Monthly Archives: June 2017

Japanese fiction translation: “Final Days of Summer” by “Masaki Hashiba” [Story 2 / Part 3]

This is my translation of the 3rd chapter of the second story “Starfollower” (星を辿る人) of the fantasy work “Final Days of Summer” (残夏)  by Masaki Hashiba (ハシバ柾). I’ve gotten permission from the author to translate it and put it on my blog. The original work was published online not in chapters, but as one long entry with some breaks.

While technically a separate story from the first story (“Stargazer”) it is strongly related, and if you haven’t read the previous story I highly recommend checking it out first. You can see all four chapters of it translated here. The first chapter of this second story and the future ones will also be linked there (as I translate them).

You can see the second story’s original Japanese in its entirety here.

If you want to read more of this story, please consider voting for it on my poll of what to translate.

Story 2: Starfollower (Part 3)

 

Two shadows dart into a cave that continues below the ocean floor. Each time the one in front–a dolphin–beats his tail against the water, the one behind–a whale–looks back, visibly uncomfortable. After faintly flickering his body for a moment, the whale finally whispers to the dolphin.

 

“Is…is this really a good idea, Mr. Dolphin? It’s still not too late to return to Mother Moon. Come on, let’s go back already. If you do something like this, there is no telling what will happen. Once you fall back to the Earth, you may never again be allowed to return here. And if that happens–”

 

Once you part with your physical body there, you’ll be in limbo, neither dead nor alive.

It isn’t clear if the dolphin is even listening to the whale since he doesn’t look back or respond, as if his obstinate attitude speaks to the strength of his resolve.

Even the whale is much less talkative than before. This is partially because of the dolphin’s refusal to say anything, but even more due to the whale’s own bewilderment.

 

“But is the Lady Moon truly a mother…or is she a queen?”

 

The dolphin’s question, still unanswered, continues ravaging the whale’s mind, who had up until now always managed to maintain calm.

Is her love genuine? Or only deception and manipulation in disguise? The whale is now completely possessed by this doubt, which he would have probably never had if it weren’t for the dolphin’s question. Thinking about the long, monotonous years he had spent alone further widens the crack in his faith in the Moon.

But that isn’t all. As a result of his time spent with the dolphin, the whale realizes how unbearably bored he has been this entire time, as well as the reason he doesn’t want the dolphin to return to Earth…

 

“Hey, Mr. Dolphin…”

 

Just as the whale opens his mouth hesitantly to speak, the dolphin stops flapping his tail and quickly twists his body around. Up ahead at the end of the passage shines a disc of light. Here, a large tunnel bored vertically through the depths of the ocean, as if the water was evaporated with a laser beam, joins with the passage they just came through.

The moon asleep at the bottom of this tunnel emits a blinding light, but it is partially blocked by the walls of the end of the passage, inadequate to reveal the darkness where the dolphin and whale conceal themselves.

It is more than two souls who are hiding from the moon’s light. Nearby stands a coral plant large enough to block the cave’s exit, extending its tendrils into the darkness, as if in wait of others on the run from the moon.

The coral’s stark white body, so unlike the other coral on the ocean floor, is the only thing that looks truly dead here. On the tips of its eerily bone-like branches hangs tens of hundreds of egg sacks. Some are yellow as the sun, others blue as the sky, and a few white, bringing to mind the froth of waves. There are those that glow brightly, while still others emit dim smoky lights. Their proportions vary greatly, ranging from the size of tiny shijimi clams to giant clams.

The dolphin looks back questioningly at the whale who begins to speak, multicolored light spilling from his mouth.

 

“Yeah, this is definitely the place. I’m sure of it.”

 

In his time here, the whale has seen a great many souls appearing on the ocean floor which eventually return to the Earth. In his experience, there was one thing that indicated a soul was heading back to Earth–this cave.

Of all the fish that disappeared into this cave, not a single one had returned to the bottom of the ocean. Therefore, it wouldn’t be surprising for it to have some connection to the Earth. No, there has to be–something there was transforming these souls into shells.

Hearing about the cave from the whale, the dolphin asks him to immediately take him there.

Considering the dolphin’s situation, and the rules of the this place, what they are doing is completely taboo. The whale understands this more than anyone else, and yet he finds himself, unbelievably, leading the dolphin to the cave without trying to dissuade him. Before he realizes it, he is inside of the cave with the dolphin. The whale has no idea what has got into him; in fact, this unanswered question might have been the very thing driving the whale into the cave.

Following behind the dolphin, somehow he has ended up deep into the cave without even trying to stop the dolphin, all the while completely at a loss as to what is happening. Despite all that, in no way does he feel that trying to help the dolphin like this, something that would surely be opposed by the ocean itself and all souls in the universe, is wrong.

 

The egg sacks glitter as if beckoning the dolphin. Shining brightly or emitting a range of colors as they jiggle, each one’s brilliance seems to be calling out, “pick me!”

How wonderful would it be to be able to touch that brilliance…

The whale, increasingly excited, feels a tremendous compulsion to take a bite out of each of them. But the dolphin has yet to move. He isn’t interested in any of the beautiful egg sacks, instead looking at something near the base of the coral.

Curious, the whale follows the dolphin’s gaze, only to discover…a lonesome, purple egg sack of the likes that would never been noticed by anyone else.

 

“Hey Mr. Dolphin, have you lost your mind? There are so many beautiful egg sacks but you choose that one? What’s wrong with you?”

 

Realizing it is being watched by the dolphin, the tiny egg sack shakes its body vigorously.

As the dolphin observes the egg sack, desperately doing its best to shine despite lacking a bright light or attractive color, his hope transforms into conviction.

The dolphin pokes it with his snout, tears it open, and a cloud of purple erupts. Catching a whiff of the smell, the whale retreats in disgust.

 

“That smells. It smells horrible! Let’s stop this. It stinks of life…”

 

From its awkward shade of purple–the color of life within the deep, blue sea–comes a particular smell known to all beings in the universe from the beginning of time: the fresh, heart-racing smell of blood.

Something tiny tumbles out of the torn egg sack. Rolling onto the sand is what is apparently a tiny shell.

As the dolphin gazes at the dull grey, nondescript shell, the image of a streaming comet ignites in his mind.

 

“…Do you want to hear an old story?”

 

It seems that the dolphin is thinking out loud. Perhaps his words are intended not for the whale, but himself.

Does the dolphin see the whale blink? In any case, the dolphin begins to slowly tell his story.

 

“This is a tale from the time when I was still alive. We had gathered in the shallows for seven days, in wait of a meteor shower that occurs once a year.”

 

The dolphins wait patiently each year for the day of the meteor shower–the day when souls rain down upon the earth in the form of shells. They search out the most beautiful shell and take it home as their most precious treasure of the year.

While it may be difficult for other species to understand, to the dolphins, firm in their beliefs, nothing is more important than long-established customs. There are dolphin-hunting humans living near the beach, and still the dolphins continue their tradition despite the dangers involved.

One year, a young dolphin who has come to the beach in search of a beautiful shell is discovered by a boy.

The boy begins talking to the dolphin, fooled by his disguise into believing he is human. Still immature and ignorant of the evils of humans, the dolphin accepts the human without fear.

Ultimately, the dolphin and the young man end up waiting for the meteor shower together.

 

“After waiting together for several days, the day of the meteor shower finally arrives. The dolphin is overjoyed as he watches countless shells fall to the Earth…”

 

The dolphin sighs and stares longingly into empty space, as if the scenes of each memory materialize there during the telling of his tale.

