Character Studies and Murakami’s Financial Situation

Welcome back to Murakami Fest 2020!

Previous Murakami Fest Posts:

Year 1: BoobsThe WindBaseballLederhosenEels, Monkeys, and Doves
Year 2: Hotel Lobby OystersCondomsSpinning Around and Around街・町The Town and Its Uncertain WallA Short Piece on the Elephant that Crushes Heineken Cans
Year 3: “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and WeirsThe LibraryOld DreamsSaying GoodbyeLastly
Year 4: More DrawersPhone CallsMetaphorsEight-year-olds, dudeUshikawaLast Line
Year 5: Jurassic SapporoGerry MulliganAll Growns UpDanceMountain Climbing
Year 6: Sex With Fat WomenCoffee With the ColonelThe LibrarianOld ManWatermelons
Year 7: WarmthRebirthWastelandHard-onsSeventeenEmbrace
Year 8: PigeonEditsMagazinesAwkwardnessBack Issues
Year 9: WaterSnæfellsnesCannonballDistant Drumming
Year 10: VermontersWandering and BelongingPeter Cat, Sushi Counter, Murakami Fucks First
Year 11: Embers, Escape, Window Seats, The End of the World
Year 12: Distant Drums, Exhaustion, Kiss, Lack of Pretense, Rotemburo
Year 13: Murakami Preparedness, Pacing Norwegian Wood

The next chapter is titled “The Port and Vangelis” (港とヴァンゲリス), and it nicely summarizes the somewhat disorganized chapter that serves as a travel sketch and profile.

A big part of Murakami’s life on Mykonos revolves around the weather and availability of fish. They have to rush to the market in the morning to buy fish. There’s no fish store, just the market, and everything available sells out in a 30-minute window after the boats return from fishing in the morning. So when the weather is calm, they rush to the market and buy a few days’ worth of fish.

Greek food doesn’t sit well for them, and they end up needing to purge with simple meals after eating too much of the local food. Murakami goes on extensively about hanging out octopus to dry before cooking it, and there is even a photo included of an octopus strung out with Mykonos in the background included in the text. (Photo above is not from the book, but rather from Wikimedia Commons.)

This chapter is a good example of Murakami capturing characters on his trip. This section about the fish market leads naturally to their building manager Vangelis, who walks around the market talking with everyone. He manages a set of 20-30 two-floor buildings all surrounded by a wall. Each building has two maisonette style apartments. He’s turning 60 the following year and is relatively uneducated but has good intuition. He has a son and a daughter and two grandchildren. Family is important to him, and he seems disappointed Murakami doesn’t have kids. I’d say he could serve as inspiration for the Colonel in Hard-boiled Wonderland, but he’d already published that book by this point. It’s almost the reverse: one of his fictional characters come to life in the form of a middle-aged Greek man.

I enjoyed this part about Vangelis on Christmas Day:

Vangelis doesn’t drink while he works. But on Christmas Day, he put on his best suit and got quite drunk in his building manager’s office. Well, Christmas is basically like Japanese New Year’s. When Vangelis gets drunk, he turns bright red, is much more cheerful than usual, and talks loudly. He offered me some whiskey. He filled a glass to the brim. The whiskey was Johnny Walker Red Label. He was extremely proud to be drinking Johnny Walker. He must’ve been saving it specially for Christmas. He usually drinks cheap wine. He never drinks uzo. A long time ago he got drunk on uzo and something happened, so he seems to have sworn off it. No matter how much uzo I offered, Vangelis never took a sip of it. “Uzo is bad liquor,” he said with a dark look on his face. “Makes you an idiot. Haruki, you should be careful. Drink wine instead.”

ヴァンゲリスは仕事中は酒を飲まない。でもクリスマスの日には一張羅のスーツを着込んで、管理人室でかなり酔っぱらっていた。まあクリスマスといえば正月みたいなものである。ヴァンゲリスは酔っぱらうと真っ赤になって、いつもより陽気になり、声が大きくなる。そして僕にウィスキーを飲ませる。グラスになみなみと注いでくれる。ウィスキーはジョニー・ウォーカーの赤ラベルである。彼はジョニー・ウォーカーを飲んでいることがすごく得意そうだった。きっとクリスマス用に大事にとっておいたお酒なのだろう。いつもはだいたい安物のワインを飲んでいる。ウゾーは飲まない。昔ウゾーで酔っぱらって何かあって、それで懲りたのかもしれない。僕がどれだけウゾーを進めても、ヴァンゲリスは絶対に口をつけなかった。「ウゾー、悪い酒。頭バカになる。ハルキも気をつけたほうがいい。ワインにしなって」と言って暗い顔をした。 (156)

Vangelis takes a liking to the Murakamis and ends up serving as a social go-between for them. He takes them with him to Cafe Neon, a space for locals where foreign tourists aren’t usually welcomed. He pours them wine, points out items on the menu, and eventually the cafe warms up to the Murakamis.

The chapter ends with one additional character, whom Murakami calls T氏 (T-shi, Mr. T). This is interesting because so far Murakami has referred to everyone by name. I think this is likely because T is the property owner and the description of him isn’t flattering. He tries to sell one of the buildings to Murakami, who decides not to make a purchase. There is a cryptic mention of his finances in Tokyo:

But of course we didn’t buy one. They were nice vacation houses and pretty well built, the price was high but fair, and I liked the manager, Vangelis. But at that time, we didn’t have the leeway (we’d left Japan because financially we’d had a bit of instability), plus Greece is a little far from Japan. It’s not an easy place to access, where you might say, guess I’ll go to Guam for a bit, even if you had the time. If you had a vacation house in a place like Greece it would just end up being a lot of work.

