Natsume Sōseki’s “Koeber-sensei’s Farewell”

Apropos of plugging my Japanese reading group, here is a translation of ケーベル先生の告別, which we read this month:

Koeber-sensei’s Farewell
Natsume Sōseki

Koeber-sensei is supposed to be leaving Japan today (August 12). But he probably hasn’t been in Tokyo for two or three days now. Sensei is a strong willed person who hates empty ceremony and formalities. I heard that when he left Germany at the invitation of a university here twenty years ago, not a single person who knew him went to the station to see him off. He arrived in Japan quietly, like a shadow, and it seems he plans to leave Japan secretly, again like a shadow.

This quiet man moved three times in Tokyo. He was probably only familiar with those three houses and the ways to get to school from them. A while back, I asked him if he went walking, and he answered no, I have no place to go walking, so I don’t. He was of the opinion that the city was not a place for walking.

Sensei didn’t need to learn anything about Japan. Nor did he ever have the curiosity to try to learn anything. He was such that when I told him I was living in Waseda, he said he didn’t know his way to Waseda. Even after Fukada-kun reminded him that he had been invited to Count Ōkuma’s house in the past, Sensei had already forgotten. That might have even been the first time he heard Count Ōkuma’s name. [Count Ōkuma was the founder of Waseda]

When I took an invitation to dinner last month on the fifteenth, I asked him if he would have friends when he returned to his country, and he responded that, other than the North and South Poles, he had friends wherever else he went. This was a joke, of course, but Sensei could make this response precisely because somewhere deep inside his head there lurks an international mindset that transcends the trivial notion of place. And precisely because he could make such a response, he never needed to scowl despite living for twenty long years in Japan, a place about which he had little interest.

And it wasn’t just place; Sensei had a completely different attitude toward time than normal people. When I asked him why he had chosen to go on a steamer from a shipping company even though it was slow because half of the ship was filled with cargo, he said that he wouldn’t be bothered floating at sea for a long time nor could he understand someone so wrapped up in thoughts of convenience, trying to hasten their trip by a single day and get from Japan to Berlin in fifteen days or fourteen days.

He was also so indifferent to money that he didn’t seem like a Westerner at all. People who had visited Sensei’s home said that, from an economical point of view, he seemed to have been given a freedom that you couldn’t find in normal houses. When I last met him, the subject of a certain wealthy man came up, and he smirked and asked what exactly he planned to do by saving up all that money. Sensei will live off of a pension from the Japanese government and what is left of his pay to this point, but the amount left from his pay is truly a natural remainder and not the result of any foresight on his part.

The thing that mattered most to this man who lived in this way was just the love and affection that connected people. Sensei seemed to be fondest of the Japanese students he taught. On the night of the fifteenth when I was getting ready to leave his house and go home, he asked me to write the simple message “Farewell, be well” for him on his leaving Japan to his friends, especially his students that he had taught, in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Sensei didn’t want to write anything other than that. He didn’t need to say anything else. And he didn’t want the message to be placed into the classified section. Owing to circumstances, I received Sensei’s permission and carefully added my own words (superfluous though they may be) to his “Farewell, be well” so that the many people who received his teaching would see his farewell message, as he wished. And on behalf of those many people, I pray he has a safe voyage and a pleasant rest of his life.

It’s a nice little piece of writing. The sympathy toward Cable-sensei certainly seems to change over the course of the profile. There’s one other, longer, piece up on Aozora about Koeber-sensei. I’ll have to give it a read at some point.

But not in February! February we read Dasai Osamu’s . If you’re in Chicago, please join us:

Deep Dives

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at using Wikipedia for anguish practice…er, reading practice: “Wikipedia ‘deep dives’ can help recreate the joys and pains of Japanese-language immersion.”

This is an exercise I’ve done in the past, but I think playing the game for the JT resulted in some pretty nice material to look at.

