Friday, December 31, 2004

Feliz ano novo 2005!

Happy new year 2005 to my friends passes, presents, et futurs.

Spending the new year's eve at my parents home where my father's been bedridden for six and a half years, I looked at my old library from various periods of my life. There are numerous books read and unread, remembered and forgotten, and it's like covering a half-familiar terrain on a snowy day, you come across anew some remarkable passages that once gave you a strong impression of which only the impression remains and its content fading.

I took up an old copy of Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg (1903-1950), who was the Rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. I think I bought the copy in New York in 1981.

Interesting paragraphs all over.

The Hebrew word Iish, meaning "man," contains a letter "i" which is missing from the word Ishah "woman"; just as Ishah has in it an "h" lacking in Iish. / Now these two letters "i" and "h" when joined together spell out a Hebrew name for God. On the other hand, when they are deleted from Iish and Ishah respectively what remains in either case is the word Esh or "fire." / And the moral of all this? / When God, that is the hollowed and the ideal, is removed from the relationship of a man with a woman they are both transformed into consuming fires. / But when God is present between them their humanity is intact; man is man, woman is woman, and both truly husband and wife to each other. (75)

Chiasmic thinking and conjunctive disjunction (or disjunctive conjunction). This is the kind of "habit" of thinking process that is very intriguing, to me at least.

Another moment of "aha!" is this. It's an explication on what's "kosher" and what's not.

Anything edible by ritualistic standards is kosher, which means literally fit or suitable. Anything forbidden is denominated terefah; a word signifying originally a living thing that had fallen victim to a beast or bird of prey and hence unacceptable as a food, but subsequently extended to cover all unacceptable foods. (126)

What is to be eaten by human should be killed by human. It is an economy that probably in its original state supported the sort of responsibility toward the life taken. A sacrifice based on a triangle structure: the life taker, the life taken, and the observer of the interaction (who becomes at the same time the guarantor of sacredness). There is something so archaic here. Eat only what you killed. But the problem is that this principle becomes only nominal in a larger society (a consumer society); it should be brought back to the level of individuals to reestablish a primitive, serene, interspecies ethics.

R.I.P. Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag passed away and I am feeling very sorry for the delay of our publishing project. I am editing with Kojin Kondo (the Japanese translator of Sontag's On Photography) a volume called Talking to Photography, a collection of essays from a dozen critics on photography's relationship with language. It was to be published early 2004, but one thing led to another and it's not done yet.

For the volume I wrote an essay around the theme of "on Photography 25 years later," and translated Susan Sontag's short but very dense article called "On Photography: A Little Summa." It's such a pity that we couldn't show her the finished volume.

The collection starts by discussing four 20th-century foundational critics on photography: Benjamin, Barthes, Sontag, and Flusser. And it contains long interviews with the two most intelligent photographers working from Japan: Naoya Hatakeyama and Chihiro Minato. We are hoping to publish it by March 2005.

Sunday, December 26, 2004


Time running out. No festivities of holidays, yet. I couldn't even celebrate the winter solstice, the most important religious date for us the sun worshippers. I have to apologize to my mentor Rudy Anaya who showed me the way of the sun!

Earlier this month I attended a lecture given by his excellency ambassador E.E. Mtango of Tanzania, given at Meiji University, my workplace. It was fun and revealing. Africa! The vastness is there.

What intrigued me most was the word "Karibu." Sounds like the Caribbean, when transcribed into Japanese! It means "welcome" in Swahili, so Keisuke Dan taught me. Keisuke has spent some time in Kenya and was once married to a girl from Uganda, so he knows some Kiswahili. It's a language I like to pick up along with Malay, another language of commerce. Together they would come in very handy for any coastal navigations.

Four more days to end this year 2004. How shall we forget all that happened in 2004? And all that we hoped would happen?

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Dingo the Crazy Heater

Dingo as you know is the wild dog living in the Australian outback. I haven't seen one alive though. I'd love to when I get a chance to spend a night somewhere in the middle of the island-continent.

Recently my friend Kan Nozaki translated Christian Gailly's very jazzy French novel: Un soir au club. In it appears a cat named Dingo, which I automatically took to mean the wild dog, but I was wrong. In French it means "the crazy one", coming from the adjective "dingue," which comes from a tropical disease that causes a very high fever.

I have given my former books titles with "dog," "wolves," and "coyote" in them. Logically, the next book will have a dingo in it, if not a chihuahua or a French bulldog. But I don't know. So far I haven't had much interaction with dingoes anywhere, not in Australia nor in Paris!

In my anthropology course I assigned last week reading of Marvin Harris's Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture (1985). Some people hate Harris, but I find him very readable and fun, even when I don't agree with his ideas. In it he talks about how Australian aboriginal treat dingoes. They go out and catch a litter of puppies, killing their mother dingo, then take them home and pet them until they grow up. There is a very practical purpose for keeping them: they are good to sleep with when it's cold. Hence the name of a pop group I grew up listening to in the seventies----Three Dog Night.

When dingo-puppies grow up, they are dismissed from the heating role, and go back wild. Or sometimes they are eaten like Hawaiian poi dogs. How sad. They reproduce in the wilderness, hunted, and the next generation puppies are again captured to serve as living heaters.

Even more interestingly, the aboriginal used mixed-blood dogs for specific purposes. Crossbreeds between the dingo and the hounds (the greyhound, wolfhound, elkhound) were used to hunt kangaroos. Those between the dingo and the welsh corgi (my, my) were used to hunt smaller preys (of course).

Dingoes as heaters, watch dogs, friends, and occasional delicacies. If it's possible one day I'd very much like to keep and raise a puppy-dingo. Not for eating, but!

Monday, November 29, 2004

Talking Da Kine

Over the weekend I was so hungry for HCE, or Hawaii Creole English, and came across this site: How for talk conversational pidgin. It's at The beauty of it is that you can actually listen to the sentences!

I don't pretend I'm from Hawaii or anything, but it gives me a sheer joy to listen to all these recorded sentences. Maybe to me learning English was but a process to reach the universe of Pidgin!

Friday, November 26, 2004

Pidgin and Literature

Gave a talk last evening in Kyoto on Pidgin (Hawaiian Creole English) and literature. It was set in the context of a series of lectures on the Japanese diaspora sponsored by Ritsumeikan University. I began by giving examples from Bradajo to give the audience a rough idea of what Pidgin is, then moved on to discuss Japanese-American writers such as Milton Murayama, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Garrett Hongo, and Lee Tonouchi. I've already written on Hongo in my book Coyote Reading. But I think I owe each of them a chapter in a future project.

Bradajo is not an AJA, but grew up in Kauai and was one the first poets to write in HCE. I met him last year in Honolulu. Talking about him in front of a very serious audience, suddenly I wanted very much to see him again. We should invite him to Japan.

And the expression AJA. Discussed with Yutaka Yoneyama, the Americanist, about the use of the term. Yoneyama says it's seldom used in the mainland, whereas in Hawaii it once was a very common term. Need to look into this.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Asian Field (Antony Gormley)

Everybody goes "WOW!" Everybody between the ages of 3 and 81 and over. That's Antony Gormley's fabulous exhibition Asian Field. Gormley (1950-) is from London and his ongoing project is an adventure in collective collaboration. He brings in people, this time from some villages in China, to make terra-cotta statuettes of no more than 6 inches tall----and more than 200,000 of them! His show in Tokyo is now taking place in a high-school gym near Roppongi. The floor is flooded with these cray people, all looking at you with their hollow eyes. Humorous, breathtaking, laughable, and infinitely moving. Definitely one of the best art exhibitions of my life! When you see it, you'd feel like thanking Antony for bringing this vision into its materialization. Wow. This should go on in other places, with other people, toward other audiences of the silent cry of joy!

Friday, November 19, 2004

No More Grammatical Fears (Jack Kerouac)

The only Jack Kerouac book I have read through so far is The Dharma Bums. I read it about 15 years ago out of my curiosity not about Jack's prose style but about how Gary Snyder was modified into a fictional character. I liked the book, but Jack's other books such as Lonesome Traveler remain unread somewhere in my store-away boxes.

I had a copy of On the Road in my undergraduate days but couldn't read it. The style bored me or I couldn't get any grip on it when I tried. Then yesterday, I came across a recorded version of it and began listening to it and suddenly it clicked. Hey, this may be a piece of cool writing... the CD is read by Matt Dillon. His voice and rendering ring so true and fit the rhythm and style of the book's self-generating soul. I can't say I can thoroughly follow his reading; my ears are not very keen. There are words that I miss out like a bad fielder. This happens with me all time. But there is a flow with which I can drift my consciousness that becomes alert on hearing a series of unexpected words. It's absorbing, and the narrative's beginning is fascinatingly filled with a sense of longing... for CREATION.