でももちろん僕らは買わなかった。なかなかよくできた良いリゾート・ハウスだったし、値段も高いなりにまあ妥当な値段だったし、管理人ヴァンゲリスのことも気に入っていた。でもそのときは僕らにはそんな余裕はなかったし、(僕らは経済的にはそれなりの不安を抱えて日本を出てきたのだ)、それにギリシャは日本からいささか遠すぎる。暇ができても、じゃあちょっとグアムにでも行くかという風に簡単に行けるところではない。そんなところにリゾート・ハウスを持っても手間がかかるでけである。(158)

This is interesting, and perhaps refers to some of the “negative reasons” he ended up needing to take the European trip. But it does feel strange. He’d given up the jazz bar gig after completing Pinball, 1973, had had some serious success and written lots of stories and four novels, including the lengthy Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, plus we know he’s exhausted from all the writing and writing-adjacent work he’s been doing. But I guess cost of living in Japan might have been high for the salary he was able to turn around? Interesting little passage.

Pacing Norwegian Wood

Year 1: BoobsThe WindBaseballLederhosenEels, Monkeys, and Doves
Year 2: Hotel Lobby OystersCondomsSpinning Around and Around街・町The Town and Its Uncertain WallA Short Piece on the Elephant that Crushes Heineken Cans
Year 3: “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and WeirsThe LibraryOld DreamsSaying GoodbyeLastly
Year 4: More DrawersPhone CallsMetaphorsEight-year-olds, dudeUshikawaLast Line
Year 5: Jurassic SapporoGerry MulliganAll Growns UpDanceMountain Climbing
Year 6: Sex With Fat WomenCoffee With the ColonelThe LibrarianOld ManWatermelons
Year 7: WarmthRebirthWastelandHard-onsSeventeenEmbrace
Year 8: PigeonEditsMagazinesAwkwardnessBack Issues
Year 9: WaterSnæfellsnesCannonballDistant Drumming
Year 10: VermontersWandering and BelongingPeter Cat, Sushi Counter, Murakami Fucks First
Year 11: Embers, Escape, Window Seats, The End of the World
Year 12: Distant Drums, Exhaustion, Kiss, Lack of Pretense, Rotemburo
Year 13: Murakami Preparedness

After a cold, rainy fall on Spetses, the Murakamis decide to relocate to Mykonos, which he describes in a chapter simply titled “Mykonos.” Murakami is skeptical because he’s been before (twice apparently!) and it was more touristy than he was hoping for.

But that was during the season. The travel agent convinces him to take an off season spot on Mykonos, which ends up being perfect…and one of his only options. Murkami thought a lot of apartments would be available during the off season, but supply availability drops with demand, and a lot of landlords have already taken off for the year and are on vacation. It becomes difficult to even get in touch with them.

Mykonos in the off season is quiet and he ends up being relatively productive. After a big chunk complaining about the terrible, cold weather and why so many Japanese visit during that season (fall honeymoon season, New Year’s travels), he talks about what he worked on:

But as a result, despite this terrible weather, or perhaps precisely because of this terrible weather, Mykonos during the off season was actually the ideal environment for me to quietly get some work done. Here I completed the translation of C.D.B. Bryan’s novel The Great Dethriffe. It was pretty long, but the story was interesting, and I wanted to get through it quickly and start working on my own novel, so I steadily worked through the translation every day. I still wasn’t using a word processor at this point, so I crammed my writing into a college notebook with a fountain pen.

Once I made it to the end of The Great Dethriffe, I wrote several sketch-like pieces of writing about life on Spetses (the basis for the essays in this book) and then got started on the long-awaited novel. During that time my body had this incredible itch to write a novel. I was parched, thirsting for words. “Bringing” myself to that point was the most important thing. You can’t write a long novel without bringing yourself right up to a point like that. Just like running a marathon, if you fail to make the adjustments to get to that point, you won’t have the breath for the long haul.

That novel would later become Norwegian Wood, but I didn’t have a title at that point. I started writing casually and with the goal of making it a smooth 300-350 pages or so of 400-character manuscript paper, but when I’d written 600 pages I realized, “That’s not gonna work. There’s no way I’ll finish in 300-400 pages.” From that point until April of the following year (1987) I became completely absorbed in novel life as we moved between Sicily and Rome. In the end, the completed novel was 900 pages.

でも結果的に言って、このようなひどい天候にもかかわらず、いや、このようなひどい天候なればこそ、シーズン・オフのミコノスは僕が静かに仕事をするには実にもってこいの環境だった。僕はここでC・D・B・ブライアンの『グレート・デスリフ』という小説の翻訳を仕上げた。けっこう長い小説だったのだけれど、面白い話だったし、とにかくこれを早く仕上げて自分の小説にかかろうと思って、こつこつと毎日翻訳を進めていた。この頃はまだワードプロセッサーを使っていなかったから、大学ノートに万年筆でぎっしりと字を書いていた。

『グレート・デスリフ』を最後まで仕上げてから、スペッツェス島での生活についていくつかスケッチのような文章を書き(ここに収められたものの原形である)、それから待ち兼ねていたように小説にかかった。その頃にはその小説が書きたくて、僕のからだはどうしようもなくむずむずしていた。からだが言葉を求めてからからにに乾いていた。そこまで自分のからだを「持っていく」ことがいちばん大事なのだ。長い小説というのはそれくらいぎりぎりに持っていかないと書けない。マラソン・レースと同じで、ここに来るまでの調整に失敗すると長丁場で息がつづかなくなる。

