Dr. Yusuke Nakamura at the University of Chicago

I’m in the Japan Times today with a profile of oncologist/genomics researcher Dr. Yusuke Nakamura: “Leading cancer researcher Yusuke Nakamura pursues answers.”

He’s got an impressive back story. He spent five years researching in Utah and made some pretty incredible, important discoveries, including research that lead to discovery of the genes for colon cancer and breast cancer.

I don’t mention this in the article, but it’s easy to tell how he got where he is: he seems to be working at an extremely high level almost constantly. He replied to nearly all my emails within an hour, if not sooner. Why wait when you can knock it out and get on to the next thing? He must have this approach to his science as well.

His blog is also great reading. I selected his post 濃霧の中の殺人 (Nōmu no naka no satsujin, Murder Amidst Dense Fog) for my Japanese Reading Group last month. It tells the story of a gunshot patient he treated while a doctor in Japan. The ending is so interesting that I won’t spoil it here.

Despite leading a research lab and conducting clinical trials for different drugs (and traveling back and forth to Japan to help with projects there), he finds the time to post every two to three days about some interesting topic in his life, whether it’s things like Uber, his Fourth of July, politics, or information about cancer research. Highly recommended reading.

Cool Website – Yahoo Chiebukuro

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at Yahoo Chiebukuro: “Asking questions to the Japanese internet.”

Long-time readers will already be familiar with this site (I’ve mentioned it/linked to it a bunch of times before), but I think the article is still worth checking out. I found some fun new posts.

Yahoo Chiebukuro has become my go-to site whenever I have a question about Japanese language or culture. It may not always provide a perfect answer, but it’s generally worth a first look before deciding to dive deeper.

I recently filled in an eye on a Daruma a friend made for me, and I realized I didn’t know which eye to start with.

As you’d expect, there’s a page on Yahoo Chiebukuro for that. It’s a little rambling but seems to imply that there are many different ways to fill in Daruma eyes, depending on what kind of wish you’re making. Sometimes you even fill in both at the same time (to maintain a connection with someone, for example), although for general wishes you start with one eye and fill in the other when the wish has come true.

I wasn’t totally satisfied with the answer, so I did a little more searching and found ダルマの目はどちらから?(Daruma no me wa dochira kara? For Daruma’s eyes, which do you start with?), which seems to have most of the same information along with a history of Daruma and how they’re used. One funny line: Daruma are associated with Zen Buddhism but can be found at shrines and all types of Buddhist temples because, the author says, 日本人はそんな原理主義的な考え方をしません (Nihonjin wa sonna genrishugi-teki na kangaekata o shimasen, Japanese don’t really have that much of a fundamentalist way of thinking).

The author conveniently highlights the most important section in red:

どうも一般的には「最初は左、満願で右」、選挙では「最初は右、当選で左」が多いようです。間違いやすいのは、「右目」・「左目」というのがダルマにとってのことなので、「最初は向かって右、満願で向かって左」が憶えやすいと思います。

In general, “First left, right when it comes true” and for elections “First right, left when you’re elected” seems to be most common. It’s easy to mess up that it’s “right eye” and “left eye” from the Daruma’s point of view, so it’s easier to remember “First right as you face it, left as you face it when it comes true.”

And if you read to the bottom of the article, you’ll see another interesting point: It seems some political campaigns have stopped using Daruma after disability groups complained that filling in Daruma eyes after a victory discriminates against those with vision impairments by suggesting having two eyes is superior.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t round up all the times I linked to Yahoo Chiebukuro. Give these a skim—I’ve listed them with date and the topic of the Chiebukuro post:

2009.10.14 – Causative form of 見せる・見る (two posts)
2011.08.01 – Why Japanese uses ホワイト instead of ワイト
2012.01.11 – Origin and usage of お陰様
2015.01.05 – Usage of 借りができた
2015.03.02 – Difference between 愛し and 愛おしい and meaning of いとし
2015.05.12 – Pronunciation of 場合
2016.03.10 – Difference between 振られる and 捨てられる
2016.04.25 – How to write ケツ in kanji
2016.06.23 – Correct phrasing for the tongue twister about monks painting screens
2016.11.24 – How do you write ワイセツ in kanji?
2016.12.15 – Etymology of 邪魔 and ご無沙汰
2017.01.04 – Are 年男 and 年女 lucky?

Tanka and Competitive Karuta

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a quick introduction to tanka along with some cool reading recommendations: “Tanka help Japanese express emotions.”

