Monthly Archives: April 2017

Fiction Novel Review: “The Lightkeepers” by Abby Geni (an interesting study in literary style)

Once I got to the point where I could read novels in Japanese, it became difficult for me to budget time for English novels. Although I still read much faster in English and would say I still enjoy it more on average than Japanese books, each Japanese novel I read will improve my vocabulary, (hopefully) my reading speed, and gradually close that gap.  While one can make an argument an occasional break will help avoid burnout, generally I am more for the immersion philosophy which means I do as much as something reasonably possible. Of course, this also applies to my Japanese studies in general.

Once I started doing Japanese to English translations and that became my highest priority (which includes reading Japanese stories to find things to translate), it seems that I had even less time to devote to reading in my native language.

However, when I look at things a bit closer, one of the reasons I enjoy translation is because my love of English fiction, and this hobby also connects to a long-time desire I’ve had of writing my own short stories and novels (which I’ve done a little bit of, but nothing too series yet, at least nothing I’m ready to try to publish). Furthermore, even the act of translation itself requires a good grasp of vocabulary, grammar, phrasing, and many other things for which reading novels in the target language (English in my case) is one of the best ways to improve.

So when I could grab a spare hour or two, I drove to the neighborhood bookstore and read the first page or two of a bunch of books. Although I typically say I like to read ‘science fiction and fantasy’ the fact is that I often prefer stories that are not easy to pigeonhole in a specific genre, so I just ended up going through many of the ‘top selling’ or ‘recent favorites’ sections in Barnes & Noble.

In the little time I have spent in my own fiction writing and critiquing others works, I developed the strong opinion that a book must really catch my attention from the first paragraph. To be sure, there are many books that have a slow start (or perhaps I am not used to the style and it takes me time to adjust), but end up being great stories. But, given limited time, I’d by far rather make a try at a book that felt great from the first paragraph, or at least the first page.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I ended up on really enjoying the beginning of “The Lightkeepers” by Abby Geni (published by Counterpoint in 2016). While I don’t think the first paragraph on its own is the best first paragraph ever, it was good enough to get me to read on, and after a few pages I was hooked. Here is the first paragraph just to give you an idea of what the literary style is like:

THE BIRDS ARE making their battle cry. Miranda can see a group of gulls wheeling in her direction. White feathers. Glinting beaks. Mad eyes. She has enough experience with their capacity for violence to recognize their intent. They are moving into attack formation, circling her like bomber jets homing in on a target.

For a good portion of the book, I was really into the style of this book–quite dramatic, with frequent use of creative smilies and other figures of speech that adeptly describe not only the senses of the main character, but also her feelings and thoughts. While I think some parts of the story were a little slow, overall the writing itself is very well paced, flows smoothly, and uses a variety of patterns to keep things interesting.

Some of the emotional descriptions were so realistic that I felt for sure that many of these things had to come from real experiences (or at least feelings) of the author, just as one suspects when you see a skilled actor or actress. While I haven’t researched Geni in much detail, reading her short story collection “The Last Animal” and any books that she publishes later may help answer that question.

From the point of view of looking for a fresh style to analyze, understand, and eventually integrate portions of it into my own translations and writings, this was a great experience. Coincidentally, this book shares an important element with my last major translation project as well as my current one, which is the element of nature. Actually, I would say that is the most important element in the book, more predominant than any one character.

When I read through this book I went in two phases: the first 50-60% I was in the mindset of analyzing the style and appreciating the atmosphere (another major element). But sometime a little after the halfway mark, I got more invested in the story (I think this was partially because it picked up the pace) and stopped paying so much attention to the structure of each sentence, instead just focusing on reading as fast as I could to see how things ended. It was, oddly, a pretty drastic transition: one day I was reading with one mindset, and the next day with a different one.

In this second phase, I felt that the style was actually staring to get a little repetitive, and there was one or two similes near the end that just struck me as over the top. I am not sure if this is because Geni spent more time on plot and less on sentence crafting, because of my impatience and focus shift, or a little of both. However, while I would say I did have a small bout of disillusionment (at least with the book’s style), the story was quite good, and overall I enjoyed it to the very end.

You may have noticed I have said practically nothing about the story itself, even the premise, and this was intentional. In retrospect, I think one thing that increased my enjoyment was being in the dark about what this story was about. Even around the halfway mark, I wasn’t sure where the story was going to end up (and that is mostly a good thing). But I will quote the single sentence of description on the back cover of the book which really piqued my interest before I decided to buy it.

A remarkable debut set on the mysterious Farallon Islands that redefines the way we look at the natural world

Having read the book cover to cover, I’ll have to concede this is an excellently written line, in both what it says and what it omits.

In short, if you are looking for a great novel this is a strong recommendation. The only caveats are that the content is somewhat dark, and there are a few graphic scenes that are definitely not for children or the faint of heart.

I’ll close out this post with a short quote from the book that I liked so much I earmarked the page: (pg. 217)

…The surfboard was heavy. It swayed in my fingers as though it retained some memory of its time among the waves.

I like this combination of sentences because the first short one describes something with simple and plain language, then follows up with a longer sentence that uses a very creative simile.  By the way, I generally see myself  writing passages like the above by connecting them with a comma instead (i.e. “The surfboard was heavy, swaying in my…”), but if you try that you’ll see the flow and feeling is much different, and the cumulative effect of this helps to shape the overall tone of the novel. I think this tendency to frequently employ short sentences like this is a fundamental part of the literary style of this book.

Geni delivers these sorts of great figures of speech so frequently that I started, ironically, feeling that there was a formula to it, and this is a technique that can be learned by anyone. I noticed on the back of the book the author was a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, something I may want to investigate further when I get more serious about doing my own writing.