On the day of the meteor shower, the dolphins, drawn there by the promise of finding a beautiful shell, are surrounded by several human boats. The human hunters too had waited patiently for this day, having realized the normally cautious dolphins would gather in the shallows once a year. The dolphins try to escape, but it’s too late.

Then, at the very moment they are being herded towards the beach and have nearly given up all hope–

 

“The human boy suddenly screams as he plunges off a nearby cliff right into the sea. While the humans are distracted by the boy all the dolphins are able to escape. Although it was humans who put us in danger, it was also a human who saved us.”

 

“A human saved you all? One of those cruel, arrogant beings?”

 

The whale, who had been listening quietly to the dolphin’s story, suddenly spoke out in utter disbelief.

Changing the feelings of many of the universe’s beings towards humans and the hearts of the humans themselves would be no easy matter. But for that very reason, it was the job of the torch bearers to continue to tell their stories of how things actually were. As always, the dolphins’ words rang true.

 

“…And then, many years later, he returned to the beach once again.”

 

Humans do not have the capacity to remember anything about these torch bearers, the dolphins. As expected, when meeting the dolphin again, this time as a grown man, he remembers nothing. Not about the immature dolphin, or even the meteor shower.

And yet, as if drawn by some invisible force, he somehow returns to the beach to gaze up at the stars together with this once-nieve dolphin. This is not a one-time thing; over and over he forgets about the dolphin, only to miraculously return to the beach.

 

“Even though he, now an adult, knew that no memories of our time spent together would remain, he always said, ‘Let’s meet again next year.’ And I would always answer in the same way, ‘I’ll be waiting.’ “

 

An incredible determination glimmers in the dolphin’s forlorn visage, his desperate eyes.

 

“ ‘No matter how many times you forget about our agreement to meet, I will always remember’…This was my promise to him. Keeping this promise through the years was the only way I could repay him for saving me, for saving us.”

 

shibaraku (しばらく): a good Japanese word to know

The Japanese word ‘shibaraku’ (written “しばらく” in hiragana or sometimes written ”暫く” in kanji), is a word that I learned very early on in my Japanese studies and I still come across quite often. It has a simple meaning and usage that easy to learn and add to your own repertoire.

This word means a somewhat unspecified range of time, from a “little while” to “some time” to even “a while”. Here is a common, polite phrase that uses it:

  • しばらくお待ちください  [Shibaraku omachi kudasai]
  • Please wait a while.

Above I have given a literal translation, but if you were translating this you might use something more like ‘Thank you for your patience.” You can replace “shibaraku” with “shoushou” (少々) for another phrase with similar meaning.

Here “shibaraku” is used in front a polite form (“omachi”) of the verb “matsu” (まつ・待つ) which means “to wait”.

I’ll give another example where “shibaraku” is used to express a somewhat undefined range of time.

  • しばらく待ったけど、来なかった。 [Shibaraku matta kedo, konakatta]
  • I waited for a while but he/she didn’t come.

You can also use the phrase “shibaraku no aida” (暫くの間) which means pretty much the same thing.

Ironically, one of the first phrases I learned for this word was “しばらくですね” which means something like “Long time, no see.” However, in many years of studying Japanese I don’t think I’ve heard this phrase even a single time in real use, and even now doing a Google search brings up many pages which explain Japanese to foreigners. So I don’t recommend using this phrase. Instead, you can use “お久しぶりですね” (Ohisashiburi desu ne)  or the more formal “ご無沙汰しております” (Gobusata shite orimasu) which are much more common ways to say the same thing.

Sometimes in literature you can see “shibaraku” used together with the verb “suru”. While “suru” generally means “to do” and is placed before a noun to make it a verb (ex: “benkyou suru”, to study), it also can be used to express time passing.

  • しばらくすると男がやってきました。 [Shibaraku suru to, otoko ga yatte kimashita]
  • Some time later, a man came by.

Another useful expression is “shibaraku no ato” (しばらくの後) which means “after a while”. (Another variant is “しばらく後”)

Since “shibaraku” can be vague, sometimes it may be a good idea to use a slightly more specific phrase of word, such as “sukoshi no aida” (a little while), “nagai aida” (a long time), etc. But even these aren’t very specific. You can use things like “数分” (‘suufun’, a few minutes) or “数時間” (‘suujikan’, a few hours) to be a little more clear.

In case you are interested, here is a post (in Japanese) where someone asks “How long is ‘shibaraku’?”. The answer, specified by situation, is from seconds to weeks. Even the Goo Dictionary entry has one definition that says “a little while” and one that says “something that continues to a certain extent”.

By the way, while I would not consider “shibaraku” particularly polite (“shoushou” actually sounds more polite to me),  I think it is a little on the formal side. To put it another way, I don’t think children would commonly use this word, instead falling back to something simpler like “sukoshi” (a little).

Japanese fiction translation: “Final Days of Summer” by “Masaki Hashiba” [Story 2 / Part 2]

This is my translation of the second chapter of the second story “Starfollower” (星を辿る人) of the fantasy work “Final Days of Summer” (残夏)  by Masaki Hashiba (ハシバ柾). I’ve gotten permission from the author to translate it and put it on my blog. The original work was published online not in chapters, but as one long entry with some breaks.

While technically a separate story from the first story (“Stargazer”) it is strongly related, and if you haven’t read the previous story I highly recommend checking it out first. You can see all four chapters of it translated here. The first chapter of this second story and the future ones will also be linked there (as I translate them).

You can see the second story’s original Japanese in its entirety here.

If you want to read more of this story, please consider voting for it on my poll of what to translate.

Story 2: Starfollower (Part 2)

Weaving between colorful bunches of coral and sea anemones, a school of silver-scaled fish–souls waiting for their chance to return to earth once more–swim leisurely in the ocean. Each emits a flickering white glow, illuminating the sand wherever they go.

The intensity of the light varies from fish to fish, but the net effect lends a soothing tone to the ocean floor that resembles a shoal. It is bright enough to fool one into believing the unique varieties of coral there, which typically never inhabit the cold, dark depths of the ocean, are completely normal. Of course, the rules here are probably quite different than those of Earth.

At the whale’s side, the dolphin makes a few soft clicks as he gazes into the deep sea. But there is no response. It seems that some things here may not be as they appear.

 

“You sure seem tense. But don’t worry, it’s only natural for newcomers. You’ll get used to things in no time. Anyway, this place is pretty cool, huh? There’s not much to do, but as long as we’re together it’ll be OK…Woah, be careful! You’d better not fall asleep here. You’ll forget who you are–permanently.”

Just as his eyes are beginning to glaze over watching a school of fish, the dolphin quickly kicks with his tail fin.

If he isn’t careful, the dolphin will slowly slip into unconsciousness. The sensation of falling into a deep sleep feels just like when he first arrived here.

 

“But that as it should be. You see, the light that dwells within the bodies of those fish, as well as within you and I, is all a part of Mother Moon. I don’t care who are, anyone who gazes into her soft, gentle light is bound to fall into a deep, restful sleep.”

 

After saying this with a concerned expression, the whale bares his teeth in a wide smile. A rainbow of colored lights dribble from his mouth.

 

“I’m sure you heard the voice of Mother Moon before coming here, just like everyone else. She watches equally over all of us and everyone on Earth from a much deeper place.”

 

No matter how shameful of a life you have lived, Mother Moon will never turn her back on you. That’s because she is the mother of all life in the universe.

 

“But that doesn’t mean she has to accept the humans. After all, there isn’t a single good one in the bunch. Have you heard this story? Once long ago, humans even tried to catch Mother Moon. Yet she’s still forgiven them.”