The textbook thing, of course, pops up in the news every now and then, but it was very funny to read about the Textbook Bribery Incident and how it was uncovered.

And I was thrilled to have an excuse to revisit Adam’s amazing trek of abandoned rail lines in Hokkaido. It makes me want to do a similar trip of my own, but I’m still lame from my surgery. It will be another 6-8 weeks before I’m back to normal, but I at least don’t have to wear my brace 24/7 anymore.

This gives me a good excuse to embed all the videos here. I’m always so impressed with his video editing skills. Crack open some beers and kick your feet up; these are longwatches:

And apropos of nothing, this week’s piece is my 32nd Bilingual column for the JT! I missed the even, diez-divisible anniversary two articles ago, so I thought I’d take a quick moment to pause and say…damn, I can’t believe I put out that many articles! Thanks as always for reading and commenting. If you have any questions or suggestions for topics, I’d be glad to hear them.

I missed the Murakami Fest post last week due to being busy with freelance work, but I have a big post that I should be able to put up later this week before we hit October, so keep an eye out for that.

Amazon Kindle Singles in Japanese

Japanese students living outside of Japan sometimes have trouble finding reading material. There are no BookOFFs or Kinokuniyas in, say, Omaha, Nebraska. And most of the ebook sales platforms are region locked.

You might counter with the fact that the Internet itself is a giant source of reading material, one that is ever-expanding thanks to its explosive nature. However, as with many explosive phenomena, it can be hard (and messy?) to sort through the results. What’s good reading material? What’s bad reading material?

This question gets less and less important the better you get at Japanese; it’s all practice, and you’ll quickly be able to sort out whether you’re enjoying it or not. Those at the lower- and middle-intermediate levels don’t have the chops it takes to sort through the expanse—they could, but it might exhaust the muscles that they should be saving for more “quality” exposure.

Amazon has a solution. A few months ago I learned that the Amazon Singles program has been offering Singles in Japanese in the U.S. and other Amazon stores. Singles are short stories, essays, novellas, etc. and they range in price from $0.99 to $7.00. Most are $0.99 to $3.99. You can download these and go at them on your phone or Kindle without ever leaving the country.

I picked up 天上の飲み物 (“Drink of the Heavens”) by Shion Miura to test drive the system, and I have to say it’s great:


All these screenshots are from the iPhone interface. You can install dictionaries which pop up when you highlight text. The J-J dictionary is great for forcing reading practice:



And there’s J-E if you’re struggling:


Highly recommended. Get ye to the Amazon Singles store.

This is a good reminder that ease of access doesn’t mean you’ll be accessing quality material. The story itself was only okay. Shion Miura is well known for the Naoki Prize-winning まほろ駅前多田便利軒.

天上の飲み物 is about a wine-obsessed vampire, and it’s highly concept driven. It reminded me a lot of the Yoko Ogawa story 涙売り that was part of the JLPP Translation Contest. They both start with narrators introducing a magic realist premise that the author uses to explore an idea: in Ogawa’s case, she looks at sacrifice for art, more specifically sacrifice in support of an artist, and Miura looks at relationships and love for someone who lives forever, which she uses to reflect on the state of relations in Japan.

Neither story has much of a plot. It’s mostly the narrator rambling on, but Ogawa’s story feels more specific, and there’s a small bit of plot toward the end: a band goes to play a show outside. Miura is far more general and the only plot is the narrator and his love interest lying around. Snore. Still, it’s good practice.

A couple of language highlights:

I learned that 収集 has the alternate reading 蒐集:


And I learned that ennui is written in katakana and can be used as an adverb (ennuifully?):


I’m going to have to look through the rest of the Singles on offer. I’d seen Miura’s name all over covers of literary magazines while I was living in Japan but I never had a chance to read her stories, so that was nice. I hope Amazon is able to add to this program. Very valuable for students living abroad.

