JETAA Chicago Japanese Reading Group


I’m on the Japan Times Bilingual page this week with a piece about learning how to read in Japanese: “Look to ‘senpai’ to help take your Japanese reading to the next level.”

These are all true stories. Paul laughed at me a couple of times (being laughed at is good, remember), and Sakakibara-sensei sat with me and fielded questions about those novels week after week for a whole semester. By the end, she admitted that she was glad we had done the activity because it allowed her to go over the novels closely (which she might not otherwise have done…because they aren’t very good…although they are interesting, perhaps, when considered together).

I previously wrote that I was reading those novels at five pages a day, but I feel like it was much slower than that. Maybe even just two pages a day. Progress is progress. And having someone willing to explain things to you patiently is one of the greatest gifts for language learners. Recently Daniel Lau asked me how he might go about mixing up his Japanese conversation lessons which had gotten a little stale, and I think incorporating a text (a novel or a set of short stories) might be a good idea—it would give you a set discussion topic rather than leaving it up to the random topics your conversation partner does (or doesn’t) pick. Being forced to talk about it in Japanese would be even better.

As I mention at the end of the article, I finally set up a Japanese reading group for the JETAA Chicago chapter. (I had totally forgotten that I thought up the idea years ago in that blog post.) We’ve been going strong over the past year. I’ve started logging the readings we are doing on this page in case you are looking for good reading material. Some of them are accessible on the web. I’ve gone back to some published material after a string of web stuff, so I’ll have to make an effort to find websites again in the near future because that makes it easier to share with folks who don’t have easy access to Japan.

Cool Onomatopoeia – うだうだ


I don’t really believe in microaggressions when it comes to Japan. I mean, I get it, there are definitely subconscious assumptions being made about foreigners, but I don’t think they are necessarily demeaning. Often annoying, but not always demeaning. (Conscious assumptions, however, do exist, and they are often demeaning.)

The one I’m thinking of at the moment I’m not even sure qualifies as a microaggression: having someone complete a sentence for you before you can finish it.

I was in Japan for the first time in four years over New Years, and I had the distinct displeasure of exercising rusty language skills. The first night there I was telling my former roommates that I’d lost a lot of vocabulary and had a hard time unearthing it in the middle of conversation. A few moments later we were talking about the U.S. presidential election, and I broke out 世論調査 (よろんちょうさ, public opinion poll); they all started laughing at the かたいness of the word and said I was doing fine.

I never found myself in that much trouble, nothing I couldn’t explain my way to understanding/a word, but I did find myself at a loss once I returned home and was speaking Japanese with coworkers.

I caught a cold at the end of my trip (one that seems to have relapsed) and was jetlagged upon my return. After work I was on the elevator with a woman who speaks quickly and often intermixes English and Japanese in conversation. She asked if I was still sick.

I explained that I was and that it was worse because I was also trying to get over jetlag. I said something like. 時差ぼけまだ大変で、今朝5時半起きてずっとベッドの中で

This is when she cut in and said うだうだしてたの? Which, I guessed, was exactly what I was trying to say. I just didn’t know the word in this case, so even if I had gone spelunking for it in my memory, I wouldn’t have found it.

A quick look at Japanese dictionaries (the 和英 aren’t so satisfying for this word), suggest that うだうだ has two meanings: 1) doing/saying meaninglessly stuff interminably, 2) spending time restlessly.

Being interrupted can do one of several things. It can limit the amount of unprompted/unassisted speaking practice (bad), it can dismiss whatever it is you are trying to say (neutral, depending on what it is you’re saying—who knows, maybe you’re a dumbass), or it can correct and assist in cases when you actually need the help (good). It’s up to your conversation partner to judge whether it’s appropriate to butt in, and it’s up to you to judge whether your conversation partner has been a jerk. Nothing is given.

Also, take a look at these animals performing うだうだ.


I found them from a Google Images search, and you can see more/purchase them at this site apparently.

