Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Japanese bookstore that sells a single book

Morioka Shoten Ginza is a Tokyo bookstore that displays and sells only one book. True, the book it sells changes every week, so in a year it will have displayed and sold 52 different books. but if
The bookstore with one book, or 一冊、一室
you miss this week's book, you're going to have to try elsewhere.

According to the English-language website, "Yoshiyuki Morioka, the owner of Morioka Shoten Co., Ltd. Ginza had worked as a bookstore clerk for eight years in Kanda, a quarter known as Tokyo’s center of second-hand bookstores. Morioka then went independent, opened his own store and ran a number of exhibitions. This experience eventually led him to an idea of 'a bookstore with a single book.' He believed that a single book will offer deeper understanding, closer relationship with the reader and essential pleasure of book reading."

As the website states, the store is on the ground floor of the Suzuki Building, a building that is designated as historical architecture in Tokyo. It used to be the office of Nippon Kobo, an editorial production company led by renowned photographer Yonosuke Natori and others who were pioneers of Japanese graphic design. They were at the forefront in promoting graphic design as an essential factor of modern society, through running a photo and design magazine Nippon. The magazine was a state-directed propaganda organ, the first of its kind in Japan, reflecting political and financial circles. With photography and graphic design being Morioka Shoten's core, choosing the Suzuki Building was an appropriate choice.

While visitors who do not read Japanese may find the store's single offering to be of little value, a visit to the shop may stimulate valuable thoughts about art, design, books, retailing, consumerism, and more.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Translate that: The interpreter's dilemma

At the end of a morning meeting with two clients in their New York City club, they invited me to stay for lunch. They had a lunch and afternoon meeting with a Japanese executive and his American contact. I will rarely pass up a free lunch and a chance to show off my Japanese, so I accepted.

The two visitors were investigating several American companies. The Japanese executive spoke fair English; his minder had no Japanese. Once we had all bowed, introduced ourselves, and exchanged business cards, we sat down at a dining table in a private room. In the small talk over drinks, the Japanese executive remarked politely that my Japanese was the best he'd met on this trip. The visitors added that they'd just come from visiting a company in Philadelphia.

One of my clients joked, "Well, as it says on W.C. Fields' tombstone, 'All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia.'"

At the guest's blank look, he turned to me. "Translate that."

Aside from not knowing the Japanese for "tombstone," I didn't know how to describe W.C. Fields or the significance of the words allegedly on the stone.

So I said in Japanese, "The president has just made a joke. Please laugh." Which he did, and we all had a pleasant lunch.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

What's the right word for "wife"?

In the Japanese short story I am currently translating with enormous help from my conversation partner, I bumped on the word for "wife."

A bride and groom at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo
In the story, the protagonist is introducing his bride of less than six months to his grandmother. He says, ぼくのお嫁さん ("Boku no oyomesan") "[This is] my wife."

I bumped on "oyomesan" because it sounded like a polite form that would be inappropriate for a younger person use to identify his wife to an older, and therefore senior, relative. For example, I've been taught that when speaking of another person's wife—"your wife"—you use "okusan" (奥さん). When you refer to your own wife—"my wife"—you use "kanai" (家内). One is polite, one is humble. One would never say, "Boku no okusan," so where does "oyomesan" fall in this continuum of politeness?

The dictionary is not a lot of help. The definitions include "a (young) wife," "bride," "daughter-in-law." It gives the expression "yome o toru" (嫁を取る) to mean "to marry; take a wife." I asked conversation partner about it.

She said that "yome," unlike "okusan" or "kanai," carries nuances of "the woman who will care for my parents, homemaker, and mother of my children." Apparently the other two words are much less freighted with meaning.

Because it has all those nuances, of course, it is impossible to translate without stopping the story. It's what makes translation impossible and, as I slog through it, so interesting.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

An engaging essay collection about Japanese culture and history by a long-time resident

Michael Hoffman's new book, In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan, is a fascinating and well-written collection of (mainly) essays. Hoffman has lived in Japan since
1982 and all but three of these stories appeared in the Sunday Time Out section of The Japan Times.

First, to translate the title. My dictionary defines "kami" (神 ) as "a god, a goddess a deity, a divinity, a divine being." And of course it may be plural, so in Japan we're in the land of the gods.

As Hoffman says in his Author's Note, the topics are somewhat whimsical. They came not from what he knew about the country and the culture but what he didn't know and wanted to understand. What is Zen? Who was Confucius? How did death come to seem, as it did for many centuries, as much more important to the Japanese than life? What was Japan's Jazz Age?

Hoffman admits up front that he is no scholar, and he relies on literary translators and scholars for his sources. (This means, of course, that a reader who wants to know more about a topic can hunt up Hoffman's citations for a deeper and fuller discussion.) Because he is writing for a non-specialist audience that lives, I assume, mainly in Japan, what the nineteen non-fiction stories may lack in scholarly depth they more than make up for in accessibility and charm. (He includes a brief play and a fable, neither of which I found as engaging as the essays.)