Japanese novel translation: “The Rainlands” by Haruka Asahi [Chapter 1]

I’ve discovered an interesting short novel called “The Rainlands” (雨の国) by Haruka Asahi (朝陽遥), and gotten the author’s permission to translate it into English and put it on my blog. You can find the entire original Japanese text for the story here (on Kakuyomu), and the first chapter here.

It’s a fictional, fantasy/adventure tale (the genre is officially listed as “alternate universe fantasy”), and as it is a longer work I’ll be presenting it in a series of unnamed chapters. The original work was published as four longish chapters, but I’ll be breaking these down into more bitesized pieces.

If you enjoy this story and want to read more, please consider liking this post or leaving a comment. That will help me decide whether I should translate more of this, or move onto another story. You can also vote for it on this poll.

For those who are interested, you can see a brief synopsis below. The first chapter follows that.

You can see the table of contents with other chapters (as they are posted) referenced here.

Synopsis

There were rumors of a place where the rains never ceased. Half of the month was a deafening, torrential downpour, and the other half a drizzle, at best slightly overcast. The sky was clear at most once or twice a month.

How could people actually live in a place where it rained constantly? Was it some sort of divine protection, or simply the raw power of the human mind? Driven by a burning curiosity, I departed on a journey to the mountainous region known as The Rainlands.

What I would discover was nothing like what I expected–a culture at times oddly familiar and yet disturbingly foreign.

 

“The Rainlands”  by Haruka Asahi:  Chapter 1

There, the rains never ceased. Half of the month was a deafening, torrential downpour, and the other half a drizzle, at best slightly overcast. A clear sky was seen, at most, once or twice a month.

I heard there were people somehow living in a place like that, and driven by a burning curiosity, I decided to travel there.

How could anyone actually survive in a place like that? The more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. I was born in a small village nestled in the mountains. Compared to other areas, I’d say it rained pretty frequently, but even that was only once every two or three days. If, by some freak act of nature the rain continued for several days, the mountainsides would surely crumble, and the crops wash away. Rivers would flood, houses rot and collapse.

In fact, once in a blue moon something akin to that would happen in my hometown–when the rains continued for nearly ten days and everyone had to escape to the high ground, leaving their possessions behind.

Was it some sort of divine protection, or simply the raw power of the human mind that enabled people to actually live in a place where it rained almost constantly? That is what I endeavored to know. If due to human ingenuity, some part of me hoped I could bring back even a small piece of it to my village. But this trifling wish paled in comparison to my overwhelming curiosity.

 

On the way there, traversing a road I’d heard of in a nearby city, sure enough, the sky began to darken by degrees. A long range of mountains continued in the direction where I was heading, obscuring the sky with irregular shapes. Occasionally, clouds spilled over from the far side of the mountains, enshrouding the peaks.

I was told that surrounded by those mountains, at the end of a treacherous, winding road, lie The Rainlands.

The existence of a road meant that people still used it. Otherwise, it would have disappeared long ago.

However, even for a seasoned traveller like myself, the way was far from easy.

Thanks to my large stature, it was easy going on the road that looked up to the towering mountains. The trouble began as soon as I entered the ragged mountain path.

To begin with, a light drizzle clouded my vision. The road initially ran along the bottom of a gorge, but at some point, it gradually sloped to one side, eventually becoming the edge of a steep cliff formed from a stretch of bare, bleak rock.

In a place with unending rain, wouldn’t something like a road be immediately buried by the crumbling earth of a landslide? This thought was in the back of my mind before I had begun this journey, but now that I was actually here, the answer was obvious. This land was made from crude, craggy mountains without a trace of soil. Any dirt had probably been washed away from the surface ages ago.

The rocky path had turned slippery from many years of wind and rain, and a moment’s distraction could make you lose your footing. At worst, you could find yourself suddenly plummeting headlong into a ravine.

With such unsure footing progress was difficult, worsened by rain that sapped my strength. There were notches that had apparently been carved in the rock to prevent slipping, and with firm steps I proceeded inch by inch, the soles of my shoes against the tenuous foothold. My nerves were soon worn thin, and after only 15 minutes of walking I was exhausted.

Why in the world did anyone want to live in a place like this?

While resting in a cave, I complained to a merchant from a caravan I had chanced upon. With a relaxed smile he said, “It is said that this ancient road has been here since the beginning of time.”

He narrowed his eyes as he spoke, as if trying to see back through time. Apparently when this road was first built, The Rainlands had not yet existed.

This means people had been living here first. At one point there was some sort of extreme natural occurrence which transformed the climate, triggering continual, torrential rains, and it became The Rainlands. Nevertheless, the people here survived. More than just surviving, they decided to stay here. At least that is how the story goes.

 

After that, they let me join the caravan, where I followed in the rear.

When I peered up at the sky through the fine rain, the sun was barely visible behind a thin layer of clouds. When the downpour eased up, I halted and for the first time in awhile examined my surroundings. It was quite a strange sight to see such dense vegetation cover the ground, especially in a place like this with so little sunlight.

My arms and legs had lost feeling sometime ago from the elements. As I walked, I nibbled on dried food, causing rain to get in my mouth. But my endurance wouldn’t hold out unless I had something to eat.

The closer I neared my destination, the harder the rain fell. To my dismay, the wind also began to pick up. A few times it was so harsh that I had to stop and crouch down to shield my body until the gusting finally let up.

Far below me, I heard the rush of flowing water. In the valley I guess the rain had intensified, making the river surge downstream.

Shortly after, a faint glow appeared on the far side of the curtain of rain. But my exhausted mind could only vaguely comprehend there was some sort of light beyond and lacked the energy to consider its significance.

The members of the caravan continued on in silence. From the beginning, they seemed to avoid raising their voice to be heard above the din of the rain, and for the most part refrained from speaking, except at certain critical junctures in the road when communicating with those behind using pre-arranged vocal signals.