Abstract Instruments


Chapter 28 “Musical Instruments” is a short End of the World chapter. Boku and the Librarian meet the Caretaker of the Power Station, a quiet young man with a collection of instruments he enjoys looking at. Boku peruses the instruments, tries out an accordion, and then receives it as a gift before leaving.

Just some minor cuts in this translation. Birnbaum avoids translating 煮込み as soup. He also eliminates a chess board as one of the Caretaker’s collection of beautiful objects.

The most interesting cut/revision is Birnbaum’s decision to abstract all the instruments rather than give their names. Here is Murakami’s description of the Caretaker’s room and my translation:


All sorts of musical instruments line the wall of the bedroom. They are all old enough to be considered antiques, and the majority are string instruments. There are things like a mandolin, a guitar, a cello, and a small harp. The strings are rusted, broken, or nonexistent. I’m unlikely to find replacements in the Town.

Birnbaum (or his editor) cuts the sentence with the names and the final sentence:

Arranged along the wall are various musical instruments. All are old. Most of them are string instruments, the strings hopelessly rusted, broken or missing. (293)

This happens elsewhere as well. バスーンに似た形の大型の管楽器 (a large wind instrument resembling a bassoon) becomes “a large tubular instrument, one obviously meant to be blown from the end.” ヴァイオリン (violin) becomes “…a wooden instrument. It is hollow and sandglass-shaped…” And last but not least 手風琴 (てふうきん, accordion) becomes “a box hinged with leather folds.”

This effectively extends Boku’s experience of living in the town to a greater degree than Murakami achieves in the original. Very nicely executed. Birnbaum buys into Murakami’s concept…and I’m tempted to say he translates like a fanboy would write fan fiction (and, oh yes, I’ve considered writing End of the World fan fiction). It’s a very nice touch to this chapter, one that increases the disconnection with a strange world that should be more familiar than it is.

Video Game Lingo – Passive Form

Amtrak isn’t quite as enjoyable as Japan Rail, but it sure beats driving. I recently rode the Lincoln Express from Chicago to St. Louis for Thanksgiving, and I managed to put in a few more hours on Final Fantasy VI. I’m only up to 15 hours so far, which means I’m just under half way through according to How Long to Beat.

I didn’t come across any new “lingo” worth introducing here, but I did find this pretty cool and very efficient line from Shadow:

ffvi passive

It’s always good to be familiar with the passive form, but it comes in especially handy in video games when space is limited. As you can see in this instance, there’s no need for a subject nor a verb because both are contained within the passive form (and it doesn’t hurt to have a visualization). The concision also plays into Shadow’s character, which is standoffish in the best of times.

噛み付く (かみつく) means “bite (at).” The invisible subject of the passive form 噛み付かれる (かみつかれる) is リルム, the daughter of the old man, and the performer of the bite is, of course, Shadow’s dog Interceptor. So literally, “You will be bitten by the dog.” Putting this into normal English, you get “He’ll bite you.”

Which checks out with the English script: “Back off. He bites.” Great translation.

The only way to master the passive is to “get used to it”: just keep doing a literal translation in your head for as long as it takes to become second nature. But it’s very important to force yourself to slow down when necessary and identify the subject and performer of the action in these instances.

Space Break

Chapter 27 “Encyclopedia Wand, Immortality, Paperclips” may be the shortest Hard-boiled Wonderland chapter in the entire book. In it, the Professor explains what exactly is happening in Watashi’s head and why it means he’ll be expelled from reality into an eternal version of the End of the World.

There are very few changes at all, just two small lines added by Birnbaum (or his editor) to help make a line of dialogue and an instance of “stage directions” (“I said nothing.”) feel more natural in English.

To be honest, the most interesting addition is a sort of non-addition: BOHE adds a space break for dramatic pause on page 286 where there is none in Japanese. This isn’t the first instance of this technique. Here’s what the passage looks like in Japanese:






And in English:

“…But if you act now, you can choose, if choice is what you want. There’s on last hand you can play.”