He was simply a youth tremendously excited with life, and though he was a con-man, he was only conning because he wanted so-much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him. He was conning me and I knew it (for room and board and 'how to write', etc.), and he knew I knew (this has been the basis of our relationship), but I didn't care and we got along fine---no pestering, no catering; we tiptoed around each other like heart-breaking new friends.(...) "Man, wow, there's so many things to do, so many things to write! How to even BEGIN to get it all down and without modified restraints and all hung-up on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears..." (10)

To write is to fashion oneself is to move around is to live is to be influenced is to influence is to confluence is to converse is to cry out is to write. And again and again. This yearning for beginning is overwhelming. Maybe this time, almost at the age of Jack's death, I will read through for the first time in my life this sloppy-looking, eternally young book for the road.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Strange Days on Planet Earth

Monday evening, I saw a magnificent program on TV: Strange Days on Planet Earth, produced by National Geographic. How a storm in the Indian Ocean can blow sands off the Sahara to the Caribbean to cause the islands' children's asthma. It's really a planetary poiesis.

Where are we heading at? What planetary imaginary can help the bios to survive? This is a program I want to show in my cultural anthropology course at Meiji (this semester our subject is the environment and cultural materialism) but my video player/recorder didn't run properly. I'll have to wait for the video to come out on sale.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Memoraphilia (Akiko Tobu & Tjebbe van Tijen)

My friend Akiko Tobu's new book of photography is at the final stage of its production. It will surely be published in December. The book's title is Memoraphilia, and it's a series of photographs following the daily private life of the Dutch media artist and archivist Tjebbe van Tijen. You can take a glimpse at his artistic activities at

But Akiko's photography focuses more on Tjebbe as a person who lives, thinks, forgets, thinks about forgetting, thinking forgetting, and living loving. It's a surprisingly fresh album, filled with tender lights, warming colors, and a sense of quietude after turbulent years.

Tjebbe is also a seasoned essayist. I was fortunate enough to translate his essay "The Arts of Oneself: Eighteen Observations on Personal Memorabilia" for this volume. Talking about how one's memory and anti-memory is organized using different props, the essay makes its readers rethink and examine how they move about in their own lives using their own (each respectively) arts of forgetting and of remembrance finally to shape their own selves.

Akiko's first book The Hotel Upstairs was well received last year. It told stories and hidden beauty that filled a rather run-down apartment hotel in San Francisco. Here comes another surprise from this former-painter-turned photographer. She constantly teaches me another way to look at ordinary people's extraordinary lives. Ours, that is.

When I write, language remembers (Helene Cixous)

My Derrida-Khatibi essay now appeared in Mirai No.458. It's title is "Maghreb Boys Learning French." As I was writing, the name of another writer from a distant shore, the same side with Derrida and Khatibi, was flickering in my mind. Helene Cixous. I could easily change the title of my essay to "Maghreb Boys and Girls Learning French." Then my friend Doug Slaymaker (U of Kentucky) reminded me of a book, The Helene Cixous Reader, and the preface she wrote for it.

Doug read it as he was traveling from Lexington to Missoula with Yoko Tawada last March. Now I read it and it fills me with courage. Un courage exophone, si l'on peut dire...

Cixous writes:

Language englobes us and inspires us and launches us beyond ourselves, it is ours and we are its, it is our master and our mistress. And even if it seems to be native or national, it happily remains foreign to those who write. Writing consists first of all in hearing language speak itself to our ears, as if it were the first time. (xix)

We think we speak the English, or French, of today. But our English or French language of today is of yesterday and elsewhere. The miracle is that language has not been cut from its archaic roots----even if we do not remember, our language remembers, and what we say began to be said three thousand years ago. (xx)

When I write, language remembers without my knowing or indeed with my knowing, remembers the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, the whole of literature, each book. (xxi)

In my essay I wrote that "the logic of exophony is that of a borrower, not that of an owner." We borrow, not really knowing what we borrow. Each word is already a practical mnemotechnics. This is the kind of logic that every writer discovers, sooner or later. But didn't the Maghreb boys and girls born in the 1930s especially become aware of this fact at an early age? That's what I surmise and I think it's got to be true.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Columbus's Dog (1)

It's April 1, All Fool's Day today but what I am going to tell you is no lie: I'm leaving tomorrow. Off to Brazil. Good bye. First I'll fly to Honolulu, then to Los Angeles, on to Miami. There I'll receive a one-way airticket to Sao Paulo. What shall happen after that, I have no idea. I wanted to see you even briefly before hitting the road, but it's too late. Hope to see you again someday somewhere. Keep going strong until then. Good bye. In Tokyo it's so cold today and my head is aching like a glass bell. It's a counter attack from the cold and winter coming together. But tomorrow I'll be in Honolulu, my lovely, my town of heart. I'm so glad and thrilled I get chiles in my spine. Good bye. From there on, it will probably be like an endless summer. I saw a film today; it's called Nostalgia. The story is set in Italy and how wonderful a film it was. A Russian poet, an interpretess, Russian and Italian sounding together. The overflowing water, a maniac use of dogs. The dog is an important company for remembrance. I like all the films with dogs in it. For the moment, to me, that is the only criteria of a good movie. I also saw a preview of Godard's Prenom Carmen. Only by seeing this preview you can tell that it's as exciting as any film. But it's too late now, I can't see it. I don't know when, and where, will I come across the film on the show. Will somebody guarantee that they show Godard in Brazil, too? Good bye. If you get a chance, please do watch it. And when you watch it, give out some extra clapping and shouts for my sake.

Columbus's Dog

Columbus's Dog (1989) is my travelogue to Brazil, written for the most part in 1985 after I came home from a year in Brazil and the Caribbean, then retouched in 1988 for publication. It is my first book. It consists of 80 fragments, which I will translate in installments here on this blog. It may take some time to finish. Aux amis passes, presents, et futurs.

Saturday, October 30, 2004


Rainbow, properly speaking, should be called "after-rain" bow.

When I learned the Italian word "arcobaleno" the image that passed my mind was a pod of whales flying across the sky in a line. But it has nothing to do with "balena" (whale) but "baleno," meaning "lightning."

The Spanish "arco iris" is a radient phrase that retains rainbow's irrational iridescence.

The French "arc-en-ciel" is so matter-of-factly and Cartesian.

In Manoa where I went to graduate school, rainbows on the mauka side were always double and appeared every afternoon.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Quantas letras tem? (Antonio Tabucchi)

This morning I was reading Antonio Tabucchi's essay Autobiografie altrui: poetiche a posteriori (Feltrinelli, 2003). His father suffered from a cancer in the larynx. (This word always reminds me of both "labyrinth" and "lynx," by the way.) He lost his voice. So the father and the author: "Per due anni e mezzo dialogammo dunque in silenzio, attraverso la superficie della lavagnetta" (19).

What they used was a "lavagnetta magica," and this must be Freudian "Magic writing pad." It was a series of dialogues in silence. Then long after his father's death, one day the father appears in his dream, speaking in Portuguese that in real life the father didn't know. The impression of the father's voice remains perfectly clear sounding.

E infatti la voce evocatrice di mio padre aveva dato il via al nostro dialogo con questa domanda: "Quantas letras tem o alfabeto latino?" Cioe: "Quante sono le lettere dell'alfabeto latino?" Mi aveva interrogato in portoghese, io gli avevo risposto in portoghese, e in portoghese avevo scritto le pagine del taccuino che stava sul tavolo di quel caffe, sotto gli occhi di quel cameriere che con la sua ingenua osservazione mi aveva dato la consapevolezza di quanto andavo scrivendo. (32)

This passage is so curiously attractive to me. My father has been bedridden for over six years, after an accident in his own garden. Falling off a ladder, he hit his head hard. He has never recovered his consciousness. At his bed side I sometimes talk to him in his accent (not mine); the accent and locution of a rural fishing village in the south, which I remember mostly from my paternal grandparents. Both of them died before I was 12, but I was old enough to pick up pieces of their orality through occasional visits during the summer.

