Sawako Nakayasu translating Ito Hiromi
original poem titles
The dappled cat takes to the sky /Madaraneko ga sora o tobu
Congratulations on your destruction /Kanokogoroshi
Harakiri /Harakiri (in katakana)
Part of a living man /Ikita otoko no ichibubun
There are many ways to say “I” in Japanese, and then we go around avoiding its usage. Most of Ito’s writing takes place in the first person, where she uses various means to refer to herself and others. In some cases, she uses her own name (as well as that of her daughter) in third person with various forms of address, confusing issues of authorship and verisimilitude.
Ito also uses the three systems of writing—hiragana, katakana, and kanji—in unconventional ways. For example, the deliberate use of hiragana gives a childish, innocent effect, as in the writing of a child who has yet to learn the corresponding kanji. Katakana is essentially a phonetic alphabet, mainly used for foreign words.
[Part of a living man] ——the English translation is littered with “I”s, yet it appears only three times in the original Japanese text (where Ito uses the term atashi, a female-specific “I” that has a young or naïve quality). The speed and rhythm of this piece makes any use of “I” cumbersome and unnecessary. Also, this piece shows evidence of the sekkyo-bushi and joruri  which form part of Ito’s influences—musically they reflect a rushing sonority typical of these oral poetic traditions, while the content has shifted dramatically to suit her needs.
[Congratulations on your destruction] ——Ito uses the most common watashi, but in the last section refers to a “Hiromi”-san. If I were translating straightforward prose I probably would not include the –san, but in this case the effect is curious: the author implicates herself more directly in the story by using her own name; meanwhile its formal, third-person form of address creates an impersonal distance. Similarly, Kanoko is the name of her real daughter, yet she writes her name using the katakana alphabet—creating another distance.
[Together] ——we have Hiromi-chan, with her name in katakana. The –chan ending is often used with children, girls in particular. With adults it is used only for women, and is either intimate or condescending.
[Harakiri] ——uses watakushi, the most formal way to say “I.” It goes along with the archaic, refined and overly respectful tone of the poem. Although it is more common and correct to write this in kanji, she writes it in hiragana to distinguish it from the shortened, more commonly used watashi.
[The dappled cat takes to the sky] —— the “I” is seldom articulated, and when it is, as watashi, in hiragana.
profanity, taboos, appropriateness
Ito’s usage of profanity and taboo is interesting when placed in the context of the English language. It is always a challenge for me to figure out what degree of “badness” each situation implies, because the sense of badness itself is culturally very differently manifested. In Japan there is no such thing as profanity, cursing, censorship of specific words—the media seems to be more relaxed about such things than the American media. Because Japanese language and culture have so much hierarchy structured into it, it is assumed, and terribly important, that people understand what is appropriate when—and thus no words are singled out as “bad,” as is done in the US. In practice, the Japanese equivalent of English swear words are never appropriate for women to say, but when they do use them, it comes across sounding incorrect, or as if they are speaking like a man. This is one of the many ways in which Ito’s writing breaks from Japanese literary traditions, creating a tension between vocabulary which generally falls outside the domain of female discourse, and the delivery of such language in a writing style that reflects typical feminine speech patterns. This style of feminine speech-like writing is practically impossible to reproduce in translation, especially in a relatively democratic language such as English. In “Part of a living man,” where this is most evident, I tried to recreate the effect by preserving as much as possible the hesitant, indecisive yet rushed quality of the writing, yet feel that it is still quite far from the original.
I also came to suspect that the Japanese modesty about physical, bodily matters are reflected in the dictionaries. Ordinarily it is quite simple to look up any word in the extensively cross-indexed kanwa (chinese character) dictionaries, but with many of the words which had to do with the body, sex, or physiology, while they were indeed listed in the dictionary, they were less thoroughly indexed, less accessible, than other, more standard words.
notes on “Congratulations on your destruction”
This poem originally appeared in the early eighties, a time when Japanese society was paying lavish attention to the glories of motherhood and maternal instincts—it was the cultural tendency, and tended to celebrate it to the exclusion of all else. “Congratulations on your destruction” came at a time when it was completely impossible to imagine that a woman might have such thoughts towards her child; there was no suggestion of it anywhere in the public consciousness.
