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What a difference a friend’s tales of ‘hair on the heart’ can still make

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

“Shinzo ni Ke ga Haeteiru Wake” is the intriguing title of a book published in April by Kadokawa. The book was written by my good friend, Mari Yonehara, and its title in English would be “That’s Why Hair Grows on the Heart.”

In this collection of about 70 short essays, Yonehara covers a wide variety of topics, most of them gleaned from her experiences as a child growing up overseas and then, later, from having worked as a simultaneous interpreter between Japanese and Russian.

The essay that lends the book its quirky title touches on the subtle differences in expression in different languages and how difficult it is for an interpreter, pressed for time, to do them justice. “That’s why it is said,” she wrote, “that a simultaneous interpreter’s heart is covered in bristles.”

In a number of the essays, she relates stories about her remarkably unusual parents.

As a little girl, she tells how she fought with her friends over whose father was the greatest, Yonehara proffering that hers was because “he’s in the Communist Party.”

“So what’s the Communist Party?” shouted back another girl.

“I don’t know!” Yonehara exclaimed. “But it’s the opposite of the Liberal Democratic Party.”

Although neither of them had a clue what a “party” was, young Yonehara did know that her father, who was a very portly man, had once spent 16 years hiding “underground.” The problem was that she couldn’t figure out how such a big man could have remained underground for so long. “It must have been very cramped,” she recalls thinking.

Her mother was, as she describes her, “a born critic of everything.” Setsubun, the February festival to welcome the harbingers of spring, was not celebrated in the household. This is the time when people throw beans, proclaiming, “Out with the demons, in with happiness!”

“I don’t like this philosophy about demons being sent out and happiness being brought in,” said her mother. “We don’t throw beans in this house.”

When Yonehara was in kindergarten, her mother was told that “your daughter is a problem because she doesn’t know the meaning of cooperativeness.” Her mother denounced the kindergarten and immediately pulled her out of it.

Later, when Yonehara and her little sister, Yuri, started school, their mother didn’t approve of the custom dictating that girls should carry red backpacks and boys, black; so she sent her two small daughters to school with brown ones.

Disgruntled by many aspects of postwar Japan, the girls’ parents took them to what was then Czechoslovakia, where, from 1959 until 1964, they attended the international school in Prague. That was naturally a Russian-run one, given Czechoslovakia’s satellite status in the Soviet bloc. Upon their return to Japan, they had trouble fitting in to the Japanese school system.

“I was totally confounded by the tests I was given in my new Japanese school. Virtually all of them were multiple-choice questions about facts,” Yonehara relates.

One of the questions she recalled was this:

“In what year was the Kamakura Shogunate established? Choose the correct answer from the list. 1) 1868; 2) 1622; 3) 1497; 4) 1192.”

“When I was first confronted with questions like this, I couldn’t believe it and thought it was some kind of joke. It’s understandable why I thought that. For five years at my school in Prague I had been given only essays and oral exams that tested our grasp of knowledge. … In Japan they should have been giving us questions like … ‘Discuss the economic background of the establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate,’ or ‘Why was the shogunate established in Kamakura not in Kyoto?’ “

Mari and Yuri Yonehara were only two of tens of thousands of returnee Japanese who were compelled to adjust to the strictures of rote learning that characterized Japanese educational methodology in the last century and, to a great extent, continue to do so today.

But, while most returnees come back to Japan from North America, Western Europe or another country in Asia, their narrative is extraordinary.

Perhaps my favorite in this collection of essays is “The Sacred Territories of Work.” In this, Yonehara tells of an incident that occurred in the town of Okhotsk in the Russian Far East. She had gone into the post office to buy stamps for a picture postcard. There were two windows at the counter in the post office, one for ordinary mail and the other for special delivery. Though no clerk was at the window for ordinary mail, she stood and waited there.

“Won’t do you any good to stand there,” said the clerk sitting at the special delivery window. “The clerk’s off today. Sick.”

“Well then, would you please sell me some stamps?”

“What? Are you serious?” retorted the clerk, glaring at Yonehara. “No way I could do that. What do you think? I’d never invade another person’s territory of work.”

“I looked around the post office,” she wrote. “The other clerks there were lazing about, chatting with each other and playing chess. As this was the only post office in Okhotsk, I had no choice but to forego sending my picture postcard of the town.”

After finishing her secondary schooling in Japan, Yonehara went on to major in Russian at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, topping it of with an M.A. in Russian Literature from the University of Tokyo. Her spoken and written Russian were spectacular. She was called upon to interpret for many eminent Russians who came to Japan, among them Boris Yeltsin, first president of the Russian Federation.

Yonehara’s talents did not stop there. She wrote brilliant and insightful nonfiction that won her major prizes, including the Yomiuri Literary Prize, the Kodansha Essay Prize, the very prestigious Oya Soichi Nonfiction Prize and the Bunkamura Deux Magots Literature Award.

After her sister married the playwright and novelist Hisashi Inoue, Yonehara moved close to where they lived in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. But

then, at the height of her powers as an author and interpreter, she was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away in May 2006, age 56.

She was fine the last time I spoke with her. I had gone to Ishigaki Island in the Yaeyama Islands far to the south in Okinawa Prefecture, where I gave a public lecture. They asked me if I could recommend someone suitable for the next year, and I immediately suggested Mari Yonehara. They were delighted; and I phoned her up straight afterwards.

“Mari? It’s Roger. Have you ever been to Ishigaki Island, down in Okinawa?”

“No, I haven’t,” she said.

“Look, would you like to go?”

There was a long pause.

“Well, uh, it’s very kind of you, but, you know …”

“Oh no. Not with me!”

I explained the situation, and she kindly agreed to do the public lecture. It wasn’t long after her trip there that she was given her diagnosis.

I never had the chance to ask her how she liked Ishigaki, or for that matter a myriad other things that I still wanted to know — about life in Prague in the early ’60s; about how it felt to be a returnee from a country that did not conform in the minds of Japanese to the usual places people came back home from; about whether Japan will really some day become a cosmopolitan nation where tolerance and openness rule the day.

With this book, and her other books, we can get some idea. What a wonderful and fulfilled life she had — and what a difference she is still making to all of us.