Welcome to the Seventh 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: Warmth, Rebirth


Chapter 20 “The Death of the Beasts” is another short chapter. This is the section of the book where the pace really starts to pick up. Part of that is because there is a lot of action in the “Hard-boiled Wonderland” section of the novel, but the other reason is because the “End of the World” sections are shorter in comparison. Chapter 21, for example, is 38 pages in the Complete Works, and Chapter 19 was 18. Chapter 18 and 20, on the other hand, are only 5 and 6 pages respectively.

In 20, Boku gets up one morning to the Town covered in snow and decides to go for a walk. He comes upon the Gatekeeper who says he should watch from the Watchtower as he blows the horn. When he does, it becomes apparent to Boku that many of the beasts have died in their sleep. He runs back to his room, his eyes in pain from the morning light. There the Colonel takes care of him and talks with him about the beasts.

There is just one small cut by Birnbaum (or his editor) in translation. Boku asks the Colonel why the beasts don’t move away to somewhere where they would survive:

“Why, I cannot tell you,” he says. “But the beasts cannot leave. They belong to the Town; they are captured by it. Just as you and I are. By their own instincts, they know this.” (202)

This is an accurate translation, but it leaves a few of the finals sentences out, as BOHE is known to do. I’ve marked these in red and kept Birnbaum’s version for the first half:

「それは私にもわからん」と老人は言った。「しかし獣たちはここの街を離れることはできないんだ。彼らはこの街に付属し、捕われているんだ。ちょうど私や君と同じようにな。彼らはみんな彼らなりの本能によって、この街から脱け出すことがけいないということをちゃんと知っているんだ。あるいは彼らはこの街にはえている木や草しか食べられんのかもしれん。あるいは南に向かう途中に広がっている石灰岩の荒野を越えることができないのかもしれん。しかしいずれにせよ、獣たちはここを離れることはできないんだ」 (277)

“Why, I cannot tell you,” he says. “But the beasts cannot leave. They belong to the Town; they are captured by it. Just as you and I are. By their own instincts, they know that they cannot escape from the Town. Or perhaps it’s because they only eat the trees and grasses that grow in the Town. Or they cannot cross the limestone wasteland they would encounter to the south. Whichever the case, the beasts cannot leave.

BOHE has cut the unnecessary verbiage that attempts to grow the world beyond the Town and left the thought on the more ominous ending: They know this. This cut helps the dialogue flow more smoothly as well. Immediately after this, Boku asks “What happens to the bodies?” There’s no chance for him to get distracted about the limestone or the plants. His real concern is the beasts.

Although perhaps it does miss out on the idea that the Town is the safest option for the beasts, that while there are dangers within, outside is more desolate and dangerous.

No matter how you weigh it, this is a minor change. More dramatic changes are coming soon. Next week is the 38-page monstrosity that is Chapter 21, which I may have to divide across two (or three?) weeks because of the length and the number of cuts. See you then.


Welcome to the Seventh 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: Warmth


In Chapter 19 “Hamburgers, Skyline, Deadline,” Watashi and the Girl in Pink have hamburgers, make it to the old man’s office building, and then prep for another spelunking adventure…after ominously discovering that there are 36 hours left until something bad happens.

A couple of interesting things of note in this chapter. There is one callback to the watermelon metaphor that gets cut by Murakami for the Complete Works version. After Watashi tells the Girl in Pink that he doesn’t think he has any special qualities, she insists that his “emotional shell” is what makes him special and gives him the ability to shuffle. It helped protect him from the procedure they performed on him. Here is the paperback version after that:




“So this guard is basically like the rind of a melon?”

“Put simply, yes.”

“So,” I said. “This antibody or shell or rind or whatever it is, is it an innate faculty? Or is it something I acquired?”

I’ve borrowed some of Birnbaum’s language from his translation, which is very close to the Complete Works version:


Except Birnbaum keeps the “acquired line” in translation:

I thought this over. “This antibody factor or guard or whatever, is it an innate faculty? Or is it something I acquired?” (194)

Not a massive change, but a missed callback to the melon stuff from earlier. Always interesting to see what Murakami is doing.

