Monday, August 22, 2016

What's it like to be Japanese-American at the attack on Pearl Harbor?

J.J. White's novel Nisei suggests once again how great minds think alike. The novel begins with Robert Takahashi finding a memoir written by his father. My second novel's main character finds a memoir written by his father. Robert's father was a GI during WWII. My character's father was an army surgeon during the Korean War. Robert's father had an illicit romance that
resulted in a child. My character's father had an illicit romance that resulted in a child. Neither Robert nor my character knew their father's stories. Other than this of course the books are entirely different.

At the beginning of Nisei, Robert Takahashi, his life in ruins, has decided that killing himself is his only alternative. In a final tour of his family's Hawaii house, he discovers a box containing a memoir his father, Hideo "Bobby" Takahashi dictated in 1953 that his mother never showed him. The bulk of Nisei is Bobby's story, as a teen-ager in Hawaii, his infatuation with a white girl, his watching the attack on Pearl Harbor, being arrested as a spy, being interred with his family first in the Santa Anita Race Track, then being split up, Bobby and his father being sent to the Tule Lake concentration camp; his mother and Chieko, the Japanese girl who becomes his wife, being sent to the Manzanar camp.

Ultimately, Bobby is able to to enlist in the US Army and becomes a member of the 422nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit of Japanese-Americans that is the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare and we follow Bobby through combat in Italy and France.

Bobby, although born of Japanese parents on Hawaii, always saw himself as a loyal American. He dreamed of joining the US Navy. His being arrested as a spy is the result of his innocent actions. The family's incarceration is the result of Bobby's act and his father's pre-Pearl Harbor support of Japan. White does not over-emphasize the injustice of rounding up Japanese Americans in Hawaii and on the West Coast, but it is an indelible stain on the American story.

While Bobby's story is interesting and held my attention, Nisei has some problems. Here for example is the father of Bobby's (white) girlfriend confronting Bobby hours after the Pearl Harbor attack that has just killed the man's wife: "The people you and your father helped all those years just destroyed my life, Bobby. They shot her, an accountant. How proud your emperor must feel now that he has killed an innocent civilian . . .Go home to your family. I don't ever want you to see Mary again . . . Go, and never set foot on my property." White might argue that these words are being filtered through the consciousness of the woman who is taking the father's dictation, but they still seem bland.

I think there are a number of small problems. It's not clear how much Japanese Bobby speaks, but his mother apparently speaks no English. Wouldn't he be able to speak to her? Also I bump on sentences like, "What I didn't know was that, the next day, events would change my destiny." Aside from the heavy-handed foreshadowing, nothing happens the next day. Finally, late in the book, Bobby sums up his situation for the reader: "Earlier that morning I had woken happy with thoughts only of my future battles in the war and by late afternoon I had learned I was the father of two children I did not want, married still to a woman I did not like much and left without any chance of being with the girl I loved. . . ."  Combat is almost a relief.

Nisei has an interesting premise: What would it be like to grow up as a second-generation Japanese American in Hawaii and witness the attack on Pearl Harbor and experience the tsunami of white prejudice and fear? Bobby Takahashi does the best he can, and his son, reading his memoir, is finally sobered.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The translator's delimma - II

Working with a Japanese conversation partner, I am currently translating a Japanese short story in which a young couple, Koichi and Sayo, go to her parents' house in Nagoya for the August bon festival. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors' graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

The couple met in Tokyo working for the same company, married in March, and while their relatives came up to Tokyo for the wedding, this is the first time Koichi has spent any time with Sayo's parents, a more formal, traditional couple than Koichi's. Koichi and his father-in-law have virtually nothing to talk about and Nagoya in August is too hot for a walk around the neighborhood.

After a huge dinner and strained conversation, Sayo suggests that Koichi be the first to take his bath. (In Japan, one washes and rinses oneself thoroughly before entering the bath tub, which means everyone soaks in the same bath water.) Koichi, respectfully, says he should not go first. His father-in-law, the most senior person in the family, should go first.

The father-in-law says, 「ぼくはいつも寝る前だで」 Or, "Boku wa itsumo neru mae da de." Or: "I always go before sleeping."

Sayo says from the next room,「ぼく、だって」Or: "Boku, datte." Which more than I could translate and once again needed the help of my Japanese conversation partner.

Boku is one of several words in Japanese that can be translated "I." Others include watakusi, watashi, atashi, ore, shôsei. Datte can be translated "because," "for," "but," or "though."

For the daughter to say to her father, "I, because"(or one of the other alternatives) doesn't make any sense.

My partner explained that in this situation, the daughter was asking her father why he used a formal form of "I." Does English even have an informal or formal form of the personal pronoun?

So, an acceptable translation might be, "Dad, why so formal?" Which, of course, uses none of the original Japanese.

Monday, May 23, 2016

What's it like to be an expatriate in Japan? Greece? Medellin?

The subtitle of At Home Abroad tells the story: "Today's Expats Tell Their Stories." Compiled and edited by Betsy and Mark Blondin, the 31 essays discuss the reasons for leaving home and the challenges and rewards of living in an unfamiliar culture. The authors range in age from 17 years to 75, and are American, Canadian, British, Spanish, Hungarian, and more.

They talk about life in Istanbul, Tokyo, Guatemala, Cambodia, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Belfast, Shanghai, Medellin, Thailand,

Panama, Madrid, Brussels, Greece, Ecuador, Portugal, Morocco, Mexico, Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Taiwan. Because the essays are relatively short—five to ten pages apiece—they are necessarily superficial, but virtually every one is followed with a link to the author's blog or book that provides more information.

The editors write in their introduction that "the US Department of State estimates that one million US citizens live in Mexico, and that eight million live and work around the globe. According to the Association of American Residents Overseas (AARO). those eight million (excluding military) live in 160-plus countries."

