The Three Languages

This is a Brothers Grimm story I had never seen before today. It involves languages and was on a translation-related blog, Transubstantiation. It also has a pope; I hear there’s one of those around these days as well. (It also involves talking with animals, which is something that seems much more charming in a fairy tale than when you see some woman on a Japanese TV program telling pet owners what their goldfish are really thinking.)

* * *

An aged count once lived in Switzerland, who had an only son, but he was stupid, and could learn nothing. Then said the father: “Hark you, my son, try as I will I can get nothing into your head. You must go from hence, I will give you into the care of a celebrated master, who shall see what he can do with you.”

The youth was sent into a strange town, and remained a whole year with the master. At the end of this time, he came home again, and his father asked: “Now, my son, what have you learnt?”

“Father, I have learnt what the dogs say when they bark.”

“Lord have mercy on us!” cried the father; “is that all you have learnt? I will send you into another town, to another master.”

The youth was taken thither, and stayed a year with this master likewise. When he came back the father again asked: “My son, what have you learnt?”

He answered: “Father, I have learnt what the birds say.”

Then the father fell into a rage and said: “Oh, you lost man, you have spent the precious time and learnt nothing; are you not ashamed to appear before my eyes? I will send you to a third master, but if you learn nothing this time also, I will no longer be your father.”

The youth remained a whole year with the third master also, and when he came home again, and his father inquired: “My son, what have you learnt?”

He answered: “Dear father, I have this year learnt what the frogs croak.”

Then the father fell into the most furious anger, sprang up, called his people thither, and said: “This man is no longer my son, I drive him forth, and command you to take him out into the forest, and kill him.” They took him forth, but when they should have killed him, they could not do it for pity, and let him go, and they cut the eyes and tongue out of a deer that they might carry them to the old man as a token.

The youth wandered on, and after some time came to a fortress where he begged for a night”s lodging. “Yes,” said the lord of the castle, “if you will pass the night down there in the old tower, go thither; but I warn you, it is at the peril of your life, for it is full of wild dogs, which bark and howl without stopping, and at certain hours a man has to be given to them, whom they at once devour.” The whole district was in sorrow and dismay because of them, and yet no one could do anything to stop this.

The youth, however, was without fear, and said: “Just let me go down to the barking dogs, and give me something that I can throw to them; they will do nothing to harm me.” As he himself would have it so, they gave him some food for the wild animals, and led him down to the tower. When he went inside, the dogs did not bark at him, but wagged their tails quite amicably around him, ate what he set before them, and did not hurt one hair of his head.

Next morning, to the astonishment of everyone, he came out again safe and unharmed, and said to the lord of the castle: “The dogs have revealed to me, in their own language, why they dwell there, and bring evil on the land. They are bewitched, and are obliged to watch over a great treasure which is below in the tower, and they can have no rest until it is taken away, and I have likewise learnt, from their discourse, how that is to be done.” Then all who heard this rejoiced, and the lord of the castle said he would adopt him as a son if he accomplished it successfully. He went down again, and as he knew what he had to do, he did it thoroughly, and brought a chest full of gold out with him. The howling of the wild dogs was henceforth heard no more; they had disappeared, and the country was freed from the trouble.

After some time he took it in his head that he would travel to Rome. On the way he passed by a marsh, in which a number of frogs were sitting croaking. He listened to them, and when he became aware of what they were saying, he grew very thoughtful and sad.

At last he arrived in Rome, where the Pope had just died, and there was great doubt among the cardinals as to whom they should appoint as his successor. They at length agreed that the person should be chosen as pope who should be distinguished by some divine and miraculous token. And just as that was decided on, the young count entered into the church, and suddenly two snow-white doves flew on his shoulders and remained sitting there. The ecclesiastics recognized therein the token from above, and asked him on the spot if he would be pope. He was undecided, and knew not if he were worthy of this, but the doves counselled him to do it, and at length he said yes.

Then was he anointed and consecrated, and thus was fulfilled what he had heard from the frogs on his way, which had so affected him, that he was to be his Holiness the Pope. Then he had to sing a mass, and did not know one word of it, but the two doves sat continually on his shoulders, and said it all in his ear.

Here’s hoping for poems

Two years ago today, right now, I was walking around central Tokyo, probably. The quake hit, we were glued to the office television, I was glued to Twitter. No phones; no contact with home until later in the evening. A walk to the Conrad to see whether the brother in law was doing all right at his 26th-floor bartending job. (He was fine. The toppled bottles of pricy booze weren’t.) A walk back to the office; another walk to Yotsuya, where I crashed for the night at my wife’s family’s place. 