Birnbaum works some of his translation magic as always. When the pair get to the office, it’s been ransacked just as his apartment was, and all the girl’s clothes are strewn across the floor, which gives Birnbaum the chance to work with this line:


An orchestration of pink in every gradation from light rose to deep fuchsia. (195)

And there is also a missed translation…because everyone is fallible. The device to repel the INKlinks (yamikuro) is still working, despite it having been knocked around:

“It’s all right, it works fine. They probably thought it was a useless contraption. Lucky for us, because the mechanism’s so simple, one little whack could have broken it.” (195)

But the Japanese suggests that it could not have been broken so easily:


“It’s all right. It works fine. They probably thought it was a useless contraption. And the mechanism’s so simple that a little bump on the head wouldn’t break it,” she said.

An alternate translation for that last line might be: “And the mechanism’s so simple that it would take more than a little bump to break it.”

But all these are just trivia, for the most part. The most interesting cut has to do again with the Girl in Pink, who becomes far more interesting this chapter. She’s always been overly cute and sensual and a bit frisky, but in this chapter she shows us exactly how smart and skillful she is. She’s learned just about everything from the old scientist: how to dodge taxes, trade stocks, run things for him. She’s completely financially independent. In what seems like a foreshadowing of Creta Kano’s invitation to Toru, she invites Watashi to run off to Europe. The Girl in Pink even suggests that once abroad he could be “reborn” as a “first-rate human being” (一流の人間). Watashi’s response from the Complete Works:


“Hmm,” I said.

Birnbaum’s translation leaves a vestigial tale of the original paperback text:

“Hmm.” Not a bad offer. (192)

In the original, the narrator deliberates a good bit longer and in doing so captures the mindset of many Murakami protagonists:


“Hmm,” I said. Not a bad offer. This incident had put me in a tight spot as a Calcutec, so a leisurely life abroad did have its charms. However, I wasn’t confident I could ever become a first-rate human being. Usually first-rate human beings become first rate because they have strong conviction that they can become first rate. There aren’t many human beings who became first rate just caught up in the current of things, the whole time thinking they weren’t first rate.

Not exactly critical information, but kind of the arm-chair philosophy/wordplay that has generated fanboys and girls for Murakami. And endearing, for sure…at least to me. It builds up the narrator as more of an underdog.

This passage feels like Murakami digging into his subconscious. He basically jetted off to the Mediterranean shortly after publishing this book, and he worked on Norwegian Wood while he was there (1985-1987 or so). He had a decent readership by the time Hard-boiled Wonderland was published, but I bet he wondered what level of success he’d achieve. He published Norwegian Wood in 1987 while still living abroad, and when he came home, he was a celebrity. Quite a rebirth.


Welcome to the Seventh 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 Man, Watermelons


From Bill Gracey‘s photostream.

Welcome back! As with last year, my laziness continues. I will pull the starter cord on the rusty (but trusty) lawnmower that is my close reading of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and read through a few more chapters to examine changes that Murakami made for the Complete Works edition and adjustments made by Birnbaum (or his editor) (BOHE) in translation.

Chapter 18 “Dreamreading” is an appropriately short chapter for me to get back in the swing of things. It’s only five pages in the “Complete Works” edition and just a bit longer in the paperback. No major changes between those additions, and BOHE didn’t make many either.

There are a few minor adjustments in translation of course, as there are with any translation, and many of these would vary with any translator. But they’re still fun to look at.

In this chapter, Boku describes his frustrations with the dreamreading process, reads a few dreams, and discusses his frustrations with the Librarian. Her job is to wipe down the unicorn skulls—the dreams—after he has brought them from the stacks and to serve him coffee when he’s finished. Birnbaum renders this in a wonderfully clean translation:

I select a skull from the long shelves and carry it to the table. She helps me, first, to wipe off the dust with a dampened cloth. With meticulous care, she then polishes it with a dry cloth until the skull becomes like sleet. (183)

Murakami’s Japanese, however, is a bit more decorated:


I take one of the old dreams lined up endlessly along the shelves and, cradling it gently, bring it to the table. Then she helps me to wipe off the dust and dirt with a slightly dampened cloth, and then to carefully polish it with a dry cloth.

BOHE simplifies “lined up endlessly along the shelves” to “from the long shelves.” “(just) slightly dampened cloth” becomes “dampened.” And the “cradling” gets cut completely. But he adds in the description of the skull like “sleet.” The result is much sparser, simplified translation. This results in other great passages such as the following:

At the end of each session, she serves coffee. Occasionally we share biscuits or fruitbread she bakes at home. We do not speak as we eat. (184)

That line hit me when I was reading the translation.

