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

Nonfiction gives Murakami the opportunity to flex his writing muscles in really interesting ways, one of which is character work. He’s experiencing life in Europe with his wife, and he spends a lot of time with his thoughts (as I think you’ve seen with the first two posts), but once he gets on the road, he actively includes the people he encounters, the first of which is a woman named Valentina who is the realtor or property manager who introduces them to the house where they stay on the island of Spetses. This is their first destination immediately after Spetses.

Murakami does a great job of capturing Valentina and her tendency to draw out the vooooowels of words. She says she’s a writer, too, who writes poems but needs another job to live, and she seems disappointed with Murakami. She expected more, which doesn’t seem to surprise Murakami:

Sometimes I get to thinking that I lack what might best be termed an “aura” as a writer (or an artist). Even in Japan, I often get mistaken for a bakery deliveryman or a supermarket worker. I’ll be shopping and a stranger will ask, “Hey, where’s the red pepper?” (And of course I go ahead and tell them where it is.) But this isn’t entirely because of what I wear. Occasionally I’ll be dressed up nice in a dark suit with a tie on, standing in a hotel lobby, and some old man will say, “Hey you, where’s the Tsuru-no-ma room?” So I couldn’t really fault Valentina. Auras—not that I know what purpose they serve, realistically—are something that’s clearly defined when you have them and totally absent when you don’t. Just like onsen and oil fields.


Murakami does go on to ridicule Valentina a little. She draws a very simple map of the island and marks the port and house. Murakami later learns that she’s drawn it upside down (basically) rather than aligned with the cardinal directions. And in a troublesome paragraph, he suggests that Valentina and all women in general value what they can see and experience over the overall impression of a map.

So not a great outing, but he does capture much of the impression that Valentina leaves, sometimes very literally:

When she finished drawing the map and marked the location of the house with a final flourish, she nodded with a very satisfied look on her face. She yelled, “I looooooooove this island!” and pressed her lips firmly against the map. Then she handed me the piece of paper. She had left the distinct mark of her thick lipstick on the map.

Like this:

The island, thus transformed by her distorted view and lack of understanding, was beautifully sealed by her lipstick.

At the time I didn’t know what kind of reaction she expected from such a passionate kiss (and I still don’t), so I just said, “Thank you” as I took the note, glanced at it, folded it in half, and put it in my pocket. Then I tried not to think about the map again.




その熱情的なくちづけに対してどのような反応を期待されているのか、僕にはその時まったくわからなかったので(今だってわからないけれど)、まあとにかく「どうも、ありがとう」と言って地図を受け取り、ちらっと見てから二つに折ってポケットにしまった。そしてそれ以上地図については考えいないようにした。 (51-52)

This feels like Murakami just getting started before he really gets into gear in some of the more rural places he visits. A lot to look forward to.

Distant Drums

It’s September: Murakami Fest is upon us! Year 12 of the fest, to be precise.

Here are previous entries:

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

This year I’m looking at bits and pieces of 遠い太鼓 (Tōi taiko, Distant Drums), Murakami’s memoir of traveling in Europe.

(Brief aside: For years I thought the title was inspired by Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, but apparently it is not.)

The book is excellent, some of Murakami’s strongest writing, and I wonder why more of it hasn’t been translated. If he was motivated by money, I’m sure Murakami would publish it, and American publishers would encourage him to publish it, because he’s reached the point where anything with his name on it will sell. So my only guess is that he’s not confident with the writing, much like he was with his first couple novels for a long time.

I’ve looked at small sections in previous years, but I think I may use the next few years of the Fest as an annual motivation to get me through the book. I started reading it back when I was on the JET Program, but something threw me off pace. So I’m starting it up again, and taking more notes this time.

The first section of the book is an introduction written after the trip is complete, looking back at both the trip and the writing process. Murakami was in Europe from ages 37-40. He calls 40 a 節目 (fushime, turning point), noting that a 精神的な組み替え (seishinteki na kumikae, emotional recombination) occurs, after which you can’t go back — you have to go forward.

It feels like Murakami’s midlife crisis of sorts. If he goes past a certain point without having completed some unstated goal, that it would be a waste to him. So he leaves Japan. Spoiler alert: He writes Norwegian Wood while he’s on this trip, the book that launched him into the mainstream. Oh, he also translates a bunch of stuff, writes a ton of short stories and nonfiction for magazines, and lives an amazing life in the Mediterranean. It’s easy to call Murakami privileged, but you can’t ever accuse him of not putting the words on the damn page. He’s a workhorse.

The introduction is compelling because it gives Murakami the opportunity to write to his strengths: the passage of time, the elusiveness of memory, the challenge of pinpointing an objective reality—really the core of the human experience.