JETAA Chicago Japanese Reading Group


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

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

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

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

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

kanji practice

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

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

1. Katakana are not inherently more difficult than hiragana.

2. Kanji are not more difficult than English words.

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

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

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

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

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

But this assumes two things:

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

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

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

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

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

2000 x 2000 = 2,000,000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My New Manga Reading Technique is Unstoppable

That YOINK sound you may have heard earlier this week was the sound of Junji Itō’s “Voices in the Dark” and Naoyuki Ochiai’s “Crime and Punishment: A Falsified Romance” being licensed, ending Daniel Lau’s scanlation series. This is too bad because Daniel gave me the first three volumes of the latter before I left Japan. I’ve started reading the first volume and was looking forward to checking out his translations when I finished.

Everytime I go to Japan, I end up flying back with a lot of books and manga, but I find it hard to dig up the necessary willpower to actually read them. I’ve got reading for classes (that I’m both taking and teaching), writing for classes, too many blogs that I’m trying to run, and it’s hard to find that energy when I’m finished with all of that and taking care of my semi-feral cats.

No longer! This time I felt a little obligated to read the manga (anything a friend presses on me, I try to actually get through), so I needed to find a way to motivate myself. I’ve combined two strategies into an unstoppable manga reading technique – AJATT’s do something easy + Penelope Trunk’s if…then thinking = toilet manga:

If I am sitting on the toilet, I am reading “Crime and Punishment: A Falsified Romance.” Usually I can get through a couple pages in any given sitting, which is progress! And it’s easy. I don’t have to commit a half hour or an hour, but all the sittings do add up: I’m about halfway through the first volume. I’m not sure if this will work for novels or short stories (this strategy seems especially suited for manga with pictures that enable quick review of the storyline), but I’ll give it a shot when I finish this.

The only problem is that I’m out of the house so often these days, and it’s weird to carry reading into a public restroom – too weird.

Cool Verb Ending – -やがる

Over winter break, I started reading 『まほろ駅前の便利店』, one of the books on my Japanese reading list. It’s okay so far – lots of ただ-based puns since the main character’s surname is 多田 – and it was good motivation to discover that it’s being made into a drama series for Japanese TV. Sadly, though, the book was pushed aside by reading I had to do for school. And by manga.

Over winter break I had a thirst for comics for some reason. Not just Japanese stuff. I ordered The Walking Dead Compendium and have been working my way through that. I have the first two volumes of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman queued up as well.

I also brought back some manga from Japan. I was pleasantly surprised to find some Satoshi Kon manga that was recently released to commemorate his death late last year. In his roundup of 2010’s best manga over at Neojaponisme, Matthew Penney mentioned Seraphim, an unfinished project that Kon was working on with Mamoru Oshii (of Ghost in the Shell fame), but the other manga that was on the shelves when I was there was the two-volume, appropriately-titled Opus.

I’m through with the first volume, and I can say confidently that Kon fans should be satisfied by the content – it’s meta with equal parts action and awesome drawings. Light stuff, but lots of fun.

One linguistic thing I noticed while reading was the heavy usage of -やがる verbs. 言いやがる, 出やがる, 行きやがる, 心配させやがる, しやがる, やりやがる – it’s all over the place! I was vaguely familiar with the word from my project manager days – the pattern is used frequently in video game dialog – but I realized that I didn’t know the specific meaning and derivation, so I looked it up in the dictionary:


As you can see, やがる is an auxiliary verb (補助動詞 – that’s a fun four-character compound to say ほじょどうし、ほじょどうし、ほじょどーし). I’ve bolded the meat of the definition: “Expresses a person’s actions with (the speaker’s) feelings of scorn/hatred included.” I added “the speaker’s” to the definition because it’s almost always spoken rather than written.

In short, it’s an auxilliary verb that means fuck. Or fucking, goddamn, damn or whatever curse word feels natural for the person and the verb that person is performing. Basically it’s a tone thing, and in English we express scorn/hatred with curse words. In Japanese, one of the ways they do it is with やがる. The content of the action being performed doesn’t differ at all from a normal 言う, 出る, 行く, する, or やる. What does differ is how the speaker feels about the action.