Just when I had safely navigated a few sudden changes in elevation by following the signals of the caravan, and the light that had been visible for some time was finally near at hand, suddenly the visibility improved drastically. I realized that the rain was no longer beating down on me.

I gazed up to discover a rocky ceiling above me. I had ended up in a cave.

Whew, I’ve finally made it.

I simply stood there with a dumbstruck expression as the members of the caravan around me each voiced relief.

The inside of the cave was warm and its air surprisingly dry. There were fires burning here and there. It seemed these were the origin of the light I had seen from outside.

The man who appeared to be the caravan leader smiled, his arms around another person’s shoulders as they celebrated their reunion.

The other person was an older man of short stature. It took me a some time to realize it, but the folks from this land all tended to be on the short side. This was perhaps due to some nutritional deficiency, or possibly things had ended up this way because big bodies tended to get in the way while living in a cave.

The leader introduced me to the old man, mentioning I was an infrequent traveller to these parts.

The old man, an inhabitant of The Rainlands, slowly smiled and mumbled something in response. Because of his thick accent it took me a moment to make out the meaning of his words. But they appeared to be an expression of welcome.

Japanese literature review: “コンビニ人間” (Convenience Store Woman [Konbini Ningen]) by 村田沙耶香 (Sayaka Murata)

When I discovered the book “Convenience Store Woman” (Japanese title “コンビニ人間”) by Sayaka Murata had won the 155th Akutagawa prize (arguably the biggest prize for Japanese literature), I decided to check it out myself. I purposefully stayed away from reviews or information about the book, and all I really knew was the book was about a woman who works at a convenience store and has some deep connection with it. For example, see this excerpt from the book’s description on Amazon Japan: (with my rough translation)

仕事も家庭もある同窓生たちからどんなに不思議がられても、完璧なマニュアルの存在するコンビニこそが、私を世界の正常な「部品」にしてくれる――

Regardless how much my classmates questioned my life or career choices, it’s the convenience store–with it’s perfect, by-the-book existence–that enables me to become a smoothly functioning “piece” of society.

The problem I often have with writing reviews is that I don’t want to give any spoilers, but it’s hard to give any useful critique without giving at least a little away. So I’ll first give you my spoiler-free opinion, and then go into some more details for those who want to read further.

Put in a nutshell, the book was a worthy read, especially considering it’s short length (under 200 pages) and that it touches on some important philosophical and societal topics. There is some harsh dialog and sexual references, so this is not a book for children.

If you are studying the Japanese language, this is a great book to read for several reasons. First, the story is real-world based, which means not only that it will be easier to understand, but that what you learn will be helpful in the real world. Second, the grammar and vocabulary is mostly straightforward (with a few exceptions being a few industry terms I hadn’t come across before, like “POP”, and a few slang terms). Of course there is the fact the book is relatively short, and being able to say you read a Akutagawa prize-winning novel is always a cool conversation topic. Just know in advance that you will still need solid grammar and kanji basics to be able to get through this book, so I would say ideally you should have studied Japanese for at least a year or two before you try and tackle it.

Ok, now onto the more in-depth part where there are some things alluded to about the story (mild spoilers).

When I started reading this book, I admit I had high expectations, given it had won such a prestigious literary award. In the beginning, I was very intrigued by the main character’s personality and philosophy about life, and while her philosophy is quite extreme I think there are some real people who think or behave a little bit like that.

The writing style is simple, easy to follow, and there is a good amount of dialog to propel things forward. Although I would call the book more emotion-based than story-based (I felt there was only a few key scenes where something critical happened), up until the last page I was really interested in how things were going to end. Unfortunately, the payoff was mediocre since the ending involved the author spelling out certain things (spoon feeding), as opposed to leaving them to the reader’s imagination. While I won’t say I had guessed how it would turn out, I will say that there wasn’t any great surprises near the end.

Ironically I think this may be one of the reasons why the novel won critical acclaim in Japan, since I’ve noticed a tendency for Japanese novels (and other things like anime) to have stories that end on a vague or even confusing note. This book was, to my disappointment, so much the exact opposite of that.

One of the central themes in this book is the societal pressure from friends, family, and coworkers for men and women in their 20s or 30s to get married and have children, and this is even alluded to in the excerpt of the description I translated above. While I have never lived in Japan, I’ve seen this element in several other TV dramas, to the point I almost consider it over-used. However, I think Mrs. Murata (the author) takes this timely topic and presents it in a straightforward, easy-digestible form that anyone can associate with, and perhaps it is this universality that does make this book deserving of the Akutagawa prize. The element of a ‘convenience store’ itself is also universal in its own right–not only is it something that most people on the planet (in modern societies) are familiar with, but personally Japan’s (relatively) clean, well-managed convenience stores left a big impression on me.

It is interesting to note that this book has several things in common with the novel “Hibana” (“Spark”), by Naoki Matayoshi, which also won the Akutagawa prize recently. I admit I first started thinking along these lines because the paper version of “Convenience Store Woman” I bought had a piece of marketing material on it that showed an endorsement from Mr. Matayoshi saying this was an “awesome” (すごい) book. There are a few other connections, like how the book is relatively short and does not have chapters, though this is probably because of the types of works usually selected by the Akutagawa Prize. But to me the biggest connection is how each of these books is basically a study of a character that embodies a certain philosophy of life, in a sense. I haven’t done much research about Ms. Murata, though I have heard she herself works at a convenience store, and this leads to one other potential connection: both books could be argued to have a semi-biographical element.

I have a few minor nitpicks with the book, for example the slow realization of key thing(s) related to the main character’s life, and why she didn’t try to further her career in line with her ideals. But these things didn’t ruin the book by any means.

