(c) Hiromi Chikai
Matsuda Aoko｜Kelly Link
Is Gavin doing any better than when you last wrote? I truly hope so.
Thank you so much for your kind words about my mother. Compared to that six-month period when I was coming and going between Tokyo and my mother’s house, my daily routine feels a lot more settled now. That said, now another war has begun, and psychologically speaking, the days of uncertainty continue.
We hurried back to Tokyo one day in February after receiving the news that the application we’d made last year for preschool had been successful, and that the orientation would take place the following week.
As you may know, there’s a real problem with finding childcare in Japan. Although things have started improving a little since awareness of the issue has grown, many families find themselves in real difficulty because they are unable to find an available preschool for their kids. The belief that mothers should look after their children at home is still deep-rooted, and our society hasn’t yet managed to create an environment in which women are easily able to go out to work.
The paperwork you have to fill out to apply to preschool is so extensive, and so very detailed. Before applying, I’d seen women on social media and so on complaining about the various difficulties they faced getting their kids into preschool, so I was aware of the issues, and yet when my turn came to fill in all of the forms, I still grew thoroughly sickened by the whole thing. Applicants are awarded points based on things like their income and family situation, and the families with the most points are given places. The pamphlet contained a chart showing how points were distributed, as if it were a perfectly normal way of going about things. Looking at it, I felt staggered to see aspects of people’s lives converted into numbers like that. Of course single mothers and those from low-income families are awarded more points, and I know that some kind of standard is needed to calculate these things, but still, the whole setup totally stunned me.
On the application form, there’s a field where you have to write out the names of the preschools you want your child to attend, ranked as first choice, second choice, and so on. Even so, it’s not like you can then simply enter the one you’ve chosen—your child can only attend the preschool decided on for you by the city. The form gives you the space to fill in up to your sixth choice, but when my partner (in Japan, married couples can’t keep separate surnames, so we’re still not married) took the form to the city office to submit it, the desk clerk told him that the rate of failure was so high that we were best to fill in up to our twentieth choice on the back of the form. By the time we got to our twentieth choice preschool it would be a considerable distance from where we’re living, and I suggested that that we give them the message that we definitely wanted them to select one from our original six choices, so in the end we only filled in up to our sixth. Both my partner and I work freelance, and I’d heard that freelancers are given low priority because there’s an assumption that they can look after their child while working (of course anybody who had tried to work while taking care of a child would know that such a thing is virtually impossible), and I was quite concerned that we wouldn’t make it in at all, so I was most relieved that we were given a place at one of our top six.
I was really happy that you mentioned All of Us Are Dead! The original Korean title of that show means Now, At Our School… (the Japanese title is a direct translation of the Korean too), and it’s made up solely of words and grammar that I’ve learned in my first year of Korean lessons. There are a couple of other series with titles simple enough for me to understand (the Japanese title of Hellbound translates as “Hell is Calling”, but the Korean word for “Hell” appears at the very start, from which I understood that the original Korean title was “Hell.” That discovery left me very happy (and it seemed to me like the perfect title for the series), but most of the time, with just a year of lessons behind me, there are very few things that I can totally understand without using a dictionary. So when I saw All of Us Are Dead being introduced on Instagram as a new zombie series (I follow the Netflix Korea account), I was so delighted that I could understand the title that it came to take on a kind of commemorative meaning for me. That said, I’ve not watched it yet—sometimes I save up the horror series and movies that I’m really excited about, and this one I’m keeping for a birthday or some kind of special day. Now that I know you’re watching it I’m even more excited to see it.
After writing to you last time, I had to take an online test to see whether I was ready to move up to the next class in Korean. It’s decades since I’ve taken a test like that. I was so determined to move up that I started getting nervous about a month ahead of time. Anyway, perhaps the nerves paid off because I passed, and completed the year’s course of lessons. Since coming back to Tokyo, I’ve been trying to focus as much as I can on my translation. I’ve written out all the page numbers in a long list, and am savoring striking through them with a highlighter when I’ve done one. I really like highlighter pens, but with my student days long behind me, they’re a stationery item that I don’t have many opportunities to use, so I’m secretly happy that I’ve found chances to use them in my Korean lessons and as part of the translation process.
