Catch 51: A Han-Japa Odyssey

By Kunioki Yanagishita

Translated by Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall

Catch 51
Catch 51 Covers of Japanese and English editions of Catch 51: A Han-Japa Odyssey
Paperback editions published by Soseki Books

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Yanagishita Kunioki
Kyatchi 51: Aru han-Japa no tabi
[ Catch 51: The journey of a han-Japa ]
Tokyo: Soseki Books, December 2020
291 pages, Kindle, paperback (POD)

Kunioki Yanagishita
Catch 51: A Han-Japa Odyssey
<Kyatchi 51: Aru han-Japa no tabi>
Translated by Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall
Tokyo: Soseki Books, 2020
271 pages, Kindle, paperback (POD)

The Japanese and English editions were published simultaneously.
See Soseki Books for details and the opening story in both languages.

The novel

Catch 51 is narrated by Kimiyoshi Sugawara, born and raised in Yokohama, whose parents, both Japanese, send him to St. James, a boys Catholic school run in English by foreign brothers of the cloth. Yoshi's favorite brother, who teaches literature and coaches the baseball team, turns out to be a pedophile -- and Yoshi nearly becomes one of his victims.

In college, Yoshi -- unversed in Japanese literature and history on account of his parochial Americanized education -- is dubbed a "han-Japa", a "half-Jap", by a dorm mate who regards him as a half-baked Japanese. Decades later, the label continues to haunt him as much as his memories of sexual abuse.

One morning, while reading a newspaper report of an on-going sexual abuse scandal at a Christian school in Tokyo, the phone rings. He hears a name he hasn't been called since high school and doesn't like. The caller is Robert Takeshi Toriumi, a St. James school friend he hadn't seen for 51 years.

Yoshi, who had turned his back on his youth and severed ties with school friends, reluctantly agrees to meet Bob for lunch. And the two men, who had played catch when boys, begin to pitch each other stories about wounds old and new that time alone may never heal.

The stories

–ÚŽŸ             Stories
   Joe             Joe
‹¶l‚ÌŽqŽç‰S      Lullaby for a Madman
   ¹ƒWƒF[ƒ€ƒY      Saint James
   ‚j‚b‚t           KCU
   •s–°Ç           Insomnia
Ä‰ï             Reunion
   ”¼ƒWƒƒƒp         Han-Japa
   ‘«‰¹            Footsteps
’˜ŽÒÐ‰î          Author and Translators

Author and translators

Kunioki Yanagishita (author and translator) was born in Yokohama in 1944 and graduated from International Christian University. He is a translator, and a bunraku and kabuki script translator and English commentator. His many English translations include Kenzaburo Oe's novel A Quiet Life (Grove, Japanese title Shizuka-na shiatsu) and overseas lecture Who's Afraid of the Tasmanian Wolf? (Rainmaker, Japanese title Tasumania urufu wa kowaku nai?). His Japanese translations include Dick Gregory's nigger (Gendai Shokan).

William Wetherall (co-translator) was born in San Francisco in 1941 and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, specializing in Japanese literature, society, and history. A researcher, writer, and novelist, his literary translations include Oe Kenzaburo, Oda Makoto, Takagi Nobuko, Matsumoto Seicho, Nishino Tatsukichi, Yanagishita Kunioki, and others. He has lived in Japan since 1975 and has Japanese nationality.

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51 Catchball

Cover of 2016 Kindle-only edition of
Yanai Kei's 51 de kyatchibooru
Image copped from Amazon.co.jp

Writing and translation

Kunioki Yanagishita was born in in Yokohama in 1944 to a Hawaii-born mother and Japan-born father. The stories of Catch 51, while fictional, originated in his experiences attending St. Joseph College (St. Joe) in Yokohama and International Christian University (ICU) in Mitaka in the 1950s and 1960s. He personally grappled with the stigmas that come from feeling "half baked" as a Japanese educated more in English than in Japanese -- though in time he would become truly and totally savvy and fluent in both his parental languages.

Yanagishita began writing the novel in the 1980s and I first read it in the early 1990s in a manuscript printed from a word processor. Ōe Kenzaburō introduced it to Kōdansha, but the publisher turned it down, probably because of its bulk and narrative rawness -- venting anguish more than telling stories.

Many years later, Yanagishita significantly cut the novel, and in 2016 he published it on Amazon Kindle as 51 de kyatchibooru (‚T‚P‚ŃLƒƒƒbƒ`ƒ{[ƒ‹) under the name Yanai Kei (–öˆäŒ\). Again, I read it. It was a lot better. The narrative compelled reading but, as a novel, had some rough edges.

Yanagishita translated the Kindle edition, after which I came into the picture as a co-translator and editor. The English manuscript underwent some heavy rewriting. A lot of fat was cut, some descriptions were dramatized, some characters were fleshed out, and some new scenes added.

An attempt was made to start the novel with the reunion, and reveal the past later. But we ended up keeping the original order, adding a prologue that set the stage, and keeping the voice in real time.

Some revisions were made in English and translated into Japanese. Some changes went back and forth several times until arriving at a suitable bilingual narrative -- meaning a singular narrative in two language. In principle the Japanese controlled the English, but at times the English controlled the Japanese.

As an editor of Yanagishita's original translation, I often found myself restoring his "tell" English to the "show" Japanese of the original. In other words, I strengthened the English translation by restoring the stronger Japanese narrative. This was not a problem of fluency on Yanagishita's part, since his English is every bit as native as his Japanese. Preferring an English narrative that departs from the Japanese narrative is common among translators who embrace free translation -- mainly because it's easier to change the narrative than strictly follow it.

You can see the shortcomings of free translation in most translations of Japanese -- even in Edward Seidensticker's English version of Kawabata Yasunari's Yukiguni. It's generally very smooth and inviting, at times even beautiful -- until you read and grasp the narrative logic of the original Japanese and understand why, in some places, Seidensticker's narrative falls short of Kawabata's narrative. Again, this is a problem in practically all translations, in which the voice of the original is weakened or otherwise lost. See, also, Murakami Haruki's Lost Voice.

In the course of making sense of Japanese in English, Yanagishita had introduced what I consider cultural guides and language lessons. I prefer to trust the English reader's ability to make sense of the Japanese narrative without explanatory crutches. We agreed to supress the temptation common among English writers of stories set in Japan, and Japanese-English translators, to turn stories into culture guides and language lessons.

Finding English solutions to some of Yanagishita's Japanese word plays, however, proved challenging. In places we resorted to deceptions or workarounds, and made clarifications in English as seamless as possible.

What mostly motivated me, other than my own half-century friendship with Yanagishita, who I met in 1970, was the challenge of producing a novel in both languages, that sought to reflect the same narrative -- the same elements of action and description -- the same walk and talk.

Yanagishita and I have agreed over the years to disagree over many issues related to language among other aspects of the human condition. Catch 51 was a labor of contested to writing, sometimes involving long and heated multiple email exchanges. I think it was worth it, and I feel very privileged to have had this opportunity.

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