Category Archives: japanese literature

finally: vertical text and aozora on the kindle!

Trying to figure out how to a) display vertical Japanese text on almost anything, and b) get Aozora texts on my Kindle in a way that makes for pleasant reading, has been driving me mad for some short time now.

One reason I bought a Kindle, in fact, was to have a convenient way to read books in Japanese. My options are either to order paperbacks from Japan at exorbitant shipping costs, or (especially if the books aren’t available in paperback anyway) carry around thick photocopies or bad PDF scans of works from large reference anthologies. Neither of these is a pleasant way to read a book. I love my 文庫本 just as much as the next person, but I think they’re the major factor in my continually worsening eyesight. If I keep reading them, I’m sure I’ll be blind within 5 years or so at this rate.

I was going to write a whole post here about how I wish I could get vertical text going (because this is much more comfortable for me to read), and how I was trying to devise some system for automatically converting books to Kindle-sized PDFs or even .mobi format.

Well, someone has – thank god – beaten me to it! I give you the simplest, free, web-based system for converting any Aozora book to Kindle-sized PDF, by pasting a link from Aozora into a box and downloading the PDF. It preserves ruby (furigana) and lets you choose a text size. (I recommend 大 because even 中 was giving me eye strain. Trust me, you don’t need the 文庫本 aesthetic on a Kindle screen.)

And with no further delay, here is the post from the friendly blogger at JapanNewbie who explains it all:

How I Use My Kindle

Please give him a big thanks when you visit!

Here’s a direct link to the PDF conversion site too:

Comfortable Reading With Aozora Bunko

I’ve started a guide to reading software (and browser recommendations) for reading texts from the volunteer-led collection of Japanese e-texts, Aozora Bunko 青空文庫.

Aozora is a wonderful resource, but the problem for anyone who’s read much Japanese fiction is that the reading orientation – and correct display of furigana (ruby) – leaves a lot to be desired. Reading in the browser limits the reader to long-lined left-to-right orientation, when in paperback we’d all be reading vertical, short-line, right-to-left (and probably in bunkobon 文庫本 format!). While getting furigana to show up properly in the browser helps a lot, we still need software to reorient and resize the text – not to mention allow us to read texts on devices other than our computers.

My guide will always be a work in process, so please do offer links to other software or tools that you know about.

Please check out my guide to browsers, ruby, PC/Mac and mobile software:

A Reader’s Guide to Aozora Bunko / 青空文庫読者へのガイド

new manga: a bride’s story

I was clued in to a newly translated manga by Mori Kaoru via Feministe: A Bride’s Story, the tale of an arranged marriage set in 19th-century central Asia.

'A Bride's Story' cover, vol. 1
A Bride's Story, vol. 1


To summarize briefly, it is the story of a woman sent to a neighboring village in an arranged marriage – naturally, without meeting her new husband first. It turns out that she is 20 and he is 12, making the situation even more awkward than usual. I haven’t ordered a copy yet (the first volume came out May 31, 2011), but between the detailed, grand artwork and the fascinating premise, I’m looking forward to reading it myself.

Beyond having a relatively unique setting and focus (I hear that much time is spent on women’s lives and communities within the villages), I have to say I’m in love with the role reversal. An arranged marriage of a young woman and older man is too familiar, and the surprise of the same age would be too boring, too ideal. To reverse the aspect of arranged marriage that can be most scandalous to Western (European and North American) sensibilities – the age difference – is the most intriguing part of the story.

What typically happens in a tale of older man, younger woman (even girl)? Not all situations are painted in a positive light, but I can think of few cases in which the younger party is not tremendously sexualized, far beyond what is often considered appropriate. (Then again, given the sexualization of even young teenagers in contemporary America – let alone historically – maybe this is not so surprising.) Sex is assumed no matter how young the bride. And rare are the stories – fiction, I’m talking about here – where the relationship doesn’t take on a weirdly romantic cast, or even an explicit gradual romance.

I’m looking at you here, Shining Genji. I was once in a graduate-level course and the professor threw out the question: what was it that happened to Murasaki? Unbelievably a woman in the room threw out “grooming” as the answer. Grooming for ideal sexuality. The professor cut her right off with “statutory rape at best.” Thank you. But if this could be the automatic answer for such a sick situation, one that is portrayed romantically even by a woman writer in 1000 AD – well, doesn’t that say something about conditioning?

In any case, I’m giving this background to highlight the unique situation of a much older bride and a groom that is still a child. I would argue that although this happens, we don’t have such an automatic social narrative for their relationship. If someone talked about “grooming” with regard to the boy, we would cut them off with “no, it’s sick. THAT is sick to even imagine.” Right? It’s creepy. I think that we’re more ready to imagine a developing romantic relationship between a much younger girl and an older man – I’ll dig up our favorite Shining Genji raising Murasaki to be his future wife as my example again. Can we imagine this bride in A Bride’s Story raising her child husband to be the perfect sexual object in the same way? I would say no. No way.

