Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I've read a short story titled "Notebook" by Agoto Kristof (1935-), a Hungarian writer. It was a Japanese translation. The book was originally written in 1986 in French with the title “Le Grand Cahier”, translated as the big notebook.

At first, I mistook her name as Agatha Christie. Agoto Kristof received the European prize for French literature for "Notebook" the year it was printed, won the 2001 Gottfried Kellear Award in Switzerland and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 2008. A sudden arrival of a star writer!

The book is now translated into more than 30 languages. The Japanese edition is titled "A Diary of Mischievous Boys" and I thought it was a good title after I’ve read it. I looked up its Spanish edition and lo and behold, it is titled “Claus and Lucas”. There were no such names in the book. They were simply referred to as “we.” I wondered how they got the names. I found out that the book had two sequels, making up a trilogy. It seems those names were introduced in the sequels.

The book dealt with a twin brother left with their “grandma” in the country by their mother during World War II. Their father was sent to the front as a war correspondent. Grandma, widowed and living alone, illiterate and filthy, had farms and livestock to care for. “I’ll put you to work, so don’t fret. Food isn’t free here either.” She was harsh and merciless to the twins. Here the twins learned life’s most precious skills for survival – to lie, steal, fight, beg and blackmail, but most of all, endure.

I compared the "Notebook" story to Seita (14-years old) and Setsuko (4-years old), a brother and sister story of The Grave of the Fireflies by Akiyuki Nosaka (1930-) which I introduced in an earlier blog post. Their father was drafted into the navy when the war started. When Kobe was bombed, they lost their mother and home. They were taken care of by their mother’s cousin, but after the war ended, they chose to live by themselves rather than being mistreated and uncomfortable. They lived in a cave used for a bomb shelter but they didn’t know how to get food. Setsuko died first, Seita next. They were honest and naive, weak and inexperienced.

I understand Nosaka wrote the story from his own experience. It was similar with Agoto, who later published her autobiographical story. Agoto was invited to Japan to speak in 1995, the year I returned to Japan from the U.S. Her speech in Japan was transcribed as “Illiterate", her autobiography.

She was born in Csikvand, western Hungary, near Csorna or Gyor, midpoint between Budapest and Vienna. Her mother’s native tongue was Hungarian, but as the war progressed, she fled close to the Austro-Hungarian border and spoke German. Then everyone had to learn Russian under their rule but she wrote she and her teachers all sabotaged in protest. She fled to Austria with her baby, and at each stop she begged in German for milk for her baby. Eventually she settled in Switzerland and started learning French at the age of 25. She thought she was totally illiterate in French. Even now, she cannot speak and write as a French native, but does the best she can. She was very happy when she was welcomed in Japan. Many Japanese have been inspired to learn and write French because of her.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Changing Nature of Dear Miss Breed’s Popularity

Three years after its publication, there has been a definite change in how the Japanese translation of Dear Miss Breed is being received by the public. The translation was published by Kashiwa Shobo in mid-2008. During the first year, I remember, reviewers were all syndicated professionals. They mostly gave very favorable comments which seemed to trigger a chain reaction of similar reviews. Mr. Seinosuke Nakashima, an art historian and essayist, highly recommended the book for young people, which I very much appreciated. I also received a personal thank-you from a reader for my translation effort.

Dear Miss Breed, the original English book by Joanne Oppenheim may have been first introduced to the Japanese in 2007 in an article written by Dr. Keiichi Ogawa for the Kanagawa Newspaper prior to the release of my translation. Dr. Ogawa, a Yokohama City Library Headmaster, visited San Diego City Library in early 2007. (San Diego is the sister city of Yokohama.) His visit happened to coincide with Clara Breed’s 100th birthday and was presented with Joanne’s book. He raced through the book on his return flight to Japan and was very impressed. He submitted his book review to a local newspaper. I was working hard on the translation at the time not knowing about Dr. Ogawa’s review. Unintentionally, I did a search on Dear Miss Breed online and found a fervent plea from one of the readers of the Kanagawa paper who commented,“Can someone please translate the book for me?” I was surprised and intrigued. I contacted Dr. Ogawa to inquire about the background of his introduction while speeding up the translation process. I got a personal thank-you from that young reader in Kanagawa when the translation was finally published.

