On Memory: New Writing from Japan

This is the fourth issue of Words without Borders focusing on Japan (and the third supported by the British Centre for Literary Translation/Nippon Foundation partnership). For this issue we decided to focus on memory. We don’t quite remember why. It may or may not have had something to do with this being a year commemorating the beginning or end of one war or another, or it may, or again may not, have had to do with the simple fact—the one fact that we can be relatively certain of—that we have recently been made increasingly aware of the everyday failings of our own memories. While the exact origins of the decision remain unclear, we are pleased to say with the utmost certainty that, if we remember correctly, the resulting collection of diverse rememberings, misrememberings, rerememberings, forgettings, misforgettings, is if not(hing is) unforgettable, then memorable in many ways.

In Mitsuyo Kakuta’s “Memory,” an intimate yet chilling tale inspired by the Swiss/French painter Félix Vallotton’s “Le Ballon,” we learn that the secret to beauty has nothing to do with genetics or cosmetics, and has everything to do with the poetics (and politics) of remembering. The unnamed narrator in Natsuko Kuroda's “Waymarkers” recalls in detail the paper lanterns that decorated the narrator’s childhood home following the death of a parent  in an attempt to keep the dead alive through memory. The retired widower in Kyoko Nakajima’s “When My Wife Was a Shiitake” rediscovers his wife by reading her recipe book, peppered with daily musings and gripes (“cooking for my family is a bit of a chore, to tell the truth”) and recreating the recipes in them, while the sound of scattering bowling pins sends another widower—the elderly owner of Little Bear Bowling in Toshiyuki Horie’s “Stance Dots”—down memory lane to the encounters that helped chart the course of his life. It is again sound—the sudden noise of a window shattering in the night—that dislodges the narrator of Shun Medoruma's “Glass” from his familiar surroundings in a story that reminds us of how memory shapes lives, not just in the long term, but from moment to moment. In Masashi Matsuie’s “Telegraph Pole,” another story that explores the intertwined nature of time, memory, and sanity, an elderly woman recalls scenes from her life as she wanders through the city, until the past gradually blends with, and ultimately dwarfs, the present. The bullied schoolboy in Keiichiro Hirano’s “Trapped Boy” who wants nothing more than to “wash away his memories” instead finds himself caught in an infinitely-looping nightmare, and the young woman in Mieko Kawakami’s “Where Have All the Sundays Gone?” wakes from “a long dream filled only with incoherent darkness” and sets off to fulfill a promise from a long forgotten time, only to find that the “new, unfamiliar place” she is in search of “does not exist anywhere in this world.” Hideo Furukawa’s “Fruit” transports us to an unfamiliar (or perhaps all-too-familiar) world where magical fruit “possessed by hatred” have infiltrated Tokyo, contaminating people with memories that threaten to “corrupt public morals.” And in Yoko Tawada’s “The Far Shore,” the entire Japanese archipelago is rendered uninhabitable by a contamination of a different kind when a fighter plane piloted by a teenager loses control and crashes into a recently reactivated nuclear plant, in a tale that highlights the role of remembering in imagining “unimaginable” futures.  

As mentioned, this is the third issue of new writing from Japan supported by the BCLT and The Nippon Foundation’s Read Japan Program. We are grateful to Kate Griffin, Daniel Hahn, Hiromi Saito, and others for taking the initiative in arranging the issue as well as the three-country tour of translation workshops that helped generate much of the content for this issue. We would also like to thank the translators, many of whom took part in these workshops, for working to a tight schedule to make this issue possible. In compiling this collection, we also asked various people to try and recall any “memory stories” they had read, written, translated, or heard. We are thankful for the many suggestions we received, and only regret that we could not include them all.