Nao-cola Yamazaki’s first published work, 2004’s Don’t Laugh At Other People’s Sex, won the Bungei Award, was adapted into a major motion picture, and was nominated for the Akutagwa Award, a prestigious honor given annually to a promising Japanese writer. “I believe that the mission of contemporary Japanese writers is to express ambiguity,” she says, as an introduction to the following piece, an excerpt from her novel The Beginning of the Long End. Yamazaki was a participant in the 2013 Writers Omi at Ledig House Translation Lab, along with the translator of this piece, Takami Nieda. Yamazaki, who has in the past been skeptical that her work would be translatable, found her views altered by her time at Ledig. “The Japanese have always had a tendency to celebrate ambiguity as a virtue,” she writes, and “the Japanese language itself seems to be suited for expressing ambiguity… For example, it is possible to construct sentences without a subject, there are many passive expressions, and sentences can be written without specifying an object. These are some of the characteristics of Japanese that differ from English and perhaps many other languages.” Though she recognizes how her work takes advantage of the nuances of her native tongue, Yamazaki completed her stint at Writers Omi believing that a translation that conveyed her fascination with vagueness would maintain some of its distinct qualities, and “perhaps those reading the translation might enjoy those elements as a kind of ‘Japaneseness.’”
If you scattered gelatin powder into the grooves of a manhole cover like this one after the rain, you’d probably end up with a thin film of Jell-O.
The sky above Shibuya was white, and the streets damp. Ogasawara held an umbrella in her roadside hand and a mandolin case in the other. She walked down Meiji Street with a plastic bag slung over the case. As she waited at the crosswalk for the light to turn, she gazed down at the texture of the water that had collected in a manhole cover. Countless tiny pools had formed on top of the cover. A substance that would normally trickle away was divided into rivulets, holding the shape of the patterns carved into the surface.
In much the same way, the city was overflowing with men and women delineated by skin and going their separate ways. Yet just where one person’s fingertips ended was indistinguishable, his human form nothing more than a temporary shape and whose outline might become blurred with just the slightest touch of another in such a way that he might lose a sense of himself. Or so Ogasawara thought, staring at the office workers, young people and mothers with children standing on the other side of the crosswalk.
The light turned green. Ogasawara went past the noodle shop, cast a sidelong glance at the supermarket, turned the corner at the tiny shrine for the travelers’ guardian deity, and climbed up the hill whereupon the campus finally came into view.
She passed through the gates of the university, cut across the courtyard, and entered Building Two and caught Tanaka and Miyajima passing near the elevators. “Oh, hey Miyajima,” she called out to which Miyajima gave her a grudging look. “Do you have a French dictionary on you?” she asked.
“No,” he answered. “I mean, I never do.” Miyajima was a slacker who was always failing his classes. Though a senior, he was still taking his required classes and didn’t seem all too motivated.
“Aren’t you going to ask me?” Tanaka chimed in.
“Why would I?” Ogasawara knew Tanaka was taking Chinese as his second foreign language requirement. “Say, did you get into Educational Psychology?”
“Yeah. Couldn’t get into Principles of Education, though.” A lottery registration was held for students trying to get into classes taught by popular professors. It was April, and students took to swapping all kinds of information during registration period.
“Oh.” Ogasawara nodded and pressed the elevator button.
“You should take Intro to Mass Communications.” Now Tanaka was giving her unsolicited advice. Without answering, Ogasawara waved and boarded the elevator. Just before the doors closed between them, Tanaka said, “Congratulations.”
She called out, “You too,” but the elevator had already closed. Had he heard her?
Ogasawara was twenty-three, 153 centimeters tall. A size and hands suited for playing the mandolin. She wore her hair bobbed and dyed brown, a light-green cardigan over a navy-blue dress, and brown boots.
Although Tanaka was a senior like Ogasawara, he had just turned twenty-two.
Back when they’d entered university and talked for the first time, he had told her, “I share a birthday with the Buddha,”
“April 8th? Mine’s the day after. The ninth.”
Ogasawara had taken an extra year to pass the entrance exams, which explains why she was a year older and yet in the same graduating class as Tanaka.
By congratulations, Tanaka had probably meant “Happy birthday.” Ogasawara got off at the second floor, crossed the corridor into the library in the adjacent building where she borrowed a French dictionary, and went to class. She’d already completed the foreign language requirements in the first two years, so her taking French III was more a pastime than anything.
Ogasawara cared nothing for her future, making her hobbies more important than career or love. While French was one thing, playing mandolin was truly ridiculous. The hours she devoted to music would surely lead to nothing in the future, simply vanish into the ether.
After class, she descended into the basement of Building One and found most of the members already gathered. The orchestra usually rehearsed twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays after classes, and also on Tuesdays and Sundays before a performance. Today was Wednesday, and there was a gathering planned after rehearsal to welcome the new members.