The new trends I mentioned at the outset are l) the book is now being read by young children and 2) Miss Breed has become a role model for librarians.

l) I'm happy to see my translation being classified as a “non-fiction picture book." A monthly magazine called "Bookshelves for Children" and a research firm, "Books for Japanese Children," both named Dear Miss Breed as their top selection. My original intent was to target children even though I received many comments that the subject matter may be a little too harsh for children.

2) Librarians from major cities including Yokohama, Shizuoka, Fukuoka and others created a traveling "Tamashii Juku" or "Tamashii School" training Symposium. The first symposium was held in Shizuoka and I heard they used "Clara Breed" as a role model and used my translation as the textbook. I heard many public libraries are equally enthused and are following the lead of Yokohama and Shizuoka librarians. A book called Librarian, the Sorceress was published recently.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Love Conquers All - Part 2

"In 1999, a big sculpture 'Hopes of Hungary' by a Japanese artist was unveiled in the central park of Szekesfehervar, attended by many Hungarians, including the city’s mayor. Szekesfehervar, an old historical town, is 60 kilometers (40 miles) southwest of Budapest. In 2001, about 1,000 Hungarians celebrated the induction ceremony of the "Garden of Philosophy" consisting of eight statues built on Gellert Hill, Budapest, by the same sculptor. In 2005, another sculpture by the same Japanese artist was erected in Oradea, Romania, and both Hungarians and Romanians gathered to commemorate the friendly reconciliation between the two nations."

"These three events, however, were not reported by any Japanese news media. Many Japanese tourists head for Fishermen's Bastion, dismissing the Garden of Philosophy, which is within 100 meters from the Fishermen's Bastion. The Japanese travel agency had never guided the tours to the above sculptures."

The above two paragraphs are from the preface of the book "Cries of Danube", the second paragraph sounding a little harsh. The photo of the "Hopes of Hungary" statue itself is really awesome and astounding, embodying Nandor's incarnation of an anti-war motif and cries from the heart!

Toru-san was right in calling Nandor Wagner a Japanese artist because he was naturalized as a Japanese citizen in 1975. My trip to Budapest was in 2005 and had I known about it, I would have visited the Garden of Philosophy. But the distance from the said Fishermen's Bastion must be more than two kilometers and the roads very hilly. I was at the Gellert Hotel and hot springs and circled around the nearby citadel on foot on Gellert Hill. I found on the map the name of Orom utca, close to the said garden, but it needs to be annotated better or you need a good guide.

More time is needed for the information to be disseminated or there needs to be better publicity. I checked the official Wagner website.* As of August 17, 2010, I counted 1,000 visitors consisting of 700 Japanese, 165 Hungarians, 67 Americans, and 36 Swedes. All other nationalities were ones and twos.

What makes it difficult, in my opinion, is the name of the organization taking care of Nandor's 30 years of labor in Japan. It is called Tao Research Institute of World Culture & Development. Nandor himself was reported to have said it would take a century or more for his Garden of Philosophy concept to be understood.

Five figures stand around the center of the garden. They are Abraham, Echnaton, Jesus, Buddha and Lao Tse, which symbolizes different cultures and religions of the world. They are surrounded by three rings of statues, which represent religious (Kamisama, Hotokesama, Isten or Allah), philosophical (Gahdhi, Darma, St. Francis) and judicial (Hamurabi, Justinianus, Shotoku-Taishi) worlds.

