Top 50 Bestselling Enka Songs – 40-31

Our look at the bestselling enka songs continues. Previous posts:

50-41

Today, we look at 40-31:

40. 帰ってこいよ (Kaette koi yo, Come home), 松村和子 (Matsumura Kazuko), 1980
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Quick Take: This is a take on a hometown song. Someone is being called back to their hometown, having forgotten the 誓った恋 (chikatta koi, love that she promised) before leaving for life in Tokyo. This is also a super short song, clocking in at under two minutes in some versions. Matsumura debuted with this song and drew attention for her long hair and playing the shamisen.

Difficulty: 10. Soaring vocals and kobushi make this song tough for all but the best singers. Plus you need to rock the shamisen for maximum authenticity.

39. 恋唄綴り (Ko-uta tsuzuri, Orthography [?] of a Love Song), 堀内孝雄 (Horiuchi Takao), 1990
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Quick Take: This is a nice little song about love songs and all the feels associated with them. Strong use of あんた (anta, you) here by Horiuchi, and again a reminder that 逢 > 会 when it comes to karaoke. I believe this is also our first encounter with 時雨 (shigure, drizzle), which feels like a classic karaoke/poetry word. And as always, there’s never enough booze to drown your sorrows: 飲めば飲むほど淋しいくせに (nomeba nomu hodo sabishii kuse ni, I’m lonely no matter how much I drink).

Difficulty: 4. This one doesn’t seem so bad. There are a couple of rhythmically tricky spots, but otherwise

38. 命くれない (Inochi kurenai, Crimson Karma), 瀬川瑛子 (Segawa Eiko), 1986
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Quick Take: This is a pretty intense old school, star-crossed lovers enka song. The pace is slow, and the intensity of the feelings are intense enough to warrant the English translation of this song rendered by Wikipedia: “My flaming Emotions.” This doesn’t appear to be the official translation, as best I can tell. I think the title puns on 紅 (kurenai, crimson/red) and the other meaning for kurenai (won’t you give me? [?]). There’s lots of “I only need you to live” type lyrics and claims that the narrator and partner are 結ばれていた (musubarete ita, linked). Not my favorite song, but I can respect it for what it is—a call back to some of the original enka music.

Difficulty: 10. There’s nothing to hide behind with this one. You’ve got to hold and kobushi every note, basically.

37. 逢わずに愛して (Awazu ni ai shite, Love without meeting), 内山田洋とクールファイブ (Uchiyamada Hiroshi and the Cool Five), 1969
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Quick Take: I’m so glad these guys are on the list. The first time I went to Japan, some of the Rotary Club members taught me a few of their songs and I came home with a Cool Five CD, which I subsequently listened to enough times that I can sing most of it. But not this song! I recognize the song, but I’ve never sung it. The lyrics are pretty generic love song stuff, this time with a focus on the title and the idea that absence/distance makes the heart grow fonder. You see the word 枯れる (kareru, wither) early on, which is in a lot of enka songs: 涙枯れても夢よ枯れるな (namida karete mo yume yo kareru na, Even if my tears dry up, my dreams will never fade). You can hear some of the 50s doo-wop roots in these songs (notably in the backup singers) and see it in their outfits on album covers. Some other recommendations: 長崎は今日も雨だった (Nagasaki wa kyō mo ame datta, Nagasaki Was Rainy Again Today), 東京砂漠 (Tokyo sabaku, Tokyo Desert), 西海ブルース (Saikai burūsu, Saikai Blues).

It’s interesting to note that Wikipedia labels the band a 歌謡グループ (kayō grūpu, popular song group). They debuted in 1969, right around the point when enka became a term for a genre and incorporated kayōka songs.

Difficulty: 5. The lead vocalist Maekawa Kiyoshi has a pretty deep voice, which makes this more accessible to most of us, but he also has pretty pinpoint tone and kobushi, making it a little more difficult. Still, not all that hard.

36. 浪花恋しぐれ (Naniwa koi shigure, Naniwa Love Shower), 都はるみ・岡千秋 (Miyako Harumi, Oka Chiaki), 1983
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Quick Take: Our first duet! And of course it’s not very politically correct. Based on what I gather from the lyrics (and please correct me if I’m wrong), the male character is a rakugo artist who drinks too much and makes his wife cry, and the wife supports him and tries not to cry. Here’s the telling line from a little rap that she does after a singing verse: うちはどんな苦労にも耐えてみせます (Uchi wa donna kurō ni mo taete misemasu, I’ll show you that I can handle any adversity). Obviously it’s meant to be a sweet love song, and even he confesses his love throughout, but it’s not a surprise that this song is from the 80s. Apparently the story is based on the life of rakugo performer Katsura Harudanshi and his wife. If you want to read the lyrics, check out this version which cannot be embed.

Difficulty: 10. Not only do you need to find a partner for this song, you both have to be pretty damn skilled in the arts of kobushi to pull this one off, and you need to be able to spit some wicked Kansai-ben.

35. よせばいいのに (Yoseba ii no ni, But it would be nice if you came near), 敏いとうとハッピー&ブルー (Toshi Itō and Happy and Blue), 1979
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Quick Take: There’s a lot of self-blame going on in this enka song, as you can tell from the サビ (sabi, hook) in this song: いつまでたってもダメなわたしね (Itsu made tattemo dame na watashi, I’m terrible no matter how much time passes). To my ear, these guys seem like Cool Five knock offs who have swapped their slick doo-wop suits for letterman jackets, but there’s a possibility that I’m biased. I’m also confused whether this song is sung from the male or female perspective, maybe both. At any rate, it amounts to the same thing. Can’t find the love they want, and feels bad for it. Be sure to check out this old school version to get a sense of what they were like.

Difficulty: 8. High pitched and speedy, tough to perform, I’d imagine.

34. 津軽海峡冬景色 (Tsugaru kaikyō fuyu keshiki, A winter scene on Tsugaru Strait), 石川さゆり (Ishikawa Sayuri), 1977
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Quick Take: This is a nice song with a stronger narrative than many we’ve seen so far: the narrator is leaving Tokyo to return to Hokkaido. She takes the train from Ueno to Aomori and then hops on a boat where she is overwhelmed by the winter scene of the Tsugaru Strait. There are some classic karaoke tropes: 夜行列車 (yakkō ressha, night trains), crying 鷗 (kamome, gulls), かすみ (kasumi, mist) covering the water. And much like a good poem, all of these things stand in for the singer’s feelings before we understand that she’s leaving あなた to go home. There’s a surprisingly extensive English Wikipedia page for the song, which notes that it launched Ishikawa to fame and into the Kohaku Uta Gassen for the first time.

Difficulty: 8. Tough to say with this one. Seems like it might not be too bad, but Ishikawa has some pretty flexible vocals. Could be tricky.

33. 長崎は今日も雨だった (Nagasaki wa kyō mo ame datta, Nagasaki was rainy today, too), 内山田洋とクールファイブ (Uchiyamada Hiroshi and the Cool Five), 1969
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Quick Take: This is the first enka song I ever learned, and it’s a classic. As mentioned above, I can blame the Rotary Club guys (shout out to Ohiwa-san) for my taste in bad (read: great) karaoke songs. The simple nature of the title makes it a great dad joke if you ever need a cheap laugh and it happens to be rainy in Nagasaki that day. The song itself takes you around Nagasaki city and points out some of its features like 石畳 (ishidatami, flagstones), which also made an appearance above in 逢わずに愛して. 冷たい風が身にしみる (tsumetai kaze ga mi ni shimiru, the cold wind cuts into my body) feels like a pretty classic line, parts of which appear in other songs. 愛し (itoshi) is another enka word, one that I wrote about in Final Fantasy VI. The karaoke videos for this song (at least in Japan) never fail to have excellent shots taken throughout Nagasaki, which you should definitely visit if you haven’t. Beautiful place. And here’s an old version.

