Thursday, 31 October 2013

A Ginza Ghost

[You may want to check the warning on this blog's translations.]

This a translation of a short detective story by 大阪圭吉 (OOSAKA Keikichi, 1912-1945), first published in the Japanese magazine Shinseinen (新青年) in 1936. I've called it "A Ginza Ghost", but you might prefer "The Ginza Ghost"; there's no article in the Japanese. You can read the original online at Aozora Bunko here. The four stories that I've read by this writer all feature amateur detectives; but they are not the aristocratic dilettantes that the word suggests. They are all professionals in some modern specialist work, sometimes in a management role, but still closely involved with the actual work (the director of a marine biology laboratory, for instance). This story shares with another famous Oosaka story, とむらい機関車 ("Funeral Train") a narrative approach which gives the narrative viewpoint to a whole neighbourhood. There are certainly better stories by Oosaka than this one; and I wouldn't want to claim too much for it. But I think it's an effective mystery, and the evocation of thirties Ginza could be interesting for western readers.

 There are only five named characters in the story, TSUNEGAWA Fusae, her daughter Kimiko, her employee Sumiko, her lover Tatsujirou, and the detective NISHIMURA. We don't learn the surnames of Sumiko or Tatsujirou, or the first name of Nishimura. I've written Tatsujiro in the story, because that's how the name would mostly be written in English.

Where I could easily translate with an English expression, I have. I'll try to explain everything else here in advance.
Ginza: a Tokyo district, at that time very lively, and very modern, with many cafés.
ken: an old Japanese length measure, 1.8m.
tsubo: an old Japanese area measure, 3.3 sq. m.
well beam pattern, a shape with two crossing vertical and horizonatal lines, like the kanji for well, 井.
yakko kite: this is actually the point in the translation where I'm least confident. The symbol 奴 has various meanings: slave, person (derogatory) and I think I've seen it used dismissively for an (unspecified) thing. But here this is the only thing that seems to fit from what my dictionary or the internet offers me. The yakko kite is a traditional kite shaped like a man (a servant, hence the name).
Shinbashi: a Tokyo district just south of Ginza.
National Lamp: a popular square shaped (bicycle) lamp of the time, made by the company that later became Panasonic.

Story after the break.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Kiki's Delivery Service

Kiki's Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便, more literally "Witch's express home delivery service") is a 1985 children's book by KADONO Eiko (角野 栄子, born 1935). It was a successful book in its own right, with several sequels; but it is best known as the book on which the Japan's most famous cartoon director, MIYAZAKI Hayao (宮崎 駿), based his 1989 film of the same name. For once, there is an English translation (which I haven't seen), by Lynne E. Riggs in 2003. It seems to be out of print at the moment; but second hand copies are easy to find.

It's hard to fairly judge a story when you've first got to know it in a different form. The few films that I've ever walked out of have been adaptations of books that I had read. In this case I knew the film before I read the book, and I couldn't help judging it in the light of the film.

In the world of the story, witches are a part of everyday life, but much rarer than they once were. Kiki, the daughter of a witch, has the choice of becoming a normal girl or a witch, and chooses the latter. Witches' skills have grown fewer over the years. Though Kiki's mother can both fly and make potions, Kiki herself has only learnt to fly. Her one other piece of magic is that she can talk to and understand her black cat Jiji, born at the same time as Kiki. In the year when she reaches thirteen, the custom is for a witch to spend one year living independently in a strange town. Kiki leaves the little town between wooded mountains where she grew up and sets off southwards, towards the sea. Following a river she comes to a large coastal town, with an improbably high clocktower, and decides to try making that her home for the year. The cool reception from the townspeople is a shock to her; but kinder treatment from a baker, Sono, persuades her to stay and earn her living by delivering parcels for the townspeople.

So far, those who know the film should find a lot that they are familiar with. Many of the strengths of the film come from the book. Kiki and other named characters are much the same in both. Kiki's parents are the same combination of stricter mother and more indulgent father. Jiji has the same cautious outlook on the world, but also a more childish side in the book. The themes are very similar; but Miyazaki makes the film more a story of a child coping with having to rely on their own emotional resources. The book is far more episodic: it follows the year that Kiki spends in the town with a series of seasonal episodes. Miyazaki selects a few of these (often radically changed) and puts them together to tell a story which does not attempt to fill the whole year. The film also shifts the emphasis towards realism, with its loving creation of a beautiful but plausible Scandivian town. The book allows itself a lot of deliberate comic absurdity, of which very little gets into the film (only the episode where Jiji must pretend to be a stuffed cat, I think). For instance, when the mayor discovers that the clock is broken on New Year's Eve, he wants to 'borrow' a gear from the clock of a nearby town, which has the same mechanism.
As soon as Kiki landed on the clock tower, the mayor spoke agitatedly, 'The fact is, this largest cog wheel of this clock is broken, you see? ..... If you cross three mountains west of here, the town over there ..... You could make an appropriation and come back to us, hmm? .... um, um, it's really urgent. ..... hmm? hmm? hmm?'

