Listening Practice and Review of “Of Love and Law” at Wrightwood 659

Just a quick post this month. I’m in the Japan Times with a piece inspired by a conversation I had with a colleague during a business trip in June: “Get in tune with the sound of Japanese vocabulary.”

I found some interesting links on sound symbolism in Japan. Most of the research seems to involve onomatopoeia and how sound is representative of the meaning. That’s not exactly what I had in mind when I was writing the piece, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

And as a random aside—although I guess it counts as listening practice—I went to the first Cinema Saturdays program at Wrightwood 659 yesterday where they showed the Japanese documentary 愛と法 (Of Love and Law).

Wrightwood 659 is a gallery in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood designed by Tadao Ando. The gallery is in an old brick building right next to the Eychaner house. I believe the Eychaner house was the first residence Ando designed in the United States, and Fred Eychaner founded Wrightwood 659.

The building was gutted, and they let Ando work his magic inside.

It’s been open since fall of 2018, and they’ve had a few nice exhibits so far, including an Ai Weiwei exhibit (before they actually opened as Wrightwood?) and one with a look at Ando and Corbusier’s buildings. Tickets are $20, but they release a lot of free tickets if you follow their email list. Definitely worth a visit, even if only to sit in the beautiful lobby space for a few minutes.

The Cinema Saturdays program was organized with Frameline San Francisco LGBTQ+ International Film Festival, the largest and longest running LGBTQ+ film festival in the world.

愛と法 (Of Love and Law) is a great documentary about the Nanmori Law Office run by Masafumi Yoshida and Kazuyuki Minami, a gay couple.

I really liked the way they rendered 愛 and 法 on the title screen, which is recreated on the website for the movie:

You have the literal “eye” within the “ai” of love, and the drop of water for the さんずい in law, which reflects the many tears in the film.

The movie itself was kind of incredible. The law firm has been involved in a number of headline cases including the teacher in Osaka who would not stand during the national anthem and Rokudenashiko and her artwork, so the film is able to intersperse their personal struggles from the mundane (the regular bickering of a married couple) to the more profound (debating with attendees at one of their workshops over whether gay people can ever be “family” in Japan) with the legal struggles of others seeking the freedom of expression in Japan. The overall impression leaves the viewer with a sense that the persecuted have a suffocating existence in Japan, but that there is hope and that hope needs to be defended.

Definitely worth seeking out! And Wrightwood 659 is worth a visit. Check the website for more information about the other Cinema Saturdays showings over the next three weeks.

“Throwing Out a Cat” – Haruki Murakami’s new nonfiction work in 文藝春秋

I love browsing Japanese bookstores. I come from a family of consumer addicts, so part of the reason is the thrill of being in the position to potentially make a purchase. The other part of it, which I miss a lot these days, is gradually getting to know more about the Japanese literary world.

I took the basic literature classes in college and have been trying to get to know writers better through my Japanese reading group, but you don’t get a sense of the living, breathing 文壇 (bundan, literary world) in the classroom. You have to get out there and see what’s on the shelves and, in particular, in the magazines.

Japan has a pretty decent selection of literary magazines that are all relatively available, especially when compared to the United States. I’m currently in Chicago, the third-largest city in the country, and I have no idea where I would go to get a literary journal. I’m sure I could find out pretty easily, but I’m also certain it would involve an hour’s worth of round-trip travel to and from the bookstore, and that there are probably only a small handful of bookstores where I could find them. Obviously the New Yorker is everywhere, and The Atlantic is also readily accessible, but anything beyond that is going to be a tough find, even something like Harpers.

In Japan, on the other hand, I lived within a 10-minute walk of two bookstores that had just about any magazine available, and I didn’t live near a major train station. There are dozens of bookstores where you could find Monkey Business, and even more where you can get some of the mid-tier publications like 小説すばる (Shōsetu subaru) and other magazines.

I learned about the writers by trial and error, really. You do some 立ち読み (tachiyomi, stand and read) to find something that looks good, make a purchase, and then look for that writer’s name elsewhere if you enjoy it. Recommendations from bookstores and libraries and friends helped, but so did browsing the fold-out 目次 (mokuji, index) at the front of magazines.