この小説はのちに『ノルウェイの森』になるわけだが、このときにはまだタイトルもついていない。四百字詰めで三百枚か三百五十枚くらいのさらっとした小説にしようというくらいの軽い気持ちで書き始めたのだが、百枚くらい書いたところで「こりゃ駄目だ、とても三百、四百じゃ終わらない」とわかった。以来翌年(一九八七)の四月まで、シシリー、ローマと移動しながらの小説漬けの生活にのめり込んでいくことになる。結局出来上がった小説は九百枚だった。 (140-141)

This is a fascinating look at Murakami’s productivity and practices. As usual, he knocks out translations and nonfiction like they’re nothing. The Great Dethriffe is 252 pages, a substantial translation. He then writes the essays. And then apparently gets a draft of Norwegian Wood written in what must be about a six-month span. Absolutely crazy.

900 pages with 400 characters means 360,000 characters, and at about 2.2 English words per character that’s just over 160,000 words. Not a huge novel like the kind that Murakami writes now, and he was working from the short story “Firefly” (nice little ode to “Firefly” right here) but a remarkable feat nonetheless. All done on the road while putting up with storms and all sorts of other challenges (which we’ll see in later chapters)!

Murakami spends the rest of the chapter reminiscing about the different bars on Mykonos. After he writes every day (time his wife spends reading books, studying Italian, playing with cats, and not talking to him), they go to a bar and talk.

As usual Murakami does a good job of capturing the other people they run into. Bar owners, residents who have been to Japan before, the foreign community, and he ends the chapter with a sense that Mykonos is a place filled with people who are a little lost.

This is such a great book (rough at times, but full of energy), and it’s a shame it hasn’t been translated.

*

A brief aside about The Great Dethriffe. It’s a terrible book. The New York Times panned it when it was published. Japanese reviewers on Amazon have this to say about it:

グレート・ギャツビー(村上春樹訳)を読んで、数日後に読破。残念ながら、グレート・ギャツビーにかないいません。村上春樹さんの力の入れようも違うのかな。(I read The Great Gatsby [Haruki Murakami’s translation] and finished it in just a few days. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold a candle to The Great Gatsby. Maybe Murakami was wrong to put his energy into this.)

Even C.D.B. Bryan didn’t like it: One of his children has a blog with anecdotes from his letters, including this line: “So I went back to read Dethriffe yesterday and hated every minute of it. Why is it so difficult to reread something after it has been published.”

So I was extremely confused about how Murakami came to translate a book published in 1970 during the fall of 1986, why he chose to do so, and whether there might have been anything in the book that drew him to it or would speak to his own style.

To be an absolute completionist, I bought a copy on Amazon, read a few chapters, and then speed read the rest of the book. It’s not good. There are pages and pages of dialogue that should have been cut, a few bizarre racist and sexist passages (that might be jokes?), and not much going for it other than a prescient sense of how far the Gatsby revival would take F. Scott Fitzgerald stock. It reads almost like a pastiche of Gatsby had Gatsby actually married Daisy and then realized the wanting is better than the getting.

I think the Gatsby connection is the main reason Murakami translated this book. Maybe they thought they could cash in on the connection or something. There are some extended passages of people telling stories, a technique Murakami has used frequently, but he had already developed it at this point in his career. It wasn’t anything new. Bryan also makes the mistake of telling these stories completely within dialogue, never switching to third person, which is one of the pleasures of the technique.

*

Murakami returns to Mykonos 24 years later to make a pilgrimage to the spot where he wrote Norwegian Wood, and he’s actually able to take a peek into the place where he lived. I wrote about this essay back in 2016.

Murakami Preparedness

Welcome to Murakami Fest 2020! This year I’ll be looking at five chapters from 遠い太鼓 (Tōi taiko, Distant Drums), his travel memoir from Europe. It’s an interesting chunk of time—October 1986 through January 1987. This is when Murakami begins writing Norwegian Wood. This is notable because we know the book is published on September 4, 1987. He does have a head start with the short story “Firefly,” which forms part of the story, but he still finds a way to knock out this book in less than a year. Probably much less than that. Incredible.

This is Year 13. We’re a teenager. Here are the previous entries:

Year One: BoobsThe WindBaseballLederhosenEels, Monkeys, and Doves
Year Two: Hotel Lobby OystersCondomsSpinning Around and Around街・町The Town and Its Uncertain WallA Short Piece on the Elephant that Crushes Heineken Cans
Year Three: “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and WeirsThe LibraryOld DreamsSaying GoodbyeLastly
Year Four: More DrawersPhone CallsMetaphorsEight-year-olds, dudeUshikawaLast Line
Year Five: Jurassic SapporoGerry MulliganAll Growns UpDanceMountain Climbing
Year Six: Sex With Fat WomenCoffee With the ColonelThe LibrarianOld ManWatermelons
Year Seven: WarmthRebirthWastelandHard-onsSeventeenEmbrace
Year Eight: PigeonEditsMagazinesAwkwardnessBack Issues
Year Nine: WaterSnæfellsnesCannonballDistant Drumming
Year Ten: VermontersWandering and BelongingPeter Cat, Sushi Counter, Murakami Fucks First
Year Eleven: Embers, Escape, Window Seats, The End of the World
Year Twelve: Distant Drums, Exhaustion, Kiss, Lack of Pretense, Rotemburo

In the chapter I’m looking at today, titled “A Storm Arrives” (嵐来る), the Murakamis deal with an unexpected storm on Spetses that lasts from October 27 to October 30 with a brief pause in the middle. A few neighbors mention to him in passing that it’s going to rain, but they are surprised by the intensity of the storm, which begins to flood the house where they’re staying. They’re forced to mop up with rags and stuff newspapers in the doors to try and prevent water from getting in.