So I’m very interested to get my hands on this manga to see how this is treated. From the Feministe post, I gather that there is a warm relationship with a fondness developing on the part of the bride. But I would like to see for myself: there is no way she can’t participate in raising the boy, in some way, as an older woman who has come into his family’s home. But what is her role, and what is the intention? Does she raise him as a loving family member would raise any boy to be a proper man, or does she have something else invested in it, a la Genji and his child bride?

We’ll see. If any of you have read this in Japanese, let me know your thoughts. (Incidentally, I would kill to be able to go to Book Off right now and just buy this series used!)

who is ‘anonymous’?

Given that I write about issues of anonymous, collective, and pseudonymous authorship, a headline this morning couldn’t help but grab my attention.

Guessing Who the Anonymous Author of ‘O’ Is” (New York Times, 2011.01.19)

This headline is terrible, and not just in terms of grammar and flow (not to mention catchiness). By terrible, I of course mean that I would rewrite it. Let’s try this.

“Media Freaks Out Over Not Knowing Who Wrote Work Published Anonymously; Writers Overcompensate By Insisting Loudly That They Didn’t Do It” (I have no idea if my capitalization is right. So maybe you can burn me for grammar too!)

The article begins with this great statement that pretty much sums up the attitude of journalists and critics toward a kind of entitlement to making a direct connection between attributed author (here, “Anonymous”) and a single writer or team of writers.

The publisher of “O,” an anonymously written novel about a 2012 presidential campaign, made a brazen request of journalists and other writers in an e-mail on Tuesday: if anyone asks whether you are the author, please decline to comment.

I couldn’t have made up anything better. It’s brazen! The nerve of that publisher to emphasize the authorial identity of “Anonymous” as complete in itself rather than something that demands to be linked to the private identities of the writer(s). Of course, it’s not just the possibility of “Anonymous” in itself being an author: it’s also the context of past political novels (here, Primary Colors) attributed to that very same author, although here the “Anonymous” is quite different in that it is tied to a completely separate political novel.

I often ask when studying writing in the 1880s and 1890s, what did it mean to read a work that has no writer’s name attached, and one attributed only to Anonymous?

Continue reading who is ‘anonymous’?

quick note: digital reading coverage in Eureka 8/10

Eureka, a monthly poetry and criticism publication in Japanese, has a theme of “reading digital materials” for the August 2010 issue. If you’re in a position to do so, I recommend picking it up. There are a lot of interesting perspectives in here. Not least is the fact that it specifies “reading materials,” not “books,” and that kind of take on digital reading vs. print reading isn’t something I see enough of in English-language coverage.

Not to mention that Japan is living proof that the magazine industry is not only not dead, but will never die – at least not here. I had to wade through literally hundreds of different magazines in a corner bookstore in Ueno station to find my copy of this one.

The info in Japanese is ユリイカ2010年8月号・特集「電子書籍を読む!」 (“let’s read digital stuff!”) If anyone has a more eloquent translation for 書籍 please leave it in the comments. I am coming up empty at the moment.

presentation accepted: MCAA

A quick tidbit.

I’ve gotten a paper proposal accepted for the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs in early October, in Columbus, OH. I’m excited about this conference in particular because of its focus on media and communication throughout history, and thinking hard about how we approach our various fields through this lens (or vice versa).

My own topic is something I will elaborate on later, but for now, let me tell you it’s about the impossibility of separating physicality from social network from archive from publication in the context of a certain book in the late 1800s. To be less vague, I’m going to talk about how one man’s “rediscovery” (via many allusions by a fiction author he liked) of Ihara Saikaku (then mostly forgotten, now Mr. Edo-Period Canonical Author) in the 1880s. Those who got excited about reading Saikaku talk quite a bit about buying, handling, and borrowing/lending old copies of Saikaku’s work, and in their anthology that they published, they go so far as to credit each work with whose archive/collection it came from. The sense of physical ownership – and being able to touch the thing itself – is overwhelming compared to everything else I’ve looked at from this period. It’s fascinating and exciting and I’m looking forward to sharing this finding as well as getting feedback on my methodological approach and conclusions. (Surely weak at best, given that this is news to me and I haven’t had a lot of time to develop my thinking over the past year, buried in a mountain of magazines in the library basement.)

By the way, this probably can’t fit into the paper, but the social ripples of Saikaku popularity vibrate constantly through the Meiji literature and general literary discourse that I read throughout my research. Saikaku love versus hate, going so far as to adopt a pseudonym that translates to “I love Saikaku” while attempting to imitate his style in one’s own writing, republishing his works in random magazines, the changing ideas about whether or not his works qualify as modern works of fiction (小説, now translated as “novel” but then quite contested), and reactions to him – they not only feed into and inform and make clear literary cliques and their interactions, but also literary trends and experimentation in an era where nearly anything goes.

A forgotten author as a window into an historical moment: nothing could make me happier about choosing the path that I have.