While I don’t think enough time has passed in order to say yet whether this book will truly become a ‘classic’, I can imagine if someone were to read this a few decades from now, it could serve as a great window to experience an important part of Japanese culture and society in 2016 (the book was published last year). Also, this book has something in common with a few of the books I read in high school (in English) that were considered ‘classics’: the events themselves in each story weren’t that groundbreaking, but in a handful of places scattered throughout the book there were little philosophical tidbits that glowed and really make you think about life. I think these two reasons are why this book should undoubtedly be categorized as ‘literature’, despite the fact that term is somewhat vaguely defined.

If you don’t know Japanese, unfortunately there isn’t an English translation as of now, and I haven’t heard of any plans for one yet. But, I’ve decided to translate a few pages myself, so if you want a taste for what “Convenience Store Woman” is like, check it out here. If you do know Japanese, you can get the book on places like Amazon Japan, or BookLive. On the latter, you can read a free sample of the first few pages.

Japanese literature translation sample: “コンビニ人間” (Convenience Store Woman [Konbini Ningen]) by 村田沙耶香 (Sayaka Murata)

On the blog Shosetsu Ninja, Yeti reviews Japanese books, and he has recently also started putting up a few translations of samples of books and other things. Last year, after discovering the book “そして、星の輝く夜がくる” on my blog (which I did a short translation of here), he read it and posted his own review here. (Update: This review here by another person is pretty good as well).

Then, the other day when I was reading his blog I came across his review of the (155th) Akutagawa Prize winning book “コンビニ人間” (Konbini Ningen, “Convenience Store Woman”) by Sayaka Murata, published by Bungeishunju (文藝春秋). Some time back, I had actually seen this book in Kinokuniya and was attracted by the cover, but for some reason I didn’t buy it that day. However, after reading Yeti’s review and learning the book was relatively short, I decided to try it out myself (and, in a sense, return the favor).

Before I even read the book I knew that I wanted to also try translating a little of it, partially because it seemed the book had several reviews in English and there was no still no English translation, or even any signs of plans for one. So this article will focus on the translation and not be a proper review (Update: I posted a review here).

I decided to limit the translation to just the first few pages that are available in the free sample available on the E-book site BookLive here. I cut it a few sentences short of the end of the sample, because I felt the place I stopped at was a little more dramatic (which turned out to be the last line on page 9 in the paper book). You can also buy the full E-copy on that site, and the current price is only 1000 Yen. I personally wanted a hardback, physical paper copy which I bought at Kinokuniya in Portland.

To make it very clear, this translation is completely unofficial and not endorsed in any way by the author or publisher. Feel free to link to this article, but please do not cut and paste and of the translated content into any other sites.

While I don’t see myself translating too much more of this work (at least not unofficially), let me know if you would like to read more of this. You never know who might be reading this blog, and your comments and likes may help us get an official English translation.

 

Convenience Store Woman   by   Sayaka Murata    [unofficial translated excerpt]

Sounds filled the convenience store: the sound of a door chime as a customer enters or a pop idol’s voice advertising some new product over a storewide cable station broadcast; the sound of a clerk greeting a customer or a barcode being scanned; the sound of something being put into a shopping cart, a bag of bread being picked up, or high heels walking around the store. These all blended together to make the convenience store sound that continually bombarded my ears.

A soft rattling sound made me raise my head as a water bottle was sold and another rolled forward to take its place. It was common for customers to grab a cold drink on their way to the register, so my body reacted unconsciously to the sound. I saw a woman holding a bottle of mineral water rummaging around the dessert section without heading to the register, and I went back to what I was doing.

As I gathered information from the innumerable sounds scattered throughout the store, my hands worked to stock a new shipment of rice balls. The big sellers around this time of morning were rice balls, sandwiches, and salads. In another part of the store, Mr. Sugamoto, a part timer, checked items with a small scanner. I systematically arranged the machine-made, pristine food products. The new flavor, pollack roe cheese, took up the middle two rows beside two rows of our best seller, the mayonnaise tuna, leaving the unpopular bonito on the far end. It was a battle against time as rules that were deeply ingrained within me gave commands to my body with little involvement from my brain.

I turned around when I heard the faint jingling of coins and glanced toward the register. I had become sensitive to the sound of coins since it was common for customers jingling coins in their pocket or hand to quickly purchase a newspaper or cigarettes before leaving. Just as I expected, a man carrying a can of coffee was approaching the register, one hand shoved into his pocket. I moved swiftly through the store, slipping in behind the front counter as to not keep the customer waiting.

“Good morning and welcome to our store, sir!”

I bowed slightly and took the can that he handed to me.

“Uh, I’ll also have a pack of #5 cigarettes.”

“Certainly.”

I whipped out a pack of Marlboro Light Menthols and scanned it at the register.

“Please tap to confirm your age.”

As the man touched the screen I saw him glance at the glass case where fast food was on display, and his hand froze. While it would be perfectly safe for me to ask if he wanted anything else, I’ve made it a habit to wait passively for customers who seem to be considering a purchase.

“I’ll have a corn dog too.”

“Of course.”

I disinfected my hands with alcohol, opened the case, and wrapped up a corn dog.

“Shall I separate this and the cold drink into different bags?”

“Uh, no, I’m ok. Put them in together.”

I swiftly put the can of coffee, cigarettes, and corn dog into a small bag. At the same time, the man–still playing with loose change in his pocket–suddenly reached into his shirt pocket as if he had just remembered something. From this gesture I knew immediately that he was going to pay with e-money.

“I’ll pay with Suica.”

“Ok. Please touch your Suica card there.”

My body was instinctively picking up the customer’s subtle gestures and expressions and acting reflexively. My eyes and ears were valuable sensors that could detect customers’ small movements and intentions. Being very careful to avoid making him uncomfortable from undue observation, I moved my hands swiftly in accordance with the information I received.