As an example of the kinds of provocative questions he attempts to answer, consider this: "Do the Oriental hermit-sage-poets of old, lonely and rootless, innocent and childish, wise with a wisdom they themselves call foolish, neither listening to reason nor, with any consistency, speaking, have anything to say to us of the wired world?" He thinks they do and suggests why.

The pages are studded with interesting insights sharply expressed: "In place of the Judeo-Christian notion—violated often enough but never lost from sight—that life is a gift, the Japanese have another notion, no less deeply embedded: that of impermanence. Flowers fade, cherry blossoms fall... Blossoms are not beautiful in spite of their transience. They are beautiful because they are transient."

Another example: "Empty space is an acquired taste. Americans aren't bred on it, and some, probably most, see nothing in it. One, writing in an expatriate Yokohama newspaper in 1881, observed, 'The Japanese are a happy race, and being content with little, are unlikely to achieve much.'" In the Land of the Kami has interesting things to say about Japan and Japanese culture and history. i.e., "Shinto defies a direct approach. It is easier to say what it is not than what it is, easier to say what it lacks than what it has."

A large literature of books by Westerners explaining Japan and the Japanese exists. Many of these are written by people who neither speak the language nor lived in the country for a couple years. Hoffman, through long residence and extensive reading, brings a depth and nuance to his essays that those books do not have. This is for anyone who would like to know more about Japan.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Great Wave—and its effect

In Tsunami Reflections: Otsuchi Remembered, Charles Pomeroy has written a fascinating book about the tsunami that hit the northeastern coast of Japan's main island, Honshu, on March 11, 2011. He is an unusually well-qualified foreigner to write the book; he has a degree from Tokyo's Sophia University; is a former reporter/writer, and after 50 years in the county clearly has deep, broad knowledge of Japan.

The book focuses on the small coastal town of Otsuchi where Pomeroy's wife Atsuko grew up; the tsunami erased their retirement home in the town's center; their sister and her husband died
in the disaster. It was not the first tsunami to hit the Tohoku coast; it had been inundated in 869, 1611,1793, 1856, 1893, and 1933. The last two killed around 22,000 and 3,000 people respectively. So when you live on that coast, you live aware that the Pacific is not always pacific.

Because Pomeroy and his wife had family and because they lived in Otsuchi, he is able to describe the town, the life, and his neighbors in convincing detail. "Known for the traditional architecture and folklore . . . the town likes to think of itself as the home of the mythical kappa ("river-child"). . . Kappa tales served to alert children to the perils of deep water, it is said, thus making riverside excursions safer for them." This is what ordinary, daily life was like before the tsunami struck.

As it happened, Pomeroy and his wife were in their Tokyo apartment when the May 11th earthquake struck, one of the five strongest tremblors in recorded history. While buildings shook in Tokyo, the ocean reared back off the coast, gathered strength, and came roaring back as wall of water that smashed virtually everything it met. And when the water receded, fires erupted from a kerosene supplier, from propane gas tanks, from overturned kerosene stoves, and fuel leaking from vehicles. This all "contributed to the incarceration of what remained of the town after the tsunami."

Tsunami Reflections reports Pomeroy's reaction to the news, attempts to reach the town, the cleanup effort, participation in a mass funeral (the authorities had to identify his sister-in-law by her DNA), the humanitarian efforts by volunteers and strangers, and what the local and federal government is doing to help the town recover. The giant funeral tent could hold only 2,000 mourners; "revised casualty figures showed 770 dead and 820 missing." Over 3,000 homes had been destroyed and because the government is raising the ground level eight feet and because it takes time for the landfill to settle, construction in the center of town cannot even begin until 2018. He touches on the Fukushima atomic plant's meltdown only in passing (it would be a whole other book).

Pomeroy has made Tsunami Reflections exceptionally reader-friendly by including maps, dozens of color photographs, and—a modern and helpful element—internet links to videos and photographs from the disaster. While I have no criticism of the text, I would have run fewer pictures and printed them larger. I found two places where earlier text was repeated word for word, and picture captions need not repeat what is in the text. But these are quibbles. It is impossible, I believe, for words or pictures or videos to adequately convey the reality. As Pomeroy says, " . . .no words could fully describe the desolation and . . . photos could only suggest the vast sense of loss. I was struck by the pervading silence. A neighborhood that had once echoed with the sounds of daily life—the excited voices of passing school children and the quiet chatting of neighbors, the clang of the warning bell at the nearby railroad crossing, the buzz of a jigsaw at the next door woodworking shop, the postman's motorbike, the chirping birds. No more. All was strangely silent except for the distant rumble of earth-moving equipment." I'm in awe that, given his losses, Pomeroy was able to write this powerful book at all.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

An interesting perspective on three American classics

Azar Nafisi, born and raised in Iran, wrote the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran. Her new book is The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books. It deserves to be as widely read as Reading Lolita.

Nafisi, born in 1955, has a doctorate in English literature from the University of Oklahoma (Norman), and taught English literature for 18 years in Iran. She and her family left Iran after the revolution, and she is now a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. She became an American citizen in 2008.