Tabucchi quotes a phrase from Diderot: "La quantite des mots est bornee, celle des accents est infinie." And he goes on to write:

Ogni lingua umana possiede la sua peculiare intonazione per rendere le emozioni che Diderot paragona ai colori dell'arcobaleno. Collera, tenerezza, angoscia, malinconia, seduzione, ironia: l'uomo esprime le sue emozioni con l'intonazione della voce. (33)

Voices and colors, emotions expressed by accents and intonations. I have always been interested in people's accent, and I will always be.

Forced Epiphanies

A major new bookstore (Junkudo) opened today in Shinjuku and I've just been there. I took up a copy of Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies and casually read the reviews at the beginning of the book. A reviewer from Los Angeles Times Book Review writes: "Lahiri's touch is delicate yet assured, leaving no room for flubbed notes or FORCED EPIPHANIES."

Hey, I like the phrase a lot. Forced epiphanies... I want my life to be filled daily with forced epiphanies! Everything is revealed at every turn of the corner, secret pieces of knowledge await every hour on the hour, and you cannot avoid the world in its totality being revealed to you; the revelation is forced on you. Your Hegelian absolute knowledge is on its way to perfection!

Forced epiphanies... come anytime! I'm here. I'll be waiting!

Lisbon (7)

Lisbon, too, was devastated once by an earthquake
And it was an unexpected chance
For urban planning, its modernization
Marques de Pombal proudly held his head up
But heaps of rubble, the ruins from the fire
Quietly remain
Like a grandfather's ghost
With his silk necktie properly worn
(In 1988 when I was here for the first time
I saw Chiado recently burned and
Still smelling of the purifying ashes)
Ghosts remain
Even when you can't see them
Even if two things cannot occupy the same space
But that becomes possible if time lags behind
From time itself
(Time after time, larmoyante, that Miles played
at Waikiki Shell, under a full moon)
If not, there would be no explanations
For apparitions of figures
For revolutions of heavenly bodies
Or why I could visit a casa de Fernando Pessoa
Yesterday, quite by chance
Near the British cemetery
When two persons stand at the same angle
In relation to the same set of books
They become one person
When two persons sit at the same angle
In relation to a piece of white paper
They enter into a struggle, the agon
Of life and death
The designated arms are pens and threads
I find out that I, too, is forver nobody
Nobody, personne, pour qui sonne
Os dias
Muito nitidos
E sem olhar.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Tall buildings shake...

As I write this, again Tokyo is shaking. In Niigata, north several hundred kilometers from Tokyo, more than 100, 000 people are evacuated and freezing in cold. May they spend (at least) nights safely and warmly.

Oh, but Japan, this archipelago we inhabit, shakes all time! I sing to myself a song by Wilco that goes: tall buildings shake, voices escape, singing sad, sad songs...

But it is so scarely, honest.

English for Witi Ihimaera

This morning I was reading Witi Ihimaera's interview (Jussawalla and Dasenbrock, eds., Interviews with Writers of the Postcolonial World, 1992) and found his following statement quite interesting:

"Luckily for Maori writers who write in English, the English word is not sacred, it's profane. English is a profane language."

To him, the foremost English-language Maori writer, Maori is a tapu language, it is sacred, and used carefully with all its inhibitions. English offers him a much freer frame and realm of work.

To me Japanese has never been a sacred language, but it has its own inhibitions, both conscious and (probably) unconscious. English comes in as a neutral medium, devoid of my own biography, by which I can explore a new terrain without too much worrying about what NOT to write. Of course my English is way too limited. Still, it gives a certain sense of freedom that is never attainable in my own so-called mother tongue.

My mother (now 77) never writes anything, by the way. I suspect she NEVER wrote anything but occasional postcards since she graduated from her pre-war girls school at 18. She had her tongue, I have my keyboard. A motherless keyboard, so to speak.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Tongan Poetics ('Okusitino Mahina)

It is 'Okusitino Mahina who initiated me to the fascinating universe of Tongan poetry. I met him in Sydney. One of the most fortunate chance encounters of my life, as I had already decided to go to Auckland in 2005 to study one or more Polynesian languages. Here is an interesting basic glossary of Tongan poetics. I can't use the macron (to designate long vowels) here; instead, I'll capitalize the long vowels.

tA (time)
vA (space)
tA-vA (time-space)
hiva kakala (song of sweet-scented flowers, i.e. love poetry)
lausipi (spoken poetry)
faiva (to beat space, i.e. performance art)
ta'anga (place of beating, i.e. poetry, language)
hiva (to mark space with voice or sound, i.e. music)
haka (to articulate bodily movement, i.e. dance)

Especially interesting is how "faiva" and "hiva" are related to each other, and how "hiva" develops into "hiva kakala."

tufunga (to beat space, material act)
tufunga lalava (lashing, literally, line-space sculpture)

This lashing is connected with the material arts of house-building and boat-building.

tufunga tAmaka (stone sculpture)
tufunga langafale (architecture, literally, house building)

'Okusitino very kindly gave me a copy of his newly published bilingual Reed Book of Tongan Proverbs (Auckland, 2004). Before he began his conference he played the nose flute. It was so impressive. I am sure this book will guide me along the way toward the rich islands of Polynesian poetics. I am already thinking about visiting Tonga in 2005.

The book's Tongan title is: Ko e tohi 'a e Reed ki he lea Tonga heliaki.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Agglutinating Banality (Jean Paulhan)

We forget a lot. Again I am a living proof.

Jean Paulhan was a great homme de lettre who is remembered today best as a defender of banality. Being banal is much more enjoyable than being great in anything he says. Being banal means that you are constantly amazed by great feats around you. A great explorer is not surprised to see what others achieve. It's not fun. It's much more fun to be surprised by unexpected accomplishments done by the others. "Personne ne peut etre a la fois interesse et interessant" (Entretiens a la radio avec Robert Mallet, 16).

Well, I began reading this book and soon realized that this was the same book that I had read 25 years ago as an undergraduate; only its title had been changed! The original title was Les incertitudes du langage (1970). Tant pis. But my memory being so bad I can enjoy the book as if it was a new-new book. One advantage for banality.

What I have totally forgotten is the fact that Paulhan was a professor of languages at "LanguesO," L'Ecole des langues orientales. As a former gold hunter in Madagascar, he could speak Malagasy fluently. He also spoke Malay and Javanese. He was a specialist of all these interesting agglutinative languages.

Another reason (mimetic, naturally) for me to pursue Malay!

Belonging (Jeannie Baker)

One of the most pleasant surprises (I had several) in Sydney in September-Spring was Jeannie Baker's Belonging. I went to the Australian Museum and there was an exhibition going on concerning local ecology; Belonging was a work exhibited.

It's basically a series of mixed-media framed paintings. They look like georamas, only not entirely three-dimensional. Painted and fabricated on the same perspective, they represent the landscape a girl sees through her own bedroom window and its diachronical transformation.

It begins when a young couple moves into their new house. The wife is pregnant. A new baby is born and this baby girl will be our heroine. The work follows the girl's growth at two-years intervals. Tracy grows up, the family's garden changes, and so does the whole neighborhood. At first (in Tracy's younger years) a rather run-down, barren, cityscape, the area transforms gradually toward green, attractive, conformable neighborhood with people's efforts. By the time she's 22 and gets married it's an eden. The work finishes with Tracy, now with her own baby and husband, moves into a new house and opens a "local plant specialist" shop called Tracy's Forest.

The work is so understated, but it gives an eloquent sense of greening of one's own local habitat. A true masterpiece filled with hope. It keeps on telling: "Your land is where you are at now. Take good care of it. " A great work of re-inhabitational imaginary!

The work is published as a book (Walker Books, 2004). If you haven't decided upon this year's Christmas presents, this will be a fine idea, c'est moi qui le dit!

Friday, October 22, 2004

Lisbon (6)

The woman enunciates di cuore
Begins a talk on Singapore
Does English traverse from here all the way to Singapore?
What an express train indeed
Singapore, Hong Kong
Penetrated by English and the capital
A visage anglais
Asian islands pierced together
Let's fall apart yes let's
Quit this busy, money-centered world
And disperse in a fugue
Ne parles pas, toi, des "Asian values"
Mon amie inconnue
Ce n'est qu'un fantasme rape
Des ideologies opportunistes
It hides something thinking it's valuable
It's an eclipse in your soul
The values promoted by the island's government
Justified her suppositions, so it seems
But all the governments confine
The refugees outside of their fine conneries
Don't they?
Now a Portuguese woman went out
She had a beautiful necklace
On her neck as beautifully shaped as Mary of Fatima
As if it was a ribbon attached to her class
Na minha casa ha uma cozinheira portuguesa
Chez moi il y a une bonne malagache
I have a swimming teacher from Sweden at home
And I used to have a dah (nursemaid) from a southern island
After finishing her compulsory education she came to live with us
She carried me on her back day in day out
Sang a strange melody
And cried
Her tears ran down on me
And I was salted like a cod in a blanket
Why was the prime minister of Singapore
So confident in his decisions?
I envy him
People become so confident, don't they
Once they learn the words such as "economics"
Or "political science"
I'd prefer meteology and mineralogy
I beg you then, friends, to carry the 21st century
I'll drop it all
I always have
Will it one day end (I should hope) such
A bedrock coated with money and confidence?