An example from the manga: the main character is a manga artist who gets sucked into the world of his own comic because one of the characters pops out into the real world and snatches an important page of the comic. The artist is forced to go in after him. The manga artist doesn’t just say (ページを)持って行った (He ran off with the page); he says (ページを)持って行きやがった (He fucking ran off with the page). (Aside: I feel like “He ran off with the goddamn page” is a smoother alternative, but I wanted to get “fucking” closer to the verb to match the Japanese. Any thoughts? I feel like this would be an acceptable change.)

心配させやがる and やりやがる are interesting cases. These both get used in reference to friends rather than enemies, so the former is almost like “Damn, you had us worried.” The latter I saw in a video game once as a やりやがるな! I believe it was in a shooter or in a co-op card game, and the phrase was praising the partner’s actions/play. I can’t remember how the translator handled it, but the one thing that comes to mind now is “Fuck yeah!” or “Hell yeah!” It is along the lines of “Nice work!” Most やりやがる phrases will be more similar to the example above and in reference to an unpleasant やるing.

Yahoo provides us with a nota bene after the core definition that further supports the association with fuck/some sort of casual spoken phrase. The phrase has been taken up by dudes:


This is another one of those phrases that are good to recognize but should never be used. I don’t trust myself to use these precisely enough to get the intended effect. Maybe a joking やりやがるな every now and then with friends I’m really close with but never in any situation even slightly more formal. It is a very useful phrase to know for game and manga translation, though, so keep your eyeballs peeled.

Cool Compound – 未明

Still trying to get my feet under me back home. I’m not jetlagged anymore, but I’m still in the process of getting organized, so just a small cool compound this week.

This post, “Reading Strategies – Skimming and Kanji Compounds,” on how to break down different kanji compounds is probably one of the most important that I’ve written. Study Japanese long enough and eventually you make it to the point where kanji compounds don’t even look like two characters – they parse like a single word when you read them. But inevitably you’ll come across ones that you can’t remember or don’t recognize. In those cases knowing how the characters work together is invaluable.

One of the prefixes which I did not include in the prefix/suffix category is 未. It implies incompletion. You see compounds like 未払い (みばらい, unpaid), 未婚 (みこん, unmarried), etc. While reading 1Q84 I came across this compound 未明 (みめい), which I hadn’t seen before but figured out from context and the characters. 明 means dawn or to dawn, and when prefixed with 未  it takes on pre-dawn or early dawn connotations – I guess when it’s light out but the sun has not risen yet. Pretty cool. This Google Images image best expresses the idea.

My Japanese Self-Study Reading List

I am guilty of gross Murakami-centrism. Despite the fact that I have read a moderate amount of Japanese literature in translation, in Japanese I have not ventured much beyond Murakami’s catalog other than a few short stories and a couple novels here and there.

I’ve known about my deficiency for some time now and have been actively trying to correct it. Whenever I have the chance to talk literature with a Japanese person, I ask them what their favorite book is. This has helped me accumulate a number of books to read, some of which I’ve actually started on.

With my return to the U.S. imminent, I’ve packed up all the reading material I’ve accumulated over the past five years and (after trimming the selection a bit) sent everything home. I won’t be studying Japanese or Japanese literature at graduate school, but I’m still determined to continue my study of both on my own.

Because it will be difficult for me to get my hands on Japanese reading material, I put together a reading list with a little help from friends. In addition to the Japanese people I’ve had a chance to talk to, I asked some foreign friends to recommend material I was unlikely to have read. They did an amazing job. I asked the guys at Néojaponisme along with frequent contributor Sgt. Tanuki for recommendations from different eras – pre-Edo, Edo and post-Edo. I had a feeling that some of the crew at Mutantfrog Travelogue had read in areas outside my own specialty, so I asked them for general recs and was pleased with their suggestions. At the end I added a few of my own choices along with the books recommended by Japanese friends. So over the next 2-3 years, this will be the core of my reading list.