Here’s the section that generates the title of the book:

Of course, people go on getting older no matter where they are. Whether they’re in Japan or in Europe, it’s the same thing. That’s what getting older is all about. To put it another way, we maintain some semblance of sanity precisely because we’re able to absorb ourselves in the everyday and go on getting older. At this point—having turned 40—that’s something I believe. But at the time, I thought differently.

It feels very strange to be back in Japan now, sitting here at my desk thinking about those three years. When I look back, I get a mysterious sense of absence. The feel of empty space. A sense of floating, or being within a flow. My recollection of those three years drifts around in the gap produced by levitation and gravity. Those years are lost, in a certain sense. But in another sense, they have a tight grip on the reality within me. I feel the distinct clip of the memories somewhere on my body. The long arm of the memories has reached out from somewhere amongst the darkness of unreality and grabbed the real me. I want to express to someone what that feeling means. But I don’t have the corresponding words to do so. Perhaps like some feelings it can only be expressed as a metaphorical whole.


I was turning 40. That was one thing that compelled me to go on a long trip. But it wasn’t just that. There were a number of other reasons I wanted to get away from Japan. That included several positive reasons and several negative reasons. Practical reasons and metaphorical reasons. But I don’t want to get into them now. Because at this point, I honestly don’t care about them at all. They are neither here nor there to me, and likely neither here nor there to the reader as well. No matter what kind of realistic reasons compelled me to travel, the long trip washed away the original reason that generated it. At least in effect.

That is, one day, suddenly, I had to go on a long trip.

To me, that feels like the ideal reason to go on a trip. It’s simple and persuasive. And it doesn’t overgeneralize anything.

One day I woke up, and when I listened carefully, I could hear the sound of drums somewhere far in the distance. The sound of the drums came to me from somewhere far away, from some time long ago. Ever so faintly. And as I listened to them, I felt I had to go on a long trip.

That should be enough, no? I heard distant drums. At this point, that feels like the only honest reason that compelled me to travel. (15-16)








それでいいではないか。遠い太鼓が聞こえたのだ。今となっては、それが僕を旅行に駆り立てた唯一のまっとうな理由であるように思える。 (15-16)

“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.

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.

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 (・・;)

The End of the World

Here we are, the final chapter of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I first read this book during the summer of 1999. I remember the first 100 pages being a slog and then just flying through the second half.

(I was visiting colleges while I read the book, and it had me convinced that I wanted to study cognitive neuroscience, even though the only thing I knew about cognitive neuroscience was the limited perspective of Murakami’s old man scientist. By “I want to study cognitive neuroscience” I basically meant “I really like this book I’m reading right now by Haruki Murakami.”)

I finished the book ravenously as I was on a flight home to New Orleans, worried that we might crash or I might otherwise expire—like our embattled data agent—and not know how the book ended.

Fortunately I’ve survived 20 years and finished the book in both languages. Pretty cool.

Here are the previous Murakami Fest posts:

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

Chapter 40 “Birds” is the last chapter of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Boku and his shadow have arrived at the Southern Pool and stand at its edge quietly for a moment just looking at it as the snow falls around them. When the shadow suggests they jump in, Boku says he’s staying and can’t go. He’s realized he has a responsibility to everything in the Town because he’s created them all; they’re all part of him. The shadow is angry and they discuss what it means to stay—the conversation is treated quite differently in translation than the original. Then the shadow jumps in the pool. Boku turns back toward the town with thoughts of the Librarian and his accordion, and the book ends.

Here’s the conversation the two have in the original Japanese:










「ありがとう」と僕は言った。 (590-591)

My shadow stands up and stares at the calm surface of the Pool. Standing absolutely still in the heavy snow, he gives the impression that he’s gradually losing all of his depth and returning to his original flatness. We are silent for a long while. Only puffs of white breath emerge from our mouths into the air and then disappear.

“I knew it was futile to try and stop you,” my shadow says. “But life in the Woods will be much more difficult than you think. The Woods are entirely different from the Town. It’s tough work to survive, and winter is long and trying. Once you enter, you cannot leave. You’ll have to remain in the Woods forever.”

“I’ve considered this, too.”

“And you haven’t changed your mind?”

“No,” I say. “I won’t forget you. I’ll slowly start to remember things about the old world as well. There are likely many things that I’ll have to remember. Many people, places, lights, songs.”

My shadow crosses his arms in front of him and rubs them together several times. The snow that collects on his body gives him a mysterious shadow that seems to expand and contract over him. He rubs both hands together and tilts his head ever so slightly as though listening for the sound they make.

“I’m going to go,” he says. “But it’s strange to think we’ll never see each other again. I don’t know what to say in the end. I can’t think of the right words to leave things.”

I take off my hat again, brush off the snow, and put it back on.

“I hope that you’ll be happy,” my shadow says. “I loved you. And not just because I was your shadow.”

“Thank you,” I say.