Walk, read, be alert

In my "American Indian Literature" course at Seijo University we are reading this semester Leslie Marmon Silko's immortal masterpiece Ceremony. A work of such profundity, still it is a passage like this that grasps my mind beyond any narrative importance.

They rode south with the sun climbing up in the east, making the sky bright, almost blinding. There were no clouds and the air still smelled cool. He wanted to remember the morning, bright and clear as the leaves on the little green plants which grew low and close to the sandy ground. It had the clarity of the sky after a summer rainstorm, when the dust was washed away, and the colors of the hills and the shadows of the mesas had an intensity which made everything he saw accessible, as if he could touch all of it, even the little green rabbit weed growing close to the sand, its tiny leaves clustered like stars. (78-79)

In my twenties I paid no attention to description of the landscape when reading a book. I didn't even know what a mesa was! But now, this paragraph dazzles me, makes me want to howl for the tierra encantada del Nuevo Mexico, each word shines with an almost unbearable intensity. I am already standing at my favourite point just outside of the Albuquerque of 1989.

And what makes it all the more strange is that I read this paragraph along with the quote below by Daniel Maximin, within 6 hours' time and 12 km's distance. Imagine how one's mind can be affected by such a juxtaposition! Literature, more precisely, DESCRIPTION, never ceases to surprise me. And this would have sounded thoroughly nonsensical to me if someone told me the same when I was 26.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Nature comme personnage

This semester again my graduate/undergraduate seminar at the U of Tokyo deals with Guadeloupean literature. For the past three semesters 2003-2004 we have read Maryse Conde's Traversee de la mangrove, Simone Schwarz-Bart's Pluie et vent sur Telumee Miracle and Ti-Jean L'horizon. Now we've just begun Daniel Maximin's L'isole soleil.

All through these works "nature as a character" has been very present. It's not an anthropomorphic character, of course, but an environment-agent that intervenes in human history in a peculiarly active-passive way. This needs to be articulated. Here is a quote from L'isole soleil:

Chaque fois que tu oublieras de decrire la nature tropicale non pas comme un decor, mais comme un personnage de ton histoire, qui a aussi ses revoltes et ses lachetes, qui offre trop de fleurs aux jardiniers, et trop d'anses aux caravelles, alors tu te souviendras que les pays ou il fait trop beau sont comme des ventres maternels hostiles aux renaissances. (18)

I am asked to write a little book on eco-criticism and in the process to gather some ideas on how to treat one's imaginary, represented landscapes, and actual narrative strategies used by the authors. This will be a vast terrain to cover.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Lisbon (5)

In an unfathomable accent
Men are yelling at other men
Women are swearing at their men
A new form of capitalism
Fixes the classes in a new fashion
And they don't have
The words to explain all this
Even when they talk about community
Even when they talk about communalism
Nothing is held in common
Their daily goods, the materials
That are moving toward death, the lives
That are moving toward oblivion, the words
That are materials resurrected
Materialistically speaking
Maternal kingdom
Matters of boredom
Mama eternal
The matrix of laborers

Lisbon (4)

Two buildings cut a tree
This is a pure coincidence
That I can see that tree over there
From where I am
It's there, probably a hundred meters away
It's being seen by nobody else
What a fine line
Why are we arranged in this manner
In my transparent, linear tie with the tree
And who is that young man on the podium
Must be a Spaniard
Talking in English with a strong, rolling accent
He talks about the England of Ken Loach
About the films on the working class life in the
Post-Thatcher period
The dialogues in the film are so heavily accented
I can hardly understand
What the neo-liberalism brought to the people in the UK
What the neo-conservatism brought to the people in the US
And what the UK and the US are trying to bring
The people of the world into
Now the wind begins to blow and it's getting to be chilly
I'm sitting in the last row
Near the window, as always
Why have you lived liking this position
Up until now, wherever you go
Never wanting to pariticipate in
What's going on around you?

On being Jewish

This sentence: "On Rosh Hashanah, which was also my birthday, we would listen to my father blow the shofar." This is from the late Sarah Kofman's Rue Ordner, Rue Labat (14 in Ann Smock trans.) But what is Rosh Hashanah, what is the shofar? This is the kind of nomenclature that I've been telling myself to get acquinted with.

It's so strange that I've read so many Jewish authors without really knowing how Judaism is lived day to day.

Buenos Aires (for MV)

Muito obrigado MV for sharing me your memories of Buenos Aires on the River Plate. Media lunas (croissants) and cafe cortado (coffee with milk), a very old fashioned subte (subway), nights filled with people (including children walking around at midnight), and some lines from Borges, are what I remember best. Oh, and a Jewish wedding I happened to stray into on a saturday evening... they accepted me as an uninvited guest, gave me that little cap to put on my head, I didn't understand a word of what the rabbi was saying, but it was a wonderful event.

Hitoshi Oshima has written an interesting book called The Capital of Psychoanalysis on Buenos Aires. He is a Japanese historian of ideas who lived there for several years, and during his stay he went through sessions of psychoanalysis using Spanish as a medium language. He is married to an Espanola and has a perfect command of Spanish, still it is doubtful, so people say, if psychoanalysis is ever possible in a language other than one's own mother tongue. (I am more of the opinion that there is a part of one's psyche that only a foreign language can shed light on.)

Buenos Aires has more psychoanalysts per capita than any other cities in the world including New York. Most of the psychoanalysts are Jewish, naturally, and many of them are Lacanian, I heard.

Buenos Aires, a proud city where time stopped counting itself around 1930...

Saturday, October 09, 2004


Jacques Derrida died. Now he begins his own process of sur-vivre. Finally, an age has really come to an end. I remember very well; I learned of Foucault's death in Salvador, Brazil. That of Deleuze in Tucson, Arizona. And Derrida's in Tokyo. And this came as the least surprising, as we all knew that he was very ill.

The only surprising death was died by Deleuze. I uttered a little "No!" on opening the newspaper one morning, and my then five-year old son came out of his room, saying, "Daddy, I hear a cry of anguish!" (verbatim). But, after all these years, what have I learned from them?

Hasumi Shigehiko's book Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida initiated all of us, back in the late 1970s, to these authors. It's a wicked book; it after all predicted the order of death of these three thinkers!

No mourning necessary. Let's read them anew. I will. Two words for Jackie.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Alphonso Lingis

My review of Alphonso Lingis's Dangerous Emotions (2000) now appeared in UP's October issue. The book is now translated in Japanese as Nanji no teki o aise (Love Thy Enemy). The review is rather long, but I'll rewrite it in English and put it here one of these days. I have been a big fan of Lingis since I discovered his writing with Abuses and The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common in 1994. I was to meet him in person in London in 2001 at the Dialogue & Difference conference where he was the keynote speaker, but the day before the conference was September 11 and he couldn't cross the Atlantic... More on Lingis later.

Thursday, September 30, 2004


I'm writing this time from Newtown, Sydney, on a rainy night, without a hint of summer approaching.This is my first time ever in Sydney, the lovely. When I arrived three days ago the sky was overcast, dark, drizzle, occasional blue, in a word it was all looked like Seattle. Then I said, wait a minute, this is more like Vancouver! And the biggest difference between the two is that Vancouver, BC, is much bigger than Seattle. Some encounters and meditation which I will report later as soon as I get hope. I mean, get "home"! I don't mean in any way that this city's hopeless. Actually, I am liking it immensely. Some great discoveries to follow...

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Lisbon (3)

Lisbon in autumn, apt to be cloudy
The streets were dirty, tedious, lukewarm
When at times all the clouds drifted away
You could see the blue of the sky, even at night
The walls were chipped away, blue and white
Arabic azulejos' perfection, ripe with age
Isn't this a wonder that I should
Sit with an Angolan classicist (Latin poetry)
In the lecture theater of the Faculdade de Letras
Da Universidade de Lisboa?
The window frame, sideways long
Cut the clouds
The same clouds cut by the sunshine, soldiers
Last night I saw an immense moon
Hanging on the avenue called "Liberty"
Now that was like Buenos Aires in 1984
The cemetry of Recoleta
White stones
Green candles
Girls in white
With white German shepards
And a luxurious green car
It was also a tepid
Blood-scented evening
In mid-summer, December.