During an initial break after the first day, they go out for fast food and even catch a movie, but the storm starts for real the next day, and eventually everything in the apartment is cold and wet. They have a sparse cabinet: enough spaghetti for one serving, tomatoes, cucumbers, a little bacon, onion, canned mushrooms, and coffee.

So we get this nice little section:

“Think we’ll be ok? This is all the food we have,” my wife said in a worried tone.

“We’ll be fine,” I said. “No matter how strong a storm is, there’s always a moment in the middle when the rain cuts out. A little break. When that happens I’ll run over to Anargyros’ place and buy food. We’ll also get some info about the storm if I go to his place.”

“Will the rain really let up so perfectly?”

“It’ll let up. I grew up in Kansai, so I’m pretty familiar with how typhoons work.”

“Assuming Japanese typhoons and Greek storms work the same way,” she said with a look of doubt on her face. She has little faith in my abilities with anything in the worldly realm.

However, as I predicted, the rain suddenly stopped just before noon. The wind also stopped, and the clouds parted as well, as if the storm to this point had been a lie. Only occasional peals of thunder we could hear from the direction of the Peloponnesian peninsula remained. We were in the eye of the typhoon. I ran through the streets filled with puddles to Anargyros’ store. The usual shortcut had been turned into a river. At Anargyro’s store I bought two bags of crackers, cabbage, potatoes, two bottles of mineral water, and wine. Anargyros calculated the bill in his usual leisurely manner, writing numbers on a piece of paper with a look on his face like the storm had nothing to do with him.

“How about that storm?” I said.

“Yup. It rained a lot,” Anargyros said.

“Think it’ll rain tomorrow?” I tried asking.

“Yeah…might rain, might not…” Anargyros said with a grin.

Greeks have this way of occasionally making incredibly philosophical statements, and I always find myself fascinated by it.

「大丈夫かしら、食べるものがこれくらいしかなくて」と女房が心配そうに言う。

「大丈夫だよ」と僕は言う。「どんなに激しい嵐でも、途中でスッと雨の引く瞬間が必ずあるんだよ。中休みみたいに。そのときにひとっ走りアナルギロスのところに行って食料品を買ってくる。彼のところに行けば嵐の情報もわかるしね」

「本当にそんな風に雨がうまくあがるの?」

「ちゃんと上がるったら。僕は関西の育ちだから台風の構造には結構詳しいんだ」

「もし日本の台風とギリシャの嵐が同じような構造ならね」と彼女は疑わしそうな顔つきで言う。彼女は世俗的な領域における僕の能力をあまり信用していないのだ。

しかし僕の予言したとおり、昼前に突然すっと雨がやんだ。これまでの嵐が嘘のように、風も止み、雲も切れた。ペロポネソス半島の方から時折くぐもった雷鳴が聞こえるだけである。台風の目に入ったのだ。僕は水たまりだらけの道を走ってアナルギロスの店まで行った。いつもの近道は川と化していた。アナルギロスの店で僕はクラッカー二袋とキャベツとじゃが芋と、ミネラル・ウォーターを二本とワインを買った。アナルギロスは嵐も何も関係ないと言う顔で数字を紙に書いてあいかわらずのんびりと計算をした。

「嵐だね」と僕が言う。

「うん。雨たくさん降った」とアナルギロスは言う。

「明日も雨降るかな」と僕は訊いてみる。

「そうだね……降るかもしれないし、降らないかもしれないし……」とアナルギロスはにこにこして言う。

ギリシャ人というのはこのようにときどきものすごく哲学的な発言をするが、いちいち感心しているわけにはいかない。 (129-130)

This is a relatively unremarkable chapter but interesting in that we’d likely never be surprised by something like this these days, given how connected everyone is and how ubiquitous smartphones are.

Also, does Murakami buy enough food?! He adds crackers, potatoes, and cabbage—that’s it! Maybe it’s my pandemic prepping mindset or my experience stocking up for hurricanes, but you at least need to grab some milk and eggs before everyone else wipes out the shelves.

Final Form

Greetings from August 2020, dear readers. We’re still operating mostly indoors, although we have a bike now and the weather in Chicago has been good, which means that the city is out and about (for better or worse) and there are patios with draft beer and fine food. Winter is within sight, so we’re trying to enjoy the warmth we have left.

But virtual events are still a thing. We’re digital. The memes are flowing, including this gem, which I snipped from Twitter on May 11 (two days before Elon Musk tweeted it):

I know next to nothing about Dragonball, so I got curious about what the original Japanese might be. After some searching, it turns out that the English is completely original to memedom and does not appear in the anime or manga…in that form.

Japanese websites have attributed the line, which popped up in memes in 2012, to the Japanese その変身をあと2回もオレは残している (Sono henshin o ato nikai mo ore wa nokoshite iru, With that transformation, I have two more remaining), which comes from Frieza in this panel:

I can’t seem to track down which manga issue this comes from, but a fan in this forum has posted quotes from episodes that seem to suggest it was translated pretty straightforward in the anime as “And I still have two more transformations remaining!”

To be honest, “This isn’t even my final form” is a pretty good rendering of the Japanese! It feels appropriately dramatic. Maybe something like “There’s more where that came from!” or “You haven’t seen anything yet!” would work as well.