And here is Birnbaum’s official translation, which makes some significant adjustments:

My shadow rises and stares at the calm surface of the Pool. He stands motionless amid the falling snow. Neither of us says a word. White puffs of breath issue from our mouths.

“I cannot stop you,” admits my shadow. “Maybe you can’t die here, but you will not be living. You will merely exist. There is no ‘why’ in a world that would be perfect in itself. Nor is surviving in the Woods anything like you imagine. You’ll be trapped for all eternity.”

“I am not so sure,” I say. “Nor can you be. A little by little, I will recall things. People and places from our former world, different qualities of light, different songs. And as I remember, I may find the key to my own creation, and to its undoing.”

“No, I doubt it. Not as long as you are sealed inside yourself. Search as you might, you will never know the clarity of distance without me. Still, you can’t say I didn’t try,” my shadow says, then pauses. “I loved you.”

“I will not forget you,” I reply. (399)

He’s clearly taken some liberties in dictating through the shadow what it will mean for Boku to stay in the Town. I had to look at the 1985 paperback version twice just to make sure that Murakami himself hadn’t made cuts to the 1990 Complete Works edition; when Birnbaum and the Complete Works editions don’t align, often it’s been because Birnbaum was clearly translating based on the 1985 edition. But that’s not the case here. The “You will merely exist” feels so appropriate for this world, but it’s not in the Japanese.

That said, Birnbaum’s translation is just supreme—“different qualities of light” is such a perfect line.


So what have we learned?

We’ve learned that Murakami made changes to the original version of Hard-boiled Wonderland that was published in 1985 for the Complete Works version that was published in 1990. He cuts some name drops, some random asides, and some jokes. Some changes are a little strange, and sometimes as small as a single sentence in a chapter. I don’t think it’s too farfetched to say that many of these changes were made after Murakami saw the English translation. Too many of the cuts coincide too perfectly with cuts that Birnbaum made in translation.

It’s conceivable that Birnbaum was working based off of the manuscript for the 1990 version, but there are places that Murakami cuts and Birnbaum keeps, which would be strange unless he was actively comparing the two different manuscripts. I think it’s more likely he completed the translation in 1988 or 1989, Murakami saw the translation during the editing process, and then he had time to make adjustments to the Complete Works text. I wonder whether he would have read the English himself or whether the editors noted specifically which sections were being removed from the Japanese.

At any rate, this was a very productive time during Murakami’s career, and we’ve learned that he was recycling themes and images across works, notably from his 1985 short story collection Dead-heat on a Merry Go Round.

We’ve learned that Birnbaum is a brilliant writer and translator. His prose is beautiful and hilarious. He has excellent control over the tone of the work and how that builds the worlds, especially in the End of the World sections.

But we also know that he has several techniques that “improve” the work in translation. He uses space breaks to create dramatic moments and trims the endings of chapters so that they’re either dramatic dialogue or in media res. He adds entirely new lines to make things more dramatic.

He does, however, alter the work at times. He trims sections where Murakami tends to run long in his usual improvisational way, mostly with good results but occasionally something nice gets axed. He tends to cut places where Watashi brings in the outside world, sections that point to a larger context for his feeling of helplessness, and suggest that it refers more broadly to the human condition.

Overall he dials down the sexiness. From the beginning he’s a little less blatant about Watashi’s vision of the Girl in Pink. He dials back on a lovely exchange with the Librarian and cuts some of the sexy encounters between Watashi and the Girl in Pink entirely, including one where he drops his pants to show her his erection (!).

We’ve also learned that even the best translators make mistakes, or are forced into mistakes through their editors.

Hard-boiled Wonderland is really a perfect text to analyze Murakami’s editing process, how Japanese writers were translated during the 80s and early 90s (especially before they had much clout in the publishing industry and before the anime/manga boom really took hold), and the goals of translation more broadly. There are a probably a few other works that present opportunities this rich, notably Dance Dance Dance and Wind-up Bird Chronicle (both of which had extensive cuts in translation, about which Jay Rubin has been very transparent) and Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball 1973, and Norwegian Wood (all of which have been translated twice by multiple different translators). At the very least, I think someone could do a really good paper about Murakami’s preparation of the Complete Works texts.

I wonder whether Hard-boiled Wonderland was the only work he edited for re-publication. I have a feeling that this is not the case.


I was disappointed with the ending the first time I read the book. I wanted Boku to escape and Watashi to live. I wanted him to somehow succeed against everything he was facing—the System, the Factory, the Gatekeeper. I’d even started to wonder whether the Girl in Pink pulled a Psycho move and had him frozen in her apartment. But the ending has grown on me.

