Saturday, May 21, 2011

13/05 VOX POPULI: Tohoku's memories are buried in the rubble

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.


One of the interesting features of the period novels by Shotaro Ikenami (1923-1990) is the unique way the writer put small hiragana readings, called "rubi" or "furigana," next to the kanji characters.

Those readings did not simply transliterate the kanji, they added extra meaning. Let me cite a few examples. "Give me hot sake" is read as "Give me a hot one." "I'm taking the money I left in your care" reads "I'm taking my share." There are many more. The combination of kanji and furigana allows readers to understand the meaning of the words spoken by the characters while enjoying the subtle nuance of their conversations.

Some furigana make us feel sad. The following tanka ran in The Asahi Shimbun's tanka column the other day: "Reporters all write 'gareki'/ Some people read the word, adding the rubi 'omoide' (in katakana)." Gareki is Japanese for rubble or wreckage. Omoide means memories. Depending on the age and personal background of the reader, he or she may apply the furigana "omohide" or "omoide."

"Removal of rubble" will be read as "deletion of memories" in the minds of many survivors. Among the debris, there must be pillars with marks showing the height of children as they grew up, "kotatsu" heated tables where families gathered and desks where students sat as they studied hard. All of these once cherished objects, destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami, are now simply called rubble.

An Asahi Shimbun reporter entered his hometown, Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, immediately after the earthquake and wrote that he was filled with a sense of loss. He said he realized that houses and communities have had lives of their own, alongside the people who lived there. His family was safe, but their house had been destroyed. Perhaps he, too, saw the furigana "omoide" in his mind.

Two months have passed since the March 11 earthquake. I write about memories, but the pain of people who cannot easily turn their past into memories saddens me. People who lost loved ones, homes or communities cannot forget their loss for a moment. Those thoughts have not yet become "memories."

There is estimated to be about 25 million tons of debris in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. There must be many people who want to attach furigana like "nariwai" (livelihood), "ikigai" (reason for living) and "wagamachi" (my town) to the thought of their lives before the earthquake.

Once again, I am overwhelmed by the enormity of the heartbreak and feel I must broaden my empathetic imagination.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 12

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

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