I don’t have a gripping tale of survival. I have no profound things to say about an event that touched me so slightly while it killed 19,000 to the north. I look at videos like this, two years later:


And all I can do is watch as the date creeps toward March 11 and talk to my monitor and tell the people get away, get off of the coast, take your children, run. I know they don’t and I feel a fist pressing into my stomach. And that afternoon the big circle expands to envelop most of the country. All those shores with their towns and schools and children.

Two years later. My daughter has just turned six and is set to enter elementary school in the fall. Baby number two is on the way and should be greeting the outside world in around six weeks. International school tuition is a big expense and I’ve signed on for an awful lot over the next 18 years. But it’s a future I get to worry about when grieving parents in the north cannot. 

A poet generally held to be Yamanoue no Okura wrote nearly 1,300 years ago:

. . . he uttered no more the words he had spoken with each new morning;
and his life came to its end.
I reeled in agony,
stamped my feet, screamed aloud,
cast myself down,
looked up to heaven, beat my breast.
I have lost my son,
the child I loved so dearly.
Is this what life is about?

This lengthy poem (translated by Steven D. Carter as “Longing for his son Furuhi“) and the two envoys accompanying it appear in book V of the Man’yōshū. My hope is that somewhere in Tōhoku a father or mother has created something that will commemorate what Japan lost two years ago today for thirteen centuries into the future. Nothing more important can come of this.

The new guy in Tokyo

So David Lee Roth has an apartment in Tokyo now, which is unexpected, I guess. There’s a good interview with him in Rolling Stone that paints him as a pretty interesting guy with interesting approaches to music at this stage of his lengthy career. He’s attending language classes to pick up Japanese and working on remixes of old Van Halen songs. This causes angst among fans of the classic sound, apparently, to which he responds:

We’ve had great success with it already. Alex [Van Halen] and I were laughing that anybody cares at all, much less there’s a rallying cry or whatever. You just don’t change the smile on the Mona Lisa? Well, the fuck you don’t.

The “Jump” remix is available at his website. Not sure it’s as compelling as the original was when I heard it at age 13 or 14, but he’s plainly willing to stretch out in totally different musical directions, which is nice to see. The “letters in the alphabet” advice he has for younger artists in that interview is great.

He also talks a bit about life in the Big Mikan. Sounds like he’s connected and enjoying it a lot.

I went to the Sumo tournament with Konishiki as my teacher, and we went not only to the tournament, but we went to the beya, which is the gym. And we had what in music is called an encounter, question and answer, back and forth. And I asked them, “What inspires you? What compels you?” And variously one would say, “I do not want to dishonor my parents.” Another said, “I would like to be a great champion.” We went around the circle, and one of them said to me, “Dave-san, what inspires you?” I said, “Fear and revenge.” They asked, “Revenge against who?” I said, “People who have a whole lot more talent than I do and then threw it away. Sometimes friends of ours have Maserati-style talent and they treat it like a fucking lawn mower.” And they all laughed.

Worth a read. (Unlike this blog, by the way, but I’m thinking of getting back into the game of writing things to go up here. The desire waxes and wanes, but right now I think it’s waxing. So more to follow.)

Japan Echo on the Edo period

In 2003 Tokyo celebrated the four-hundredth anniversary of its designation as Japan’s political capital. In that year and the next, Japan Echo magazine commissioned a series of articles by Edo-period specialists outlining interesting and little-known details of life in and one of the world’s greatest cities of that age. They’re still available online, in all their ancient hand-crafted HTML glory.

(This is an update to an old post here; I found the rest of the pieces in the series, which are happily all online to this day. Enjoy!)

Mount Fuji in Edo Arts and Minds” (Takashina Shūji)
Though Mount Fuji has long attracted the Japanese imagination, the shift of the political center of power to Edo (today’s Tokyo) at the beginning of the seventeenth century made it much more familiar to the general populace. Easily visible from Edo, the mountain became a favorite subject of ukiyo-e artists, and demand for pictures soared as the cult of Mount Fuji spread among the general populace, along with the custom of making pilgrimages up the mountain. Edoites even built a number of replicas of Fuji within the city.

The Shôgun’s Domestic and Foreign Visitors ” (Kasaya Kazuhiko)
The Tokugawa shogunate that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867 adopted a policy of national seclusion, and domestically the country was divided into jealously guarded feudal domains. But two practices helped maintain the vitality of Japanese society during this period: the requirement that the feudal lords spend alternate years at the shōgun’s court in Edo, which helped break down regional insularity within Japan, and the custom of hosting Dutch and other foreign missions in Edo, which alleviated the country’s international isolation.