There is one very small cut later in the chapter that I think does more damage to one of Murakami’s main themes in this book (and in many others): warmth (ぬくもり).

When they finish in the Library, Boku and the Librarian walk through the Town again:

As always, we sit on the narrow steps that lead from the Old Bridge down to the sandbar. A pale silver moon trembles on the face of the water. A wooden boat lashed to a post modulates the sound of the current. Sitting with her, I feel her warm against my arm. (185)

Again, a great translation, and I think he ends it on a nice point that shows more than tells. Murakami goes on for a few more sentences:


As always, we sit on the steps that descend from the middle of the Old Bridge to the sandbar and watch the river. The frigid, white moon breaks into small pieces and flutters on the surface of the water. Someone has tied up a flimsy, wooden boat to a post on the sandbar, and it slightly alters the sound of the water. Perhaps because we are sitting next to each other on the narrow steps, I feel her warmth in my shoulder the whole time. It’s strange, I think. People always think of the mind as warmth. But warmth of the mind and warmth of the body are completely unrelated.

I’ve maintained Birnbaum’s translation of kokoro here with “mind,” but this is one spot in particular where “heart” might make more sense. Birnbaum has made other modifications to keep his same spartan translation style (for example, moving the “narrow” to the first sentence in the paragraph from the fourth), but he just cuts the final three sentences completely.

In an MFA workshop, those are the sentences someone would have marked as “Show don’t tell” or “Too on-the-nose,” I guess. (There have been a surprising number of references to MFA workshops in the reviews of Tsukuru Tazaki. Mostly in regards to stilted dialogue or strange wordings.)

I also have a feeling that Murakami will address this mind-body divide later in the book, so it might not be totally necessary to introduce it so explicitly right now.

In the end, I attribute this slight change to Birnbaum’s major decision to translate kokoro as mind rather than heart. I think it works perfectly in most of the rest of the novel, but here I think the line “People always think of the mind as warmth” in particular feels a little off. “People always think of the heart as warmth,” on the other hand, feels a little more natural.

Into the benkyō-ness: Let us now praise difficult kanji

kanji practice

I have an article in the Japan Times today: “Complicated characters: Let us now praise difficult kanji.”

This column was inspired by two of my biggest Japanese-related realizations of all time:

1. Katakana are not inherently more difficult than hiragana.

2. Kanji are not more difficult than English words.

I think everyone comes to understand these at some point, if they study long enough, but it’s always useful to review them.

I wrote more in depth about the first a few years ago (jeez, five years ago). Students of Japanese usually start with hiragana, then go on to katakana and kanji. They learn the pronunciation of all the individual katakana, but because there are comparatively fewer katakana words, they don’t get enough reps with any to really let them sink in. Whenever they do encounter them, they end up sounding out the syllables one at a time, wondering why the script is so difficult.

By contrast, they see 勉強 so much in the first few months, that it turns into what it should be: A gestalt larger than the individual parts. The kanji are still there, if you look closely enough (and within the kanji, the strokes), but dial back your focus, and they disappear into the benkyō-ness.

My recommendation to new students of the language: Don’t learn the hiragana or katakana individually. Just start memorizing whole words. I mean, I guess you need to do them individually at some point in order to learn how to write them, but I would recommend adding large katakana words to your flashcards or SRS software immediately. カレー, ラーメン, パソコン, all of these will be far more useful than the individual katakana.

The second realization may still be up for debate. I think Japanese and foreigners who study the language both enjoy contributing to the myth that Japanese is “the most difficult language in the world.” A good portion of this myth is supported by the sheer numbers: Japanese has THREE written “languages” and there are TWO THOUSAND kanji. Saying something like English has TWENTY-SIX letters just doesn’t feel as hefty in comparison. The fact that kanji are pictographs also contributes: My god, man, they look so damn complicated! How do you even deal with a language that isn’t phonetic?

