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Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008

BILINGUAL

Keeping a close eye on the neighborhood news


You can live for years in a major city without knowing such a thing exists, but in more tranquil, less distracted settings, an unexpected ring of the doorbell as likely as not signals a neighbor bringing the kairanban (回覧板), an irregularly circulated newsletter put out by the local neighborhood association. It reminds us — whether we like to be reminded or not — that we are not merely individuals but part of a community.

The bell rings, my neighbor and I exchange bows, and there I stand in possession of the kairanban. It consists of several B4-size sheets fixed to a clipboard. Now, to be honest, I am in my community but not of it — a typically modern, if deplorable, attitude. The kairanban comes and goes with little more than a glance from me.

But owing to a certain circumstance, I've acquired a sudden interest in kairanban. Of the circumstance, more in a moment. Meanwhile, I scan this one with unaccustomed eagerness.

What have we here? It opens, predictably, with a chatty observation on the weather: Sawayaka na aki no kikō ni narimashita (bracing autumn weather we're having, 爽やかな秋の気候になりました. Yes, indeed. Now, to business. The Do-kei ongaku-tai (Hokkaido Police Band, 道警音楽隊) performed recently. And this year in the Zenibako district of Otaru, Hokkaido (the "less distracted setting" in which I live), kōtsu jiko-shi zero ichi-nen wo iwai (we celebrate a year of zero traffic fatalities, 交通事故死ゼロ一年を祝い).

Good news, happy times! So it usually is in kairanban-land, except when someone passes away— but even that, the cause being almost always extreme old age, is food for optimism rather than pessimism.

But kairanban has sinister threads in its long history. The circumstance I mentioned as having stoked my interest was the role one such newsletter played in an episode in a Japanese novel I'm reading. The novel is "Shonen H" (available in English as "A Boy Called H"), by Kappa Senoh. First published in 1997, it is set in prewar and wartime Kobe. "H," the main character, is a fictionalized version of the author as a child.

This particular episode takes place in 1938. H is 8. In his neighborhood is a young man nicknamed Otoko nē-chan (オトコ姉ちゃん), which translator John Bester has rendered as "Girly-Boy." Otoko nē-chan's ambiguous sexuality conceals a noble, steadfast character. Shortly after receiving his draft notice, he vanishes.

The local kairanban immediately is put into circulation: "Sugata wo mitara, tadachi ni shiraseru koto (If you see him, report him immediately, 姿を見たら直ちに知らせること)." Otherwise, "dorobō wo kakumau yori mo tsumi ga omoi kara, ki wo tsukeru koto (The crime will be worse than sheltering a thief, so be careful, 泥棒をかくまうよりも罪が重いから気をつけること)."

Next day the school yard is abuzz. "Kairanban de mita ka? (Did you see the kairanban, 回覧板で見たか?)," the kids ask each other.

It is H himself, a few days later, who stumbles upon Otoko nē-chan — dangling from the ceiling in a filthy roadside toilet. He reflects, "Senso de tama ni atatte shinu yori, jisatsu de kubi tsutte shinu ho ga yokatta'n ka? (Is it better to hang yourself than to be killed in the war by a bullet? 戦争で弾にあたって死ぬより、自殺で首つって死ぬ方が良かったんか?)"

Back to Zenibako, our peaceful Hokkaido haven, 2008. Even here, life has its disquieting side. The times are turbulent, and kids are prone to hikō (非行) — delinquency. Therefore, parents, please create a home atmosphere in which children yasuragu koto ga dekiru (can have peace of mind, 安らぐことができる).

And seniors — be on guard against the notorious ore-ore sagi (オレオレ詐欺) — fraud in which a young person, adopting the informal speech of a grandchild, phones you up and says breathlessly, Ore da! (Hi, it's me!, オレだ!) — Listen, I'm in trouble, please transfer money to my account ...

The kairanban provides a little cartoon showing what to do. "Mago ni denwa shite miyō! (I'd better call my grandchild, 孫に電話してみよう!)." "Moshi-moshi, anta sakki denwa shita? (Hello, did you phone me just now? もしもし、あんたさっき電話した?) — E? Shitenai? (You didn't? え?してない?) Okane furikonde hoshii'n ja nai no? (お金振り込んでほしいんじゃないの?, You don't want me to transfer money to you?)"

Wartime or peacetime, yasuragu koto (peace of mind, 安らぐこと) doesn't grow on trees.



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