Japanese Literature

ISHIGAKI RIN (1920 ~ 2004) Pt. 4

Ishigaki Rin, Part 4: In the Shadow of the Economic Miracle (Environmental Pollution)
(See Also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

If WWII resulted in the brutal dismantling of Japan’s urban spaces, then the recovery effort was a vast re-imagining of local landscapes. Construction projects expanded cities and domesticated rivers, locking national territory into an efficient, corrective brace. The highly successful economic growth policies implemented by the conservative ruling party quickly brought Japan affluence, urban problems, and rampant environmental pollution.


ISHIGAKI RIN (1920 ~ 2004) Pt. 3

Ishigaki Rin, Part 3: In the Shadow of the Economic Miracle (Poverty, Women, and Consumption)
(See Part 1 here, or Part 2 here)

The brilliant triumph of Japan’s “economic miracle” represented a dizzying rise from the poverty and hunger of defeat to the heights of capitalist luxury. By the end of the war, many of Japan’s cities had been reduced to so much rubble and ash. Millions of people had been displaced due to devastating  air raids, and food and material shortages were dire. Japan’s economy was in shambles.

ISHIGAKI RIN (1920 ~ 2004) Pt. 2

Ishigaki Rin, Part Two: Authority and Brutality
(Click here for Part One)

Having graduated from primary school and found employment with the Industrial Bank of Japan in 1934, Ishigaki Rin devoted her free time to poetry, and by her late teens she had participated in the founding of a small poetry journal.

When the 1941 Imperial Proclamation of War on the United States of America and England was promulgated, Ishigaki Rin was 21. In an essay titled “On Life and Writing Poetry”(「詩を書くことと、生きること」)Ishigaki says that her poetry at the time was mostly personal, separated from both her work and society. Her experiences during WWII, however, would instill Ishigaki with a concern that would shape her poetry and writing. In the same essay, she recalls:

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 understand writing as a sort of “political activity” (also from p. 18). Personally, I’ve always welcomed writing as a political activity (let’s be honest, writing is always political). However there are a lot of people out there who are displeased by any writing (especially writing with a visible 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 (han-genpatsu, “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 「サイタ サイタ セシウム ガ サイタ」(“It’s bloomed, it’s bloomed, the cesium has bloomed.” The words are a play on the opening lesson from a 1st grade textbook that was issued before the war. Here, ‘cherry blossoms’ has been replaced by ‘cesium.’ According to Binard, the following line was 「ススメ ススメ ヘイタイ ススメ」”March! March! Soliders, march!”). The 30~40 complaints that the event’s host received based on the title of the lecture claimed that the title was insensitive to those suffering. According to my friend, the dispute and cancellation was only taken up by one local newspaper in the country (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. 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.

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 already being translated on different blogs as “The Clown’s Butterfly,” but after a read through it’s apparent that “The Harelquin Butterfly” would be a more appropriate title. (I have changed the word “clown” to “harelquin” because Enjoe Toh assigns the reading「アルルカン」to 道化師. I have also reinterpreted the particle の because within the text the butterfly itself is directly compared to a harelquin.)

Over all, I thoroughly enjoyed the text; it’s a satisfying flight of fancy that muses about many facets of linguistic theory and more. Most striking, of course, is the story’s unconventional plot structure, which mimics a mobius band. (If you’re not sure what that would look like, then I recommend you read the story!)

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. Honestly, the radical changes that occur over the following sections are not easy to predict from the opening, which I’ve provided below; at the same time, I figured that translating any more than I have would be overdoing things.

And so 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 an A.
Then, to those whose names begin with a B, a C, and so on.
Similarly, to those whose names begin with a vowel.
And then to those that begin with an F sound, then a V sound, and so on.
One after another, according to all the kinds of divisions that happen to exist.
I no longer know how to decide what is referred to by the intersecting points of the net, but what other method could there be other 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.

The sort of book made to be read while traveling would surely be similar to something like “The 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 such a book were read while not doing a handstand, then the meaning of it would elude the reader. Naturally, they 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 while doing a handstand. It would surely be a story that cleverly makes use of the blood that rushes to the reader’s head. By applying this line of thought, one could easily 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 utterly 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’ movements. 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 at my destination, I’m never able to make any progress reading.

Salesmanship must be the witty ability to turn 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 very 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.

Having forced his obese body into his economy class seat, Mr. A. A. Abrams 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 sewn 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 almost licentious movements.

From between his hairy fingers, a small insect net appeared. 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’ve 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 large passenger planes. 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 using the same methods for making filigree, 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 finally 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?”