&: 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.