We have an approximation of Murakami’s vision of escape from the novella “The Town and its Uncertain Wall,” which was a first draft of sorts for this novel. The narrator escapes and ends up being tortured by nostalgic yearnings of life in the Town. We know nothing about this narrator—it’s not the clearly defined Murakami male persona from Hard-boiled Wonderland—but it’s easy to imagine Watashi in the Hell of a forced continued existence in the modern world, with an itch he’s never able to scratch (presumably after he’s separated himself from that interior world); the whole novel has basically been to show how miserable he has it. Better for him to pass into the tautology of his inner experience.

I do wonder sometimes whether Murakami will write a sequel. He’s left enough threads unfollowed—we have the Girl in Pink freezing the body and the Woods are yet unexplored and filled with different people. But more and more frequently Murakami just repeats “I never remember what I wrote” when asked about past works. More recently, he only seems to write sequels immediately after completion of a book as with 1Q84 and Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

And part of me doesn’t want him to change anything. It’s such an interesting work as is.

I also wonder whether there will be another attempt at translation. I imagine this won’t happen until after Murakami dies, perhaps not even until the work goes into the public domain. We’ll all have expired into our personal Ends of the World by that point. And to be honest, I don’t know that the original Birnbaum translation can be topped—I think this is something else we’ve learned through this project.



I’m realizing now that readers who come across this post may not understand the difference between Murakami Fest and this Hard-boiled Wonderland Project. Although they overlapped at times, I started blogging about untranslated Murakami works once a year around the Nobel Prize announcements in the early years of the blog. In 2012, in an attempt to post on the site more frequently, I started blogging about the translation of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. You can see an index of all those posts on this page.

Window Seats

Murakami Fest 2018, Week 3! The PENULTIMATE chapter of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Here are the previous fest posts:

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

Chapter 39 is titled “Popcorn, Lord Jim, Extinction.” Watashi and the Librarian buy beer and drive to Hibiya Park where they sit and drink and talk about life. She heads off to shop after a bit, and Watashi watches a mother and child feed the pigeons. He drinks more beer, burns his credit cards. He buys popcorn for himself and the pigeons, does more thinking about the fairness of life, and whether fairness matters. He calls his apartment and is surprised to find the chubby Girl in Pink who is going to live in his apartment and promises to freeze him, possibly so her grandfather can bring him back to life later. Watashi drives to the pier where he parks, thinks about happiness while listening to Bob Dylan, and then gives himself over to sleep (and presumably dies).

This chapter has the usual in terms of cuts/adjustments from Birnbaum (or his editor): trimming here and there, a few larger cuts where Murakami gets wordy, and the timely addition of a space break.

But it also has the rare Murakami self-edit! Hooray! I’m so glad we got at least one more of these in the final chapters.

Take a look at this section from the original 1985 version with my translation:






「簡単だよ。五年か六年前の夏に出ていったんだ。出ていったきり二度と戻らなかった」 (324)

“Why did you get divorced?” she asked.

“She never let me sit in the window seat on the train when we traveled,” I said.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“It’s a line from Salinger novel. I read it when I was in high school.”

“What was the real reason?”

“Simple, really. She up and left the summer five or six years ago. She left and never came back.”

And here is Birnbaum’s official translation, which cuts the reference to Franny and Zooey:

“Why’d you get divorced?” she asked.

“Because she never let me sit by the window on trips.”

She laughed. “Really, why?”

“Quite simple, actually. Five or six summers ago, she up and left. Never came back.” (388)

Pretty minor changes, but still adjusted.

Now take a look at what Murakami did to the manuscript for the Complete Works edition in 1990:


「簡単だよ。五年か六年前の夏に出ていったんだ。出ていったきり二度と戻らなかった」 (573)

“Why did you get divorced?” she asked.

“Simple, really. She up and left the summer five or six years ago. She left and never came back.”

He cuts the whole joke! I wonder if he thought it wasn’t funny anymore or that the Salinger name drop wasn’t necessary. Kind of a weird little cut, which is similar to some of the other things he’s cut.

There are two weightier sections that Murakami keeps but get trimmed in translation and are worth looking at.

Here’s the Birnbaum translation of a section with Watashi and the Librarian talking. He’s talking about a line from The Brothers Karamazov when Alyosha is telling Kolya Krasotkin about his future:

“When I first read that, I didn’t know what Alyosha meant,” I said. “How was it possible for a life of misery to be happy overall? But then I understood, that misery could be limited to the future.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Neither do I,” I said. “Not yet.”


She laughed and stood up, brushing the grass from her slacks. “I’ll be going. It’s almost time anyway.” (389)

As you can see, he does some pretty serious tidying up, using the space break to do a massive cut:







彼女は笑って立ちあがり、コットン・パンツについた芝を手で払った。「そろそろ行くわ。もう時間でしょ」 (574-575)

“Alyosha knew all sorts of stuff,” I said. “But when I read that, I had my doubts—whether or not a miserable life could be fortunate on the whole.”

“That’s why you limited your life?”