Difficulty: 3. If I can sing this one, you can too. Maybe a couple of rhythm sections that are tricky, but not too bad.

32. 女のブルース (Onna no burūsu, Woman Blues), 藤圭子 (Fuji Keiko), 1970
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Quick Take: I love this song. It’s especially helpful for learning the grammar pattern ですもの (desu mono, because) and for the usage of に (ni) to mark the subject of verbs. The first part of the song is the ways in which being a woman affects how she acts. 女ですもの (onna desu mono, because I’m a woman), she loves, she gets drunk on dreams, she’s alone, nevertheless she persists and survives. The song then (brilliantly!) switches to あなた (anata, you), spelling out what she wants of the guy: あなたにすがりたい (Anata ni sugaritai, I want to be pursued by you) and other things, such as being spoiled and raised up. And in the second half of the song, it switches to describe Tokyo and then life in general: 何処で生きても (doko de ikite mo, wherever you live). The implication being that life is tough, yo.

Interestingly enough, Fuji is the mother of Utada Hikaru!

Difficulty: 4. This seems pretty accessible, possibly because Fuji has a relatively deep voice compared to some female singers.

31. 心凍らせて (Kokoro kōrasete, Freeze your heart), 高山厳 (Takayama Gen), 1992
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https://youtu.be/ASkNVZ6cGRM

We also see the frequently encountered 抱かれる (dakareru, be held by) and 流す (nagasu, wash away) in the passive form in the phrase 愛に流されて (ai ni nagasarete, washed away by love).

Difficulty: 8. Gen has such a delicate voice. I think this one would be difficult to do well.

Top 50 Bestselling Enka Songs – 50-41

I’m in the Japan Times today with one of my favorite Bilingual articles in a long time: “Enka gives lessons in Japan’s unattainable love.”

I don’t remember the first time I learned the word 演歌 (enka), but it was likely the summer of 2002 when I was on a Rotary internship in Okayama. Several members of the Rotary Club were responsible for organizing our activities, and they would take us out at night to all manner of snack bars across the city. We sang American songs, drank beer, ate 柿ピー (kaki pii, peanuts and crackers), and listened to them sing Japanese songs. I have very distinct memories of two of them performing 旅姿三人男 (Tabi sugata sannin otoko, Three Men in Traveling Clothes).

Gradually, over the course of two months, a few of the songs made their way into our heads, and at our farewell dinner I performed 長崎は今日も雨だった (Nagasaki wa kyō mo ame datta, Nagasaki Was Rainy Again Today).

I went home with an Ishihara Yujiro CD and an Uchiyamada Hiroshi and the Cool Five CD, and I listened to them over and over, especially once I got my first iPod in 2006 when I was on the JET Program. I also picked up a few other songs here and there, listening to friends and town employees sing while on the JET Program, and recently I’ve been doing カラオケ勉強会 (karaoke benkyō kai, karaoke “study meetings”) with coworkers in Chicago. My repertoire is only decent, but I like what I can do.

In an effort to learn more about enka for the JT article, I took a look at the Top 50 Bestselling Enka Songs. This is a list that floats around the internet on several different sites and is supposedly based on Oricon data. Some of the sites have disclaimers at the bottom that it may not be accurate, but it’s interesting and helpful at the very least. I watched all 50 and wrote up my thoughts. I’ll post ten of them each day this week in descending order, starting today. Each write-up will include my toasty hot take, a difficulty rating, and a link to a “permasearch” on YouTube. Many of the music videos for these songs will likely be taken down for copyright violations, but you can use the permasearch link to search for the songs on YouTube, which will hopefully reveal new versions or at least covers by amateurs.

