7/26/19

&: Diary (8)



(July 22nd, 2019) Stayed up last night to watch the results come in for the upper house election, flipping between local stations and the BBC to watch protests in Hong Kong. The only question in the Japanese election was by how much the Liberal Democratic Party would win. They have ruled from 1955 to present, with brief breaks in 1993, and from 2009 to 2012. Despite the grip that Abe Shinzo has held on power, he hasn't been able to change much. This election failed to deliver the two-thirds majority required to revise the constitution and get a military officially going. As Abe said on TV, "Voters chose stability over disruption." Komeito, part of the LDP coalition, backed by Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist cult (or shinshukyo 新宗教, new religious movement, more neutrally, even though they've been around for eightysomething years), stood strong. The Constitutional Democratic Party, who oppose the revision of the constitution, managed to pick up some extra seats. Yamamoto Taro's new Reiwa Shinsengumi picked up a few seats, but the leader lost his seat. Japan Innovation Party, further to the right of the LDP, took their seat count from nine to fourteen. The Japanese Communist Party held onto all of their seats but couldn't win any more (or they lost one? I'm not sure). Turnout was under fifty percent. Business as usual. The shot at constitutional revision is as far away as it's always been, rejection of populism, voter apathy, most opposition parties clustered around the center (and a handful of reactionary right-wing parties), the debates about the future of the country (mostly regarding social security, pensions, demographics, sometimes the constitution and Japan's relationship with the United States and its East Asian neighbors) left unresolved, status quo. I think it's tempting to look at Japanese politics and praise the country for stability, while other developed countries are falling apart, but sitting here, it feels like the neoliberal consensus just hasn't cracked here yet—but it's got to be coming, right? Rising inequality, the string of scandals exposing the corruption of the Prime Minister's office, the power of business and political elites, hollowing out of civil society... Maybe they can hold on longer than the West... I have a very basic understanding of Japanese politics. I'm sorry. I'm always trying to wrap my head around what the hell is going on in this country. I should probably try to turn this into some kind of piece on the election, seen from one corner of East Tokyo, or something. I don't think I have it in me, though. I was surprised to see the posters for the candidates posted on the board behind the building are already gone. The Day of the Ox is coming. Buy your eel now.



(July 23rd, 2019) Fried Spam, sugarfree Monster and Copenhagen Wintergreen for breakfast. A handsome blue excavator on a lot east of Taito Ward Office. Sun came out after an early morning rain, every breath takes effort. Drenched in sweat on a walk from Shitaya to Okachimachi. Finished the translation of Qinqiang late last night. Reading and re-reading Jia's afterword to the book, his story of going through four drafts, not wanting to turn it into the publisher, and I can empathize. The translation work itself is done, but there remains a month of editing and revising. And after this, I have no idea what I will do. The money from the publisher will help, for a while, but I'm not sure what comes after that runs out.

One of the pleasures of translation is taking a book apart, each piece taken out of the machine, laid out on a sheet of white cotton, spritzed with brake cleaner, scrubbed with steel wool. The bigger themes of the book fall away. It doesn't matter so much what the author is trying to say as how the author constructs the book. Translating, instead of reading, you can't skip over a sentence or ignore an inconsistency in the text. You need to make sense of it. I spent hours, maybe days, stuck with a sentence or a paragraph in my word processor, with variations on a translation under it. If I could not make sense of it, I would start, sometimes, by translating it literally, writing out exactly what it said, then checking it back against the original. From there, I would move things around, massage it, until the meaning remained, something of the form of the original, and it communicated what I thought the original meant. I've never been good at the analytical read, dragging some bigger meaning out of a work, standard academic style, but I find I do like the close-reading of translation, the tearing down and rebuilding, putting a bit of gas in the tank, firing it up, tearing it down again when the whole thing shakes, trying again.

I spent almost a year on Qinqiang, about to spend a few more months working with Nicky and whoever edits it, making sure it's bulletproof, and I feel as if I understand it intimately. It's a unique feeling, I think. I guess it might feel like those Dafen painters, copying Van Goghs. In a way. I guess. That comparison might not work. But I sat there, copying out the author's work, rebuilding the original, separated by time and space and whatever else, trying to mimic the construction of a sentence or a paragraph or a tone, the same way they labor over brushstrokes or colors. It's going to be hard to put it away and move on to something else.



(July 24th, 2019) Scraping the bottom of the barrel with things to write about. I wanted to write something in praise of the Megurin. This is, like, my bored on a weekday in Taito tip right here. Made a note to myself that a Megurin piece could be pitched as some kind of, like, "Twenty amazing things to see along the Megurin route!" "Ride the Megurin bus to experience the charm of Tokyo's 'downtown.'" Have never successfully pitched a piece of writing on Tokyo, still, but I swear to God I've tried.