 

The dolphin glances at the whale’s pompous face and stops moving. He is beginning to worry that the whale might actually be mocking what happened with Naoyuki and him.

The talkative whale, on the other hand, seems to only care about praising their mother as he lazily swims through glittering schools of fish, unaware that the dolphin has stopped flapping his tail fin.

There is no telling how the whale, with his apparent dislike of humans, would respond if the dolphin suddenly said, “I want to return to Earth to keep a promise with a human.” He surely wouldn’t be too happy to hear that. Nor would he likely continue offering his help. It seems safer to avoid talking about that and just hang out with the whale to pass time.

 

“As long as you are here, nothing will ever trouble or tempt you. That’s because every soul here is permeated with the light of Mother Moon…By the way, didn’t you said something about wanting to return to the Earth?”

 

The whale, having babbled on by himself for quite a while, now looks behind him at the dolphin as if suddenly remembering something. He stares at him fixedly, narrowing his eyes like he is sizing him up.

 

“So you want to go back to Earth, huh….All right, just think about this for a second. Are you sure you want to go back to Earth? It isn’t because of some stupid stubbornness, or an obligation to something–or somebody? If so, that’s really a pity.”

 

It is not uncommon for some beings, unable to forget about something in their past life, to be unwilling to give themselves completely to Mother Moon due to a lingering attachment. When coming across such a soul, unable to enjoy the repose obtained after crossing stormy seas to finally reach its rightful destination, it can only be called a tragedy.

At this moment a soul, yearning deeply to escape the confines of a paradise at the other end of the universe and return to Earth, poses a certain question to himself for the first time.

Can it really be said that I–having died, yet still possessed by things from my past life–am truly unfortunate?

 

“Over there. See that? That is what humans are.”

 

The whale raises his voice in delight, indicating something in front of them.

There swims a school of fish, the smallest the dolphin has seen since arriving here. They huddle together closely, trying to compensate for their faint glow. Still, they would be practically invisible if placed next to the brilliance of the whale or any other souls.

“Those fellows, you see, will get stuck with tiny, cracked shells.”

The whale chuckles as he exhales water towards the school of fish. The tiny fish are immediately swept away by the current and scatter in all directions.

 

“You probably already know this, but those humans are known for acting like they own the universe. They’re stupid enough to brazenly declare that there is nothing out there they don’t know about.”

 

Watching the once-human souls animatedly reform their group, the dolphin carefully considers the whale’s words.

He had once heard that humans fear things they can’t see with their own eyes. Similarly, humans don’t want to believe in anything they can’t touch with their own hands. To them, the extraordinary story of a ocean at the far reaches of the universe must be extremely hard to believe. Even assuming it is true, something which cannot be seen, cannot be touched, is effectively the same thing as if it didn’t exist at all–it is this belief of the humans that many other life forms consider arrogant.

However, the dolphins, who have handed down their stories for many generations, have a different view. They are clever, frequently rising out of the seas disguised as humans, telling stories of the distant ocean to everyone they come across. Of course, many people label them as charlatans, refusing to lend a ear to their tales. But the dolphins still haven’t given up.

At the end of the universe is an ocean, where the brilliant stars in our sky are actually the souls of the deceased that will eventually return to Earth in the form of shells. Out of pity for the sadly ignorant humans–or perhaps because the dolphins feel some sense of kinship to them–even though they may not know why, these torch bearers of the universal ocean continue to preach their truth to humans.

For this very reason, this dolphin knows that humans are such a diverse species it is hard to make generalizations about them. He also knows that people exist who will listen to the truth and gaze up together into the heavens with them. Unable to bear it any longer, he looks intently at the school of fish, their weak radiance having little chance of being seen from the Earth.

Glaring at the dolphin’s face from the side, the whale suddenly raises his voice.

 

“Why the long face? Don’t tell me that you actually feel bad for them. Hold on a second, those are humans over there. Why would you pity humans? Hey Mr. Dolphin, you’ve got a screw loose somewhere. Something’s just not right.”

 

But the voice of the concerned whale has no chance of getting through to the dolphin. His head is filled with memories of a starry sky viewed together with a certain human. The dolphin looks up at the distant surface of the water and closes his eyes.

 

“I thought it was a bit strange that you wanted to return to Earth…But you’ve been deceived by a human, haven’t you?”

 

The whale’s tone is cold and unfeeling, a drastic change from just a moment ago. His piercing stare digs deep into the dolphin–or rather the thing that torments him.

 

“Mr. Dolphin, that’s just nonsense. Unlike you dolphins, the humans speak only lies. If it’s their words that are holding you back, you’re definitely been mislead!”

 

“Those humans are truly awful. To think they would actually try to separate you venerable torch bearers from Mother Moon!”

On the verge of tears, the whale admonishes the dolphin harshly. Since coming to the ocean floor he has not been able to forget what happened on Earth, and the cause of his troubles is nothing other than a vile human. Could things get any worse…

 

“Forget about them, those humans. Forget them, and you can rejuvenate your soul here, in peace. Eventually you’ll become a beautiful shell. Who could ask for more? Don’t you agree, Mr. Dolphin!?”

 

The tail of the whale strikes the ground in irritation, kicking up a cloud of sand. As he watches the whale, the dolphin suddenly has a revelation about the true essence of this place at the end of the universe.

In this sea of tranquility, all are welcomed with open arms. But this acceptance is founded on renouncement of the self and a law that discriminates based on past life behavior, and perhaps even species. It is this unyielding rule, which selfless souls can never oppose, that maintains tranquility here.

And the very thing that makes that possible is…

 

“Are you still listening, Mr. Dolphin? No matter how much you struggle, you are still a child of Mother Moon. All that come here will be forgiven.”

 

The guardian who provides solace and light to all beings in this place–the Moon.

Many of the fortunate souls that drift around the ocean floor blindly revere the Moon as their mother without realizing what they have given in exchange for their repose. But the dolphin knows what has been lost and the real reason the Moon is called ‘Mother’.

 

“Mother Moon casts her light on all souls indiscriminately, regardless of what evils they have or have not committed. Her soothing light gently envelops all. And yet, why do you reject her kindness?”

 

“…In that case, I have something to ask you. What have you lost? What have you sacrificed in order to receive her indiscriminate kindness?”

 

The whale falls silent at the dolphin’s sudden question. After staring at the dolphin for a moment, as if searching for something, he finally responds, albeit resignedly.

 

“Nothing. I haven’t lost a single thing.”

 

“All right, then let me rephrase the question. Right now, are you truly happy? Without a clear progression of time, can you honestly say you want things to continue like this into the future?”

 

“Are you crazy? Of course I am happy. After all, this place is…”

 

The whale’s words falter. He looks around nervously and then back at the dolphin, seemingly on the verge of panic. For once, he feels not the moon’s all-pervading presence or even her comforting smell, only a terrible sensation of cold water chilling him to the bone.

The dolphin gazes fixedly at the frightened whale and begins to speak.

 

“But is the Lady Moon truly a…”

 

Japanese book review: “その日本語、大人はカチンときます!” [That Japanese is offensive!]

