Japanese language and culture: uniqueness and diversity

6 ‘of reading
19/05/2022 – It is above all on the kanji that the willpower of those who study Japanese is measured.

Giorgio Amitrano, born in Jesi (AN), in 1957, teaches Japanese language and literature at the University of Naples “L’Orientale”. He has translated several Japanese writers into Italian, including Kawabata Yasunari, Miyazawa Kenji, Nakajima Atsushi, Inoue Yasushi, Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana. He edited the edition of Kawabata’s works for the Meridians (2003) and wrote a monograph on this author, published in Japan by Misuzu shobō in 2007. Among the awards, the 12th Noma Translation Award 2001, Grinzane Award- Cavour 2008 and, in 2020, the Japanese government awarded the “Order of the Rising Sun, Gold rays with ribbon”. From 2013, he was director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Tokyo for four years. He is the author of the volume Iroiro. Japan between pop and sublime (DeAgostini 2018).

How did your interest in Japanese language and literature come about?

As a boy, I had been impressed with Kurosawa’s film and Kawabata’s reading, but I had no specific interest in Japan, and the decision to study Japanese was not deliberate. In fact, it was born of a sudden inspiration. I had gone to Orientale, the university where I teach today, with the intention of enrolling in English, but when I read the list of teaching there, which ranged from Sanskrit to Arabic, from Chinese to Japanese to African languages, the desire arose to embark on a whole new experience for me and to study oriental languages. When I was interested in Buddhism, I chose Japanese and Tibetan. I thought this choice would allow me a comparative study of Buddhism in these two cultures. I studied both languages ​​for four years, but over time, my attention has focused more and more on Japanese and on the literary aspect rather than on the philosophical-religious.

What was the topic of your thesis?

The work of the author Nakajima Atsushi, who is also the first Japanese author I have translated. The short story book by Nakajima, which I published for Marsilio, my debut as a translator, is the end of a journey that began with my thesis.

Who were his teachers?
I was so lucky to have more. In Japanese studies, my Oriental professors: Maria Teresa Orsi, Luigi Polese Remaggi, Sakamoto Tetsuo, and the author-translator Suga Atsuko met in Tokyo a few years later. Teachers for me were also Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, professor of Tibetan language and literature at Oriental, the Japanese calligrapher Tanaka Shingai and Cesare Garboli, the great literary critic, in various fields.

Why did you choose a university career?
This was not a deliberate choice either. I had no ambitions in this sense, and in fact I was for a long time a freelance translator and writer, and I was determined to continue on that path. But when one studies, translates and writes, one finds oneself at a certain point almost naturally oriented in the direction of academic deployment. In my case, the choice was not dictated by the search for greater economic stability, but by the desire to give my interests a more appropriate dimension. For example, if I was invited to a conference, the organizers never knew how to place me, if I wanted to visit a university library in Japan or abroad, the lack of an academic qualification made it harder to get permission.

What are your research interests about?
Modern and contemporary literature, which for me can never be separated from coherent fields such as film and visual art in general. And then there are some writers who have always interested me and who I think I will continue to love and study, in some cases even to translate, for the rest of my life: Kawabata, Miyazawa, Mishima, Tanizaki and among those closest. us Murakami and Yoshimoto.

Which teacher do you think you are?
I can not answer. It’s hard for me to imagine what I represent to the students. It would be enough for me to know that my lessons stimulate them and nurture their interest in Japanese culture and its extraordinary richness.

What are the biggest difficulties for your students struggling to study Japanese?

The biggest obstacle to overcome is learning to write. The two syllable alphabets are easy enough to learn, but the problem is i.a. kanji, the so-called “ideograms”. It is above all sui kanji that the willpower of those who study Japanese is measured. Those who are superficially interested in Japan, after a certain number of kanji exercises, or after a bad written exam, drop out and switch to lighter languages. Really motivated students resist and perhaps develop a passion for kanji.

What fascinates you most about Japanese culture?

I am fascinated by the different way of expressing things. Each culture is different from the other, but in Japanese I perceive a uniqueness that I never get tired of exploring. There is a gap between the Japanese way of speaking and ours that no globalization process will be able to fill. That said, what makes me love Japanese culture is that despite its irreducible diversity, I feel that it is very close and sympathetic to me.

What is literature for?

To broaden the gaze; to enrich their own experience by going into others through reading; to live more lives; to have fun; to experience the extraordinary pleasure that only literature can provide.

Which book would you happily reread?

I could read and reread all my life The story of Genjia masterpiece over a thousand years ago.

Is it true that one can not translate without betraying?

No that’s not true. Using strategies to best reproduce a text written in another language in the target language does not mean betraying, but it does mean that one deeply respects the original text and does everything to return it in the most valid way.

What is the journey that has been left most in your heart?

When I was in Hanamaki, the small town in northern Honshū, where Miyazawa Kenji, one of the writers I love the most, was born. Visiting the places where he had lived, getting to know his brother and his nephews was really exciting.

Is there an episode you would like to share with readers?

Many years ago I went with a French translator and a Japanese colleague to visit Kawabata’s house in Kamakura. We did not have an appointment and our only intention was to see her from the outside. But the French friend, who was much more enterprising than me, tried to knock. There was only the maid who explained that she could not let us in without the owners’ permission, but she allowed us to enter the porch and look inside from there. He showed us Kawabata’s studio, his work table, still intact, as it was in the days when he lived. Seeing the room where he had written many of his works so closely, but almost secretly, was such a kawabatic situation that I thought there was no better way than to visit his home.

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