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

Murakami begins the memoir in Rome, and it quickly becomes apparent that his excuse from the prologue was cover for one of the very real reasons he decided to travel—the trip was an escape from some of the responsibilities of a young, popular writer in the Japanese literary establishment. After five years of writing and three of being a full time writer, Murakami is exhausted and wants an escape of sorts.

He personifies this exhaustion in the form of two bees buzzing in his head, going as far as naming them Giorgio and Carlo.

So he and his wife pack up, ask friends to take care of their cats, rent out their place, and take off for Rome.

He makes it clear that the memoir is made up of nonfiction he wrote for magazines while he was traveling, that the collection was basically serialized to a certain extent, and this introduction feels like he is pumping himself up to get ready to write. To write not only the rest of this memoir but the other fiction he would put together over the subsequent years.

There are some interesting Easter eggs in this part. Take a look:

The biggest problem was that I was tired. How the hell had I even gotten so tired? But no matter how it’d happened, I was tired. At least too tired to write fiction. That was the biggest problem I was facing.

I wanted to write two novels before turning 40. No, “wanted” wasn’t quite the word; I had to write them. That was very clear. But I was unable to get started on them. I knew basically what to write and how to write it. But I couldn’t get it out of me, unfortunately. It even felt like I might never write again. And the bees were buzzing around in my head. They were so loud I couldn’t even think straight.

The phone was still ringing in my head. That was also part of the sound the bees made. The phone. The phone was ringing. Ring ring ring ring ring ring. They were demanding things of me. Do an ad for a word processor or something, they said. Give a lecture at some women’s college, they said. Make some food you like for a feature photo shoot, they said. Do a magazine talk with some writer you’ve never heard of, they said. Give us your comments on sexism or overtourism or some musician who died or the revival of the miniskirt or how to quit smoking, they said. Judge some competition, they said. Write a 30-page “city fiction” story by the 20th of next month, they said. (And what the hell is “city fiction”?)

It’s not like I was particularly angry about any of it. Of course I wasn’t angry. Because these were all matters that had already been determined. Because I was simply being included. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, and no one had messed up. I knew that. In a certain sense, I was even an accomplice in the circumstances. It’s a winding bottleneck you have to go through to get to what I mean, but I still had a hand in it. So I had no right to get angry at anything. At least I don’t think I did. I was the one calling myself. In a certain sense.

That duplicity frustrated me. And left me feeling powerless. (35-36)




僕は別に腹を立てているわけではない。もちろん腹なんか立てていない。何故ならこれらは既に決定された事項であるからだ。僕はただ単にそこに含まれているだけなのだから。誰が悪いわけでもなく、誰が間違っているわけでもない。それはわかっている。僕だってある意味では、そういう状況に加担している人間のひとりなのだ。かなりまわりくどい意味の隘路を辿って行くことになるけれど、それでもやはり僕だってちゃんとそれに加担しているのだ。だから僕にはそういう物事に対して腹を立てる権利なんてないのだ。たぶん、ないと思う。僕に電話をかけているのは、僕自身でもあるのだ。ITALICSある意味では。 ITALICS


I love this section. You have a different perspective on the telephone. It comes up so frequently in Murakami’s fiction, which I wrote about it in my review of The Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru, but here it’s kind of a bother whereas in his fiction it generally connects, although can sometimes be ominous.

You also get some really interesting hints about the kind of projects he’s working on. He makes a clear reference to the short stories that would become 回転木馬のデッドヒート(Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round), which I wrote about (also over at Neojaponisme). The series was initially titled 街の眺め (Views of the City), and he seems to have figured them out in an effective way despite his skepticism here. He’s even said that the series was critical training for more realistic writing and that without it he wouldn’t have been able to write Norwegian Wood. The series ran from 1983-1985, so it spans the first part of his trip.

