Recently, I reviewed Jin Mayama’s book “そして、星の輝く夜がくる” which I thoroughly enjoyed and consider it one of the best Japanese novels I’ve read. As I’m always looking to improve my translation skills, especially for novels, I decided on translating just a few pages of it.
In short, the novel is about a teacher who volunteers to help teach an elementary school which has been heavily impacted by 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. I feel it us something important about the Japanese spirit, and about the challenges of those who lived through a natural disaster and it’s aftermath.
This was an extremely challenging translation, not just because the original Japanese text was written at a pretty high level, but also because it contains many cultural references which need to be treated very carefully to maintain the proper nuance, while at the same time making the material accessible to readers who are less familiar with Japan’s culture. Even in the first few pages, there are important themes introduced which are integral to the book as a whole.
To be clear, this is a completely unofficial fan translation, in no way endorsed by the author Jin Mayama or publisher Kodansha. If you like this and know Japanese (or are studying it), please consider buying the novel somewhere like Amazon Japan or Book Live. Or buy it as a present for someone who speaks Japanese.
(Note: as I may come back and revise portions of this in the future, please do not excerpt any of the translated text on a blog or anywhere else. Linking to this post directly is fine, however.)
“And thus, the starry night fell upon them” By Jin Mayama
Book 1: Unbearable Times
“I’d like to welcome Mr. Teppei Onodera, who has come to assist us all the way from Kobe. He was involved in the Great Hanshin Earthquake sixteen years ago, and ever since has continually strived to help children in the face of difficulties brought about by the disaster. We are very grateful to have his positive attitude and energy helping out at our school.”
It was the first day of school after the long Golden Week holiday break, and Onodera was wondering what he got himself into as he listened to the principal address the students at the morning assembly. I’m not the great teacher he is making me out to be. After all, when things got really rough, it was my students who supported me, not the other way around.
The three Northeastern prefectures severely impacted by the 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake had made a request for aid due to a lack of teachers, and in May of that year the City of Kobe’s board of education responded by dispatching a total of 34 teachers, including Onodera. Although all of them had volunteered for the transfer, each had a different reason for doing so. There were young, enthusiastic teachers who wanted simply to provide assistance to the children affected by this disaster, as well as good-hearted veterans hoping to repay the favor for the support they received during the aftermath of the Hanshin Earthquake. Of all of them, Onodera felt his motivation for volunteering was probably the least honorable: he was trying to escape from a superior at the workplace whom he got into trouble with.
Shortly after making an empty threat to the principal that he would resign if not allowed to transfer, he got a call about the same opportunity from the ex-principal of an elementary school he had worked at during the time of the 1995 Kobe disaster. This was one of the few people whom Onodera genuinely respected, so he went ahead and applied for the transfer with the ex-principal’s recommendation.
After 20 years as a teacher, he’d become worn out by the daily grind and fed up with complex relationships at work. Onodera knew it was a selfish desire, but now that he was in his 40s he needed a change of environment.
“Now let’s have a few words from Mr. Onodera.”
Taking the cue from the principal, Onodera mounted the platform in front of the morning assembly. As he looked out upon the crowd, the first thing that caught his attention was the large pile of rubble towering on the far side of the campus. In stark contrast to the fine weather, it stood as a sobering reminder that this was the site of a major disaster. The only thing that saved Onodera from being overwhelmed by this harsh reality was the earnest faces of the children watching him.
He shouted out these first words loudly to help clear his mind, giving a thumbs up with his right hand. But there was no change to the students’ expressions, and an awkward tension fell over the crowd. Onodera continued on with his thick Kansai accent.
“Is anyone awake out there? When somebody greets you, you’re supposed to greet them back! Let’s try one more time…Hello!”
An unenthusiastic “Hello” came back from only about a fifth of the crowd. The others exchanged confused glances with their friends, unsure of how to respond.
Onodera yelled out once more, putting even more energy into his voice. As he repeated this a few more times, the crowd’s half-hearted replies gradually began to strengthen.
“OK, much better! Now that’s what I wanted to hear! I’m Teppei Onodera from Kobe, on a mission to bring some sunshine back in your lives. I’m really looking forward to spending the next year with everyone.”
