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.