The Great Passage

Title: The Great Passage
Japanese Title: Fune o amu (船を編む)
Author: Shion Miura (三浦 しをん)
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publication Year: 2017 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: AmazonCrossing
Pages: 217

The Great Passage is one of the kindest and most gentle books I’ve read during the past year. Despite the fact that it tells the story of a seemingly tedious enterprise, namely, the compellation of a dictionary, I found myself blazing through the novel because I had to find out whether or not the editors would manage to get their dictionary published. I then went back and read the book again so that I could take my time enjoying the quality of the writing and the translation.

The novel’s story is centered around Mitsuya Majime, a man who loves words but has trouble communicating with other people. Majime is initially placed into the Sales Department of Gembu Books, a large publisher based in Tokyo, but he flounders there like a fish out of water. His ineptitude comes to the attention of Masashi Nishioka, an extroverted and smooth-talking young man who, through a strange twist of fate, has been assigned to the Dictionary Editorial Department. Nishioka brings Majime to the attention of Kohei Araki, the editorial section chief, who immediately heads over to the Sales Department, notices Majime as soon as he steps into the room, and hires him on the spot.

By the end of the first chapter of The Great Passage, a dream team has been assembled. Majime is a philologist who is more than happy to check and double-check words and definitions, Nishioka recruits experts to write definitions for specialist words and placates the egos of grumpy professors, and Araki oversees the minutiae of editorial operations while running interference with the corporate bosses. Also on the team are Professor Matsumoto, an elderly academic who has devoted his life to the creation of a new dictionary, and Mrs. Sasaki, who is nominally an administrative assistant but pulls her weight around the office by picking up the slack of her male colleagues.

As Majime and his new coworkers deal with the mundane work and bureaucratic challenges involved in the compilation of a dictionary, a love story unfolds between Majime and a young chef named Kaguya, who lives in the same communal boarding house where Majime has rented a small room since college. Both Majime and Kaguya are shy and serious people, but they’re able to bond with each other through the auspices of Také, their chatty landlady, and Tora, the large tomcat that roams through the building at night. The couple is well-suited to one another, and their romance progresses quietly and without incident – with one major exception.

Majime, unsure of how to confess his feelings to Kaguya, decides to write her a love letter. As might be expected of the sort of person whose life’s passion is dictionary editing, his love letter is a garbled mess of rare words and convoluted literary allusions. Majime allows his extroverted colleague Nishioka to read the letter; and, although he tells Majime that the letter is perfect as it is, it causes Nishioka no small amount of amusement. It’s partially because of this ridiculous letter that Nishioka begins to feel a protective affection for Majime and resolves to do everything in his power to aid the budding dictionary editor in his goals. Later on in the story, when Nishioka is transferred to another department, he leaves a copy of the letter hidden in the dictionary editorial office so that his successor, a stylish young woman named Kishibe, will be better able to understand and appreciate Majime’s quirky but earnest personality. At the end of The Great Passage, after the main story concludes, there is a nine-page abbreviated excerpt of this letter with humorous annotations from Nishioka and Kishibe that are overflowing with silly jokes and heartfelt goodwill.

The dictionary itself, titled Daitōkai (translated as “The Great Passage”), eventually emerges as its own unique character in the story. The editorial staff regularly meets to discuss what sort of material belongs in an effective dictionary, as well as how an ideal definition should be structured. Unlike the numerous Japanese dictionaries that will have proceeded Daitōkai, Majime and his colleagues want their work to accurately reflect the concerns and interests of the people who live in contemporary Japan. To give an example…

“Dictionaries do tend to be written from the male perspective,” Professor Matsumoto said mildly. “They’re mostly put together by men, so they often lack words having to do with fashion and housework, for example. But that approach won’t work anymore. The ideal dictionary is one that everyone can join in using together, men and women of all ages, interested in all matters of life.” (34)

There is also some light discussion regarding the constructed nature of gender and sexuality implicit in certain words, and the staff ultimately takes a progressive view on many issues. They conclude, for example, that “love” need not be defined as the romantic attraction between a “man” and a “woman.” Kishibe, who initially worked in the editorial department of a women’s lifestyle magazine, is surprised to have been transferred to the staff of a dictionary, but she quickly realizes that what she considered to be common knowledge for a young professional woman serves as a valuable area of expertise to a staff largely comprised of middle-aged men. As she begins to devote herself to the project, Kishibe gains a mounting sense of appreciation for the endeavor…