So, Megurin Bus, like the Toden Arakawa tram line that runs from Minowa to Waseda, is of limited commuter utility (but actually the Toden Arakawa is probably more useful, since you can connect down to the Yamanote on it, and go all the way from Minowa to Ikebukuro, and it is, depending on the hour, fucking packed with commuters, so I can't stand by that), and pitched now as tourist infrastructure. Now, the Toden Arakawa is a legitimate tourist attraction now. On a good summer day, you'll get crowds of tourists and locals down at the Minowa terminus or Arakawa-shakomae, midpoint, where they show off the old tram cars, taking pictures, lining up along the tracks near Otsuka-ekimae, where the train comes down the hill, or past Asukayama (I think?), where the tram goes out into traffic. (The buses on the Megurin's East-West Route are styled as old Toden trams, actually). There's that beautiful description in Norwegian Wood of the tram going through the backyards of the shitamachi or whatever, too. The Toden Arakawa is romantic. But it's a bitch to ride it, because of that. It can be at capacity with tourists. It's a pain in the ass, if you're just trying to get to Seiyu at Ikebukuro to buy peanut butter cups or whatever.

But, the Megurin, despite the "sightseeing bus" pitch, has no tourists riding it, most of the time. It's mostly retired people, cruising back home after going somewhere else in the ward. It has a confusing schedule, there's no signage in English (they have pamphlets in English, on the bus, though), and most of the routes go through places tourists are not interested in. The buses are more pleasant than simply taking the subway east from Ueno to Asakusa. They thread through the narrow streets of Taito Ward, taking wild detours through places you'd never otherwise go, and you can also simply ride it around one circuit, only a hundred yen. The buses, especially on the North-South Route are usually empty. And, forget the Japanese gaslighting you on transit efficiency, that bus is often fucking late—like, you go to get it ten times, you'll be waiting there past the scheduled time at least twice.

I went out this afternoon, nothing to do, finished all of my work for the time being, itching to be on a flight to Xi'an, too hot to walk around, big beautiful skies with fluffy white clouds, just baking fucking hot, and caught the bus in front of the post office by Uguisudani. It goes all the way up to Minowa the long way, down through Yoshiwara, across through what used to be Sanya, skirting Tamahime Park, cruising through all the old flophouses, up beside the ruined danchi in Hashiba, then down along the Sumida River, back west through Asakusa, and I got off in Okachimachi, right as all the salarymen were returning to their offices carrying their lunch, walked around the corner to Satake, went to the coffee shop with the spinning "¥210" sign, drank an iced coffee. I was looking out the window onto the shotengai, thinking about how sleepy Tokyo is. I know Tokyo is thirteen million people, almost forty million if you roll in the rest of the Tokyo metropolitan area, God knows how many if you included the entire Kanto Plain, and there are some centers of serious energy and density, but because so much of even the city proper is low-rise sprawl, especially in East Tokyo, it feels more like Winnipeg than it does Paris or Manila or Taipei. It's like Guangzhou, I guess, similarly massive, similar population, activity clustered around a few dozen hubs and the rest is low-rise sprawl (more high-rise sprawl in Guangzhou, obviously). This isn't a revelation. But you can live in some old neighborhood in Taito, and forget that the rest of the city exists. I don't remember the last time I went to Shinjuku or Shibuya or even Ikebukuro! I mean, I was talking about living a life completely cut off from the country, but I can live a life that's completely cut off from the city itself, isolate myself in a Taito Ward backstreet. That's part of the reason the influx of hotels and highrises is so annoying. I don't want to see tourists dragging rolling suitcases, because I don't live in a place where anyone would want to come—nobody goes out, nobody comes in, just idling in an East Tokyo shithole. But what can you do? Move deeper into the city, move further out, move to Ibaraki.

I ended up walking back up from Okachimachi, up beside the Taito Ward Office, sweating into my boots, back home to sit under the air conditioner.

7/18/19

&: Diary (7)



(July 15th, 2019) I make a living sitting in front of a Macbook screen and can go for days without speaking to anyone but *****, maybe a cashier at Maruetsu. I live in Tokyo but it doesn't really matter. A trip up to Adachi Ward to Kita-Senju feels like a trip to another country, even though it's only seven minutes away on the Hibiya Line. It's almost an island, I guess, separated from Arakawa by the Sumida and from the rest of Adachi by the Arakawa. Another up-and-coming neighborhood at the north end of the Hibiya Line, a place that most Tokyoites still avoid, and now the developers are putting in towers and suburbanites are buying them up. It looks like any other outer ward transit hub, but maybe with better restaurants, maybe more massage parlors, and still a bit of charm down the shopping arcades.

This city is grinding my brain to dust. This is a country where the messier parts of social interaction are stripped away, everything scripted, for the most part. I wish I could avoid that essentialist view of the country. But it's not some kind of "the character of the Japanese" thing. It has nothing to do with that. The rest of the world will look like this—maybe it already does. I wouldn't know. I never go anywhere. Social isolation is the norm in Tokyo. That is how life is structured. The idea of striking up a conversation with a stranger is unheard of. Avoid all potential conflict. There's the graph of how people meet now floating around, hockey stick for "Meeting online" but, here, there's not even that: sixty-something percent of Japanese men in their late-20s are unmarried, approaching fifty percent for men in their early-30s, and then they enter into childless marriages with emotionally distant wives that they see for a combined sixty minutes a week. The men work a hundred hours a week, spend the remaining time drinking, commuting, and sleeping, and their wives sell crocheted dog sweaters on Mercari.