The Hard-Dying Myth of Edo Misrule ” (Mizutani Mitsuhiro)
Westerners who visited Japan in the waning years of the Edo period (1600-1868) took a generally dim view of Tokugawa shogunate and the bureaucrats who served it. Their views subsequently came to be widely shared among Japanese scholars, who saw the Edo masses as oppressed and exploited by a despotic government. In fact, however, these masses seem to have been more prosperous and happier than their European contemporaries. The shogunate’s collapse was caused not by resistance to oppression by it but by the weakness of its tax-gathering powers.

The Industrious Peasantry of Tokugawa Japan” (Saitō Osamu)
Nineteenth-century visitors to Japan were impressed with the varied skills and diligence of the Japanese peasantry. These traits were partly due to the Edo-period policies of restraining imports and promoting local production. Farming families worked hard and produced a variety of goods, and in the process they developed task-coordination abilities and a sense of self-discipline.

Marriage and Divorce in the Edo Period” (Takagi Tadashi)
The popular image of Edo-period marriage has it that husbands could divorce their wives easily at their own whim and that wives had basically no rights. This is a gross oversimplification. One major constraint was the requirement that the divorcing husband repay his wife’s dowry. And even in cases where a dowry had not been received, a husband who sought a divorce was normally required to pay a solatium. Furthermore, in practice divorces were sometimes initiated from the wife’s side.

Development of the Geisha Tradition” (Tanaka Yûko)
The word geisha literally means “an accomplished person.” In the eighteenth century it came to be used to refer to entertainers skilled in singing, playing the shamisen, and dancing. These women, were fashion leaders in Edo, and they were distinct from the courtesans (yūjo) of the Yoshiwara pleasure district. But today few girls are willing and able to undergo the rigorous training, beginning at around age 10, necessary to become guardians of this Japanese tradition.

Edo, the Original Ecocity” (Jinnai Hidenobu)
Edo, the antecedent of today’s Tokyo, grew into a major city after it became the seat of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603. The rapid development was guided by a master plan, but unlike European cities that followed geometric patterns, Edo followed a design that strongly reflected the topography and natural conditions of its site. It had an extensive system of natural and artificial waterways serving as arteries for distribution. And it developed a remarkably efficient system of recycling, with human waste providing fertilizer for the farms that fed the city.

Rakugo: Japan’s Talking Art” (Nobuhiro Shinji)
The art of comic storytelling called rakugo originated several centuries ago and continues to be popular to this day. In the Edo tradition, the kimono-clad storytellers typically use no props but a folding fan and a hand towel, and they remain seated on a cushion while acting out the parts of the story’s characters. Within these limitations they have developed a vocabulary of gestures by which they can convey a sense of motion and drama.

Law Enforcement in the Edo Period” (Yoshino Jun)
The contemporary assumption is that Edo-period (1603–1868) law enforcement was harsh and rough. Though some of the punishments were severe, the authorities in fact treated serious cases with caution, and they introduced what was probably the world’s first system of criminal rehabilitation.

A Nation of Travelers” (Kanamori Atsuko)
In the late seventeenth century Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician, wrote a detailed account of a trip from Nagasaki to Edo and back. He was particularly struck by the number of people traveling Japan’s highways. Some of them were nobles and their retainers on their way to or from the shōgun’s court in Edo, but many were commoners on pilgrimages to Ise or other shrines. Traveling was generally safe, and baggage could easily be forwarded. Even children were able to travel about the country without money, relying on charitable offerings from people along the way.

Tracing the Premodern Roots of Manga” (Tanaka Yūko)
Japanese manga (comics), alongside anime (animated films), have won wide international popularity. They also occupy a major space in contemporary Japanese life, accounting for almost 40% of printed matter published in Japan. Their origins may be traced back as far as the picture scrolls of the Heian period (794–1185). During the Edo period (1603–1868), the introduction of movable type powered a publishing boom, but the complexities of the Japanese language caused publishers to switch back to woodblock printing, a medium that facilitated the production of books combining pictures with text.

Edo Technology and the Art of Heart-to-Heart Transmission” (Suzuki Kazuyoshi)
Among the accomplishments of Edo-period Japanese technology were clocks that could tell time according to a system of variable-length hours and oil lamps that practically refilled themselves. Cutting-edge techniques from the West were refined and applied to products like these, not for just a privileged few but for the masses. The high level of local autonomy spurred progress, as domains vied with each other to increase production. And the curiosity of people of all classes supported efforts to come up with new devices.

Me and the president

Me and the president

Originally uploaded by Durf

Martti Ahtisaari is a former Finnish president and the recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He came to Japan to speak on conflict resolution and then toured the tsunami-stricken areas near Sendai. I got to tag along and interview him for around a half-hour in the van on the way back to the shinkansen station.

The interview will go up on, which is the big project keeping us busy at Japan Echo these days. I have a blog post to write about all of that. It will happen soon.