The other day when browsing Kinokuniya’s Beaverton store (near Portland, Oregon), a book titled “その日本語、大人はカチンときます!” (“That Japanese is offensive!”)  caught my interest so I decided to try it out.  It was published in 2016 by 青春出版社 (Seishun Publishing Company), edited by  ビジネス文章力研究所 (Business Bunshoryoku Kenkujo), and is a little under 200 pages. (Note: the title technically literally says “The Japanese is offensive to adults”)

The theme of this book is to point out how certain Japanese expressions can be considered rude, improper, or at least not ideal, and gives suggestions for more appropriate (which often means more polite) expressions. The examples are categorized into 17 chapters, each about an important topic such as apologizing (謝る), inviting (誘う), congratulating (祝う) and giving thanks (感謝する). Each example also has icons to show what situations the phrase can be safely used in: oral conversations (口頭), e-mail (メール), phone (電話), or formal letters (手紙). Furthermore, there are explanations in the beginning and end of each chapter to help in understanding key areas.

I’ll give two examples (excerpted from pages 34 and 84) to give you some idea for what the book is like, along with my rough translations. Note that English translations don’t really have too much use here since it is the (sometimes) subtle nuances of the Japanese phrasing that is important.

==

Chapter 3: あいづち・会話  (phrases used in conversation)

Case 3: 自慢話を聞く時のあいづち (phrases used when listening to someone bragging)

(Situation): 自慢話に万能な返し方  (all-purpose way of responding to someone bragging)

(Category): 口頭 (conversational)

NG (inappropriate phrase): それで? (so?)

(appropriate phrase): よかったですね。 (That’s nice.)

例文 (example sentence): 夢がかなって、本当によかったですね。 (That’s nice that your dream came true.)

==

Chapter 8:褒める (making compliments)

Case 1: 仕事の成果を褒める (complimenting someone’s work achievements)

(Category): 口頭 (conversational)

NG (inappropriate phrase): マネしたいですね。(I’d like to emulate you.)

(appropriate phrase): お手本にさせていただきます。(Please allow me to use you as a role model for the future)

例文 (example sentence): ○○さんの資料はわかりやすいです。今度、お手本にさせていただきます。 (Your materials are very easy to understand. Please allow me to use you as a role model in the future)

==

For someone who hasn’t lived in Japan and had little experience with business Japanese, this is a treasure trove of information that can potentially be very useful. The book’s organization makes it easy to just read a page or two at a time without requiring a big chunk of time.

Having said that, the examples range widely from those that are only useful in very specific circumstances, those that useful to a large number of situations, and those that seem forced or obvious. A few even seem over-polite or use Japanese that does not seem to be in common use (especially the ones in the ‘formal letter’ category). Surely, even among native Japanese people there will be a wide range of opinions as to the suitability of each expression that will depend, in part, on the generation they were born in. But I trust the content in this book, which was written fairly recently, by and for native speakers, much farther than I would the average Japanese textbook, where you can sometimes find stale expressions. (One of the reviews of this book on Amazon Japan refers to how the book contains some out-of-date expressions, but there is not enough reviews to be statistically significant).

For that reason, I don’t think it would be wise to just memorize these and use them indiscriminately. Rather, write down and commit a few to memory that you think might be useful, and if the chance comes up you can try them out cautiously. Be sure to observe the other person’s response and try to determine if the phrase helped to further the topic at hand. Also keep in mind that tone is voice is very important and can effect how you are received by those you are speaking to. (For example, imagine how a difference in intonation can make the phrase ‘That’s great!’ sounds either genuine or sarcastic).

If you are using business Japanese on a daily basis while living in Japan, you will surely pick up appropriate phrases on your own (eventually), and that type of real-world experience is undoubtably more valuable than a book. But, having said that, if you are considering starting a job where you expect to use Japanese frequently in a business or other formal situation, I think this book can give you a really good start. Of course, you’ll need good Japanese fundamentals such as grammar and the ability to read katakana, hiragana, and kanji. I’d say you need at least a year or two of intensive Japanese study before this book would be palatable for you due to its difficulty in terms of kanji and vocabulary.

For me, although I don’t use formal Japanese too often (one exception is when talking to authors to get their permission to translate their works), I found this book very informative, and it gave me a unique view into Japanese’s culture of politeness. While I’ve read through the book once from cover to cover, I’m considering going through it again and taking notes on a handful of the most useful expressions. If I do that, I may generate another post from that content.

Japanese fiction translation: “Final Days of Summer” by “Masaki Hashiba” [Story 2 / Part 1]

This is my translation of the first chapter of the second story “Starfollower” (星を辿る人) of the series “Final Days of Summer” (残夏)  by Masaki Hashiba (ハシバ柾). I’ve gotten permission from the author to translate it and put it on my blog.

While technically a separate story than the first story (“Stargazer”) it is very strongly related, and if you haven’t read the previous story I highly recommend checking it out first. You can see all four chapters of it translated here. Future chapters of this second story will also be linked there as I translate them.

I had originally taken a break from this series in order to do a few chapters of another work, but for several reasons I decided to come back to do this second story. Two of the reasons are discussed here, but put simply I think this is a really great story and I am honored to be able to translate it.

You can see the second story’s original Japanese in its entirety here. Please note that, as per the authors suggestion, I will be cutting out a small part of the story (at the end) since that will apparently be moved to another story.

 

Story 2: Starfollower (Part 1)

If you set out for the end of the universe, far beyond the sky above, sooner or later you’ll reach the bottom of an ocean. What we call the “end of the universe” is, in actuality, a giant ocean that encompasses everything in existence. All beings on Earth will one day cast off their physical bodies and return to that ocean as souls.

These souls, with their newly acquired exquisitely glittering scales and fins, can be glimpsed from even as far away as the surface of the Earth. Each of them manifests in our sky as a star, sparkling through the distant ocean waves.

 

At this moment, another soul is released from the Earth and begins to wander, hesitantly, in search of the bottom of the ocean. Its form is blurry, on the verge of fading away into nothingness, although the shape of a dolphin can just barely be made out.

In the midst of a world enclosed by dark, dark water, “he”–as we will call this soul–emits a burst of clicking noises, but there is no response. He is still too far from the ocean floor, assuming it even exists. Regardless, the darkness here couldn’t be any deeper.

His body, having not known any form of rest beyond a brief nap, is gradually enveloped by the sensation of dissolving away. Perhaps this is true sleep, he surmises and stops swimming, his body beginning to sink as it gives into the water’s demand. Sleep gently embraces him, gradually drawing him into an even deeper place.

Where am I? Why am I here? And why I am searching for the bottom of the ocean? He knows nothing, so trying to find answers only results in these thoughts instantly evaporating. While a part of him realizes something odd is happening, the condition of simply sinking like this in ignorance feels, for some reason, utterly euphoric.

Where will I end up? What is on the ocean floor anyway?

<Welcome home, my beloved one. May you rest peacefully>

 

The voice responding to his question sounds oddly familiar. A scene flashes through his mind: beams of moonlight cascading gently across the water’s surface.

The brilliance of the image awakens some part of his consciousness that had been heretofore asleep.

 

I know of a sky on the other side of the surface of the ocean. I know of a moon there. I remember a world of rippling waves, replete with noise. I even remember…yes, I even remember *living*. And two promises exchanged with a human, once long ago.

 

His tail flaps back and forth vigorously, as if desperately trying to avoid sinking. The world, quiet and dark up until now, quivers noisily. This individual that had nearly dissolved is now gradually regaining his memory and shape, twisting his body in ardent rebellion as he is propelled forward.

He rebels against the tranquil sleep that surely lies in wait at the bottom of the ocean, and even against the fact of his own death.

 

Naoyuki, you are the sole human who believed in me. I fear you have already forgotten the time you asked me, “Let’s meet again next year,” and I responded with, “I’ll be waiting.” But I remember. That’s because to me, our interactions together, repeated time and time again, are more precious than even the most beautiful of shells.

