Online book translation review: Seventeen Parts 1 and 2 by Kenzaburo Oe

[Edit: thanks to a commenter below for pointing out that the link to this translation of Oe’s works is dead. In fact, it looks like Tokyo Damage Report, the blog it was originally hosted on, is dead, which is a damn shame. 

Edit pt. 2: I posted links through web.archive.org to the original posts down in the comments below. This seems to be the best I can do. If someone can find a more organized (or better? No idea about that) translation please post a comment, because these really are interesting works.]

Seventeen Part 1, the first part of a short two-part novel by Kenzaburo Oe, stirred up so much trouble in his home country of Japan that the publisher was threatened with death by far-right political groups (uyoku dantai) if the second part were brought out.  Thankfully, both Seventeen and Death of a Political Youth, the second part of the tale (renamed and published almost in secret to avoid a violent backlash) have been translated into English and posted on the blog Tokyo Damage Report.  Oe’s work taken as a whole is funny, sad, and horribly depressing all at once and is well worth a read, assuming the reader has a strong stomach.

Before we look at Seventeen, though, we need to travel back to the year 1960. Japan was still in the process of rebuilding after the destruction of World War II and hosted (as it still does) a large US military presence. The constitutional monarchy re-established by the Allies after the war ended allowed various parties, both on the right and the left, to get back into the game of politics and to openly debate the role of Japan in the world. Many of these debates reflected the capitalist/nationalist vs. socialist/communist divide of the Cold War, and naturally, this stirred up a lot of student political activity, both on the left and right.

On October 12, 1960, in the midst of this tension, a 17 year-old nationalist student activist named Otoya Yamaguchi rushed the stage of a televised speech in a lecture hall in Tokyo and ran a traditional samurai sword through the speaker, Socialist Party chairman and Diet representative Inejiro Asanuma, killing him almost instantly.

A photographer captured the assassination as it happened. (Source: Yasushi Nagao - © 1960 United Press International)

This photograph looks staged, but it’s not.  The assassination as it happened.  (Source: Yasushi Nagao – © 1960 United Press International)

Shortly after the assassination and Yamaguchi’s jail cell suicide a few weeks later, the novelist Kenzaburo Oe wrote a novel about the whole incident – told from the perspective of the young assassin.  The first half of Seventeen, released in 1961, tells the story of the protagonist, a high school student who has just turned 17 years old.  The main character and narrator of this tale calls himself “Seventeen”, and his age does contribute a lot to the story.  Seventeen is an awkward, perpetually pissed off kid.  His family is generally is cold and distant and his elder sister loathes him (for good reason – he flips out in Chapter 1 and gives her a severe eye injury during an argument.)  After poking his sister’s eye out, Seventeen exiles himself to a shed in his family’s backyard where he sleeps, broods, and mopes about his problems.)  Seventeen’s school life is miserable, and his only friend is a stray cat that stop by his shed sometimes.

So far, with the possible exception of the eye-poking, this sounds like a pretty typical coming of age story about an awkward teenager.  In most of these kinds of stories, the teenage protagonist comes to some kind of revelation about himself and grows as a person (see Catcher In The Rye for the classic example.)  Our protagonist here also comes to a revelation about himself, but it leads him to a bloody end.  Seventeen is a coming of age tragedy.

The first half of Seventeen plays out almost like a teenage comedy, complete with dick jokes.  However, halfway through the first part, Seventeen discovers meaning in an uyoku, or far-right nationalist, group, where he finds like-minded friends.  At this point, the story takes a serious turn for the political.  Seventeen also finds that his new status as a right-wing activist has earned him a degree of fear, if not of respect, from classmates and teachers who previously just despised him.  As a fervent young nationalist, Seventeen soon finds himself at the front line of a street fight with left-wing students during a series of protests in Tokyo against the renewal of a controversial US-Japan security treaty.  The second part of Seventeen, Death of a Political Youth, is far more serious than the first part and pretty much depicts Seventeen’s descent into insanity, his assassination of an unnamed left-wing politician as he makes a televised speech, and his short stay in prison before he kills himself.  (Note that this isn’t really a spoiler – it’s exactly what happened to the real-life politician Asanuma and his assassin Yamaguchi.)

Of course, there’s no way to know exactly what was in Yamaguchi’s mind when he decided to kill Asanuma.  But we do know that he was motivated by nationalist sentiment, and Oe’s work parodies that movement – much of the second part of the novel involves Seventeen obsessing over and seeing visions of “the Emperor” – not the actual living Emperor (then Hirohito) but some kind of idealized figure, more like God than a mere human.  In fact, reading Seventeen in 2016, especially in the West, reminds me of the kind of religious fanaticism that seems to inspire violent acts – both of the jihadi and of the extremist Christian anti-government variety.*  Seventeen’s fanaticism doesn’t seem very different.

An uyoku van. The writing on the van are political slogans.

An uyoku van.  These vans are driven around by uyoku guys who dress in paramilitary uniforms and shout at people. The writing on the van is right-wing political stuff.

