(Conducted by Frederik L. Schodt in Mid-1984)
Q: Last time we talked about the archaic and the high tech, so now let's move into a more recent time frame, starting with your arrival in Japan in 1957. What were your goals, and how did you plan to accomplish them?
A: Officially, I was an exchange student on a Fulbright grant. I was enrolled at Kokugakuin University, a Shinto university in Tokyo, and I took courses in early Japanese literature. In time I made a translation of the Kojiki, the earliest Japanese book and a Shinto classic. It was published by the University of Tokyo Press and Princeton University Press. I also in time became interested in the Ainu epics which had been collected by Kyosuke Kindaichi, who taught at Kokugakuin, and by his disciple Itsuhiko Kubodera.
Q: On a more subjective level, what sort of feelings did you have about living in Japan? Previously you have indicated that you felt an affinity with Japanese culture from the time you could walk, that you almost had some "other" life link to Japan. Was going to Japan at first like going home? Did you plan to live there for the rest of your life?
A: Yes, but that was because I already knew the language and had been living with Japanese people (in Los Angeles) for many years. There was no sense of strangeness about the country or the people, at least at first. In country villages I had a sense of a totally different way of life, and in the lectures at Kokugakuin there were some very strange ideas going around, but I got used to them and the rigid hierarchical order of life. In Japan as in this country, what I really wanted, I think, on the subjective level, was to be left alone to live my own life. If you are a foreigner in any country, people do tend to leave you alone. After I became a full-time translator in Japan in 1961, I was really left alone and was able to enjoy a personal freedom that I had never experienced before.
Q: Somewhere along the line things changed for you, I gather. But before we get to that point, tell me about your life in Tokyo in the first years. What sort of place did you live in?
A: During my first three or four years I was not very affluent and I rented quarters around Harajuku and Aoyama. Then, after I was well established as a translator, I bought a small house in Aoyama. The Japanese I knew were rather surprised at my transformation from an impecunious student into an owner of real estate, all in just a few years' time. That was when I realized that there was real money to be made by translation.
Q: Who did you begin translating for, and what kind of material was it?
A: Some Japanese whom I had met as students in Los Angeles had since then returned to Japan and started a P.R. agency which was doing lots of publications and advertising for Hitachi. They needed a translator to do some of the huge volume of technical translation which Hitachi was forcing them to do in exchange for giving them the more desirable P.R. contracts. They recognized that I had no technical background but promised me all the help they could give, which included direct access to the authors of the materials at the various Hitachi plants. I met with many of the Hitachi people on a constant basis, and my work was checked and edited until it was presentable. I was lucky to have so much help when I started out. The work was mostly about electrical machinery, as I recall. That was before computers were as popular as they are now.
Q: The fates obviously knew more about the future than the rest of us, and were looking out for you. Did you enjoy technical work? Many translators I have talked to originally wanted to work on literature, or more "artsy" subjects, and wound up in a technical field simply because there was work, and money to be made. Were you ever frustrated in the beginning?
A: I had translated literature and other subjects, including graphic design and architecture. Technical writing, relying less on elegance of style and more on clarity, was simpler to do. You can translate it much faster and more easily than any literary or artistic text. It also is better paid; you are paid by the word and do not need to worry about royalties, publishers, etc.
Q: One thing that has always impressed me about you is your pride in your occupation, and your drive to improve the position of translators. Many translators tend to suffer from a lack of self-esteem. Did you have any feelings of this sort in the beginning?
A: My start as a translator came in Japan, and my role was a Japanese- speaking foreigner, with all the ambiguities and uncertainties that role involves. There are certain parallels with kept women and captive animals in zoos. The Japanese, I think, tend to respect resident foreigners less than "foreigners" who are living in their own country (if the foreigners are living in Japan, they reason, they must be second- rate.) But to answer your question, although other translators obviously are lacking in self-esteem, for a variety of reasons, I can't think of any reason why I should.
Q; You have mentioned before that until recently you were really several persons in one body; that Don Philippi the professional technical translator only achieved dominance over the others in the past few years. In your first years in Japan did you ever dream that you would concentrate on translating? Which Don had priority when you started working/studying/living in Japan?
A: The scholar. I devoted myself completely to scholarly work during the first four years. It was rather a surprise for me to learn that I was able to do technical translation, since nothing in my academic background, except a few courses in chemistry and geology, had prepared me for that career. Then I became a technical translator, rather reluctantly but on the whole willingly (I had to make a living, after all). I have resumed my scholarly career at other times, too. Several years ago I received a grant which enabled me to work on my Ainu project, but I was unhappy at being away from my translating for so long. I also had a start at a career as an experimental musician, but it would have been impossible to make my living by means of music. I know I can do these other things - I can play music, and I can do scholarly writing, but the only career that enables me to make my living successfully is translation. God evidently was trying to tell me something all along.