“And what might that be?”

“You can die right now,” said the Professor, very business-like. “Before Junction A links up, just check out. That leaves nothing.”

A profound silence fell over us. The Professor coughed, the chubby girl sighed, I look a slug of whiskey. No one said a word.


“That…uh, world…what is it like?” I brought myself to voice the question. “That immortal world?” (285-286)

As you can see in the Japanese version, there’s no dramatic pause other than what the narration allows. (Note: There are no asterisks in the English version; I’ve added them to represent the extended space break in the translation.) Birnbaum’s version has minor adjustments, notably in the first paragraph which alters the tone slightly, but I think the space break does more work. It’s a nice effect.

Cool Compound – 完了


I’m in The Japan Times this week with a look at the Japanese you can find on your iPhone: “A pocketful of Japanese immersion is just a few key taps away.”

I keep my phone set into Japanese 99% of the time. It can be really annoying sometimes, especially when large blocks of text come up and you’re trying to navigate something quickly. As it did today when I opened up the ヘルスケア app. Turns out that the new iOS turns the iPhone into a Fitbit, basically. Learned the word 歩数 (ほすう)!

That reaction of annoyance is pretty normal, I think. That’s the pain of language learning, and if you’re not feeling it often, then you aren’t doing the study thing right.

Two incredibly useful things I failed to mention in the article:

– 完了 (かんりょう) is one of the more important vocabulary words to use. It generally means “done” or “complete,” but on a phone, this is the button that closes windows. Look for it whenever you’re trying to get back to where you once were.

– Google Maps will dictate directions in Japanese. This will help you remember cool phrases like しばらく道なり, 右方向, 左方向, etc. Warning: If your parents hear these directions, they may then make painfully un-PC imitations of Japanese.

Ten Nights Dreaming, trans. Matt Treyvaud


Matt Treyvaud of No-Sword has a new translation of Natsume Soseki’s 夢十夜, titled Ten Nights Dreaming in his version. It is excellent. To borrow a phrase of praise from Pynchon, it comes on like the Hallelujah Chorus done by a hundred shakuhachi players, all suitably off pitch.

I believe I read the First Night in college. It’s a favorite for language teachers because of the play on words with the Japanese word for lily, which is 百合 (ゆり). I won’t spoil why this is a play on words in case you haven’t yet read it, although Matt explains it in his translation, so check out the original here on Aozora before you read his version.

I recently reread the First Night in Japanese for a Japanese reading group that I’ve been running (and meaning to blog about…) through the JET Alumni Association here in Chicago, but I’m not sure I’d previously read any of the other nights.

Highlights of the stories for me include: The entirety of the Third Night, which feels like a ghost story. The creepy image of bearded old man stepping into the river at the end of the Fourth Night. The slow motion plunge in the Seventh Night, and how the latter half of the collection creates a sense of the oddity of life in modern Japan, from Soseki’s perspective. The Tenth Night in particular feels incredibly fresh and lucid in Matt’s language.

Which was always half the problem with reading older Japanese authors, in my opinion. As an undergraduate, the stale language of older translations made reading them a bit like driving a car through a blizzard: It’s hard to enjoy the pleasure of driving when you’re straining just to see the road.

After the stories, Matt even includes “The Cat’s Grave,” a short piece of nonfiction, which is very nicely rendered and a bit sad. Here lies the cat, indeed.

The excellence of this translation shouldn’t come as a surprise to longtime followers of No-Sword. Matt did great work with his version of Botchan, which is also notable as the only Soseki translation (that I know of) which includes a reference to Spinal Tap. Here is a short section from Chapter 3 where the titular Botchan is getting settled in the classroom:


Behold as Matt turns up the translation to the proverbial eleven:

At first, I had the students confused and staring blankly. Ha! Score one for Tokyo. I was just getting into my stride, turning the alpha male knob up to eleven, when a sutdent sitting front and centre—the strongest-looking kid there—stood up and said “Sensei!”
“What?” I asked, thinking, Shit, here it comes.