And while there are probably eight million reasons to leave one's home country, certain themes seem common: a desire to see the world, to expand one's horizons, to retire where the cost of living is less than at home. Young people look for adventure; older expats look for inexpensive housing.

Certain challenges are common to expat living: "Making it through the day in a country where you live and don't speak the language brings out the need to be creative in simply living life day to day." Best to pick up as much of the language as you can. It will help in renting an apartment, finding a job (the young expats tend to work), shopping, dealing with the local bureaucracy, doctors, neighbors, and more.

Being an expat also "does strange things to you. It's a real eye-opener and makes you look at your home country with totally different eyes. It teaches you a lot about yourself too." Another expat writes, ". . . there are moments and experiences that change us forever and inspire who we really are. These adventures do not occur at home. A life that is fully lived implies moving from your comfort zone and pushing the limits, exploring new places."

"Comfort zone" appears in a number of these essays. A couple in their 50s who "jumped at the chance to house-sit at several locations in Central America" write: "Two things that will help are preparation and a willingness to let go of your comfort zone. There's a mental as well as physical process to this 'letting go'—whether it's your possessions you're concerned about or not having control of the environment around you. . . ."

At Home Abroad is a well-edited introduction to the pitfalls and promises of pulling up stakes and living in another country. For readers who cannot imagine living any place but where they've always been, the book is a travelogue. For readers who have toyed with the idea of expat living, the book is filled with tips and suggestions. Now you'll have to excuse me, I've got to start packing.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Korean war as seen from the bottom

The Reluctant Soldier by Marnie Mellblom is an interesting compilation of letters that her husband, Neil Mellblom, wrote her almost every day between September 1, 1950 as he was waiting to be shipped to Japan, and September 3, 1951, when he is home in Havre, Montana.

Marnie was an Army brat and her father was stationed at Carlisle Barracks. Neil had apparently joined the Army to become a journalist, had been trained as a reporter, working for six months on the Jackson, MI, Clarion-Ledger.  Assigned to Carlisle, he met 20-year-old Marnie and they became close. When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, Army shipped Neil to Japan where he first worked on the Pacific Stars and Stripes, an independent newspaper within the Army that covers military news. The paper sent him to Korea where he was ultimately assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division's Public Information Office.

He assures Marnie repeatedly that he is staying out of danger. "Combat reporter" does not mean being shot at. In fact, it is not clear from the book exactly what he was doing as a reporter. Other than interviewing a Turkish general and having one of his stories picked up by UPI (without credit), he says very little about the stories he was writing.

Instead, his virtually daily letters to Marnie describe—more or less—his daily life first as a PFC then as a corporal during the war. "I got a shower today . . . a real accomplishment . . . they don't have a fancy shower here—a tin-and-canvas-enclosed area a lard bucket with holes overhead—and a little Korean boy-san pours hot water in it as long as you stay under the bucket. . . . "

"We adopted a boy today. No kidding, the three of us here found a little guy on the streets and moved him in with us. We checked on him, found his mother is dead, his father is sick, and one ten-year-old brother is roaming the streets somewhere . . . We washed him up, got his hair cut, and outfitted him with clothes. . . " Six months later, the kid is the group's houseboy and working as an interpreter.

"We've been writing stories on combat awards and decorations. I picked up a file on a lieutenant and a corporal who had been together on the same mission. Except for their names, the citations were identical to the word—they stayed under fire and evacuated about forty casualties. There was only one difference. The lieutenant was awarded the Silver Star and the corporal got the lesser Bronze Star . . ."

Now a personal note: Because I was in Korea for sixteen months, I was particularly interested in reading Mellblom's book. The Army assigned me to the 7th Infantry Division just south of the DMZ in August 1955. What struck me was how closely my experiences two years after the cease-fire resembled his. He comments on the dust, the cold, the stink of the rice paddies, the Army SNAFUs, the drinking, the heat, the rainy season (Marnie's letters to Neil were destroyed when his tent flooded), the importance of mail, the food (we said the combat rations we got in the field were better than the powdered eggs, dehydrated potatoes, and reconstituted milk the mess hall served).

Although The Reluctant Soldier contains pictures of Neil in Korea and some shots of Marnie's family, the average reader would have been helped with a sketch map of Korea showing where, exactly, Neil was writing from. Also, a little more context would help. Neil either does not know what is going on with the war as a whole or he assumes Marnie knows by reading a newspaper and doesn't bother. But few readers will know about the Pusan perimeter, the Inchon landing, the race to the Yalu, Chosin Reservoir (Neil participated in the evacuation from Hungnam Harbor), and the stalemate after January 1951—all of which would help Neil's story.

The book contains an epilogue that adds immeasurably to the story. And for me, the book stirred up hundreds of memories. An interesting picture of the kind of war that most GIs experience.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Japan's Great Wave — Five Years Later

Five years ago the tsunami that devastated Japan's northeast coast and wrecked the Fukushima nuclear power plant also erased Charles Pomeroy's house in Otsuchi and killed his sister-in-law and her husband. Her remains were not identified until August 2011; his have never been found. Pomeroy, a former reporter, wrote an interesting book about the town to which he and his wife had retired ten years before the disaster, a book I reviewed in November 2015.

Five years on, Pomeroy has written an article for No. 1 Shimbun, a publication of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan that updates the story. Otsuchi is struggling. "After losing almost 10 percent of its 15,239 citizens to the tsunami (one of the largest losses among the affected towns), Otsuchi’s population continues to drop . . . Today, Otsuchi has become a town occupied mostly by retirees and transient workers."

An interesting piece that describes the tensions between residents and the local government, the local government and the national government. I commend it to your attention.

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.