Without further ado, here are 50 through 41:

50. 雨の慕情 (Ame no bojō, Yearning in the rain), 八代亜紀 (Yashiro Aki) – 1980
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Quick Take: The narrator of the song pleads with the rain to bring her the man (well, not technically a man, but an いい人[ii hito, nice person]) she misses. This is a nice song for language learners. There are lots of simple adjectives (憎い, 恋しい, 嫌い) used in repetition and the great example of of imperative in the chorus 雨雨降れ降れもっと降れ (ame ame hure hure motto fure, Rain rain, fall fall, fall more and more). Overall the language is relatively simple. As with many Japanese songs, Yashiro has very specific dance moves that go along with the chorus.

Difficulty: 4. Pretty straightforward. If I was a woman or had a higher voice, I might be singing this song regularly.

49. とまり木 (Tomarigi, Barstool/perch), 小林幸子 (Kobayashi Sachiko) – 1980
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Quick Take: You know this song is going to be great from the title alone, which means barstool/perch. As you can tell from the video, it’s about a woman sitting at her barstool, wanting to follow after a person who won’t face her. It’s got some great lines like お酒でごまかす / このさびしさを (Osake de gomakasu / kono sabishisa o, I’ll conceal it with liquor, this sadness) that help show an inverted direct object. Great song.

Difficulty: 7. Some definite 小節 (kobushi, undulating melodic ornamentation or embellishment) present, but it’s not over the top.

48. なみだ恋 (Namida-goi, Tearful Love), 八代亜紀 (Yashiro Aki), 1973
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Quick Take: I’m not sure you can get a simpler yet more powerful enka title unless you dig deep into the archives (酒は涙か溜息か, for example?): tearful love. The song is set in the back alleys of Shinjuku…in the rain…with the blossoms of flowers (presumably cherries?) falling. This is Japanese soul music. According to enka, the best (but saddest) love is illicit love which requires you to 忍び逢う(shinobiau, meet surreptitiously), especially if it involves rain or (in the case of Ishihara Yujiro) 夜霧 (yogiri, night fog). Yashiro is notable as the first female enka singer to have seven top 10 singles on the Oricon charts. Japanese Wikipedia notes that she was uncomfortable with her “husky” voice at first but gained confidence after hearing American singer Julie London.

Difficulty: 8.5. Yashiro breaks out more of the kobushi in the song than she did in 雨の慕情.

47. 流恋草 (Haguresō, Caught Lovesickness), 香西かおり(Kōzai Kaori), 1991
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Quick Take: This is another powerful song of loneliness: A woman, presumably in the countryside, is left on her own (perhaps her partner goes out often?). Because he’s the only person she knows in the town, she’s lonely and crying. It’s the second instance we see of a line similar to 心はかくせない (kokoro wa kakusenai, I can’t hide my soul). It also features the nice contrast between あなたが欲しい (anata ga hoshii, I want you) and あなたを許せない (anata o yurusenai, I can’t forgive you), showing how divided her feelings are as well as the frequent karaoke encounter of anata. Some other great enka lines include: 悲しみがこぼれます/ ひとりじゃ暮らせない (kanashimi ga koboremasu / hitori ja kurasenai, My sadness spills over / I can’t live alone), and the ever useful お酒ください (osake kudasai, alcohol please).

This version on YouTube also has an amazing introduction and features a great set and an Akita pup biting at Kōzai’s fingers.

Difficulty: 6. Some minor kobushi, but nothing over the top. Very accessible lyrics.

46. よこはま・たそがれ (Yokohama tasogare, Yokohama Twilight), 五木ひろし (Itsuki Hiroshi), 1971
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Quick Take: Leave it to the first man on the list to sing the laziest song so far: this is basically a list of different evocative karaoke words (kiss, lingering scent, cigarette smoke, Blues, whistling, etc) followed by the chorus あの人は行って行ってしまった (ano hito wa itte itte shimatta, That person has gone, gone away). Apparently this shouldn’t be a surprise: Itsuki went through three failed stage names before breaking it big with this hit. His Japanese Wikipedia page is curiously extensive. [Stroking chin emoji] It’s worth tracking down a version of Itsuki singing this in his prime to understand the effect he must have had on audiences.

