Monday, March 5, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor David Sulz

David Sulz
David Sulz (translator of the Tomo epigraph “Be Not Defeated by the Rain” Ame ni mo makezu by Kenji Miyazawa) is a librarian at the University of Alberta. He spent four years in the nineties on the JET program in Miyagi (Sendai and Towa-cho) and tries to return often to visit the kindred spirits there who remain among his closest friends. Other translations include Jiro Nitta’s Phantom Immigrants (Mikkosen suian maru), Kenji Miyazawa’s “The Poison Powder Police Chief,” and song lyrics from Japanese friends’ CDs. Visit his website: 

Tell us a bit about your first connections to Japan.
As a boy in British Columbia, Canada, my family had many Japanese-Canadian friends. They were all nissei or sansei (2nd or 3rd generation Canadian) so they were as Canadian as I, but our ancestry comes out in little ways so I learned a bit about Japan through them. In high school, we hosted a rugby team from Osaka-Kobe and then went there for two exciting weeks of rugby, homestays, and sightseeing. I was hooked on Japan. I studied some Japanese at university and visited Japan several times including 2 months in Tochigi Prefecture at a tree and flower nursery, a student conference in Tokyo, and a 3-month internship in Sendai. 

How did your strong connections to Miyagi Prefecture and Tohoku come about?
Those first three months in Sendai have had a huge influence on my life. One homestay family gave me a Japanese book with two maps inside the front cover: Miyagi prefecture and southeastern British Columbia (i.e. my home). Although I couldn’t read it at the time, I later discovered it was a historical novel about an entrepreneur and group of immigrants from Towa-cho in northern Miyagi who went to B.C. in the early 1900s (Mikkousen suian maru by Nitta Jiro). As I studied more Japanese and then lived in Sendai and Towa-cho for four years on the JET program, I worked on translating it bit by bit. I eventually finished translating it (with a lot of help, of course), self-published it as Phantom Immigrants, used it for an MA degree in history, and have had many opportunities to talk, write, and research more about it which, in turn, has introduced me to many interesting people related to the story.

What other connections to Tohoku are still special to you?
My former boss and now great friend, Kanichi Onodera, often says that Miyagi and Towa are my dai-ni-furusato (second hometown). It sounds a bit corny but he is right. I met so many kindred-spirits who really explode any stereotypes about salarymen or housewives. To name a few (and just one of their interesting attributes): Shimamura the edo-goma (traditional spinning top) maker, his son with the mountain cabin coffee shop, Hirose and Shibuya the singer-songwriters, Ino the volunteer hockey coach, Yano the graphic designer (Forest Farm), Oikawa the artist, Yong-cho the Korean restaurant owner, Sasaki the music producer and jazz bar owner, Ouchi the handmade soba noodle maker, and so many more who are now some of my longest lasting and best friends. I don’t get to visit often enough but any trip to Japan truly feels like a comfortable homecoming.

How did the earthquake and tsunami affect you?
We were so worried because the affected areas were so close to our friends. Actually, one week before the earthquake/tsunami, my wife and I had booked flights to Sendai for a visit two months from then. We were in constant communication with friends about whether to go. We didn’t want to be a burden but were strongly encouraged; it is important to renew and refresh strong friendships in tough times. I could say so much about the devastation and recovery we saw but it would take thousands of words. Suffice it to say, the grace and poise of most Japanese in times of tragedy is amazing; I sometimes wonder whether Miyazawa Kenji captured those aspects of Japanese character in ame ni mo makezu or if his poem had some influence in creating them.

Your translation of the poem "Ame ni mo makezu" became quite popular after 3/11. Can you explain why you think this poem and your translation have resonated with readers particular after the earthquake?
Sometime in the late 1990s, I came across the World of Kenji Miyazawa website and offered my “Be Not Defeated By the Rain” translation for posting. Nothing really happened for many years other than a few blog references and a pop song that used the title. Recently, this translation suddenly started spreading. I don’t think anyone really knows what makes something popular; many people want to know so they can create something popular but popularity is serendipitous and unexpected.