Q: As a translator, and as a linguist, Japanese and English seem to have been your main language combination, but i know you also speak, or at least read several other languages. What are they, and when and where did you pick them up?
A: I used to take various courses in other languages such as German and Spanish and French, and I still am able either to read them or understand them to a certain degree. I devoted myself more seriously to Russian. I took courses in it in the university, before I even went to Japan, and while living in Japan took twice-weekly private "lessons" in conversation which amounted merely to talking to a Russian lady who was a radio announcer (for NHK). This continued for, I think, two or three years. I also love to read Russian books, and have been reading them on and off for years. I still read and speak Russian, but not as well as Japanese.
Q: I know that you have considerable knowledge of Ainu language. While you were in Japan did you study other Asian languages? Any other primitive languages?
A: I spent a very long time doing an intensive study of Ainu, and my knowledge of Russian opened up many resources for studying the languages of Siberia such as the Turkic and other Altaic languages, but I have only a generalized knowledge of those language families. The Ainu language is isolated genetically from all the other languages of Asia; it cannot be connected with any other language or family of languages. The Ainu culture also has many remarkably archaic traits. That was what attracted me to the Ainu language and culture. Ainu is the complete antithesis of Japanese, although possibly in some very deep way the two cultures may have something in common - I mean if you go back to the prehistory of the Japanese islands.
Q: You often use the word "archaic". What does it mean to you in terms of language and culture?
A: In cultural terms, something that precedes the civilized, agricultural state. In Asia, a culture based on hunting, fishing and gathering. The archaic way of life came to an end with the introduction of agriculture, which led inevitably to the establishment of kingdoms, states, empires, armies, and all the other characteristics of civilization which we know so well today. The archaic state is not something which we have overcome or surpassed; it still exists in odd corners of the world. The last Ainu epic reciters died in our own times, and there are still many peoples, even in the U.S., who still preserve archaic traditions. In terms of linguistics, "archaic" has no meaning at all.
Q: Earlier you mentioned your attraction to "archaic" world views. Was this something that developed in the course of studying Ainu language when you were in Japan, or was it an interest you brought with you from the United States?
A: When I was in the U.S. I had no very deep understanding of the archaic. I just felt attracted to the American Indians whom I had seen as a child, without understanding much about their way of life. When I began to study the Ainu culture with its mythology and its pre-modern world view, I felt as if this was the human ideology. Before humans set up their sophisticated religions and philosophies, within the past 3,000 to 6,000 years, all the humans in the world believed in one ideology - the one which is still preserved today, in varying forms, among the so- called primitive peoples among us. It is the most precious thing which we have inherited from the past. I'd like very much to forget all the other ideologies and go back to the one which is native to our species.
Q: And now, the sixty million dollar question. Can you give us a capsule definition of our original, unadulterated ideology?
A: The Ainu ideology might be expressed like this. Man is one of the many species sharing the world. There is the human world and the non- human world. The non-human world is called kamui, which is defined in the dictionary sense as "deity," but it really means something broader than that. The deities live in their own world but try to establish contacts with the humans. They do this by assuming the form of animals and coming to visit us. The Ainu bear ceremony is the basic form of expression of this ideology - the bear cub is a visiting god-child, and the time has arrived to send its spirit back to the world of the gods, the bear world. There are other ways of contacting the non-human world, also through dreams, through shamanism, and even through reciting the epics which contain information about deities and culture heroes. Each species has its head. There are rulers of animals, rulers of fish, even rulers of trees and plants. The human world also has a head, a ruler. He is the Ainu culture hero, who appears in the mythic epics and establishes the rules for the Ainu way of life and intervenes between the humans and the other species. This ideology was not just a religion; every aspect of life was governed by it, including the dress, the eating habits, and especially the economy. The hunting-fishing economy was totally imbued with these ideas because the economy was the way in which the human being related to the other beings - the gods visiting in animal guise.
Q: While studying and translating in Japan, you seem to have undergone a gradual disillusionment with the society around you. Like Lafcadio Hearn, did you start to feel as though Japan had squandered the best parts of its culture? Did you long for a revival of the archaic? What happened, anyway?