Difficulty: 3. Some minor kobushi, but this is a pretty great (if somewhat lame) song for beginners.

45. 長良川艶歌 (Nagaragawa enka, Nagara River Enka), 五木ひろし (Itsuki Hiroshi), 1984
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Quick Take: Here we are with Itsuki again. This song is much stronger than the previous. Sounds like the narrator is staying at a lodging alongside a river with someone he’d like to be with, a traveller, who’s gone in the morning. Lots of good あなたing in this song, which then goes on to get qualified by some nice phrases like すがってみたい人 (sugatte mitai hito, someone I’d like to follow) and 私を泣かす人 (watashi wo nakasu hito, someone who makes me cry). There are also some poetic lines like 窓に夜明けの風が泣く (Mado ni yoake no kaze ga naku, The dawn wind cries at the window).

One interesting point: note the use of 艶歌 instead of 演歌 in the title. There’s no Yahoo Chiebukuro post for this unfortunately, but there is an Oshiete Goo post, which notes that 艶歌 was used to describe the romantic content of songs whereas 演歌 came from earlier political protest songs. Christine Yano talks about this in her book but doesn’t use kanji, so I have to assume that this is the other character she’s talking about.

Difficulty: 9. This is one of those songs that will sound off if you don’t place the stress and kobushi on each word appropriately.

44. 箱根八里の半次郎 (Hakone hachiri no Hanjirō, Eight-ri Hanjirō of Hakone), 氷川きよし (Hikawa Kiyoshi), 2000
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Quick Take: This is an epic song that launched Hikawa Kiyoshi’s career and rejuvenated enka as a genre. The alliteration in the title and the callback to classic images of the Japanese countryside are powerful. I have trouble deciphering some of the lyrics, to be honest, but all analysis of the song mentions 股旅物 (matatabimono, wandering life of a gambler), an enka category that hadn’t been sung in a while, and it’s clear that the title character is a shabby, unreliable guy. The dense vocabulary of the song contrasts with the simplicity of the サビ (sabi, hook) – やだねったら、やだね (yada nettara, yada ne, literally “If I say I don’t like it, I don’t like it” although maybe closer to “If I say I don’t wanna, I won’t”?). An interesting Japanese blog post calls the lightness of this song a response to the だらしなさ (darashinasa, slovenliness) of the Heisei era.

You can also see/hear in the video that there are plenty of Kiyoshi fans who love his style as well.

Difficulty: 11. This one goes to 11. Hikawa has mad kobushi skills and a soaring voice. I’ve heard this one imitated poorly too many times, and I may have perpetrated one or two imitations myself. You’ve been warned.

43. むらさき雨情 (Murasaki ame nasake [?], Purple Rain Sadness), 藤 あや子 (Fuji Ayako), 1993
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Quick Take: This is a lovely song of unrequited love colored by the purple rain from the title. The narrator won’t follow her love but still has feelings for and memories of him. It’s full of karaoke words like にじむ (nijimu, blur) and しみつく (shimitsuku, stained in). And we can’t forget the absolute classic 未練 (miren, lingering affection/attachment/regrets): むらさき雨、雨に / 遠くかすむ町 / 訪ねた女の未練でしょうか (Murasaki ame ame ni / tōku kasumu machi / tazuneta onna no miren deshō ka, In the purple rain, rain / a misty town in the distance / is this the longing of a woman visiting?).

Difficulty: 4. Pretty straightforward with just some minor kobushi. A very clean and clear karaoke song. What’s not to like.