Do you have any suggestions? If you could only recommend one Japanese book (preferably something I haven’t read) what would it be?


Matt Treyvaud (pre-Edo):

Since I was assigned “pre-Edo,” I’m probably technically obliged to stick to the holy trilogy of Kojiki, Man’yō shū, Genji. I would like to note that all three of these reward casual browsing, and you can enjoy them just fine that way, without dedicating your 30s to reading them all the way through in the original, but it seems kind of pointless to recommend books everyone already knows about. So I’m going to recommend a personal favorite among the lesser-known pre-Edo works: the Kangin shū 閑吟集.

The Kangin shū is a loosely organized anthology of popular songs compiled in the 16th century by a flute-playing hermit (世捨て人). There are bawdy songs and pastoral songs, flip nihilism and sarcastic piety, all in a huge grab-bag of meters and language ranging from stately kanbun to rustic 5/7 lines ending in .

Close runner-up: Nifonno cotoba to historia uo narai xiran to fossuru fito no tameni xeva ni yavaraguetaru Feiqe no monogatari, a.k.a. the Jesuit edition of the Heike monogatari 平家物語. The content itself isn’t particularly special, but reading it in contemporary romanization is: it brings into the sphere of your personal experience many oft-overlooked facts about the history of Japanese and even Japan itself.

Sgt. Tanuki (Edo):

I’m going to cheat. If you’re really going to pick one thing from the Edo period to struggle through in Japanese, I think it really has to be Bashō 芭蕉’s Oku no hosomichi 奥の細道 (Narrow Road to Take Your Pick: A Far Province, The Interior, The Deep North, “Oku”). It’s been translated by everybody and her brother (hell, even I gave it a shot), but there’s just nothing like grappling with his prose and poetry in the original. If there’s anything that’ll prove the old saw that poetry is what’s lost in the translation, it’s this.

But you don’t need me to tell you about Bashō, so that’s not my pick. I’m going to recommend a book I haven’t even finished yet, but that I’m enjoying the bejeezus out of. That’s Edo bakemono sōshi (江戸化物草紙) by Adam Kabat (アダム・カバット) (from 小学館). This is a book of early 19th century kibyōshi, mostly by Jippensha Ikku (十返舎一九). Ikku’s the guy who wrote Shank’s Mare (a.k.a. Tōkaidōchū hizakurige (東海道中膝栗毛), also one of the books I’d take with me if I was exiled to Sado). Kibyōshi were a kind of comic book, adult-oriented (meaning sophisticated, not salacious, although they could be that, too), popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the last few years there’s been a lot written about these in English – and this is going to seem pretty incestuous, because the leader in this movement was my grad-school advisor at A School Which Shall Not Be Named, somebody you probably know, too.

But the ones Kabat takes up haven’t been translated, and that’s a shame, because they’re just awesome. They’re part of the late-Edo fad for monsters, a fad that saw both the authentically shocking horror of Yotsuya kaidan (四谷怪談) and the kooky, funny monsters that populate these comix. Both of which feed straight into modern horror and humor manga. I mean, this is where my boy Mizuki Shigeru (水木しげる) got all his shit from.

Kabat’s editing is careful and helpful – he transliterates all the squigglies, and explains everything in modern Japanese, too – and of course part of the fun of the book is rooting for the gaijin who did all this work. But mainly the stories are cute, the illustrations are winning, and the whole package is just a priceless view into the comic imagination of the early 19th century. Very entertaining.

David Marx (post-Edo):
One book of interest is Sōkan no shakaishi (創刊の社会史) by Kōji Namba (難波功士) which looks at social trends through the publication of magazines. It’s a good intro to the history of Japanese youth and consumer culture, and shows why magazines are so important to both.