But this assumes two things:

1. Two thousand characters allow for more combinations (and more difficult combinations) than twenty-six letters.

2. Being able to pronounce a word is equivalent to knowing what it means.

1 may seem true at first, but when you consider the fact that most kanji compounds only have two characters (and the longer ones can be broken down into sets of two), whereas the average English word is 5.1 letters, the playing field levels a bit. (Based on this website which gives Japanese an average word length of over 34…clearly mistaken since it acknowledges at the top that its calculation is based on languages with spaces.)

Japanese words look like this: __ __, with roughly two thousand possibilities for each space.

English words look like this: __ __ __ __ __, with twenty-six possibilities for each space.

2000 x 2000 = 2,000,000

26 to the power of 5 = 11,881,376

Obviously, there aren’t that many words in either language, but this is just a quick calculation that can hopefully put things in perspective: English words are equally complex as kanji.

And they are also equally simple. Take, for example, antidisestablishmentarianism. When I was in 3rd Grade, this was the word to know, for whatever reason. I guess when you’re ten years old, it’s really cool to know long words that seem complicated.

At the time, it seemed like one massive thing, but when I look at it now, it looks like kanji to me. Rather than being a gestalt or a string of individual letters, I see little packets of information: anti-, dis-, establishment, -arian, -ism.

Theoretically, you don’t even need to know how to pronounce these to know their meaning. They provide a visual way to break down the word, to a certain extent (if you are familiar with them). Which is another advantage to kanji: Because the pieces contain more information in and of themselves—is it safe to say that 義 holds more information on its own than -ism?—you have an additional method to gain information from the pieces, independent of their pronunciation.

Just because we English speakers don’t spend time in school learning these packets in the same way that Japanese students tackle kanji (lots of repetition required to master the ability to write the individual units) doesn’t mean that English is easier. They just require different strategies.

That’s all well and good, you might say, but give us something prescriptive, Morales! Well, the best I can do is these two pieces of advice:

1. Start reading in context as soon as you can. This will force you to look at kanji as compounds rather than individual characters.

2. When you are practicing your kanji composition, practice writing compounds or short phrases rather than individual kanji. This will hopefully serve to embed the idea that the whole is more important than the parts. For an example of this, see the image at the top of the post: These are my notebooks from study for the JLPT Level 1 test.

And if you haven’t yet, you must read “Kanji as Argo,” over at No-Sword, an amazing take on studying kanji that emphasizes number 1. The money quote:

…if you were learning French, you wouldn’t refuse to look at a French book at all until you’d memorized all possible verb conjugation patterns. (If that was the standard approach, no-one would ever read any French books at all—not even the French.)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki Review Round-up

My review of Philip Gabriel’s translation of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is online over at the Japan Times: “Haruki Murakami’s new book peels back the layers of friendship.”

But others have written smarter things than I have. Notably, Patti Smith in the New York Times:

The feel is uneven, the dialogue somewhat stilted, either by design or flawed in translation. Yet there are moments of epiphany gracefully expressed, especially in regard to how people affect one another. “One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone,” Tsukuru comes to understand. “They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss.” The book reveals another side of Murakami, one not so easy to pin down. Incurably restive, ambiguous and valiantly struggling toward a new level of maturation. A shedding of Murakami skin. It is not “Blonde on Blonde,” it is “Blood on the Tracks.”

Her note about the dialogue is true, and that feels very strange since I’m finding the dialogue in “Yesterday” from the New Yorker pretty cleverly translated. (I’m still in the middle of that story and may write something about it soon.)

And I think she’s also right on about Murakami’s main message with the book, which is something I hit on last year in my review of the Japanese version at Neojaponisme: Are we only ever “talking on the phone”?

I think Sean O’Hagan at The Guardian sees Tsukuru Tazaki within Murakami’s overall oeuvre more clearly than Smith:

Essentially, Murakami writes two kinds of novels: the deftly delineated personal odyssey of self-discovery narrative – Norwegian Wood, South of the Border, West of the Sun (both 2000) – and the more ambitiously plotted, often supernaturally shaded, epic shaggy dog story – A Wild Sheep Chase (1989), Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997). The latter approach, which incorporates elements of magic realism, science fiction and Japanese mythology, reached an apogee of sorts with his most recent novel, the three-volume 1Q84, which by turns mesmerised and baffled with its bewildering and, in places, disturbing plot. It involved a female character who wandered off a freeway into a parallel universe and a darkly mystical cult led by a self-styled prophet who indulged in creepy sex with the young female assassin hired by a mysterious dowager to kill him.