42. 愛のままで… (Ai no mama de…, Just as love…), 秋元順子 (Akimoto Junko), 2008
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Quick Take: This is the most recent hit on the top 50, and perhaps not surprisingly, this song launched Akimoto into the Kōhaku Uta Gassen for the first time in 2008, the oldest debut at 61 years old. To my ear it sounds like a pretty standard love song, a nice one, but nothing too special to recommend it other than some typical karaoke imagery: キャンドル (kyandoru, candle), 偶然 (gūzen, coincidence), 奇跡 (kiseki, miracle). It is notable for the first appearance of 愛しい (itoshii, dear), in this inverted phrase: 他人(だれ)かと比較る幸せなんていらない (dare ka to kuraberu shiawase nante iranai, I don’t need the pleasure of being compared with someone) / あなたの視線が愛しくあれば (anata no shisen ga itoshiku areba, If I have your dear gaze).

Difficulty: 3. A couple of potentially difficult stresses, but the language is pretty accessible and the voicing not so challenging. This one feels like it could be a fun one for many.

41. ふたり酒 (Futari zake, Sake for Two), 川中美幸 (Kawanaka Miyuki), 1980
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Quick Take: Now that’s some fucking enka! I had a feeling I would like this one from the title alone, and the very first line sealed it for me and also does a good job of summarizing the song: 生きてゆくのが辛い日はお前と酒があればいい (ikite yuku no ga tsurai hi wa omae to sake ga areba ii, When days are rough, I’m fine if I have you and alcohol). Kawanaka apparently made a name for herself with this song after failing with a few other singles. I really like the video that I’ve linked—it definitely shows how enka has been used to define Japanese identity. (If the video happens to be down, it showed a couple working at a sushi restaurant, some shots at a fish market, and a visit to a shrine.)

Difficulty: 7. This song is sneaky difficult. There’s more kobushi in there than appears to be in the studio version.

Stopgaps

Well, it took me six months, but I’m back on the Murakami. Chapter 35 of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World “Nail Clippers, Butter Sauce, Iron Vase” is one of my favorite chapters in the novel. I wrote about some of the changes and why it’s my favorite back in 2009 (!) during the second year of Murakami Fest.

In the chapter, Watashi wanders around the neighborhood near the library shopping and picks up the Librarian. They go to an Italian restaurant, gorge themselves, and then head back to her place to listen to music and have sex.

There are a lot of changes in this chapter. Most of the cuts that Birnbaum (or his editor) makes are inconsequential. Small pieces of dialogue or detail that can be eliminated to make the writing more concise and fluid. Even the ones I highlight in the post above aren’t really that substantial, although I’d argue that there’s really no reason to cut them. Birnbaum also adds a number of space breaks (three to be precise), which I have to admit are very effective at punctuating nice moments.

Murakami makes one small change from the original version to the Complete Works version, which I’ll look at just because. Here’s the original, which Birnbaum uses as the basis for his translation:

「サマセット・モームを新しい作家だなんていう人今どきあまりいないわよ」と彼女はワインのグラスを傾けながら言った。「ジュークボックスにベニー・グッドマンのレコードが入っていないのと同じよ」 (267)

And here’s Birnbaum’s translation:

“There aren’t many people who’d consider Somerset Maugham new,” she said, tipping back her glass. “The same as they don’t put Benny Goodman in jukeboxes these days either.” (358)

And the Complete Works edition:

「サマセット・モームを新しい作家だなんていう人今どきあまりいないわよ」と彼女はワインのグラスを傾けながら言った。 (526)

“There aren’t many people who’d consider Somerset Maugham new,” she said, tipping back her glass.

As you can see, he just cuts that last line. Very curious. Maybe he thought the Benny Goodman reference was off? Who knows. It seems very strange to read through a whole chapter and then cut a single sentence. Maybe Murakami was getting tired toward the end of edits on the Complete Works edition of HBW.

One of the more substantial cuts that Birnbaum makes in this chapter is when Watashi and the Librarian discuss the destruction of his apartment. Here’s the official translation:

“It wouldn’t have had anything to do with that unicorn business?” she asked.

“It did. But nobody’d bothered to ask me what I thought from the very beginning.”

“And does that have something to do with your going away tomorrow?”