“Maybe so,” I said. “I should’ve been brained with an iron vase in that bus instead of your husband. I feel like that was really the way for me to go. Direct, fragmentary, a self-contained image. Without a second to think about anything.”

I looked up from my position lying on the grass and looked over at the cloud we’d seen. It was gone. It had been hidden by the shade of the camphor tree’s leaves.

“So, is there room for me in your limited vision?” she asked.

“Everyone is welcome in, and everyone can leave,” I said. “That’s one of the best parts of a limited vision. Just wipe your feet when you come in, and close the door when you leave. That’s what everyone does.”

She laughed and stood up, brushing off a few pieces of grass from her cotton pants. “I’m gonna get out of here. It’s time.”

That feels like a pretty significant cut. This is Murakami exploring his main metaphor for the human condition/human interaction: We only ever encounter others within our self, fundamentally making human interaction limited.

I don’t think my rendering does the passage justice. Birnbaum’s is hilarious and reads really well. But it does leave that little bit out—the Librarian wants into his life, and he lets her in.

It also brings back the kind of throwaway plot detail of the Librarian’s husband and how he bit the dust, which was funny as a non-sequitur.

Birnbaum also makes another significant cut once the Librarian goes and Watashi is left on his own to think about everything:

I closed my eyes, I felt a ripple run through my mind. The wave went beyond sadness or solitude; it was a great, deep moan that resonated in my bones. It would not subside. I braced myself, elbows against the backrest of the park bench. No one could help me, no more than I could help anyone else.

I wanted a smoke, but I couldn’t find my cigarettes. … (391)

Damn. This is such an amazing translation that I’m kind of embarrassed to share my rendering of the scene. But it must be done. Here’s what the original looks like:




煙草を吸おうと思ったが、煙草の箱はなかった。… (579-580)

I didn’t want to disappear from this world. I closed my eyes and could clearly make out the palpitations of my heart. It was a tremendous, deep surge, something completely beyond sadness and loneliness, that seemed to be beating from the foundation of my own existence. The surge continued forever. I put my elbows on the back of the bench and endured it. No one would help me. No one could save me. Just as I couldn’t save anyone, either.

I wanted to cry out, but I couldn’t cry. I was too old for tears and had experienced too much. The world contained sadness that you couldn’t shed tears over. The type of thing that you couldn’t explain to anyone and that even if you did, no one could understand it. That sadness never changed shaped and instead just built up quietly in your heart like snow on a windless night.

When I was younger, I tried to put that kind of sadness into words. But no matter how many words I tried, I couldn’t communicate it to anyone, and I don’t think even to my self, so I gave up trying. That’s how I closed off my words and closed off my heart. Deep sadness can’t even take the form of tears.

I wanted to smoke, but I didn’t have a box of cigarettes. …

Ok, maybe not as bad as I thought, but not as good as “a great, deep moan that resonated in my bones.”

This section, too, feels very Murakami. It doesn’t necessarily fit in this book—since when is our data agent an aspiring writer?!—but it does sound a lot like the narrators in Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, kind of struggling through loss and life, unable to really articulate what they’re going through. It seems pretty funny and telling/true that he reaches for his cigarettes after this.

But it also feels a bit too over the top perhaps from our otherwise relatively stoic data agent. So I can see why it gets the axe.

Hope you enjoyed this post as much as I did. One final chapter! Hard to believe…


Murakami Fest 2018, Week 2.

Previous posts are 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: WarmthRebirthWastelandHard-onsSeventeenEmbrace
Year Eight: PigeonEditsMagazinesAwkwardnessBack Issues
Year Nine: WaterSnæfellsnesCannonballDistant Drumming
Year Ten: VermontersWandering and BelongingPeter Cat, Sushi Counter, Murakami Fucks First
Year Eleven: Embers

Chapter 38 is titled “Escape.” Boku reads dreams, searching for bits of the Librarian’s mind, until the light of morning erases the glimmers from the skulls (just like in the Hard-boiled Wonderland section!). The Librarian makes him coffee and then watches over him while he takes a nap. He then goes to the Gatehouse while the Gatekeeper is out burning beasts, steals the key, and then frees his Shadow from the subterranean room where he’s kept. The Shadow can’t walk, so Boku carries him and they make their way to the Southern Pool, which the Shadow believes is the only way out of the Town.

