'Toppamono' Miyazaki Manabu
Adding Colour to Understanding Japan
Volume 6, Issue 1 (Book review 4 in 2006). First published in ejcjs on 11 May 2006.
Miyazaki, Manabu (2005) Toppamono: Outlaw, Radical, Suspect – My Life in Japan's Underworld, Tokyo: Kotan Publishing, hardback, 460 pages ISBN: 0970171625.
Toppamono: Outlaw, Radical, Suspect – My Life in Japan's Underworld is a translation of Miyazaki Manabu's 1996 best seller, Toppamono: Sengoshi no Kage o Kakenuketa 50 Nen. Thus, and apart from its content, the book raises the question as to the purpose of translations. Or, put another way, what is the market for translations? How such questions are answered is likely to have some bearing on the way the translation is presented. Having not read the original Japanese text, I cannot comment about the degree of variation between the original and the English edition, but I would like to comment on both the way this book has been presented and how it may reflect the way translations need to be presented.
First, let me say a little about the subject matter itself. The book is in essence an autobiography of Miyazaki. However, while some prior knowledge of the person and a desire to know more about them is what normally drives us to read an autobiography, this book does not fit that mould. Rather than who Miyazaki was (I will explain my reasons for using 'was' below), this book is of interest due to what he was.
Miyazaki is relatively well-known in Japan, which would account for some of the fantastic sales the original enjoyed (more than 600,000 copies sold so far), though, outside of Japan, his name is not widely known. However, the yakuza are well known beyond Japan. Indeed, more than that, they are a source of considerable interest—particularly amongst undergraduate students. Miyazaki's family was yakuza, although Miyazaki himself was merely on the fringes. Indeed, anyone reading the book for the ritual chopping off of fingers and the like will probably be disappointed. While Miyazaki's involvement with the yakuza is maintained throughout, the book largely focuses on the struggles, to survive and make money, of someone in the construction industry (a yakuza hotbed). Indeed, so compelling is much of the text that by the end you begin to feel a certain degree of empathy towards this self-styled 'outlaw'.
While there is perhaps less about yakuza life than may be expected, or wished for, given the subtitle, Toppamono offers much to anyone wanting to learn not only about the darker side of Japan, but also about Japan's struggles from the 1950s to the 1990s. History sometimes tends to be portrayed in black and white terms. Not only are many historical images in black and white—books on the subject tend to be relatively clinical. By contrast, Miyazaki adds colour. For example, through reading the book, my understanding of the student demonstrations of the 1960s has been turned on its head. While most historical books will give only passing reference to these demonstrations, Miyazaki, being centrally involved, provides detailed descriptions of the kidnappings, the weaponry and even the tactics used. Indeed, so detailed are the accounts, I was left wondering whether this book would be better classed as a historical study of Japan's post-war struggles than an autobiography of a member of 'Japan's Underworld' (or at least a translation of one). This view is in some ways reinforced by the book not being overly concerned with the obvious gaps in the account. How an apparent dropout managed to enter Waseda University, normally beyond the reach of all but the most diligent of students, suggests that parts of Miyazaki's life are either not being covered or are being covered inaccurately. Perhaps Miyazaki was merely being very modest. When the book is seen in the context of being a study of Japan rather than of Miyazaki, however, such details become irrelevant.
So, why have a translation of any book, let alone this one? And on what basis should the translation be done? An increasingly large body of people is interested in Japan. Furthermore, many more have the skills to translate Japanese texts into English (and I dare say many other languages too). Some of this group, as they study the country and the language, help to explain the rise of interest in Japan. With this sophistication of both the translators and the market, it is only natural to expect the books chosen for translation—and the way in which they are translated—will become more sophisticated.
Putting pure literature to one side, translations of books such as Toppamono are clearly of interest due to what they can teach about Japan. Those reading for any other reasons are likely to be few in number. Toppamono is thus aimed at those involved in some way in Japanese Studies and those interested in particular fields (crime, corruption, etc.) with which the book also deals. Thus, although too many footnotes would be intrusive, I could not help but feel that at times this book required a degree of background knowledge, perhaps in the form of an introductory chapter, which is lacking. While Miyazaki—in a way that is typical of many Japanese authors—does provide some scene setting (which would also have been needed in the original for Japanese-language readers), the colour that he provides, at times, makes the book a blur for those not familiar with more 'black and white' versions of Japanese post-war history.
Toppamono is not a stand-alone book on its subject. Should it have been? Maybe not, but it certainly could have been. We need to remember that those who are likely to read such books have limited time (and budget) for reading such works (Toppamono runs to 438 pages), and while Toppamono is a relatively easy read due to its style, it is not a book that students could read and feel they have mastered the subject. In this way I believe translators need to be given more scope to use their skills to set books and their contents in context and not be overly bound by the original. The Japanese style of writing, which tends to lead to overlap of material within even a single chapter, does not fit with the more linear approach of most English authors. Should the translator alter the text to fit with what would be perceived as 'normal' for a given audience, and in the process risk losing some of the flavour of the original? Perhaps not, after all a large percentage of the readership are probably familiar with the Japanese style of writing. But, in this case, more information could certainly be added to make the text easier to follow and the book more of a reference tool. Not only an introductory chapter but also maps of the university campus where rioting took place would have been useful in conjunction with Miyazaki's description of the battles. A chart explaining how student groups were organized and related to each other and a chart showing how the yakuza groups fitted together would also have been helpful.
Let me return now to why I wrote 'was' in an earlier paragraph. The original book was published in 1996. The English translation has appeared in print nine years later after a couple of earlier incarnations. Yet, other than a short note from the author at the start of the book about the original's popularity and a footnote later on, there does not appear to be any text to bring the book up to date. What has happened to Miyazaki in the intervening years? While it is 'what he was' rather than 'who he was' that is of concern, as the final pages deal with how Japan was changing in the 1990s, and how the world of the yakuza has had to change in the light of new legislation, the book would have benefited from having more of what has happened in the years since the original was written. While this would not be a translation per se, it would make the text far more valuable for what it is, and what the publishers present it as—a study of Japan. It would also increase the marketability of the book, since many Japanese read English, and I dare say a few native English speakers may have already read the original Japanese. (Due to time limitations, however, I suspect there are many academics such as myself who appreciate the growth in the translation market of important, rather than necessarily top-selling, books on Japanese society.)
Toppamono is an important book and a must-read. It should be included on the reading lists of all university courses that cover this period of Japan's history, its construction industry, its criminal world and the like. It may appear to be an autobiography and it does contain a lot of dialogue (including some colourful language that one would not normally find in academic writing), but its contribution is nonetheless highly valued and appreciated.
Hill, Peter B.E. (2006) The Japanese Mafia : Yakuza, Law, and the State (New Edition), Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kaplan, David E. and Dubro, Alec (2003) Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld (Expanded Edition), Berkeley: University of California Press.
Miyazaki, Manabu (1996) Toppamono: Sengoshi no Kage o Kakenuketa 50 Nen [突破者—戦後史の陰を駆け抜けた五十年], Tokyo: Nanpūsha.
Article copyright Christopher P. Hood.