(Conducted by Frederik L. Schodt in Mid-1984)
A Maybe on the radio. That delicious sounding sonorous language. The announcers were probably broadcasting fish prices or news about the ladies' auxiliary meetings but the sound of it changed my life. I was about 7 or 8, I think. My mother apparently would put me to bed with the radio on, and that is how I first heard Japanese.
Q I think you told me once that this was around 1938 or so, in Los Angeles. Certainly there must not have been very many other Caucasian kids in the neighborhood who shared your interest in the language. Do you remember being encouraged to learn the language by anyone? Did anyone actively discourage you?
A No. My grandparents had a Japanese family as neighbors. They spoke Japanese. My parents were both artists and were used to people with unusual lifestyles. They immediately saw the advantage of learning languages. My parents encouraged me to learn languages, and even wanted me to be an anthropologist. They themselves collected American Indian artifacts and books. So you see, if you want to grow up to be something unusual, the choice of off-beat and understanding parents is important.
Q Your parents seem to have been interested in things old, in things no longer on the cutting edge of society. Do you think that this attitude extended towards Japanese? Did you feel as though it was a modern language, or an old one?
A; Not at all. This was in the 1930's, and everyone knew there would be a war. They were just waiting for it to happen. Far from being an ancient language, for them Japanese was an enemy language.
Q Are you saying that your parents wanted you to learn an "enemy language"? Why?
A They wanted me to learn all kinds of languages, including Japanese. It was I who wanted to learn Japanese, especially. I never thought about the war. The entire society around us regarded the Japanese as enemies, but I was fascinated by the language and couldn't care less. It might have been dangerous if I were older, but as a child I could be as peculiar as I wanted.
Q Wow. So from the start I gather that you were interested in what you saw and heard around you. Let's get specific about your language development. What is the first memory you have of talking to a Japanese person with your new language? Who was he/she?
A I can't remember exactly but I had a tutor, a Japanese student who came to the house once a week. We "studied" Japanese readers with militaristic slogans in them. You know the kind, heitai susume, etc. Then the war started and my "lessons" were interrupted. But my family still remained in contact with my grandparents' Japanese neighbors and hoped for the best.
Q Did any of your playmates ever accuse you of being a "spy" or a "Jap-lover"?
A No. One other boy, a Caucasian, was from Hawaii, and he and I got a Japanese language textbook and studied it secretly. I think we even used to say things to each other in Japanese. That was during the war.
Q Reminds me of a friend of mine in junior high school who memorized Buddhist sutras and chanted them at the top of his voice during our compulsory Church of England scripture classes when I was going to school in Australia. I gather there was an element of rebellion in your interest in the language? Did you at times regard your knowledge as something secret and exotic? Did you try to hide the fact that you could speak Japanese from others?
A No. The Americans, most of them, knew very little about the Japanese but most of them could grasp why it might be important to know their language. They spoke vaguely of going into the diplomatic service. But then the war ended and the Japanese returned to California. After I finished high school (that was in 1948) I was able to spend most of my free time with the Japanese, and then I could really devote myself to studying it in earnest. There was a super-abundance of music teachers, flower arrangement teachers, poetry teachers, Japanese newspapers, and all those people were returnees from internment camps. A wonderful family in San Francisco befriended me; they were second-generation Japanese who spoke English better than Japanese but were wonderfully supportive and did nothing but encourage me. I owe much more to that family than to anyone else, I think. Throughout the years they have always been like guiding angels.
Q What a wonderful way to start learning a language. Two questions: What is the first Japanese language movie you remember seeing? How old were you when you first knew enough kanji to read a newspaper?
A I used to see Japanese movies once or twice a week for years, but I can't remember what was the first one. Most of the jidai-mono in those days were in excruciatingly difficult language and I couldn't understand them very well. When I was in the university, around 1950, I took one semester off and did nothing but memorize kanji and their combinations. After that I was able to read anything. There were at least two daily newspapers in Japanese in Los Angeles, and I knew some of the newspaper reporters. There were also bookstores. I lived in a boarding house run by Okinawans. My whole life was in Japanese at that time. When I went to school or to work I spoke in English, but everything else was in Japanese.
Q I can't imagine that there many people in your peer group at that time who had your interest. Did you ever feel isolated? Did you ever meet anyone like you studying the language?
A Most of my friends were Nisei, and many of them wanted to learn Japanese, or their parents wanted them to. There was never any feeling of isolation. The neighbors were Japanese. We went to Japanese grocery stores, and the Japanese fish vendor came around twice a week and sold fish and vegetables and tofu to the Japanese housewives. There is something very important I have to tell you. It was a Japanese community and it had its own leaders and scholars and writers; all the leaders and teachers I respected were Japanese of an older generation who are mostly not alive today. They influenced me for the rest of my life, and many of my attitudes even today came from these Japanese men and women of an older generation -- Meiji Japanese, they called themselves. Some were rightists and worshipped the Emperor, and others were Communists. I knew and respected both factions. Ideologically I am still influenced by what I learned from them.
Q Roy Andrew Miller, in his recent hook, Japan's Modern Myth: The Language and Beyond, spends considerable time analyzing the reactions of Japanese people to round-eyes like yourself speaking the language. I gather you were very well accepted into the local community. Did you ever encounter any resistance or suspicion?