There are a handful of lines cut, but nothing all that dramatic. Just a trimming here and there, some of which comes naturally in the translation process. So it’s a little difficult to pick out a section to highlight, but the paragraph with the most cuts also happens to be the Shadow’s explanation of how he determined that the Southern Pool is the only exit from the town, so these feel like the weightiest cuts. Here’s Birnbaum’s official translation:

“At first, it was only intuition that told me the Town had an exit,” he says. “For the very reason that the perfection of the Town must include all possibilities. Therefore, if an exit is our wish, an exit is what we get. Do you follow me?” (385)

And here’s the original translation with my translation which, as usual, features Murakami’s extended explanation:

「俺がこの街に必ず隠された出口があると思ったのははじめは直感だった。でもそのうちにそれは確信になった。なぜならこの街は完全な街だからだ。完全さというものは必ずあらゆる可能性を含んでいるものなんだ。そういう意味ではここは街とさえもいえない。もっと流動的で総体的なものだ。あらゆる可能性を提示しながら絶えずその形を変え、そしてその完全性を維持している。つまりここは決して固定して完結した世界ではないんだ。動きながら完結している世界なんだ。だからもし俺が脱出口を望むなら、脱出口はあるんだよ。君には俺の言ってることわかるかい?」 (569-570)

“At first I just had a feeling the Town had a hidden exit. But soon enough I was convinced of it: the Town is a perfect town. Perfection as a concept always includes all possibilities. In that sense, this isn’t even a town, really. It’s something more fluid, more wholistic. It presents every possibility, changing constantly, thereby maintaining its perfection. In other words, this isn’t a fixed, complete world. It’s a world that completes itself as it moves. So if I want a way to escape, then a way to escape there is. Do you get what I’m saying?”

I’m not sure I get what the implication of this passage is, other than that perhaps a human self is self-complete, even as it changes and adjusts. It can never not be itself, which is what the Town is. Something like that?

Or maybe it’s just Murakami “completing” his novel by creating the explanation for an escape. The edited English version feels like a fine localization.

And then there were two (chapters)…

Magnetic Lassos and Other Translation Thoughts

Wrangling a translation.

The last five months have flown by. In March I moved on from my job with the Japanese Consulate into a new position here in Chicago that still has me connected with Japan. My exit from the consulate position was comically awfully, due to no fault of my own (…well, not really). I’ll resist spilling the details here, but you should definitely buy me a drink sometime and force me to tell you about it.

During the week in between jobs, I was contacted about translating a Japanese light novel. I started a sample translation the same week I started the new job, and the offer for the project came two weeks after that.

And for the five months since, I’ve been translating at a pace of about two 文庫本 (bunkobon, paperback) pages a day. Some days I did significantly more, and I took off a few days here and there and about two weeks to travel to Japan for a conference in May.

I submitted the translation last Sunday and wanted to record my thoughts about the experience while they’re still fresh in case they’re of use to anyone (and so that I can remember what this felt like when I’m 95).


  • I submitted the translations in two halves with two invoices, minus a small advance that came immediately upon accepting the project (which was taken from the first half payment). I had about the same amount of time for each half.
  • I won’t discuss my rate other than to say that I tried to get close to what I request for most translations (a fairly reasonable rate, as far as I’m aware). I wish I’d kept track of the hours I spent on the project because I’m confident I spent more hours on this project than I do on most translation work. Not that I slack off on other projects, but fiction is an entirely different beast.