I can’t recommend 『現代秀歌』 highly enough. As I mention in the article, it’s the collection that the poet (and scientist) Kazuhiro Nagata recommended at his Poetry Foundation talk back in April. The book is a collection of 100 contemporary tanka from 100 poets. It’s a follow-up to his collection 『近代秀歌』. Both are available on the Amazon Kindle store…very convenient and inexpensive. I think the former cost me $6.95. Not bad at all!

Tanka and other classical Japanese poetry forms can be super challenging to students of Japanese. I know that I generally need a helping hand to understand most haiku, and tanka are no different. Nagata provides that helping hand through his commentary about the poems. Yes, the commentary happens to be in Japanese…all the better for your reading practice.

In addition to the poems he has selected to represent each poet, he provides another two or three with commentary to fill out a sense of each poet’s oeuvre.

If you’re interested in older tanka, Ad Blankestijn has been blogging his way through the poems of the Hyakunin isshu in English at his website Japan Navigator. He gives nice explanations for each of the poems he’s addressed so far with very detailed look at the language used.

If you’re not satisfied with the couple dozen that he’s made it through, another blogger got through all 100 over the course of three years (I think…the poems seem to be out of order). The posting for each poem isn’t as detailed as Ad’s in terms of language, but there’s a lot of great background information.

And don’t forget that the the Hyakunin isshu is the source of the game Karuta! Check out this very high level match with commentary.

Nagata showed a similar video during his presentation. The person singing the poem reads the 上句 (jōku, first half of the poem) and the players have to tag the 下句 (geku, second half of the poem). As you can tell, they generally swipe at the cards after the first few mora…they don’t need to the full 17 to find the answer. Intense!

June Yamagishi and Papa Grows Funk

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard about Papa Grows Funk.

I was having a drink with a high school classmate at Train Bar in Roppongi in August 2002, my first visit to Japan, and he was telling me that our sixth grade science teacher, Mr. Allspach, had been a manager at the Maple Leaf Bar in our hometown New Orleans.

As much as I hate adding to the narrative of New Orleans exceptionalism, perhaps this is unique and characteristic of the city: New Orleans is the kind of place where your middle school science teacher, known for daily quizzes, dapper suits from the ‘70s, and for being very tall and strict, can also be a regular at a neighborhood dive bar that hosts some of the best bands in the city.

My friend said that Mr. Allspach recommended Papa Grows Funk and that they had a Japanese guitarist. I went to see them for the first time later that summer after I returned from Japan. It was a random Monday night in that dead space in the calendar when college students hadn’t returned to the city, but the bar was full.

Papa Grows Funk at the Maple Leaf for their third-to-last show in April 2013. Walter “Wolfman” Washington on stage with them in this photo.

I quickly became obsessed with the band and New Orleans funk, which all originates from the 1969 The Meters self-titled album (YouTube)(and probably some R&B that came before that). I even had a chance to see the band in Tokyo at Club Quattro in Shibuya when I was studying abroad in 2004.

So it was a thrill to profile the guitarist June Yamagishi for the Japan Times: “June Yamagishi: Hitting New Orleans with a suitcase and a guitar.”

I spoke with him when I was back home in February. He’s super friendly and open and fits right in in New Orleans, where he’s lived since 1995. He’s managed the city that whole time without a driver’s license, which feels like a miracle, but it seems like he’s been based out of the Lower Garden District neighborhood since he got to New Orleans. We were sitting outside Mojo Coffee on Magazine Street, and he could point to the house where he first lived and the house where he recorded a solo album before he moved to the city.

He’s basically a guitar legend in Japan as well. There’s an extended conversation between June and the guitarist Char on YouTube. This is the first part of that program:

I need to give it a watch.

And to give you a taste of June’s music, I recommend the song “Yakiniku”:

And here’s a clip of June from an upcoming documentary about Papa Grows Funk. He’s talking about how the band started gigging at Old Point Bar in Gretna:

Killing Killing Commendatore

I’m in the Japan Times Bilingual page this week: “Conquering ‘Commendatore’: Murakami brandishes familiar lexicon in latest novel.”

Hopefully this is the last I’ll have to deal with Killing Commendatore for a while. I didn’t really have a chance to get down and dirty with the text to illustrate all the thoughts I had about it, but I’m not sure the book deserves such a close look. I still haven’t finished reading the translation of 1Q84, and I’m not sure that I’ll get to Killing Commendatore in English either. 23 days is enough. No más.

But we need to have something for the blog post, so here are the other 惹かれる examples that I didn’t get to talk about in the Japan Times article. I marked this phrase throughout the book. I don’t think this is every instance, but it should give you a pretty good idea how Murakami uses this word.