A: I have always thought that the Japanese culture was and is very progressive and receptive to innovations, although it tends to preserve older cultural layers while adding ever new accretions to them. What I objected to was the progressive vulgarization and trivialization of everything, not necessarily modernization which is inevitable. While Japanese technology was making remarkable progress, the content of people's lives was becoming astonishingly impoverished. Some of it was inevitable, I suppose. But I didn't like it. There is something repellent about an entire nation of people who all look alike, talk alike, think alike, watch the same TV programs, read the same magazines, are intensely competitive, and live in a highly regimented society. The society was oppressive to me, and to everybody also who lived in it. In 1967 and 1968 there was an immense upsurge of rebellion against the social mechanisms of regimentation. Although the movement was mainly a revolutionary movement of the youth, much influenced by Marxism, I found much with which I myself could identify in it. It was like a candle in the wind, so to speak, but it may have been the last chance for Japanese people to rebel and regain some freedom. The battle has been lost, and I'm afraid the Japanese are doomed to more and more of the same -- I mean, more regimentation of thought and behavior, less individual freedom, only now it is veiled by the affluence and the technology. High Tech regimentation.
Q: Did you see an element of the archaic world view in the movement? A: Not really. As I said, the workers and student radicals were coming from a Marxist viewpoint. For them, the world entered a New Era in 1917 with the Russian Revolution. They could tell you all about Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, but they knew very little about the Ainu. Only one person, a man called Ota Ryu, finally attained a primitivist perspective and actively promoted study of the Ainu question. It proved to be almost impossible for contemporary Japanese to identify themselves with the Ainu or even with any of the Third World peoples. But there was an interesting progression of ideas. The radicals started out by rebelling because they perceived themselves as victims of oppression. Then there came a fundamental change of perspective, and many of them realized that they were oppressors. At least there was some attempt to side with the real victims - the ethnic groups whose physical existence was destroyed or was being destroyed by the progress of civilization. If that line of thinking had been continued, it might have led to a consciousness of the cultural values preserved by the archaic peoples, but so much was happening all at once, and there was such intense repression of the movement, that many of these possibilities were nipped in the bud. And, as I said, there was the all-pervasive influence of Marxism, which is basically a progressive 19th century ideology which looks forward to a technological Utopia rather than backwards to the original human ideology.
Q: At some point, you became interested in the movement, from the objective standpoint of a scholar and the emotive standpoint of a participant. Rumor, or should I say legend, has it that in addition to your research on Ainu and your translating of technical materials, you began writing a long history of the Kakumaru. Why? What was your life like then, in terms of daily, immediate frustrations, thwarted hopes, skewed dreams, and simple pleasures?
A: When I first came into contact with the radical movement I was baffled by the concepts and terminology and found much that was strange in it. I decided to study its history, beginning with the immediate Postwar period, the "war guilt" debates, the Japanese Communist movement, the various splits and debates during the Korean War, and then the de-Stalinization movement, the Hungarian revolution, and the introduction of Trotskyism. Without understanding this pre-history it would be impossible to understand the "leftist" sects as they are today. I put down my findings in writing in the form of a history of the Japanese Revolutionary Left. The Kakumaru is only one of the many factions belonging to that movement, although it is probably the most striking of them all. My life during the period 1967-1969 was very hectic. I was arrested by the police twice and was constantly being hounded by them. I attended many meetings, rallies, and demonstrations, helped to put out publications, made speeches, and generally participated quite fully in what was going on then. The temperature was very high - I mean, it was a life highly charged emotionally, much physical exercise (running through the streets with thousands of others all chanting slogans) , and considerable danger. The best part was the feeling of belonging and of loyalty to definite persons. The worst part was the violence. At that time I didn't know it, but if any one of those sects had ever succeeded in taking power, it would have caused incalculable tragedy. Millions would have died. They started out by attacking and killing each other - sect against sect - but they would have ended up by massacring a large percentage of the population. Now I can see clearly how it would have ended - there are so many more examples, now that we have all read Solzhenitsyn and can see what has happened in so many countries. Now my viewpoint is that it is crazy, literally insane, to kill because of an ideology. That leads me to the conclusion that the people whom I respected in those days were madmen, and I was a bit crazy myself. But I still have the scars and bruises, and I never betrayed them. I just don't want them to have the power to do any harm to innocent people.
Q: Would it be fair to say that there were two big disillusionments during your time in Japan-- a disillusionment with the direction modern Japanese society was taking, and a later disillusionment with the direction the movement was taking? Any others during this time?
A: The movement and the modern society were both heading in the same direction, basically. Marxism and Marxist movements are just varieties of the modern, civilized world view. After I came back to the U. S. I had time to think things over more calmly, and rather than just being "disillusioned," I was able to grasp what had been eluding me for so long. I mean I began to re-evaluate what I had been doing and thinking for so many years, and many of the things, I realized, were unworthy because they would lead to bloodshed. I also began to understand that there are some values which are desirable in themselves - such as the value of eccentricity, which is recognized in archaic societies but is usually stigmatized in regimented modern societies. But on the other hand, what has been changing since 1970 is not just my own outlook, but rather the world. And I think it has been changing for the better in many ways. I am now much more optimistic than I ever was in 1967 or 1968.
Q: And on that neaka note, let's conclude this installment.