It’s also interesting that Murakami brings up 対談 (taidan) which I’ve translated as “magazine talk.” There’s nothing that really equates with the 対談 phenomenon in the U.S….except maybe podcasts? They are conversations between two people, often writers or intellectuals, and the transcript is edited and then printed in the magazine with photos of the writers looking very serious and intellectual. Murakami did one with Murakami Ryu that was republished in a hardcover format.

He also did at least 17 others between 1980 and 1984, which is about one every 2-3 months. I can’t tell whether that’s a lot or a reasonable amount, but combined with all the other asks on him and the essays and fiction he was also being asked, it was probably somewhat of a burden. I can’t imagine that these are as easy as showing up and having a chat with someone.

I wonder if he had a particular writer in mind with that line or if it was just kind of a random throwaway line.

If you’re interested in finding out, I’ve picked out all the 対談 Murakami did. This comes from Osakabe Yoshio’s now-defunct website that tracked all of his publications. It’s cached on Archive.org if you want to track it down. Here are the 対談 with English dates added:

May 1980:
happy end 通信 1980年5月号 Vol.2 No.4
対談: 映画月評 「出逢いを見て考えたこと」 (対談相手: 高橋千尋) 表紙と裏表紙

December 1980:
小説現代 1980年12月
対談: [特別企画-小説・ジャズ・野球] 「一九八〇年の透明感覚-村上龍Vs.村上春樹」

November 1981:
平凡パンチ 1981年11月2日号 第18巻第42号
原作者対談:映画ってなんだ!?」 『遠雷』立松和平Vs『風の歌を聴け』村上春樹 P27-29

December 1981:
対談: Hot Dog Press 1981年12月10日 第3巻第19号 No.37 P16-18
対談: HUMAN HOT INTERVIEW SPECIAL 「風の歌を聴け」 原作者 村上春樹 VS. 監督 大森一樹

April 1982:
朝日ジャーナル 1982年4月2日号 24巻 P26-32
対談: 「大衆化した「大学」はどこへ行く–「300万人の大学」執筆者 (漂う「大学」の脱出路)」 天野郁夫; 樋口恵子; 村上春樹

April 1982:
GORO 1982年4月22日号 第9巻第9号
カルチャー・ショック対談: 村上春樹VS糸井重里 湯村輝彦・イラスト P160-163

July 1982:
ユリイカ 1982年7月号 14巻 P110-135
対談: 特集 チャンドラー 川本三郎との対談 「R.チャンドラー あるいは都市小説について」

February 1983:
小説現代 1983年2月号 P222-233
対談: (五木寛之) 「言の世界と葉の世界」

May 1983:
クロワッサン 1983年5月10日 P48-51
対談: (道下匡子) 「あるとき、いちばん嫌いな人(ヤツ)を好きになってしまった!」

May 1983:
平凡パンチ 1983年5月30日号 第20巻第20号 P32-33
WIDE SPECIALならためて YMO でございます。 「創作作法対談 村上春樹氏とー坂本龍一」

July 1983:
「話せばわかるか」 (糸井重里対談集)1983年7月30日
対談: (糸井重里) 「1982.2.22 村上春樹と六本木・瀬里奈で話した」 エッセイ集

February 1984:
イラストレーション 1984年2月号 No.26 P34-40
対談: 特集:安西水丸・透きとおる影 対談:村上春樹vs水丸

February 1984:
GORO 1984年2月23日
対談: (安西水丸) 「男にとって”早い結婚”はソンかトクか」

February 1984:
ビックリハウス 1984年2月号 第10巻第2号 (通巻109号) P98-102
対談: (安西水丸) 「千倉における朝食のあり方」 安西水丸氏に聞く?T 小竹文枝・イラスト