Although, in complete context, “And I still have two more transformations remaining! Do you even understand what that means?” feels spot on.

The forum quotes also suggest that whoever made the meme was basically paraphrasing the actual translation rather than creating something entirely new.

But whoever created that initial meme did tap into something. It’s funny how pieces of language can go viral. It feels so natural, like there’s a momentum waiting to happen that needs only the softest push to set it in motion.

How to Make Miso Soup in an Instant Pot

The pandemic continues, and I find myself fighting of unpredictable waves of lethargy. My culinary experiments have plateaued, to a certain degree, so I’m relying on old regulars. Recipes that I can cook without having to think too much about them.

One of these is a miso soup recipe for the Instant Pot which I though I’d share as this month’s post. (I also needed something short and automatic that I could knock out due to said lethargy.)

I found the recipe on Cookpad, which is a fantastic website that you should definitely explore, and the title basically explains everything: 圧力鍋で加圧1分☆根菜の味噌汁

Miso soup in a minute! Obviously it’s not quite this easy. There’s a minute of pressurized cooking time, but it takes maybe 10 minutes to get to pressure, another 15 for the pressure to release, and then 10-15 minutes for prep. But all in all it’s not too much of a fuss. I’ll summarize how I do it:

1. Prep the ingredients.

The base to the soup is:

Water, 1L
Dashi powder, 2 tsp
Miso, 2 tbsp

That’s the basic recipe, and you can really experiment with what you add to it. The recipe at the link calls for:

Daikon, maybe half a small daikon chopped
Carrots, 1-2 chopped
Abura-age, 1 chopped

But you can use sato-imo, enoki mushrooms, regular tofu, konnyaku, all sorts of delicious things! I’d recommend trying out different combos and different misos.

2. Add water, ingredients and dashi to the Instant Pot.

The only ingredient you may not need to add to the pot would be regular tofu, although I’m not sure about this. I don’t think it will hurt, though. Stir up the dashi so that it dissolves, add the carrots and daikon, and then put on the lid.

3. Cook on Manual for 1 minute.

Use the manual setting, and let it cook.

4. Use a natural pressure release.

Wait 15 minutes or so and the pressure will naturally release. You can do a manual release, but it will fire a stream of piping hot, daikon-scented steam into the air, which will fill your house. So I recommend waiting.

5. Add the miso.

Use a ladle to dissolve the miso into the Instant Pot a tablespoon at a time. Hold the ladle in the soup and fill it, but don’t let the miso blob out yet. Stir the miso and hot soup with a spoon or chopsticks until it breaks apart and dissolves into the soup.

6. Eat! This is ready to go.

I’m not sure I ever learned how to make miso soup when I was living in Japan. I know I tried, but I only ever used miso. You really need the dashi to give it that fully realized flavor. And the daikon give it that big (farty) flavor and I’m sure are really healthy. I also love sato-imo, especially in the winter. They’re so hearty.

My only tip with this recipe is to not go overboard with the ingredients. Err on adding too few, otherwise you’ll end up with a miso stew instead of miso soup.

The only other thing of note is that this is the recipe that helped me learn the Japanese for “pressure cooker”: 圧力鍋 (atsuryoku nabe) – literally “pressurized nabe.” Love it.

How to Make Nattō in an Instant Pot

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a lesson about how to make nattō: “One man’s journey to perfect homemade nattō.”

A few weeks back I saw some folks discussing nattō on Twitter, which made me realize that I hadn’t made Japanese breakfast for a while. There was a stretch in 2019 after a business trip to Japan when I ate 和食 breakfast every day for about six months or so.

I had enough to put together miso soup and salmon pretty easily, and I realized that I probably had the equipment to make nattō. I started Googling around a little, and, sure enough, I found Japanese recipes for making nattō using the yogurt setting on an Instant Pot.

Like yogurt, nattō is fermented by bacteria and needs to be held at warm temperatures for enough time for the germs to do their thing. I’ve been brewing beer and making yogurt long enough to have a decent sense of how things work, so I decided to give it a shot. It’s not all that hard!

I found the soybeans pretty easily at one of the Asian market’s near me, but they didn’t have frozen nattō. I put my quest on pause until I saw Hiroko Tabuchi tweet out a picture of 納豆素 from Yuzo Takahashi Laboratory, which was conveniently available on Amazon at the time. The spores are currently sold out but worth looking out for, and there must be somewhere else to purchase them online.

Once you have the soybeans, the spores, and an Instant Pot, you’re just about good to go. Here’s how I did it:

1. Soak the soybeans overnight.

I recommend starting with 100g. Most recipes will recommend 500g, which is far too much. 250g was enough for two weeks’ worth of breakfast. The soybeans will expand and soak up some of the water.

2. Cook the soybeans.

I used a steaming basket with 1.5 cups water in the bottom of the IP, but you could just as easily cook the beans directly in the IP container, in which case you’d need much more water.

If you’re using the steaming basket, you probably should cook on manual for 45-55 minutes, depending on how soft you want your beans. I haven’t perfected the softness yet. The first time I tried, I steamed them for 30 minutes and they were a little firm, so I had to add an additional 10 minutes. I think 55-60 minutes would work. [Update 8/22/20: I did 70 minutes on Manual and they came out perfect.]

If you’re boiling the beans, then I think 30-40 minutes is probably fine in the IP.

3. Transfer cooked beans into a sanitized container.

Everything from this point onward needs to be totally sanitized so that you’re not at risk of growing anything other than the nattō bacteria.