There’s something special about that 目次. Generally the cover of a magazine will include some of the big names in the issue, but I found it a fun challenge to try and spot other writers here and there on the folded out index. I was always excited to see 綿矢りさ (Wataya Risa) or 金原ひとみ (Kanehara Hitomi), authors of the first two novels I read in Japanese, or 三崎亜記 (Misaki Aki), who was a personal favorite.

After having been back in the U.S. for nine years now, I was pleasantly surprised to see none other than 村上春樹 (Murakami Haruki) in the June 2019 issue of 文藝春秋 (Bungei shunju) when I was in Japan on business earlier this month.

文藝春秋 is one of the big dog magazines that selects the Akutagawa Prize twice a year. It’s fairly conservative, and Murakami was never selected for the Akutagawa Prize when he was younger (and not as well accepted by the literary establishment). Murakami published stories in 文学界 (Bungakukai), also published by the 文藝春秋 company, pretty quickly (including the very early novella 街と、その不確かな壁), but his first fiction in 文藝春秋 itself didn’t come until the 1990 story “Tony Takitani.” (He did have interviews, essays, and critical writing published there…including a piece about translating Paul Theroux and an interview about the success of Norwegian Wood.)

(As always, Yoshio Osakabe’s now defunct Geocities website is a great place to track down obscure Murakami articles and interviews from the 80s. You can access the cache through See this link.)

Murakami has a nonfiction piece titled 猫を捨てる−父親について語るときに僕の語ること (Throwing out a Cat – What I talk about when I talk about my father), and it’s the best thing I’ve read by him in a long, long time. It’s 25 pages, so pretty long, but not long enough for the magazine to advertise the 枚数 (maisū, page count) from the manuscript on the cover, which I believe is usually given in terms of 原稿用紙 (genkō yōshi, “official” manuscript paper).

The story starts and ends with stories about cats and Murakami’s father. I won’t spoil them because they are worth seeking out (although you can surmise the content of one from the title), but they create the very typically Murakami sense of mystery within reality.

Murakami’s father was the second of six sons to the priest of Anyōji Temple in Kyoto. When Murakami’s grandfather was hit and killed by a tram, there was a discussion amongst the family about who would take over the temple. It had to be one of the four sons remaining with the family (two had been sent off as adopted children to other temples and had changed their names).

The 長男 (chōnan, oldest son) ends up taking on that responsibility, but nearly all of the six sons had received education as priests, and Murakami’s father had even been sent away to a temple to be adopted until he got sick from the cold in Nara and was sent back home. Murakami nicely weaves this story of his father being “thrown out” in with the cat and the sense of generational trauma that he imagines his father must have later experienced during the war.

His father didn’t talk about the war very much, and Murakami admits that he didn’t resolve to look into the details until five years after his father’s death and that for a long time he didn’t want to because he was under the impression that his father’s division had participated in the Nanjing Massacre.

It turns out, Murakami’s father’s timing was extremely fortunate. He was conscripted three times into the 16th Division and released all three times after a term of service. He joined after the division participated in the Nanjing Massacre and was discharged twice, once in August 1939 and then again in November 1941 after only two months. Murakami wonders whether his father would have been discharged that second time—allegedly by a friendly officer who thought he would serve the country better as a student—after Pearl Harbor, just a month later. The division was quickly sent to the Philippines and ended up being almost completely decimated there.

Murakami includes haiku his father wrote and sent from the battlefield. I won’t try and translate or interpret them, but this one is interesting and draws in his religious background:


Despite his father’s lucky timing, he still encountered the realities of the brutal war. Murakami recalls the only conversation they had about it in which his father described how Chinese prisoners were executed by decapitation.

He then transitions to life after the war. His father gave up studies and became a teacher after Murakami’s mother became pregnant. He wasn’t happy with his life, he drank and was difficult, but Murakami never directly experienced any harm from this. They did have a falling out, which Murakami describes in more depth than I can remember seeing in the past. Yet he still seems to hold back—the specific disagreement is never described:


I personally don’t want to get into the details of the dispute between a father and child, so I’ll just touch upon it briefly here. If I were to go into the details, it would end up being a long and raw story. But to sum it up, I married young and once I started working, I was almost completely estranged from my father. In particular, once I became a working writer, a lot of complicated issues came up, which twisted our relationship even further, and in the end we had nearly broken off relations. We didn’t see each other for 20 years, and unless there was a significant issue, we continued not talking or communicating.