  • Given everything I had going on in life (mostly: day job, brewing beer, attempting to have a social life), I set a pace and stuck to it. Two pages/day was the average mark I tried to hit, but this was easier for the first half. I had a convergence of obstacles that slowed the start of translating the second half and upped my page quota. But even during the first half I tried to do closer to 3-4 pages a day. I ended up with about a week to revise for both deliveries. The quota was a helpful way to keep track of how I was doing but also to give myself permission to take breaks.
  • Something I realized (that may be obvious) is that not every page of fiction is created equally. Some pages are dense with description and others are lean with dialogue. And then there were the two pages near the end of the novel that were, mercifully, verbatim copies of a section from the beginning of the novel. This is another important reason to set a pace quota. You’re basically page-time averaging, although it’s also good to be aware of what the terrain looks like as you progress.
  • I did not read the novel in advance. Thankfully, this didn’t screw me later on in the translation process…I don’t think. I’m not sure how long it would’ve taken for me to read the novel (maybe 10-14 days based on previous paces), but that would’ve cut into my translation and revision calendar. Over the course of the project, however, I did start to read ahead. I read a few pages ahead on my commutes, just to get an idea of what was coming up, or even just a page or two as I was translating. This was generally “skimming” rather than looking up every word, but it was important to get a feel for the text. If this project confirmed anything for me, it was that you have to translate on the paragraph and page level and not the sentence level.
  • Having both a Kindle and Paper version was helpful. I managed to get a full copy of the book right away with Kindle, so I was off to the races, but it was reassuring to see my progress through the paper copy. It also came handy during revision when I could have the book version open and use my phone for a dictionary app instead of the Kindle app.
  • I do have some major complaints about the Kindle app. The app limits the number of times you can copy and paste from the text. Once you’ve reached the limit, you’re out of luck. This can make it difficult to find the reading of words you don’t know because the Kindle dictionary will only find exact matches (i.e. no inflected verbs or adjectives). You can also use the “share” feature to export text to email and instant message, but this feature is also limited. I mean, I get why they’re doing this, but I also have a hard time imagining that someone would copy and paste an entire ebook. Although maybe I’m underestimating Japanese internet pirates.
  • A portion of what I made from this project paid for my Japanese teacher, and it was well worth it. During my week between jobs, I hired a Japanese teacher over Skype to brush up some of my business Japanese. This ended up being extremely convenient; once the translation project started, we just shifted to my questions about the book. I used the Kindle app to highlight the sections I had questions about and then took screenshots. I sent my teacher the screenshots, and we went over the questions an hour at a time. I found these sessions to be most helpful if I reviewed the sections of the text before the lesson. It was also important to take notes on her explanations and then to make the revisions necessary as soon as possible. And there were definitely revisions necessary. I’m not sure how I imagined translators when I first started studying Japanese and then translating myself, but I think there’s a certain sense that they are supposed to be flawless experts who know every word immediately. It’s safe to say that this isn’t true. It’s critical to have someone to bounce text off of when you don’t understand it. It doesn’t do any good to be too proud to admit you don’t understand something. My teacher helped me figure out some pop culture puns, countless grammar patterns, and general nuances for different sections. She also made fun of me when I asked questions that were too easy. “Just translate it however, it doesn’t matter,” she said a couple of time, ha. I don’t usually promote services, but I can safely recommend Linguage. I believe they have a physical school in Japan, but they also do introductions to online teachers. You can buy sets of 10 lessons, and they cost less than $30/lesson (although this varies with the exchange rate), which seems extremely fair. My teacher actually lives in Germany, which makes the time difference less of an issue.
  • Revise as you go. This is a mistake I made in the first half. I was doing all these Japanese lessons but also so concerned about keeping pace that I pressed forward rather than take a half hour after each lesson to fix what we’d just gone over. I adjusted my process for the second half of the novel. Not only did I make the revisions from the lesson immediately, I did a read through after each chapter and revised as much as I could so that the final revision wouldn’t take as long as it did during the first half. I think this probably made the final revisions easier as well.
  • For the final revision, I tried to read the translation and focus on the English as an entirely separate product. Does the language make sense? Are there any phrases that could be more natural, and would it be too much of a stretch to simplify or combine words/phrases? What exactly was the author trying to say with this section and has that been communicated? I looked at the Japanese as necessary, but it’s an important step to take the English on its own.
  • The metaphor that came to me as I was working was the Photoshop magnetic lasso feature. Translation doesn’t produce an identical product as the original, but it does resemble that original. I like to think that there’s some ideal English product, even though this isn’t true. I do think there are more ideal phrasings (or maybe more natural phrases) than others and that the translation should stick to the original loosely in the way that the magnetic lasso sticks to the outline of an object. If your language strays from the original, you’ll notice. If the language is too far off, the reader will notice as well, even without knowing the shape of the original. I have some examples of this from the revision process that I’ll be able to share when it comes out.

I’ll share more information when I can. It’s a relief to be done! I can adapt the adage and say that it feels better to have translated than to translate, but to be honest not by much! It’s fun to be in there with the text, wrestling with what the Japanese means and how to convey it in English. By my measure, translating fiction is far more pleasurable than writing fiction.

Dazai Osamu’s “Dispatch From Tokyo”

I was in the Japan Times this week with a curated look at Aozora Bunko, a great source for public domain literature in Japanese: “Blue Sky Books is a literary treasure trove.”

My encounters with Dazai Osamu on Aozora Bunko have been revelatory. I’d only ever read him in translation previously, and nothing ever really struck me (for which I’ll blame youthful ignorance), but I remember a friend at Waseda saying that she loved his sentences, and I can now say that I know what she was talking about.

To try to give you a good example of this, I’ve translated one of his shorter nonfiction pieces on Aozora titled 東京だより (Tokyo dayori, Dispatch from Tokyo). I don’t think I do him full justice, but it was a fun exercise:

Dispatch From Tokyo

Dazai Osamu

Tokyo is currently full of working girls. Morning and evening, on their way to and from the factories, the girls march through the streets of Tokyo in double-file columns singing the songs of industrial soldiers. They wear almost exactly the same clothing as boys. However, the straps of their geta are red, and this lone point leaves them with an aura of femininity. All of the girls have the same look on their faces. You can’t even tell clearly how old they are. When offered up to the Emperor, perhaps all humans are cleanly stripped of all facial features and age. This isn’t only when they march through the streets of Tokyo; when I see these girls laboring or working, each of their features lost and their so called “personal circumstances” also forgotten, it’s even easier for me to understand that they’re exerting themselves for their country.