Lafcadio Hearn & Maryse Conde

September 26, 1904. Lafcadio Hearn died in Tokyo. There was a symposium today at Waseda University to commemorate this. Maryse Conde of Guadeloupe gave a conference on exoticism and diasporic literatures, discussing Edwidge Danticat and Oscar Hijueros, among others. Then the Irish ambassador to Japan gave a speech. This is so funny as Hearn is almost a non-Irish! The ambassador was right in pointing out that Hearn was exotic to anybody, any place.

Had lunch later with Maryse, promised to meet again in Perth, Australia, next year. Always joyful and sensitive, she's a person whose strength of soul radiates. Richard, her husband, has finished his new translation of Frantz Fanon's Peau noire, masques blancs. It will be prefaced by Homi Bhaba and will be out any time now.

Lisbon (2)

One sunset means a dawn to another coast
Another dawn as serene as the moonrise
In rose
Like a blinking mind
Ends a day begins another
Her blink was a flash
What a bright twilight
I have already walked this endless slope before
Fifteen years ago
I had just turned thirty
This dictionary, colored grape was still new
Then after crossing so many seas
The word "squirrel"
The word "buzzard"
Still escaped my mind
No I couldn't learn them by heart
However I tried
This pavement shines beautifully
As if underneath are those words
That I failed to remember
The members of buried memories
Try look!
The moon is already floating
Like a soul
Piercing all the past nights
A pale rosario of half-memories.

Nomadic Multilingualism (Deleuze)

These days I think more and more that there is no such thing as chronological development in one's literary/intellectual life. We don't make progress. I have often felt frustrated over the years-how sophomoric--because of my lack of progress in just about everything. But this is only too natural. I am reminded of this by opening for the first time in many years (at least fifteen or so) the great book of philosophy called Dialogues (Deleuze and Parnet). There is absolutely no wonder that this is one of the books that changed me most when I first read it as an undergraduate at the end of the tedious seventies.

"Nomads have no history, They only have geography" (31). In your intellectual life you move from one topos to the other and it doesn't mean you really dig each of them. The topoi make a landscape, of which you can gain knowledge only the size of the sole oof your shoes. You stay at a point and you come to know the place well. Your memory only comes back to you when next time you revisit the same spot. Problems are constituted geographically, not chronologically.

My idea of omniphone has long been discussed by Deleuze, and admirably, in the following fashion:

We must be bilingual even in a single language, we must have a minor language inside our own language, we must create a minor use of our own language. Multilingualism is not merely the property of several systems each of which would be homogeneous in itself: it is primarily the line oof flight or of variation which affects each system by stopping it from being homogeneous (4).

In other words, multilingualism becomes interesting only when each of the languages involved begins to show self-deviation, its own minority-becoming, or clinamen.

I have long had an idea of writing a series of short monographs (probably 120 pages each in a book form) on the poets of my choice. But this surely comes from Deleuze's working method, his own "thin" monographs, of which he writes the following:

Think of the author you are writing about. Think of him so hard that he can no longer be an object, and equally so that you cannot identify with him. Avoid the double shame of the scholar and the familiar. Give back to an author a little of the joy, the energy, the life of love and politics that he knew how to give and invent (119).

Now, it's this kind of posthumous joy, its giving and taking, that so much of literature is about.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Lisbon (1)

"What is Lisbon like?"
"It's like the sea."

What a light
Waiting for today's twilight
Descend this slope endlessly
This vast, inclined plane
A globe would have roamed freely
This long slope, along the green park
To the graying place at the end
The place by the turbulent river
From there someone
Departed to cross the Atlantic
A segment of a city
Engenders another city
This planned parthenogenesis
Endangering, angel-like
Ah, but what a light
For this inclined world
For this mind that will never again
Know a lift.

Friday, September 24, 2004

A Haitian Consul

A friend of mine told me a great story about a Haitian consul. My friend, an anthropologist, was on his first trip to Haiti. He had been told in Japan that there was no visa necessary to enter the country for a short length of stay.

Now he was at the Miami airport, trying to catch a plane to the island, and there he was told that a visa was indeed required. Confused he called the Haitian consul in Miami, and the consul himself said,"I'll be there." The consul drove his own car and came immediately to the airport, took out his pen and wrote on a blank page of the anthropologist's passport in his own handwriting, admit this guy, signed such and such, Haitian consul, Miami, the date.

My friend thanked him profusely, then the consul said with a wink, "Buy me two bottles of rum (he said some specific name of the distillery) and bring it to me on your way back!"

The anthropologist told me this episode with his eternally amiable laughter, and said that he didn't fulfill the promise.

But the question remains. Was the consul really a mischievous fellow who wanted to take advantage of this opportunity for a rather trivial, selfish purpose? I kind of doubted that. Didn't the consul well know that the anthropologist would not bring him back two bottles of Haitian rum? Didn't he just say that from tenderness that the man would not feel too obliged about the great favor----much more personal than his office rightly demanded----and laugh it off as one of those jokes about the greediness of an official?

On my part, I like the consul a lot, one way or the other. If he really wanted that rum, fine, he's a jolly good fellow. And if he had in fact made that demand out of a concern for some reciprocity, knowing at the same time that his interlocutor would probably slight him for asking it, then the Haitian consul to my mind is an admirable person who can really release his own self.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Transplanting Letters (Yoko Tawada)

Translation and creation. The boundary may be blurred, but at the same time, there seems to be some irreducible differences, or unsolvable conflicts. The Japanese writer Yoko Tawada’s fascinating 1993 novella “Transplantation of Letters” (originally titled “Gaping Wounds of Alphabets”) deals at some point with such a differend. Tawada (1960-) is a very interesting writer who writes in both Japanese and German, and I will probably write a longer essay on her later. This is just a note toward that future piece.

Let’s take a look at this novella. The narrator is a woman, who stays on an island (which seems to be one of the Canary islands) to translate a story about St. George, the princess, and the dragon. The translation work doesn’t go well and the translator wonders why throughout. She’s also waiting for her friend Georg to arrive but he never comes. Nothing is clearly stated. The whole story proceeds with an atmosphere of ambiguity and absurdity that is often associated, rightly or wrongly, with Kafka.

Apart from the slowly developing story line, the novella is full of insights about the difference between so-called creative writing and translation, as well as the difference between the perception of letters in the European alphabetic languages and the Japanese. It seems that we Japanese, who are accustomed to so-called “kanji kana majiri,” a mixed-character writing of Chinese ideograms and two series of phonetic transcriptions that were invented more than a thousand years ago in Japan. This perception of letters is so natural to Japanese that we tend to notice in the Roman alphabets some peculiarities in their shapes, such as that of the letter O. When scattered around a page, the letter O lOOks like sO many hOles which you cannOt see thrOugh and give yOu the impressiOn of being so many impasses. Threatened by an ineffable anxiety, the translatOr paints the letters’ Openings in black. (Do the same if you can.)

There are places where the narrator expresses her opinion about translation. Her editor, when talking over the telephone, is told that the story she is translating is about St. George, the princess, and the dragon. The editor responds by saying that it must be rewritten to today’s taste, incorporating for example some ideas of feminism. Then the translator says: “I don’t like to solve the problem easily by rewriting like that. That’s why I chose translation as my profession instead of re-writing.” The editor doesn’t like the answer and asks further what then is so interesting about the work of translation. The translator answers, as if by a reflex, in an unnecessarily passionate tone: “Something abruptly comes out.” (41)

At another point her novelist friend tells her to write her own novel instead of just translating. According to the novelist friend a translator is never counted as an artist. To this the reaction in the translator’s mind is that she doesn’t want to write a novel or anything, that she wants to translate and she doesn’t translate because she couldn’t be a novelist. (68) Then there comes this dialogue with the post-office clerk of the island, who asks her a series of questions.

