by Hayashi Fumiko
Volume 19, Issue 1 (Translation 1 in 2019). First published in ejcjs on 7 May 2019.
While the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies focuses on scholarly, analytical writing about Japan from the perspectives of the Humanities and the Social Sciences, we have admiration for those working in the field of translation, always a labour of love and a striving for the artistic bridging of boundaries and codes. This short translation is one of an occasional series which we hope will bring enjoyment to our readers.
How does one introduce a story apparently so slight that the least summer breeze might blow it away? Well, by suggesting that looks, especially in works of Japanese literature, can be very deceiving. Yes indeed, “The Frog” by Hayashi Fumiko does appear to be a slight, light, and pleasant story about a young girl’s rainy evening and the glorious, sun-drenched morning of the next day, and this it truly is; it is also a story of childhood innocence and the gentle security of village life in early Showa-era Japan, a time when the calamities of war were still distant, unimaginable, and unreal to the majority of Japanese. The colonial project that had begun in the late Meiji Era may have been, by 1936, the year of this story’s composition, well under way, but arguably this project was still a remarkably positive one in the imagination of Japan as a whole, a project that had so far brought prosperity, territorial and economic expansion, and recognition on the international stage to a country that had been just one generation earlier still a feudal, agrarian land. For Japanese entrepreneurs, government officials, scholars, and creative intellectuals alike, the first half of the 1930s remained a time of fundamental optimism—perhaps not to the same extant as during the Taisho years, but far and away more stable and hopeful than the situation into which Japan would plunge even in the next five short years. And so for Hayashi Fumiko and the four characters in this short work, a late spring evening is a fitting setting for a light glimpse of domestic stability.
But is this a stable domestic scene? Two young children are alone at home at night while their mother, a midwife, is out perhaps ministering to a patient. The night is a stormy one, but warm, and the children have been alone before—but why have they been so? Where is their father? Or grandparents? The story presents the situation as unremarkable, and we accept it as so, because of Hayashi’s narration. Even though the works open with a description of a stormy and “somehow lonely” night, the presentation is so matter-of-fact that any hint of worry is vanishingly small. Told with Yorie, the main character, a very young girl, as the focaliser, the narrative conveys her sense of comfort and lingering impatience for her mother to return home as Yorie amuses herself in the ways of children the world over—through imagination and the discovery of small details. One of these details is a small frog that has managed to hop into their front foyer. In fact in terms of plot, this is the highlight of the story—the arrival of this out-of-place creature who foreshadows the arrival of a strange man soon thereafter, a man who asks for medicine from the older brother left in charge of the family business while the mother is out on her rounds. But once the man has swallowed his medicine, he makes his way; the next morning, he returns to bring a gift of fruit to the family, and he himself notices that the frog is still with them.
“Well?,” the reader might ask—“frogs and strangers and domestic stability and rain, and what else?” Fair question. “What else” is a puzzle, and one that requires a hint rather than an answer. When I first read this story, an echo of a scene in one of Japan’s most famous films struck me—the film is Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro, 1987) by Miyazaki Hayao, and the scene has the protagonists, Mei and her sister Satsuki, waiting on a dark, rainy, rural road for the late-night bus that would bring their father home to them. Mei has just wandered off a short ways to find a small shrine and its kitsune, fox, statues. Foxes are trickster spirits, and spirits to which one should genertally pay cautious respect—but this evening the foxes don’t spirit either sister away for sport or mischief. Instead, a frog appears, crawling leisurely along the puddly road—and very soon after, arrives Totoro to wait with the girls and watch over them—oh, not because they need protection from the night, but simply because it’s late and wet and he, too, is waiting for a bus, and why not? And so Totoro and the frog keep the children company till Totoro’s bus arrives—coincidentally, only a minute before the father’s bus arrives, too.
And so, we have nights and frogs and visitors who appear worrisome but are in fact quite genial and benign in both these works—and thus a hint to suggest why the frog may be present in both, as a herald to protective spirits who appear, just at the right time, to watch over young children who would otherwise be passing a dark and rainy night alone, awaiting the return of parents whose work has delayed them.