This entry isn't going anywhere. I said before, I pitched a book about gentrification in East Tokyo to a publisher, who seemed interested, but they read a sample and said, "There's nobody talking in here. We have a long section with ****** ******** who works as a ******* ***** **** but she doesn't seem to add anything to the narrative. We need more voices." I'm sure it could be done, but I can't do it. I'll say it again, I miss that Chinese straightforwardness of 咱们交个朋友吧. That kind of thing can often be mercenary, at first, but it can develop into something else. But I guess there is something to be said for being left completely alone. But this is just complaining about a book pitch going nowhere and living in Tokyo. I'm sorry.



(July 16th, 2019) Raining for a week, my clothes are going moldy, a dark blue gabardine trenchcoat, coated in a thin film of greyish-green, canvas sneakers with patches of fuzz across the sides. Hung the trenchcoat under the air conditioner, watched it turn solidly blue again, a few traces of grey behind the buttons. Sky cleared and I walked all the way south to Parco Ya (stylized as PARCO_ya, which I'm not going to adopt). Whole city full of tourists, I complain again, should have gone out to Kita-Senju again. Ate a slice of banana cream pie, drank a cup of coffee at Harbs, watching Issey Miyake crepe skirts in primary colors waving gently under blasts of air conditioning. Picked up a shirt. Walked through Matsuzakaya. Whatever complaints I have about the city, I love the department stores as much as I love the narrow old arcades of Taito or Arakawa. Their time is done, especially in a place like Ueno. They must do most of their business on the ground floor, cosmetics and shoes, discount vendors... It feels lonely on the upper floors. I took a holiday last year, stayed in Ginza, only a short train ride away, spent a few days rarely leaving those big beautiful department stores, Mitsukoshi, Takashimaya, Wako... Walked back downtown through Okachimachi, through that block thick with jewelry stores, up through the Korean shops around Okachimachi, looking in the military surplus stores around the hospital, the pachinko machine companies with window displays of their latest offerings, and back to Shitaya.



(July 17th, 2019) On a walk to Maruetsu. Can see the neighborhood changing, day to day. What got taken out here? I can hardly remember. It was an empty lot for a while, exposing the corrugated tin side of the building to the south and the water-damaged stucco of the building to the north. Maybe the lot has been empty since as long as I've been here, but I seem to recall an older building there... I can't say for sure. Looks like it'll probably be a small apartment tower, just like the one they're putting in around the corner. There's another hotel going up down the road, too, following the APA that just opened up beside Maruetsu. Doesn't matter that the tourists will stop coming. That's not the program. The city is being changed for another purpose. It might be peak tourism, but the Olympics will be the beginning of a new era, with the city increasingly opened up for investment. The tourism is like an extended open house for a new, neoliberal model of Tokyo. It proves that Japan is stable, even with geopolitical tension, mild trouble with neighbors, and open for business. I guess. Just ordered the Jules Boykoff's Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games. Maybe I can sharpen these ideas into something. But how odd, I remark for the thousandth time, to live in social housing in the center of a miniature East Tokyo real estate boom, hotels and new apartment blocks going up all around. I'll be gone soon, too. Went home from Maruetsu with six tiny plastic envelopes of chickpeas to make hummus, a log of tuna, asparagus, eggplant, and okra.

7/11/19

&: Broken Wings: Jia Pingwa's Controversial Novel Explores Human Trafficking And Rural China

Broken Wings is uncompromising and brief. It is told from the point-of-view of Butterfly, a young woman who is kidnapped while working with her parents in the city. She is transported to rural Shaanxi and sold as a bride to an impoverished villager, who imprisons her in a cave. Her captor rapes her and she bears his child. The police eventually locate Butterfly and save her from the village, but she is forced to leave her child behind. Not long after, she makes the decision to return to the countryside, though much is left unclear—for both Butterfly and the reader.

When People’s Literature Publishing House put out Broken Wings ... he found himself caught in the middle of a literary controversy.


Please read: Broken Wings: Jia Pingwa's Controversial Novel Explores Human Trafficking And Rural China at SupChina.

You can also read: an earlier collection of notes on Broken Wings, some of which I drew from for the SupChina piece, Jia Pingwa fever and The Earthen Gate at Paper Republic, which covers the avalanche of Jia Pingwa novels in translation, and this entry recounting a trip to Jia's hometown earlier in the year.

I've written and thought about Jia Pingwa and recent translations of his novels quite a bit over the past year. I'm preparing a translation of Qinqiang《秦腔》with Nicky Harman, which should be out late this year or early the next, and traveled out to Xi'an to visit the author. I've got a few more pieces planned, which should appear somewhere soon, and I'm about to take another trip out to Xi'an at the end of the month.