Tag Archives: Asia and the pacific

Tanizaki’s Yaichi: A Japanese disabled character as hero, outcast, and metaphor

Today, the University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to publish Kenny Fries’s account of a journey of profound self-discovery as a disabled foreigner in Japan, IN THE PROVINCE OF THE GODS. Here he comments on some of the “outtakes” from early drafts of the book.

Fifteen years ago, I first traveled to Japan to look at its historical and cultural relationship to otherness, to difference. More specifically, I wanted to learn about how the Japanese viewed and represented disability. During my first stay in Japan, much of this eluded me for reasons I write about in In the Province of Gods,

Three years later on my second trip, I found what I was looking for. But, as my book’s focus shifted, this research became more background than foreground. Though some of what I found in Japan about representation of disability remains in the book, much of it is now only in what I call the “outtakes.”

I did include in my book observations about the disability representation in Japanese writer Tanizaki Junichiro’s novel Portrait of Shunkin.  Most notably, I write about the way that Tanizaki’s story of Shunkin, a blind samisen singer, illuminates my meeting two of the surviving Hiroshima Maidens, the twenty-five hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) who traveled from Japan to the United States for medical treatment in 1955.

But another of Tanizaki’s blind characters is not represented in my own book. In A Blind Man’s Tale, Tanizaki tells the familiar story of the siege of Osaka Castle and historical figures Nobunaga and his successor Hideyoshi. He recounts this history through the voice of Yaichi, who like Shunkin is a blind samisen singer. Yaichi is also a masseur. (Samisen singer and masseur are traditional occupations for the blind in Japan.) Yaichi is in the service of Lady Oichi, sister of Nobunaga. She is married to Lord Nagamasa, an ally of Nobunaga until they have a falling out.

Many familiar tropes of blindness attend the tale of Yaichi, especially that of a blind man’s unrequited love. Because of his blindness, he goes unnoticed by the men but is taken into the confidence of a beautiful woman above his station. There is also the unfortunate metaphor of “blind devotion.” But what is singular about this tale comes at the story’s climactic moment.

During a siege of the castle, Yaichi entertains Lady Oichi along with a visitor, the warrior priest Choroken. As a master samisen player himself, Yaichi notices that Choroken’s playing includes embellishments of a tune with “queer phrases, twice-repeated.”   Yaichi informs us,

Now, there is a secret code that all of us blind samisen players know very well. Since each string of the samisen has sixteen stops, the three strings together have forty-eight: when you teach a beginner how to play the instrument you help him memorize these stops by marking them with the forty-eight characters of the alphabet.  Everyone who studies the samisen learns this system; but we blind musicians, since we can’t see the characters, have to learn it by heart, we associate each note with its proper letter quite automatically, as soon as we hear it.  So when blind musicians want to communicate secretly they can do it by playing on the samisen, using this system as a code.

Tanizaki Junichiro

Yaichi realizes Choroken’s “queer phrases” are communicating that the servant needs to save his mistress, and he perceives the plan Choroken is secretly transmitting. Yaichi’s blindness is a crucial asset in this covert exchange.

Tellingly, in the popular Kabuki theater version of the story, this original element is left out, leaving the story to emphasize the comparison between the “blind” love of Yaichi with that of those who court the widowed Lady Oichi and her beautiful daughter “whose voice sounded just the same” as her mother.  Lady Oichi affections are won over by Hideyoshi, even though he killed her family.  In the end of the Kabuki version, Yaichi is left on stage, remembering his Lady, who appears in the distance playing her koto.  She disappears, leaving Yaichi decidedly alone and crying.

In Tanizaki’s story we are shown how disability can, in certain contexts, be advantageous, as well as how the nondisabled use disability for their own purposes. But, as in much of Japanese culture, the story simultaneously conveys opposing ideas.  In A Blind Man’s Tale, we are given the blind man as hero, outcast, and metaphor.

Kenny Fries is the author of Body, Remember: A Memoir and The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory,  and editor of Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College and is the recipient of a prestigious Creative Capital grant. He lives in Berlin.

Author’s website: https://www.kennyfries.com/

The Other Side of the Scarf

Alden Jones, author of The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia, comments on honesty in encounters with other cultures and viewpoints. The recipient of multiple honors for travel writing, essays, and memoir, her book is new in paperback and published today.

One of the central questions of my memoir is whether it is possible to divorce ourselves from our own cultural norms when we encounter something shocking, exotic, or simply foreign. Recently, a professor of French history approached me with concerns that his university students were resistant to, almost angry about, the idea of Muslim women wearing hijab. A strong feminist sentiment among his students rejected the head scarf as a symbol of misogyny; my professor friend was concerned that this led to feelings of hostility about Islam. How, he wondered, could he get non-Muslim young men and women in New England to consider the hijab from the point of view of the person wearing it—to put aside the cultural norms they take for granted?

It seems easy now, as a seasoned teacher, to turn to theory and philosophy to combat this kind of resistance among young people, or any people. But the truth is, we human beings react to difference, and we react to the foreign, because of the visceral feelings they inspire. We have good feelings about those ideas that make us feel powerful or validated. We reject those symbols that make us feel threatened. This is the human condition. We are a fragile, emotional species.