“We cain’t unnerstan’ yuh none ‘cause yuh talkin’ too fast. Cain’t yuh maybe slow it down none, like?”

Can’t yuh maybe slow it down none, like? That was supposed to be a sentence?

It’s worth adding both to your library and keeping an eye on Matt’s future translation projects.


Chapter 26 “Power Station” has very few cuts but many examples of how generous Birnbaum is as a translator. In the chapter, Boku and the Librarian wander out to the Power Station near the entrance of the woods in search of a musical instrument.

Here’s a quick cut. This is Birnbaum’s version:

We encounter beasts scavenging for food in the withered grasses. Their pale gold tinged with white, strands of fur grown longer than in autumn, their coats thicker. Yet their hunger is plain; they are lean and pitiful. Their shoulder blades underscore the skin of their backs like the armature of old furniture, their spindly legs knock on swollen joints. The corners of their mouths hang sallow and tired, their eyes lack life. (276)

And the original with my translation:

枯れた草の上を獣たちが食べ物を求めてさまよっている姿にも出会った。彼らは白みを帯びた淡い金色の毛皮に包まれていた。その毛は秋よりはずっと長く、そして厚くなっていたが、それでも彼らの体が前に比べて遥かにやせこけていることははっきりと見てとれた。肩の上には古いソファーのスプリングのようにくっきりとした形の骨がとびだし、口もとの肉はだらしなく見えるまでにたるんで下に垂れ下がっていた。眼には生彩がとぼしく、四肢の関節は球形にふくらんでいる。変わっていないのは額から突き出た一本の白い角だけだった。角は以前と同じように、まっすぐに誇らしげに空を突いていた。 (400)

We also come upon the beasts wandering about the withered grass in search of food. They are covered in light gold hair tinged with white. The hair is much longer than in autumn, and it’s gotten much thicker, but it is clear from looking at them that they are far skinnier than before. The bones on their shoulders stick out clearly like the springs in an old sofa, and the flesh around their mouths sags so that they appear disheveled. The luster in their eyes is gone, and the joints on their limbs are swollen. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the single white horn projecting out from their foreheads. The horn is, as before, straight and pointed proudly into the sky.

It’s kind of a strange cut. I imagine he does so to maintain the kind of somber, winter mood as they head out. It’s also not essential info that needs to be kept. You can tell from my plain translation that Birnbaum is working very hard to render a poetic version. The word “armature” is a great example of this.

Birnbaum does this throughout the chapter. Here’s another example, followed by the Japanese:

We decide to walk around the building. The Power Station is slightly longer than wide, its side wall similarly dotted with clerestory vents, but it has no other door. (278)

我々は建物をぐるりと一周してみることにした。発電所は正面よりは奥行の方がいくぶんながく、そちらの壁にも正面と同じように高く小さな窓が一列に並び、窓からあの奇妙な風音が聞こえていた。しかしドアはない。 (403)

“Clerestory vents” is the much more literal 高く小さな窓 (“small, high windows”) in the original. This passage also shows how he is still making small cuts as necessary.

Just a tiny little chapter. Now back to Hard-boiled Wonderland. Fortunately it looks like the next chapter isn’t that long.

And the Oscar goes to…

It took me long enough, but I finally finished Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World Chapter 25 “Meal, Elephant Factory, Trap,” a 31-page monstrosity during which the scientist explains exactly what he did to Watashi: install a new cognitive system (an edited version of his core identity) into his head which was used as a black box for shuffling data. Unfortunately, because his laboratory was destroyed, the scientist no longer has the ability to remove Watashi from the extra circuit he installed, which means Watashi will be stuck in that circuit (in his story called “The End of the World”) when the junction between the circuits breaks.