“Here is your receipt. Thank you for shopping with us!”

He took the receipt and left after mumbling thanks.

“Good morning and welcome to our store! Thank you for waiting.”

I bowed to the next customer in line, a woman. I could feel the time of the morning flowing smoothly within this small box of light.

Outside the glass window–polished so that not even a single fingerprint remained–I could see people hurrying by. It was the start of a new day. The time when the world was awakening and the gears of society were beginning to turn. I myself was one of these continually turning gears, a part of the world, rotating through the time we call morning.

Just as I started to run back to continue stocking the rice balls, the shift manager Mrs. Izumi called out to me.

“Mrs. Furukura, how many 5,000 yen bills are left in that register?”

“Um, there are two left.”

“Ooh, that’s not good. Seems like we’ve been getting a lot of 10,000 yen bills today. There’s not many 5,000 yen bills in the back safe either. Once the stocking and the morning rush calm down, maybe I’ll take a trip to the bank before noon.”

“Thank you so much!”

Due to a lack of night shift staff, the store manager had been coming in at night. That left me and Mrs. Izumi, a part timer around my age, pretty much running the store during the day, as if we were full timers.

“Alright, so I’ll head over to get some smaller bills around 10 o’clock. By the way, there was a special order of fried tofu rice balls today, so when the customer comes in please take care of that.”

“Yes ma’am!”

I looked at the clock; it was half-past nine. The morning rush was nearly over, after which I’d have to quickly finish stocking and then start preparing for the noon rush. I stretched my back, returned to the shelves, and continued stocking the rice balls.

My life before I was born as a convenience store clerk is kind of hazy, and I don’t remember it too clearly. Raised in a residential suburb, I was born into a normal family and loved normally by my parents. However, I was regarded as a slightly odd child.

For example, one day in kindergarten there was a dead bird in the playground. It was a pretty, blue bird that looked like someone’s pet. The other children were crying as they gathered around the tiny bird, its eyes closed and neck twisted unnaturally. Just as a girl was saying, “What should we do?” I quickly scooped up the bird in my palm and carried it to a nearby bench where my mother was chatting with someone.

“What’s wrong Keiko? Oh, it’s a little bird…I wonder where it came from…Poor thing, let’s make a grave for it.”

My mother said this with a soft voice as she patted me in the head, to which I said, “Let’s eat it.”

“What?”

“Dad likes yakitori, so let’s grill this bird and eat it today.”

I thought maybe my mother didn’t hear me, but when I slowly repeated myself she seemed startled, and the eyes, nostrils, and mouth of some other child’s mother sitting next to her snapped open wide, as if she too was surprised. Her face looked funny so I almost broke out laughing. But then I saw her staring at my hand and realized that one bird probably wasn’t enough.

“Maybe I should go find a few more?”

When I glanced at a group of two or three sparrows walking nearby, my mother screamed frantically, “Keiko!” as if she was trying to scold me.

“Let’s make a grave and bury the little bird. See? All the children are crying. They’re sad because their friend the bird is dead. Don’t you think it’s sad too?”

“But why? Why do I have to bury a bird I was lucky enough to find already dead?”

My mother was speechless.

All I could think of was my parents and baby sister smiling as they ate the little bird. My father liked yakitori, and my sister and I loved fried food. Since there were many birds at the playground all I had to do was go and get a bunch, so I couldn’t comprehend why I had to bury this bird and not eat it.

My mother did her best to convince me, saying, “Darling, the bird is so tiny and cute, right? So let’s dig a grave over there and then everyone can put flowers on it.” In the end she got her way, but I never understood why. The children all cried as they said, “Poor thing,” plucking off the stems of nearby flowers and killing them. As I watched them saying stuff like, “What a beautiful flower. I’m sure the bird will like it,” I felt like there was something wrong with these children.

A hole was dug in the ground behind a fence that said Keep Out where the bird was buried, a popsicle stick somebody took from a garbage can stuck in the dirt, and innumerable dead flowers piled upon it. “See, Keiko? It’s so sad. What a poor bird,” whispered my mother over and over again in an attempt to persuade me. But I never felt even a little sad about the bird.

 

Japanese literature magazine review: 小説幻冬 (Shousetsu Gento) 

These days rather than reading Japanese novels, each which can still take me quite a long time to finish, I’ve been reading a literary magazine called 小説幻冬 (“Shousetsu Gento”, where “shousetsu” means ‘novel’ or ‘short story’) published by 幻冬社 (Gentosha). [Gotta love the name “幻冬”, which is made up for the characters for “mysterious” and “winter”]

Each isssue of this magazine contains many short works of various genres and authors. For example, the 5th volume contains around 30 works across around 350 pages.

There is a good mix of poems, essays and fiction, tending towards serious, adult oriented content (including references to sex and drugs in some of the stories).  There is a collection of works that stand on their own and those that are part of a series. Personally I wish there was more of the former, since I haven’t bought every issue. For the serial works, there are sometimes character or story summaries, and even if there isn’t they can be enjoyable on their own. There are also author interviews.

There is usually at least one or two historical works, and more real-world based stories, as opposed to fantasy. While I hesitate to use the term, I guess it is a good representation of what some people consider ‘literature’.

I don’t know famous Japanese authors that well, but it seems there are some famous ones contributing, like Naoki Matayoshi of the well acclaimed Hibana (which I unofficially translated a little of here).

Generally the language is quite advanced and furigana (Kanji reading hints) is quite sparse, making this book really only suited for advanced learners of Japanese with several years of experience. I’ve seen some of the authors use kanji even in places where it isn’t frequently employed, like “一寸”. But for those that can manage the difficulty, it’s a venerable treasure trove of knowledge about Japan’s culture and language, and the unique writing style of each author keeps things interesting. One thing common to many of these stories is that there is some type of background knowledge required to fully understand them, about history, culture, a region or dialect in Japan, or some other domain of knowledge that you may not be familiar with unless you’ve lived in Japan. This is ironically the same thing that makes them so educational.