I really like “People, I’ve Been Sad” by Christine and the Queens, too. You wrote in your letter that you cry more as a response to visual stimuli—I have a habit of crying when I watch Christine and the Queens videos on YouTube. Each time I watch them, I feel moved once again by the very fact of her existence.
You wrote that you like Christine and the Queens; after I wrote in my last letter to you that I liked her song “Tilted,” another strange coincidence took place. Polly Barton, who is translating these letters I’m writing and who also translated Where the Wild Ladies Are into English, wrote to me after reading my previous letter to say that she, too, had recently become addicted to “Tilted”, and couldn’t stop listening to it.
I’ve got kind of used to these things happening between Polly and me. When I met her a few years ago in the UK, she was wearing the same Dr. Martens boots that I myself owned. I guess it’s not too unusual for people to wear Dr. Martens. But then last autumn, when I put a photo on my Instagram story of me standing in a stream in a pair of sandals, she messaged me to say “I’ve got the same shoes!” They’re Teva sandals in various bright colors that remind me of kids’ toys, and I’ve never seen anybody else wearing them. Last month, I saw Polly over Zoom for the first time in years, and she was wearing a red knitted hat that was very similar to one I’d just bought. I haven’t told her about the hat yet… As I was writing that, it struck me that, just by the fact of me writing this, she’ll come to know it. That’s kind of cool.
The translator who is translating your letters into Japanese, Miwako Ozawa, is a friend of mine, too. When I first met her, she kept talking about the Japanese version of The Bachelor, a reality TV show, which made me laugh. After that, we went to the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi together with a number of friends to see an exhibition of female artists from around the world aged over seventy. (It’s on the 53rd floor of a very tall building, and as I’m not very good with heights, I always have a moment in the elevator when I regret coming, but as soon as I arrive at the museum I get so taken in by the exhibition that I forget all about that. I can’t seem to remember the fact that it’s on the 53rd floor, and every time I go, it surprises me anew, and I think to myself, how had I forgotten it’s on the 53rd floor!) Then, the other day, I took part in an online event with Miwako called ‘Writing, Translating, and Publishing Feminist Books’. This third letter I’m writing to you will be my last. I’m really glad that it’s been four women who’ve been involved in this project, and I’m deeply grateful to you for agreeing to take part. I feel quite sad that it’s coming to an end.
Before I forget, I want to write about short stories, as I didn’t manage to in my previous letter. I love short stories. Of course I love novels, too, but when I encounter a really extraordinary novel, the bizarre compliment I end up paying it in my head is: “it’s got a real short-story-like quality to it!”
There’s someone I think about every time I think about short stories. I spent two years during high school in Colorado, where my aunt and uncle were living, and while I was there, to help me keep up with the American literature classes, I had a personal tutor. My tutor was a woman who I guess was in her thirties at the time, with soft, fine golden hair. Until the weather got too cold, she always wore a sleeveless tie-dye dress.
Once a week, she and I would sit together in the library, and talk about whatever text we’d been set in class. What made her special to me was that she was the first adult I’d ever met who’d speak with passion about literature. (I’d never seen anyone get so worked up about spoilers!) I had always enjoyed reading, but she taught me all kinds of things: how to read stories and write book reports, use index cards, and so on. Afterwards, I went on to study English and American Literature at university, and took a course on short stories, but I think that it was she who showed me how to get on with books–which is to say, how to engage with literature, and how to love it. Even now, there are times when I think to myself, I’m reading like she does. Sometimes when I’m writing, too, I imagine her as my reader, and when in the past my books have been published and people have said things in reviews that make me cock my head and think, wait, that’s not right, I’ll have the impudent thought that she wouldn’t have read what I’d written in that way.
