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Rikai dekiru: understanding the past, today

by Michael Hoffman

“Mina-san, konban wa (皆さん今晩は, ladies and gentlemen, good evening). Thank you, I . . .

“Listen to me, koe ga furuete iru (声が震えている, my voice is trembling), I won’t pretend that I’m not a little kinchō suru (緊張する, nervous). Two things I didn’t expect tonight: manseki (満席, a full house), and hakushu (拍手, applause) before I even begin. Wait until you’ve heard what I have to say. Before we’re done you may be throwing tomatoes at me. Did you bring tomatoes with you? Oh, well, this’ll be a breeze, I’ve got you eating out of my hand!

Jōdan wa sateoite (冗談はさておいて, kidding aside), thank you for laughing at my feeble jokes, you’ve given me courage; now I will venture to be a little bit serious.

“As to who I am and what I’m doing here, many of you already know. For the rest, my name is Stuart Keyes. For many years I taught Nihonshi (日本史, Japanese history) here at Wakaba Daigaku (大学, college). Last year there arose a gokai (誤解, misunderstanding) between me and the administration which ended with my being, to all intents and purposes, kubi ni natta (首になった, dismissed), though not in so many words. I have now been fukki saserareta (復帰させられた, reinstated). Kudokudo iu hitsuyō wa nai (くどくど言う必要はない, we needn’t go into details). Right? Good. I promise you students — and since I see one or two members of the administration in the audience as well I take this opportunity to emphasize to them what I have already told them privately: It is not my nature to be ijimerareru (いじめられる, bullied), to be forced into a mold, to put a lid on my thoughts, however outrageous they may be, and sometimes I admit they are outrageous. You’re laughing. Good. Laughter can mean many things — here I take it to mean you’re with me so far.

“Enough about me. Let’s proceed to our subject of study, which is, broadly speaking, kako (過去, the past). Specifically, we will be studying the Edo Jidai (江戸時代, Edo Period, 1603-1867), which has been much kenasareta (けなされた, maligned), and yet to me, for all its kawatta ten (変わった点, peculiarities) — because of its peculiarities — it is one of the richest, most interesting eras we humans have ever lived through.

Saiwai ni (幸いに, fortunately) the Edo Jidai has left us a vast treasury of literature, both patrician and plebeian — for Edo was one of the most literate cultures of its time — through which we can, aru teido made (ある程度まで, to some extent), with the aid of our sōzōryoku (想像力, imagination), walk the streets of that time, meet its people, converse with them.

“That will unfold gradually over the course of the academic year. For now, though, for this introductory lecture to which, as is the custom at Wakaba, the general public has also been invited, I would like to say a word about the past in general, and about what seems to me Japan’s not altogether healthy attitude toward it. Get your tomatoes ready; this won’t be to everybody’s liking.

“I love the past. We live in future-oriented times. For many today, the past is at best futekisetsu (不適切 irrelevant), at worst shimpo no shōgai (進歩の障害 an obstacle to progress). To me, the past is a place to go to for solace, refreshment — seishin no kaifuku (精神の回復 spiritual refreshment). It’s a kind of womb we can return to. I know the human past was in many ways soya de zankoku (粗野で残酷 crude, cruel), even more so than the present. But it’s where we come from, and we must know where we come from if we are to be fully human.

“Another thing: I love the past because it is only the past that we can, potentially at least, rikai dekiru (理解できる, understand). The present escapes our understanding. All we can do with the present is live it — without understanding. Tell me this, those of you who disagree with me: Who, in 2007, foresaw the fukeiki (不景気, economic collapse) of 2008? Answer: No one. Legions of experts, among the best brains on the planet, spend their entire waking lives analyzing the economy. Who foresaw it? No one.

“So you see. Only in the past can we contemplate life with, aruteido made (ある程度まで, to some extent), understanding.

“Young Japanese people today, it seems to me, are sadly ignorant of their past. I think that explains much that is wrong with this country today — its fuan (不安, malaise), its burabura (ぶらぶら, helpless drift). I think in a way — though some may question whether a foreigner has the right to say such a thing — I think that in a way Japan has tamashii wo ushinatta (魂を失った, lost its soul). We’ll see if we can find it in the streets of Edo.

“Any questions?”