The intent of the poem is not to sensationalize, nor to celebrate the literal destruction of the baby, but rather to upset the rigid social lines between accepted, idealized female experience, and everything else which falls outside. It foregrounds the very disparate treatment by family and friends towards women who have just given birth, as opposed to women who have had abortions, or women having difficulty coping with motherhood. While this is rather characteristic of the general difficulty that Japanese society has in dealing with difference of any kind, it is also probably true that people in many cultures find it difficult to cope with such non-idealized positions of female experience.
The poem is horrific—and Ito utilizes poetry’s ability to straddle between fiction and reality to situate the poem inside the mind of a woman experiencing her motherhood in a terrifying, abnormal way. The events are fictional, yet the names are real—as are the original impulses that created the poem. Ito brings forth the image of the dying bird as a metaphor for the human—which is terrible in itself, but is amplified by the dissociated, removed tone of the narrator. It depicts a mental state which may well be reached by a woman at the end of her capacity to cope, and Ito forces the reader to acknowledge that this state is in fact possible.
It seems that postwar Japanese literature often engages the disturbing side of human nature—probing into incest, torture, violent acts towards other people or animals, strange fascinations—and even if we don’t feel encouraged to commit or even speak about these subjects, there remain residuals, hints, notes that ring somewhere inside us, however faintly or loudly. Literature, poetry, language—are all connected by the struggle to depict or express “the overwhelming experience of the vastness and uncertainty of the world, and by what often seems to be the inadequacy of the imagination that longs to know it.”  Hejinian writes this in reference to language poetry, in her discussion of open versus closed texts, yet it can also be applied to a more content-driven work such as Ito’s, where we are made uncomfortably aware of our own limitations and complexities.
notes on “Part of a living man”
Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653—1725); Japanese dramatist; wrote over one hundred plays, mostly for the Bunraku (puppet theater), and is credited for adding literary value to the puppet theater.
the Abe Sada story referenced in this piece is a true story about a woman in Japan in the 1930s. The tale is not infrequently referred to in Japanese literature, and is also the basis of the film “In the Realm of the Senses.”
From Watashi wa Anjuhime-ko de aru: Ito Hiromi shishu (Tokyo : Shichosha 1993)
wife’s death I kept photographing the sky, Araki-san was saying
From Ito Hiromi Shishu (Tokyo : Shichosha, Gendaishi bunko 1988)
To find the size of a fetus, best to use one of the four limbs. In this
case, it’s about right for fifteen weeks.”
this time three years ago
lost it, my temper
so I found struggling on the road
on your destruction
on your destruction
The cherry blossoms are falling
yes I’d like to make him suffer, writhe in agony for quite some time
is to be beautiful, thinks he
is, after all, a man’s aesthetic, thinks he
blossoms in full bloom are to drop their petals, thinks he
I wish to die while I’m beautiful, thinks he
“Let’s pee together”
Which is to say, this is very easily done between girls. One declares she is going to pee and squats down; another is invariably persuaded, pulls down her underwear and squats. Not two, not three, but four girls line up facing a ditch, pull on their underwear and release their pee.
need to pee”
you scoot up a little?”
(My home faces East on the first floor of a six-story building. There is a small yard attached.)
By the way, my cat in Tokyo is in heat right now. There is a plant covered by a black plastic bag out on the patio, and this is where cats spray. So cats are constantly coming and going on my patio, and each time they stop and inspect this plastic bag. Usually I catch this as they’ve turned their butts to me on their way out. Between the hind legs of these cats pointing their butts at me, I often see their balls hanging. None of the cats that come around are neutered. And these balls look more round than usual. There’s some snow left on the ground. From diligently walking around in it, their fur has gotten much shabbier than normal. However, what I see as they leave is their scraggly butts, more joyous than usual. And then comes the meowing. It’s a sweet cry. I’ve only heard the cries of real human babies a handful of times so this is no accurate impression, but I’m inclined to say that the meowing of these cats are much like the cries of a human baby. I find myself investigating them, their source. (I am holding the cat in heat in my belly.) When a cat leaves, I am left with that stain-pocked butt and his two joyous balls. A pause, then the meowing, then a different cat appears. There is no apparent connection between the meowing and the appearance of the cat. But I take into account the relationship between the two, anticipate some regularity in timing, and wait for the cat to appear after the meowing. I’ve never seen an unspayed tabby cat around here. The tomcats with stain-pocked butts and joyous balls never find what they’re looking for.