 

……

 

There is neither night nor day on the ocean floor. The grainy sand emits a white glow, dimly illuminating the nearby area. In the midst of absolute stillness, like at the dead of night, a hazy, rainbow-colored light appears. But a moment later, the light appears to bend and kick, leaving a trail as it passes through the water.

After weaving through a cloud of kicked up sand, the light finally reveals its form: a whale. Or at least it appears to be. It is a humongous whale, every inch of its body emitting a dazzling brilliance.

The whale deftly twists its large body using its tail fin, toying with sand on the ocean floor and fish that occasionally pass by. Even though ostensibly playing around, a gloomy expression–refusing to smile even for an instant–suggests that the whale is simply trying to kill time, rather than enjoy itself.

The whale catches something moving in the corner of its eye. Nearly overlooking the object due to his own glare, the whale quickly blinks and chases after the shadow.

Different than all the other souls that cannot be told apart, it one of the rare ones with a well-defined shape. He has seen this shape before…yes, it is called a dolphin. However, judging from its contemplative expression, this soul undoubtedly still possesses self awareness.

 

Souls who make it down to the ocean floor while maintaining the form from their past life are not very common. Of those, there are even fewer who also retain their memory and self awareness. Even the whale, who has lived here for many hundred thousand years, could easily count the number of times he encountered a soul like this. Having said that, at the bottom of the ocean where all souls come to rest, a place truly deserving the name the cradle of life, something like a number is meaningless.

Curious about this soul, the lights on the whale’s body flicker several times in quick succession.

 

“Hey, you over there. I don’t care who you are–just come over here and talk to me. Come on Mr. dolphin, why are you being so bashful?”

 

No matter what the whale says, or how brilliant he makes his body, the dolphin simply stares absent-mindedly into the distance. This irks the whale, so he begins to swim in circles around the dolphin.

The appearance of a being who can converse on the same level as the whale happened, at best, once every three thousand years. While this place is an everlasting paradise open to all souls, to a self-aware one it is unbearingly dull. This was a long-awaited conversation partner that had finally come along after several thousands of years; the whale couldn’t just give up so easily, regardless of what kind of being it was.

 

“With that kind of behavior you’ll never become an attractive shell. For you see, even though Mother Moon is fair to all souls, she always ranks them in the proper order. If you want to become a beautiful shell, you’d better talk to me. Got that, Mr. dolphin?”

 

The whale then glares at the dolphin for awhile in silence.

Each soul that comes to the ocean floor would be, before long, ranked against others based on how its life was lived, and on the day of the yearly meteor shower according to Earth’s calendar would return to the surface of that planet. Those who lived an honorable life as beautiful shells, and the rest as unsightly shells, wandering the Earth until the elements wore them down to nothing.

To every soul, acquiring a beautiful form to begin their new life as a shell is the ultimate honor.

And yet, this dolphin has no reaction whatsoever to the whale’s attempts to provoke him. Surely, no soul would ever renounce this honor, but even so the dolphin wasn’t responding.

The whale, refusing to give up, continues speaking to the preoccupied dolphin.

 

“Let me guess. You still have some attachment for Earth, right? No worries, you’ll be home soon enough. But in the meantime, let’s chat a little. If you do, I’ll tell you a secret about how to become a beautiful shell. I’ll make sure you get back to Earth as a exceptionally attractive shell, nicer than anybody else. I’m serious.”

 

“Come on, why won’t you talk with we? I’m sure you want to become a magnificent shell. I’m sure you want to return to Earth like that. This kind of thing usually takes centuries, but I’ll get you home in just a few decades, OK?”

The whale persistently swims around and around the dolphin, trying his best to get him to say something.

At last, the dolphin speaks. But his response is quite different from what the whale is expecting.

 

“A few decades? That’s way too late. I gotta get home, pronto.”

 

Once the dolphin finishes speaking, the whale dejectedly rubs his belly against the sand on the bottom of the ocean. After enduring boredom for ages, a guest had finally visited him; he wouldn’t stand for such an indifferent attitude.

 

“That’s not going to work. Where’s the fun in that? Since you can’t go home immediately anyway, you might as well hang out with me while you’re here. Getting all panicky isn’t going to get you there any faster.”

 

Hearing this, the dolphin falls into silence once again. He may be contemplating something. Then the dolphin, still quiet, points his tail fin towards the whale and begins to swim away.

In response the whale, anger rising, quickly maneuvers around to block the dolphin’s path.

 

“Let me tell you something. I’m not saying this to be mean. You…are dead. But you already knew that, right? Did you also know it’s against the rules for the soul of one who has died to go right back to Earth? Everybody has to follow the procedures, purify their soul here, and only after waiting a long, long time can they finally become a shell.”

 

“But I guess it’s true that souls like you and I, who have kept their sense of self, are pretty rare. Since you’ve got a lot of free time ahead of you, let’s ride out this thing together. Let’s face it: just like I’ve only got you to talk to, you’ve only got me.”

Despite his superficial tone, the whale’s words ring true. His sense of urgency is likely because of a growing worry the dolphin might actually not keep company with him.

For the first time the dolphin looks directly at him; perhaps he senses the whale’s desperation.

The whale’s skin shines more brightly than any other fish here, and flecks of light flash through his coal black eyes at unexpected times. Beams of light of various colors spill from the thin line of his mouth, faintly illuminating the surrounding area. A whale that could be seen so clearly from Earth was, when seen up close, that much more dazzling, more beautiful.

 

“A whale star like you shined very brightly even when seen from Earth. But you were so far away…I don’t think I ever would had realized your colors were this vivid had I not gotten this close to you.”

 

The whale blinks quizzically, failing to grasp the dolphin’s intention.

 

“What’s that mean? So you’ll talk to me?”

 

The dolphin slips right past the whale’s side without bothering to answer. But just as the whale’s expression turns anxious, the dolphin flaps his tail fin in the whale’s direction again, this time beckoning him.

The whale sees this and gleefully inhales a big gulp of water, going off to swim at the dolphin’s side.

Japanese Slang Word: 「鬼〜」 (Oni~)

When studying Japanese, especially if you don’t live in Japan, there are always blind spots which can develop in your learning depending on what materials and methods you use to study. One area that I’ve found difficult is slang, because many of the materials I use (especially books and TV dramas) tend to not use them too often. Slang is a moving target–it can evolve pretty quickly as new popular words are coined and become commonly used by the younger generation.

While I have known about the word 鬼 (‘oni’, which means something like ‘devil’) for some time, it was only recently that I heard there is an alternate slang meaning for this. Here is an example sentence of this usage:

  • ”それってムズじゃない”  [Sore tte oni muzu ja nai]
  • Isn’t that like totally difficult?

(In the English translation, I’ve tried to capture the slang nuance in addition to the meaning itself.)

Here, you can see that ‘oni’ is express the extent of something, similar to the English word ‘extremely’. The Japanese word 超 (chou) is also used in a similar manner, though I’ve been told that ‘oni’ is even more extreme than ‘chou’. Another word with similar usage is “激” (geki), though I see/hear that a bit less often.

There is actually a second slang word in the above example, “ムズ” (muzu) which is an abbreviation for ‘muzukashii’ (難しい) and means ‘difficult’.

Originally I thought that ‘oni’ was pretty new slang, but this 2004 post on Oshiete Goo discusses it, and someone says the expression may be around 10 years old. So it seems that it has existed in some form for over two decades. It describes the meaning as “鬼のように。。。” (‘…like a devil’)

There seems to be a pattern with using 鬼 before two-character slang words like in the above example (with ムズ). Another example is ”鬼ムカ” (oni muka) which means “totally irritated”. (ムカ comes from ムカつく that means ‘to be irritated’).

