Because there isn’t a great deal of easy work in steamy Beppu, I’ve taken up some freelance editing work while I wait on certain work opportunities to develop over the next few months. This editing work involves editing about 100 very short (200 word or so) articles by adult Japanese students of English, written casually on topics drawn from daily life. This is a bit like doing a kind of vox populi of ordinary Japanese life – how often does a person get to read the opinions of 100 normal people every month in their own country, let alone in another? The articles cover a wide range of topics, from political topics (including whaling, environmental issues, the declining population) to what someone had for lunch yesterday. But there are some interesting trends and ideas in the articles, which have surprised me.

Japanese seasonal writing transcends the mother tongue

Even a passing familiarity with Japanese literary and cultural traditions is enough to acquaint the foreigner with the idea that Japanese people have a strong sense of the importance of the seasons and the cycles through which they move. Furthermore, this sense is an important aesthetic motif in writing, art and philosophy. I was slightly surprised to discover that not only does this sense extend into everyday writing by everyday Japanese, but it extends into their writing in a second language, no matter how amateur their writing skill. Some writers will speak self-consciously of the importance of the seasons, but much more common are essays about a seasonal topic or activity, with no self-referential cultural knowledge. They simply report on or revel in the seasonal activities they love. These topics come in waves, so in April I received a bunch of essays about hanami (cherry-blossom viewing); in late April, articles about the beauty of walking through falling blossoms; early May, articles about children’s day and koinobori (carp streamers) in the wind; in late May, now, I am receiving a huge pile of articles about children’s sports days, which occur in the end of May. In the middle, there were a series of articles about what people did in their week-long Golden Week holidays, often about their experience of “nature.”

The tradition of writing about nature is language-invariant

A lot of the articles, regardless of the season, involve descriptions of the natural world and trips into it. This doesn’t surprise me in a nation that is essentially Shinto (though of course, the Japanese will tell you they’re not religious, possibly while they’re taking you to a shrine, where they will, of course, pray). It’s interesting the extent to which it enters their writing in a second language, and the extent to which even with limited language skills the writers are able to convey a sense of love of nature built around mountains and seasonal changes, and imbued with a feeling of mystery.

Miyazaki’s characters are real

Another noteworthy point is that Miyazaki Hayao‘s anime are so imbued in the national consciousness that they don’t need introduction. If someone visits the house on which My Neighbour Totoro was based, they don’t need to preface their activity with this information; they just say, “I visited Satsuki and Mei’s house.” It’s almost as if Mei-chan is every Japanese person’s neighbour.

Heian-era ideas never change

Some of the topics seem to emerge straight from a lost Japanese era, and are striking for their eternal Japaneseness. These articles read like a vox populi conducted in the Heian era, or taken from the Tale of Genji. For example:

  • I have received several articles about haiku-gathering trips, in which groups of Japanese people go to an area of nature during a period of seasonal change, wander about for a few hours, take some time to write a few haiku, then gather in a restaurant or tea house and compare haiku. One was even assigned a grade. This is a level of formality about the interaction of Japanese language and nature which, in addition to being largely unheard of in the West, is a direct tradition inherited from prior eras
  • I have received some articles about manners which read like a Heian court epic, particularly articles about the disputes between a woman and her daughter over wedding plans, or about the behaviour of “ladies” in a workplace towards the men, and how it is simultaneously elegant and deceptive
  • Many articles will invoke timeless images of Japanese life, in passing, which immediately attach an image of historical continuity to the work – images like the koinobori, or being able to see Fuji from your backyard, mentioning falling sakura in connection with an activity unrelated to the season, and so on.
  • Sometimes, the essay has a cunning, sonnet-like trick in which the essay builds through a gentle and wistful tone, but in the last sentence or paragraph suddenly changes direction completely to deliver a hard, vicious or cruel conclusion about the personality of the author or one of their interlocutors. I’m convinced this is a trick of a historical form of Japanese writing, though I don’t know which kind

Japanese wistfulness is independent of writing skill

A lot of the writing I receive has a wistful and elusive tone that one might associate with a more professionally-done style of Japanese writing, or with historical writing. It’s interesting that even people with quite low-level English skills manage to capture the slight sense of vagueness that enters normal Japanese conversation, along with the passive acceptance of other peoples’ traits, and the roundabout way of presenting strongly-held opinions or uncomfortable facts. I would have thought that representing national character by nuance in a story is a trait of a skilled writer, but it turns out that this seems to occur even where the English level is quite low. The style seems to mostly survive editing, though sometimes I feel like I have to bend the rules of English to preserve a style that is obviously of the author’s own making, even if not deliberately done.

About the picture: taken from the story “Yuki Watari” (Crossing the snow) by Miyazawa Kenji, illustrations by Katao Ryo, which I bought for my partner’s birthday.