Murakami writes nicely about this generational divide:


Perhaps all of us breathe in the air of our own generation and are forced to live with the burden of its inherent gravity. And we are forced to grow within the trends of that framework. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just the natural way things come about. Just as the younger generation today continue to earnestly fray the nerves of their parents’ generation.

One other thing of note is that Murakami admits to dreaming! He says his father’s dissatisfaction with his grades growing up has left him with stress dreams:


Even now I occasionally have dreams in which I’m taking a test. I’m unable to solve even a single problem of the questions being given.

Murakami has famously claimed that he doesn’t dream (in a New York Times interview amongst other spots). But he’s also claimed that he’s never been hungover, which seems like a stretch.

At any rate, this is a good piece and worth reading. It’s certainly better than Killing Commendatore, which also happens to address the Nanjing Massacre. Perhaps that’s what drew it to Murakami’s attention, although from his telling, he has been looking into his father’s war history since 2013, well before KC was published.

And if you’re not reading Murakami, you should get out there and scan some 目次 for things you are interested in reading. Do enough repetitions and you’ll start to find the names more familiar and likely some pretty interesting literature.

Crying Time

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at some crying vocabulary: “When giving a public speech in Japanese, tears can be your trump card.”

This article was prompted by the opening anecdote, which cracked me up and I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I probably could have written another 2,000 words looking at graduation ceremonies (there’s some really awesome stuff online), but it would have been a bit rambly (although interesting rambly). Maybe I still will at some point. I think it was more effective for this piece to look more broadly at crying. It’s interesting how “simple” and performative the statements are that accompany tears in Japan. This is true across the spectrum of different emotions that result in tears.

One interesting grammatical side note is that the verb used most frequently with both the 送辞 (sōji, farewell address) and 答辞 (tōji, formal reply) speeches is 読む (yomu, read), despite the fact that they speak them aloud, likely because students read directly from a formal manuscript.

One of the most interesting things I discovered while working on this article was a transcript of Ryutaro Nonomura’s legendary 記者会見 (kishakaiken, press conference). Check it out here to see the whole thing.

What a poor, pathetic man. He clearly understands the press conference format and what can be accomplished at them, but he’s just a mess. Unprepared, unscripted, and it shows. When he’s not completely incoherent (報告ノォォー、ウェエ、折り合いをつけるっていうー、ことで、もう一生懸命ほんとに、少子化問題、高齢ェェエエ者ッハアアアァアーー!!), he’s stringing together ridiculous crap like this:


Strong, strong work by the transcriber.

Since I submitted this piece, there’s been another press conference that drew some attention—a car accident ended up hitting a few preschoolers on the sidewalk and killing two. Based on what I saw on Twitter, there’s been some questioning about why they had one of the staff members go in front of cameras when she was clearly distressed. You can see the press conference here.

It’s hard not to feel for her. One useful phrase I was able to glean was すみません。何も言えないですみません (Sumimasen, nanimo ienaide sumimasen, I’m sorry. Forgive me, I’m unable to say anything.). Something to tuck away for potential “worst case scenario” type moments, although it’s another thing entirely to be able to recall a phrase like this in a moment like that.

Japanese Definitions and Twitter Sleuthing

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at some cool websites that help you define the differences in Japanese words: “使用? 利用? Make use of a dictionary to use your Japanese properly.”

It’s always good to start reading Japanese explanations of things as soon as you are able. The Wool vs. Cashmere explanation is a good example of something that’s pretty interesting, and perhaps not as dull as grammatical explanations.

But we need the dull grammatical explanations, too! This is always a good reminder that the 日本語文型辞典 is an awesome resource. Here’s the full quote from the section I cite about the difference between なければならない (nakereba naranai, must) and なければいけない (nakereba ikenai, must):



However, it’s one thing to read these and another thing entirely to put them into practice. The best advice I can give there is to write out a few example sentences of your own, ideally based on some Google sleuthing, and then mindfully attempting to incorporate them into daily usage.

Lately I’ve noticed that Google sleuthing for native phrases isn’t as helpful as it used to be. The Google algorithm seems to be focusing on webpages explaining the phrases rather than random sites that use the phrases.

