Yamanokuchi Baku – A Conversation

Yamaokuchi Baku with his namesake, a baku (tapir)

Yamanokuchi Baku – “A Conversation” (1935)

“Where are you from?” the woman said.

Hmm. My homeland?? I lit a cigarette and thought, that place colored by the associations of tattooed hands and jabisens, that are like a pattern of customs – is that my homeland?!

A ways away…

“What does ‘a ways away’ mean?” the woman said.

It means a ways away, right before the Southern tip of the Japanese archipelago, the kind of place where women carry pigs on their heads and walk barefoot, and customs are in a gloomy way – is that my homeland?!

Down south.

What is ‘down south’? the woman said.

Down south is down south. A region of endless summer situated by the indigo sea, with plants like tunbyan and deigo and adan and papaya huddled under the white season, that place where the stereotyped questions like ‘Are they even Japanese’ or ‘Do they speak Japanese’ have taken hold in the world – is that my homeland!?

The subtropics.

“The subtropics!” the woman said.

Yea, the subtropics, my lady, can’t you see the subtropics right here in front of you? Someone like me, a Japanese who can speak Japanese but was born in the subtropics – this is us – though we are looked at as synonymous with chieftains, with natives, with karate, with awamori, this place where the world looks at us with this type of prejudice – is that my homeland!?

Near the equator.

Yamanokuchi Baku (1903 – 1963) is a real one, and in fact this is his second reference already in this small collection of posts, but this time I wanted to share my translation of perhaps his most famous poem “A Conversation” (会話), which was first published in 1935. The poem is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about, having presented on it at conferences and even winning an award for an essay I wrote on it a couple years ago.

I won’t go into a reading of the poem here, at least not at this moment. I just want to make a couple notes on why I went ahead and translated the poem again. There is already a translation available from Steve Rabson in the incredibly valuable anthology Southern Exposure: Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa and in general I think Rabson’s is really quite good. Except for one bit that I have always struggled with being left out of his translation — the refrain “is that my homeland!?” that comes at the end of the longer stanzas which seem to reflect the narrator’s internal dilemma about his relationship with Okinawa. The original Japanese is even more direct (あの僕の国か!) and really drives home the ambivalence that speaker of the poem feels about Ryukyu/Okinawa. That, along with some minor things like leaving tunbyan (agave), deigo (tiger’s claw ) and adan (screw pine) untranslated and in the Ryukyuan language (the words are presented as kanji with Ryukyuan glosses in the original) are the only major changes I have made. But I really think it is an important inclusion. I teach this poem often and it sparks quite a…conversation among the students.

Also — Baku’s work is now in the public domain, so head over to Aozora Bunko if you want to read some more of his writing.

山之口獏 ー 会話 (1935年)

お国は? と女が言つた



ずつとむかふとは? と女が言つた
  それはずつとむかふ、日本列島(にっぽんれっとう)南端(なんたん)一寸(ちょっと)手前なんだが、頭上(ずじょう)に豚をのせる女がゐるとか素足(すあし)で歩くとかいふやうな、憂鬱(ゆううつ)方角(ほうがく)を習慣してゐる あの僕の国か!


南方とは? と女が言つた

アネッタイ! と女は言つた