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Introduction to My Postwar Life
by Elizabeth McKenzie

I fell in love with Japanese literature preparing for a trip with my parents in the seventies.  Academic librarians were on the move in those days, because they were sharing ideas about the future and books and how to organize them, and because my father was this kind of librarian at UCLA we were having Nigerian and Fijian and Australian and other assorted librarians over for dinner, and if we were going to Japan it meant the librarians there were ready to entertain us as well.  My father checked out a canonical stack for me before we left—Ibuse, Endo, Soseki, Osamu, Oe.  Library automation was the subject in those days, every book to be indexed in phlegm-colored, boulder-sized computers about to bury the card catalogues in an unstoppable avalanche, but upon our arrival in Kyoto, business with our hosts meant feasts with sake for the grownups and a milky, suspect drink for us kids called Calpis.  Without meaning any harm, those librarians took us to a family bath, and my sister and I hid in the dressing room, sobbing as our parents dragged us in for a fascinating cultural experience.  I remember what we had to shed; my sister’s nylon smiling cat-head blouse spilled to the floor like a victim.  Our mother said the librarians had spent a week’s salary taking us around so we should be grateful whatever happened, and so we were.  In our hotel, I was reading a New Directions paperback of Mishima’s Death in Midsummer.  I didn’t understand what the young couple had to do for money in “Three Million Yen.”
            My readings led me into a house-of-mirrors Japan, constructed by writers rather than politics or geography, mysteriously ethereal yet earthy. There was a quality of expressive opacity to these writings; I couldn’t tell if this was due to the once-removed quality of translation or to some distinctly Japanese habit of mind.
            Keijiro Suga, Professor at Meiji University, recognizes “translational poetics” in his essay “Translation, Exophony, Omniphony:”

A language is not fully alive when translated into another.  Half-dead, it gives a new life to the host language.  Its original meaning becomes distorted and somewhat obscure, but at the same time the translated form is charged with an aura of discovery and excitement in a new environment.

            Maybe in this “distorted” language I found something approximating my own struggles with expression, of needing to translate my own mind through the act of writing. In my early efforts I mimicked that slightly skewed opacity as a tool for accessing what felt like the real “me” in narrative form, as if coaxing a skittish spirit through hypnotic means.
            This identification with Japan and its translated literature continues.  Recently I’ve enjoyed the cheerful strangeness of Yoko Tawada, the matter-of-fact brutality of Natsuo Kirino, the twisted fury of poet Kaneko Mitsuharu, the slyness of Shotaro Yasuoka, and the stark realism of Kenji Nakagami.  Haruki Murakami remains a favorite, book after book.  I have three new novels sitting on my desk: Yo Hemmi’s Gush, Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru, and Choukitsu Kurumatani’s The Paradise Bird Tattoo (or, Attempted Double-Suicide), variously billed as “bizarre,” “surreal and grotesque,” and “quietly reflective and bitterly gritty.”  I’m eager to see how it’s been done.
            I’m also looking forward to sitting down with Manoa’s new issue Living Spirit: Literature and Resurgence in Okinawa, devoted to Okinawan writers including Shun Medoruma, Tami Sakiyama, Eiki Matayoshi and Ben Takara. In his Editor’s Note, Katsunori Yamazato, Professor at University of the Ryukyus, writes:

Okinawan writing has been largely marginalized or subsumed in the larger category of Japanese literature. Okinawan literature, however, is not a subordinate category but a literature with its own history, traditions, and sensibilities. It stands on an equal basis with Japanese and other world literatures.

            In the spirit of demarginalizing Okinawan literature, and of celebrating its resurgence, we pull it from under the umbrella of Japanese literature in our title to stand freely on its own.

(Note: The Ryukyu islands, generally referred to as Okinawa, were unified under the independent Ryukyu kingdom in 1429.  Invaded in 1609 by the Satsuma clan of southern Kyushu, the Ryukyus were annexed by Meiji Japan in 1879. Many Okinawans resented Japanese rule.  After invading Okinawa in 1945 in the bloodiest land battle of the Pacific war, the U.S. assumed control over the territory.  Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, though there remains a major US military base to this day.) 