Perhaps it’s the expression of simplicity, caring, and perseverance which resonated with people were forced to reflect on the fragility of modern life. For example, many of our friends have said (in retrospect now they are safe) that the earthquake/tsunami was an important experience to remind them of all the little preparations they had started ignoring after many uneventful years and the many modern essentials absolutely reliant on cheap and abundant energy. It inspired them to increase their self-reliance even just a little bit so as not to be caught again.

Of course, this sentiment of the impermanence and fragility of life has deep roots in Japanese culture (e.g. cherry blossoms, samurai code) but this tragedy had a global reach. The world was amazed by the uniquely Japanese reaction to the tragedies, a reaction so unlike other cultures facing similar circumstances. There was no rioting, no looting, no wailing for help; instead there was patience, compassion, and resignation. I think a lot of people wanted to understand this and Miyazawa’s poem gave some insight to both Japanese and others.

I have no idea why this particular translation resonated with readers and would be interested in figuring out how “popular” it actually became. It seems to be popping up on more blogs but I have no proof of how many. Perhaps it is a function of the “google” world—when the original Japanese version became popular and people searched for an English translation, my version maybe appeared high in the results because of the World of Kenji website and an external link in Wikipedia. Then as more people used my translation in blogs and other forums, it appeared more often in internet searches, and so on in a self-perpetuating feedback loop.

I’d like to think the popularity had something to do with the particular form my translation ended up taking, and that, in turn, might be because I did not set out to “translate” this poem, per se.

When did you first encounter Miyazawa’s work? What are your favorite Miyazawa works?
Poem "Ame ni mo Makezu," by Kenji Miyazwa, a gift to David Sulz
To the best of my memory, a teacher colleague at Towa Junior High School (Kumagai-sensei, I think) visited Kenji World in Iwate prefecture in about 1995 and brought me a souvenir reprint of “Ame ni mo makezu” printed out like a scroll with an accompanying explanation of its background. I had never heard of Miyazawa and was so intrigued by his vague explanation of the poem’s meaning that I made him and other friends help me understand and translate it. Seeing that interest, another teacher gave me a copy of a short story called “Dokumomi no shocho san” which I translated and called “The Poison Powder Police Chief.” Strangely enough, those are the only two Miyazawa works I have read in detail; I am aware there are many others but, for whatever reason, have no familiarity with them. 

Can you give us some background about the poem Ame ni mo makezu, which you translated as “Be Not Defeated by the Rain” and how it was originally discovered? 
All I know about this is what that explanatory sheet included with the poem by the Miyazawa Kenji Memorial Society Foundation says (see the World of Kenji Miyazawa website). Briefly, it was found after his death in a notebook tucked into the lid of his favorite trunk amidst repetitive copying of a Buddhist chant reminding one of the importance of the Lotus Sutra.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku? 
If you are interested in translating or learning a foreign language, find something you really want to understand and try translating it. It takes a lot of effort to read and understand something in the first place so why not make the extra effort to translate it for yourself? As a bonus, if many years your language ability has diminished from lack of use, you’ll still understand what was so important and interesting. Besides, if you get the chance to share it, you might inspire someone.

Some people might think of Tohoku as inaka  (country, backward, old-fashioned) but it really is a special place. There are few places in the world so connected to the most modern world (by short journey or technology like the internet) yet so connected to nature, history, and tradition. There is nothing like a charcoal-heated kotatsu (heated coffee-table), walking through a rice paddy, seeing fireflies on a pitch-black night, having tea with a multi-generational family (kids to grandparents) sharing what Japan was and is, or going to an onsen (hot-spring bath) especially in the mountains (ahhh, I can just imagine it now…).

I hope you are courageous enough to try many things and go many places but also to take Miyazawa Kenji’s words to heart. His poem may seem simple and a bit boring but if you look closely, the man he wanted to become would require a lot of courage.

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