Sometimes it’s simple—attraction:

私が妻に惹かれたのもまさにその目だった (Watashi ga tsuma ni hikareta no mo masa ni sono me datta, What attracted me about my wife were those eyes).

Here it’s closer to inspire, but attract still feels close; the narrator is talking about some style of painting that no longer inspires him:

私はそのようなタイプの絵画にもう心を惹かれなかった (Watashi wa sono yō na taipu no kaiga ni mō kokoro o hikarenakatta, But that type of painting no longer moved me)

The “Killing Commendatore” painting within the novel attracts the narrator quite a bit, as shown in these next two:

その絵は全体としてまた細部として、私の心をそれほど強く惹きつけていた (Sono e wa zentai to shite mata saibu to shite, watashi no kokoro o sore hodo tsuyoku hikitsukete ita, The painting fascinated me both in terms of its general structure and its details)

And:

とくに私の関心を惹きつけたのは、五人の人物たちが顔に浮かべている表情だった (Toku ni watashi no kanshin o hikitsuketa no wa, gonin no jinbutsutachi ga kao ni ukabete iru hyōjō, The looks on each of their five faces especially interested me)

But in the end, it’s all about the money:

もちろん提示された報酬の金額にも心を惹かれた (Mochiron teiji sareta hōshū no kingaku ni mo kokoro o hikareta, Of course I was also impressed by the amount offered as compensation)

There’s a section with an extended discussion of Harusame Monogatari. Menshiki is particularly interested, as we see:

実を言うと、私はなぜか昔からあの話に心を惹かれてきたのです (Jitsu o iu to, watashi wa naze ka mukashi kara ano hanashi ni kokoro o hikarete kita no desu, To be honest, for some reason I’ve been fascinated by that story for a long time).

But as with many of the other references, Harusama Monogatari drops away pretty quickly.

I just got a comment on my post about my review of the book asking this question:

Considering your negative assessment, why on earth write the other piece, which to my recollection, didn’t even mention anything you wrote in your review? It could be seen as a tacit recommendation of the work, which is not what you wrote in your review.

This is a valid question. I guess the simplest answer is I needed something to write about. I felt like looking at the language Murakami uses would be interesting, and I think these examples do show something about how Murakami looks at the world. I probably should have mentioned something about the review, but the word count was a little tight (<—excuse). But I do feel like I managed to get a little warning about the book in the beginning of the piece. Apologies if anyone feels mislead. If you’re looking for a mammoth Murakami to tackle, I’d recommend his travel journal from his time in Europe, 『遠い太鼓』(Tōi taiko, A Distant Drum). I read half of it at some point when I was living in Japan, but got distracted by life and haven’t gotten around to finishing it. That’s a book that deserves a translation. I’m surprised it hasn’t been rendered in English yet.

Cool Phrase – 一心不乱

I have an article in a series new to the Japan Times this month, “Why Did You Leave Japan?”: “Model mixes punk with fashion on the runways of New York.”

A college friend introduced me to Tsubasa Watanabe when I visited New York in March, and we got to meet and talk at a coffee shop in the East Village. She has a vivid memory and lots of good stories to tell. Even after I got back to Chicago, she sent me several emails full of her experiences. Actually, the closing anecdote came from one of the last emails she sent me before the deadline. I thought it was a nice one.

The Japan Times asks writers to collect some basic information in addition to the types of stuff you’d normally ask in a profile interview, including a 座右の銘 (zayū no mei, lit. “a nearby motto” i.e. a favorite saying).

When I asked Tsubasa, I was surprised how quickly she responded with 一心不乱 (isshin furan). She didn’t hesitate at all. I had to have her write it out for me and confirm the meaning later, but I had a basic understanding after seeing the characters: one-heart, no-confusion. Wholeheartedly, single-mindedly, intensely focused.

This captures her spirit perfectly. She set herself on a path and has followed through with it. It will be interesting to see where her focus takes her from her. Find her in Project Runway All-Stars Season 6 and keep an ear out for her music. Check her out on Instagram at @tsubi.

Review: Murakami’s Kishidanchō-goroshi (Killing Commendatore)

My review of the new Murakami novel Killing Commendatore (騎士団長殺し) is in the Japan Times this week: “‘Killing Commendatore’: Murakami’s latest lacks inspired touch of earlier works

In short, it was not very good. I’ll be very curious to see how it turns out in translation and what the reviews are like. I haven’t seen any announcement of a translator or translation date so far.