She’s such an important person for me, and yet I can’t now recall her name. When I moved back to Japan, she wrote her address and, of course, her name in my yearbook, but as always, she wrote it in this extremely distinctive handwriting she had, and when I looked at it later on, I couldn’t decipher it. It’s a real pity to me that although I can remember the texture of the downy hair on her rosy, make-up free face as if it were only yesterday that I’d last seen her, that very crucial piece of information has vanished from my memory. Back then, there were lots of teachers and students who really didn’t show any interest in me, but there she was, working as a private tutor in rural Colorado decades ago, and being so kind to me and the other Asian students. She was a really great person. I wonder what she’s up to now.
In my literature lessons at high school, we studied an anthology called American Short Story Masterpieces. I discovered many American authors through that anthology, but one story in particular I remember really shaking me up was “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. From that scene where a girl of around my age is speaking through a screen door with a mystery man just before he abducts her, I learned that the everyday world can transform thoroughly in the mere space of a single screen. It was terrifying, and yet at the same time, I felt like my eyes were opened by it.
It was also through that anthology that I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Ile Forest” (although, to be honest, until just now when I opened up the book and flipped through the pages that my high-school self had assiduously underlined, I’d totally forgotten that I’d read Le Guin’s work as a high-school student—I was convinced that the first thing I’d read by her was The Left Hand of Darkness) and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
At university, I was bowled over by Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and she became a most beloved writer of mine. Reading Susan Minot’s “Lust” in class made me realize the ways of writing, the possibilities that the short story carries, and I felt a personal sense of relating to the story in a way I’d not done before. After that, I went on encountering many, many short stories that stayed with me. I feel sure that even decades on, somewhere in my mind, that surprise I felt when reading them lingers on.
I think most of Tanith Lee’s books are out of print in Japan, too. The Japanese edition of The Secret Books of Paradys is exquisite, so I hope it’ll be reprinted one day. I feel that if a short story collection contains even a single brilliant story, then that’s already enough to make it a great collection for me, but in Lee’s collections, all of the stories are brilliant, and so engaging to read. As I read I think, how is this kind of magic even possible?! I find reading her very restorative. I want to read the things I haven’t yet read by her, a little at a time.
In regard to what you wrote about your area, I love those kinds of stories about buildings and nature and so on. I like to walk around the neighborhood or look out of the window and discuss with my family about what I’ve discovered. That’s so great that the building next to you is being turned into low-income housing. It always strikes me as so unfair when the price of land in a place goes up so much that people can’t afford to live there any more.
The price of land and rental costs where I live in Tokyo are high too. When I look at the prices of new-build apartments and houses, even the very small ones are so staggeringly expensive that I often think about where we’re supposed to live in the future. That’s especially true of this last six months, since my mother’s cancer was discovered. The job I do, writing and translating, is one that I could essentially do anywhere, and I’ve often thought about the places I want to live in, but that’s become especially true since the pandemic when all the things that used to have to be done in person have moved online, and we’ve been shown more and more that it’s okay to be anywhere.
We moved in last year, but my mother’s cancer was discovered immediately after, and, as I wrote before, I almost immediately started coming and going between Tokyo and her house, so it’s only recently that I’ve finally been able to settle into the new place.
The place we lived in for several years prior to last year was an old detached house where lots of bizarre things happened, but even in this new place, there have already been a few peculiar occurrences.
My partner has a knack for scouring out slightly odd locations, and our apartment this time is another one of his findings. We were thinking that, with a young child, it would be good to live somewhere where we wouldn’t have to worry about bothering the neighbors with the noise, and this place is ideal in that sense: it’s in a building over forty years old with only one apartment on each floor. In the basement is a warehouse, which only tradespeople visit. The family living in the apartment above have a primary-school aged son, and say they can’t really hear anything from our apartment, and the same is true for us.
Also, the building faces out onto a big road, but on one of the other sides there’s a long balcony that my son can run about on, and the back is a wood, so even though we’ve no garden and we’re right in the middle of the city we don’t have to be worried about people seeing us.
