Trends in Japan is featuring foreign residents of Japan. This month we are pleased to carry an essay written especially for Trends in Japan by author and translator Janine Beichman.
POEM PROVIDES ADVICE ABOUT IDENTITY:
A Translator Explains What a Poem Means to Her
March 20, 2002
I did not begin to study Japanese until after I graduated from college in 1964. At that time, area studies were less advanced than they are now, so such a late beginning for the study of Japanese and other "exotic" languages was the rule rather than the exception. Columbia University, where I did my graduate work, had a special program of intensive courses through which you could pack three years of language study into a year and two months (one summer and two academic terms). The language program was geared towards enabling us to do research, which meant that learning to read Japanese was stressed over writing and speaking. So when I came to live in Japan in 1969, I could not really speak Japanese and I did not know many simple things that one picks up in the course of everyday conversation. Shopping, while fascinating, was also a kind of nightmare. At the same time, though, pretending to be a Japanese housewife was fun. I bought a couple of kappogi, the traditional smock-cum-apron, found a basic cookbook, and experimented.
Language was not the only issue. I had identity issues, too. After one of the Americans I met early on announced that no matter how long you lived here the Japanese would never truly accept you, I found myself avoiding other non-Japanese. The message they might bear was too depressing. Besides, I was convinced that if I just learned Japanese well enough, I would find acceptance. Sometimes doubts crept in, though. One day I went down the slope where we lived (it was Kikuzaka, Chrysanthemum Slope, in Hongo, Tokyo) to do my shopping. In those days, you walked into your little neighborhood store, collected your stuff, paid, and then they delivered it almost instantaneously to your home. It was a wonderful system, which combined speed with neighborliness. That day, my purchases were waiting at my door when I arrived back home. But I was shocked to see that on the box, there was the notation: "Gaijin-san e," "To Ms. Foreigner." It was pretty traumatic to be plugged into that hole without being asked, and the honorific did nothing to sweeten the blow.
In the years since, I have often been made to feel foreign, but I still remember that first experience best. A few days ago, however, something unexpected happened. I was revising my translation of Ishigaki Rin's (b. 1920) wonderful poem "Hyosatsu"(Nameplates), when I realized that my feelings that first time overlapped with the sentiments she expresses in this poem. But rather than try to define what those might be, here is the poem itself, in my translation.
When you live in a place
you'd best provide the nameplate yourself.
When you abide in a space
the nameplate another affixes
never works out.
I went to the hospital and
they added "Ms" to the card on the sickroom door
"Ms Ishigaki Rin"
At a hotel
they put no name on the room
and they slam the door, the tag they hang will say
"Ishigaki Rin, Esquire."
And much they'll care what I think then.
"Ms" or "Esquire"
When you live somewhere
you'd best hang out the nameplate yourself.
And to the space where your spirit dwells
a nameplate must never be affixed
by any other hand.
Ishigaki Rin: that will do.
Of course, Ishigaki was not thinking about being labelled a foreigner. She may have been thinking about being pigeon-holed as a "life poet" or "a poet of the workplace," labels which some postwar critics pinned to her. But like all the best poetry, her poem works in more than its original context. One of the satisfactions of translation is transplanting a poem into a new context and then seeing it flower there. In this case, the poem flowered in a rather unusual way for me.
Has lived in Japan since 1969. Author or translator of six books, including studies of Japanese poets Masaoka Shiki and Yosano Akiko. Likes cats who vocalize, dogs who don't, and Anthony Trollope's novels.