Book: Memories of Wind and Waves by Junichi Saga

Excellent oral history of early 20th-century lakeside Japan

Junichi Saga
Memories of Wind and Waves: A Self-Portrait of Lakeside Japan
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
Kodansha, 2002
ISBN: 4-7700-2758-3
255 pages

I am a firm believer in recycling. So I will reproduce here a bit of background that I gave at the start of my review of Junichi Saga's excellent book Confessions of a Yakuza:

Junichi Saga was born in 1941 and worked (indeed he probably is still working) as a doctor in the Japanese town of Tsuchiura. That area was pretty rural when he started working there, though it's not any longer. As far as I can tell, some time in the 1970s, he realized that his older patients had seen in their youths a Japan that didn't exist any longer and he set about to record their recollections.

One result of that is his very excellent book Memories of Silk and Straw: A Self-Portrait of Small-Town Japan. It's an oral history told by various of Dr Saga's older patients. Memories of Wind and Waves is a similar book but mainly consists of recollections of people whose livelihoods depended on the lakes and rivers near Tsuchiura. Among others, we hear from fishermen and -women, shipwrights, and the wife of a cargo-boat owner and captain. I suspect that not all the people whose stories are told have been Dr Saga's patients. I wouldn't be surprised if he were something of a local celebrity and that people are glad to have him record their stories.

And I'll steal from myself a bit more in repeating that, in general, I don't much like oral histories. They seem to me to leave the historian's job half done. Editing primary sources into a coherent whole is part of what a historian ought to do. Dr Saga's books are an exception to my rule. The stories that Dr Saga records are immediate and compelling, and the reader gets a vivid feel for daily life. That's what oral history can do at its best. Dr Saga's editorial hand is not much in evidence, but I'm sure it's there. Of course, that's an indication that he has done his job very well indeed.

Most of the people whose stories Dr Saga records were born in the early years of the twentieth century, but a few were born in the nineteenth century. All the stories are interesting, many are remarkable, and some are quite beautiful. One overwhelming impression is how hard people had to work and how little they complained. For example, Hama Suzuki says in "A Captain's Wife":

    I'd get up at two-thirty a.m., make rice and miso soup for
    my husband and the kids' breakfast, make lunches for
    everybody, and get on the four a.m. train, catching
    snatches of sleep when I could.
    [. . .]
    When I got home it was three p.m. -- time to work in the
    fields. The moon watched over me while I worked. I'd
    get in at eleven p.m. and my husband would snap,
    "Where've you been all this time? Out with some other
    man, is that it?" He didn't mean what he was saying....
    (p. 47)

In "Life on the Water", Takamasa Sakurai tells the story of a fisherman called Catfish Kyubei:

    I'll tell you why he was so famous: in winter, he'd dive into
    the icy water and catch catfish in the buff. Went after them
    underwater, stark naked.
    [. . .]
    There was a big rock where the catfish liked to gather in
    winter and huddle, not moving. Kyubei would come slowly
    up to one of them, head to head, and pop his thumb in its
    mouth. The catfish would clamp down on it in surprise.
    Catfish have a mouthful of teeth, but nothing long enough
    to bite a man's finger off. Once they get a grip, though, they
    won't let go. So up he'd come to the surface with the catfish
    hanging onto his thumb for dear life. (pp. 76-77)

Kaoru Yokote's story "When There Were Tangerines in Hajiyama" is one of the most beautiful:

    Little by little, the sun would drop lower in the sky. As a girl,
    I used to feel so sorry to see it go that I'd sneak out when
    nobody was looking, climb up on a stack of firewood, and
    sing to the sun while I watched it go down. (p. 143)

I could go on picking out quotes until I'd reproduced half the book, but I'll stop here and add only that Taki Nose tells us more about being a Geisha in the eight pages of "Training as a Geisha" than all of Memoirs of a Geisha does.

You can skip the over-long and inelegantly-written translator's preface. Indeed, Dr Saga is only adequately served by his translator.

One problem is the choice of which words to translate and which to explain. Various words that could use an explanation don't get one. For example "kotatsu" (p. 13) is left unexplained. (It's a sunken heater under a low, skirted table and good for keeping your feet warm in the winter and, when fueled with charcoal in the old days, good for burning the house down.) The same is true for "geta" (p. 246). (They're wooden sandals with platforms to keep your feet out of the mud in the street.)

Some words are translated when that's not necessarily a help. Fish called "crucian carp" come up often. I doubt that very many English speakers have heard of them and I suspect that for the average reader, translating one unfamiliar term ("gimbuna" I expect) into another doesn't help much. And "crucian carp" is awkward-sounding enough that it doesn't fit well with the Japanese atmosphere. The same is true for "mud-loach" (p. 221). Similarly, "plectrum" (p. 248) might have been better rendered as "shamisen pick". Also, "transverse flute" (p. 165) is the ordinary kind as far as English speakers are concerned. Some other terms are explained in square brackets. In all, the translation doesn't feel smooth.

The design of the book is unfortunate. The lines of text are over-long and the type is too small for comfortable reading. Dr Saga's father did the book's illustrations and the ones on the dust-jacket are quite charming. Unfortunately, the ones in the book are reproduced too small for any detail to be visible. They get only the top fifth or so of the page. That space is left blank on the pages on which they don't appear, which may explain the need for too-long lines of too-small type on the rest of the page. The reader gets the worst of both worlds: type that's not comfortable to read and illustrations that are hard to make out.

But ignore the poor book design and the mediocre translation. Those are flaws only in the presentation of a very excellent book.

Posted: Mon - January 16, 2006 at 08:40   Main   Category: