My Life, My English
矢島 翠さん 評論家・翻訳家
By Kazue Suzuki, Asahi Weekly
Japan's surrender to the Allied Powers in August 1945 surprised 13-year-old Midori Yajima.
"I didn't have the slightest idea that Japan would be defeated," said Yajima, a prominent writer and critic. It was an overturn of values overnight. Militarism was out. Democracy was in. The emperor was no longer the sovereign power but a symbol. New education emphasized the importance of individuals. Learning English became a national passion.
"I remember the excitement of watching the U.S. movie 'His Butler's Sister,'" she said. "In the film America was radiant."
Even with all these windfalls of democracy, she could not help but be cynical and cautious about Japan's future.
"I feared vaguely that a certain Japanese mentality could push history backward."
Yajima passed an entrance exam and enrolled at the University of Tokyo, which had recently opened its doors to women. She majored in English literature. It was a time when Japan-U.S. relations became precarious regarding security issues and students passionately discussed politics.
"Job prospects for literature students, male or female, were dim," she recalled. "English classes were not designed to train practical skills."
English had been a favorite subject since she first learned children's poems at 6 from a nun at a Catholic elementary school.
"Twenty froggies went to school down beside a plashy pool," she recited. English was part of her school curriculum, and teachers from different parts of the globe spoke their native languages outside their classrooms.
After being interrupted during the war, English classes were resumed, although Yajima regretted the lost years.
"When a nun teacher introduced an anthology of poems, which included Keats' and Poe's, which was rather exceptional, I wished I had more such classes," she said.
Yajima was one of the first women in the newsroom when she joined Kyodo News Service in 1955.
"While I knew I was just a 'token,' I felt as if I were a representative of women and worked hard to keep up with male colleagues."
Her first assignment included translating wire news for society and feature pages.
"I was frustrated as I translated 'woman,' for example, finding the right Japanese word, fujin, onna, josei, joshi or uman in katakana."
Her frustrations ended when she became a New York correspondent - again the first Japanese woman in the post - in 1974.
"It was an eye-opener for me," she said.
"Women's movement is a 'women's movement' in English," she said. "By sharing the fundamental concept, all women shared women's problems and hopes."
Meeting with many women in the midst of the second wave of the U.S. women's movement, Yajima felt freed from the many constraints she had in Tokyo.
"Many women here treated me as another woman friend; not a journalist from Japan. I could be myself."
She found that she had been bound by her role as a woman reporter, an elite career woman, who must constantly prove that she is as competent as her male colleagues.
"From a public service employee in a small Midwest town to New York activists, I met women who vividly talk about themselves. They opened my heart. I learned to write stories as I saw them."
She reported what she saw - not through the eyes of America or those of men - which perhaps changed the tone of women's news being reported from America in the Japanese press, she said.
"Women's liberation used to be reported as something weird done by a small number of militant feminists who burnt their bras during demonstrations."
Yajima never failed to talk to people who were less visible and not as outspoken as many Americans. Yajima recalled a Japanese woman she unexpectedly met in Windsor, Missouri, in 1976 when she was on assignment writing about a "typical American town" during the U.S. bicentennial.
"I did not expect I would see a Japanese woman in a tiny town of 3,000 people," she recalled. "The wife of a U.S. Air Force member, Masako, had settled there after moving from several military bases in Japan."
Masako told Yajima her story. "I am in the America I dreamed of in my girlhood. But there is no movie theater in town and I have no friends to talk to. People stare at me when I go to church."
"Masako showed me 12 suits, still new, which she said her parents presented to her, saying she would need them for parties."
Yajima felt empathy for Masako, since she too had dreamed after the war of going to America.
When her assignment to Kyodo's New York office ended, Yajima faced a career dilemma. The Japanese emperor had visited America in September-October 1975 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his accession. Two hundred Japanese journalists covered his visit.
"It was the most miserable time in my two-year sojourn in New York," she wrote in her memoirs.
Yajima said she had thought the media people were professional enough, but what they produced was mass praise for the emperor's personality and the success of his visit, as if it marked the end of the long postwar era.
"It reminded me of wartime reporting when the media was a mouthpiece of the government," she wrote.
Yajima had reached her limit, and felt pain in her stomach and anger. When she returned home, she quit her job. She said, "I had no regrets about my decision."
Over the years, Yajima's passion for writing and for learning other languages never dwindled.
In 1979 her translation of the American poet Maya Angelou's autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," was published.
She also learned French and Italian to translate biographies and books on the cinema.
"Learning a language is to come closer and to blend into another culture," she said. "With Italian, you do not have to worry about the twisted relationship with the country you tend to have with English - war, occupation and those long years of 'alliance' -through which you are bounced necessarily between admiration and disillusion, and intimacy and criticism."
Asahi Weekly, April 30, 2006より