How to Write in Japanese


(The New York Times, September 19, 1965)

If you can't read it in Kanji, the intricate Chinese characters or ideograms in which the Japanese write most of their language, you miss an important visual impact in the work of authors like Yukio Mishima, the Tokyo novelist and playwright. Any cultivated Oriental reader -- Japanese, Chinese and Koreans all use Chinese characters of the same meaning, although they often attach different-sounding words to them -- appraises writing for its effect on the eye as well as the ear.

Mr. Mishima, a humorous and youthful man of 40, explained this and other esoteric aspects of composition in Japanese that are known probably to few of his English-language readers. To do so he took time out from frantic preparations to leave for New York, to participate in the American debut of his new novel, "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea."

"The Japanese title couldn't be translated well," said the novelist, whose spoken English is fluent after many trips to America. "In Japanese the book is called 'Gogo No Eiko,' which literally means 'Afternoon's Tow,' referring to a tugboat taking a ship through a harbor. 'Eiko' is a play on words: It means either 'tow' or 'glory.'

"When there is a double way of reading Kanji -- that is, when the character has two different meanings -- we explain the meaning intended by an entry in the margin, in a script called Furi-kana. We also use Hira-gana, which is always used for foreign words." Doodling as he talked, he wrote "New York Times" in Kata-kana.

Why can't Hira-gana, which gives a more or less accurate pronunciation, be used for foreign words instead of complicating things with a third script? "It doesn't look right," Mr. Mishima said.

Mr. Mishima always writes in Japanese and never changes a translation. "The translator asks me thousands of questions," he said, "but I don't mind small mistakes." He was amused, not angry, when the translator of an earlier novel rendered the word "yatsuhashi" as "eighth bridge," which is a perfectly correct alternate reading of the characters that the author intended to mean a kind of cake sold in Kyoto. "The translator really had to struggle with that sentence to have it make sense with a bridge in it," he said, chuckling.

"It is most important that the translator have a gift of expression in English and Japanese shouldn't try it," Mr. Mishima continued. "They read like an English-speaker writing in Japanese. Donald Keene [one of Mr. Mishima's several translators] is the only American I know of who writes well in Japanese." He also thinks that John Nathan, a young American and a student of Japanese literature at Tokyo University, did a superb job of writing English in his translation of "The Sailor."

The mechanics of writing a book in Japanese, as Mr. Mishima described them, make special demands upon author and publisher. The manuscript is written entirely by hand (modern Japanese authors use a ballpoint instead of the traditional brush), for the use of the cumbersome Japanese typewriter of about 2,000 characters would be slower and too restrictive.

The number of Chinese characters is vast: A university graduate might know 20,000 and still be learning. Mr. Mishima often uses a Kanji that his publisher's printer happens not to have in stock, in which case a type foundry has to cast it specially.

"I use a Japanese dictionary to check the accuracy of my characters. They can be incredibly complex." He dashed off the character for Mount Hiei, a favorite resort near Kyoto, which took 16 separate strokes of the pen. Some have as many as 33 strokes, all conveying nuances of the whole "picture" of the word. "No dictionary contains all the Kanji there are. The first and second proofs often come back with a mark called a geta, because it looks like the imprint of a geta, the Japanese wooden clog, in place of a character that the printer has had to order specially made. He always has it for the third proof," he said.

Japanese authors write on large sheets of paper ruled into 400 small squares, each square for one character, which they buy at stationery shops. The writer is paid by the page, and many have been known to stretch out their prose for this reason. (Mr. Mishima insists that he has never done so.)

"There is no close relation between the number of characters and the number of English words they will make," he said. "I'm always in trouble, since I write only in Japanese, when an English-language magazine asks me for an article of so many words. A word may take one character, or two or three, and then there are the Hira-gana and the Kata- kana, but the Furi-kana don't count. I have no way of knowing how many words I've written until the piece is translated.

Some linguistic reformers think that the Japanese should write their language in the Roman alphabet, which all Japanese learn in school. Japanese written in such a way is called "Romaji," and is used in telegrams, often with confusing effect when the context of a message fails to indicate which use among many is intended for a word of multiple meanings, like Mr. Mishima's "Yatsuhachi," mentioned above.

"Romaji is awful," Mr. Mishima said flatly. "The visual effect of a Chinese character is very important." He slashed out the rounded, multi-stemmed character for "rose," and looked at it admiringly. "See how the rose appears physically in the shape of the Kanji," he said. "A writer loves to give such an effect to his readers."

Mr. Trumbull heads The Times Tokyo bureau.

Back to Mishima Yukio