A That question shows lack of understanding of the situation. A racial minority had just been evacuated and brought back and it was being regarded with suspicion and sometimes even hated by the majority. Any slightest sign of interest and approval was welcomed with joy and relief. Those people felt they were lucky to be left alive.
Q So you got a lot of encouragement with your language. Now let's jump forward into the future a bit. When you first went to Japan what was your reaction to the language? Much of the Japanese that you learned in L.A. must have seemed a little quaint to people in Tokyo. Did you ever get any comments on this?
A The language was the same. We watched the same movies and read the same books and magazines. Some of the people in L.A. spoke with what seemed to be local accents but no one spoke dialects. There was even a Japanese language school system.
Q In Japan I understand you started studying the classics, but before too long you were also earning money on the side as a technical translator. Technical translation has always seemed to be associated with the future in my mind, whereas classics are obviously linked with the past. This brings me to the second part of this interview. Your life to me seems to have merged an interest in the past with an interest in the future. In fact, in a recent article you wrote, you commented on the need for technical translators to attain an outlook or philosophy of life which, among other things, " embraces ... not only contemporary Western and Japanese civilizations with their highly developed technologies, but also the mental cultures of the non-European peoples of today, and of the archaic and primitive peoples of the past who were the ancestors of all of us." Could you expand a little on your vision?
A Be more specific, please.
Q Gary Snyder, who wrote the introduction to your translation of Ainu poetry, has a reference in Turtle Island, I think, to his vision of the future, where the archaic and the high-tech merge. He envisions, if I recall rightly, a United States where the population has dropped in half, the buffalo have returned, and people work half the year in non-polluting high tech factories, and the spend the rest of the time hunting buffalo on horseback like the Indians of old. The other night I was listening to the album you recorded, Artic Hysteria, while reading your book on Ainu poetry. Tell me, Don, how are we translators going to bring about this merger of the archaic and high tech?
A Why don't you ask questions which are possible to answer? All of us are descendants of primitive man but most of us won't recognize it-- You talk to people about archaic religion and they will say: "Oh yeah, Buddhism, Judaism or Early Christianity." All of those systems are quite recent artifacts. The older traditions are still among us, or were until recently. Today there is a reawakening of interest in one of them, shamanism. That is the native religion of Northern Asia. When I was studying the Ainu language and folklore I had to study those ideas; without knowing them nothing at all made sense. In a sense I changed my ideas around, without even knowing it, from the 20th century ideology of Japan and the U.S., to the prehistoric ideology of the Ainu. A translator is like a transmitter of messages from one world to another, and I did that for quite a long time when I was trying to bring messages from the early Japanese and from the Ainu to the present day. I also was trying to do that in my record album. Somehow the messages often get lost because there are so few able to receive them. It all gets mixed up with all the noise and static. But there are people here who are really beginning to study and practice shamanism, in their own way, and that is something that never occurred before. I don't believe in some kind of High Tech Utopia where people will go out hunting every day after they leave their computer terminals.
Q If we do this interview right, the readers will lose their grasp of the present tense, and their cerebrums and cerebellums will rebel against each other. Now back to the subject of translators. Some of your writings and statements suggest that technical translators are positioned to take advantage of a shift in the dynamics of information flow. Let me rephrase my earlier question. I'm assuming that your interest in technical translation and in the archaic somehow, or at some point, converge. Where?
A I happen to operate in both areas, but not necessarily simultaneously. If they want to, translators and bilingual persons can have access to immense amounts of unusual information that the ordinary public is denied access to. in my own personal case, I am not very much attracted to the ideologies that are prevalent in the society around me, but I have always been attracted to the archaic world views which were superseded by the High Civilizations. I don't intend to forget them, and I think it is possible for anyone who knows languages to merge in his own consciousness elements from archaic worlds together with elements from different areas in the contemporary world. Even a person who does technical translations from Japanese is constantly confronted with extremely archaic words and concepts which have nothing to do with the "modern" world. I advocate a cultural approach to technical translation. Know the country, the people, and the language. Simply knowing technology and having a rudimentary knowledge of the grammar and writing system is not enough. But I am not suggesting that translators have to go out and change the world - not right away, anyway.
Q Before we become revolutionaries, and overthrow the world order with our translations, what is our role as translators as you see it?
A Step by step the human race is moving back, not forward, to the archaic world-view, a global world-view which sees man as a single species sharing the world with other species. Any kind of global message is one tiny step in that direction. It brings different sections of mankind into communication with each other. When you receive a letter from an unknown person in a foreign language, it enriches your life in a way letter from someone nearby. I hate confrontations and international misunderstandings. Anything which creates unity and harmony and dispels distrust and hatred is a step forward. The translator, obviously, has a very important role to play. I think I am carrying out a task which, in their way, my parents wanted me to perform, and I know that all those teachers and friends from the older generations who guided me and helped me along wanted me to do this, too. The microcosm and the macrocosm converge somewhere-- by imposing a tiny bit of order in a communication you are translating, you somehow are carving out a little bit of order in the universe. You will never succeed. Everything will fail and come to an end finally. But you have a chance to carve out a little bit of order and maybe even beauty out of the raw materials that surround you everywhere, and I think there is no other meaning in life.
Q My hat's off, Don. What a clear note to end this installment
of your life story on. Next time let's talk about the present, and your
years in Japan.