Language | BILINGUAL

Rest, weary Japan traveler, and read this riveting ‘ishibumi’

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

The character 碑 (ishibumi, or read hi when used as a suffix) refers to memorials and markers erected at roadsides and elsewhere to commemorate people or mark events.

When visiting Yokohama last month, I had a few minutes to kill before a restaurant reservation, so I let Burritt “Burt” Sabin cajole me into walking to the end of the Isezakicho Mall, a promenade with shops and restaurants across the street from JR Kannai Station. Burt — author of “A Historical Guide to Yokohama: Sketches of the Twice-risen Phoenix” (2002) — wanted to show me an ishibumi commemorating 伊勢佐木町ブルース (Isezakichō Burūsu,”Isezakicho Blues”), a big hit song for vocalist Mina Aoe in 1968.

The inscription begins 「伊勢佐木町」の名は、故青江三奈さん歌唱の伊勢佐木町ブルースによって、全国の人々に知られることになりました。 (“Isezakicho” no na wa, ko-Aoe Mina-san kasho no “Isezakichō Burūsu” ni yotte, zenkoku no hitobito ni shirareru koto ni narimashita; Through the late Aoe Mina’s song “Isezakicho Blues,” the name of “Isezakicho” became known to people throughout the country.

It continues: 当組合では、青江さんに深く感謝し、記念として、この地に歌碑を建立いたしました (Tō-kumiai de wa, Aoe-san ni fukaku kansha shi, kinen toshite, kono chi ni kahi o konryū itashimashita; This association is deeply grateful to Ms. Aoe, and in commemoration erected a memorial to the song on this spot).

“Isezakicho Blues” is immediately recognizable for its brisk opening orchestral riff, the tempo of which is interspersed with what can be described as 喘ぎ(aegi, gasping or heavy breathing).

The song’s lyrics, however, were not particularly “blue”; nor were they the least bit erotic. They began: あなた知ってる、港ヨコハマ、街の並木に、潮風吹けば (Anata shitteru, minato Yokohama, machi no namiki ni, shiokaze fukeba; A place you know, the port of Yokohama, along its tree-lined streets, the salty sea breeze wafts).

On New Year’s Eve, 1968, during the broadcast of NHK’s 紅白歌合戦 (Kōhaku Uta Gassen; literally, “Red and White Song Battle”) yearend live music show, NHK nevertheless insisted the song’s opening notes be censored. As one blogger noted: 「アハ~ン」 イントロの溜息が、色っぽすぎると、カズー(おもちゃ のラッパのような楽器)の音色に差し替えられた (“Ahān” intoro no tameiki ga iroppo-sugiru to, kazū (omocha no rappa no yō-na gakki) no neiro ni sashikaerareta; As the “ahhh” sighs in her introduction were seen as excessively erotic, they were replaced by notes from a kazoo [an instrument resembling a toy trumpet]).

A famous saying goes that in Italy all roads lead to Rome, and in ancient times the city had the legendary Milliarium Aureum — golden milestone — to mark the actual starting point. The Japanese equivalent is the 日本国道路元標 (Nihon Koku-dōro Genpyō, the kilometer-zero marker) at Nihonbashi in Tokyo. This indicates the point from which the 五街道 (gokaidō, five major roads), including the famous 東海道 (Tōkaidō, “Eastern Sea Road”), began.

Even today, no fewer than seven of Japan’s 国道 (kokudō, national highways) — numbers 1 (which extends 806.6 kilometers all the way to Osaka) plus 4, 6, 14, 15, 17 and 20 — have their starting points here.

The bronze marker, a circle inside a square measuring 50 centimeters on each side, is located at a small plaza on the northwest corner of the bridge, just across the street from the main branch of the Mitsukoshi department store. It’s possible you’ve even walked past it and not noticed.

From Nihonbashi we hop on the Ginza subway line to Shibuya, perhaps most famous now for its スクランブル交差点 (Sukuranburu Kōsaten, scramble intersection) outside the station. From the 109 Building (whose name is a play on the owning corporation, Tōkyū, although it’s more commonly known as Ichi Maru Kyū), take the right fork along the former 東急本店通り (Tōkyū Honten Dōri), also known as 文化村通り (Bunkamura Dōri). On your left, just after くじら屋 (Kujiraya), a whale meat restaurant, and before the big Yamada Denki appliance shop, is a metal post about 1.2 meters high with the writing, 恋文横丁ここにありき (Koibumi Yokochō koko ni ariki, Love Letter Lane was here). In literary Japanese, the suffix き (ki) is used instead of あった (atta, was) to denote the past tense.

Recently I noticed that the old, weatherbeaten wood post had been replaced by a metal one. Beside it, an explanatory inscription begins, 恋文横丁の名は、この地に恋文の代筆業を営むものたちが集まっていたことに由来する (Koibumi Yokochō no na wa, kono chi ni koibumi no daihitsugyō o itonamu mono-tachi ga atsumatteita koto ni yurai suru, Love Letter Lane got its name from the scribes who gathered here to conduct the business of writing love letters).

The scribes’ clients were mostly local women who had formed friendships with American soldiers after the war. They paid a small fee to dictate letters in Japanese, which the writers transcribed into English.

In the days before machine translation, this is how things got done.