I’ve been relying far more on Twitter sleuthing, which has been providing excellent results. Let’s see what we can find with the examples above.

A search for なければならない, for examples, gives this example from the great Count Okuma of Waseda University fame:

A loose translation of his quote: The young must hold lofty ideals. And they must have the courage to put them into practice.

Definitely seems worthy of social obligation/necessity.

I found one result of this pattern from an account that seems to have gone private, but I left the tweet open in a tab for so long that I was able to screenshot it:

Coincidentally this is also university related—it’s the beginning of the term there, and the clubs are all out in force inviting frosh to join. One upperclassman has had enough:

Another good example of the fact that everyone has to suffer this 勧誘地獄 (kanyu jigoku, solicitation hell), which is one of my new favorite Japanese terms.

On the other hand, the user B太郎 has to have his morning fried chicken from Family Mart and expresses this individual necessity using なければいけない:

Another user desperately needs some sleep:

I think this shows that Twitter is a pretty reliable source for native phrases. Are there any other sites you use? Maybe blog sites? Anything else?

Cool Kanji – 国字

After taking a extended vacation late last year (I was a little burned out from translation), I’m back in the Japan Times with an article about some of my favorite Japanese phrases: “Japanese that’s so beautiful it belongs in a museum.”

The museum conceit was sparked by an email I received with an excellent phrase—お手すきの際で構いません—and the other examples popped into my head as I started to write.

I’ve written previously about 国字 (kokuji, kanji created in Japan) very briefly, highlighting the kanji 峠 (tōge, mountain pass). Sadly, it looks like ホテル峠 has closed; the grounds are so overgrown you can’t even see the building from the highway anymore:

It’s even on a registry of 廃墟 (haikyo, abandoned buildings). The haikyo registry makes me think, さすが日本.

You can find a complete list of 国字 here and detailed listings of 和製漢字 (waseikanji, Japanese invented kanji) here. Pretty interesting details, although at times difficult to read since many of the entries are long lists of reference material where the kanji came from.

And I’d totally forgotten about 幽霊漢字 (yūrei kanji, ghost kanji) until re-reading that blog post. There’s a really great write-up about what happened over at Dampfkraft. Short and worth a read! Language, indeed, finds a way.

And on a brief side note, it’s worth taking a look at the Japan Times Facebook post where they got a few good suggestions about beautiful Japanese. This is my favorite:

Masquerade Release and Translation Process

It’s official! “Masquerade and the Nameless Women” is out in the wild as of January 29:

The release coincided with a bout of polar vortex here in Chicago, but a group of five friends came out to Half Acre Brewing with me to celebrate. As I was walking to the bar, I kept hoping Half Acre would have a Mild on tap, and they delivered with a 2.6% Mild called White Noise. It felt a little like divine intervention of some kind.

At the coldest point of the vortex, I ventured out to my neighborhood’s Little Free Library to donate a copy to the neighborhood:

I checked on Thursday and it was kind of stuffed with a bunch of random books (I think some people use it to get rid of things they don’t want anymore rather than as a contribution to the community), but I dug around and didn’t see it, so someone out there may be reading it.

Since the translation and editing process is something I look at closely here, I thought I’d do the same for my own work. I marked a few passages as I was putting together the final draft last August and going over the final edits in October. I don’t think these will spoiler too much.

One thing I noticed while making the edits for submission was that sometimes in the translation process, I made an initial effort that needed to be refined. Having the eye/ear to be able to refine it sometimes takes skill and sometimes just time.

Here’s an example:

Japanese original:


Rough draft:

We return to the original question: let’s think about why Reina, who went as far as living in a ramshackle wooden apartment to conceal the fact that she had money, didn’t have a driver’s license yet had a luxury car.

Final draft:

We return to the original question: let’s think about why Reina, who went so far as to live in a ramshackle wooden apartment to conceal the fact that she had money, didn’t have a driver’s license yet had a luxury car.

The only change here is “went as far as” to “went so far as.” The former is fine, maybe would have been more natural as “went as far as to live” rather than “living,” but the phrase only has 7.59 million Google hits whereas “went so far as” has 7.7 million.