He bowed deeply to end his short introduction, purposely bumping his head into the microphone. A few bursts of laughter rose from the crowd. Now this is how kids are supposed to act. Onodera hit the microphone once more on the way back up. The laughter in the audience further intensified with nearly every student responding favorably to his antics as the neatly-arranged rows of the morning assembly were thrown into chaos.
“Let me make one thing clear. While I am no comedian, I do come from the Kansai region, the birthplace of many popular stand-up comics. So if I say something funny it’s OK to laugh out loud.”
Just as Onodera finished his speech and began to descend from the platform the ground started to shake.
He screamed and crouched down, clinging tightly to the microphone stand. The tremors continued for the next 10 to 20 seconds. After some time had passed, Onodera opened his eyes and exchanged glances with the principal.
“Mr. Onodera, the earthquake is over now.”
When he finally stood up after the principal spoke, a few students were laughing. As Onodera scratched his head he realized something odd–most of the children hadn’t even made a single sound when the very earth beneath them was trembling.
The disaster had caused terrible damage to the schools. Many of the buildings hit by the tsunami were no longer usable. For the schools that were fortunate enough to suffer only minor damage, their gyms and classrooms were being used as shelters, resulting in preparations for the next school year getting postponed and the beginning of next term delayed as much as a month. Even once school had officially begun, it felt like a premature start in the midst of continued chaos, with a large number of children and teachers scattered far from their homes.
The Toma District 1 Elementary School where Onodera had been newly assigned was close to the scenic Matsubara coast, famous for its public beaches. The area around the school gate, downhill from the main grounds, had been completely washed away by the tsunami, although the school buildings themselves were spared from any significant damage. The urban area surrounding the school also suffered severe damage, with 31 children, 51 family members, and two teachers tragically lost.
Of the 518 children who were enrolled, nearly a third transferred to another school because of the disaster. Four teachers left due to family circumstances or other problems.
The government took measures to increase the teaching staff, not just to compensate for the vacant positions, but also to help treat the students’ psychological trauma and make up for the learning delays caused by the disaster. However, there was an overwhelming lack of teachers. As a result, only two teachers joined the District 1 Elementary School for the new school year, Onodera and a young woman.
On insistent request from the Principal, Onodera took charge of the second 6th grade class, where twenty-four students now awaited his arrival.
When Onodera entered the classroom one of the students called out “Stand!”, and the entire class rose from their desks. As he took his place behind the podium, they raised their voices in unison, “Good morning!”
He waved with his right hand as he spoke, causing muted giggles to spread through the classroom. Just then, the room began to shake. Onodera ordered the class to hide under their desks, and while a few children did as they were told, the majority simply grinned as they watched him lose his cool.
“The next time one of those hits, you all better get down,” Onodera warned them once the tremors faded.
“But it was just short of a magnitude three. Nothing to worry about,” announced a small child sitting in the first row of seats. He was clearly unaffected by the earthquake.
“Are you supposed to be some kind of earthquake detector?”
“Mr. Onodera, Manda’s guesses are pretty accurate.”
“That doesn’t matter. If you feel a tremor, get under your desk. That’s an order.”
“Sir, you were in the Great Hanshin Earthquake, right?”
“So I thought that maybe you were pretty used to earthquakes and all…”
“No way would I ever get used to something like an earthquake. There is a reason certain things frighten us. Pretending nothing is wrong is the worst thing you can do. Never forget that. When you feel the shaking, get down.”
“You’re just a coward.”
“No, but I am scared of earthquakes. When I scream at you to get down, it’s because I don’t want any of you to get hurt.”
His heartfelt appeal to their safety fell upon deaf ears. It was as if they were making fun of the very idea of being afraid.
“Never underestimate the power of earthquakes. You should be thankful you’ve survived so far.”
Ever since that terrible day many years ago, Onodera had decided it was never a good thing to get accustomed to earthquakes just because the aftershock tremors had continued for a long time after.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s my number one rule: ‘Cowards win in the end’.”
He scribbled “Cowards win in the end!” on the freshly wiped blackboard.
“You’re handwriting stinks.”