Colorless Tsukuru, perhaps as a reaction to the excesses of IQ84, falls into the first category, its relatively straightforward narrative centring on an archetypal Murakami character: a lonely young Japanese man whose life has been dislocated by a traumatic event he cannot make sense of.

I agree that this book is a reaction to 1Q84. This is true not only in scope but in technique. Rather than boring the reader with endless repetition of activities (reading Proust, exercising, etc.), Murakami bores in Tsukuru Tazaki with narrative summary. I don’t think I noticed this so much when reading in Japanese, but it felt interesting and new for him at first in translation.

For example, between Chapter 9 and 10, when Tsukuru decides to go on his pilgrimage to meet his old friends, he is very decisive, which is not usual of Murakami protagonists. Throughout his past novels and as recently as Tengo in 1Q84, the characters drink and sink themselves into routine in order to escape pain and confusion, but Tsukuru needs only an hour watching trains to obtain a temporary sense of release and then he’s on to the next spot. Murakami needed thousands of pages to cover six months in 1Q84. In Tsukuru Tazaki he only needed a few hundred to cover sixteen years.

But Murakami gets so wrapped up in this technique that he forgets to include certain details, which he is forced to add in (again as narrative summary) later in the book. The two I’m thinking of in particular are Shiro’s piano lessons, which would have been much more helpful to the reader as a scene earlier in the novel, and the time when Tsukuru sits and watches trains in Finland, which again would have made more sense given in chronological order (although it would have ruined his concision a bit).

Perhaps Murakami is attempting to mirror Tsukuru’s thought process, so these things come and go as they do in his mind. But it could just be a lack of revision, which Sgt. Tanuki covers in his blog post (which I’m glad I didn’t see until just recently…so that it didn’t color (get it?) my own review):

I enjoyed parts of it a great deal, and overall I think it’s more successful than 1Q84 (although if 1Q84 had ended at Part II it would have been better than this). But I think it suffers from some of the flaws of that book, and I think they both could have been remedied if Murakami was the type of author to rewrite and revise, but it seems he’s not; he sits down to write and writes until he’s done, and then he’s done, is the way I hear it, and so in this book we get character arcs that are unnaturally truncated, character development coming as he thinks of it, not as it’s needed, subplots and subtexts coming and going seemingly at random; and we get passages of flabby prose, where he’s clearly riffing, trying to find the melody that will carry him to the next plot point or epiphany. The last fifty pages of the book were positively maddening in this respect: anticlimactic, repetitive, aimless, but including passages of great insight and beauty that, if they’d been placed elsewhere in the book, would have made a great deal of sense.

The most damning criticism I’ve seen so far comes from O’Hagan:

What I learned is that, like other Murakami characters before him, Tsukuru seems to have grown older without really growing up. His discontents are essentially adolescent and one cannot help harbouring the suspicion that the majority of Murakami’s vast global fanbase either recognise and share those discontents or are themselves adolescents.

Ouch. That hits close to home.

Phillip Gabriel’s translation seems very well done for the most part, but he does seem to miss a minor callback to a 1980 Murakami short story (one of his earliest), “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story.” (Which you can find at Osakabe Yoshio’s site if you don’t have a New Yorker subscription.)

In the story, the narrator finds a “poor aunt” stuck on his back: “I first realized she was there in the middle of August. Not that anything in particular happened to alert me to her presence. I simply felt it one day: I had a poor aunt there on my back.”

In Tsukuru Tazaki, Sara offers to find his friends for Tsukuru:

“So tell me those four names. After that, you decide. Once I find out more about them, if you feel you don’t want to see them, then you don’t have to go ahead with it. That’s entirely up to you. But apart from that, personally, I’m curious about them. I want to find out more about these people who are still weighing you down.”

Here is the Japanese and my own translation:


Tell me their names. You can decide what happens after that. If, after certain things become clear, you still don’t want to see them, then you don’t have to. Because it’s your problem. But despite that, I just happen to be interested in them. I want to know more about them. About the people that are still, even now, imprinted on your back.

I don’t think Gabriel’s translation is an egregious change, but it does alter the character of the line a little.

