Books

A misanthropic memoir from Meiji Era Tokyo

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Kansuke Naka’s childhood memoir, “The Silver Spoon: Memoir of a Boyhood in Japan,” is a charming depiction of life in Meiji Era (1868-1912) Japan.

Its enduring status as one of Japan’s most-loved accounts of life in Tokyo at the beginning of the 20th century is due not only to Naka’s historical details, but also because it is a parable for our contemporary sense of isolation.

The Silver Spoon, by Kansuke Naka, Translated by Hiroaki Sato.
208 pages
Stone Bridge Press, Nonfiction.

The book follows Naka’s psychological journey from a young sickly boy raised by his indulgently compassionate aunt to a sensitive misanthrope on the brink of adulthood, experiencing his first stirrings of physical attraction.

Since the end of the Meiji Era, humans have increasingly felt isolated and misanthropic, be it the end of the 19th century or in the early 21st century.
“That may explain the best-selling status that ‘The Silver Spoon’ has maintained in Japan since the late 1930s,” says the memoir’s translator, Hiroaki Sato. “Many soldiers were known to have taken it to the front during the war.”

First serialized by the Asahi Shimbun in 1913 at the urging of famed novelist Natsume Soseki — a teacher of Naka’s — the memoir is divided into two parts: first, his early years and, later, growth as a young man. Written with the simple, sudden honesty of a child, the memoir captures the observations of its narrator with very few additions from the adult Naka’s perspective.

“Of all living creatures, human beings were the ones I disliked the most,” declares the young Naka, nicknamed “Kanbo” (“Octopus Boy”) by his family for his deep-set eyes.

From the center of bustling Tokyo, the watchful boy feels acutely different to the people around him: “For me to be born in the midst of Kanda was as inappropriate as for a kāppa (mythical water sprite) to be hatched in a desert,” he writes.

The shy Kanbo spends most of his early years clinging to the back of his aunt before the family moves to a quiet, rural area in western Tokyo.

The memoir is made up of poetic descriptions of short episodes Naka remembered, and Sato’s translation stays admirably consistent to the original. He adds copious notes on each page to further aid the translation, explaining many small details to fully reveal specifics about the era and locations, and to clarify any confusing meanderings of Naka’s pen.

It’s a rare glimpse into childhood without the layered remembrances of adulthood. Naka does not seem to be reflecting as much as simply recalling, without added sentiment nor dramatic flourishes.

Near the end of the memoir, as the 16-year-old Naka visits his aged aunt for the last time, the understated sadness of the moment seeps from the page as the awkward, misanthropic youth struggles with this important goodbye.

“The memoir brings both nostalgia and a revelation, a sense of being human, I imagine, to its readers,” Sato says.

Although more than just a nostalgic detailing of the past, the memoir is very much a window into Meiji Era Japan. Each page reveals a fascinating detail, whether it be the street vendors selling cinnamon stick candy or the retelling of Kanbo’s favorite fox drum folk tale.

“The Meiji Period is something that my generation of Japanese — or any generation — regard as our womb, the womb for today’s Japanese, as it were,” Sato explains. “We feel nostalgic for it. Our consciousness of Western thought and the Western way of thinking began in Meiji.”

Sato’s translation did not come easily. More than 40 years have passed since he first started the translation. Sondra Castile, a former conservator of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, to whom the book is dedicated, worked with Sato on the first 20 chapters of the manuscript when he came to New York in 1968. These chapters were published in the English-language periodical of his alma mater, Doshisha University in Kyoto, but rather than pushing ahead with the rest of the book, he became distracted by other work.

“I paid attention to other things, rather than translate the entire memoir,” Sato says. By “other things” he is referring to more than 40 published works of poetry and prose translations, and his own poetry, in addition to various scholarly articles and lectures.

Gary Snyder called Sato, “perhaps the finest translator of contemporary Japanese poetry into American English,” and it is fitting that Sato’s long translation career has circled back to this first project.

“I am proud and rather relieved that I’ve finally managed to have it out,” he says. Now that he’s finally excavated this treasure from Meiji’s past, he can look forward to his next work, “a pretty big book combining fictitious samurai stories and the historical ‘facts’ behind them.”

But as he says, “that’s another story.”