By the way, Tsuda-san, my next door neighbor, keeps six cats in the same space as my apartment. I’m not all that close with Tsuda-san, but she gave me a cat once, and I’ve been inside her house. Of course these six cats aren’t too friendly with someone who’s been over only two or three times, but when I went there most recently, one of the six was in heat, and she came and rubbed up against me, lifting and lowering her butt and meowing incessantly. This is the cat that, normally when you approach her, would brace her head down low and put out her claws. This tabby cat in heat was the only one that would let me hold her. She kept her claws in, leaned her weight on me, and continued her up-down butt motion on my shoulder. The other five cats have all been neutered. These six cats are all kept within screen doors. If you open the same front door as mine, she has the same wallpaper as I, and in the entryway with the same shoe-closet as mine, she keeps the litter box. The kitty litter and shreds of newspaper are dry, but there is a slight odor in the area. It’s more the smell of urine than of shit. Inside the room there are very few furnishings—just a dresser, a dining table, and a plastic box lined with plants. The plants are neatly wrapped in plastic or newspaper and tied with string. And in the corner are cages and baskets for the cats, with the doors open, where the cats go and rest as they like. There are cats lurking on the dresser, behind the dresser, under the table, inside the plastic box. Only the cat in heat comes out into the lit area where people are, rubbing up against the floor and walls, raising and lowering her butt. Tsuda-san looks about thirty-five, six. She started keeping cats after her divorce. Once she started, she ended up with many. She’s had children. She’s also had a miscarriage. She drops these things into the conversation as if it were nothing. Her story never develops beyond that. I know Tsuda-san’s last name but not her first. Her six cats, I know all their names. The one in heat is named Julie.
By the way, I wanted to write about my friend who always wants to talk about the anus and defecating. She talks about the anus and defecating as much as she talks about her husband. We’ve been close friends for about fifteen years now. It’s not that all we have in common to talk about are husbands and anuses. We met each other before or after our first periods. Neither of us had had sex yet. Even after we’d met, neither of us had sex for years. In the fifteen years we’ve known each other, the time in which we’ve had sex regularly is shorter than the time before that. What we normally do is that I call her after a certain amount of time has passed. We talk like we did fifteen years ago, she tells me about her anus, and I take it in.
The anus talk continues.
Sometimes I am overwhelmed by this feeling:
“Let’s poop together”
Part of a living man
I hate dead flies, you know, but then again, even if they’re not dead, even if they’re alive, they just give me the chills. Like they carry some vestige of a previous life—it really scares me. So, except for the fly, normally we gape at corpses, right, and in that case, going from the fly to the fish, fish to mouse, and then to the cat, or something, and so the more distant it gets from myself, there’s less a sense of that revolting surprise, I think. Corpses are really, well, scary, right. Corpses are things that, deep in my heart, I’m always thinking that I want to see. So then, watching the river go by, I watch it, thinking, I want to see a corpse, I want to see a corpse. Lots of things go by, right, like trash, small stuff, bubbles, and among them, isn’t there something better, I think, like a corpse? and I’m always looking out for it. Sometimes, well, a mouse floats by, or more often a fish, and when I see it I think—there it is. A mouse, you see, it’s got hair, and it’s all wet, and you know in an instant as you see it floating down that its body is all hard. Usually its mouth is half open, I might see teeth or something. And so then—there it is—I feel this more strongly with a mouse than with a fish. Even more so with a cat. I get all giddy. Tickled. And then—if, perhaps, a human were to come floating down, well, it’s like—bingo! Of course it’s rather creepy, and it’s strange to say it makes me happy, but it’s something like that, I think. But, so, you have the corpse, right, and it catches my eye right away, takes my breath away, and I jump back, at first. It’s revolting. I don’t think it’s quite the same thing as getting chills. Neither can I call it just plain scary. It’s kind of like, something eerie. No, I don’t want to touch it. Even pointing at it makes me feel like there’s something on the tip of my finger, something sort of sticky, viscous, see? Now this is totally different from, well, that. Imagining killing someone, or depicting it somehow, reading something about that, and, um, masturbating is, after all—well there’s the act of killing, or being killed, that is, someone besides myself is being killed, you see. Me I’m just watching it. And as for the one that is getting killed, it’s no good unless it’s a woman, and a young woman at that, you see. So she gets hurt, and suffers, and dies, right, so there is suffering, right, and this is what I’m watching. So. I get excited. How do I say this. It’s like, I’m dissatisfied if there isn’t that sense of suffering. It’s as if that