I think Tsukuru Tazaki shares a lot with the story. In both, the protagonist suffers from a deep, unshakeable psychological condition, and in both, the condition has physical manifestations; the story has more fun with the magical realism, but in the novel, Tsukuru loses weight and looks like a totally different person afterward.

Overall, I thought the translation was okay. It didn’t keep me reading, although that might be because I already knew what was going to happen.

I did, however, enjoy the tension between Tsukuru and Sara, and at the end of the book, I found myself really sucked in, wanting to know how she felt, what she thought, what she was going to say. It was just a blip, the briefest moment, but there was a little magic there. Because you never know exactly how someone is taking in the world around you, even though it seems so definite and objective.

I’ll be curious to see what Murakami does next. His latest book of stories is only okay. I’d say he bats .250, which is pretty good for a baseball player, but not so hot for a short story writer. I know he’ll keep on swinging, though. Maybe he’s got a few more hits in him, but sadly I don’t think there are any home runs left.

Japanese Adverb POWER RANKINGS


I have a new column up on the Japan Times: “Particles create the chemistry of adjectives and adverbs.”

I actually drafted a blog post along these lines (with the whole chemistry analogy) way, way, waaay back in the day (when I was posting thrice weekly) but lost it to a hard drive crash. I remembered it recently because I was thinking about おいしく.

I loved the way that my roommate used the word—I don’t think I’d ever heard it used that way before. A quick Google search shows 4 million plus hits for おいしそうに and only 618,000 for おいしく, so it is somewhat odd/infrequently used. Each of those could technically be translated as “deliciously,” depending on the context.

This all inspired me to put together a quick power rankings of Japanese adverbs. Here you have it:

5. 悔しく
4. 適当に
3. 早く
2. おいしく
1. ちょっと

I assume that 悔しく gets used? It’s one of my favorite adjectives, so I put it on the list. 適当に is another fave, and I’ve written about it in the past. 早く takes third mostly because I was imagining a whiny kid saying 母ーさん、早く〜(HAyaKUUUU). おいしく is wonderful, as I previously mentioned.

I think the reason why おいしく and perhaps 悔しく are so interesting as adverbs is that as adjectives they are more “performative” rather than “descriptive.” 悔しい is what someone says when something sucked. おいしい is what someone says when something is delicious. They are connected equally (if not more so) with the state of the partaker as with that of which is partaken; in other words, how the partaker feels having partaken (in something delicious or a shitty experience).

Other adjectives such as 暑い, 遅い, 静か, etc. are more objective and relate to the object only. Adjectives don’t always work this way in English: Saying “that was delicious,” while equally subjective, feels closer to my bowl of ramen than うまい or おいしい does. …if that makes any sense.

Of course, only ちょっと can be the number one. I love it because of its frequency and variety of use and because it is one exception to the beautiful uniformity of く and に adverbs.

Are there any others that I’m missing?

Cool Compound – 前世


Hey folks, sorry I haven’t rapped at ya lately. I’m still working my way through 女のいない男たち, but it’s been slow going and has derailed my work on Hard-boiled Wonderland: I’ve only read two stories and the forward so far, and I skipped over “Drive My Car” (which I read in 文藝春秋 last fall), so I have 2.5 stories left. My attention span feels shot these days, thanks in part to work but also to the NBA playoffs (and now the Finals!). There were games every day for a while and then every other day, and now my Spurs are in the Finals again and the emotional toll is brutal: Controlling my emotional landscape is the game within the game.

Another thing is that the stories have been less than spectacular so far. “Drive My Car” was okay, from what I remember, but I don’t feel any desire to reread it in Japanese just yet, maybe once the translation comes out. “Yesterday” will be in the June 9 fiction issue of the New Yorker and is already online for subscribers. It was okay. “Independent Organs” (it should definitely be “organ” and not “body” as I suggested in my post about the collection) was disappointing and a bit lame. So far “Scheherazade” has the most compelling start, and it partly has to do with the cool kanji compound 前世 (ぜんせい).

Even beginner students should be able to draw out the meaning of this compound based on the basic rules for kanji compounds. This is, I believe, one of the Adjective + Noun varieties. 前 (before) + 世 (world) = the previous world = past life.

The word gets used in this passage:


“I was a lamprey in a past life,” Scheherazade said in bed one time. “I have distinct memories of it. Of sticking onto rocks at the bottom of the water, of slipping in between seaweed and waving in the current, of looking up at a fat trout as he passed overhead.”