Another one of these is ”鬼ヤバ” (oni yaba) which is basically a curse word.  ヤバ comes from やばい (yabai) which I wrote a post about here.

Keep in mind that pretty much all of these examples, as well as this use of 鬼, are considered impolite (or at least casual) words and should not be used except in very informal situations. I personally don’t have any plans to integrate 鬼 into my vocabulary, except for maybe jokes with close friends.

But even if you don’t use these words yourself, it’s good to be aware of them so they don’t catch you off guard at a critical moment. If you want to see 鬼 used you can find it all over places like Twitter and Youtube. I haven’t written too many posts about slang lately, but if you are curious to learn more please consider liking this article.

As a final note, don’t forget the original meaning for ‘oni’ (devil) is still used in some cases. For example, 鬼ごっこ (oni gokko) which is a children’s game of tag. Here, the word is not slang and shouldn’t be considered impolite.

 

 

82 year old Japanese woman’s “hinadan” mobile app: sometimes it takes new technology to uncover ancient traditions

Yesterday in WWDC, Apple’s yearly developer conference, there was a brief mention of their oldest attendant, Masako Wamakiya (若宮正子), who actually has her own iPhone application in the Apple mobile app store. Masako, at 82, decided she wanted to create apps that senior citizens after she retired from her job at a bank.

The app is called ‘hinadan’ (雛壇) and involves ornamenting a multi-level platform (the ‘hinadan’) with traditional Japanese dolls (hina ningyou, 雛人形) in preparation of the hina matsuri (雛祭り) festival held each year on Mar 3. You can see more details about these things here.

The app itself is extremely simple, both graphically and in terms of the flow of the game. You simply select dolls one at a time and try to drop them in the correct place on the platform. If you get the location correct (正解です) then the doll is placed, if not (間違いです) then you get to try again. Once you place all the dolls you are given a congratulations screen and the option to do it again.

The app isn’t the best way to study Japanese (at least for beginners), since there is only really one page of any significant text (reproduced below), and it’s somewhat advanced, lacking Furigana to help you read tricky Kanji characters (which to make things worse, are written in an artistic, but difficult-to-read font). But if you are into more historical and classical Japanese, you might enjoy this.

Ironically, what I liked about this app was it’s simplicity and purity–the fact that it was clearly designed by someone who wasn’t trying to make money or even a hit mobile app, but rather just trying to make something they enjoyed.

While I have seen these doll platforms before in person on at least one occasion (the last time was in Portland’s Uwajimaya grocery store, where it was on grand display), I think the average English speaker has no idea of what this app is about, and the fact there is no translation makes it even harder to understand. In fact, there is one or two reviews to that effect.

But I think it’s amazing that it took cutting edge technology for some people to have their first experience of this aspect of traditional Japanese culture. If you had asked me what type of app a Japanese senior citizen would enjoy, I’m pretty sure I’d have absolutely no idea. Hopefully we can see more uses of modern technology being used to preserve and inform others about history of various countries.

In doing research for this article I found that Masako actually did a short Ted talk (in Japanese), which I think would be worth listening to, not just for Japanese practice but to learn about this interesting woman.

In case you are curious, I did manage to successfully adorn the hinadan once, and was greeted with this message:

“お見事!御殿の間取りをよう覚えておじゃったな”

While I understand the meaning of this statement (it’s complimenting me for doing a great job and remembering the doll arrangement), the word “おじゃった” caught me off guard. It appears to be a dialect of Kagoshima, though I am not sure if it is still in use much.  ”よう” is an older word which means “よく” (well/skillfully) here.

Japanese novel translation: “The Rainlands” by Haruka Asahi [Chapter 6]

This is the 6th chapter of the fantasy novel “The Rainlands” (雨の国) by Haruka Asahi (朝陽遥) which I am translating from Japanese with the author’s permission. It is about a man’s journey to a mysterious land and his encounter with its indigenous people and culture.

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.

You can see a synopsis and table of contents with other chapters (as they are posted) referenced here. You can find the original Japanese text for this chapter here.

 

“The Rainlands”  by Haruka Asahi:  Chapter 6

It wasn’t until three days later that I finally got my chance.

After making sure no one was around, I entered the tunnel that led deep into the mountain. Just then the wind suddenly picked up, obscuring the sound of my footsteps.

But something startled me when I reached a fork in the path.

Silence. Even though I’d come this far, the only sounds were that of the rain and wind.

I ran to the boys’ cells, afraid of what might have happened.

Yakt! Ian!

I called out their names, but there was no response. How many days had they been imprisoned here? Was I too late?

After calling the boys’ names a few more times in a panic, I heard a faint groaning sound.

Ian!

When I repeated his name, Ian emerged from the darkness of his cell, crawling as if he was dragging his body along. Soon after I also heard a frail, thin voice whispering my name from within Yakt’s cell.

Thank God. I breathed a sigh of relief and sank to my knees in the dimly-lit passage. It was then that I finally began to feel Ian’s eyes on my chest. His nose had sniffed out the scent of the food.

Ian let out a low groan.

It was like the voice of a wild beast. I shuddered, retreating a step back. Ian crawled towards the bars and clutched them with a terrific strength that I was surprised he still possessed.

For a moment I stood frozen, paralyzed by an illogical fear of being devoured. But once I came to my senses, I walked back to the cell and impatiently withdrew the remainder of dinner concealed in my sleeve.

Ian extended his hand through the bars. The lights in the passage revealed a set of gnarled fingers, like those of a skeleton.

His hand, with its uncanny strength, snatched the small piece of fish from my palm. Long fingernails quickly withdrew into the cell, leaving a scratch on my hand. I stared fixedly at the boy’s mouth, half in fear and half in relief.

But Ian’s hand had stopped moving.

His emaciated fingers quivered, on the verge of placing the small shred of food into his mouth.

The boy was caught in between two conflicting forces: the customs of his people and the urgent cry of his instincts.

A difficult battle was also raging within me, between the guilt of doing such an atrocious thing and the desperate hope Ian would accept my gift. I’m begging you–just eat it!

Stuck in that pose, his body trembled for an uncomfortably long time.

The tremor in his hand gradually spread to his arm, shoulder, and eventually his entire body. Not long after, he screamed and flung the food through the bars towards me. It was only a small piece of fish but was nonetheless considered a rare treasure in these parts. It broke into tiny pieces, scattering within the cavern’s dim illumination.

Ian gripped the bars and growled something in deep voice. It was a barrage of profanity.

I was about to say something, but no words came out. Part of me wanted to simply ask Ian why. Why don’t you just eat the food? To hell with the custom–is it really more important to you than life itself?

At some point his cursing died down to a quiet whimper. I could tell that his voice–sporadically fading out only to return a moment later–was calling out his father’s and mother’s names.

Was he calling out for help? Or cursing parents who hadn’t come to save him? If so, then why was he refusing food? If he was going to start cursing like that, why not just eat the food?

But not even a single one of the questions that popped into my mind ever left my mouth.

Unable to take any more of this, I turned away and faced Yakt’s cell, towards the small body that lied there, motionless in the depths of the darkness.

Yakt!

When I called his name, I saw Yakt slowly blink in the shadows. I cast my eyes down, unable to meet his gaze directly.

But he didn’t stand up or crawl towards me like Ian had. Perhaps he lacked the energy.