Words were necessary for creation. Kishibe imagined the primordial ocean that covered the surface of the earth long ago – a soupy, swirling liquid in a state of chaos. Inside every person there was a similar ocean. Only when that ocean was struck by the lightning of words could all come into being. Love, the human heart… Words gave things form so that they could rise out of the dark sea. (164)

Special mention must also be made of the fine work of the translator, Juliet Winters Carpenter. The conversations surrounding Japanese words, their synonyms, and their cultural contexts never feel awkward or forced, and even a reader with no familiarity of Japanese language and culture will be able to enjoy the linguistic play and fine distinctions of meaning. Moreover, the oddities of Japanese corporate culture are glossed over masterfully so that the reader is able to understand the relationships and tensions between professionals without getting bogged down in a mire of titles and hierarchies and formal modes of address.

Although The Great Passage may seem like a novel that will only be of interest to a niche audience, its appeal is far more expansive. This is a book for people who love words. It’s a book for people who love reading. It’s a book for people who love translation. And, in the end, The Great Passage is a celebration of people who love books.

Oh, and also! The novel was adapted into an anime, which is available in the United States through Amazon’s streaming service.

Masks

masks

Title: Masks
Japanese Title: 女面 (Onnamen)
Author: Enchi Fumiko (円地 文子)
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publication Year: 1983 (America); 1958 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 141

Juliet Winters Carpenter, the translator of Enchi Fumiko’s novel Masks, is one of the most eloquent translators of Japanese literature alive today. Carpenter has translated everything from Tawara Machi’s groundbreaking collection of tanka poetry, Salad Anniversary (Sarada kinenbi, 1987) to Asa Nonami’s hard-boiled police thriller The Hunter (Kohoeru kiba, 1996). My advice to all lovers of Japanese literature would be: if Juliet Winters Carpenter has translated it, you need to read it!

Enchi Fumiko is one of the most highly regarded writers of literary fiction in Japan. Her father was a scholar of classical Japanese literature, and Enchi grew up devouring the books in his library, from the medieval Tales of Moonlight and Rain to the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Her pen name, Fumiko, means “child of letters” or “child of literature.” When she grew up, she undertook the translation of the monumental eleventh-century novel The Tale of Genji. She is famous for incorporating allusions to classical literature into her own fiction, which was highly praised by writers like Tanizaki Jun’ichirō and Mishima Yukio.

Enchi’s work is known for its tightly woven plots, subtle writing, strong visual imagery, and masterful use of symbolism. An Enchi novel is like a structuralist literary critic’s dream come true. There is an incredible amount of information packed within each paragraph, and her novels and stories have inspired a wealth of interpretations. Enchi is an intellectual of the highest magnitude yet also possesses the ability to imbue her fiction with great emotional weight.

Although Enchi is primarily known in Japan for her novel The Waiting Years (Onnazaka, 1939), for which she won the prestigious Noma Literary Prize, Masks has its own spooky charms. Although the work’s title refers to the masks of Noh drama, particularly the “madwoman” masks that lend their names to the chapter titles, the novel draws many of its themes and allusions from the Tale of Genji. The parallels Enchi draws between The Tale of Genji and the cultural climate of postwar Japan are fascinating. Not only does the author create distinct connections between her characters and the characters of the Heian romance, but she also makes use of themes such as spirit possession and romantic substitution to subvert the gendered expectations of the patriarchal and misogynistic societies that hold sway in both The Tale of Genji and postwar Japan.

Although Masks is primarily narrated from the point of view of a male college professor named Ibuki, who is cast in the role of Genji, its true hero is an older woman named Mieko, a powerful Rokujō-like figure with a painful past and veiled intentions. As Mieko’s daughter-in-law and protégée, Yasuko, explains to Ibuki,

Believe me, she is a woman of far greater complexity than you – or anyone – realize. The secrets inside her mind are like flowers in a garden at nighttime, filling the darkness with perfume. Oh, she has extraordinary charm. Next to that secret charm of hers, her talent as a poet is really only a sort of costume.

Masks centers around Mieko’s attempt to use this “secret charm” of hers in order to set into motion a deep and complex scheme of revenge, creation, and rebirth. What Mieko is able to accomplish by the end of the novel is both terrible and beautiful. If nothing else, the events that occur during the final dramatic quickening of the work are thought-provoking and will force the reader to consider multiple ethical questions.

Masks is perhaps one of the best introductions to Japanese literature, and more specifically Japanese women’s literature, ever published in translation. No matter where your literary interests lie, this is a novel you need to experience.