The word count of the review prevented me from going into detail, partially because I couldn’t use many quotes and partially because it took so many words to summarize (about 550 of roughly 1000 words). I realize this could be my failing as a writer (although I’m pretty happy with my summary, notably with the absence of spoilers), but the book itself also eludes summary: once you start summarizing, you realize that you’re starting to give away the secrets of the book. Because so very little happens, summarizing any of the reveals gives away bit by bit some of the only development/pleasure of reading the book.

And there are so many secrets being kept in this book. Secrets between the narrator and Menshiki. Secrets between the narrator and Marie. As in 1Q84 (and other books?!), there are several points where the characters actively conspire to avoid involving the police—“They’d never believe us! And it could get troublesome for us.” At one point, the narrator allows an old man to go through what appears to be a tremendous amount of pain without calling for help at an old folks home while he has a conversation about how to proceed with solving the disappearance.

The pacing of the book also feels off. The first half is the narrator finding the painting, digging up the hole, and getting to know Menshiki and his mysteries, padded with some background story about himself and his family, which I was not able to address in the review. The second half, rather than beginning to unwind some of the build-up, goes on to introduce new characters and build up more mysteries before a disappearance in Chapter 45 (of 64) and the start of the true “adventure” in Chapter 53. I think the first half of the novel could have been much shorter than it was.

It’s difficult to express exactly how artlessly Murakami incorporates the historical information in this book. He uses his favorite device of having a character go research something at the freaking library, which he’s been doing since Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World at least, although perhaps even as far back as A Wild Sheep Chase? I can’t remember.

On several other occasions, a character says something like “oh, by the way, I found out X” and then proceeds to drop fat blocks of dialogue that have no relation to the rest of their conversation or other plot development.

And Murakami takes the strange step of including a lengthy quote from Samuel Willenberg, survivor of the Treblinka extermination camp, as the entirety of Chapter 32, the final chapter in Book 1. (Which I guess suggests that the narrator chose the quote and decided to include it in his telling of the story?)

The goal seems to be to make a statement about art—the quote, which I believe is from a documentary but have not been able to track down/confirm, suggests that art can change/influence people, which doesn’t exactly jive with the novel. I’m not sure what it is that Murakami wants the reader to understand about art from reading this book.

The retrospective point of narration is equally lazy. This plays a part most noticeably in the first few chapters when the narrator feels very under control of how information is being presented. But it fades away quickly, leaving only vestigial, chapter-ending, retrospective paragraphs that help build some suspense going into the subsequent chapter, but even these fall away as the book progresses! The whole point of telling a story retrospectively is so you don’t have to do a blow by blow other than for the most dramatic incidents, but stream of conscious narration seems to be what Murakami is best at writing or considers most meaningful. He’s obsessed with his characters’ process of living/working, and he details those processes in nearly every book he writes.

I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. Jay Rubin has written in his book on language about how easy it is for students of Japanese to mistake the pleasure of being able to read/understand Japanese for the literature itself actually being good. I don’t think I’m making that mistake here, as it was not fun to devote 23 days of my life to doing nothing but reading this book, but I do think that it can be difficult to grasp the whole of a work I’ve read in Japanese.

This is why I took loads of notes in the margins. This is why I wrote 28,668 words of chapter summaries. (NOTE: Write the summary immediately after you finish reading the chapter so that it’s a true summary and not just a write-up of your notes. I find it much easier to conceive of the chapter as a whole if I do it that way.) So I’m fairly confident in my evaluation. 1Q84 helped me notice many weaknesses about Murakami’s work, but this one has thrown them into stark contrast. The play-by-play narration works if the narrator is interesting and funny, as in his early works, but here there are just so many unnecessary details that feel given purely for the sake of describing something or because that’s what would have happened.

In my writing workshops, one workshop leader always had participants imagine the work under consideration in its best form at the end of the workshop. I think Killing Commendatore in its best form is a book that makes some kind of statement about art, what it does to viewers, how one makes it, why one makes it, what it means to devote your life to art, and how that can affect artists.

This seems to be what Murakami tries to do with his opening prologue, which is actually very good. The narrator awakes from a nap, and a man without a face is sitting across from him. He’s been here before, and he’s back because the narrator has been unable to draw his portrait. The narrator struggles and again fails. The man disappears with a puff of smoke, promising to return. It feels like this is a good metaphor for a tortured artist trying forever and ever to achieve some intangible, unobtainable goal with their art.

If only that had anything to do with the rest of the book! There are bits and pieces here and there that readers might be able to use to come to some sort of conclusion along those lines, but Murakami is asking readers to do a lot of the work for him.

