Aru Otoko – A Man

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I have just finished reading the novel Aru Otoko (A Man) by Keiichiro Hirano. It has been translated into English, but I read the original Japanese version. I enjoyed it immensely. It made a change from the dark, postwar detective novels which I read in Japanese.

The book is set in the present day, and centers around a lawyer who is asked to investigate a dead man who had been using someone else’s identity. It raised some interesting questions. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to just walk out of one’s life and live the life of someone else. Would your past catch up with you? Would you slip up and get found out? Could you live the life of another person, fool everyone around you, even those you love, and not feel guilty about it?

The book also raises the question of how love relates to the past. Does the past of someone you love matter? Do you love the person in front of you, as they are now, or do you love them as an accumulation of their past experiences?

I won’t go into details (don’t want to spoil it for anyone!) but it is well worth a read.

The book made me cry at the end, something which doesn’t happen with my dark detective novels. Speaking of which, I’m going to start a new one tonight. Can’t wait!

Pessoa’s “Notes for a rule of life”

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Being self-employed, I do most things in my business myself. I am terrible with numbers, but today, I battled through and completed my tax return. The paperwork is all in Japanese, but that is not the problem – the numbers are the problem. I eventually finished it, but it took me the best part of the day. Tired, I absent-mindedly opened Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet and landed on the following passage. It made me smile! On today of all days!

“To need to dominate others is to need others. The commander is dependent.

Enlarge your personality without including anything from the outside – asking nothing from others and imposing nothing on others, but being others when you need them.

Reduce your necessities to a minimum, so as not to depend on anyone for anything.

It’s true that such a life is impossible in the absolute. But it’s not impossible relatively.

Let’s consider a man who owns and runs an office. He should be able to do without his employees; he should be able to type, to balance the books, to sweep the office. He should depend on others because it saves him time, not because he’s incompetent. Let him tell the office boy to put a letter in the post because he doesn’t want to lose time going to the post office, not because he doesn’t know where the post office is. Let him tell a clerk to take care of a certain matter because he doesn’t want to waste time on it, not because he doesn’t know how to take care of it.”

Writing – appreciating the freedom

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I started my translation career in 2004. I enjoy translating. I always wanted to be a translator, so I guess I am doing my dream job. I always wanted to be a writer too though, and started writing professionally eight years ago.

After a couple of years of translating, I was yearning to write something of my own. Yes, translation is writing, but it is restricted writing. I do commercial translation, not literary translation, so most times, the translation has to be faithful to the original, both in style and content.

I was aware that, even though I was writing, I was writing someone else’s words and thoughts. I was following their thought processes, using their vocabulary and phrasing. I didn’t feel like any of it was my own.

When I started writing as a career (graded readers for learners of English), I felt I had more freedom, but again, I was restricted. This time, it was by vocabulary and grammar, which was graded to suit the level of English learners.

I felt complete freedom when I wrote my first novel In the Shadows of Mountains. At first, this freedom was almost Sartrean. I felt uneasy, not scared, but a bit, well, kind of seasick. I could write anything. There was nothing stopping me – no one else’s ideas and words to follow, no vocabulary or grammar restrictions. It was just me, and the blank page. And whatever I wrote, I was responsible for it. As I progressed through the novel, I felt this uneasiness lifting, and I felt like I was soaring. After so long writing other people’s words, and following strict grammar and vocabulary guidelines, I was discovering my own voice. And it felt great. I can’t wait to write my next one.

Studying, not writing

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I’ve spent the weekend studying. I should be writing, as I already have most of my next novel worked out, but I’ve set myself a tough exam schedule this year. I am a Japanese/English translator, and I specialize in skincare and cosmetics, in addition to general business and tourism. The way to learn more about my specialist fields (and to get more work) is to get qualifications in them. I already have a few business, tourism, skincare and cosmetics qualifications, but this year, I’m going to take two more. I also want to add pharmacology to my specialisms, so I am planning to take three exams in that subject. All these exams are in Japanese.

As if that wasn’t enough, a passion of mine is learning languages. So I’m going to take level 3, then pre-level 2 on the French exam administered in Japan, and also the Chinese HSK level 3.

This leaves little time for writing, but I figure if I can get most of the qualifications I want this year, I can get more work next year, and also devote more time to writing. Once I have the qualifications, they are mine. No one can take them away. Work has been a bit thin on the ground because of covid, so I need to focus on building up my portfolio of clients. As much as I want to write, work has to come first.