“Is there a book that’s never translated into another language?”
“Well, most of the books in this world are.”
“Is there a book of which only the translation is left, I mean a book from old days?”
“Yes. There are books of which only translations survive and the originals are lost.”
“If only the translations are left, how do you know that these themselves are not the originals?”
“Oh, that’s easy to tell. Translation is, like, itself a language. You can tell because you feel as if some pebbles were falling down on you.”
“You’d better not go to the sea.” (82-83)

I feel here that the narrator/translator is quite rightly pointing out the secret of her craft. Translation leaves you with such a physical, material sensation of unexpectedness. In the process of translation, something abruptly comes out. Some pebbles from an unknown sky will threateningly fall on you. These are the moments when language’s unexpected apparition surprises you and intervenes in your established repertoire of available words and phrases. It is the moment of transformation of the language in which the work is being written. This may also be taking place anywhere that a poet is at work. But in translation, its moment of transformation becomes crudely locatable. To me the beauty of this novella “Transplanting Letters” resides in this disclosure of truth, and seldom have I encountered a literary work that sheds light so accutely on this aspect of translation’s mechanism.

The Other Voice (2002)

Here is what I wrote in 2002 for a talk at a conference on literary translation held at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken. The school is the alma mater of the "mobile" artist Calder.

YOSHIMASU Gozo (1939-) is, to my eyes, the most intense and prolific of the contemporary Japanese poets. Wildly polyphonic and dangerously multilingual, his recent works testify to his developing poetics of the past decade, in which each piece is filled with inserted notes and other typographic innovations. Taking up his latest collection The Other Voice (2002), I will discuss his very peculiar and fascinating writing that is outrageously unique.

Let me begin with a simple fact. The central destiny of the Japanese writing is "kanji kana majiri," the mixed use of "kanji" (Chinese ideograms) and two types of "kana" (Japanese phonograms to transcribe all 51 Japanese syllables). The combination of these different systems of writing leads to a certain productivity that may be utterly unique in the world's writing culture. The modern Japanese orthography, that has been established through general compulsory education and mass media after the Meiji Restoration, serves to the kind of expressibility that is not altogether linear.

Yoshimasu, who started as an avant-garde poet of the 1960s, has also been a highly sensitive explorer of Japanese poetic traditions and linguistic conventions. Especially in the 1990s, he has come to create the kind of printed landscape (or "pagescape" if I may so call it) that no one has ever imagined before; the vastness and multilayered nature of the Japanese language seems to be fully traced in all directions. This highly experimental current of work culminated in the book The Other Voice.

There are several points to be noted, which add up to the striking typographical configuration that is blatantly apparent on each page. Let me point out three salient points:
1. Firstly, his pursuit of mixed writing characters. Not only the usual kanji, hiragana, and katakana, he uses the Roman and Russian alphabets, Korean hangul, and most interestingly, his own "man-yo gana"-like usage of Chinese characters. This may need some explanation. Man-yo gana is the peculiar usage of Chinese characters in ancient Japanese writing. Chinese ideograms are borrowed to transcribe the Japanese words, and usually the original meaning of each character is lost on the way. Yoshimasu uses Chinese ideograms in a similar way to transcribe the sound of words, yet vaguely retains the original meaning of each character. A very simple example is 居多 (there was/were). In his transcription, the word is magically turned into "there were many."
2. Secondly, his use of "rubi," small letters printed along the main line of the text. This may either designate the accompanying sound that may not be decidable without the author's specification, or express the possible hidden meaning or association that the author wants to add. The use of rubi has given much freedom to modern Japanese writing, for authors and readers alike. It had educational effects to the readers and it supplied the authors with another dimension of creativity. The use of rubi comes in very handy for authors who try to create his/her own personalized language (idiolect). Yoshimasu's abundant use of rubi has enabled him to considerably expand his imaginary horizon.
3. Finally, his use of parentheses to freely insert all the associations of intertextual resonances and actual occasions of verbal conception: where it began, how it came to him, who or what was behind the expression, etc.

Through all these devices, sounds disseminated throughout the text echo each other and respond to each other, thus initiating auto-proliferation within the textual universe. There are many instances of both semantic and phonetic skidding. What may be called "homophonic productivity" of the Japanese language is played at its limit to present polyphonic and polylogic orchestration. A good example is the case of his neologism like 蝶層 (the butterfly layer). 蝶層=聴層=鳥層(=鳥葬)With what I call "homophonic skidding," "the butterfly layer" can become "the layer of listening," "the layer of birds" that touches upon a mythological dimension, and even latent "bird burial." He also likes to use a series of words with, for example, the character 雜 (miscellaneous, mixed, hybrid, rough, crude, unknown, unnameable).  雜層/雜草/雜神/雜巾/目雜 "Miscellaneous layer," "weed," "miscellaneous, lesser gods," "rag," and "miscellaneous eyes." And we may point out the possible equation of the word 蝶層 and 雜層 in The Other Voice that designate a kind of matrix where linguistic fertilization takes place.

Written in this way, his recent texts cannot be read linearly. You cannot fully vocalize them with a single voice. Rather, it is conceived as a sort of musical score.

This said, we have to remember that he is not a poet who considers the written text as the ultimate form of literary production. Ever since his beginning as a poet, he has been a very active oral performer, and he often gives reading sessions and lectures. In a recent reading session in Tokyo, for example, he read with an assistant (Konuma Jun-ichi who is also a poet) to represent the plurality of his text. In this case, Konuma was asked to vocalize the small "rubi" letters or words within parenthesis that Konuma himself had chosen. There was also accompanying improvised music by The Jasmin Quartet, the band that played Arab music using traditional Japanese instruments such as koto and yokobue (bamboo flute).

Yoshimasu's lectures are also a highly poetic event in which he reads aloud some of his own poems. In such instances he uses repetition and stuttering, accentuation and shouting to pluralize his vocalizing self. It is very dramatic. You should go and see his stage one day!

(P.S. There will be his reading with his wife the Brazilan actress Marilia on October 3 at Pit In, Shinjuku, Tokyo.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Michael Franks at 60

This morning I was reading a book in a Mr. Donut shop when one of my all-time favourite songs began floating: "Had to get away, couldn't stand another dreary day, people with the same expression on each face, guess I needed to find a secret place..." It's Michael Franks. The song that secretly motivated me to go to Tahiti in 1992. Then the DJ said something about Franks's birthday... Sep 18, 1944, and said that he turned 60, happy birthday Michael...

Michael Franks at 60! No wonder I'm so old by now. Still my daily behavior remains the same from that of twenty years ago. Reading a book in a clean, well-lighted donut shop in Tokyo, day after day, listening to Michael Franks, wondering when I can hit the road again...

A differend: translation and creation

As a practitioner of literary translation, sometimes I wonder if translating such and such literary work has any meaning at all. Of course the work of translation offers, to myself, moments of joy----joy of discovery and enlightenment, of a surrogate creation, of the feeling of fulfillment when the work is finished and put into print. I can be content with all these alone, surely. But what about the translation's socio-historical, and linguistic scope? Is a translator's satisfaction enough raison d'etre for a translation to be produced? What actually happens when a translation is finished, materialized and circulated in search of its readers? We translators know that the translated versions do not resemble the original. This feeling of inadequacy may lure us to believe---could it be out of our guilt?---that there is something that survives translation. The work's "soul," we are tempted to say. Our faithfulness is nothing if not for an inexistent contract with such "soul" of the work. It's all the better for a translator to remain silent about what she has done.
One thing is certain, though. As I have said earlier, we empirically know that any language (langue) is constantly washed over by other languages. Given this consciousness, the minimalist answer to the question "What is translation for?" is that it serves to transform the body of a language, to let the language speak something that it has never spoken before, to inscribe the matters or emotions that have never been formulated on the visible surface of the language. If I, as a Japanese translator, can say that "This has never before been said in Japanese, nobody's seen a sentence like this in Japanese," then there should be no reason to doubt the translation's validity. But once you begin discussing in this manner, there would be no more distinction between "translation from an original" and "translation without the original," which is simply creation. A translator may aim at introducing a local transformation of his language through the act of translation. A poet aims at the same through the act of writing, which in fact is never a creatio ex nihilo. The boundary between the two cases is blurred. Literary creation is a revolution within a language. Translation, too, is a part of such creation but it flies with borrowed wings. The wings are borrowed from the original that inhabit another language. By transposing and transplanting the kind of expressions that originates in another language's words and phrases, a translation, while being nothing more than a metaphor for the original text, transforms the landscape on this side of the linguistic boundary.

Louise Bourgeois

I translated Konno Yuichi's interview with Louise Bourgeois for the new issue of the Tokyo-based art journal Yaso. While I worked on it I didn't have a chance to see Bourgeois's new works in question; her terry-cloth sculptures entitled "Obese," "Bulimic," "Anorexic." The editor-in-chief (and the journal's designer) Milky Isobe sent me the page layouts and I could see the works' images for the first time...ouf...some strong stuff here. Bourgeois's works... disturb your say the least. And that on a printed page! I don't know if I can bear to see them from near!