You can rinse everything with a sanitizer of some sort like a diluted bleach solution (or StarSan or Iodophor if you happen to be a homebrewer like me). If you’re using a stainless steel container for the beans, you can alternatively give it a quick steam in the IP to nuke everything on it and make sure it’s totally sanitized.

Pot-in-pot stainless steel pots are useful for this. There are two pots in the picture because I made 250g the first time I made them and had to split them up so that the beans didn’t get too deep.

4. Add spores to sanitized water.

Microwave 10mL of water for a minute or so until it boils, and then let it cool until it’s warm to the touch but not uncomfortably so (around 100F/37C). Then add 0.1g of spores to the water using the special spoon included with the vial of spores. Swirl up the spores in the water.

5. Add the spore water to the soybeans.

Pour the water on the beans and give it a stir with a sanitized spoon.

6. Ferment the soybeans.

Put your container in the IP and set it to the yogurt setting for 24 hours. Now you just wait.

You can look in, but I’d suggest resisting until at least 12 hours in to ensure that the nattō bacteria have a good head start and can outcompete anything else that might sneak in when you’re taking a look.

By 12-16 hours you should see the whitish film developing and notice that pungent nattō aroma. The beans will be ready by 24 hours.

7. Refrigerate the nattō overnight.

Pour the nattō into a food-safe container, and refrigerate it overnight. It’s ready to serve!

S&B Oriental Mustard is relatively easy to find and makes really good karashi. Alternatively you can check out my nattō experiments video from ancient history for some other recipe options. I think I’ll have to try the avocado version again sometime soon…

Serenity Nowish

I was in the Japan Times twice late last month, and it’s taken me a little while to get around to posting the links here.

The first is a Bilingual piece: “Getting a party rolling in Japan.”

The origin of this piece is a little depressing…and may have caused the pandemic. I was preparing an MC script for an event in Japan in May. I wanted plenty of time to really familiarize myself with the pronunciation, so I had a full event planned out, and then *gestures vaguely at the universe*

The content actually came from the same place as my article in early March about “emergency Japanese.” Back in February I had already started planning the agenda for the May event and decided to just script out the whole thing and a bunch of emergency language to boot.

So of course the whole thing has been canceled.

I couldn’t fit all of the parenthetical language I was planning to use. In addition to the strict open and closing phrases I introduce in the piece, these are good to gather the troops before you get started and signal that the event is coming to an end:

まもなく、10時半より始まりますので、皆様お席でお待ちいただきますようお願い申し上げます (Mamonaku, jūji-han yori hajimarimasu no de, minasama oseki de omachi itadakimasu yō onegai mōshiagemasu,We will begin the program at 10:30, so we’d like to ask everyone to take their seats.)

そろそろお時間となりました。皆様、本日のコンフェレンス楽しんでいただけましたでしょうか? (Sorosoro ojikan to narimashita. Minasama, honjitsu no konferensu tanoshinde itadakemashita deshō ka? We will momentarily be at the end of our time. Did everyone enjoy today’s conference?)

Very useful phrases, and you can Frankenstein little bits of them to use in all sorts of other ways.

My other article is a review of Automatic Eve by Rokuro Inui: “‘Automatic Eve’ review: Familiar tropes reimagined with brilliant sci-fi originality.”

If you haven’t picked it up yet, this is a great time. I’ve devoured it twice now, and I’m sure I’ll read it again. It’s such a fun world to inhabit. I want to go there.

I was working on the sequel in Japanese but got sidetracked by some other books. The sequel is set in a fictional Chicago just before an exposition modeled on the Columbian Exposition. He’s clearly taken some inspiration from Devil in the White City (which I still haven’t read—I’m a lousy Chicagoan). The sequel is interesting, although maybe not quite as successful as the first book, both structurally, plot-wise, and writing wise. The first book works so well because structure as a set of short stories provides succinct, contained plots with a quick payoff, getting readers into the novel. Inui was able to kind of embed a larger plot within all of this. With the second book, he’s clearly building toward something, but I’ve found it more of a slog…and not just entirely because it’s in Japanese.

But I will admit that’s probably one of the reasons I haven’t picked it up during the pandemic. I just need easy right now. I’m moving some Murakami to the top of my to-read list because that feels accessible, do-able for me. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s his travel journal. Take me away. Serenity now!

How to Translate

I have a guest post over at “What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?” (which I’ll always think of in my mind as Shinpai Deshou, the site’s url): “Writing into a Career: Learning How to Write and Adult in Japan and the United States.”

It feels like I’ve come full circle. I learned about the site through my successor on the JET Program, and for a long time it was weekly reading. Paula, the author, came on the first season of the podcast and gave some excellent advice on pursuing graduate studies and teaching at the university level.

I didn’t follow the site as closely while I was in grad school until I finished and had no prospects of work in New Orleans and very limited freelance opportunities. Oh yeah, I thought, I should probably look for opportunities that fit my resume, and Shinpai is the best collection of job opportunities, scholarships, fellowships, and interesting Japanese links on the internet; it was the first place I thought of to check out, and my timing ended up being good: there was a position listed at the Japanese consulate in Miami.

Unfortunately they had just finished taking applications, but I did a quick check of the embassy and all the consulates in the U.S. and found openings in DC, Seattle, and Chicago. My brother was living in Chicago at the time, and I was offered a position there before my applications elsewhere were seriously considered. More than anything I think I had good timing, but my master’s degree also helped improve my chances and the amount that I was paid when I first started ($36,000).

The consulate wasn’t bad work. I was an administrative assistant in the political affairs section, and I spent the time research domestic U.S. politics in the Midwest, writing, and setting up appointments for diplomatic staff with local politicians. Working out the office politics between the MOFA staff was the most challenging part of the job.

We had great health insurance and very good vacation policy (20 days a year, 10 of which you could roll over; 7 days of sick leave), but no other benefits, and we were considered contractors, meaning we had to withhold taxes ourselves and pay them quarterly. For the most part it was a good experience, until it wasn’t.

I think that unless you’re working hard to develop your skills on the side, consulate work really won’t challenge you, and some of the workplace norms are toxic and can be scarring if you’re not careful. Many of the locally hired staff struggled with mental health issues during their time at the consulate. So I’m glad to have escaped, and I am still close with many of the MOFA staff I worked with. We stay in touch on Facebook, and I make time to see them when I’m in Japan.

Check out the post for a few more stories from the consulate and things that I’ve learned as a professional over the past 15 years.

After I submitted the post, I realized I probably could have added a section about learning how to translate, so I thought I’d add that here. I do feel like I’m still learning, to a certain extent, whereas with writing I started to feel more in control from around 2013-2014. So all of this comes with the caveat that I’m still honing my experience, but these are things that have been helpful for me.

Translation is not the same as understanding Japanese. Obviously you need to understand the Japanese in order to do translation, but that’s only one part of the equation. As you work toward a final product, you eventually need to divorce yourself from the Japanese original entirely and ask whether the English can stand on its own. When I first started trying to translate (in college, when I was working as a translation coordinator, and even when I was in grad school), I think I was too devoted to the original text at times.

Writing fluently is more important than having fluent Japanese. Again, obviously you need to understand the Japanese fully, but if you can’t render that in the correct English, then it’s meaningless. By “writing fluently” and “correct English,” I think I mean that you need to have a subconscious repository of language that you can draw from. Rhythms, little phrases, transitions, things that make English look and feel like English. And you need to be able to actively employ these. I’m so curious about how writers develop fluent active use, which is why I often ask translators what kind of writing they did growing up. I think my writing experience (especially writing fiction) was relatively sparse until I started blogging regularly. Do whatever you can to get those repetitions in early.

– I think developing this passive repository of language is easier: Just read a bunch. Read all sorts of texts and as wide a range of writers from as wide a range of experiences as you can. This will grow your vocabulary and language familiarity.

Read other translators, too! From other languages and from Japanese.

You don’t always have to follow the Japanese sentence order. Sometimes it can help to go in the exact reverse order, actually. Often the most important information in a Japanese sentence comes at the end, and English doesn’t work that way.

When you don’t understand something, look for usage examples on Twitter using quotes to block off little pieces of phrases. I talked about using Google for this in the podcast, but recently I’ve found that Twitter also provides some excellent usage examples, and the results aren’t encumbered by the algorithm, so they often feel more natural. A phrase that I was able to check recently was 年次の近い. 年次 pops up as “annual,” but the way this phrase was being used in context was clearly closer to 入社年次, the year a worker entered a company, rather than something like 年次報告, an annual report.

Do look up the Japanese if you’re not sure. Otherwise you might play yourself. If I’d translated the above instance as annual meeting, for example, (and there was probably some context that could have led me to something like that) I would have been way off and ended up looking pretty silly.

I have some thoughts on translating a light novel from right after I finished. That was a fun experience. I hope I get another chance, but I’ll settle for smaller projects for now. This whole pandemic thing is stressful enough.

Fun Times

The last two weeks have been…interesting. I had been following the coronavirus developments in China through work and then in Japan through work, friends, and acquaintances. But it did seem like it might be contained to Asia for a minute.

It’s such a blur now—everything: the day job which has been busy and challenging and fulfilling, the writing I’ve been doing for the Japan Times, the hustle to stock up my apartment, trying to exercise and sleep and relax—that I can’t even remember when I started to sense the “cone of uncertainty,” as we say in New Orleans.

The cone is the graphic that meteorologists deploy when hurricanes start to approach the Gulf coast. They use a number of different storm models to create a wide path where the hurricane is likely to hit. Once that cone starts to point at New Orleans, you either get out or you prepare to hunker down and shelter in place.

My mom is a legendary evacuator, and my dad is a legendary hunker-downer/waiter-outer. So I am kind of wired for prep. Once I felt the cone, from news reports, from articles, I made a plan.

I think I’m in a good place. I can work from home for as long as I need to, and I don’t really need to leave my apartment if I don’t want to. (Obviously that much care is probably not required – I’m in a Chicago neighborhood, so the density is probably enough to take walks and get some air on the lake or in parks nearby, maybe even do some shopping if necessary.)

This is my monthly update to plug my Japan Times work, so it feels bizarre to me to line these two headlines up next to each other:

’Emergency’ Japanese can help build fluency
Your Japanese vocabulary can expand as the new coronavirus spreads

I didn’t mean “emergency” in that sense of the word. But that would make a good article, too. One that I’m not sure I feel comfortable writing without doing some research — I haven’t been in a Japanese clinic for a while.

The emergency article is a strategy that I thought up to develop more familiarity with complex phrases. I specifically wanted to prepare for a May conference that now may not end up happening. Or at the very least, I may not end up attending. The strategy itself feels sound, although the results will vary based on the repetitions you do with your document. (I just did a lap through right now after feeling bad for neglecting it over the past couple weeks.)

The coronavirus article came together quickly with some research, and I was a little surprised by what I found. The emphasis on 肺炎 (haien, pneumonia) is interesting and notable in Japanese. In English it’s just this vague virus, and lots of association with the flu, which feels like fever, chills, and a kind of generic run-down illness. Pneumonia, on the other hand, is much more specific, especially to someone like me who has had it before.

