September 5, 2019

The Great Passage by Shion Miura

I read The Great Passage with an idea for a side-project: marking interesting words with a pencil, I would go back through the text and “untranslate” these words back into Japanese, preferably into the Kanji characters. The idea was simply to supercharge my very basic learning of Japanese by collecting - as do the characters in the novel - interesting words or phrases and mulling about them, letting them become a part of my everyday life. This turned out to be an excellent way of performing a close reading of the text, and I enjoyed reading the novel much more as a result.

To define one word, you inevitably had to use others. Whenever Majime thought about words, something like a wooden image of Tokyo Tower rose in the back of his mind: a precarious structure of words in exquisite balance, words supplementing words. However he compared existing dictionaries, and no matter how much data he gathered, just when he thought he had captured a word, it would slip through his fingers, crumble to bits, and vanish.

The Great Passage is both the title of the novel and the novel's focal subject. The main characters - Araki, Majime, Nishioka, and Kishibe - each of whom has a chapter devoted to their point-of-view - are involved in compiling a new dictionary of the Japanese language. Their task is daunting; at over 2500 pages, the work spans multiple decades. We follow each character as he or she matures and ages in the midst of their life's greatest accomplishment.

Overall, the book is very charming. The most interesting and most enjoyable chapters are in the beginning half. Araki begins the storyline with a childhood fascination with words. On the first page, “dog” sets his childhood imagination onto a lifetime obsession with lexography and dictionaries. An uncle gives him a dictionary to support his interest in words and persuades Araki's parents to allow him to attend college.

  • dog
  • four legged animal
  • spat
  • pointless
  • strange
  • concise

Attending college but attaining only slightly above average grades, Araki decides to become a dictionary editor since he cannot attain the scholarship to write his own. In retrospect, that might have been the more realistic approach anyways, but you get a sense for the young lexographer searching for anything to follow his passion.

When Araki approaches mandatory retirement age, he conceives of a plan to compile his own dictionary just as he had always dreamed. To accomplish this, he realizes that he must find an apprentice to continue the editorialship in full while his employment status restricts him to part-time. Enter Majime, via a jestful recommendation by Nishioka, an assistant:

“Tell me something.” Unable to contain his excitement, Araki turned to the woman standing beside him. “That young man over there – what's he like?” “What do you mean?” She sounded wary. “I'm Kohei Araki, from the Dictionary Editorial Department. What can you tell me about him? He's twenty-seven and this is his third year here after grad school, is that right?” “I think so, but you'd better ask him. He's *majime.” *Majime, eh? Serious, diligent. Araki nodded in satisfaction. This was very good.

Araki completely mistakes Majime's proper name with the adjective, a conceit allowed by his profession. We'll see many more of these puns throughout the book.

  • majime
  • koe
  • ardor
  • good effort
  • fastened
  • slow
  • recorded occurance
  • collection
  • vast number
  • right

Araki's interview of Majime is particularly funny. Immediately, Majime appears more absent minded than Araki.

Distracted by the man's family unusual family name, for a second Araki had forgotten his purpose in coming. He tucked the card and pen in his breast pocket and cleared his throat. “If someone asked you to define the word migi, ‘right’, what would you say?” “‘Right’ as in the direction, or ‘right’ as in politics?” “The former.” “Let me think.” He tilted his head pensively, swinging his long hair. “Defining it as ‘the hand used to hold a pen or chopsticks’ would ignore all the left-handed people in the world. ‘The side of the body that doesn't contain the heart’ wouldn't work, either, since a few people do have their heart on the right side. Maybe something like this would be the safest: ‘when facing north, the side of the body that is to the east.'” “Okay. Then how would you explain shima?” “‘Stripes’…‘island’…the place name…the suffix in words like yokoshima"–evil–“and sakashima"–upside down–"‘conjecture’, as in the four-character phrase shima okusoku"–conjecture and surmise–“the four devils of Buddhism…” As Majime reeled off possible candidates, Araki hastily cut him short. “Shima as in ‘island’.” “All right. Something like ‘a body of land surrounded by water’? No, that wouldn't do [ … ] Then how about ‘land set apart from its surroundings’?” He was the genuine article. Araki looked on with admiration. It had only taken seconds for Majime to work out the underlying meaning of shima.

It's important for me to point out that, these scenes are very funny and meant to be, but it's a mistake for Westerners to think that Japanese stories like this rely on intentionally goofy characters. The Japanese language itself contains many thousands of homonyms ( words that have different meanings but the same pronunciation ); much of the language relies heavily on contextual cues to signal that one meaning of a word or phrase be taken rather than an other. The difficulty gets multiplied when considering that the Kanji characters were imported from Chinese with a particular logographic meaning and then overloaded with Japanese pronunciations. In other words, compiling a Japanese dictionary is a very difficult undertaking. These characters have extraordinary intelligence.