I have bought a few issues at a Kinokuniya bookstore in Portland, and I think you can probably find it online as well. The list price is 880 yen, though you’ll probably get a heavy markup if you are importing it from Japan.

I usually read a page or two of each work, and continue reading to the end for those I like, even if they are difficult. I reviews one of those here, and translated a part of another here (both are from a previous issue). One of my favorite stories from volume 5 was 銀河食堂の夜 by さだまさし, which was a good combination of great writing and story.

The great part is that even if your Japanese level is a bit lacking, you can try to get through one of the shorter stories (some are only a few pages), and the satisfaction from finishing one is very motivating. Once when I had trouble understanding with an area or two of one of the stories, I wrote to the editors and they were kind enough to give me a little help, which I blogged about here.

If nothing else, being able to sample many types of Japanese literature in one small package is very convenient, especially for those that have don’t have easy access to Japanese books on a daily basis. From a business point of view, this is also really a win-win situation since the publisher gets a chance to advertise their works and highlight certain authors. While there are a few explicit ads telling you to check out a certain book, those are interesting in themselves.

By the way, I have also seen a similar-looking literary magazine called オール讀物 (Ooru Yomimono), though it appeared to be even more difficult than Shousetsu Gento.

Japanese fiction translation: “Final Days of Summer” by “Masaki Hashiba” [Story 1 / Part 4]

This is the English translation of the last part (of four) of the first story (“Stargazer”) of the series of short stories titled “Final Days of Summer” (残夏)  by Masaki Hashiba (ハシバ柾). I’ve gotten permission from the author to translate and put these on my blog, and he is very excited about his work being translated to English.

While this first short story ends with this part, there are several more short stories already written that continue “Final of Days of Summer”. I’ve read them and they are pretty good, with the second having a strong tie to this one (I’ll let you guess where it is set…). I’d really like to start translating that, but I have a few other competing projects I am looking at doing, so it may be a little while until I get back to this.

As always, any feedback on this story will help me decide where to focus my energies. You can vote for this story on my survey here, or even better you can leave a comment on this post, or like it.

Thanks to Nijima Melodiam for proofreading this chapter.

This page contains this work’s synopsis and other translated portions. You can see the entire first short story in its original Japanese here.

Story 1: Stargazer (Part 4)

At long last, the day of the meteor shower had arrived.

Under a clear sky as if yesterday’s rainstorm had never happened, the village youth bustled about in preparation for the star festival. Although only visiting, I was no exception, busying myself hanging paper lanterns and arranging chairs.

Had Nameless been here together with me, I would have gladly participated in the festivities. But his place was at that beach which meant my destination was decided. I intended to sneak out as soon as the festival began.

……that was, until I heard about that.

It was in the evening, when the festival preparations were nearly over. The men in the village who made their living fishing were busying themselves with their own preparations. I overheard a few fragments of their conversations: “Tonight is the big catch”, “We strike once the meteor shower begins”. After considering things for a moment I realized what they were planning; I immediately tossed aside the paper lantern I was holding and sprinted hard towards the beach.

Once a year, on the day of the summer meteor shower, a great many dolphins gathered in the shallow water at the beach. The dolphins, normally cautious creatures, were unknowingly coming to a place where they could easily be trapped. There was no way that the fishermen would miss such a chance.

(Dolphins have no need for legs, right?)

Nameless was definitely not a dolphin. His tales weren’t anything but figments of his overactive imagination. I knew that. I really knew that, but……my heart began to throb painfully. Until I knew for sure he was safe, this ache would not subside.

I prayed that it wasn’t true. I prayed that everything he had said–especially about being a dolphin–was all a lie.

Holding my chest tightly, I finally reached the beach, only to discover a commotion unlike anything I’d seen there before. The shadows of fishing boats loomed close by. They were heading this way. I went to the usual rocky place and gasped as I saw Nameless slumped there on the ground, legs stretched out before him.

“Nameless!”

I rushed over to him.

From his hands, peeking out of thick sleeves, to his bare feet……his body was covered in fresh injuries: ugly bruises and cuts still damp with blood.

When I shook Nameless, he groaned weakly. But then he recognized me and a smile slowly blossomed on his face.

“I’m glad I made it in time. I thought you were probably already dead. I should take care of your wounds……”

“Naoyuki. Do you really believe the dolphins are your friends?”

I paused, bewildered by Nameless’s unexpected question.

The dolphins had waited for the stars together with us the entire time. I’m not sure if I would call them friends, but I did feel some type of kinship with them. However, the reason I rushed here was not for them, it was for Nameless–a man who claimed to be a dolphin.

“I consider you a friend. An irreplaceable, dear friend.”

Nameless smiled again, a soft sadness in his eyes. “I already knew that,” he said.

“I’m sure you came here to save me–a dolphin–because you believed what I’d said……”

He was completely right.

The only reason I had ran here, pushing my body to its limit, was because I hadn’t doubted Nameless. There was no reason for me to make excuses and say I wanted to see the meteor shower or check if the stars really became shells. I had believed in Nameless unconditionally, a belief I held on to tightly so it wouldn’t escape.

“I wanted to protect the dolphins. I knew it was crazy, but I charged directly into a human’s boat. I didn’t care if I was caught and killed. I got injured and had nearly given up all hope……until I remembered you.”

Until I made one final wish–to spend this last night with you.

Water dripped from Nameless’s face. Whether it was the spray of some whale, or water that spilled from an ocean on the other side of the sky, I couldn’t say. He smiled up at me, a smile overflowing with contentment. He began talking again, his voice hoarse.