feeling gets transferred over to my own body, and then, well, it gives me pleasure. And not that it’s really transferred, the suffering she feels, but in my own emotions, it switches into the pleasure from masturbating, and then, I can feel it, it’s like, well, my interest in death, it was there in the first place, and I think there’s something else there as well, but let’s say it was there in the first place, and then yes, something like masturbating, which I did when I was younger, right, and then, well, there’s suffering, and then death, dying, right, that, and masturbating is, when you’re doing it, gradually your breathing gets rough, and then, you reach something like orgasm, then you’re finished, right, and this process is the same; now I don’t know because I’ve never seen a real death, but it’s like that in the deaths you see on TV and all. And you perform, as if suffering, as if close to intoxication, and it was the same, as the deal with masturbating. And then, well, dying. Well it’s different from suffering, but I wonder if it isn’t the same. So you see, if there’s no death there’s no orgasm. And that’s why when there’s no real death, like plain old S&M-type stuff, it isn’t that exciting. If you’re not suffering, your breathing doesn’t get rough, right? But really, it does, in reality. So, well, yes, there needs to be suffering. And so, for example, when I’m reading Chikamatsu, Chestnuts—dry shreds—hands offered thy moon, gasping stumbles of final writhing breath or, Buddha’s sword gashes toward—twists, remembers, how this—rolling unto pain, I get all excited. And then, right here, the hipbone, I think, the part of the hipbone that sticks out, the part you can roll with your knuckles, here, well I’d imagine that if you take a heavy kind of sword, swiftly gash right in at an angle from the front, that it’d feel good, I think this often. But when another poet writes Hinged waist slit open, sharp, in a moment floored, there isn’t much suffering so it doesn’t really move me. It’s all a fabrication, right? It’s not real. It’s all performance. Like acting or comics or books. I can’t help but think that even if it really happened, once it’s put down in words it turns into a fabrication. And then, these pictures of dead people, well they’re already dead. For me, as I look at these, I suppose that these people are already in rigor mortis, that they’re all white and waxy, or, or that they, they must be rotting away, is what I thought as I looked at them. And so then, whether they’re cut through the stomach or the heart, it’s just until they die, see, and this is all after that, you see, so for a living person to go on and die, though they’re dying, and so I think that getting excited at the scene where the woman gets killed, and the desire to see a corpse, well I have a feeling they’re probably completely different things. Yes, yes it’s different. Probably, I have a feeling it’s different. No, I feel that it is different. Curiosity. Excitement. Well, for as long as you look at it in the form of a photograph, I don’t think there’s much excitement in seeing a corpse. But, if I could actually witness a real death, a murder, I bet I’d get excited. But a corpse, after all, might not be something you can really get excited about. It’s kind of—it’s sort of like being held down, or like, heading towards, towards the interior. A corpse feels like a thing, I think there’s a thingness to it. So my mom is fat, right, and when she gets naked, you see these big huge chunks of meat stuck on her, that are her back and her belly. And then it’s not just like extra meat on a normal person’s body, no, it’s got a thickness to it, and when you touch it, it sort of gives, you can grab on to it. A freak! is how I felt. It’s a thing, I thought. And that was what was so funny about it, or rather, you couldn’t get sick of it, or you could kind of get into it, and it’s not that I get excited, but it’s just so fascinating that I find myself staring at it, it’s kind of like that, that feeling that I get. With interest. So then, if you remember, the Elephant Man—he was popular at one point—that, I bet, was kind of similar, I thought. And then, why is this so, I wondered, but, well, a human body becomes a thing, gets objectified when I look at it, I think. And then, well, I also wonder if a human body isn’t a thing in the first place, but, okay, in the first place, a person is the same as a person, right, my body is the same as your body; we’re the same that way, I think, but, when its shape gets deformed like that, it’s no longer the same, see, it becomes something different. And what is that something different, well, it’s a thing, or, an object, a substance, right, although it was originally the same thing, when it becomes something different it becomes all the more piqued, I think, my interest. And then, so a corpse is, after all, kind of like that, um, I think it was originally the same, right, but that it’s different, something like that, it’s like it becomes something different, or, it’s turned into something different, by death, yes, by death. We’re interested in things that are the same as us, right. And we feel somewhat distant from anything different. And then, here’s something that was once the same as me and now is different—I wonder if it isn’t even more interesting because of that, and then, even that, it’s like, it’s one thing if it’s still living, but a corpse, well