So that’s a nice little passage, very typically Murakami, I’d say.

But I think these stories have bored me a little because there is just so little action. One commonality that ties them all together so far is that, much like the stories in Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round, storytelling itself is a theme. But Murakami was more adept at shifting between narrating the person telling the story and narrating action directly in that 1985 collection. And I believe they were shorter than these stories (eight stories as opposed to six spread out over fewer pages?). I’m curious to know why he’s chosen to work with the current length. My gut instinct is that these are the first short stories he’s written in a long time and he feels the need to have his form take a “step,” which maybe he felt he took with novels by writing 1Q84 (his attempt at a “comprehensive novel”).

At any rate, I have higher hopes for “Scheherazade,” and I’m curious to see what he does with the stories of shorter length toward the end of the collection. I’ll try to check back in before too long.

Cool Word – やけ酒


I have another column in the Japan Times today: “Drinking in Japan: Sober words to help you socialize.” It’s a fun column with some of the words you might encounter at a drinking party with coworkers…and an equally useful set that might help you avoid such a drinking party – not exactly an easy thing to do in Japan.

Sadly I don’t have the artwork I wanted to include with this post. When I was studying abroad, I had a crush on this girl in the international exchange club. I never had much of a chance to get to know her or even interact with her all that much, but there was one time when we talked and she drew me a very simple cartoon vocab lesson. She drew two people drinking together and labeled it サシ飲み and a sad person drinking alone and labeled it やけ酒.

やけ酒 is one of those words that has such a specific usage that it generally draws laughs when used as hyperbole. I haven’t ever really had much of an occasion to drink away my sorrows, to be honest, but it’s fun to pretend sometimes. Two Saturdays ago, my San Antonio Spurs lost Game 3 of their series against the Dallas Mavericks in devastating fashion: 37-year-old Vince Carter hit a last-second corner three to end the game. My Japanese coworker texted me: “I’m sorry. Vince made a miracle shot!”

I texted back: “今夜はやけ酒です(ㄒ.ㄒ)”

His response was, “「やけ酒」is good word (笑)”

So, yes, use it for laughs, use it for real. Hopefully the former and not the latter.

As I was getting ready to write this post, I looked for that cartoon that the girl had drawn for me ten years ago, but I wasn’t able to track it down. I have two file folders of loose photos and letters, and I was hoping it was tucked away in there. Alas. It still might be in a book somewhere, but it’s likely I threw it away.

Which turns out to be appropriate…somewhat. Apparently there are kanji for やけ酒, and they look like this:


I’m not exactly a kanji master, but those look like ateji to me. Literally you have self (自) + throw away () + liquor (酒). The first two are a compound where 自 is the direct object and 棄 is the verb: “throw away/abandon yourself.”

The real pronunciation looks more evident from this compound: 自暴自棄 (じぼうじき). Very cool stuff – check out the Japanese definition here to see if you can understand it, and then take a look at the English here if it’s difficult.

The Spurs lost again tonight (Friday, 5/2), and I can’t sleep so I wrote this post. I’ll save the self-destructive drinking for tomorrow night.

New Murakami Collection – “Men Without Women”

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I got the new Murakami short story collection Men Without Women in the mail today! Here are my initial impressions:

- It has a great cover. The art style is simple and almost like calligraphy in effect. I especially like the inclusion of a cat, which seems typically Murakami. The bar is also a nice touch, too, but the messy lawn under the tree gives the image its true power: it feels real and messy, very natural.

- It has a suitably cheesy sales pitch on the cover: “A world of Murakami short stories for the first time in 9 years. The stories are deeper, more poignant, and beyond expectation.”

- Here is the index:

Forward – 8 pages
“Drive My Car” – 52 pages
“Yesterday” – 52 pages
“Independent Bodies” – 52 pages
“Scheherazade” – 42 pages
“Kino” – 52 pages
“Men Without Women”- 22 pages

Murakami was impressively consistent with the length of stories, and I realize now (looking at the publishing history at the back of the book) that this is likely because all the stories were published in Bungeishunju. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know this earlier (and therefore didn’t blow cash on individual issues other than the very first one). Only the final story is a brand new 書き下ろし (kakioroshi).