I enjoyed the Onmyōji (陰陽師) novel series by Baku Yumemakura (夢枕獏), which is basically historical fantasy with a bit of a Sherlock Homes feel to it, based on the legends of the historical onmyōji Abe no Seimei. I’m sure you’re at least familiar with the film or manga versions, but I really liked the prose versions. Having lived in Kyoto for several years I’m actually very familiar with all the Heiankyo references and found it pretty easy to read, but as a Tokyo resident you may find that you need to read it with Wikipedia handy.


1940-nen taisei (1940年体制) by Yukio Noguchi (野口幸雄) is a “pop economics” book about how the structure of many Japanese institutions we know today – regional newspapers, banks, labor practices, etc. – are largely a product of the wartime economy. A very interesting take from a former finance ministry bureaucrat.

My additions to the list:

Mahoro ekimae Tada benriken (まほろ駅前多田便利軒) is a novel written by Shion Mitsuura (三浦しおん) who I don’t know very much about. She regularly gets published and serialized in major magazines, but the photo on the cover was what first drew me to the book. The librarian at the junior high school in Nishiaizu always put her favorite books out on display, and this one caught my eye. Eventually I picked up a copy for cheap at Book OFF, but I still haven’t gotten around to reading it. It may be a little superficial to judge a book by it’s cover, but sometimes books that look good end up being a nice find. Speaking of which…

I introduced Kōhī mō ippai (コーヒーもう一杯) by Naoto Yamakawa (山川直人) last year, but I still haven’t found the time to read Volume 5 (the final volume) yet, so I included it in one of the boxes I sent back. I love the visual texture of Yamakawa’s drawings; they match perfectly with the tone of the stories, which is always very mellow and nostalgic. Reading this manga is like slowly immersing yourself in a 45C bath. Not any old bath, but an old-school aluminum tub on the second floor of a wooden building that rattles whenever a train goes by. And when you get out of the bath, you have a cold jar of coffee-flavored milk to cool yourself down. I found this manga randomly at Tsutaya before boarding a flight from Fukushima to Osaka. I was looking for SOIL, another serial published by Beam Comics, but they didn’t have the latest volume, so I picked this one instead.

Tōkaidō chintara tabi (東海道ちんたら旅) is a random book that I came across when walking home from Oimachi one rainy evening. I was walking by the Nikon factory and happened to turn my head to the left just as I passed the book. It was absolutely soaked, but I rescued it and let it dry out. It’s still in readable condition and looks like a set of travel stories written by Shōichi Ozawa (小沢昭一) and Shintarō Miyakoshi (宮腰太郎).

And finally for recommendations from Japanese friends. I haven’t read most of these, so the stories of how I met these people are probably more interesting than a summary of the books themselves. If you know anything about these books, let me know what you think.

I made friends with a Japanese guy who works at a translation company in Tokyo. When we met at a beer bar, he was amazed that I was interested in Thelonious Monk. He’s a good bit older than me, but between Monk, other music and literature, we had enough in common to become pretty good friends. He loves Jazz and the Beat poets, so much so that he ran off to India at some point in his 20s, inspired by Alan Ginsberg. When I asked about his favorite Japanese author, he quickly recommended Shichirō Fukuzawa (深沢七郎). “He writes amazing sentences,” he said. He recommended Narayama bushikō (楢山節孝), for which Fukazawa won the first Chūōkōron Prize in 1956. So far I’ve read the first two stories, including the title story, but I need to go back and read it more closely and finish the other stories in the collection.

Fukazawa is also famous for Furyū mutan (風流夢譚), which you can read more about over at Tokyo Damage Report. The work satires a radical takeover. During the takeover, the royal family is beheaded in front of a crowd. The story outraged conservatives, and one even attacked (UPDATE) the editor of Chūōkōron at his house (UPDATE), killing a maid and injuring his wife. Fukazawa was forced into hiding. Tokyo Damage Report has a translation of the story and a link to the Japanese original.