When my partner first went to see the house by himself, he came back home saying, “There’re woods at the back!’ I found it so difficult to imagine how there could be woods slap bang in the middle of a Tokyo residential district. After going to see it myself, I discovered that the bit at the back is private land, part of the grounds of the homes of some very rich people. They don’t seem to walk to the edges of their property, and we enjoy looking at the woods every day. It’s surprising that we don’t see any deer. The day after we moved in, we found a dead bird on the balcony on the side facing the woods. As we were dithering about what to do with it, wondering if we should bury it, and what other options there were, it grew dark, and by the time we looked outside again, the bird was gone. It must have been concussed and then come round and flown off. What a relief we didn’t actually bury it! It’s raining today, but the buds on the tree nearest the window are swollen and we discovered that it’s a baby’s breath spirea—in Japanese, we call them yuki-yanagi, which means “snow willow.” We haven’t worked out what the one behind it is, but it’s covered in tiny buds too, all about to burst into blossom.
I really hope that your family and all the people and animals in your neighborhood are enjoying the arrival of spring.
I’m so looking forward to reading your next, though final, letter.
『All of Us Are Dead』の名前が出てきて、うれしくなりました。なぜかというと、このドラマは原題が『今、私たちの学校は…』というのですが（日本版のタイトルも韓国語の直訳で同じです）、これは私がこの１年間の間に韓国語の授業で学んだ単語と文法だけでできているタイトルなんです。他の作品でも、短いタイトルだったりすると意味がわかったりすることもあるのですが（『Hellbound』という作品は、日本のタイトルは『地獄が呼んでいる』なのですが、ドラマの最初に「地獄」と韓国語で浮かび上がるので、原題は『地獄』なんだなとわかったのがうれしかったですし、『地獄』としてこの作品を見るのがぴったりであるように思いました）、やはり１年間の学習だけだと、辞書も使わずにぱっと全部意味がわかることはまだまだ少ないので、新しいゾンビ作品としてこのドラマの情報がインスタグラムに流れてきた時は（私はNetflix Koreaのアカウントをフォローしています）、「……意味がわかる！」と感動し、何かちょっと自分の中で記念碑的な意味合いを持つ作品になりました。ただ、私はこれはというホラー作品をすごく大切にとっておいてしまう時があって、このドラマも、何か誕生日など特別な日のためにまだ試聴せずにいます。ケリーさんが見ているとわかってより見るのが楽しみになりました。
Christine and the Queensの「People, I’ve been sad」ですが、私もとても好きな曲です。視覚的な効果に泣いてしまうとケリーさんが書かれていましたが、私はYouTubeなどでクリスティーヌのパフォーマンスを見ていると泣いてしまう、という癖があって、見るたびに彼女の存在に新鮮に感動してしまいます。
ケリーさんがChristine and the Queensをお好きなこともそうですが、前回の手紙で彼女の曲「Tilted」について書いた後、もう１つ奇遇なことありました。この私の手紙や、『Where the Wild Ladies Are』を英語に翻訳してくださっているポリー・バートンさんが、前回の手紙を読んで、自分も最近どうしようもなく「Tilted」にはまっていた時があると教えてくれたんです。
Aoko Matsuda is a writer and translator. In 2013, her debut book, Stackable, was nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize and the Noma Literary New Face Prize. In 2019, her short story ‘The Woman Dies’, published on GRANTA online, was shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award. In 2021, Her short story collection Where the Wild Ladies Are was highly praised by BBC, Gurdian, NYTimes, and NewYorker, and was included on TIME’s list of the 10 Best Fiction Books of 2020. It was nominated for the Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction sponsored by the LA Times, and won the Firecracker Award for the fiction category and the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection in 2021. She has translated work by Karen Russell, Amelia Gray and Carmen Maria Machado into Japanese.
Polly Barton is a translator of Japanese literature and non-fiction, currently based in Bristol, UK. She has translated short stories for Words Without Borders, The White Review, and Granta. Full-length translations include Spring Garden by Shibasaki Tomoka (Pushkin Press, 2017), Where the Wild Ladies Are by Matsuda Aoko (Tilted Axis Press/Soft Skull Press, 2020), and There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Tsumura Kikuko (Bloomsbury, 2020). Her non-fiction debut, Fifty Sounds, was out with Fitzcarraldo Editions in April 2021.