In other words

L'amer re-commencement toujours!

Literacy/la vie quotidienne

My half-year graduate seminar in "Comparative Culture" at Rikkyo started today. Our subjects this semester are (1) literacy and self-fashioning, (2) one's style and everyday life. I assigned reading of Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy (1982) and Michel de Certeau's Arts de faire (L'invention du quotidien, I, 1980). Almost unconsciously I chose these two titles, and then, apres coup, I realized that these are two Jesuit authors! My, my. How Buddhist I am. Both of these books were published during my undergraduate years, and I was somewhat aware of their contents at the time of their publication. Then after well more that twenty years, I am taking them up anew. Does this chronological gap mean anything? Well, maybe I'm returning to my former self in an idealized vision. Or taking up the thread that I once believed to be lost... La mer recommence toujours!

Sunday, September 19, 2004


Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912) was a teacher of Classics (Greek and Latin) and later the chair of literature at the University of Bologna, following his mentor Carducci. A poet and a Dante scholar, he also wrote poetry in Latin, knowing very well that this was a DEAD language.

I was interested in this, as a nineteenth-century Italian poet writing in Latin seemed somewhat like somebody like Natsume Soseki (1817-1916), the greatest Japanese modern novelist, writing "kanshi," poetry composed in Classical Chinese. This is the kind of culture that was lost forever after Soseki's generation. (I can only think of Ishikawa Jun [1899-1987] as a younger-generation homme de lettre who could actually compose kanshi.)

Here is what I encountered in Giorgio Agamben's essay on Pascoli:

[...] polemicizing against the proposal to abolish the instruction of Greek in schools, Pascoli writes, "the language of poets is always a dead language," and immediately adds, "a curious thing---a dead language used to give greater life to thought" (The End of the Poem, tr. Daniel Heller-Roazen, p.62.)

A dead language's power to empower comes from its distance from the currently circulating language. In this sense, we may say that the "past is a foreign country," and project this chronological distance onto the synchronic plane to tentatively conclude: a foreign language can give greater life to thought.

Of course, if a foreign word was completely meaningless to the reader, it wouldn't have such a poetic power. The kind of foreign words to be dynamically meaningful within a new context are already translated---to the degree of being half-comprehensible, half-unpenetrable.

This may turn out to be the general logic of "xenoglossia." In translational poetics, under the influence of the original, foreign text, the translated text is charged with this half-meaning, that offers itself to a variety of acceptations. Like a stranger's glossolalia, half-translated foreign words can become seeds for a heightened verbal sensitivity.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

On Students

Students are a great illumination as they never cease to ask you the kind of questions that you have secretly wished to forget. E.g.: what is literary study for?

Well, I once did ask that myself, and to this day I haven't been able to come up with an answer. Only by negative formulations can I hint at a possible answer.

It doesn't make you a better writer, it doesn't make you a better person, it may make you a better reader, but then, you may overread at any moment, etc. etc.

On Writing

Writing is so unnatural an act that you have to make it a habit to make something, or nothing, happen.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

A Mestiza at the Crossroad (R.I.P. Gloria Anzaldua)

One day in May 2004 Gloria Anzaldua passed away. Alfred Arteaga, the California Chicano poet, mentioned the news in his lecture on a rainy night in Tokyo, and I uttered a short "Ah!" That must have been an expression of surprise. But then, there is nothing to be surprised about as it is only too natural for anybody to die one day, sooner or later. Our mortality is 100 percent as it has always been.

When I went home that night I took out from my meager bookshelves a worn-out copy of her remarkable bilingual book Borderlands/La frontera. It was published in 1987 and I read it in the following year. Surely it counted among the books that irreversibly changed the course of my life.

I was first attracted by its title. "Borderland" means the territory adjacent to the frontier. When written in plural, "borderlands," it must mean "both sides" of the line, both imaginary and physical, that separates two states. On the cover there is a horizontal line just under the word "Borderlands," and below is written in italics the Spanish word "La frontera." It looks as if "the line of separation" (la frontera) served as a denominator, whereas "borderlands" in plural were placed as a numerator. The books subtitle was "A New Mestiza." Once I began reading it, I knew at once that this was a bomb masquerading as a book. It belongs with The Commnunist Manifesto, Les damnes de la terre, The Fire Next Time, or Rhizome.

Because of its language, first of all. English and Spanish are constantly pulling and tugging with each other, switching from the one to the other according to the topics, showing the kind of page-scape that I'd never seen before. Oddities do appear, such as seriously exotic names, which turns out to be the names of Aztec gods in Nahuatl. Woven and narrated in the book are the memories and reflections of and on the wild dancing and cries of the people, especially of the women, who struggle collectively to open up the space for survival between two estados unidos, those of Mexico and America, that share the longest frontera on the surface of this planet.

Being born and raised in a very poor Mexican family in southern Texas, she had to hide from her family's eyes just to read and write. Literacy was something suspicious, or considered a luxury. For her, multilingualism was a regular state of mind. Several different strains of Spanish and several different sorts of English, each of them reflecting the history, regionalism, social classes, genderization, in their vocabulary and locutions. "Two, three, four worlds" talk to you at the same time, contradicting with each other, tearing up your soul, making you willy-nilly an astute juggler of cultures!

Her subject matter is admirably reflected in her style, in her switching of languages, in her passionate rhythms. Doesn't she have a way with words, I muttered to myself, and ever since I've been hooked. Place yourself always at the crossroad, is her first and ultimate message as I received it. I don't think we need any ceremony of mourning for Gloria Anzaldua. Her voice, her style, her cultural gesture, all are alive and well and felt even stronger at this moment, in our moment and momentum of global, mass errancy, here and everywhere.

"Nobody is free to live everywhere" (Nietzsche)

"Tiens, ça fait un bail!" I said to Fred, but this Fred is no ordinary Fred. I opened a page of Nietzsche's Ecce Homo, and there! Like an unexpected weasel there is a sentence that I've been ruminating for years. I have completely forgotten that I first read this in this sublimely crazy book a quarter century ago. "Nobody is free to live everywhere." Hence, you'll have to carefully choose, his logic says.

He recommends the excellent dry air of Paris, Provence, Florence, Jerusalem, Athens. Looking back on my own itinerancy, my mind was most agile and responsive when I lived in the high deserts of New Mexico and Arizona! Maybe it's time to move on, once again. Where to? Chose certaine, la vie a Tokyo ne me sert a rien... Here, life becomes a perpetual torpor, a daily nightmare, from which you try desperately to awake.

Suspended animation. This may be a good city for a critic-consumer, but not for a fearful animal who attempts to live! And this I seem to have known very well from the beginning. Ce qui me manque, talvez, es la tierra del Nuevo Mexico, la tierra encantada...

Jimi's Blues

These days I've been listening to Jimi Hendrix's "Blues" album, that begins and ends with "Hear My Train a Comin'," over and over again. The album begins with the song's acoustic version (made famous in his biography film) and ends with its electric version (which I heard for the first time in this album.) O what consolation you get! How invigorating Jimi's guitar is! Almost seraphic... The German media theorist Friedrich Kittler is known as a big fan of Jimi's. And there are no doubt many others for whom Jimi is his/her own Zarathustra from a higher altitude!

Tooi and Kenji, or on writing omniphone in Japanese

A language is an island, constantly changing its shape, whose long coastline is being washed by the incessantly approaching and breaking waves from many other languages. Just as migrant birds come to sojourn foreign words may visit for a temporal stay, or begin to sprout there, take roots, and grow into a big grove just like a coconut incidentally washed ashore from an unknown land. In any one language resonate, at any given moment, many different languages. Such is the spirit of "omniphone" which literally means "all the sounds."

When I was ranting something like the above, a Canadian friend of mine spread her wet blanket by saying: "But isn't that the name of a telephone company or something?" What! Well, it could be. I didn't dare looking into it, as I knew I would be sorry to learn the truth. I, for one, would like to continue using the word as a general adjective following its original sense. Let's take a look at the field of literature. There are numerous cases in which a work seemingly written mono-lingually turns out to be an omniphone work in its explosive, creative spirit.

Patrick Chamoiseau called omniphone writers such writers as Dante, Rabelais, Joyce, Celine, among others. In their works are brought together many different languages, widely covering regional, historical, and social variations. They may well be called "logothetes," or the founders of languages. Each of these grand writers gathers in an unprecedented way different languages, thus making up a heterogeneous verbal agglomeration charged with an incredible creative potential. They are the trainers of savage animals, or magical gardeners of exologic plants.