'Appropriation?' Kiki asked round eyed.

In response the mayor shrugged his shoulders and said in a small voice, 'In other words, just for the time the clock is sounding midnight, borrow it without telling anyone ..... is what I mean.'

'In other words, steal it?'

'Shhh! That's a bad word. That's not a word that a girl should be using. Definitely, definitely "borrowing" is what we want to call it. After all, we'll give it back when we're done."

By some accounts, Kadono was not happy with the film's changes to the book. But the character of the story is not massively changed beyond what I have described. Those who like the film would probably find the book interesting too.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Klein Bottle

クラインの壺 (Klein Bottle, 1989) is the last mystery written by 岡嶋二人 (OKAJIMA Futari), a team of two writers, who after this worked separately. The other Okajima Futari novels that I've discussed, 焦茶色のパステル and そして扉が閉ざされた, are fairly clearly puzzle detective stories, although the first also has a strong adventure story element. Klein Bottle still has detective story type clues; but it is much more of an adventure story. Specifically it's a science fiction mystery.

 I make a character list when reading Japanese detective stories, because otherwise I tend to forget the kanji readings. In case it's any use to anyone else, here it is. 

Kanji Reading Character
梶谷孝行 KAJITANI Takayuki Epsilon Project operations manager
上杉彰彦 UESUGI Akihiko game scenario author
敷島映一 SHIKISHIMA Eiichi Uesugi's brother in law
敷島邦子 SHIKISHIMA Kuniko Uesugi's sister
百瀬伸夫 MOMOSE Nobuo Epsilon Project research engineer
高石梨紗 TAKAISHI Risa game tester
ケネス・バドラー Kenneth Badler Epsilon Project research engineer
笹森貴美子 SASAMORI Kimiko Epsilon Project manager
真壁七美 MAKABE Nanami Risa's friend
豊浦利也 TOYOURA Toshiya game tester
姫田恒太 HIMEDA Kouta journalist

The setting is modern day Japan. A firm called Epsilon Project buy a game scenario written by the young Uesugi Akihiko. They mean to make not a normal computer game, but a virtual reality game, where the player is completely immersed in the game world and experiences it like the real world. When the game is developed, he and another tester are invited to play it through. But is it really a game they are developing?

All the Okajima Futari books that I've read have been good storytelling. The mystery element here (as in their first book) is a bit too obvious to people expecting this kind of story, so that the reader is often well ahead of the narrator, Uesugi. (Perhaps that was less of a problem in 1989, before so many films with constructed realities came out.) Even if we have more of an idea what could be going on than the narrator, the larger question of what the Epsilon Project is doing remains; and it is easy to share Uesugi's confusion and fear.

My only problem while reading it was that the science fiction premise just didn't seem realistic. I read through thinking "OK, we'll say this happens. But you know that wouldn't really work, don't you?"

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Translation is Hard

This is really just a post to postpone another post. I think I mentioned earlier that I meant to put up a translation of an OOSAKA Keikichi (大阪圭吉) story, "The Ginza Ghost", soon. I see now it's better not to mention these things in advance, as soon will not be very soon. I have a draft of it ready, but it takes time to check the bits I'm unsure of and hunt for a reasonable phrasing. I expect it will be another two or three weeks before I'm done. 

In the meantime, if you can't read Japanese and are interested in finding out what sort of a writer he was, Ho-Ling has a translation of a different short story on his blog now. [UPDATE: He doesn't any more. I hope that it'll reappear in some other form for English readers some time.]

Reading it, it's perhaps a good thing that my own translation will not be ready for a while, as the two stories are probably best not read back to back.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Fox's Window

AWA Naoko (安房直子, 1943-1993) was a writer of fairy tales. The collection that I've read,  きつねの窓 (The Fox's Window), brings together stories from the late sixties and early seventies. You can read a discussion of  an earlier collection that it shares several stories with here. A selection of Awa's stories has been translated into English, The Fox's Window and Other Stories, translated by Toshiya Kamei, University of New Orleans Press 2010. I haven't seen this, but from looking at the contents page online, it seems to be a different selection from the one I've read, sharing only three stories, the title story and 夢の果て and 鳥. There's a blog review here.