 When I first started writing The Blind Masseuse, I wanted to believe that I had it all figured out, that I was a humanist, a “traveler,” rather than an ethnocentric tourist. But writing this book taught me that if I were being honest, the opposite was often true: I had a lot left to learn when it came to how to cross cultures the “right” way, and sometimes it was impossible to avoid assuming the role of the tourist. It didn’t take long to realize that if I wanted to write a book that encouraged a humanistic approach to travel, I would have to be honest about my own struggles when confronted with difference. I wrote The Blind Masseuse to explore my own gut reactions over the years—and to see how experience, reason, intellect, and even humor might combat those gut reactions. If we are not honest about our emotional truths as individuals, we will never eradicate xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and nationalism.

In our suddenly ultra-hostile political environment, and a U.S. government that through policy has embraced an “Us vs. Them” dynamic, seeing the world through the humanist perspective is more important than ever. In the end, my professor friend’s students may reject the idea of the head scarf as anti-feminist. First, they need to provide some rational basis upon which to land at this conclusion. Beyond the scarf is an intricate set of social and religious rules that require thought and context. The important thing is that they have considered—truly imagined themselves on—the other side of the scarf.

Alden Jones

 Alden Jones has lived, worked, and traveled in more than forty countries, including as a WorldTeach volunteer in Costa Rica, a program director in Cuba, and a professor on Semester at Sea. Her work has appeared in AGNI, Time Out New York, Post Road, The Barcelona Review, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, and The Best American Travel Writing. She teaches writing at Emerson College in Boston.

New publications, March 2017

We are pleased to announce five new books to be published in March.

March 7, 2017
PARTIALLY EXCITED STATES
Charles Hood

“Simultaneously dazzling, playful, witty, goofy, hilarious, and profound, Partially Excited States carries us through our past into the present and even into our future somewhere in outer space. This is a mature book that manages to be idiosyncratic in its thinking but universal in its concerns.”
—Susan Mitchell

“These poems give us reality entire, ablaze with fires at once heavenly and infernal. This is a poet whose ecstasy and despair present two sides of the same blade, sharpened on a grim and gorgeous world.”
—Katharine Coles

Wisconsin Poetry Series
Ronald Wallace, Series Editor

March 7, 2017
YOU, BEAST
Nick Lantz

“Lantz gives us what we could least have anticipated, then makes it seem the most natural thing in the world.”
—John Burnside

“Poem by poem, book by book, Nick Lantz is becoming one of our time’s best poets. He knows the blades and shrieks and pleasures and sweet sick twists in our human hearts, and this bestiary forces us to look, hard and long, in our own mirrors. ‘Polar Bear Attacks Woman … Horrifying Vid (Click to Watch)’ is a poem for this moment in the way Auden and Yeats and Rich and Dickey and Komunyakaa gave us poems for their moments.”
—Albert Goldbarth

Wisconsin Poetry Series
Ronald Wallace, Series Editor

March 7, 2017
THE APOLLONIA POEMS
Judith Vollmer

Winner of the Four Lakes Prize in Poetry

“This book is a trip, or many trips. Here is the creative mind at work and play—its geological layers uncovered, lifetimes and cultures revisited, offered to us in Judith Vollmer’s characteristic voice: curious, tender, and flinty, with its own grave and ethereal music.”
—Alicia Ostriker

“Judith Vollmer’s dwelling-in-traveling poems follow the ‘salt-sweet restless soul’ into labyrinths of mirrors, walls, shrouds, veils, membranes, through portals sussurant with transatlantic chants, through a palimpsest of echoes caught in the undersong of women suffering over the quickness of life.”
—Mihaela Moscaliuc

Wisconsin Poetry Series
Ronald Wallace, Series Editor

March 14, 2017
THE BLIND MASSEUSE
A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia
Alden Jones

New in Paperback

  • Finalist, Travel Book or Guide Award, North American Travel Journalists Association
    Gold Medal for Travel Essays, Independent Publisher Book Awards
    Gold Medal, Travel Essays, ForeWord’s IndieFab Book of the Year
    Winner, Memoir/Biography, Bisexual Book Award
    Longlist of eight, PEN/Diamonstein Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay
    Finalist, Nonfiction, Housatonic Book Award

“It’s smart and thoughtful, but also Jones is cackle-for-days hilarious and the book is a page-turner from second one, when she’s out walking in the dark in her village and bumps into a cow. Please, everyone, read this book!”
Huffington Post

“Wise, witty, and well traveled, Alden Jones has given us a beautifully written book that honors the wandering spirit in all of us. Take this journey with her and return newly alive to the pleasure of moving through the world.”
—Ana Menéndez, author of Adios, Happy Homeland!

March 14, 2017
UNDERSTANDING AND TEACHING U.S. GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER HISTORY

Edited by Leila J. Rupp and Susan K. Freeman

  • Best Special Interest Books, selected by the American Association of School Librarians
    Best Special Interest Books, selected by the Public Library Reviewers
    Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best LGBT Anthology
    A Choice Outstanding Academic Book

“An excellent and sturdy resource that offers high school and college teachers an entry point into LGBT history. . . . Contributors deftly tie LGBT content to the broader goals of teaching history, not simply making visible the lives of everyday queer people but prompting critical engagement.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Groundbreaking and readable. . . . Essential for college and university libraries supporting teacher training degree programs and curricula in American history, LGBT studies, and the social sciences. Essential, undergraduates and above; general readers.”
Choice

The Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History
John Day Tully, Matthew Masur, and Brad Austin, Series Editors