Two years ago I went with my roommate to his house for New Year’s dinner. It was the 2nd of January, not exactly New Year’s Day, but the food wasn’t exactly おせち料理: His dad is from Fukui, so they always serve up giant crabs as the appetizers. One of the guests was a slightly hefty Japanese guy with long, unkempt gray hair. He seemed to make a living mostly by tutoring high school and junior high school students, but he admired Albert Einstein (even taking fashion tips from him; hence, the hair) and fancied himself an academic in general. I went again this year with my brothers, and he not only questioned each of them about their respective fields of interest (biology, sculpture) but also managed to carry on decent conversations about both topics. His recommendation was Ao-oni no fundoshi o arau onna (青鬼の褌を洗う女) by Ango Sakaguchi (坂口安吾). A couple days later, extremely hungover after nomi-hoe-down action in Shimokitazawa, I walked an hour and a half from my apartment to Tonki Tonkatsu in Meguro to have 初カツ – the first tonkatsu of the New Year. Along the way I passed the Book OFF in Gotanda. I looked for Sakaguchi but could only find the collection of short stories Hakuchi (白痴). I was so out of it that I didn’t realize 青鬼の褌を洗う女 was included in the collection. The title (“The Woman who Washes the Blue Oni’s Loincloth”) makes the story sound intriguing, so I’m looking forward to reading this. No spoilers!

When I worked as a project manager for a translation company, I only got to go to one real enkai with clients. The only reason I was invited was that the client was supposed to be bringing its English native staff member – thus, the proliferation of foreigners. Sadly, the guy had too much work and wasn’t able to make it. That left me, the Japanese coordinator and the Syatch (which is what we call the 社長) meeting with the Japanese head of translation (who drank like seven beers and then went back to work) and a higher-up producer, I think, who had studied in Wisconsin and even been engaged to an American woman. For some reason it didn’t work out. His English was great, as you can expect, and he had even been to New Orleans during his stay in the U.S. (As we were leaving he asked me about the “titty bars” – that’s how good his English was.) He asked me about my interest in Japan, and as always I mentioned Murakami as the main reason I started studying the language. When I had the chance, I asked him who his favorite author was. He answered Seichō Matsumoto (松本清張). I can’t remember what novel he recommended or why, but on the way to New Year’s dinner this past January, I found Hansei no ki (半生の記) at the station bookstore while I was waiting for my roommate. I picked it because it was the shortest of his books and also because it’s a collection of stories. I think it’s nonfiction, or at least 私小説, which blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction.

Reading Theory – Notes Increase Retention

When I read Books 1 and 2 of 1Q84, I stormed through them, reading an average of 55 pages a day. I then promptly fell ill and did not venture far beyond the edges of my futon for the next week. (Belated apologies to some of the commenters who commented on that first post – I stopped responding once I got sick.) When I went to write my review of the book, I had a hard time remembering what had happened and an even more difficult time locating passages I wanted to quote. Doh.

For Book 3, I’m reading at a much more leisurely pace. I’m only on page 348 but have been reading for nearly three weeks, which comes to 16 pages a day. One reason I’ve been reading more slowly is that I’ve been writing more notes. Take a look:

I’m using a technique a graduate student recommended to me when I was writing my senior thesis. At the time I was complaining that it felt like Japanese was going in through my eyes and straight out the back of my head – I didn’t feel like I was retaining anything. He suggested writing little notes above paragraphs to summarize the content. They don’t have to be extensive or detailed, but even a little summary of what is happening can help you 1) make sure you are paying attention while you read, 2) make sure you are understanding what you read and 3) find passages later when you are flipping back through.

If you find an important passage or important line, you can write something more detailed. Fortunately I did that for Book 1 and 2, so I had some things to talk about in my review. For Book 3, I’ve been notating it far more extensively, so it should be much easier for me to remember later and write about.