            In 2010, in Japan on a Japan-US Friendship Commission fellowship with my husband and children, I researched the long shadow of the war for a novel. And though I wasn’t in the loop with librarians anymore, we were meeting people equally concerned with books who helped us assemble material for the journal I co-edit, Chicago Quarterly Review. Poets, fiction writers, politicians, photographers, playwrights, activists and academics kindly offered their creations to this project; soon it was clear we had more than a simple issue on our hands.  And so this becomes the first anthology to be published by Chicago Quarterly Review Books. 
            Many pieces in this volume were translated for the first time for us. “Don’t Arrogate, Hiroshima,” a controversial essay by former Nagasaki Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima to oppose the World Heritage designation for the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 1996, appears in English here for the first time, as does the poetry of Okinawan activist Ben Takara, in whose poem “Gama” we found our thematic base and book’s title, “Park City,” a play about Hiroshima’s latent memories by experimental playwright Masataka Matsuda, a story and essay on Okinawan language by Tami Sakiyama, an essay on the fin de siecle Japanese working student in America by Takayuki Tatsumi, an essay by Mari Kotani on Yaoi culture, and poetry by Korean Kim Shi-Jong, born and educated under Japanese rule.  The diary of Noboru Tokuda, soldier in the Imperial Army, appears with special thanks to Mineo and Sanae Tokuda of Kyoto for befriending us and sharing this personal object. 
            Translators Carl Nommensen, Kyoko Nommensen, Kyoko Yoshida, James Dorsey, Ikue Kina, Ryuta Imafuku, Joel Klotz and Sakae Fujita have made this possible.
            Master photographer Shomei Tomatsu’s retrospective, Hues and Textures of Nagasaki, was published in 2010 by the Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum and provides us with fourteen of Tomatsu’s iconic photographs. Ryuta Imafuku’s accompanying essay, “Nagasaki. And Scattered Islets of Time,” previously translated by Waku Miller for the retrospective, explores many of the postwar themes which thread through this collection.
            Some of the writings have been translated by the authors, such as the wistful work of Katsunori Yamazato (“The Silver Motorcycle”) and Keijiro Suga (“Walking”). Other pieces were written in English by Japanese writers: Goro Takano’s surreal story “Blast,” Kentaro Yamaki’s yearning wartime story “Last Time I Saw You,” new writer Iona Sugihara’s story “Small Fish.”  After the devastation in northeastern Japan in March of 2011, Hiroshi Fukurai, Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote about the destruction of his hometown Natori in “Disaster Memories.”
            Others pieces are by English speakers with a variety of connections to Japan. “Superflat Tokyo,” by bi-national writer and cultural critic Roland Kelts, compares the megalopolis to the artistic vision of Takashi Murakami, who coined the term “superflat” to describe the shallow emptiness of postwar Japanese consumer society. Christopher Yohmei Blasdel, artistic director at the International House in Tokyo, writes about the tragic disappearance in Japan of American poet Craig Arnold in “An Exchange for Fire.” Stewart Wachs, Associate Editor of Kyoto Journal, writes in “Dream Corridor” about a nearly supernatural call to spend his life in Japan. “The Deleted Line” from Canadian writer Deni Y. Bechard’s forthcoming story collection An Opera of War revolves around a Tokyo editor’s unraveling after he removes important language from a textbook about the devastation in Okinawa during the war. “The Atomic Survivors: A Jungian Contribution” comes from analyst Janice Nakao, Director of Social Work for the Japanese American Service Committee of Chicago.  Stephen Woodhams’ “The Emperor and the Mayor” concerns our meeting with former Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima in Nagasaki and delves into the knotty history of the mayor’s near assassination and peace activism.  “The Art of Passing Through Walls” is excerpted from a novel in both Japanese and English by prolific writer-translators Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani, about a young Japanese American ninja’s first visit to her ancestral home in Aomori.
            The inclusion of Setsuko Ishiguro, who choreographs zero gravity dances for Japanese astronauts, was a happy accident: we sat beside her on a train in Italy, this book already in the works.  The photo she showed us of her unlikely achievement seemed fated to end up here.
            In the words of Paul Yamazaki, co-founder of Reading the World, a collaboration between publishers and independent bookstores to promote literature in translation:

We are lost in a vast sea of literature unknown to us.  The barriers of language have left us rudderless in the midst of the marvelous.  To become familiar with the stories and storytellers from other parts of our planet…is a key component of being a citizen in the world today.

            When I learned that the fellowship I had received was founded by a payment from the Japanese government to the United States at the time of the reversion of Okinawa to Japan in 1972, I felt strongly moved, as if a tentacle of our fraught and complicated history with Japan and Okinawa had brushed my own cheek, and that whatever would come of my time there, it should be worthy of this legacy.
            The shared mission of producing this collection with the writers and translators whose work appears in it has been richly rewarding. The instincts must have been contagious that led my father and his fellow librarians to joyfully convene at great distances over the gathering and availability and future of books.


My Postwar Life || Catamaran Literary Reader || Chicago Quarterly Review || Stop that Girl || MacGregor Tells the World || Short Stories || Early Years ||Accolades

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