompanied by the furigana 「アルルカン」and I have reinterpreted the particle の because within the text the butterfly itself is directly compared to a harelquin, reflecting its coloring.

Over all, I thoroughly enjoyed the text; it’s a satisfying flight of fancy that muses about many facets of linguistic theory and more. For some reason, the style reminds me of Italo Calvino (and the curious character creation reminded me of a review I saw of Mario Bellatine’s “Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction,” a work that has recently been translated by David Shook).
Up until now I haven’t spent any time doing literary translation, but I thought it might be fun to put aside a little time after dinner tonight in order to translate the very first part of the story. Due to the temporal scope of the story and the new elements that are introduced throughout the following sections it’s hard to predict exactly what kind of text this becomes based on the translation that I’m providing; at the same time, I figured that translating any more than I have would be overdoing things in a bad way.

In any case, the below is my quick attempt at a translation of the story’s opening, with all respect to Enjoe Toh, and the sincere hope that this translation will encourage readers to go, pick up a copy, and read the rest of the story. Enjoy!

The Harlequin Butterfly by Enjoe Toh

First, to the people whose names begin with a character from the A line.
Then, to those whose names begin with a character from the K line, the S line, and so on.
Similarly, to those whose names begin with a vowel.
And then to those that begin with b, then c, and so on.
One after another, according to all the kinds of divisions that happen to exist.
I no longer know how to decide who is referred to by the intersecting points of the net, but what other method could there be than this?


One should have a book that can only be read while traveling. Only having a book that can also be read while traveling is boring. There is a proper place and time for everything, and something that can be tolerated anywhere is nothing more than a lackadaisical sham.

A book made to be read while traveling would surely take the form of something like, “A Book That Can Be Read In 2 Minutes While Doing A Handstand,” which would of course be a book that has been written to be read while doing a handstand. If read while not doing a handstand, then the meaning of the book would elude the reader. Naturally, the reader would be able to open the book and run their eyes across the characters on the page at any time—but the reading experience would be incomparable to that of reading the book while doing a handstand. It would be a story that cleverly makes use of the blood that rushes to the reader’s head. By applying this line of thought, it would be easy to artificially create moments like “The Revelation That Occurs When You Become Enraged.”

It was something that occurred during the flight between Tokyo and Seattle. Resting on my knees was a copy of “A Confession To The People Who Have Three Arms,” which I had purchased at a kiosk. While I tried flipping through the pages, as usual none of the content made it into my mind. Whether by some fault of the speed at which the plane was traveling, the letters on the page had fallen slightly behind, and almost seemed to be hurriedly trying to catch up. Distracted by the letters’ panicked movements, rather than grasping the content of the book, I could only register that I was looking at a publication, and was unable to convince myself to continue reading.

Once I gave up on any meaningless attempt to persist, I began thinking instead about a book that would make use of the letters’ movement. Whenever I go on a trip, I always have the same problem. Despite the fact that I travel with two or three books in my suitcase and always buy another book that catches my attention while I’m at my destination, I’m never able to make any progress reading.

Salesmanship must be the witty ability to turn such indecisive sensations not into words, but into money.

Even if you would not call him extremely wealthy, the reason that Mr. A. A. Abrams was able to acquire a considerable fortune was because he seriously picked up what was nothing more than one of my casual musings.

It was something that occurred during the flight between Tokyo and Seattle.

Mr. A. A. Abrams is a man who flies year round, with no particular destination. Rather, he makes a living flying around, riding in as many airplanes as he can, and only staying at a hotel near the airport when it can’t be avoided. But he is neither a flight attendant nor a pilot; he’s a passenger with no particular destination.

Mr. A. A. Abrams forced his obese body into his economy class seat, and waited for his fat to acclimate to its new restraints. By the time the plane reached cruising altitude his fat had settled, and after ordering one bottle each of red and white wine, he reached into his jacket pocket to remove something.

What he produced was a small bag sown from silver thread, wrapped around a grease-stained spindle that shown with a black luster. Using his sausage-like fingers, Mr. A. A. Abrams delicately removed the bag from the black pole, and as though he were arranging a doll’s hair, opened it up with what were almost licentious movements.

A small insect net appeared from between his hairy fingers. Like the giant in Brobdingnag, he carefully put his pointer finger and middle finger together, and then, gently pinching the net between his thumb and two fingers, held it level.

As though conducting a hum, he began to lightly twitch the net.

Out of the corner of his eye he gave me a searching look where I sat in the seat next to him, and then after a brief glance at the book resting on my knees, knitted his brow. Plainly assuming that I would be interested in what he had to say, Mr. A. A. Abrams began to ramble to me in his strong American accent.

“You see, my work is to go around collecting ideas. I tried doing this in a number of different places, but in the end I discovered that the best place to catch ideas is in flight on a large passenger plane. While traveling, people have all sorts of ideas, which then leave their bodies to float around in the air above us. There’s a lot of useless rubbish in the bunch, but it’s far better than sitting around in a conference room and trying to squeeze out bits of wisdom that never even existed in the first place. The long and short of it is that ideas hold everything together, and a business is an animal that constantly requires new ideas in order to stay alive. Essentially, what I do is go around catching food to keep the beast alive.”

Taking the net in his left hand, Mr. A. A. Abrams turned to me and pretentiously began again, saying, “This, you see, it made of silver thread. It was produced the same way that filigree is made, and is interwoven with countless invisible incantations. I had a worker in Afghanistan specially order it. You see, ideas hate metal, but you can’t catch them with anything taken from an animal. I invested a lot of time and money before discovering that silver thread was suitable to the task. Bad spirits seem to avoid silver. In other words, as bad ideas naturally avoid this net, I’ve managed to avoid catching anything unnecessary—two birds with one stone, if you will.”

While complacently shifting my gaze back and forth between Mr. A. A. Abrams and his net, I bought the time I needed to translate what he had said. I waited patiently for my mind to rearrange the sentences and check the vocabulary against the little dictionary in my head. Once I felt that I understood the gist of what this giant meatball had suddenly said, I smiled and replied, “I see. I think I know what you mean. After all, I can never read when I’m traveling.”

Whether or not Mr. A. A. Abrams was able to understand my clumsy English, he seemed unable to make up his mind about something I had said, and knitted his brow again. The casual flicking movement that had been lightly jerking the insect net ceased. After examining my face for a moment, Mr. A. A. Abrams ceremoniously lifted up his log-like arms for me to see, and then gently placed the silver net over my head.

“Would you care to tell me about it?”