Just the other day, a friend of mine who is an artist was drafted to work at a factory, and I had to see him about something, so I visited the factory three times. This something was that he is going to draw the cover for one of my fiction collections that should be published soon, but in truth I always make fun of his works, and in the past he asked several times to draw the cover of my collection, but I rejected him outright and said, if I let you draw the cover, even one of my books that wasn’t considered any good to begin with would get even worse and would never sell a single copy, so, yeah, I’ll pass. Actually, his drawings were really bad. But he got in touch with an incredibly solemn request and said he was going into the factory and now was precisely the moment to try to draw the cover for my collection with a fresh mindset, so I quickly set out for the factory to ask him to draw the cover. I didn’t care if it was crap. I didn’t care if the collection was reviewed poorly. None of those things mattered. If drawing the cover for my boring collection lifted his spirits at the factory, then nothing would make me happier. I received his touching correspondence and quickly set out for the factory where he works. He greeted me with great joy and told me about his various plans for the cover. Each and every one was unsatisfactory. It shocked me how cliched and sentimental they were, but, yet, given the situation, the quality of the drawing was not the problem. My next collection might be ruined due to his drawing, but, nevertheless, I couldn’t have cared less about it. Didn’t someone once say, do unto others? He excitedly told me about his boring ideas and then the next time he showed me even more boring drafts of the drawings, so I was frequently summoned and had to go to his factory.

I passed through the gate of the factory, showed the guard the letter from him, and entered the administrative office, where ten girls were quietly attending to administrative duties. I told one of the girls the reason for my visit and had her phone his guard room. He slept in one room of the factory, so he had made sure to inform me of his break times in his letter, and I was able to make a short visit during those break times. Until he got to the office, I sat in a small chair in one corner and stared off into space as I waited, but actually I wasn’t that spaced out. I was surreptitiously observing the ten girls who were working right in front of me. They had already, in almost beautiful fashion, cooly ignored my presence. I’ve been accustomed to being ignored by girls since my childhood, so I wasn’t particularly surprised, but the way they ignored me showed no trace of arrogance; they all simply looked downward and diligently attended to their duties without a shift in attitude revealed on any of their faces, and there was no sign of any change in the quiet atmosphere due to the coming and going of visitors—it was an incredibly pleasant scene; I could hear only the crisp sounds of the abacus and the turning of pages in the ledgers. There weren’t noticeable expressions on any of the girls faces, which made them seem like identically colored butterflies quietly lined up on the branch of a flower, but there was one who, for some reason, had an unforgettable impression. This is a rare phenomenon when it comes to working girls. I stated previously that there weren’t even slight distinguishing features between each of the working girls, but there was the one in the administrative office of that factory who had a completely different sense from the other girls. There was nothing all that different about her face. It was longish and tan. There was nothing different about her clothes either. She was wearing the same black work uniform as everyone. There was nothing different about her hairstyle either. There was nothing different about anything about her. Nevertheless, she was beautiful and vividly different from the others, as though a green butterfly was mixed in amongst black swallowtail butterflies. Yes. She was beautiful. She wasn’t wearing any makeup. Still, she was completely different and beautiful. I couldn’t help but be intrigued. I must confess that while I waited for the artist in that office, I was looking only at that mysterious girl’s face. I settled myself down and came to the most plausible conclusion that it was her bloodlines. Her father or mother had noble blood for many generations in the distant past, therefore she gave off this strange scent despite having no discernible features. I sat alone intrigued and sighed thinking of how important bloodlines are for humans, but I was wrong. My lone conclusion was completely off. The reason she was so prominently, mysteriously beautiful lay within a solemn—even sublime—urgent reality. One evening, when I was leaving through the front gate of the factory after completing my third visit, I happened to hear the girls singing behind me and turned around to see them come out from the factory courtyard in double-file lines, loudly singing the songs of industrial warriors. I stopped to watch the energetic group go by. And then I was astonished. The girl from the office came walking with crutches, slightly behind everyone else. As I watched, my eyes began to burn. The girl who should’ve been beautiful, her legs were deformed from birth. Her right leg right around her ankle—no, I can’t bring myself to say it. She passed by me silently on the crutches.

The piece is striking for its variety of sentences. Dazai has total control and jumps back and forth between shorter and longer phrases. There is some repetition of terminology (such as 事務所), but I think they can be chalked up to linguistic differences.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of 男子意気に感ぜざれば. I found a few instances of 人生意気に感ず, which has a few good explanations here and here, so I made up something that seems to fit. Let me know if you see any other blatant mistakes.

Dazai has a long list of shorter pieces on Aozora that are manageable reads in addition to longer works like 人間失格 (Ningen shikkaku, No Longer Human). There are also a number that are related to the war, which are interesting…I don’t think I’d read many primary texts about the war experience in Japan. I think this piece can be read as a subtle critique of the war effort and its effect on the populace.