A few impressions from Kiyosawa’s Diary of Darkness

Via Amazon

I’ve been reading A Diary of Darkness, kept by the Japanese journalist Kiyosawa Kiyoshi from 1942 until his death in 1945 (trans. Eugene Soviak and Kamiyama Tamie). Oh, it’s so good.

The diary covers international affairs, political happenings, and daily life in Japan over the course of the Pacific / Greater East Asia War. Despite strict censorship enforced by the military government and the arrest of several of his intellectual friends for “thought crimes,” Kiyosawa bravely risked his own arrest to produce an honest account of the madness that descended on Japan during the war.

But it’s not just a typical diary either. Kiyosawa kept the journal on the hope that he could use its material to produce a history of Japanese international relations after the war. Thus, along with recording illuminating vignettes of everyday life, Kiyosawa managed to produce a real-time account of the collapse of the Japanese homefront with scholarly rigor as good or better than any secondary source for understanding Japan’s progress during the war.

In politics, Kiyosawa was a committed liberal – more than anything, he complains about the stultifying effect attacks on the freedom of speech had on Japanese society. It’s remarkable then that the journal survived, a powerful testament to the singular importance of that freedom in maintaining a peaceful and democratic society. I regret that he did not live long enough to see Japan become such a society. But hey, it’s nice that he tried.

So anyway, in lieu of something more substantial, here are three quick impressions:

Continue reading “A few impressions from Kiyosawa’s Diary of Darkness”

Buddha and the Boozer

Habushu, an Okinawan snake alcohol. Image: Wikipedia

Have you ever come across such a perfect line while reading translated literature that you just have to go check it out in the source language, comprehension be damned?

I found one such line in the Konjaku Monogatari Shu, a collection of hundreds of late Heian-period Japanese short stories, 90 of which appear in English in Japanese Tales from Times Past (trans. Naoshi Koriyama and Bruce Allen). It was a Christmas present, but I’ve already hit volume 19, tale 21 in the Buddhist moral tales section, titled “Snakes are seen in a vat of sake made from rice cake offerings.” In the context of its most delightful line though, I think I might want to rechristen the story “Buddha and the Boozer.”

But first, a quick synopsis of the barely two-page tale for context:

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I know this, but what good does it do me to know?

I realized that this post needed a picture so I took a picture of a book in protest

[assay!]

Now that I am teaching again, I find that I have the most trouble answering questions related to motivation, usually some variation of “Why do we need to study this?” And as awful as this might sound, I truly don’t know how to satisfy that question. I do try — depending on the student, so far I’ve replied:

  • “Maybe if you study it more, you will learn that you do like it. I used to hate algebra but look!, I’m teaching it to you now. 
  • “Oh, you want to make video games? Well, you’ll need this math when you start programming classes…”
  • “Yeah, I don’t know why the Ottoman Empire is a state standard either, but you need to study a wide breadth of subjects because you never know where those connections will come in handy.”

Of course, every discipline will have their own specific answers. A US Government teacher will discuss the importance of civic education for a functioning democracy. Or a geologist might just say “‘cause rocks are cool” and that’s a fine and dandy reason. At the very least, I hope I’ve done better than a coworker who told a student that if he hated social studies, “Just wait ‘till you’ll have to take economics. Economics is the worst.” Yeah, sure, that’s a great way to prime students with a good attitude for their required courses in an already maligned field

I think though, I struggle to answer because I never considered the question important. When I went to school, I studied because I felt that I had no other choice. Then, by the time I reached college, I had developed strong enough interests that I no longer needed to put effort into the choice anyway — I would have pursued the topics that I enjoyed regardless of the opportunity to do so at a university (and as I continue to do now in a hobbyist capacity here).

So, with the students, I’m dodging the question. I give two vague hypotheticals (“Maybe…” “You never know…”) and a cutesy if cynical appeal to self-interest (“You want to make video games?”) but ignore the more fundamental problem of education:

What good does knowledge do me?

Continue reading “I know this, but what good does it do me to know?”

Removing ads and changing names

I caved and bought one of those WordPress.com plans. I’ve wanted to move away from the free system for a while now but kept putting it off out of sheer laziness. I would have preferred to use a self-hosting option but, eh, I’m starting a new job soon and don’t want to deal with any of the technical headaches that might come with managing my own site. And plus, I hardly care about extensive features or design anyway; for this silly notebook, I don’t need the greater freedom afforded by a more open system. At just a few dollars a month, whatever, I’ll take the convenience.