Add in “to” and, interestingly, “went as far as to” has 2.73 million while “went so far as to” has 7.35 million.

Not that Google is the ultimate decider here, but the phrase felt more natural to me.

Here’s another example:

Japanese original:


Rough draft:

They probably had cosmetic surgery and body reconstruction so people wouldn’t recognize them at close distances.

Final draft:

They probably had cosmetic surgery and body reconstruction so people wouldn’t recognize them in close proximity.

I think this is a stronger example – “at close distances” just feels generic and unpolished/unnatural. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking when I was editing, but I do feel like I was using my reading brain more than my writing brain, which is perhaps why I caught it.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit to my editor Angela. I noticed a lot of subtle improvements when I was going over the final changes.

Here’s one example:

Japanese original:




Final submitted draft:

“I’ll have you know my squad car has been fully stocked with candy for the past year.” He then put another lollipop in his mouth with a grin. “You must be at least a little interested in the secret why I never run out of candy.”

Published version:

“I’ll have you know my squad car has been fully stocked with candy for the past year.” He then put another lollipop in his mouth with a grin. “You must be at least a little interested as to why I never run out.”

This is a minor change, but I think it makes a huge difference. It physically pains me to see all those excess words in my draft. Being able to hit that natural phrasing in the first place is what translation is all about, but writing is a collaborative art, and I’m thankful for everyone who helped make the translation happen.

Glad to answer any questions about the translation or translation in general.

Cool Word – 幸い

Japanese, like all languages, is all about figuring out secret codes. How to use language to communicate information, effect change, and create action.

One of the pieces of code that has been useful for me recently is 幸いです (saiwai desu).

This phrase is used when making requests, a particularly fraught moment for Japanese.

It is most commonly preceded by いただければ (itadakereba), いただけましたら (itadakemashitara), or いただけますと (itadakemasu to) – a veritable catalog of conditional potential forms of いただきます (itadakimasu, to receive, humbly). So, in effect, it means “If I can have you do X, I will be 幸い.”

The best and simplest definition of 幸い I’ve seen online is from Yahoo Chiebukuro (surprise!):


It literally means, “If you could do that for me, I would be happy.” It also has elements of “desirable,” “grateful,” and “convenient” wrapped up it in.

So it means “I would appreciate it if you could X.”

The reason I call it “secret code” is that there’s a sense wrapped up in the language itself that, yes, what I’m asking is reasonable and you will undertake it for me. It’s making a request without making a command, without even asking a question. Just by stating that one would be pleased. This is an especially potent combination with an airbag phrase.

I guess this is true with English as well, come to think of it. You can even flower up the English to something like “It would please me greatly if you could X” to match 幸いに存じます (saiwai ni zonjimasu), a keigo alternative, although the Japanese lacks any sarcasm.

It’s difficult to find any raw examples with a web search because there are so many Japanese websites explaining grammatical usage these days, so I recommend checking out a Twitter search to see how the term is being used. A bunch of them out there.

Cool Word – 仕事納め

I’m back in Chicago after the holidays, the temps have dropped again, and there’s a dusting of snow on the ground, but I’m on the inside looking out, sipping on a hot mug of honey ginger lemon, so no complaints.

I’m done with work for the year!

A Japanese friend’s Facebook post reminded me of the excellent Japanese word 仕事納め (shigoto-osame)—finishing up work for the year. It makes sense that Japan — where New Year’s is absolutely the dominant national holiday — has a word that means wrapping up for the year.

Nothing too crazy going on here – just 仕事 (work) plus a nominalized form of the verb 納める (to complete).

納める is one of those verbs that can have a ton of different meaning depending on context. In fact, the Japanese dictionary provides nine independent usages. Dictionary posts like this are complicated but really helpful if you’re trying to get a true sense of meaning. The dictionary post for 仕事納め is much simpler and good reading practice for beginners.

Update: Check out the 仕事納め hashtag on Instagram for a nice contextual definition of the word and a cool glimpse of how Japan is wrapping up the year.