  • yokoshima
  • sakishima
  • conjecture
  • shima
  • pigeon
  • mamegui
  • conscientiousness
  • odd fish
  • empty
  • clothes drying platform
  • to fit in
  • tsu-ka
  • tsuru

Majime lives in the same boarding hose he rented during college. All the other boarders had since moved out, and he expands into the other rooms to store his book collection. He maintains a very close relationship with his landlady. So close, in fact, that the landlady offers her grand-daughter, Kaguya, to move-in following her breakup with a fiance, apparently to set them up as a couple. I think my biggest disappointment in the book is that Kaguya doesn't get a direct role in the book. She does have a larger role than the other secondary characters, but Majime's romantic interest in her is so intense, and Kaguya's own career as a chef so engrossing, that she could have filled her own chapter.

[ fill in Kaguya's first meeting of Majime ]

Nishioka catches Majime daydreaming about his crush:

“All right, Majime, what're you mooning about?” “Um, nothing in particular…” “Ren'ai.” (Love. Romantic attachment.) Nishioka's sharp eyes had caught the entry Majime had been examining, and he proceeded to read the definition aloud [ . . . ] “Oh, I know this one!” said Nishioka. “It's from the The New Clear Dictionary of Japanese, right?” “Yes. Fifth edition.” “The one that's famous for its quirky definitions. So what's the story?”

Nishioka teases Majime, but ultimately they become closer friends through Nishioka's joking and Majime's seriousness.

  • ren'ai
  • merlion
  • umenomi
  • hanshi

Eventually, Majime writes Kaguya a long, strained love letter containing extensive quotations of classical Chinese poetry. The letter appears in the epiloge, with commentary between Nishioka and Kishibe. Apparently, Majime gets the idea of writing a love letter following a discussion on Natsume Soseki's classic, Kokoro.

Kokoro?” Nishioka waked on a few paces, frowning. “Oh, yeah, I remember. Read it in high school. The one with the farewell letter that went on forever. It was hilarious.” “That's your response to Soseki's masterpiece?” Once again Nishioka had succeeded in rousing Araki's ire. “Tell me again, why are you in publishing?”

Nishioka proves himself more observant than realized, however:

Funny, [ Majime ] thought, now that Nishioka pointed it out, the letter the character Sensei had written to the narrator before committing suicide really was inordinately long and probably wouldn't have fit inside a sheet of hanshi, the smallest size of writing paper, or inside a man's pocket, either. [ . . . ] Maybe [ Nishioka ] was someone capable of uninhibited leaps who could see things in an unusual light.

  • hanshi
  • uninhibited leaps
  • unusual light

Overall, befitting his more earthly personality, Nishioka considers dictionary work as a commoditization:

A dictionary was a commodity. Sure, you had to devote yourself to the making of one, but at some point you had to draw a line. Various factors shaped a dictionary: the company's intentions, the timing of the release, the number of pages, the price, the team of contributors. And however perfectionist you tried to be, in the end words were alive, in constant flux. No dictionary could ever achieve true completion. If you got to attached to the work, you could never bring yourself to let it go and finally make it public.

From another direction, Professor Matsumodo (who, despite being the intellectual force behind the dictionary, only gets a supporting role in the narrative), aligns dictionary work with intellectual - and perhaps even political - freedom:

“When I was young, I used to wish we had more generous funding.” The professor folded his hands on the tabletop. “Now I think it was all for the best.” “What do you mean?” “If government money were involved, there's a strong chance they would interfere with the content. And just because national prestige would be on the line, language could well be made a tool of domination, a way of bolstering state legitimacy.” Until now, caught up in the grind of dictionary compilation, Majime had never stopped to think about the political influence dictionaries might have. “I guess words, and dictionaries, must always exist in the narrow, perilous space between individual and authority, internal freedom and public governance.” “Yes,” said Professor Matsumodo, “Which is why even if we lack funding, we should take pride in the fact that dictionaries are compiled not by the government but by publishing companies. By private citizens like you and me, plugging away at our jobs. After devoting more than half my life to lexicography, that's one thing I'm sure of.” “Professor…” Majime was moved by this declaration. “Words and the human heart that creates them are absolutely free, with no connection to the powers that be. And that's as it should be. A ship to enable all people to travel freely across the sea of words – we must continue our efforts to make sure The Great Passage is just that.”

The unnamed narrator goes even further, towards a religious framing of the character's efforts:

As long as progress continues, eventually the end comes in sight. Xuangzang, the seventh-century Chinese monk and scholar, accomplished the amazing feat of journeying to India, bringing back sacred Buddhist texts, and translating them into Chinese. The priest Zenkai devoted the final thirty years of his life to chiseling through rock to create a cliff-side tunnel for worshippers. A dictionary is a repository of human wisdom not because it contains an accumulation of words but because it embodies true hope, wrought over time by indomitable spirits.


Human beings had created words to communicate with the dead, and with those yet unborn.

I think if the book opened with this proselytizing, it wouldn't be as strong. But with the skillful and charming development of characters throughout the text, Miura brings home this view very poingantly.

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