it’s really a thing, has really turned into an object. The difference is even greater, so all the more the desire to see it, I think. Oh! um, you bite, right? When you get excited you might bite down; I wonder if it isn’t like that, although I don’t really know. Biting, it’s like, when you get carried away and you just chomp down, well you bite someone else, right, someone else’s body is living but to me it’s a thing, right, and to bite, it’s like, a thing, it’s really a thing, I want to confirm that it is, is why I bite it, I suspect, normally in a relationship, after all even if you’re having sex and it’s really a thing but it isn’t a thing, right, and when I bite, it’s like, my teeth, there’s something that gives resistance to my teeth, right, near the gums. Yes, when I see my partner’s body for the first time, it reminds me of that. Yes, a corpse, too. So that process of thingness, turning from something living, into a corpse. Yes, it’s there. I think it’s different. I don’t think it’s sadness. I don’t know, I’ve never witnessed the death of someone I would get sad for. It’s different, I don’t think it’s sadness. Maybe it’s just that they disappear. Spiritually. The existence of the person. If it was something I killed, cut, myself, I don’t think I’d be scared. Because it wasn’t dead in the first place. Yes, so I did the killing myself, right. In my hands, for example, if it were Sada Abe, it’d be wildly shaking, if you were choked you’d be shaking, I think I had that feeling, and then—death, right. The way I feel, a man while he’s living, a thing, after all he was a thing as well, I think, I kind of feel like he consisted of thingness, and, in the case of Sada Abe, it was regarded as a thing in the first place, and then it just happened to have become a genuine thing is all, I think. And so with sex, with liking, loving someone, if I was bound by these strong feelings, I think I could do it too, could choke a man to death, mess around with his corpse without feeling one bit afraid. Yep, I could. The whole process of the murder of a living thing, I was there, right, and now he’s dead, right, and laying on the floor. So even dead he’s still the same human, right. In one sense he turned from a thing into a thing, in another, from a living thing into a living thing, even if the substance of it changed a little, I think it was only just a transfer. I think. And so he dies, right, he falls limp, right, and I wonder what it takes for me to go out of my senses, if it’s about the same, how I myself will come to die, I don’t really get it. If you go and think about it, when you get choked, because you get stifled, your windpipe is obstructed and you can’t breathe anymore. You don’t get oxygen and you die from suffocation, in that sort of condition, but when you don’t get oxygen, I don’t really get what happens to what parts, how the lack of oxygen affects the body and leads to death. But if you think about it it’s like that, right. If you go and analyze it more and more. If I sit and really think about it it’s just change, death is. Biological. Which is why it isn’t scary. I don’t think Sada Abe was thinking about this as he killed, pulling hairs out. But if you actually were to do the killing part, your eyes would get fixated, right, and when you’re fixated, one by one, the parts combine to make a whole, and each part becomes visible, suffering, the inability to breathe, shaking, limpness, not breathing, and each single element, when they’re all combined, amount to murder and death, but each single element is a single circumstance. So the penis was cut off, right, carried around, right, close to the skin, blood seeping, and in that, squishy, a thing just like when it was living, I think, it was just like when it was living, part of a living man.
Bio: Ito Hiromi, born 1955, has been and is a leading figure in contemporary Japanese poetry. Much of her work balances her ties to the older roots of Japanese literature and culture with her modern sensibilities. Her subject matter often concerns the physical world of women’s issues, including sexuality and childbirth. In addition to several books of poetry, which include The Plants and the Sky, The Princess, The Collected Poems of Hiromi Ito, Green Plums, Family Art, and My name is Anju Himeko, she has published several books on alternative childrearing practices. She currently lives in San Diego, CA.
Bio: Sawako Nakayasu writes poetry, prose, and performance texts, translates poetry from the Japanese, and plays ice hockey. Recent short performances include Eye/Line Change performed at Mobius (Boston), and her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Kenning, Chain, 108, Lucilles (a broadside), and the anthology Luddites, Start Your Engines! forthcoming from Potes & Poets Press. She is the editor of [ factorial !press & magazine ], which publishes books, posters, and a journal of textual collaborations. Please contact Sawako_Nakayasu@brown.edu for more information.
 sekkyo-bushi literally means “sermon-ballad,” and is an oral tradition originated in the 9th or 10th century, performed by troubadours who drifted through the nation spreading Buddhist beliefs. Later it was performed with shamisen accompaniment and, along with joruri, became the basis of the Bunraku puppet theater.
 Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure,” in The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 49.