- Notes on story titles: A couple of Beatles songs in there. One 1001 Arabian Nights reference. One nod to Hemingway. A Japanese pun (独立器官 = independent organs instead of 独立機関 = independent bodies?). And a Japanese surname (木野 = Kino).

- He includes a forward, which he immediately notes that he does not enjoy doing but had to for this collection due to the way it came about (ooh, very interesting…I’ll save the rest of the read for my commute tomorrow).

- Looks like a fun read! I’m sad to say that we’re well beyond Murakami’s early collections which were looser, more abstract, and contained shorter stories. I’ll probably start reading this week and may or may not liveblog at some point this weekend. I make no promises: It is the NBA postseason.


Chapter 17 “End of the World, Charlie Parker, Time Bomb” is a very short chapter, which is fortunate because it’s largely exposition: The scientist’s granddaughter has arrived at Watashi’s apartment, and they chat about what the grandfather must be up to, messing around in Watashi’s head with shuffling. She sneaks into his bed, making this a very softcore sexposition of sorts, which dials up the tension a bit, but otherwise it’s pretty plain, and short.

There is only one minor cut by Birnbaum (or his editor) in a section that is a brief break from the exposition to do some character detail. Check it out:

















“School is just sixteen years of wearing down your brain—that’s what grandpa always said. And he hardly went to school either.”

“That’s impressive,” I said. “But weren’t you lonely without any friends your own age?”

“Hmm, I dunno. I was just so busy I never had time to think about it. And, come to think of it, I just never had anything to say to kids my own age.”

“Hmm,” I said. I guess she could be right.

“But I’m really curious about you.”


“You just always seem so exhausted, but that exhaustion seems to turn into a form of energy or something. I just don’t get it. I don’t know a single other person like that. Grandpa never gets tired, and neither do I. So, are you actually tired for real?”

“I definitely am,” I said. You could say that again twenty times.

“What’s it like to be tired?” she asked.

“Different parts of your emotions become unclear: Compassion toward your self, anger toward others, compassion toward others, anger toward yourself—those kinds of things.”

“I still don’t get it.”

“Eventually nothing makes sense. It’s like spinning a top painted in different colors. The faster it goes, the more difficult it is to differentiate between them, and it ends in total confusion.”

“Sounds interesting!” the chubby girl said. “You seem to really know a lot about it.”

“Yeah,” I said. I could tell you anything you want to know about exhaustion that devours your life, exhaustion that bubbles out from the center of your being. That’s something else they don’t teach you in school.

“Can you play alto sax?” she asked me.

“I can’t,” I said.

It’s a nice little section. I’ve ended it awkwardly, right as the granddaughter gets a little ADD and then tries to make a move on Watashi, but he sets her straight and they get back to talking about the scientist and his experiments.

BOHE, on the other hand, makes this brief section even shorter and cuts all the sections highlighted in red above:

“Grandfather always said school’s a place where they take sixteen years to wear down your brain. Grandfather hardly went to school either.”

“Incredible,” I said. “But didn’t you feel deprived not having friends your own age?”

“Well, I can’t really say. I was so busy, I never had time to think about it. And besides, I don’t know what I could have said to people my own age.”


“On the other hand,” she perked up, “you fascinate me.”


“I mean, here you are so exhausted, and yet your exhaustion seems to give you a kind of vitality. It’s tremendous,” she chirped. “I bet you’d be good at sax!”

“Excuse me?” (178)

Birnbaum cuts the section that gives Watashi the opportunity to become introspective and think about how he feels, and then to express that to the granddaughter. Not a tremendous loss, but it does start to create an image that will be important later in the book: Spinning around. It took me a second to remember that コマ means top in Japanese, but the spinning and colors makes me think of “Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round,” which Murakami uses as an image in a later chapter.

At any rate, just minor stuff here, but nice minor stuff. Murakami concisely and compellingly describes what it’s like to be tired and how control over your emotions (compassion and anger) fractures. It’s important to be compassionate to yourself and to others. It’s difficult to do that when you’re exhausted.

When looking up the phrase 百とおりくらい (which I’m still not sure I totally understand), I located a personal blog post (JP) that mentions this passage in particular and suggests that the feelings expressed reflect the protagonist and the author’s feelings about life at the time of writing – Murakami would have been about the same age as his protagonist at the time, so I think that’s probably a good guess.