I got bacterial pneumonia during my first year on the JET Program. I remember it pretty vividly. It hit late on a Friday night, which was about the worst time for it to hit, especially since the following Tuesday was a holiday. I had a couple beers, watched “The Godfather” on NHK, and went to bed. I woke up drenched in sweat and feverish. I spent the weekend going in and out of fever as I went through my ibuprofen and tried to negotiate some sort of balance of warmth in my apartment using the kerosene heater. I drove into Aizu-Wakamatsu and had McDonalds, did some shopping in the city, and called in sick on Monday.

By Tuesday I still hadn’t slept off whatever it was I had, and I was alternating between burning up and terrible chills, so I got in touch with my supervisor to ask about how to go to the town clinic. The doctor there was a young guy with a full beard, and he was only able to diagnose the pneumonia with an x-ray. It was a mild enough case that he had trouble detecting it with a stethoscope.

This is all to say that pneumonia is terrible, and I can’t even imagine what an acute case would feel like. Stay indoors. Isolate yourself. Work from home. If you start to feel like your workplace is putting you in a dangerous position, make an executive decision and stand up for yourself. Sometimes all you have to do is ask—it doesn’t have to be confrontational or personal. You can be calm and professional and assertive at the same time.

Ugh. Fun times!

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On a separate note, I have two pieces in the new print edition of Neojaponisme.

The first is an excerpt from the massive look at the Top 50 Enka songs I did back in 2017. (19 of the 50 videos are still up on YouTube, which is a higher percentage than I expected! You can find the others [hopefully] with the PERMASEARCH links I cleverly left. Thank you, past Daniel!) I highly recommend listening through these songs. You’ll learn a TON of useful Japanese and perhaps even find a few tunes that you can use to impress the locals.

They also asked me to translate a conversation between Jacques Derrida and Japanese scholars Karatani Kōjin and Asada Akira about deconstruction. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure I understand what the English means, but I am confident that David and Matt helped me smooth over the language so that it is a decent representation of the Japanese.

I’m still digging through this volume, but Ian’s design is incredible, I’m hungry for the 洋食 (yōshoku, Japanese take on Western food) described within, and I can’t wait to check out Matt’s translations, including one from Tanizaki. Highly recommend picking up a copy.

Love

I was in the Japan Times last week with a confession of my love for Higashimura Akiko: “Look for love to overcome Japanese-language study difficulties.”

My obsession with her podcast 身も蓋もナイト has grown to dangerous levels, limited only by the limitations on the back log of episodes – for whatever reason Higashimura Productions caps the number of past episodes displayed on apps to 10. You can find past episodes on YouTube and their website.

I was a little sad that the staff at the JT decided to cut one word that I tried to introduce – スタッフ笑い (staffu warai, staff laugh track). I wondered whether there was a Japanese word for this, and I found this write-up over at the Wikpedia page for 録音笑い (rokuon warai, laugh track):

珍奇なところでは、平成初期のコント番組に盛んに使われた「スタッフ笑い」と呼ばれる音声がある。これは比較的少人数の男性の笑いを、こもり気味の音響で録音するもので、撮影スタジオで演じられるコントに対して、現場の製作スタッフが失笑しているように見せるものである。バラエティ番組では現在でも無観客のシーンでスタッフ笑いが多用されている。

You see it a lot on Japanese variety shows, my favorite of which was 99’s Mecha-ike. Sometimes you even saw Yabe providing some of this laughter (and excellent hype man clapping) on screen in addition to the staff off screen.

Once I decided to write on this topic I started hoarding episodes because I wanted to be able to transcribe any interesting phrases. I then went on to binge a bunch over a weekend and type up far more than I was actually able to use (1,700 words, to be exact…and the JT columns are supposed to be 800 lol). This was good language practice, though, I think.

Here are some of the favorite things I noticed:

Episode 78

Daniel McCalla (of H2J Podcast infame) was featured in one of the opening sessions! Apparently I’m not the only person he’s recommended Akiko-sensei’s podcast to—the staff translated a conversation on Twitter where he recommends the pod. Hear her read out Daniel’s tweets and give him a super sweet shout out! This is classic Akiko-sensei and

Episode 114

ラスイチ (rasuichi, last one) – This is a fun phrase I’d never heard before! It came in the segment 俺が言わねば (ore ga iwaneba, “I’ve gotta say this”), which is hilarious. The comedian Ninoniino-san gets angry in place of Japanese listeners, whom he jokes are too passive to get angry and blow off the steam they need to. This phrase comes up when listener Yoppei-san says it’s frustrating when people in the office won’t eat the last snack item left out.

Episode 117

This is definitely worth a listen – very funny to hear Akiko and team go through the potential nicknames for listeners. They end up settling on オス蓋 and メス蓋.

Episode 119

Once I finished my binge, I noticed that there hadn’t been any new episodes in December and none in January. I was able to figure out via Twitter that they were taking a short hiatus, and episodes started up again in late January. This first episode of the year had an interesting call from a woman whose boyfriend is an aspiring writer. She asked him what they should do for New Year’s Eve, and he said he wanted to spend it alone writing. Akiko’s advice was right on and enlightening: 遊んで吸収できる人しか面白い小説書けないですよ (Asonde kyūshū dekiru hito shika omoshiroi shōsetu kakenai desu yo, Only people who can have fun and absorb things will be able to write interesting fiction).

It’s an interesting take, and important for those of us prone to stay indoors writing to remember to get out a bit and interact with the world every now and then.