I squatted down, withdrew the tiny bit of food remaining from my sleeve, and slid it to him through the bars. Once that was done I finally raised my head and looked Yakt right in the eyes.

The boy was completely still; he only gazed at me in silence.

I stood up and turned my back on Yakt without waiting for him to speak. I was terrified to see what he would decide.

By the time I left Ian’s whimpers had already stopped. Nor did I hear any other sounds coming from behind me. Whether this was because the boys hadn’t stirred, or because their sounds were hidden by the wind, I couldn’t say.

What had been the target of Ian’s ranting? In the days that followed, I thought about this time and time again. Was it me? Starvation? The custom that had forced it on him? Or the adults who had abandoned him in order to follow that custom? On the windblown nights, the rainy mornings, and the days when I myself suffered with hunger from skipping meals, these questions crossed my mind countless times.

 

Japanese translation sample: “Poverty Lessons” (ビンボー魂) by Toru Kazama (風間トオル)

Recently I posted a review of the book “Poverty Lessons” by Toru Kazama, which is biography of the actor’s life, focusing on his difficult times in poverty and what he learned as a result of that.

As a translation exercise and to give a little exposure of this great book to English-speaking audiences, I’ve decided to translate a few pages. Keep in mind this is a completely unofficial translation, not endorsed by the publisher or author.

There is a short preface which I have skipped, and started at the first chapter, continuing partway through that chapter to the end of page 23.

While I am not planning to translate more, please feel free to like this or comment if you would like to see more. Who knows, maybe some day we will get an official translation.

===

“Poverty Lessons” by Toru Kazama     (「ビンボー魂」  風間トオル)

Subtitle: Smarts my grandmother taught me for getting through life

 

Chapter 1: Family Breakdown, Age 5

First, my mother left

I still remember that day like it was yesterday.

My mother took me by the hand and brought me to the shore of the Tama river near our house, and shortly after a man joined us there. When I glanced at his face, I thought to myself, “I’ve never seen this guy before.” But after listening to my mother talk with him, two things quickly became evident.

To begin with, this man was apparently working at the same factory as my mother. Second, he seemed to have feelings for her.

My memories of that day are in shades of gray, with only a vague sense of the season and weather.

Their faces were blank and expressionless, and I don’t remember anything specific about their conversation. So I guess it would probably be fair to say the only thing I actually remember clearly was a uncomfortable tightening in my chest.

This unpleasant feeling–an inexplicable uneasiness–came upon me suddenly, like a surge of dark rain clouds blocking out the sun on what had, until a moment ago, been a perfectly clear day.

It took all my effort just to look away as my mother and that man stood there towering over me. I didn’t say a word, only passed time by throwing pebbles into the river and watching leaves float on the surface of the river as they were carried downstream.

That day I felt like I was one of those leaves that had tried to cling onto a large rock or clump of reeds, only to be quickly swept away by the current. Such petty resistance was useless. In the battle against the currents of my life, I never even had a chance.

 

At the time I was five years old. So I guess my mother was still in her mid-20s…

Many years later, doubts still remain.

Why did my mother fall in love with someone other than my father and enter into a relationship with that person? Was she simply looking for comfort after things went south with my father? Or did my parents’ relationship deteriorate because my mother fell for another guy? There wasn’t anyone around then to explain the answers to these questions to me, nor do I really want to know now.

Even my mother had a future to look forward to. She had a right to be happy. I didn’t think she was foolish or unreasonable for choosing to make a sacrifice in order to live freely. I could only understand her as a woman who was very, very young and had simply acted on her feelings.

Thinking back now, there is one more thing I realized. Perhaps, on that day, my mother had already made up her mind to leave my father and was trying to gauge whether I got along with her new boyfriend. She might have been planning on taking me away with her if things had went well.

But I had failed to become attached to her new partner. And yet, she still couldn’t bring herself to leave me. I think maybe she’d been struggling with herself to decide what to do with me.

If I think about it in those terms, the fragmented pieces of my memory somehow seem to fit together nicely.

It was not long after that day at the river when I was forced to choose one of my parents.

As a young boy, I couldn’t fathom the grownup situation of having to pick either my mother or father. But I think some part of me understood that choosing one of them meant I had to say goodbye to the other.

So I racked my brains thinking about it. I have a hazy memory of how I struggled and how hard it was to finally make up my mind.

In the end, I chose my father.

And as a result, my mother moved out.

I have absolutely no memory of the final day I spent with her or the last words we spoke. I don’t even remember my mother’s warmth or what her face looked like. To this day, my memory of my mother is completely void, and I guess this is partially because no photographs remain of her.

But I’m sure that she loved me as best as she could. That’s because I do have a vivid memory of when I chose my father and told her, “I love you Mom, but…”

I love you Mom, but if I choose you I’ll be forced to live with an unfamiliar guy.

On the other hand, if I choose my father, I’ll be able to live with my grandparents on my father’s side who will take good care of me, and I’ll occasionally see my uncle who shows up now and then. It was that sort of calculation that drove me to choose my father, or should I say choose to remain on my father’s side.

 

Of course, there were times when I truly missed my mother. Like when my elementary school teacher suggested we each draw a picture of our mother on Mother’s Day, or when I spotted a “Mother-child event” on the program for field day. And every evening, without fail.

In the early grades of elementary school, nearly every day I played on the Tama riverbank with friends from around the neighborhood. The baseball field of the Toei Flyers (now called the Nippon Ham Fighters) was there, and on the far bank was the Giants’ Tamagawa field. I would watch practices there, play tag on the embankment…I have so many happy memories of those days. Playing with friends was the only time I was able to forget all the bad things that happened.

In the evenings, when the smell of dinner wafted in from somewhere in the neighborhood, my friends would begin to disappear, one at a time. But my attempts to invite them to play a little longer were declined with remarks like, “My mom cooked dinner and is waiting for me,” or, “Sorry, my mom will get upset.” Eventually I was the only person left, feeling dejected and alone.

There was also the autumn dusks. Those were some of the loneliest times.

Illuminated by the setting sun, as I watched my slowly lengthening shadow there was one thing that came popping into my mind again and again.

I had no mother to cook dinner for me and wait for me at home.

I had no mother to worry about me and get upset, no matter how late I got home.

But fortunately, I had an ultimate trick up my sleeve for dealing with times like this. I simply had to remember one thing:

My mother didn’t leave me. I was the one who chose my father over her.

I felt so much better just by thinking of that.

 

And then, my father left

Even now, I don’t know whether I made the right decision that day.

That’s always how it goes. Life is nothing but a series of decisions, and the alternate life I would have lived, had I chosen differently, will forever remain a mystery. Perhaps that it is the very reason that all of us tend to wonder, “What if I had chosen a different path…,” especially when something unfortunate happens.

But by the same token, had a different path been taken, one can also imagine how life might have been even tougher.

Even in my case, had I chosen my mother and left home with her, maybe I would have been abused after disobeying my new father. Or I would have become a juvenile delinquent and thrown my life away.

But in all honesty, if I had known about the many difficulties that would befall me after my mother left, I am not sure if I still would have chosen my father’s side.

It’s hard to believe, but shortly after my mother left home, my father disappeared.

Sometime later when I had asked about what happened, I was told something about how he had suddenly left because of the difficulty integrating his new girlfriend into the family with my grandparents and me.

But there is no way a five year old child would ever understand something like that.

So, without knowing my life was being ravaged by this terrible thing called “family breakdown”, I naively wondered when my father would come home. But no matter how long I waited, he never did.