March 1984:
ビックリハウス 1984年3月号
連載エッセイ: 人はなぜ千葉県に住むのか??D 対談: (安西水丸) 「千倉における夕食のあり方」

May 1984:
朝日ジャーナル 1984年5月25日 26巻 P43-47
対談: (筑紫哲也) 「若者たちの神々」 P81-82

Sometime in Fall/Summer 1984 (or February 1982?):
対談: (糸井重里) 「1982.2.22 村上春樹と六本木・瀬里奈で話した」

March 1985:
国文学 1985年3月号 30巻 P6-30
対談: (中上健次) 「仕事の現場から」(都市と反都市<特集>)

October 1985:
NEXT 1985年10月
対談: (島森路子) 村上春樹の世界 話題作「世界の終わりとハードボイルド・ワンダーランド」を手がかりに

October 1985:
IN★POCKET 1985年10月号 第3巻第10号 P4-74
対談: (村上龍、司会: 島森路子) 「作家ほど素敵な商売はない」 宮内忠敏/野上透/塚越亘/景山正夫・写真

February 1986 (and maybe February 1994):
「風の対話」 1986年2月
文庫版「風の対話」は 1994年2月4日 河出書房新社 (河出文庫)
対談: 五木寛之対談集 「ワンダーランドに光る風」

June 1986:
「on the border」 最新エッセイ+対談 1982-1985/オン・ザ・ボーダー 中上健次・著 1986年6月
対談: (中上健次) 「仕事の現場から」 P88-136

June 1986:
波 1986年6月 P6-11
対談: (中野圭二/村上春樹) 「アーヴィングが世界を見れば」

December 1989:
シネマ・ストリート パート2 (安西水丸著) 1989年12月12日
対談: (安西水丸) 「私の嫌いなもの・恐いもの」 285-299

How to Japanese Podcast – S01E00 – Season 1 Trailer

For me, podcasts are inextricably linked with Japan. I started listening to them while I was living there, way back when I had to manually drag episodes from iTunes over to my big, fat iPod.

I listened to them as I drove around Fukushima Prefecture to the elementary school where I taught and on the weekends to see friends and to travel around Tohoku. My mainstays back then were Bill Simmons’ BS Report, the Penny Arcade guys (even though I wasn’t really playing video games), Car Talk, and the NPR Sunday Puzzle.

It took me a while, but How to Japanese now has a serious podcast! Check out the trailer (S01E00).

I had a podcast misfire back when I was in grad school (and desperate to make something…anything), and I hope you don’t spend too much time tracking it down because it was shite.

I’ve put more work into this (real) one. I’m planning to release the podcast in 10-episode seasons with the first season starting next week. The goal is much the same as this blog—be helpful. Help readers/listeners get used to Japanese and learn how others have had success living and working in Japan and with Japanese. I found 10 incredibly interesting guests who were very generous with their time and shared how they started translating, writing, editing, teaching English, studying, researching, lawyering, ramening, and making video games in Japan. I’m very excited to share their stories and advice.

So please subscribe and share! And if you have any questions, feel free to get in touch at howtojapanese at gmail dot com. I’d be glad to take language questions and any other Japan-related concerns.

All music in the podcast comes from the excellent おとわび.

You can find it on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, and Spotify.

The おじさんing

I’m in the Japan Times Bilingual page this week with a look at “words of personal reference”: “How to address the ‘sisters’ we’ve never met.”

This article starts with a story that happened to me shortly after I moved to Tokyo in 2008. I wish I’d written down the details at the time! Especially what the women said when they replied to my friend. Their tone (the laughter, the appreciation, how easily we all had such a nice time) is still so clear in my mind, but the words have gone.

It was such a great party with fun people and really interesting conversation. The Japanese guy who used お姉さん went on to try his hand at stand-up comedy. Not sure how that worked out.

The bar was Yokohama Cheers, if anyone wants to check it out.

I ran out of space in the article but wanted to look at where the division line is between お姉さん and おばさん and between お兄さん and おじさん.

I found this really interesting discussion site.

Here’s a key quote that backs up what I remember from the conversation:


The women we spoke with laughed when my friend used お姉さん, but it was a friendly laugh, one that recognized the difficulty of the situation.