At any rate, it feels good to have it under my belt, and I’m glad to have had another 1,048 pages of language practice. I read an average of 45.6 pages/day, which is 10 below my pace for 1Q84. This is a little surprising. I wonder if I’ve lost focus, have more going on these days, or if the book was just bad.

やれやれ. (Only one instance of this word in the entire book!) I hope that you all enjoyed following along here, on Facebook, or on Twitter. Until next time! (Which I guess will be in 2024 or 2025 if we’re going by long books or 2021 if we’re going by short books.)

Study Japanese with Netflix Closed Captioning

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at the Japanese shows on Netflix that have closed captioning: “Watch, read, rewind: using Netflix to boost your Japanese.”

I initially pitched this article late last year and fully intended to get to the shows over the holidays but was swamped with translation work and also found myself lacking the appetite to sit down and watch any kind of TV at all, let alone Japanese shows. Strange feeling. In my defense, I was also trying to spend more time reading books.

I’m sure I’ll feel the need for a break at some point, especially now that I’ve finished the new Murakami novel (more on that soon!). I think I’ll probably attack these shows in the following order (consider these my power rankings):

1. Shinya Shokudō
2. Samurai Gourmet
3. Terrace House
4. Atelier
5. Kuromukuro
6. Spark
7. Sinbad

I haven’t watched a full episode of Samurai Gourmet yet, but I like the style, and Jean Snow has vouched for it. It seems like it could be a slightly different take on material similar to Shinya Shokudō. The others I’m partway through, in various states. I’m almost through with Shinya Shokudō.

Terrace House I’m sure will be awful in a pleasurable way. I’m mostly there to laugh along with the celebrity audience. I don’t know why I’m so low on Spark. It just didn’t grab me. Neither did Atelier, really, but Kuromukuro couldn’t be more formula driven (so far).

And Sinbad is just bad. I wonder why it’s the only anime on Netflix with closed captioning? Anyone know? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it’s a Netflix original? Oh well.

Obviously I skipped a massive amount of anime content on Netflix that doesn’t have closed captioning. What are your favorites? What should I be watching? I got part way through Attack on Titan and just couldn’t motivate myself to watch much more, but I guess I’ll get to it at some point. Let me know what I’m missing and if I get good comments I’ll update this post and include them below.

Playlist for Haruki Murakami’s Kishidanchō goroshi (Killing Commendatore)

I’m a little late to this game, but I’ve put together a playlist of all the music Haruki Murakami has had his characters listen to or refer to in his recent novel Kishidanchō goroshi (騎士団長殺し, Killing Commendatore). I’ll keep adding to it as I go. I’m currently 15 chapters and 257 pages deep. Only 750 more to go. :/

Oh, and I forgot to include a link to my Japan Times tease for the book in my previous post. Check it out.

I forecasted the wrong words! I wish I had included 惹く/惹かれる because they’ve been used a million times, as in 1Q84. As has 具わっている. I mention these in my review of the book at Neojaponisme. There’s even a bit of 抽斗. Just had the first やれやれ. I’m still convinced that 胡散臭い may make an appearance. We shall see.

Kishidanchō-goroshi Release/Tease

Kishidanchō-goroshi is out in Japan! A description of the book has appeared on the Amazon website. The description is the same for both volumes. I translated it on my Facebook page earlier today. Here it is again:

その年の五月から翌年の初めにかけて、私は狭い谷間の入り口近くの、山の上に住んでいた。夏には谷の奥の方でひっきりなしに雨が降ったが、谷の外側はだいたい晴れていた……それは孤独で静謐な日々であるはずだった。騎士団長が顕(あらわ)れるまでは。

From May of that year until the beginning of the following year, I lived on top of a mountain near the entrance to a narrow valley. During the summer, rain fell incessantly within the valley, but outside the valley seemed to be clear for the most part…those were supposed to be peaceful, lonely days. That is until the Commendatore appeared.

Very interesting. This makes it seem like it’s set in a fantasy world of some sort. Perhaps even similar to Hard-boiled Wonderland?  A commenter on Facebook noted that Commendatore is a character in Don Giovanni…which normally would suggest a massive culture drop on the part of Murakami, which it could still be, but the Commendatore seems to be an actual character in the book rather than the fictional character.

I’m disappointed that my copy has not yet left Japan! When I ordered the last Harry Potter book, it arrived in Japan on the release date, so I think I actually received it a few hours before many of the launch parties in the U.S. I think the delivery date says Monday. I may have a way to get a portion of the book over the weekend, so stay tuned to my Twitter and Facebook feeds. I’m thinking I may do some kind of live broadcast of me reading the book…this is the natural progression from liveblogging, which has been all but destroyed other than for video game/tech presentations.