I may not be writing physically, but the story is going around in my head, and I am adding bits to it and taking bits away. I’m making notes in my notebook. So when I do actually come to sit down and write it, it should just all come out more or less in one piece. Anyway, back to the study!

Kobayashi Takiji

Kobayashi Takiji is one of the most well-known writers of proletariat literature in Japan. He was born in Akita in 1903 into a farming family. While at school, he became interested in literature, and because of the economic hardship that surrounded him, joined the labour movement.

Kobayashi is most famous for his story “Kani Kosen”, which has been translated into English as The Cannery Boat, The Factory Ship and The Crab Cannery Ship. It tells the story of the harsh conditions endured by the men on the ship, and how they stood up to their cruel manager. He wrote it in 1929, but it really took off as a best seller in 2008, around the time of the financial crisis, when people were examining their working lives and conditions.

Kobayashi’s writings, along with his support of the banned Japanese Communist Party marked him out as a potential threat, and he was put under surveillance by the special police. He was arrested and imprisoned numerous times, before officially joining the Communist Party and going underground. The latest translation of The Crab Cannery Ship includes a story called The Life of a Party Member, which offers an insight into the lives of activists.

A special police spy infiltrated the party, and he was arrested. He died of torture at the hands of the special police on this day, 20th February, in 1933. He was 29 years old.

Nakamura Tempu – Heaven’s wind

My favourite Japanese non-fiction writer is Nakamura Tempu. The name “Tempu” can be translated as “heaven’s wind”.

Nakamura Tempu was born in 1876, and died in 1968. He is known as the founder of Japanese yoga, and as a public speaker on self-help. He began his career as a military spy in China in the Russo-Japanese War. Out of 113 spies, he was one of only 9 who made it back to Japan alive. Soon after, he developed TB, and was given months to live.In an effort to save his own life, he travelled the world in search of a cure. He enrolled in Columbia University and studied for a medical degree, and travelled to Europe. Getting no closer to a cure, he decided to return to Japan to die in his homeland.

On his way back, he met an Indian yoga master in Egypt. This yoga master took Tempu back to India with him, and for two and a half years taught him yoga and meditation. The way of life Tempu experienced more or less cured him of TB, and he lived to the age of 92. Back in Japan, he established his own association based on teachings he had learnt. His philosophy was “Shinshin Toitsu Do”, or “mind and body unification”. The organization he established is still going strong today. Over the years, Tempu’s teachings have influenced a range of people, from famous business owners, and politicians, to sports stars.

I have read most of Tempu’s books in Japanese. One of my favourite quotes from him is “okoranai, osorenai, kanashimanai” – “don’t get angry, don’t be scared, don’t be sad”. Whatever happens in life, he says we are to remember these three phrases. When times are tough, I recall these words and they have a calming effect.

Tempu believed humans are supported by six kinds of power, or energy. These are physical power, courage, the ability to judge, the ability to make decisions, vitality, and capability. Combined, these make up the life force.

If you can read Japanese, I recommend his most popular work Unmei wo hiraku (運命を拓く). As far as I know, his books have not been translated into English, but there are books about his philosophy and life. These are The Teachings of Tempu: Practical Meditation for Daily Life by H.E. Davey, and Heaven’s Wind: The Life and Teachings of Nakamura Tempu-A Mind-Body Integration Pioneer by Stephen Earle. They are well worth a read if you are looking to improve your life, or discover a new way to live!

Winter returns

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It was 18 degrees on Sunday. I thought winter was over and spring was on its way. The gentle scent of plum blossoms carried on the warm breeze, and the lake in the centre of the city was calm and deep blue. It was the perfect day to go running, which I did early in the morning.

Fast forward to today, and I am digging my car out from under the snow in -3 degrees. I had to go out this morning, and the roads were icy and slushy. I heard some cars got stuck in the snow, and caused long traffic jams. I got home safely and have spent the day working next to my heater.

Winters here have been odd for the past few years. Last year we had hardly any snow. It was the same the year before that. Three years ago, we had the worst snowfall in 35 years. I remember New Year’s Eve about 11 years ago. The snow was that bad, the power was out most of the night in the city. Not a great way to welcome in the new year.

I live on the Sea of Japan coast. It is the cold side of Japan, especially farther north from where I am. They have harsh winters. I guess I don’t have much to complain about compared to the people who live up there.