The chapter is a lot of pseudo-sci-fi mumbo jumbo, and I think I enjoyed it more when I first read it. The good news is that it’s more fleshed out than the “Little People” from 1Q84. And Birnbaum does some remarkable work in translation. There are minor cuts here and there as well as a few colorful renderings.

The most interesting cut comes toward the end of the chapter. Here is Birnbaum’s version:

“No, not annulled. Your existence isn’t over. You’ll enter another world.”

“Interesting distinction,” I grumbled. “Listen. I may not be much, but I’m all I’ve got. Maybe you need a magnifying glass to find my face in my high school graduation photo. Maybe I haven’t got any family or friends. Yes, yes, I know all that. But, strange as it might seem, I’m not entirely dissatisfied with this life. It could be because this split personality of mine has made a stand-up comedy routine of it all. I wouldn’t know, would I? But whatever the reason, I feel pretty much at home with what I am. I don’t want to go anywhere. I don’t want any unicorns behind fences.” (217)

Here’s the original and my translation with the cuts highlighted in red:


「同じようなものですよ」と私は言った。「いいですか、僕という人間が虫めがねで見なきゃよくわからないような存在であることは自分でも承知しています。昔からそうでした。学校の卒業写真を見ても自分の顔をみつけるのにすごく時間がかかるくらいなんです。家族もいませんから、今僕が消滅したって誰も困りません。友だちもいないから、僕がいなくなっても誰も悲しまないでしょう。それはよくわかります。でも、変な話かもしれないけど、僕はこの世界にそれなりに満足してもいたんです。どうしてかはわからない。あるいは僕と僕自身がふたつに分裂してかけあい万歳みたいなことをやりながら楽しく生きてきたのかもしれない。それはわかりません。でもとにかく僕はこの世界にいた方が落ちつくんです。僕は世の中に存在する数多くのものを嫌い、そちらの方でも僕を嫌っているみたいだけど、中には気に入っているものもあるし、気に入っているものはとても気に入っているんです。向うが僕のことを気に入っているかどうかには関係なくです。僕はそういう風にして生きているんです。どこにも行きたくない。不死もいりません。年をとっていくのは辛いこともあるけれど、僕だけが年とっていくわけじゃない。みんな同じように年をとっていくんです。一角獣も塀もほしくない」 (396)

“No, you won’t stop existing. You’ll just enter into a different world.”

“It’s the same damn thing,” I said. “You know, I get it—without a magnifying glass, my existence is undetectable. It’s always been that way. It takes forever to find me in my graduation photo. I don’t have any family, so if I disappear, nobody will be hard off. I don’t have any friends, either, so no one will be sad when I’m gone. I get that. But, and this may sound strange, I was satisfied in my own way with this world. I don’t know why. Maybe I’ve been able to have some fun with everything because this split between me and my self was a nonstop comedy routine. I don’t know. But being in this world was comfortable. I hate a lot of things that exist in this world, and I think they may hate me as well, but there are some things I like, and the things I like I really like. Independent of whether or not they like me back. That’s how I live. I don’t want to go anywhere. I don’t need immortality. Getting older is tough sometimes, but it’s not like I’m the only one. Everyone gets older in the same way. I don’t want unicorns or fences.”

Not a massive cut. I wonder what these “things” are. Critics might say they’re the lifestyle choices that Murakami includes in a lot of his fiction, which makes the joke on Watashi…he still hasn’t gotten over having his apartment smashed up by the goons. A more generous reading might call them cultural objects, or art. They don’t feel quite like people.