It was about the day of the meteor shower long ago–the last day in the journal I’d kept as a boy.

“On that day, the fishing boats had come dangerously close, just like today. Before the dolphins knew what was happening they were surrounded on all sides, with myself and the others having nowhere to escape to. Naoyuki, just when I thought it was all over, you……”

……raised your arms to your sides, screamed at the top of your lungs……and plunged from that cliff right into the ocean.

Nameless indicated an outcropping of rock that jutted out over the water.

Even though the water below it was shallow, I’m sure it was deep enough so that my feet couldn’t touch the ocean floor. I’d dived into that when I was still just a young boy. While the fishermen hurriedly tried to pull me out of the water, all the dolphins escaped from the nets to safety. Of course, Nameless was one of them.

“I–we–are alive thanks to you. I know it’s a little late, but thanks.”

Many years later, we were all here again on the same white, sandy beach, on the same day. Despite the fact I didn’t remember any of it, Nameless’s words resonated somewhere deep within me.

At that very moment, something hard fell from above. I went to pick up the object that had struck my head and landed in the sand near my feet; it was a bright red shell. Shifting my gaze upward, I stared awestruck at shooting stars flowing along the surface of the ocean on the other side of the sky.

The meteor shower had begun.

Shells began falling to the ground in quick succession, as if following the example set by the first one. Beautiful ones, plain ones, cracked ones, oddly-shaped ones……all sorts of shells fell onto the shore, tucking themselves into the sand as if fast asleep. Spraying water all around, the dolphins cried out joyfully.

It was true. Everything Nameless had said was true.

“Unfortunately, it seems I can no longer move. Naoyuki, could you pick one out for me? Find the most beautiful shell–the one you feel is the most beautiful.”

His voice was weak, like his battered and bruised body.

I wanted to tend to his wounds first. But, knowing him, Nameless would never let me. The meteor shower would be over before we even finished. There was little time left for this brief event that he and the other dolphins had waited for so long.

I reluctantly left Nameless there and began to search the sand.

The rain of shells struck parts of my body and scattered to the ground. Their number multiplied even as I searched; how could I ever find the most beautiful shell? But just as I was nearly overwhelmed, a certain shell caught my eye.

I wouldn’t call it beautiful. At best, it was a very plain shell. Thicker than the others, it was a drab grey color. I stopped rummaging around in the sand and reached for it.

From the moment my fingers made contact, I knew for certain it was the right one. It might have been because its color, reminiscent of Nameless’s hair. Or perhaps it was its thickness that reminded me of his clothes……Unable to explain this sensation, I picked up the plain-looking shell.

I passed the shell to Nameless and watched as a smile grew across his gaunt face. His hand trembled, as if the last vestiges of warmth were nearly gone.

“I’ve accomplished what I came for. Now, I must return to the ocean……”

He gripped my hand tightly with his free hand as he said this.

We both knew that was impossible. Where was he expecting to go without being able to move his body? At the same time, some part of me secretly wished that he wouldn’t go anywhere. I hoped he would stay here together with me, using his battered body merely as an excuse.

But I saw cold conviction in his eyes. He pointed to the high rock that I had jumped from once long ago.

“The air here on land is too heavy for me. Can you carry me? As long as I can return to water, I think I’ll be alright.”

He’s really going, leaving me without even a shred of regret, and I’ll forget everything, even his melancholy smile. Unable to bear it anymore I squeezed his hand tightly, but he said nothing. He only squeezed my hand in return.

I had no right to call him heartless and blame him for wanting to leave; nor could I ask him to stay. After all, the ocean was his home. It was me, no one else, who had acknowledged this as a fact.

I heeded his request, lifting up his body gently. He was even lighter than I had expected. Despite having such a frail body, he had smiled so brightly…begged me to stay with him…gotten soaked by the rain…and even challenged a fishing boat.

It was summer, but even so, tossing someone into the ocean who was nearly bruised beyond recognition and unable to move was an act of madness. I ran up to the outcropping of rock, unable to believe I was actually doing this. The terrible height made me dizzy as I looked down at the ocean from this natural diving board.

I understood as much as the next guy what it looked like to throw someone who seemed human into the ocean like this. But I wanted to believe–in a dolphin called Nameless and everything he’d told me.

“Nameless.”

Hearing the solemn tone in my voice, he looked up questioningly from within my arms.

Were my eyes giving me away? Was my smile able to hide these feelings, knowing that Nameless was leaving me? I prayed that it was.

“I’ll see you again next year.”

I’ll never forget you.

Nameless smiled softly in response to my artless, time-worn parting words.

I’m sure he’ll be here again next year, in wait of the stars. I’ll be sitting at his side, drinking sake as I listen to his tales. We will meet again, next summer, here.

I felt my arms go limp. On the way down to the ocean far below, Nameless’s smile never left his face even for a moment. There was a large spray of water before he completely disappeared from my sight.

Nameless’s body never returned to the surface of the water.

The group of dolphins gathered there once the water calmed down, as if they had come to welcome their friend back. They swam in a circle around the place where Nameless had plunged into the ocean, then called out in unison with their high-pitched whistles. Their snouts were raised high, as if in the hope that their calls would reach me up here.

(Do you really believe the dolphins are your friends?)

I consider you a friend. An irreplaceable, dear friend. That will never change, even if you leave me and return to the sea. Nor will I lament your decision, because I know you would never want me to do so. Instead, I will do whatever I can to help you.

Then, all at once, the dolphins began to stir. It seems they had realized the boats had gotten uncomfortably close. I glared out at the boats and took a step towards the end of the rock platform.