It should be noted that the right wing in Japan also had a literary side to it, and writers like Yukio Mishima did a lot to push the nationalist agenda (he’s a good writer as well and is well worth a read, despite his weird retro views on worshipping the Emperor and all that stuff.  He also tried to overthrow the Japanese government in 1970 with a group of five other guys and committed actual medieval hardcore ritual suicide with a sword when he failed.  Mishima was somewhat nuts.)

Anyway, if all the above stuff sounds interesting to you, here are the links to the translations.  The translator does an interesting job with the writing.  He’s definitely going for the “feeling” of the text more than literal accuracy. I very much doubt that Oe included the phrase “Shake that ass!” in his original work. But I don’t mind. Also, this seems to be the only English translation of Death of a Political Youth around, so if you want to read it and can’t read Japanese, you don’t actually have a choice in the matter.

Seventeen

Death of a Political Youth

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*If you don’t live in the United States, you might not know about this strain of fanaticism – I’m not sure how much it really exists outside of the US.  Eric Rudolph (the 1996 Olympics bomber) was one of these bastards.

Online book translation review: Ura Hello Work by Shinya Kusaka

In the course of my internet searches, a few years ago I found the blog Tokyo Damage Report. Written by a guy who I’m pretty sure is an American, who is (was?) living in Japan. Tokyo Damage Report is a fascinating read for anyone interested in some of the more extreme and more serious sides of Japanese life – for example, the author writes about the clashes between the left and right wings in Japan, the infamous right-wing uyoku groups and their flag and patriotic motto-covered black vans that spew out propaganda through loudspeakers, stuff about the more underground Japanese music scene, and a lot about language.

Another service the author provides (free of charge!) is the translation of controversial books from Japanese to English. Some of the more “dangerous”, more or less banned material, is political in nature. Today we’ll be looking at something a little less risky, though – just a series of interviews with various Japanese grey/black market guys talking about the rackets they run. This is Ura Hello Work by Shinya Kusaka, an author I couldn’t find much info on. In fact, I’m betting “Shinya Kusaka” is a pen name, the reason for which will probably be clear as we take a look at his book.

Kusaka’s book contains interviews with 20 people, all of whom work in some kind of shady profession. Some are entirely legal, but have a hint of mob connections (the tuna boat fisher, who admits that a few guys on each long fishing voyage are there to pay off huge debts to the yakuza.) Some are legal but inherently dangerous (the medical test subject, who left behind testing for a “real” job after a friend who received an experimental shot went permanently numb in his right arm.) Some are just depressing (the cult member, who recounts working fifteen-hour days on the street selling fakey “natural” medicine for absolutely no commission.) Many are borderline or outright illegal. Kusaka speaks with a nuclear waste dumper, a drug smuggler, a forger, a loan shark, and even a black market organ dealer.

A few of the interviews take place in Kabukicho, Tokyo's famous red light district.  (Source: Japanexperterna.se, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

A few of the interviews take place in Kabukicho, Tokyo’s famous red light district. (Source: Japanexperterna.se, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Each interview goes pretty in-depth into the details of the interviewee’s operation. The interview subjects vary in how willing they are to really get explicit about their professions, often depending upon just how illegal said professions are, but Kusaka manages to ask pertinent questions and gets mostly straight answers out of them. He sometimes gets the subject to tell a deeply personal story. See, for example, the “midnight mover” (a guy who moves clients to new cities and gets them new identities to escape crazy spouses, debt collectors, etc.) talks about a yakuza guy in trouble with his particular group for stealing from the coffers, and who wants to “disappear” with the mover’s help – and how he’s physically wrenched out of the mover’s van by his pissed off colleagues. One can maybe imagine what happened to that guy. Kusaka’s book has several harrowing stories like this.

As the translator points out, a lot of these rackets probably exist in your country too, but in Japan some of them are done totally differently because of the different laws and loopholes involved in the process. One such job is that of the sokaiya, a sort of sophisticated gangster who attends shareholders’ meetings and either conduct protection work for the corporation, shouting down opposition and dangerous questions from the shareholders (if the corporation has paid the protection money); or attack the board of directors and corporate officers themselves with allegations of scandal and poor future performance (if the corporation hasn’t paid.) This isn’t a racket I’ve heard of anywhere else.

Another racket the book covers is loan sharking, as depicted here in Kaiji.

Another racket the book covers is loan sharking, as depicted here in Kaiji.

These kinds of true crime works are apparently pretty popular in Japan. The translator, in his preface, suggests that this is because these books are the only places Japanese get the real dirt on how things work – because the national institutions in place are designed to protect the rich and powerful! Doesn’t that sound familiar? I’m willing to bet this is something that isn’t unique to Japan.

Anyway, if you like books and series about the criminal underworld (like, for example, Fukumoto’s comics) or if you have an interest in the seedier sides of society, you should check out Ura Hello Work at the link above.