This afternoon in Ithaca they held a memorial service for Kyoko Iriye Selden. Unfortunately, my responsibilities here in Chicago kept me from attending. I had the privilege of studying with Selden-sensei when I was a graduate student at Cornell. She was a great teacher, scholar, and translator. More than that, she was a warm, graceful, witty human being. I have been thinking of her often since the sad news of her passing away this past January.
I remember her fourth-year Japanese class, a literature seminar disguised as a language class. I took it my first year at Cornell. In one of the stories we read that year, I came across the following phrase: 「魑魅魍魎」. In my arrogance, I didn’t bother looking it up in a dictionary. Given the repeated use of the oni radical in all four characters, it obviously meant some kind of demon or ogre. I figured that was good enough for my purposes.
In class Selden-sensei happened to ask me to read aloud the passage containing those four characters. When I got to that phrase, I had to ask her the pronunciation: chimi mouryou. She told me it meant the evil spirits found in mountains and rivers, and then she asked me if I had had trouble finding it in the dictionary. I confessed that I hadn’t even tried: the phrase seemed too obscure to be worth the bother. After all, what were the odds that I would ever encounter it again?
The next class meeting Selden-sensei asked me to write chimi mouryou on the blackboard. Of course, I couldn’t. She sighed for effect. Then she handed me a photocopy of a page from another short story and asked me to read it. Lo and behold, there it was: 「魑魅魍魎」. And then she handed me a photocopy of a page from another story and told me to read it. 「魑魅魍魎」 again. And then another, and then another. Finally, with a playful grin, she said, “I’m just trying to show you how utterly common chimi mouryou is.”
I went home that evening and spent half an hour practicing writing out those four characters: 「魑魅魍魎」. I was prepared for her the next class meeting. But she never mentioned it again.
One of my homework projects for that class was a translation of Higuchi Ichiyo’s 1895 short story, “Kono Ko” (This Child). Selden-sensei as always read through my draft with remarkable care, correcting not only the Japanese but also the English style, making subtle suggestions for how to render the figurative language with more precision. Her attention to detail transcended the realm of scholarly precision; it became an ethical question. She was teaching by example about the responsibilities of being a scholar and a teacher.
Nearly twenty years later, she contacted me to ask if she could include that translation in the volume More Stories by Japanese Women Writers that she was co-editing with Mizuta Noriko. I couldn’t believe that she remembered my homework assignment after all those years. Then again, I knew that she had always treated with serious attention even the assignments of a first-year graduate student too lazy and conceited to look up vocabulary items. That was the kind of teacher she was; that was the kind of person she was.
I have several projects with looming year-end deadlines. I really should be working on those this morning. Which, of course, makes this an excellent time to devote instead to an update here. 2012 is fast winding down. What kind of year was it?
A fine and memorable one, thank you. Not without its bumps and bruises, of course, but those just help remind me that I’m alive. I end the year feeling gratitude and hope.
The first half of 2012 found me on sabbatical. In early January, I flew to Seattle for the MLA convention. I saw old friends, sat in on some good panels, caught the film “The Descendants” in a cinema across from the hotel–and accepted the Scaglione Prize for the translation I co-edited of Natsume Soseki’s Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings. Later that month, I flew up to Ann Arbor to participate in a faculty workshop, and a week later I presented a talk at another faculty seminar at Northwestern University. The month ended with Satoko and I enjoying a performance by Westside blues legend Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater at SPACE, the little-club-that-could up in Evanston.
In February, we caught Ricardo Muti conducting the CSO in Franck’s Symphony in D minor and then, a few days later, I attended the University of Chicago Folk Festival, featuring Billy Boy Arnold. The most exciting event of the month: my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, came out from Columbia University Press. I heard many nice things about it from people–to the point that I started to worry that it must not be very good. If something you write doesn’t piss anyone off, how interesting can it be? But later I heard through the grapevine that a number of senior scholars in my field hated it. I felt reassured. In late February DePaul University hosted a fun workshop based on the book for Chicago public school teachers.
On the first day of March we watched Pierre Boulez lead the CSO in a wonderful performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The next morning I was off to NYC for meetings. Then on March 10-11 I co-hosted a conference in honor of my colleague, Norma Field, who retired at the end of the 2011-12 academic year. “What March 11 Means to Me” brought together an amazing group of public intellectuals from Japan for personal and philosophical reflections on the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster: Amamiya Karin, Komori Yoichi, Ryusawa Takeshi, Takahashi Tetsuya, and Yokoyu Sonoko. The following week, I traveled to Toronto for the AAS annual meeting, where I chaired a roundtable discussion on the 1950 wire recordings of Japanese performers in concert in Sacramento (more on those anon).
In April, I was back in NYC for a lecture at Columbia University. While there, I saw the acclaimed revival of “Death of a Salesman” with Philip Seymour Hoffman and caught up with a few old friends. Back in Chicago, we attended a lively concert by Rodrigo y Gabriela and a fine performance by the Alvin Ailey dance company a few days later. Later in the month, I drove up to the Twin Cities to visit family and friends, catching a Twins game while there and a Beloit Snappers minor-league game on the drive home. During the month, I also finished up an article on Natsume Soseki’s conception of world literature, which appeared in the May/June issue of the Iwanami Shoten journal Bungaku.
On May Day I joined the protest march that started out from Union Park and made its way past the site of the Haymarket Massacre (the historical origin of May Day) before ending at a rally downtown. A few days later, we caught a live performance by one of my favorite musical discoveries of the year: Kids These Days. The group manages to combine rock, funk, jazz, and hip hop and make it all work; their debut album Traphouse Rock came out later in the year and was one of my favorite records of 2012.
Later in May I attended the Atomic Age II conference at Chicago. It featured a keynote address from Koide Hiroaki, one of the most important critics of Japan’s “nuclear village.” The next day, we joined a group to visit the nature preserve in the western suburbs where the remains of Chicago Piles 1 and 2 (the world’s first nuclear reactors) are buried. Later in the month we caught a surprise cameo appearance by Ray Davies at a public television benefit concert, and then I was off to Tokyo for a quick one-week visit. During that trip, I attended the May sumo tournament, met a number of scholars, visited libraries and bookstores, and stopped by an exhibit of photographs by Mike Nogami. After coming back to Chicago, I survived the NATO conference shut-down of the city, dragged the kids to the reunited Beach Boys concert at the Chicago Theater, and enjoyed a Millenium Park performance by Kelly Hogan (another key musical discovery of the year). We ended the month by catching Court Theater’s production of “Angels in America” with Larry Yando’s memorable turn as Ray Cohn.
As June began, I flew to Los Angeles to join in the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. It was lovely to catch up with old friends from UCLA, and while there I got to meet and chat briefly with one of my childhood heroes, Daniel Inouye (RIP, Senator Inouye). It turned out that he was one of the 442nd veterans involved in inviting Misora Hibari to Hawaii in 1950 for a charity concert–which led in turn to the 1950 Sacramento concert recordings. Another quick trip to Minnesota followed, and I was back home to catch the last day of the Chicago Blues Festival, including an uplifting headliner set by Mavis Staples. During June we also caught the CSO a couple times, including an eye-opening public rehearsal led by Ricardo Muti, and we visited the Roy Lichtenstein exhibit at the Art Institute. But the cultural highlight of the month was the acclaimed production of “The Iceman Cometh” at the Goodman Theater, with an ensemble cast so strong that the supposed stars, Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane, mostly just blended into the scenery.
July is when things really got busy. I’ll write about the second half of the year tomorrow. In the meantime, I really should get hopping on those year-end projects….
Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding (2011). The much-celebrated debut novel tracing the sentimental education of a promising young shortstop for the Westish College baseball team. I think I came to this a victim of inflated expectations; it’s a good novel, yes, with two or three marvelously constructed characters and a handful of scenes that spring vividly to life as you read them (the last page, for example). But these come embedded in 500+ pages of text. It’s as if F. Scott Fitgerald had launched his career with The Beautiful and the Damned instead of This Side of Paradise.
Marvin Sterling, Babylon East: Performing Dancehall, Roots Reggae and Rastafari in Japan (2010). A compelling experiment in multi-sited ethnography: what happens when Jamaican music travels to postmodern Japan? And what happens when its Japanese devotees start winning international sound system and dancehall queen contests–including back home in Jamaica? Sterling unpacks the complexities of contemporary global discourses on race, cultural tradition, and gender.
Ogawa Yoko 小川洋子, 『妊娠カレンダー』 (Ninshin karendaa, Pregnancy calendar, 1994). Ogawa’s 1991 Akutagawa Prize winning novella, in which a younger sister narrates diary-style and with something less than complete sympathy her older sister’s pregnancy, plus two other works by one of Japan’s most popular novelists of the last two decades.
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008). I’m reading this at the insistence of my 15-year-old, but am in fact enjoying my adventures with Katniss and her rivals and friends, even as I unavoidably keep flashing back to Battle Royale.
Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve (1860). One of my current reading projects is to catch up on Turgenev, whose work was enormously influential on Meiji Japan. This novel, for example, is cited repeatedly in Tayama Katai’s “Futon” (1907), a landmark in modern Japanese fiction. I can see the attraction On the Eve held for Japanese writers: the bold and beautiful heroine Elena, the lamentations over the weakness of Russian men (the hero is a foreigner, a dashing Bulgarian nationalist eager to die for his country), and the wry social commentary that dots the narrative. The story ends rather mysteriously, though there is a suggestion of hope in the air, as the work’s title suggests. I read the classic Constance Garnett translation, first published in the 1890s: it’s probably the same version that Tayama Katai knew.
Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World (1916). Tagore’s another writer I’m catching up with, in part because I’m interested in reading him alongside his contemporary, Natsume Soseki. This one contains many Soseki-like themes: multiple narrating voices, a love triangle in which two men compete for the same woman, disputes over family property accompanied by fears of treachery and theft, with all of this personal drama played out against a social field of dramatic change and discontinuity. Tagore’s understanding of the double-edged erotics of nationalist passion is prescient: here, the desire for fraternity can shift registers in an instant to become bloodthirsty rage. The translation (by the author’s nephew, with close attention from Tagore himself) feels creaky in places, but that might say more about my limitations as a reader of Bengali fiction than it does about Tagore’s talents as a novelist. If you’re interested in this book, by the way, you should catch “Last Harvest: Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore,” a fine exhibit of Tagore’s visual art from the 1920s and 30s, on now at the Art Institute of Chicago through April 15, 2012.
Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn (2010). My father died in late 2010; this was the last book he read. Frustrated for years by a brain injury that impaired his memory and mobility, Dad had a hard time following complicated narratives, but this epic novel of the Vietnam War cut straight through the cognitive fog to reawaken the passionate reader in my father. He devoured this repeatedly in the last months of his life and it was all he wanted to talk about. Dad had a lifelong connection to the military stretching from the late 1950s, when he enlisted as a teenager in the Minnesota National Guard and then the U.S. Army, to his retirement from the Veterans Administration in the late 1990s, where he counseled ex-soldiers suffering from PTSD. In other words, he’d lived his life alongside the sort of people depicted in the novel, even though Dad never served in Vietnam. I’m about halfway through the book now. In some ways a conventional war narrative (we accompany a heterogeneous group of soldiers through a series of increasingly dangerous missions, each member of the band representing a different socioeconomic, ethnic, and regional type), it is a gripping narrative, its impact aided by the knowledge that it is based on the author’s own experiences in the war.
Greetings from Shinjuku, Tokyo. I arrived in Japan two days ago for a workshop at Waseda University. After that ends, I’ll hang around for another week or so, doing a bit of research, a bit of visiting family, and a bit of music spectating (more on that later).
In the meanwhile, I’m reminded of how Shimazaki Komako (1892-1979) had a way of surprising people by turning up when least expected. She was the model for the heroine in Shimazaki Toson’s scandalous 1919 novel Shinsei (New Life), in which the middle-aged novelist confessed to a shocking affair with his own niece. She gave birth to his child, after which her family shipped her off to colonial Taiwan to avoid the scandal.
Toson probably thought she was out of his life for good at that point. But she suddenly reemerged in 1937 when she fell seriously ill and, lacking any financial resources, ended up hospitalized in a charity ward. The media had a field day, dredging up the old scandal and contrasting Komako’s current plight to her uncle’s wealth and fame. Novelist Hayashi Fumiko took an interest in her at the time and wrote about her, and Komako herself ended up publishing an account of her life in a popular woman’s magazine, taking her uncle to task for the hypocritical way he had portrayed her and their relationship in the novel.
I wrote about all of this at some length in my book, The Dawn That Never Comes. I was under the impression that, once I’d published my account, Komako was out of my life. But she wasn’t done with me, apparently.
On the plane ride to Japan, I started reading the recently deceased Inoue Hisashi’s 2002 play, Taiko tataite, fue fuite 『太鼓たたいて笛ふいて』(Bang the drums, blow the pipes), a kind of Brechtian musical based on the life of Hayashi Fumiko, tracing her collaboration with Japanese militarism in the 1930s and her eventual self-critical awakening in the 1940s. Inoue has Komako appear as a key character: he re-imagines the nature of their relationship, having the two women meet in 1935, prior to Komako’s illness, when she was still an activist in leftist political movements. In Inoue’s script, Komako becomes a figure for the conscience of Japan as Hayashi slides into problematic complicity with fascism.
Inoue’s play was first staged just about the time time I finished writing my book. I’d thought I was the only person fascinated by Komako when I wrote about her. But according to the afterword in the Shincho Bunko edition of the play that I’m reading, Inoue had been thinking about her for years: in 1969, he submitted a scenario for NHK’s morning serial drama based on Komako’s life, only to have it rejected for being too dark in tone.
Where do you suppose she will turn up next?
Alan Merrill, leader of the legendary Japanese glam rock band Vodka Collins, will be speaking at the University of Chicago this coming Friday. Also on the bill: The Golden Cups. To RSVP for a seat, click here.
Here is Vodka Collins with the classic Merrill composition, “Automatic Pilot,” from 1972. No wonder David Bowie stole their costume designer….