Another commenter provides this loose breakdown in the terminology, although clearly the cutoff for お姉さん is a little young:

60代超えだしたらお婆ちゃん かな~

I also found a personal blog with an interesting discussion of what the writer’s niece and nephew’s children call her. Here’s an interesting line:

かといって 呼ばれ慣れない「おばさん」や まして「おばあちゃん」もなんか私じゃないみたい。

And I also found some surveys. I can’t vouch for their methodology, but they suggest that one becomes either おじさん or おばさん around 41-45 years old…which is approaching way too quickly in my case ^^;

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)

Murakami Breakdown

I’m in the Japan Times this week with an ode to the long, fold-out indexes of Japanese literary magazines: “There’s more than just page numbers in the index of a Japanese literary magazine.”

I did a little digging for the history of these indexes, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to find much – any search you do for the word 目次 (mokuji, index) automatically retrieves, well, every work with an index. I found it nearly impossible to sort out information about indexes from works with indexes.

If you have any leads, send them my way!

I did find this tweet, which shows the index of a very old literary magazine.

I don’t think the index folds out, but there are some nice fold-out illustrations, which shows the concept in practice.

I found two interesting links while researching this article.

The first is a site I found listing the 枚数 for different lengths of Japanese fiction. I’m realizing now that this site specializes in mystery writing and even has a walkthrough on how to write your own mystery novel, complete with 起承転結 construction.

The second and lengthier link is 文芸5誌について, a post from 2012 detailing the five major literary magazines and their philosophies/differences. It’s also a super effective primer on 純文学, 私小説, and how the 文壇 works. Although it does seem to have a very strong critical take on the current state of 純文学.

I’m still reading through this post. It’s long and dense, and I don’t really have the breadth of knowledge for it to be super helpful, although I recognize some of the names so far – Wataya Risa and Kanehara Hitomi being two of them.

I mostly end up thinking in terms of Murakami (as is my tendency), so I thought I would break down where his works have been published:

1979 – Hear the Wind Sing
1980 – 1973 Pinball
1982 – Wild Sheep Chase
1996 – “Lexington Ghost”

1980 – “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall”
1983 – “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”
1985 – “The Elephant Vanishes”
1989 – “Sleep”
1991 special issue – “Iceman,” “The Green Beast,” F Scott Fitzgerald translation, “The Windup Bird and Tuesday’s Women” (EN)
1995 – “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”

1980 – “A Poor Aunt’s Story”
1981 – “Kangaroo Communique”
1983 – “Barn Burning”
1984 – “The Dancing Dwarf”
1986 – “The Windup Bird and Tuesday’s Women”
1993 – The Wind Up Bird Chronicle Part 1 (serialized)
1999 – Stories from After the Quake, from August to December
2005 – Stories from Tokyo Kitanshu, from March to June

1982 – “Her Small Dog in the Ground”

Essays and other writing but no fiction

1990 – “Tony Takitani”
1996 – “The Seventh Man”

Pretty interesting! This only includes his fiction, so it doesn’t give a full picture of his writing, but it does tell an interesting story. Murakami basically moved away from Gunzo after his first few novels and has been publishing his short story sets and longer works in Shincho more regularly.

I was keen to check out this lone story in Subaru for a second—I thought a trip to the National Diet Library might have been in order for my next trip to Japan—until I realized it’s collected in A Slow Boat to China. Alas. I’ll have to track down some obscure nonfiction instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Murakami writes nicely about this generational divide:


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

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


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

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

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

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

Crying Time

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

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

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

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

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


Strong, strong work by the transcriber.

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

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

Japanese Definitions and Twitter Sleuthing

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Definitely seems worthy of social obligation/necessity.

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

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

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

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

Another user desperately needs some sleep:

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

Cool Kanji – 国字

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

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

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

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

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

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

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