The invention of new fairy tales is something I associate with the nineteenth century in Europe, particularly Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde; unfortunately the moralising of such stories often irritates me more than the retellings of traditional stories. Japan had several inventors of fairy tales in the twentieth century, such as MIYAZAWA Kenji and NIIMI Nankichi in the twenties and thirties. Awa's stories have a modern setting. In some, modern objects are at the heart of the story; in others there are only a few casual mentions of things like radio, plastic bags, electric lights, and the story would be the same if you replaced them with a more ancient equivalent. Compared to the writers mentioned above, Awa's stories are more delicate and insubstantial, often centering on some particularly strong image. Humour is very rare; and the mood is often one of mild melancholy.

I've put a little incomplete description of the stories below, so you can get an idea of them.

The Fox's Window, きつねの窓
A hunter misses his path and comes to a magical field of blue bellflowers. He catches sight of a white fox cub, and follows him, hoping to catch the cub's mother. Instead he finds a dye shop and the cub transformed into a boy (Japanese foxes can transform into people and create illusionary buildings).
"You know, sir, dyeing your fingers is just wonderful," he said and held his hands opened out in front of my eyes.
The thumbs and index fingers of his little white hands were dyed blue. The boy brought his hands together and made a diamond shaped window with the four blue dyed fingers. Then he held the window up above my eyes.
"Come on, just take a little look, please," he said enthusiastically.
"Umm," I said, not really on board.
"Oh, just a little. Just take a look, please."
So I peered, reluctantly, into the window. Then I froze in shock.
In the middle of the little window made by his fingers, I could see a white fox, a magnificent mother fox. With her tail sweeping gently to and fro in the air, she was sitting quite still. ...
"Thi-, what on earth ...." I was so astonished I couldn't say more than that.
The fox replied with a sigh, "This is my mother."
Sanshokko, さんしょっ子
The spirit of a pepper tree is a little girl, Sanshokko, watching another little girl, Suzuna, who plays beneath the tree with Santarou, a boy from the neighbourhood. Suzuna grows up into a beautiful woman and is given in marriage to a rich man in a nearby village. The boy, incompetently running the village tea house for his sick mother, watches her leave silently. Sanshokko tries to be his friend; but she has not realised that she has become only a green light and a voice. That voice sounds like Suzuna.

The End of the Dream, 夢の果て
A girl buys eyeliner and finds that it brings her a dream of running through fields of flowers. She senses that on the far horizon someone is waiting.

An Hour that Nobody Knows, だれも知らない時間
A turtle dreams of a girl in a jar beneath the sea and waits for the long years he must live to end.
He shares some of his time with a young man in exchange for sake. Every day he gets one extra hour that only he can experience, in which he can practise his taiko drumming. Then one evening the girl from the turtle's dream comes to his house.

Incidentally the story mentions the turtle's experience of being fed sake by fishermen and sent out to sea again. In 母のない子と子のない母と  (Children with No Mother, A Mother with No Child) by TSUBOI Sakae (壺井栄), there's an episode where just this happens. Perhaps it's a common custom.

Green Skip, 緑のスキップ
In a cherry grove an owl finds a little girl in a pink kimono. She is cherry blossom shade and must disappear when the cherry blossom is gone. The owl keeps watch over the grove and tries to protect it from anything that can harm the blossom. But the spirits that bring leaves to the world are coming.

The Land of Evening Sun, 夕日の国
A young girl shows a boy a magic way to go to the land of evening sun. But each visit can only last for a few moments.

Snow on the Sea, 海の雪
Snow is falling. A youth comes to a seaside town, looking for his mother. He finds a nearly deserted town. One girl shares her umbrella with him.

The Deep Well the Mole Dug, もぐらがほった深い井戸
A young mole finds a coin and buys a tiny square of land. He delights in having real property, as far up in the sky as he can see and as far down as he can dig. For years he digs a well, but as he does so he becomes selfish. Others ought to pay, if they are to enjoy the benefits of his work and his property.

Miss Sally's Hand, サリーさんの手
A young woman lives in a cheap apartment overlooking a noisy railway. Even in the dead of night there sometimes seems to be a special train passing. She works in a doll factory, sewing the hands of a doll called Miss Sally; but she comes to feel that the hands she is sewing are like strange plants and the endless identical Sallies have no life to them. Then one sleepless night, she decides to watch for the train that she sometimes hears.

Bird, 鳥
A young woman visits an ear specialist with an unusual problem.

"Something's got into your ear?" he asked.

The girl with an incredibly sad face, said, "It's um, it's a secret."

"A secret." The doctor looked at her sternly, "We can't have secrets. Or we can't cure it, can we?"