Translation Pre-order – Masquerade and the Nameless Women

It’s official—the translation I did for Vertical this summer is available for pre-order. It’s been up for a little while, but I wanted to wait until the cover was on Amazon to let everyone know. Take a look. They put your boy on the cover:

The book is Eiji Mikage’s 殺人鬼探偵の捏造美学 (Satsujinki tantei no netsuzō bigaku), which works out to something like “The Serial Killer Detective’s Fabricated Aesthetic.” Here’s the Japanese cover:

There are lots of fun variations on this. Detective Serial Killer’s Invented Aesthetic. The Invented Aesthetic of the Serial Killer Detective. The Japanese cover also has the suggested translation “Masquerade’s Fabricated Aesthetic.” Of these variations I think “Masquerade’s Invented Aesthetic” might be closest to what Mikage was going for.

Clearly we went in a different direction with the English title. I’m really happy that Vertical took one of my suggestions. The title is drawn from the text and I think creates forward momentum for the reader. I had a few other options, but I think I’ll wait to share them when the book is published.

This reminds me that I recently learned the Spanish translation for Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is Tokio Blues. I was having a conversation with a Venezuelan and briefly thought there was some Murakami book I wasn’t familiar with until she described the opening: a Japanese man lands in Germany and “Norwegian Wood” is playing over the airplane speakers as the passengers disembark.

I think this title translation borders on criminal. “Norwegian Wood” is so effective as a title because (assuming the reader is familiar with the Beatles, which isn’t a huge assumption to be making) the song title itself is incredibly potent and generative. You have the sound of the song, of course, but also whatever memories and experiences you have wrapped up with the song, which is exactly how the novel begins—Toru’s near physical pain at everything he associates with the song.

The translation demolishes that and replaces it with an incredibly simple summary of the book…although I will admit that it does summarize the book somewhat effectively, lol. Are the Beatles just not as popular in Spanish-speaking countries? I find that difficult to imagine. I’d chalk this up to an overeager translator/publisher.

A quick Wikipedia perusal shows that most translations leave the song title, but French and German also commit crimes.

The French title is La Ballade de l’impossible (The Ballad of the Impossible), which is garbage, and the German is Naokos Lächeln (Naoko’s Smile), which is better—likely drawn from the text, kind of hints at how the narrator is feeling—but still #NotGreatBob.

I hope that my title translation hasn’t done this much damage. Obviously it’s done some, at least when it comes to authorial intentions. But I do think the English will benefit from this new title. We’ll see.

So go get a pre-order at your favorite bookseller! I should note the trigger warnings: gore, suggested statutory rape, suggested incest (・・;)

How to Japanese at (the Entrance to) Keio University

So Keio University used one of my Japan Times articles on their entrance exam this year. That’s a thing that happened.

I wrote a little about it (and writing as a side hustle) over on my personal site.

They used “Japanese humor: more universally funny than you think,” one of my earliest for the JT. I’ve written 50 articles for the Bilingual page now, and this was my seventh, so the style feels a bit awkward at times, the word choice clunky, and the Japanese examples kind of sparse, but there are still some good points.

Here’s what the version on the test looks like:

They did some pretty significant editing and rewriting for the test, which makes sense. The target audience here isn’t native speakers. To be honest, they could have changed more, but their edits make it somewhat more readable by giving each joke a clean introduction. Hopefully that made it less trying for the applicants (to the medical school, which is shown at the bottom of the final page).

The questions are interesting: 1) write an introductory paragraph in English, 2) replace the word in the underlined phrases that doesn’t make sense with a word that does make sense, 3) place the appropriate conjunctions in the blank spots in the text, 4) translate the underlined Japanese sentence into English, 5) translate the marked Japanese phrases into English, and 6) translate “the opposite is true” into Japanese.

That’s an awful lot of work to do for a single reading comprehension passage. I wonder how much time they had to get through it? 20 minutes? 30 minutes? Probably less.

It’s very interesting to learn that Keio did not have to ask the JT permission to use the text on the exam and that in the past they weren’t even citing the author or publication (“Entrance exams breaking copyright law? Academically unethical?”). I wonder how the writer discovered that texts were being used.

I suspect that they were being reprinted in books of past exams which get used as study guides. That’s how I learned my article was used—the publisher notified the JT and was required to pay them usage rights and me author fees. Actually, I’m not certain if it’s required, but they seemed willing to pay the rates.

I wonder how many other JT authors this has happened too. Any readers know of this happening?