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

Fishmans – Unreliable Angel

Fishmans – 頼りない天使

Live performance of Unreliable Angel at Hibiya Open Air Concert Hall (1996)

Fishmans – Unreliable Angel

Take me beyond the distant night sky, she said.
Take me to the angel’s place, she said.

Goodbye – things are fading.
And now that she has called me
it’s the end, oh yes it’s already over.
From today, it’s just the two of us alone.

When the gentle angel comes down
surely she’s going to be delighted.

Isn’t this a strange story?
In the middle of a world like this,
for me to be the one to rely on.

And that girl says to me,
“The angel is coming now”
Honestly. It’s not a lie.
The future, you know,
it’s bright.

And with her confident mood, 
I myself surely changed.

Isn’t this a wonderful story.
That something so sure
is still now by my side.

Isn’t this a wonderful story.
that in the middle of this world
it’s just the two of us alone.


Fishmans is the band. When I am asked what kind of Japanese music I like they are almost always the first band to pop into my head. Rarely does the other party know who I am talking about (Japanese, American or otherwise). A cult favorite with a large following while they were active, Fishmans was never a chart topper. The music can be hard to describe. At times it is quite playful such as seen in Walkin’, a catchy pop song about the joys of wandering about town without a plan:

Meeting up at the shop in front of the station
laughing in way we haven’t in for what feels like 10 years.
The two of us, our heads held high, our feet turning over and over,
where should we go now?
Walkin’ Walkin’ Walkin’ Walkin’

However, as seen in the song featured here, many of the bands songs were deeper in theme. The music, consisting mainly of a subtle dub bass line running steady behind a whirling organ that builds up to a high pitch creates a dreamlike ambience that works perfectly with lead singer Sato Shinji’s haunting lyrics about…death? love? Love found in death, perhaps? I’ve returned to this song countless times since I first heard while on study abroad in Tokyo over a decade ago but still haven’t nailed exactly what I think the song is about. At that time, 20 years young, I was spending late nights in Shibuya and catching the 5 am train home, sitting next to salarymen on their way to work. I could barely be concerned with thoughts of mortality, love or loneliness.

Moreover, to be honest, at that point my Japanese was so poor I could barely order a coffee from Dotour, so I wasn’t even really listening to the lyrics. Still though, there was something about the ambience – the mood – that this and other Fishmans songs created that drew me in. Without understanding the words, I could still feel the tension in Sato’s singing. Lyrics caught between pain and joy being sung by a man unafraid to lay forth for the audience these emotions.

Now that I can, sort of, speak and understand Japanese the song’s impact is even stronger. I’ll leave it you to interpret what it is talking about, but there is one moment in the song I want to highlight:

In the live performance linked above, right around the 2min. 40sec. mark, is the point in the song where Sato sings:

“The angel is coming now” ( 天使は 今来ますって)

Honestly. [snare hit/music stops] It’s not a lie. ( 本当さ ウソじゃないんだよ)

It is a simple measure, the band stops the music for only a pause, but the impact is strong. Coming right in the middle of song, it highlights the importance of believing what is happening within the world Sato has created. And within that brief hush of instruments, Sato sounds at his most earnest, singing loudly, imploring you to keep listening, for nothing is fake about the song. Honestly.

I have linked to a live version of this song, but the studio version can be found on the 1992 album King Master George. I should mention that the band stopped releasing new music in 1999, after Sato passed away. They have since reunited a number of times for various memorial concerts. Also, the ability to listen to Fishmans has really grown in recent years, with a number of albums, concerts and music videos having been uploaded to YouTube. If you are interested in listening to more I would recommend searching for “Fishmans” as well as “フィッシュマンズ “, which is the band’s name in Japanese.