People tell me stories of when they were young – the area where I live was a “snow country”. They spent most of the winter digging out their houses and cars. It is a very rural area, and I can imagine what it was like 30 or 40 years ago, blanketed by snow for most of the winter. When it snows, the landscape is monochrome. Time seems to stop. There is a stillness and calm about the mountains, forests and rice fields. If the roads weren’t so bad, I’d make the short journey out of the city centre to the farming communities and take pictures.

Anyway, the weather forecast says it is going to be 18 degrees again on Sunday. Maybe this is our last flurry of snow for the winter. I hope so.

Advice from a Rat

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Stay underground – the lower the better.

Lie in wait.

Come out at night.

Stick to the sides,

watch out for traps.

Be quick on your feet.

Get there first and feast

before they find you.

Retreat in silence,

head down, belly full.

And if that fails,

show them your teeth.

(Copyright 2021 Heather Dixon)

No TV

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I don’t have a TV. I haven’t had one since the country changed its broadcasting system about 10 years ago. I don’t miss it. I never think “Oh I wish I had a TV”. I have so much more to do with my time than watch TV. Read, write, study languages…. how would I fit TV into my life?

A friend came round for the first time a few days ago. The first thing he asked was “Where’s your TV?”

“Haven’t got one,” I replied.

He looked at me like I was some kind of freak. “But….but….how do you get your news? What do you do when the house is quiet?” he asked.

“I have the Internet. I listen to music if I feel like it,” I said.

Apparently, he has the TV on all the time, droning away in the background. I would find that really annoying and stressful. I don’t spend my days in silence, like some kind of convent nun, cloistered away, oblivious to what is happening in the world. I listen to music when I’m not studying or working. I read online newspapers. I use social media. I have a good grasp of current affairs. I just don’t need a TV in my life.

In Japan, everyone with a TV is supposed to pay the NHK license fee. The company NHK uses to collect the money is quite persistent. “The NHK guys” (and it is always guys) visit at all hours of the day and night, demanding that you pay. They don’t believe you when you say you don’t have a TV, and say that even if you really don’t have one, you still have a smartphone, right? And that can pick up TV signals right? So you have to pay.

I’ve never checked to see if my phone can pick up TV signals. I don’t think it can. There’s no TV icon on the screen or anything. I sent the last NHK guy away, telling him I didn’t have a TV. He was back a week later, asking me if I had bought a TV yet. He doesn’t believe me. I guess he’ll be back in a few weeks or so. Is it really so unusual to not have a TV in this day and age?

The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa

Is it possible for a book to be too beautiful, too haunting, too spellbinding, to read? I hadn’t thought about that until I picked up The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Richard Zenith).

I started reading it four years ago, and I still haven’t reached the end. Not because it is extremely long, laborious or boring, but because it is just so beautiful and intense.

Fernando Pessoa (1888 – 1935) was a Portuguese writer, poet and translator. He was prolific, so prolific in fact, that he attributed his writings to heteronyms, not just pseudonyms, but “people” with histories, life stories, and their own authentic voices. He “invented” around 75 such people. Each one had their own writing style. When you read some of “their” poetry, it really is hard to believe the poems were actually written by the same person, i.e. Pessoa.

The Book of Disquiet comprises writings, passages and snippets which were left behind in a trunk when Pessoa died. I read it with a pencil in hand, to underline phrases and passages that resonate with me, or are just so beautiful to let pass by. As such, my copy is covered with pencil markings, as I mark practically everything.

I just opened the book at passage number 92. I’ve marked it. This is how it starts:

“I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. My worst sorrows have evaporated when I’ve opened the window on to the street of my dreams and forgotten myself in what I saw there.

I’ve never aspired to be more than a dreamer. I paid no attention to those who spoke to me of living. I’ve always belonged to what isn’t where I am and to what I could never be. Whatever isn’t mine, no matter how base, has always had poetry for me. The only thing I’ve loved is nothing at all. The only thing I’ve desired is what I couldn’t even imagine. All I asked of life is that it go on by without my feeling it. All I demanded of love is that it never stop being a distant dream.

In my own inner landscapes, all of them unreal, I’ve always been attracted to what’s in the distance, and the haze aqueducts – almost out of sight in my dreamed landscapes – had a dreamy sweetness in relation to the rest of the landscape, a sweetness that enabled me to love them.”

It is a book to settle down with, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, and savour.