May GLLI Blog Series: Japan in Translation, No. 25
In any form of conflict, be it a global war or family strife, children are the most deeply impacted. Literature reflects this, and Japan, so profoundly transformed by its role in global war, is certainly no exception. Many Japanese children’s creators today experienced war first-hand as children and as Japan and the world continue to prove themselves unable to learn from those painful lessons, these authors feel ever more compelled to share their stories with today’s youth. And yet good literature does not preach.
While portrayal of the horrors of conflict are unavoidable, these talented storytellers uplift those experiences into transcendence, depicting the resilience and wonder of childhood even at these worst of times. The ability to forge connections, find joy and love—those most remarkable rewards of human existence come into sharp relief when etched against the dark background of war, the basest of human practices.
Stories written in the first four decades after World War II were immediate and raw, desperately attempting to make sense of the senseless.
Akiyuki Nosaka’s Senso Dowa (published in English as The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, Pushkin Children’s Books, 2015) is a heartbreaking anthology of “war fairy tales” about characters caught up in its ravages. Nosaka is also the author of the short story “Grave of the Fireflies,” the animated remake of which was said by film critic Roger Ebert to be one of “greatest war films ever made.”
An autobiography by Tomiko Higa, The Girl with a White Flag (translated by Dorothy Britton, Kodansha USA, 2003), is about seven-year-old Tomiko as she makes her way through the battlefields of Okinawa.
Otona ni Narenakatta Otototachi ni (“To my Little Brother Who Never Had a Chance to Grow Up,” Kaiseisha, 1983) by graphic and stage artist Masakane Yonekura, is an outstanding picture book depicting the author’s guilt over the death of his baby brother. While this title is not available in translation, Yonekura has told his tale at schools around the world, and the text is studied at Japanese junior high schools.
For older readers is Kike Wadatsumi no Koe (published in English as Listen to the Voices from the Sea, by the Japan Memorial Society for the Students Killed in the War—Wadatsumi Society and translated by Midori Yamanouchi and Joseph L. Quinn, University of Scranton Press, 2000), a collection of letters, diaries, and poems left behind by college students torn from their studies to fly wooden planes into enemy ships in a last-ditch effort by a crazed government during the final days of World War II. As these youths knowingly went to their meaningless deaths, they left behind these words for their loved ones—not idealism or hatred towards an enemy, but rather tender, brave thoughts of love and longing for family, lovers, and a country so unrecognizably changed.
Suito (meaning “Water Bottle,” Holp Shuppan, untranslated) by Kenshin Shinzato, is a graphic novel about the Himeyuri high school girls, the majority of whom perished while nursing soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa. They are memorialized at the Himeyuri Peace Museum.
After the 1980s, Japan’s children’s literature veered away from war-related themes, but they reappeared in the last 10 years. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution forbade Japan from ever again engaging in war. Yet a “reinterpretation” passed in July 2014 allowed Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to use force beyond its borders. Those who create for children responded to this threat in subtle ways.
In 2013, Hayao Miyazaki released The Wind Rises, an animated film about Jiro Horikoshi, the chief engineer who invented several fighter planes, including the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. While not specifically about or against war, the tale illustrates how an idealistic youth who only wished to create something “beautiful,” instead provided Imperial Japan with one of its most lethal weapons in World War II. It is based loosely on the doomed love affair in Tatsuo Hori’s 1937 novelette The Wind Has Risen, which is available in translation in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature.
A picture book written by Seizo Tashima: Boku no koe ga kikoemasuka (“Can you hear my voice?”), was recommended by the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award Jury. Despite scant text and simple artwork, it conveys an unforgettable and accurate portrayal of why world peace continues to prove so elusive. It is not available in translation.
And finally, Eiko Kadono, the winner of the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award, has written a poignant semi-autobiographical novel called Tonneru no Mori 1945 (“The Tunnel of Trees 1945,” not yet translated.) It is told in the voice of Iko, a 10-year-old girl evacuated to rural Japan to avoid the Tokyo bombings.
Every day, Iko must navigate a dark and spooky “tunnel” of trees on her way to school. Her father encourages her to pray to an ancient gravestone that watches over her path and to conquer her fears by becoming “friends” with the forest. To make friends, Iko announces herself to the trees as she runs through the tunnel as quickly as she can.
Little by little, the war robs Iko of all that she holds most dear. But when Iko’s stepmother brings out the last and most precious of her kimonos to exchange for food, Iko begs to try it on before it is sold. She is able to find joy in a brief moment of make-believe.
What shines through all these stories is the remarkable resilience of children to find joy and love and connection in a world at war, even while it conspires against them.
Come back tomorrow for more on Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Eiko Kadono, by translator Lynne E. Riggs
Sako Ikegami can lay claim to various titles (clinical pharmacist, medical translator/writer, children’s book reader), but best enjoys working with young adult books. She aspires to bridge her two cultures, American and Japanese, by translating children’s literature in both. She has translated the Michael L. Printz Award winner First Part Last by Angela Johnson into Japanese, and translated the story “Hachiro” by Ryusuke Saito for Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories.
David Jacobson organized this series on Japanese literature in translation. He is the author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, a 2017 NCTE notable poetry book. A longtime journalist, David has written news articles and TV scripts that have appeared in the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times and on CNN and Japan’s NHK. Since 2008, he has worked with Seattle book publisher Chin Music Press. An experienced Japanese translator, he is on the board of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.
And in case you missed it…
May 1: Roger Pulvers on Ishikawa Takuboku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 1)
May 2: Kathryn Hemmann on outsider stories in contemporary literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 2)
May 3: Deborah Iwabuchi on memorable translations (Japan-in-Translation, No. 3)
May 4: Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 4)
May 5: Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 5)
May 7: Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 6)
May 8: Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 7)
May 9: Librarian Ash Brown on manga in translation (Japan-in-Translation, No. 8)
May 10: Excerpt from Mori Eto’s Dive!! (Japan-in-Translation, No. 9)
May 11: Tony Malone on translations of Natsume Sōseki (Japan-in-Translation, No. 10)
May 12: Poet Michael Dylan Welch on translating haiku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 11)
May 14: Smithsonian BookDragon’s Favorites, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 12)
May 15: Smithsonian BookDragon’s Favorites, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 13)
May 16: Sally Ito on Misuzu Kaneko’s Compassionate Imagination (Japan-in-Translation, No. 14)
May 17: Frederik Schodt on The Four Immigrants Manga (Japan-in-Translation, No. 15)
May 18: Stone Bridge Press Publisher Peter Goodman (Japan-in-Translation, No. 16)
May 19: Melek Ortabasi on Japanese Literature as World Literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 17)
May 20: Selected Japanese Picture Books by Andrew Wong (Japan-in-Translation, No. 18)
May 21: Murakami translator Jay Rubin (Japan-in-Translation, No. 19)
May 22: Zack Davisson on translating sound effects in comics (Japan-in-Translation, No. 20)
May 23: Translator showdown: where manga meets the novel (Japan-in-Translation, No. 21)
May 24: Kirkus YA Editor Laura Simeon on cultural messages in Japanese picture books (Japan-in-Translation, No. 22)
May 25: Q&A with Translator Cathy Hirano on Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player (Japan-in-Translation, No. 23)
May 26: Strong Women, Soft Power by Ginny Tapley Takemori (Japan-in-Translation, No. 24)