Among contemporary writings in Japanese, my pick for the exemplary omniphone work is the autobiography by Masato Seto (1953-) "The History of an Asian Family" (originally published in 1998 as "Tooi and Masato," which is surely a far better title). Masato Seto is a photographer born as Tooi, the son of a former Japanese soldier who exiled in a Vietnamese community on the Thai-Vietnam border after Japan was defeated in 1945, and a woman in the soldier's host community. Years after the war was over his father decided to reveal his identity and went home to northern Japan, followed a couple of years later by his children, then his wife. Growing up, Masato loses most of the memories from his Thai childhood, let alone the languages he spoke there, until as an adult he goes back to visit the town where his family started its history. There, a graceful and moving epiphany takes place.

In Seto's writing in Japanese are resounding at the same time the Fukushima dialect (of northeastern Japan), Thai, Vietnamese, admirably reproducing the rich vastness, flavors, sounds afar, for which we have no other name but "Asia." I can't quote here passages from his dense, passionate prose (they remain mostly too weak if translated). But I can probably correctly point out the founder of his style spoken with an ardent breath, and we will know what is taking place, as far as literary history is concerned, in Seto's ecriture.

The founder's name is Kenji Nakagami (1946-92). Just as we can speak of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Edouard Glissant writing in the wake of Faulkner, we can say some contemporary writers in the Japanese language are writing from the vantage point offered by Nakagami. It was Nakagami's profusely colorful, baroque style that first hinted to me the possible trans-Asian horizon of an omniphone Japanese.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Omniphone, or miscounting languages

Sometimes an encounter with a new word can clarify what 's been on your mind. "Omniphone" in my case is one such example. I learned it from Patrick Chamoiseau (1953-), the Martinican writer, when he used it in his book Ecrire en pays dominé (1996). I'm not sure if it's his own neologism or not, but I borrowed it from him and have been using it for six years now. I may have bent its meaning a bit to accommodate what I had to say. Bending the notes a little is an usual trick of a blues guitarist, and I tend to be trapped by the possibility of such bending in anything, any time.

Martinique is a French overseas department in the Caribbean. The island has produced the volcanic poet-thinker Aime Cesaire (1913-), as well as his extraordinary disciples the late Franz Fanon (1925-61) and Edouard Glissant (1928-). The Caribbean has been a sea of conflicts for centuries, where leading European nations behaved each as each other's voracious shark. Through the colonizers' conflicts the islands came to be dominated by the English, French, Spanish, and Dutch languages, overwritten by a continuum of French-lexicon based patois, or Creole. The habitants are mostly Africans in origin, introduced for the plantation labor to raise and harvest sugar canes. The islanders of the Caribbean, the structural motor of the Atlantic triangular trade that generated the European-lead modernity, were forced to speak according to their fate either French, English, or Spanish, while sharing the same historical back ground. Oh, what a nuisance this all was, to be forced to speak the languages of their self-declaring "masters."

If this situation served the islanders to their advantage at all, it must have been their coming-into-awareness of a certain, indelible nature of language. Language is as porous as the volcanic formation; when you fall into a hole you will never fail to come out of another, at another place, in another language. Once you are out, hey, it's your neighbor island! You'll be surprised to see the people with similar faces living in a similar fashion, thinking a similar thought. Only the dominant, domineering language is different. I am forced to speak one language on my native island, but it could well have been another language, chance permitting. By now we know that it is impossible to understand the world in any one language, but a language is never comfortably stable, closed, and resistant to the waves from the outside. When you look at it closely, when you listen to its resonance, in any little language echoes the whole of this world.

The prefix "omni" means "all." Of course nobody (not even the fabulous fabricator Jim Joyce's HCE) can speak all the languages of the world. But any of us are entitled to break the stiff and tight constraints that frame the countable units of languages. "Omniphone" probably is another name for such a will to bend this accepted note of the world.

Akira Suemura's photography

Akira is a former student of mine, who is now a debutant photographer. He travels to remote places by himself, to Tibet, Mongolia, Alaska and northern Canada, lives and works with people, then takes pictures of their daily lives. Please visit He can really relate to the children, and the results are often fascinating smiles.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


I heard an interesting story about dharani. Dharani (the word must be Sanskrit) is the mantra, which you repeat endlessly until you enter an ecstatic state of non-thinking. To attain this goal the mantra itself should be void of meaning; if not it disturbs your mind and you are distracted into wandering among the same old worldly ideas. Only through the evacuation of your mind by dharani, you reach the state of mind where you can effortlessly memorize all the important verbal teachings.

An old Japanese woman was taught to repeat "abiraunken" which stands for Dainichi Nyorai (Mah avairocana). She remembered the phrase as "abura urou ka" (shall I sell oil?) and the mantra always worked greatly. A monk one day laughed at the woman on hearing her chant, and corrected that it was "abiraunken," an utterly meaningless word in Japanese. She faithfully followed the monk's teaching, and all the power of the mantra was lost.

What should we make of this? Her personal interpretation of the mantra had served perfectly to conceal the meaning, until the logical intervention of the monk made her realize that the phrase should have a "true" meaning. With this suspicion, even without knowing the meaning thereof, she fell from grace.

(J.D. Salinger had a similar sense of things when he wrote the crazy novella Franny, didn't he? )

Since I quit sleeping

It's been four days since I quit sleeping. The surrounding sounds in the morning, in the daytime, in the evening, at dawn, and the way the light shifts, all are felt vividly clear.

What surprised me most is the sudden profusion of the stars. In this too bright a sky of the night in the city, the stars are falling like they do in a desert sky. Without allowing you the time to make a prayer, lights stream. And the various suns call out to you from many distant pasts, silently.

When the dawn breaks the stars disappear, and during the day the sky shows its usual blue. But then when the sun, our sun, sets, all of a sudden, begins an astronomical fiesta. The passing commuter trains, the croaking night ravens, don't bother me a bit. Over the cactus by the window, beyond the lights of the neighboring houses and apartments, the stars dance, twinkle, laugh, and the sky is pure blue.

I don't think it's a matter of my retina or the optical nerve. Nor a matter of hope, nor nostalgia. When I looked up at a white cloud in the night sky, my dead grandfather's long-forgotten words whispered to me. "Blue, you know, is so to speak the complementary color to the being."

Brazil, Japan

This past July I went to the city of Ogaki in central Japan and the first words I heard when I stepped out of the train were in Portuguese. Pleasantly surprised, I looked around, and noticed there were more than a dozen Brazilians speaking in their own cheerful way! Some of them looked totally Japanese, some of them mixed. It seems there are more than three thousand Brazilian workers in the area. They have their own food market, bars, and a restaurant. Japan, long time believed to be a very homogenious country, is in fact being converted into a very visibly multicultural country! What a welcome change from its former tedious self...

Finishing the Singing Festival

Yesterday I finished translating La fête chantée, a book on Native American themes by the French writer J.M.G. Le Clézio. Boy, it took me some time to finish this! Le Clézio is one of the few writers whose interest in the Old Way is genuine and serious; whose vision of the world is much determined by his long-time experience of living with a tribe in Panama. The book is full of sympathy toward a world that was destroyed by the conquistadores. The long chapter on the Relacion de Michoacan tells the story of the pre-Columbine society that to our eyes looks like a parallel world displaced in time. I'm hoping the book will be published in January 2005 or so.

Monday, September 13, 2004


Places, places, promises, non-promises. There are several places on this planet that I'd definitely like to visit before I leave. Here are some;

1. Mato Grosso (Brazil)
2. Everglades (Florida)
3. Donana (Andalucia)
4. Uluru (a.k.a. Ayers Rock)
5. Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Of course, in my younger and more vulnerable days, I wanted to visit such cities as Dublin, Berlin, Geneva, etc. Now the cities I want to visit are;

1. La Paz
2. Quebec City
3. Perth
4. Cape Town
5. Bergen

Why? Don't ask me, I don't even know. Isn't it strange the way we take fancy to some objects of obscure desires?

Sunday, September 12, 2004

What the twilight says

Another day, another set of words. To be learned, then forgotten. From the debris of verbal lunacy may come out ce qui est radicalement nouveau, or may be not. But if not for the hope that one day you'll utter the language of the elements, pourquoi vivre? To hear the murmur of the world, you must first learn to utter your own murmur. Only by its echo will you locate the vibrancy surrounding you.