The class burst out laughing at this remark from a boy in the last row.
“So what? More importantly, Goro Endo, are you afraid of earthquakes?”
The large eyes of Endo–if anyone was a prankster it was him–opened even wider.
“Hey teach, how do you know my name?”
“Let’s just say us teachers from Kobe know more than you can imagine. Now back to the question.”
“No, earthquakes don’t scare me. But… I really hate them.”
“Alright, let’s ask the others. Who’s afraid of earthquakes?”
About a third of the class raised their hands, all girls. Not even a single boy admitted to being afraid.
“Looks like this class is filled with a bunch of tough guys. Or maybe you’re all just trying to act tough. Yukio Ota, which are you?”
When singled out, the small boy jumped to his feet as if he’d just been shot at. Onodera’s decision to memorize the entire seating chart of his new class yesterday had paid off nicely.
“No sir, I am not trying to act tough. I’ve just gotten used to the tremors which come so often.”
“Never get used to earthquakes. No matter what happens, don’t forget that. OK?”
Onodera emphasized his point by tapping the characters on the blackboard several times.
“Alright, let’s try one more question. How many of you hate the phrase ‘Do your best”?
This time the vast majority of the class raised their hands.
“Naomi Matsui, why do you hate it?”
The tall, mature-looking Naomi grimaced before speaking.
“Because it’s super annoying.”
The other students laughed, but Onodera felt her answer shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“Why is it super annoying?
“Since we’re already trying our hardest, we just want to be left alone.”
A few students nodded in agreement.
“However,” began the honor-student opinion of class representative Satoshi Chiba, “I feel that we should be thankful that there are people from all over the world offering encouragement.”
“Good point. After all, some people say ‘love will save the world’. But I have something else to tell everyone.”
Onodera used chalk on the blackboard once more: “Don’t work too hard.”
“Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Can a teacher really say that?”
The class began to buzz with excitement. Onodera paid no mind to the clamor in the classroom and began passing out blank sheets of writing paper.
“I’d like everyone to write an essay. The theme is introducing yourself. However, there’s one thing I would like you all to include in your essay.”
He paused until the papers had reached all the way to the students in the very back of the classroom.
“You have to write about something that makes you angry enough to want to scream, ’I can’t take this anymore!’”.
At Onodera’s remark, looks of confusion appeared on the students’ faces.
“Don’t hold back. You can write anything you like. Just make sure you write about something you can’t bear anymore.”
At the morning assembly Onodera had noticed the children were surprisingly well behaved. He couldn’t help feeling each of them was trying hard to endure something painful. While he believed that each region had its own characteristic personality traits, there seemed to be more than these children that would be explained by that.
Onodera clapped his hands to signal the start of the assignment, and each student looked down at the blank sheet on their desk.
He paced slowly through the silent classroom to a window and gazed outside. PE classes were in session across half of the school, and tents containing emergency supplies and provisions covered the other half in a disorganized mess. Because the gymnasium was being used as a emergency shelter, the PE classes were held in large groups combining students from all grades. The students appeared somehow cramped in their unfamiliar surroundings. To make things even worse, there was that mountain of debris on the far side of the school fence. There lie the bank of the Toma river, where waste from the disaster was piled in a large heap. Dump trucks drove by, kicking up dust and dirt, and excavators moved busily around the trash collection area. A dust cloud formed each time one of their shovels scooped up debris. The school’s fence enclosed it on all sides, but the pile of debris had already well exceeded the fence’s height. At times, eddies of dust particles would fall from the fence and disperse into the school grounds.
One of the dust particle clouds looked as if it was raining down onto the children in the sports field.
I wonder if that dust will have any impact on the children’s health…
Why did they decide on putting a trash collection area right next to an elementary school anyway?
Didn’t the school principal and neighborhood object?
Within a city scarred as far as the eye can see, the elementary school was the only thing making a fierce attempt to return to everyday life. But the surrounding environment was hindering that effort.
There’s just something odd about this place. Maybe it’s everyone pushing themselves so hard. There’s no doubt that the people here–and the city itself–want to get things back to normal.
Onodera sighed deeply and looked back towards the children busying themselves with their assignment.