(I–we–are alive thanks to you)

Even now, years later, after I had long forgotten my week waiting for the stars with the dolphins, become an adult, and taken on many responsibilities, I made the same choice as when I was a boy. It was funny how I hadn’t changed even the slightest bit. Nameless might have felt the same as he thought wistfully about our past. Next time we meet I’ll be sure to ask him.

The group of boats was now so close that individual people could be made out upon them.

“Aaggghhh!!!”

I screamed using every last ounce of air, towards the boats which had moved to encircle the cornered dolphins. This caught the fisherman’s attention. I drew courage from the dizzying height, the dark sea sprawling below, and the knowledge that Nameless had disappeared at that very spot.

Since I’m going to risk my life like this, Nameless, you’d better make it out of this alive yourself. Wait for me, here, next summer.

I took a deep breath, jumped off the rocky platform, and plunged into the ocean below.

……

I don’t remember what happened that day. From what I was told, apparently I had screamed and jumped into the ocean. But I have no memory of that or why I would have ever done something like that. When I was pulled out from the sea, I was consumed by a lingering feeling of terrible loss and was sobbing violently, unable to answer any of the fisherman’s questions.

It was almost like I had lost something very precious in the water. But I didn’t have any idea what that might be.

When my short–yet seemingly long–summer vacation ended and I returned to work, the manager position for that project had, predictably, been filled. This probably should have bothered me, and yet, strangely, I didn’t care one bit. The fear of losing my place in the world also vanished after that summer, and at the end of my vacation the health issues I began with, which stemmed from mental trauma, had also gone away completely. Even so, the strange feeling of loss that began on the day of the meteor shower continued to deeply haunt me.

I was missing something. No, that wasn’t quite right. I was forgetting something. Desperate to discover what, on a summer day nearly a year after that strange event, I took a vacation once more–this time willingly–and returned to visit that same beach.

Crystal clear waves silently washed against the shell-scattered beach. I kicked off my shoes and socks, and dipped my feet into the cold shallow area, as if I’d been invited in.

Each subtle movement of my feet caused ripples in the water along with a tiny splash. When I realized it, I was swishing my feet back and forth in the ocean. In the process, I began to feel there was something funny about all this and laughter welled up in me.

In the distance, the evening sun left a faint afterglow as it gradually sank. The darkening twilight sky reminded me of a painting I saw once at an art exhibition that a coworker had taken me to.

In the painting, a pillar of light shined down into the ocean where a group of dolphins swam, their bodies glimmering. I remember surprising him when I blurted out, “Those look kind of tasty” after seeing how the dolphins were surrounded by bubbles that looked like glass balls. Sometime later, he told me he never expected me to say something like that.

Come to think of it, it was only after that summer–and a strange experience upon that beach–when I began to feel an attraction to all things mysterious and unknown. I gazed up at the sky where the first signs of stars were appearing, forgetting to roll up my soaking wet sleeves.

Just then, I heard a noise.

“Achoo!”

A sneeze?

When I turned around in surprise, there it was.

The summer I had thought was lost was waiting for me, just as it had back then.

Japanese grammar: a tricky passage and morphing adjectives

Reading foreign language material is always an adventure, especially when you come across grammar you’ve never seen before. Oftentimes, you can just figure out the meaning from context, but I’m the type of person that wants to understand the grammar completely so I can grasp any nuances involved and potentially learn to use the patterns in my own speech and writing.

The other day I came across the following (seemingly) simple phrase in a Japanese magazine’s travel ad:

楽しいがいっぱいある

Let’s break this short sentence into parts:

  • 楽しい (tanoshii):   [adjective] fun
  • が (ga): Particle which marks what comes before it as the subject
  • いっぱい (ippai): many, a lot
  • ある (aru) : [verb]

Even if you are weak in grammar, you can put the meaning together and guess this sentence means “There is a lot of fun”, which is very close to the actual meaning.

However, if you look closely, you’ll find that 楽しい is actually an adjective, and putting that directly before “が” seems strange if ある is verb associated with 楽しい.

Actually, there is more to the story, since i-adjectives in Japanese contain a hidden verb which represents “is”. For example, 楽しい actually means “it is fun”, not just “fun”. You may think this is an academic point, but it does matter in practical use. For example, look at the below examples, where I use both the i-adjective and noun forms of the color red (赤い (akai)・赤 (aka)).

  • 赤(だ)
  • 赤だよ
  • 赤い
  • 赤いよ   [not 赤いだよ]

Here we see that when using the particle よ, we add it directly after 赤い instead of using “だ”. Saying “赤いだよ” would sound awkward and be incorrect. You might provide the counterpoint that “赤いですよ” is correct, but in that case the です is added to provide a sense of politeness, not for its purpose as the copula (‘to be’).

Anyway, to return to the main topic, why was “楽しい” used before ”が”? I asked a Japanese person, and was told you can think of the word 楽しい in being in parenthesis, even though it is not actually written that way. You can say that the sentence effectively means: (which does not use ambiguous grammar)

  • 楽しい事がいっぱいある

I did a quick Google search and confirmed the original phrase (楽しいがいっぱいある) is extremely rare, and so I think it would be considered as bad grammar, strictly speaking.

Another way to look at this passage is that if you interpret the sentence as it is literally written, it is actually correct grammar. But it means something very different:

  • 楽しいいっぱいある
  • It is fun but there are many of them.

Here, the meaning of が serves the purpose of connecting to separate thoughts, similar to けど. Sometimes this can be translated as ‘but’, but it can have a lighter nuance, more connecting than contrasting.

By the way, in the magazine ad the second line was actually:

海遊び山遊び  (play at the beach, play at the mountain)

With this additional context, the interpretation of “There are many fun things to do” or simply “There is a lot of fun” is further confirmed as correct.

As a side note, if you think about the incorrect (but understandable) usage in this ad, you could possibly make inferences about who the target audience might be.