Most of all, I’m sick of the ads. My friends have started making a joke of sending me screenshots of the outlandish clickbait garbage WordPress hoists on my site — despite my youth-skewed content, I get so many manipulative pieces trying to trick the elderly into buying god knows what with their meager Social Security checks (or worse yet, a reverse mortgage). I just lost a grandfather to mild dementia among other accumulated diseases and don’t want any association with the advertisers that would have tried to take advantage of him.

Anyway, I’m also taking the opportunity to make a name change. The moment after I created it, I never liked the name for this site… “Marshmellow Pastel” Bleh. It feels too sappy and self-important, which was exactly the opposite of my intention when I mixed soft things and soft colors (and that stupid misspelling!). But lazy inertia preserved it so I’m finally taking my last few free days ahead of re-entering the workforce to eliminate it before busyness steals the chance. With that Real Neat Blog Award I received last week (thanks again!), I can even pretend to retire it on a high note.

For a name, I always wanted something stupid and meaningless, something that reduces everything I do here to the vain frivolity that it is. My old title was, I think, just vain.

So, taking inspiration from the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi* and an old inside joke, I’m going to re-title this place “Everything is Marshmallows!” — a name too broad to mean anything and too long to ever successfully brand which, I hope, will also gently mock my own worst impulses and keep me from the despairing excesses of the pessimistic writers that I otherwise admire (like Leopardi himself). Maybe if I keep myself in good humor, I can achieve a style closer to Girls’ Last Tour than On the Heights of Despair.

And finally, with that new job, I might need to abide by a less rigorous schedule and decrease my output — expect more of the short-form content I’ve fallen back on in the past couple months while I traveled and fewer long researched pieces. I don’t know how this site will change, but I doubt the new school will tolerate the amount of writing-desk-warming time I had at the old job. Unsettlingly, I also have a small audience now – I hope I do not disappoint.

* [From Leopardi’s own notebook, the Zibaldone: “Everything is evil. I mean, everything that is, is wicked; every existing thing is an evil; everything exists for a wicked end. Existence is a wickedness and is ordained for wickedness. Evil is the end, the final purpose, of the universe… The only good is nonbeing; the only really good thing is the thing that is not, things that are not things; all things are bad.”

Hey, cheer up Jimmy! I’d offer you some candy, if you weren’t dead.]

Halloween horror recommendation: In Light of Shadows with Izumi Kyoka

Cover scan via Google Books. But like I explain below, just find a paperback.

[Something different for Halloween, but quick and insubstantial again because between the holiday, a funeral, and a job-search, I’ve been out and about more than usual. Bleh]

Let’s get the recommendation out of the way quick: In Light of Shadows (2005) is excellent.

To build on his first volume of Japanese Gothic Tales (1996), translator and professor of Japanese literature Charles Shiro Inouye adds three more short stories by Izumi Kyoka to the Japanese “gothic” writer’s neglected English-language corpus-in-translation.

In Japanese Gothic Tales (which I recommended last year), Inouye had an academic argument to advance regarding Kyoka’s overlooked significance in English-language scholarship of modern Japanese literature. As such, Gothic Tales offered a representative sample of Kyoka’s massive literary output: one famous story (“The Holy Man of Mount Koya”), one excellent one (“One Day in Spring”), and two shorter, weaker stories that Inouye’s superb critical essays nonetheless used to create a convincing, holistic image of Kyoka’s progress from his earliest works (“The Surgery Room”) to his later career (“Osen and Sokichi”). However, having already established Kyoka’s importance in his first volume of translations, with his second, I suspect that Inouye then had more freedom to prove Kyoka’s brilliance for this follow-up volume.

And yes, the selections from In Light of Shadows are brilliant, perhaps only beaten still by “One Day in Spring” from Japanese Gothic Tales (though I am biased; as a shinjuu genre fan, I loved that story to death).

