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.

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.