Because she is (was?) an outsider, she brings a interesting perspective to American literature and culture. She makes connections/associations that someone born in the culture is liable to miss, but that are obvious once someone like Nafisi points them out. For example, "I have often wondered whether there is a correlation between the growing lack of respect for ideas and the imagination and the growing gap between rich and poor in America, reflected not just in the gulf between the salaries of CEOs and their employees but also in the high cost of education, the incredible divide between private and public schools that makes all fine speeches by our policy makers—most of whom send their children to private schools anyway, just as they enjoy the benefits and perks of their jobs as servants of the people—all the more insidious and insincere."

In The Republic of Imagination, Nafisi discusses three novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and the works of James Baldwin. Throughout, she connects the books to her own life—the best friend who, pregnant, had to escape from Iran by horseback, the art history student who argued for a Southern consciousness, and more. Her comments and insights are thoughtful and thought-provoking. She argues, for example, that Tom Sawyer is the real villain in Huckleberry Finn. She also points out that "In fiction, every treachery and setback appears to serve some end: the characters learn and grow and come into their own. In life, it is not always clear that the hijacking of our plans is quite so provident or benign." She wonders about the effort to sanitize, to make our books (our patrimony) inoffensive . . . and discusses Twain's use of the n-word (which is so toxic I'm not going to risk spelling it out).

In her discussion of Babbitt, she points out that Sinclair Lewis's genius "was in capturing the spirit of modern advertising when it had not yet come to dominate the American landscape and define the soul of the nation." George Babbitt is a prime example of consumerus americanus, one who is "both attracted to the joys of freedom and frightened by its perils, for freedom does have many perils," and the best way to confront these threats "is not to avoid being free but to cultivate independence of thought . . . "

And while it is tempting to continue picking nuggets from this fascinating book, I am going to stop with one more: "Time and again, I have wondered if our current assault on literature, which so many like to think of as useless and irrelevant, is not a reflection of the desire to remove from the equation anything that it painful or distasteful to us, anything that does not fit our norms or make life easy and fall within our sphere of power and control. In one sense, to deny literature is to deny pain and the dilemma that is called life."

If you have never read Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, or James Baldwin, The Republic of Imagination is a useful introduction to the authors and the works. If you have read them, Nafisi's insights and observations are likely to send you back to read them once again—as they did me.

Monday, August 31, 2015

What libraries have meant, and will mean (perhaps)

The library, like the symphony orchestra, has always seemed to me to be one of the towering accomplishments of civilization. The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, a collection of essays edited by Alice Crawford, is a marvelous survey of Western libraries and books from Greek and Roman times to today. Crawford is digital humanities research librarian at the King James Library at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and the essays were commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of the library.

It is a lovely book, handsomely designed with endnotes, author bios, bibliography, index, and an eight-page, four-color insert—illustrations of ancient and medieval book cabinets. The essays consider the social roles libraries have played across the age, as centers for scholarship, mazes, sanctuaries, archives, and repositories for hidden wisdom. As Crawford writes in her introduction, "Although they are arranged to follow the library's development through history, the essays aim to offer simply glimpses of what libraries were like at these times rather than a comprehensive history. They focus on what libraries were used for, why they were needed, why they were meaningful to the various communities from which they emerged, and provide impressions rather than analyses of their value in the changing chronological contexts."

Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at Kings College London, opens the book by noting that our first certain literary response to a library is in a raucous comedy by Aristophanes, first performed in 425 B.C. The book closes with an essay by James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, who argues that "librarians are becoming more rather than less important in this new age of instant electronic communication; and libraries as places have a key role to play in building and sustaining participatory and accountable democratic societies—the kind that have historically not fought one another." In between these two essays, we read about the growth of community libraries in England and Scotland, the library in fiction from Gilgamesh to Borges, the library in film (think "Ghostbusters"), the library in poetry, and more.

At least two profound shifts have affected the library in history. The first was the invention of printing and movable type. With the spread of printed books—inexpensive compared to hand-copied codexes—a library was no longer a way for Europe's richest to flaunt their wealth and culture.

We're in the middle of the second shift: the rise of the internet and digital copies. This means that something like the HathiTrust, founded only in October 2008 as a consortium of research libraries, now has more than 11 million volumes and is one of the 10 largest research library collections in North America.

As a novelist, I was particularly interested in rise of community libraries in 19th century England. The worthies in charge saw the institution as a tool of edification and moral enlightenment. Novels were a problem. Narrative fiction "seemed to be so constructed by manipulative and morally bankrupt authors as to sensationalize or whitewash bad behavior and encourage emotional incontinence among readers through blatant titillation. The other worry, closely related to the first, was that such literature was also simultaneously much more likely to appeal to and therefore to lead astray those vulnerable readers with the weakest constitutions, specifically women, the young, and—a fascinating Georgian perception—servants, as a consequence threatening not just public morality but also the social and political order." Shades of Seduction of the Innocent.

Clearly The Meaning of the Library is not a book for everyone. But for those of us who love books and have long loved libraries it is a stimulating and fascinating survey of "the library" in Western culture.