There’s one other passage worth mentioning at the end of the chapter. There are no cuts, but Birnbaum does drop an F-bomb to show Watashi’s anger. Very interesting translation choice. And as Watashi finally blows his cool, this section also feels like an “Oscar moment” that might win an actor the award or at least a nomination. Here is Birnbaum’s translation:

“As far as I can see, the responsibility for all this is one hundred percent yours. You started it, you developed it, you dragged me into it. Wiring quack circuitry into people’s heads, faking request forms to get me to do your phony shuffling job, making me cross the System, putting the Semiotecs on my tail, luring me down into this hell hole and now you’re snuffing my world! This is worse than a horror movie! Who the fuck do you think you are? I don’t care what you think. Get me back the way I was.” (274)

And the original Japanese:

「だいたいこのことの責任は百パーセントあななにあります。僕には何の責任もない。あなたが始めて、あなたが拡げて、あなたが僕を巻きこんだんだ。人の頭に勝手な回路を組みこみ、偽の依頼書を作って僕に車夫リングをさせ、『組織』を裏切らせ、記号士に追いまわさせ、わけのわからない地底につれこみ、そして今僕の世界を終わらせようとしている。こんなひどい話は聞いたことがない。そう思いませんか?とにかくもとに戻してください」 (397)

As you can see, the “Who the fuck do you think you are?” corresponds to そう思いませんか (“Wouldn’t you agree?”) in Japanese. A pretty dramatic shift in tone there, and not undeserved. Birnbaum gives Watashi a bit more fire and brimstone here.

This is especially notable (and funny) because earlier in the chapter, (in a section that was heavily adjust by Birnbaum [or his editor]) there is an exchange of dialogue where the scientist hesitates to tell Watashi the truth because he is afraid Watashi will get angry. Watashi then says he won’t get angry…a promise he breaks here at the end of the chapter.

Back Issues

Welcome to the Eighth Annual How to Japanese Murakami Fest!

With the goal of stirring up even more interest in Murakami between now and October, when the Nobel Prizes are announced, I will post a small piece of Murakami translation/analysis/revelation once a week from now until the announcement. You can see past entries in the series here:

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: WarmthRebirthWasteland, Hard-ons, Seventeen, Embrace
Year Eight: Pigeon, Edits, Magazines, Awkwardness

I dedicated a previous Murakami Fest to excerpts from “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” (see “Year Three” above), the 1980 story that Murakami later rewrote for Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Murakami discusses the story at length in the 自作を語る for Hard-boiled Wonderland. Despite claiming that he viewed his previous stories “as documents that hold meaning as a sort of fixed-point observation,” Murakami declined to include “The Town” in the Complete Works, which he explains here:


I had only a very faint image of the structure of the novel at the point when I started writing. I had only decided to rewrite and expand “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall,” a novella (or maybe a long short story) that I wrote for Bungakukai a little while before, but when it came to the direction I would take in rewriting, I had developed no plan. I wrote the story “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” after Pinball, 1973, but it was too soon for me to write on those themes. I wasn’t yet equipped with the abilities to write so much. This I knew myself immediately after I finished writing it. I was disappointed with what I myself had done. I think I probably shouldn’t have published it. But in a different light, my desire to somehow rewrite it and make it into something more respectable might have gotten stronger precisely because I put it into print. If I hadn’t put “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” into print at that time, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World might have become an entirely different book from what it is now. For the publication of this Complete Works, my publisher requested that I include “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall”, but I did not want to. Even if it was a failed work that had intention (and the writer hoped that it did), a failed work is a failed work, and I did not want it to be exposed to public scrutiny once again. I would ask that readers who must read it please find the back issue of Bungakukai in the library and read it there.

I’ve read the story, and it’s not great, but it’s not terrible either. It feels disjointed, and it doesn’t really wrap up neatly, but there is some magic there at the End of the World. I’m surprised Murakami is so self-conscious about it.

It’s at least worth a trip to the National Diet Library for Murakami treasure hunters, and if you’re internet savvy, you can have them copy it out and send it to you (at a Japanese address)…which is what I did when I accidentally left my heavily annotated copy on a bus on the way back to Tokyo from Fukushima. Rest in piece, my original copy. The fresh copy I had sent from the NDL is nice, but I wish I still had my vocab notes.

This is the final post in Murakami Fest this year! The announcements begin next week, and as usual the Literature date has not yet been set.