Tanaka served as the orchestra’s conductor but was usually cradling a mandocello in his free time as he was now, wearing a gray hooded jacket. He was about 20 centimeters taller than Ogasawara, but appeared larger sitting down than standing, perhaps because he was broad-shouldered. Situated in the middle of the hall of the basement was a kind of common room with a large table used in conferences. Though the space was available to all students, it was usually occupied by either the mandolin club or the university orchestra.
Ogasawara spotted Tanaka practicing the mandocello, the musical score spread out in front of him on the table, and pulled up a chair next to him. “Are you going to the party?”
Tanaka stopped playing only for a moment and answered, “That’s what I hear.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked. “Haven’t you decided?”
“I don’t know, I guess I’m going.”
“Say, why do you always have that plastic bag over the end?” Tanaka pointed to Ogasawara’s mandolin case.
“Because the neck-end always gets wet.”
“Why is that?”
“Because of the rain. Because the neck-end sticks out from under the umbrella.”
“Maybe you’re not holding the umbrella right. Why don’t you show me right here?”
Rising to her feet, Ogasawara popped open her red umbrella and walked up and down before him with the case hanging at her side. “Well?”
Tanaka stared at her up and down. “I don’t think you’re supposed to be resting the umbrella on your shoulder like that.”
“Then you do it.” She thrust out the umbrella.
Taking it, Tanaka set the mandocello down on the table, stood up, and strolled across the hall. But his technique was entirely peculiar. The umbrella was tilted too far forward. He moved only his legs with one hand fixed in the air in front of him and upper body perfectly still. He looked unnatural. Ogasawara couldn’t help but laugh, as he stood there with a blank look.
“Why are you laughing? I know I’m right. We learned how to hold an umbrella in grade school.”
“We even had diagrams for how you hold an umbrella in a hurricane. Like this.”
Tanaka closed the umbrella as if he’d suddenly tired of it and after returning it to Ogasawara, he turned the pages of the musical score on the table and pointed to a passage of the first mandolin part. “Play this part for me.”
“Okay.” Ogasawara hastily put away the umbrella and took out her mandolin from the case.
The club held two concerts every year. The orchestra was comprised of the first mandolin, second mandolin, mandola, mandocello, classical guitar, bass, and flute sections. The orchestra had about sixty members.
Ever since the Italian-born instrument made its way into Japan during the Meiji period, the number of mandolin enthusiasts grew, giving Japan the largest population of mandolin players in the world. Mandolin orchestras continue to thrive in universities, many of them accomplished enough to sell concert tickets. Although Ogasawara’s club used to be good in the past, it was now facing a period of decline. Despite celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, the club was a gathering of novices, incapable of performing anything special for the occasion.
It is said the name “mandolin” is derived from the Italian word for “almond.” The mandolin is a round stringed instrument shaped like an almond cut in half. The tenor-pitched mandola and bass mandocello are also in the mandolin family. The mandolin Ogasawara owned is the smallest that typically plays the high melody lines and cost 300,000 yen. Having been the only one in her class to buy her own instrument, Ogasawara stubbornly devoted everyday to playing the mandolin she’d foolishly purchased on a three-year loan. She even gave it a name resembling her own—Sawara—and treated it as if she would a boyfriend.
She liked to think of herself the best mandolinist in the club. Since everyone else had told her as much, she had allowed the accolades to swell her head. The comment cards given out at group recitals usually came back with her name scrawled on them along with praise like, “I was spellbound” and “My heart was aflutter.” Yet in spite of all the validation, she had never sat as principal soloist, a position also known as concertmaster or concertmistress. Neither had she served as conductor.
Lacking a title, she found continuing in the orchestra difficult. What point was there in going on if she couldn’t find her place within the club or simply lost her drive, even as she poured as much—no, more time and money into playing than the others with titles. Many members simply quit, leaving only three seniors, including Ogasawara, who pressed on without holding any sort of office or titled position. While thirty-five students had joined the club as freshman, only eleven had lasted into their senior year. The principal players were appointed by the upperclassmen, so Ogasawara could do nothing about her predicament alone. Those chosen to be sub-principals at the end of their sophomore year automatically went on to become principals as seniors. Thus Ogasawara’s current situation had been a foregone conclusion when she’d been passed over at the end of her sophomore year. In short, she should have quit then. And yet Ogasawara clung to her lowly standing within the club and continued to devote all her time and money into the mandolin.
Takami Nieda is a Japanese-English translator born in New York City. She has translated Hiroshi Yamamoto’s The Stories of Ibis (2010), Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s Why Don’t You Just Die? (2011), Sayuri Ueda’s The Cage of Zeus (2011), as well as art books for Studio Ghibli films. In addition to working as a translator and screenwriter, Nieda teaches English and translation at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan.
Original art by Sahara Shrestha.