The girl became even more glum, "That's what I'm telling you: it's a secret. A secret's got down into my ear."

This is the only joke I noticed in all the stories. (It's a good one though, isn't it?) This story is also unusual in its narrative style. The ending is prepared with a series of clues, like a little mystery story, although in other respects it is no less of a poetic fairy tale.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Cat Knew

NIKI Etsuko (仁木悦子, 1928-1986) wrote eleven mystery novels and over a hundred short stories as well as children's books. Her novel, 猫は知っていた (The Cat Knew, 1957) won the Edogawa Rampo Award, one of the major prizes for Japanese mysteries, and was made into a film in 1958 and a television drama in 1973.

At the age of four, Niki had been diagnosed with caries of the thoracic vertebrae, which led to paralysis of both legs. She spent her childhood confined to bed, unable to attend school. Her father died when she was seven years old, her mother and oldest brother died during the war and she came to live with another brother. At first she wrote children's stories, but turned to detective stories with 猫は知っていた.

I make a bookmark with the readings of the names when I read a novel, since names are one of the hardest things to learn (for me at least). Here's a list of the more important names. The question marks are for readings not provided in the book.

Name Reading Description
二木悦子 NIKI Etsuko music student
仁木雄太郎 NIKI Yuutarou botany student, Etsuko's older brother
箱崎兼彦 HAKOSAKI Kanehiko doctor
箱崎英一 HAKOSAKI Eiichi his oldest son, medical student
箱崎敬二 HAKOSAKI Keiji his second son, student
箱崎幸子 HAKOSAKI Sachiko his young daughter
箱崎敏枝 HAKOSAKI Toshie his wife
桑田ちえ KUWATA Chie her mother
桑田ユリ KUWATA Yuri Chie's granddaughter
野田 NODA nurse
家永 IENAGA nurse
人見 HITOMI nurse
平坂勝也 HIRASAKA Katsuya patient
平坂清子 HIRASAKA Kiyoko his wife
江藤まゆみ EDOU Mayumi patient
小山田すみ子 OYAMADA Sumiko patient
宮内正 MIYAUCHI Tadashi patient
桐野次郎 KIRINO Jirou patient
カヨ Kayo maid in the Hakosaki household
清川 KIYOKAWA? previous owner of the clinic
大野 OONO? accident victim
吉川 YOSHIKAWA? neighbour
笠井あきら KASAI Akira detective story writer
峰岸周作 MINEGISHI Shuusaku retired police inspector
KINUTA deputy inspector
杉山 SUGIYAMA? president of Yuri's drama club

The two central character of the book are the botany student, NIKI Yuutarou, and his younger sister, music student Etsuko, who is also the narrator. (Author as fictional character is an Ellery Queen like feature also found in ARISUGAWA Arisu, 有栖川 有栖, and NORIZUKI Rintarou, 法月綸太郎.) In this period it was rare for students to have their own apartment; and the two of them rent a room in the Hakosaki Clinic. (Given her background, a hospital setting perhaps reflects the received wisdom to 'write what you know'.) For a reduction in the rent, Etsuko will be teaching piano to the youngest daughter, Sachiko. Soon mysterious incidents start to occur. Etsuko rescues KUWATA Chie, the mother in law of the clinic's doctor, from the storehouse, where somebody had locked her in. Soon after, both Chie and a patient, the antique dealer, HIRASAKA Katsuya, are found to have gone missing, although no-one should have been able to leave the grounds unobserved. Also missing is Chimi, a young black cat who has a tendency to follow people about. Chimi reappears in the grounds of the temple next door; but there is no sign of the others until Yuutarou discovers the strangled body of Chie. This is the first of a series of murders in the clinic, many of which seem to involve the little cat in some way. Etsuko does some of the investigation, but for the most part she plays the role of intelligent Watson to her older brother.

Niki has been described as 'the Japanese Agatha Christie' in Japan. This kind of description is sometimes used by publishers to sell Japanese writers to western audiences. Julian Symons somewhere comments on the extreme absurdity of the same description used for NATSUKI Shizuko (夏樹 静子); and if you google "Japanese Stieg Larsson", you'll find hundreds of people making the happy discovery that HIGASHINO Keigo is nothing like Stieg Larsson. In this case however, the Christie comparison is really quite appropriate. The style and narrative technique has the same kind of easy simplicity. There is little expression of strong emotion of any kind. Niki describes most events with mild humour, becoming briefly serious, but not overwrought, when appropriate. The setting is the normal, modern day world. You could say that Niki was the polar opposite to YOKOMIZO Seishi. A.A. Milne's "The Red House Mystery" gets mentioned early in the book; and that too is similar. 

As a puzzle, it's certainly not on a level with the best Agatha Christie; but it's a well made and fairly clued mystery. I was particularly impressed when I got to the motive, which came as a horrific revelation, although it was obvious once I read it.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Looking for Information on Japanese Children's Books

I wrote earlier about looking online for information on Japanese detective stories. For children's books, the supply is in some sense worse; but there are a couple of very good sites.

I haven't found any English language blog devoted to reviewing Japanese children's books, at least none that had more than one or two posts. There is a group blog of some translators of Japanese children's books, SCBWI Japan Translation Group. It has some posts that could be of interest for people who want to find more about Japanese children's books, particularly in this category.

The International Institute for Children's Literature, Osaka, apparently no longer exists as such, having been disbanded in 2009 and incorporated into another library. Its website still exists; and there is a really useful list of a hundred representative works from 1868 to 1979, with descriptions and sample illustrations for each book. The list is divided into two parts, 1868-1945 and 1946-1979. There is an English version; but you have to go down from the top level into each half before the button for it appears: 1868-1945; 1946-1979. The enlarge feature for the illustrations doesn't seem to work on all the English pages; you might want to try clicking over to the Japanese in that case.

JBBY, the Japanese Board on Books for Young People, has a little information, and unlike the IICLO it includes more recent books.

J'Lit, the site of the Japanese Literature Publishing and Promotion Center, has pages describing authors and representative works. It has some older works, but the emphasis is on current and recent writers. The author descriptions often mention books that have been translated. They have a category for children's books.

There's one author specific site I know of, The World of Kenji Miyazawa, devoted  to Japan's most famous children's writer.

The page by Satoru Saito at Columbia with bibliography on popular literature, that I mentioned on the page on detective stories, also has a section for secondary literature on children's books.

Public Domain
Aozora Bunko has a lot of children's literature that is in the public domain and can be downloaded. I'll just name a few here, putting the Aozora Bunko link in brackets. Two writers in particular are known as children's writers. KENJI Miyazawa (宮沢 賢治), who also wrote poetry, is probably Japan's most famous children's writer. I find some of his stories are payment enough for the trouble of learning Japanese, for their vividness, liveliness and complex simplicity. NIIMI Nankichi (新美 南吉) is also well known. Most Japanese adults seem to have read 'Gon the Fox' in school. (This probably started a teacher experimenting to see if they could get the whole class crying inconsolably in one moment.) Most of the stories by him that I have read seem very simple; sometimes one feels a little uncertain whether the simple moral that the story offers is really all that the story is saying. There are also writers more famous for literature for adults, such as ARISHIMA Takeo (有島 武郎; I translated a couple of his stories here and here), and DAZAI Osamu (太宰 治).

The International Library of Children's Literature in Tokyo is (as you'd guess) a library with a specialist children's literature collection. As major libraries often do, they have exhibitions of books, which might be worth a visit, if you're interested in children's books and you have a rainy day in Tokyo. When I was there last autumn, they had a general history exhibition and one on a particular writer (which I skipped). The general exhibition had a useful brochure with bibliography and links to websites.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

When Yatchan Swallowed a Go Stone

[You may want to check the warning on this blog's translations.]

This is another translation of a story by ARISHIMA Takeo (有島武郎, 1878-1923), whose ʻA Bunch of Grapes’ (一房の葡) I translated earlier (here). It was published along with ʻA Bunch of Grapesʼ and other stories in the collection of that name in 1922. Arishima’s work is in the public domain; and the story can be downloaded from Aozora Bunko, here.

 I’ll explain in advance a few of the things mentioned in the story. If you’re familiar with Japan, you probably know everything already and you might want to skip this. 

Go stones are the playing pieces for the game of go, a board game played on a grid (19 rows each way), in which two players, one with white stones, one with black, compete to control territory. In Japan the stones are typically shaped like lentils (or smarties, if you prefer). The diameter of a stone might be about a centimeter or slightly under that.

Go stones
By liz west  [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The tatami mentioned in the story is a kind of straw mat of a standard size. Several of them are placed together to cover a traditional Japanese room. The rooms are in standard sizes too, measured as multiples of tatami mats. The rooms are fairly flexible, with removable or slidable walls and doors.
Japanese room
 The ochanchan that the nurse is sewing in the story is the same as the chanchanko (ちゃんちゃんこ), I think, a short padded sleeveless kimono jacket (typically for children).

Seishoukousama (“Say-show-Coe-sama”) is probably a Buddhist temple in Tokyo, also known as Kakurinji. But I haven’t found anything relevant about it online.

I’ve put the translation after the break.