In Light of Shadows includes three short stories:

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Escaping fantasy with the Sarashina Nikki

Image via Amazon

[Rushed and delayed by travel… sorry for late publishing. I mean this review as a direct follow-up to my post from last week, about pre-regret for my will-have-wasted hundreds of hours playing World of Warcraft Classic. Maybe I’m stretching that connection, but I’m glad to have read this book when I did]

I’ve spent the last week traveling (again, ugh, I’m tired), so I grabbed an old Japanese travel account to read along the way: the Heian-Period Sarashina Nikki, written by an unnamed Kyoto courtier identified to history only by relation to her father – the daughter of Takasue or “Lady Sarashina” – and given the fanciful title As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams by translator Ivan Morris for the 1971 Penguin English edition (Morris recommends against the earlier translation, though I am pretty indifferent to his own. I did not read the newer 2014 translation from Arntzen and Moriyuki).

As travel writing, it didn’t much capture me – the Lady maybe makes for a frustrating companion on the journey with her timid, weepy, and, above all, passive personality. But having read the book, I don’t know why Morris even introduces it as “one of the first extant examples of the typically Japanese genre of travel writing” when the autobiographical nikki – “diary” – instead focuses much more on the Lady’s stationary existence reading “tales” late into the night by lamplight (and when she does travel, she relates it to her beloved fiction, for example, imagining her favorite characters while waiting for a ferry at Uji!).

In that adjusted context then, the book becomes much more interesting for her passive personality than in spite of it by offering an early examination of the value of a life overtaken by fantasy and escapism. The Lady struggles with niggling regret (to accompany torrents of despair over more serious issues like death) that she wasted too much of her life reading frivolous fiction when she could have instead sought worldly success in the imperial court or (especially) spiritual enlightenment on the path to the Buddha. But then by the end she had me wondering: did she even consider those more noble pursuits worthwhile either?

First though, a quick annotated summary-by-quotation of the parts relevant to fantasy escapism:

Continue reading “Escaping fantasy with the Sarashina Nikki”

A quick note on Montaigne on nostalgia

Alas, Janus, you creepy double-dude
Source: Wikimedia Commons

[not a scholar, just a casual reader who read that, and wrote this, still half-asleep]

After my post last week about time and nostalgia in the anime short Daicon IV, I was glad to come across this passage about the topic while trying to put myself to sleep with Montaigne’s Essays. Via the Screech translation of Book 3, Essay 5, “On some lines of Virgil”:

I turn very gently aside and make my eyes steal away from such stormy, cloud-wracked skies as lie before me: which, thanks be to God, I can contemplate without terror but not without strain and effort; and I find myself spending my time recalling periods of my past youth:

[Quoted from Petronius’s Satyricon:] “My mind prefers what it has lost and gives itself entirely over to by-gone memories”

Let babes look ahead, old age behind: is that not what was meant by the double face of Janus? The years can drag me along if they will, but they will have to drag me along facing backwards. While my eyes can still make reconnaissance into that beautiful season now expired, I will occasionally look back upon it. Although it has gone from my blood and veins at least I have no wish to tear the thought of it from my memory by the roots.

[Quoted from Martial’s Epigrams:] “To be able to enjoy your former life again is to live twice”

I understand the sentiment, but I do not feel it myself. Like I said in the previous post, I don’t enjoy nostalgia. Maybe I’m still just too young to relate to an “old” like Montaigne. But I think it goes a little beyond that. Plenty of young people feel the creeping appeal of nostalgia and crave some idealized past (hello, HD remastered re-releases of every classic video game ever). Instead, the difference might not be one of age, but rather wealth.

Continue reading “A quick note on Montaigne on nostalgia”

Some translations of a Kobayashi Issa haiku on a child and the harvest moon

Source: Pexels public domain images

[Since I don’t have access to an English-language library out in rural Japan, I found all of the translations online so it’s a mix of serious academic efforts and maybe some more casual ones. I’ve included links, though a couple of the websites are absolute fossils that are difficult to search, so sorry about that. I didn’t realize how much I would miss Inter-Library Loan when I left university…]

Last week at my adult English conversation class (“eikaiwa”), I thought I would shock and sensationalize by presenting a bunch of middle-to-old-aged Japanese ladies with haiku in English via some of Jack Kerouac’s American “pops.” They found the idea of haiku outside of the Japanese language hilarious (seriously, they laughed at me!) and accused Kerouac of writing senryu (“no season word!”), but their surprise at the topic triggered some of the best discussion I’ve had since I started the class almost two years ago.

But better yet, after class one of my students emailed me an early 19th century poem from the haiku master Kobayashi Issa with the message “Tonight’s moon is good. Do you think so? This haiku is famous” (too bad I had already gone to sleep!). She sent me the text in Japanese, which I have transliterated and lazily translated below:

名月をとってくれろと泣く子かな

Meigetsu o (5) / totte kurero to (7) / naku ko kana (5)

harvest moon / get (bring) it! / child that cries…

You can break down the literal sentence like this: “harvest moon” is the grammatical object (を particle) of “get / bring,” an imperative verb (ろ ending) in indirect statement (と particle) to “cries,” which then modifies “child.” The last two beats with “kana” modify the whole sentence to mark uncertain thinking like an ellipsis… I suppose here you could take it as something like a gentle, thinking-out-loud observation along the lines of “Hmm…” or “Oh” or, if you want to sound fancy, a sighing lamentation like “How!” or “Alas!” As I first read it, I came up with this unpoetic line translation:

Oh child that cries… bring (me) the harvest moon!

In terms of the rules of haiku, harvest moon (meigetsu) is the season word (kigo), recalling the autumn, while that “kana” I discussed before is the formal cutting word (kireji). As I imagine it though, I like to think of “to” as an informal cutting word as well, splitting the poem into two voices: a young child making an impossible, maybe humorous demand (“gimme the moon!”) and an adult then quoting the child to make a melancholy or frustrated reply (“oh kiddo…”). But before revising my line translation to account for the haiku features, let’s see how a few other translators have rendered the poem in English:

Continue reading “Some translations of a Kobayashi Issa haiku on a child and the harvest moon”

Mummies, Dutchmen, and Death, oh my! Leopardi on dying

One of the displays of the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731), U.S. National Library of Medicine

[“Verily I am in a cold sweat!” …or in modern English, aghhh, sick again! And for what? The fourth time this year already? I’d grumble if it didn’t make my throat vibrate… a hazard of working with children, I suppose. So I’ll try something low effort this week: an annotated chapter summary. I feel like death, so let’s write about it.]

So, I finally sat down to read the 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi after spending too long picking out translations. For now, I’ve settled on the 1882 Edwardes English edition of the Operette Morali (Moral Essays) from Project Gutenberg because it’s free and online and I’m cheap and I’m lazy. They’re excellent! Despite the heavy subject matter in Leopardi’s pessimistic philosophy, the short dialogues in the Operette Morali make for some great light office reading since none of them go much beyond a couple thousand words each. But beyond the philosophy, they have some great gallows humor too, none more so than the dialogue between the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch and his “mummies” on the nature of death (of course, not like… literal mummies from Egypt or wherever, but preserved cadavers used in Ruysch’s anatomical investigations!).

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Bad poetry is good in Senryu Shoujo

Huh, there really is an anime for everything…

[This week in bad things I like anyway: the poetry in the spring 2019 anime Senryu Shoujo. It’s a fun and funny show, so even if my snob is showing regarding junk like metrical analysis, I mock the poems out of fondness. Better yet though, the mockery is part of the point! Senryu Shoujo succeeds because it doesn’t take its poems too seriously, instead incorporating them into the otherwise-bland high-school gag comedy to offer a light, loving parody of immature — and maybe even bad — would-be-poets. So, i’unno… with the recommendation and positivity out of the way, proceed with the snobbery!]

You’ve probably heard this before, right? Good artists copy, great artists steal?

It’s one of those apocryphal quotes that shows up everywhere but never seems to have a consistent form. Maybe Pablo Picasso said it about artists, or William Faulkner said it about writers, or Igor Stravinsky said it about composers? — none of those, nope! T.S. Eliot said it about poetry, in print even, from his 1921 collection The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

I won’t pretend to know what makes a good or bad poem with the same confidence as Eliot, so I’ll defer to his expertise here (plus, every aphorism has its opposite: Eliot may have made “something different” out of a line from writer W.H. Davenport Adams: “The great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil”). However, can we at least agree that the first poem from episode one of Senryu Shoujo might deserve an “immature” classification? As rendered by the official subtitles on HIDIVE, followed by the Japanese, a transliteration, and a line-by-line translation:

As the cherry blossoms bloom / I’m so happy / That we met

桜咲く君との出会いが嬉しくて

sakura saku / kimi to no de-a-i ga / ureshikute

cherry blossoms bloom / the meeting with you / is happy

Continue reading “Bad poetry is good in Senryu Shoujo”