Nandor conceived three complete sets of the Garden of Philosophy, one to be built in Japan (completed), one in Hungary (completed), and one in the U.S.A.(in progress).

l) Official Nanor Wagner website
2) An English written book Wagner Nandor (2006) by Tibor Wehner, (art historian) available from Holnap Kiado, Budapest, Hungary
3) Cries of Donau, (2008) by Toru Shimomura, Gentosha, Tokyo. Toru's father is Kojin Shimomura (1884-1955), who wrote The Story of Jiro and A Book of Heaven and Earth - stories from Confucian Analects.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Love Conquers All - Part 1

Happy New Year to all my Readers and Followers. Wanted to start the New Year with a two-parter...


When I go into the city library, I usually first sit to check books I want, indexing by author, title, publisher, etc. and get it printed before proceeding into the racks. This day was different. Maybe there were too many people ahead of me occupying the reference desk. I was standing at the art section rack with books on artists, architects and sculptors. Then my eyes caught this book – Cries of Danube. And the author was – Toru S. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He’s my old friend. I double checked his name. Correct! He might be embarrassed if I call him my big brother. But he was practically that upon my first arrival in New York City in the early 1960's. Toru-san helped me get my feet wet.

The non-fiction book was about a Hungarian sculptor, named Nandor Wagner (1922 -1997), who resided and died in Japan as his adopted country, married to a Japanese woman who was his art student in Sweden. Otto Wagner (1841-1918), the famous Austrian architect was the brother of his grandfather, Wilhelm Wager. Yes, I visited a number of buildings Otto designed when I visited Vienna after Budapest.

Grandfather Wilhelm had served as an aide de camp for Franz Joseph, the Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary. Nandor's father was a dentist in Oradea, Romania in Transylvania, closer to the Hungarian border. Nandor was born endowed with artistic talents and had surprised friends, as well as teachers, in school, but became a frequent target of bullying as a minority Hungarian. He rebelled against his father and pursued art instead of an expected dental career. He became a self-supporting student at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts in Budapest. About the time to graduate, however, he chose to enter the military academy and went to war. He was assigned to the Transylvania Mountains where he fought a heroic battle and suffered defeats and injuries. Luckily the war ended when he was hospitalized on Margaret Island, Budapest, which was occupied by British forces.

War was over, but he went through chaotic times resisting the communist Government and even returned home beyond the border, as an enemy. He was saved by help from friends out of Oradea prison, and escaped arrest as one of the key leaders of the 1956 Uprising in Budapest. He fled to Sweden with his first wife, Dora, and children, and had to start life all over again. Dora was depicted as a squatter tenant, threatening suicide if refused. There wasn’t much romance. And it was Dora who got a teacher’s job as the family's bread earner in Sweden. Nandor had to rent an atelier separately to work as an artist. The student he was introduced by a friend to tutor was Chie Gondo, a Japanese wife of an expatriate Japanese scientist.

I have to skip details of how they fell in love and conquered all the complexities of two divorces. I can imagine how Chie had met oppositions from her parents, in view of their social standing and moral traditions. Nandor didn’t even own any nationality to claim, a prerequisite to enter Japan.

In 1966, Chie and Nandor got formally married in Oskarshamn, Sweden. Chie was 36, and Nandor was 44. Three years later, they immigrated to Japan and settled in Mashiko-cho, a suburb in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture. (Mashiko-cho is best known for Mashiko ceramic ware, 20 kilometers away from Utsunomiya, the Capital of Tochigi Prefecture). Utsunomiya has a population of half a million and is about 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Tokyo.

l) Official Nanor Wagner website
2) An English written book Wagner Nandor (2006) by Tibor Wehner, (art historian) available from Holnap Kiado, Budapest, Hungary
3) Cries of Donau, (2008) by Toru Shimomura, Gentosha, Tokyo. Toru's father is Kojin Shimomura (1884-1955), who wrote The Story of Jiro and A Book of Heaven and Earth - stories from Confucian Analects.