Translating Japanese

Taro Okamoto 1

One day I saw a pair of Oshira deities at a museum in Morioka. One was a horse head, and the other was a female head. They were both small dolls of the size of a hand. The moment I saw them, I sensed the unexplainable current of the pulse of life running through the thickness of my body. An old memory from my childhood emerged to the surface with the pain like a tooth mark.

It was evening, and the room was dim. Mother was talking to a guest. I was perhaps four or five; I was a lonely child. I used to sit near the adults, although I did not understand what they were discussing. After some time, I started looking into the shelves as I got bored. Suddenly I found a reddish doll, which was as if you just rolled a small blanket, with triangle limbs and a small round head sewn to it. No eyes, no mouth. It somehow looked like a dog, but it was also like a human. But it was strangely alive.

I asked my mother about it, to which she just laughed and did not answer. I nagged her for the answer and she gave me some explanation, but there was something strange. I felt there was some kind of secret.

I never saw it again after that. Yet it got stuck in my young heart. While pretty Hina dolls did not leave me any impressions, this strange red stuff floating in the evening darkness never left my inner being and kept telling me something.

Many years later, I learned that it was “Houko”, a protective amulet for young children.

The doll was like a child that never got born, the kind of soul that was supposed to bloom but did not; that is how it can bear the chaos of life, and is eery with its power. Compared to the dispirited face and the looseness of humans who have managed to take their shape properly, I feel that this doll, with its eyes, ears and mouth squashed but still full of the power of life, is much more a human.

When I saw Oshira-sama, somehow I felt the same kind of sensation as this Houko. Since then, I have wished to dig into this mysticism in daily life, and find out what it is.

p.5-6 in “Mystic Japan” by Taro Okamoto,
published from Kadokawa.
Translation by Paromita

Born into an eccentric family of writers and artists in 1911, Taro Okamoto grew up in Japan but spent 10 years in Paris during his twenties, where he studied aesthetics and ethnic studies, before he focused on painting after encountering Picasso’s work. He returned to Japan in 1940, as the Nazi Germany entered Paris.

After a short period of artistic activities, Taro was taken for soldier for World War Two. When the war ended and he managed to return to Japan, he started his career as a revolutionary modern artist.

He was known for his appearance in TV shows and especially his shouting remark “Art is Explosion!”. Taro was also a prolific writer, where he travelled to many areas in Japan with anthropological interests, which he wrote essays on. His essays were great inspiration for the re-evaluation of the rural Japan and its artistic values.

Revisiting his writings after some years, I almost see a French man whose mother tongue is Japanese; the kind of sensitive, mystic, but also with Western, masculine (while a feminist) and artistic judgemental arrogance, with the conviction that he can see through things…

But he was so instrumental in the re-discovery and re-revaluation of thousands-old Jomon artefacts and regional/anthropological/folklore in the Japanese society, especially in the art context. He was also an admirer of Korean folklore. While I see a kind of Orientalist perspective in Okamoto’s view, his genuine and naive awe, the spiritual impact he received, and the much inspiration he got that he tried to share with other Japanese people have the innocent spark, and his huge contribution to Japanese society is no way deniable.

As a young Japanese person growing up in multiple countries and living with more than one languages, I was once in love with his writings. I was so inspired and influenced. His strong words that come out of his raw and naive soul is like golden honey for any artistically as well as anthropologically inspired Japanese person.

So I am introducing Okamoto over a couple of posts; I am not sure how many posts it will be, I might end up keep adding, like I am doing with others.
The first couple of posts will be my translation of a series of excerpts from his essay on Aomori in the North-east region. This is pretty much the same region that is mentioned by Chuzaburo Tanaka.

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