At this point you probably expected me to get all depressed, but you would be wrong. I was more of the hyperactive little-rascal types, always jumping around and full of energy.

Now that I think about it, I didn’t cry even a single time when my mother disappeared or my father went off somewhere.

I’m pretty sure that was because I lived with my grandparents, who were the type of people who weren’t phased by anything. Or maybe I should say so stoic about things it was scary.

Had my grandmother despaired and broke down crying, or my grandfather openly expressed his anger towards my irresponsible father, I may very well have been influenced by that and turned cynical.

However, even on the day when my mother walked out, my grandparents were unflinchingly calm and collected, not making a big fuss about how terrible things had gotten or worrying themselves sick over what to do about it. The next day when I woke up in the morning, my grandmother asked me to get changed, and my grandfather gave me something to eat, as if it was just another day.

They never spoiled me to make up for what had happened, but neither did they yell and scream at me. I think I just naturally learned to accept what had happened back then, in a time when they gave me both freedom and comfort. Above all, my grandparents were there for me so I had nothing to worry about. I believed that with all my heart.

Nevertheless, when both of my parents–the breadwinners of the family–disappeared, our financial situation dramatically degenerated…

Thus we entered into a life of extreme poverty, solely dependent on my grandparents’ trifling pension income.

 

Leaky apartment

Until my father disappeared, I had lived together with my parents, grandparents, and uncle on my father’s side in Nakahara, Kawasaki, in Kanagawa, near the Tama river. It was a little town called Shin Maruko Tenjin.

When I was young, I felt like I was living in a giant one-story house. But now that I think about it, the place was actually part of a series of houses built from a single front wall that faced the street, what you would call a townhouse, and the area of the house was far from giant.

I think there were a few rooms: a mix of 100 square feet, 80 square feet, and 50 square feet rooms, but I have almost no memory of what the layout of the house was like.

What I do remember clearly was the disgusting slugs oozing out from the cracks in the borders between rooms, and the well in the backyard. It didn’t have a handpump but was instead an old-fashioned well where you had to pull up the rope yourself to draw water, just like the one Sadako came out of in the movie The Ring. So it was a little scary.

I remember one other thing: we shared the bathroom with the house next door.

The bathroom had two doors, one connected to our house, and the other to the house next door. There were times when I barged in after checking that all my family members were in view, only to find the neighbor squatting there, as well as times when the neighbor opened the door on me while I was taking a leak.

(End of page 23)

Japanese Book Review: “Poverty Lessons” (ビンボー魂) by Toru Kazama (風間トオル)

When I read for pleasure in either Japanese or English, I tend to go with fiction, and the book reviews I post on this blog reflect that pretty well. But over time, I’ve still read my share of non-fiction books, including those about stock investing, technology, and science. There is one genre, however, which I’ve never dabbled in, which is biographies.

That’s why when I was first recommended the book “Poverty Lessons” by Toru Kazama, I was a little hesitant to read it. After all, how interesting could someone’s life really be, especially that of some guy I’d never of heard of before? But it was a very high recommendation from someone I trusted, so I decided to give it a chance.  (By the way, “Poverty Lessons” is my own translation of the original title “ビンボー魂” [Binbou Damashii] which literally means something like “Soul of the Poor” or “Spirit of a Poor Person”)

(Update: I’ve translated and posted a few pages of this book here)

You probably already gathered that this book is a biography, but before I go into the details I wanted to give you some background on the author Kazama Toru. He is a fairly prolific actor, having been in some 100+ TV dramas and around 30 movies. While I do occasionally watch watch Japanese dramas or movies, I can’t say I know enough about Japanese society to have a good feel for how popular he is. Although just judging from the raw number of appearances, he’s a pretty big person in the industry.

“Poverty Lessons” is essentially his biography that touches on some of the unique, funny, traumatic, or dramatic events in his life. But, as the title implies, the central part of this book is about his hard times as a boy when both of his parents left in quick succession and he was forced to live on the meager pension income of his grandparents, a lifestyle he refers to as extreme poverty.

To give an example: one of my favorite stories was how–lacking a bathtub or enough money to go to a public bath–he decided to take a spin himself in the washing machine with his clothes on. He says this was a major success, as it ended up getting both his body, and the clothes he was wearing clean. (I should give the usual disclaimer at this point: “kids don’t try this at home”)

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers in case you ever read the book, but his experiences in poverty range from funny, to scary, to downright weird. But one common thread running through many of them, and he mentions this himself, is out he learned to get creative with what little he did have or could get from the world around him without harming anyone. He also gives due credit to his grandparents for many of the good traits or habits he acquired along the way.

In later chapters of the book, he talks about the beginnings of his career in show business as model, and also about the big break that helped him land his first acting gig, the TV drama “ハートに火をつけて!” (“Light My Fire”) in 1989 which started a long acting career that still continues to this day. He also talks about some important topics like morality, kids who rebel, and what it means to truly love someone. Near the end of the book, he talks about a few miraculous experiences, like how he survived a near plane crash (everyone on the plane was injured except him).

Linguistically, the style employed is pretty down-to-earth, without many flashy words of expressions. This is a twofold blessing, both because it is relatively easy for people learning Japanese to get through this book, and also because there is a great deal of expressions in this book which you can apply to real life. So I would definitely recommend this book to students of Japanese that have a good grammar foundation and know a few hundred common Kanji characters.

But I haven’t answered the key question I presented early on: is this book worth reading even if you don’t know anything about the author?

If you are the type of person who does read biographies, I’d guess that you generally chose them from authors you are already familiar with.  So, in that sense, this book certainly has the drawback (at least for people that don’t live in Japan) that the impact of the author’s stories are weakened by lack of the reader’s knowledge of him.

Due to my unfamiliarity with biographies out there, it’s hard for me to compare, but one of the main things that struck me as notable for this book was the sense of authenticity and honesty the author conveys. This seems right in line with his character: a down-to-earth guy who likes surfing and experiencing nature. While one or two of his stories were a little extreme, on the whole the book was very believable, and I never really felt he wrote this book just to take advantage of his popularity and make a quick buck. The book is fairly short (around 200 pages) and I feel that he only included what was necessary. No more, no less.

Starting with the premise of having both parents leave at an early age, with barely enough food to survive, you might think this is a dark or depressing book. But that’s not the case. Another strong point about this book is how Toru Kazama takes it all in stride, saying things like how he didn’t even have the chance to sit worrying about his predicament. If you look at the cover (below) you can see a little taste for his carefree, happy attitude that permeates the book. There are a few other illustrations scattered throughout the book (with the same childish, simplistic style) that work together well with his writing style to keep things positive.

While I feel only a fraction of his anecdotes amount to something you can directly apply to your own life, his creative use of limited resources is a great lesson that could benefit us all. Also, for those of us who have been fortunate to live above the poverty line our entire lives, Kazama san’s experiences are a eye-opening window into the life of those who struggle just to stay fed, day after day. Above all, this book is testament to how hard work (and a little luck) can make a real-life rags-to-riches story.

You can get the Japanese print version of the book on Amazon Japan or Yes Asia, or the digital version on BookLive. The last of these also has a free sample of the first few pages.

Unfortunately, there is no official English translation for this book, and I don’t know of any plans to publish one. While there are a few parts that English-speaking audience might need footnotes for (like references to popular Japanese talk shows), overall I feel the majority of the content in this book is universal. Who knows, maybe I’ll translate a few pages myself so those without Japanese knowledge can get a taste for this book.

But I can say with certainty that I was fortunate to be able to read Japanese so I could learn about Toru Kazama’s Poverty Lessons.