“Mm…yeah.”

“You must have gotten yourself caught in a terrible mess.”

“Its so complicated, I myself don’t know what’s what. Well, in my case, the simplest explanation is that I’m up to here in information warfare.”

The waiter appeared suddenly with our fish and rice. (360)

As you’ll see, the translation cuts a few sentences at the beginning of this passage and a large chunk of conversation:

「部屋の中でラグビーの試合やったってあんなに無茶苦茶にはならないわよ」

「そうだろうね」と私は言った。

「それはその一角獣の話に関連したことなの?」と彼女が訊いた。

「たぶんしていると思う」

「それはもう解決したの?」

「解決はしていない。少なくとも彼らにとっては解決していない」

「あなたにとっては解決したの?」

「しているとも言えるし、していないとも言える」と私は言った。「選択のしようがないから解決しているとも言えるし、自分で選択したわけじゃないから解決したことにはならないとも言える。何しろ今回の出来事に関しては僕の主体性というものはそもそもの最初から無視されてるんだ。アシカの水球チームに一人だけ人間がまじったみたいなものさ」

「それで明日からどこか遠く行っちゃうのね?」

「まあね」

「きっと複雑な事件にまきこまれているのね?」

「複雑すぎて僕にも何が何だかよくわからない。世界はどんどん複雑になっていく。核とか社会主義の分裂とかコンピューターの進化とか人工授精とかスパイ衛星とかロボトミーとかね。車の運転席のパネルだって何がどうなってるのかわかりゃしない。僕の場合は簡単に説明すれば情報戦争にまきこまれちまっているんだ。要するにコンピューターが自我を持ちはじめるまでのつなぎさ。まにあわせなんだ」

「コンピューターはいつか自我を持つようになるの?」

「たぶんね」と僕は言った。「そうすればコンピューターが自分でデータをスクランブルして計算するようになる。誰にも盗めない」

ウェイターがやってきて我々の前にすずきとリゾットを置いた。 (530-531)

“You could play a rugby game in your apartment and it wouldn’t have gotten that messed up.”

“Probably so,” I said.

“Was it related to the unicorn stuff?” she asked.

“I think it might’ve been.”

“Is it resolved?”

“It’s not. At least it isn’t to them.”

“Is it for you?”

“It is and it isn’t,” I said. “There’s no way for me to choose, so it is, and because I didn’t choose, it won’t be resolved. My individuality was ignored from the beginning with this affair. It’s as if a single human was added to a sea lion water polo team.”

“So tomorrow you’re going far away?”

“Something like that.”

“You’ve been wrapped up in a pretty complicated incident.”

“Too complicated for me to understand. The world keeps getting more complicated. Nuclear weapons, the breakup of socialism, the evolution of computers, artificial insemination, spy satellites, lobotomies. It’s impossible to even know what’s going on with passenger side panels for cars. To put it simply, I’ve been caught up in the information war. Basically I’m a stopgap until computers have their own consciousness. A make-do.”

“Computers will have their own consciousness?”

“Maybe,” I said. “If they do, computers will be able to scramble the data themselves, and no one will be able to steal it.”

The waiter came over and placed the sea bass and risotto in front of us.

None of these make a huge difference. It makes the whole thing more concise, clearly. I do like the idea that the narrator is a つなぎ (tsunagi, stopgap), literally a “connection” between the status quo now and the future in which his profession would be expendable (perhaps now?). That’s something that Watashi has expressed elsewhere in the novel but not quite in this language.

Five chapters left!

Dr. Yusuke Nakamura at the University of Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

Cool Website – Yahoo Chiebukuro

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

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

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

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

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

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

The author conveniently highlights the most important section in red:

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

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

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

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

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

Tanka and Competitive Karuta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June Yamagishi and Papa Grows Funk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I need to give it a watch.

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

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

Killing Killing Commendatore

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

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

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

Sometimes it’s simple—attraction:

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool Phrase – 一心不乱

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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