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I ran across this image by the talented artist Gary Kelley, and could not help but recall Abe Kobo‘s 1951 short story, “The Magic Chalk” (魔法のチョーク). In this early Abe gem, a starving artist named Argon sells off most of his possessions for food and is left with a piece of chalk. The significance of the ‘starving artist’ figure is debatable, because in 1951 most people in Japan were starving–the artist here is the everyman in this regard. The significance of Argon is far more apparent: it is a noble gas (希ガス) that takes its name from the Greek for “lazy” (hence used commonly as an inert gas), and despite being a “rare gas” in Japanese, I understand it is the most common of the noble gasses. So there you go–Argon the Idle. Nevertheless, this artist possesses a chalk that brings pictures to life. Food, money, a bed, a beautiful landscape, a beautiful–but troublingly modern–woman. In this respect, Mr. Kelley and Mr. Abe seem to be…ahem…drawing on a similar thought. But just as Abe’s story explores the eternal theme of art’s creative power–the power to create a new world, it also highlights a contemporaneous need for a regenerative force to help Japan through the post-war period.
The short story has been translated as is available, yet again, in The Showa Anthology: Modern Japanese Short Stories (Japan’s Modern Writers) (Bks.1 & 2)
Dedicated to Narihira:
arifureta kusa ni okitaru shiratsuyu de
Written by Kamo no Chōmei 鴨長明, a snubbed aristocrat, in the early 13th c., Hōjōki 方丈(often translated as Record of a Ten Foot Square Hut since a hōjō is roughly 10 sq. ft.) occupies a revered place on the NKBZ shelf, and rightly so, because it is fantastic, as I hope to demonstrate below. Let us examine the original and attempt a translation of the first (行く河) section. I have mostly followed the NKBZ.
Riding the Kyoto subway the other day, I saw some kid reading a book. The phrase 猫の国 jumped out at me, and I thought, “this has got to be Murakami.” Sure enough, 3rd volume of 1Q84. Instincts.
If you’ve never read Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness), do it. Here’s a familiar gem from dan 127:
益 is read やく here.
Someone could probably translate this in a style much more appropriate to 14th c. Japan, but it essentially means this:
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”
Kojima Nobuo (小島信夫) wrote the short story “American School” (アメリカンスクール) the same year as “Stars” (星). The similarities in tone and approach are readily noticeable. Although written in 1954, the story is set in 1948 in the midst of the US occupation of Japan. It centers on a visit of a group of Japanese teachers of English to a school run by the Occupation forces, hence the title.
The characters are archetypes and the lampooning of the contemporaneous social realities is representative of Kojima’s satiric approach. Personal relationships between the characters drive the story, the majority of which centers on a group march to the American school. Isa, a cowardly fellow who is scared to death of speaking English—yes he is an English teacher—wants only to be left alone. Yamada, a sycophant to authority and overweening jackass to everyone else, is above all an opportunist (there is a similar character in “Stars”). Yamada sees Isa as a non-hacker and desires to publicly humiliate him. Isa, in turn, despises Yamada. Michiko, the only woman in the group and very popular with the Occupation forces, sticks close to Isa, for a variety of reasons. The most apparent reason is that he has something she wants.
The Sea and Poison 海と毒薬 (1958, serialized in 1957)
Endō Shūsaku – 遠藤周作
Translated by Michael Gallagher
There are two types of sins, we are often told—the sins of commission and the sins of omission. The former are the committed through immoral actions, the latter through the failure to exercise moral actions. The former is simple enough; if you murder someone you are guilty by your action. The latter is more subtle; what if you did nothing to stop the murder? Edmund Burke once said something about “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” He might have liked this book.