Japan’s indigenous belief system, Shinto, is one which accepts a continuity of community between the human, natural, and spirit worlds, and Japan’s artists have for generations created works which very often accept the ideology of this continuity. Miyazaki is one such artist; the entirety of his body of work stands upon a firm foundation of nature and natural spirituality—Shinto, in short. It is both easy and reasonable to see Totoro as a Shinto kami who watches over the girls and who teaches them the methods and mechanisms of Shinto rituals; it is also easy and reasonable to see in Hayashi Fumiko’s story “The Frog” a similar acknowledgement of the place of nature and kami in the lives of the Japanese, especially in rural areas, especially the young. The overlap between these aspects of these two works, most likely purely coincidental, is nonetheless compelling, pointing as it does towards an optimism which explains the air of security which permeates both “The Frog” and Tonari no Totoro. In neither work can the reader find a hint of true worry, let alone danger—nothing so crass! In both works an air of purity and innocence permeates the narrative: in setting, in characters, in actions. Both works grow from the perspectives of children, after all, and from a situation of the pristine, rural environment. Both works, too, use this air of innocence and purity to suggest optimistic developments after the close of the narrative—the mother in Totoro will recover from her illness, and the mother in “The Frogs” will—perhaps, but entirely possibly—grow closer to the man who has come to visit, the man who is benign, genial, amiable, and caring.
And so from nature comes optimism in both these works, and both works appear so slight on their surfaces that it is an easy matter to dismiss them as such. Yet this superficial slightness belies an awareness of darkness which both works acknowledge—but ultimately to deny. Yes, there is danger in the world—but for “The Frogs,” that danger evaporates like rain in the morning sunshine in the reassuring presence of the Mother. Children may live and watch and grow and wonder in a state of wonder—and security, and stability. For Hayashi Fumiko in 1936, such a world is not only possible, she argues in her work, it is real.
It was a dark night and the wind was blowing. Yorie suddenly raised her head from the desk and pressed her face against the glass door. It was a dark and somehow lonely night, with the trees swaying noisily in the mist. Now and then white lightning flashed in the western sky. “On a night like this, Mr. Moon must surely be feeling sick,” thought Yorie, as she went into the storefront where her older brother was. Her older brother was working on a picture for his homework at the front desk.
“Mom’s not back yet?”
“Hmm… that’s right, not yet…”
“She was on her bike, right?”
“Hmm… that’s right, on her bike. She had a lantern with her.”
Yorie’s mother was the only midwife in the village. Feeling bored, Yorie went into the storefront, and started counting the strainers, pots, and buckets that were lined up there: “Eeny meeny miney…” Outside, it had at some point started raining; a spray of water, like mist, covered the wet porch light. Her brother went down onto the earth-floored entryway, closed the glass door, and drew the calico curtains. Yorie looked at the bucket that had been standing in a corner of the earthen entryway.
“Ken-chan! There’s a frog.”
“A frog? Where? Where’s it at?”
“Look, crouching by that bucket.”
“Hmm… it’s a tree frog. How’d it get in here, I wonder… Hey! Mr Frog? What’s up?”
Yorie was scared; she kept close behind her brother. The tree frog turned blank eyeballs to them, and puffed up its twitching chest. “Bong, bong, bong!” The store clock struck eight. Yorie looked up at the clock; “Where has mother gotten to?” she thought, angrily. Yorie was lonely; she borrowed her brother’s precious harmonica, and amused herself by blowing on it, tunelessly.
Ken-chan, a 6th-grader at primary school, looked up from the desk every now and then.
“Yori-chan, don’t get spit in the harmonica—I hate it,” he said.
Yorie held the harmonica up to the light. It seemed to have many windows; little Yorie soon thought of a steam train. She put the harmonica down on top of the abacus and played make-believe trains by herself. By the time she’d made the harmonica-train run as far as the wooden-floored room, a voice from outside the door called out, “Hello, hello, hello!”
Her older brother, Ken-chan, a surprised look on his face, answered in a loud voice, “Who can it be?” Whereupon the outer glass door opened, and a man they’d never seen before came in.
“I’ve got a bellyache—sell me any medicine?” he asked.
Ken-chan took the medicine bag down from the sooty ceiling and brought it to the unknown man. The man looked extremely worn out; when he came into the earthen-floored entryway, he soon sat himself down in the wooden-floored room, and let out a deep sigh.
“Ahhh. No one here?” the man asked Ken-chan.
Ken-chan looked like he was about to cry; “Unh,” he said. The glass door began to rattle, probably because the rain had grown stronger. The man took a glass of water from Ken-chan; he put down a coin, and turned to leave. As he was about to leave, he asked whether there was still a bus.
“Until nine o’clock,” Ken-chan answered, and the man, politely closing the glass door, headed out into the rain. When Yorie heard the “zaaaa” sound of the rain, she thought how wet and pitiful the man was.
“We could lend him an umbrella,” she said to her older brother. Her brother took the umbrella that was against the wall, opened the glass door, and called, “Oi!” to the man. The man had already gone twenty or thirty paces, but when Ken-chan ran out into the rain to bring him the umbrella, the man was so happy that he patted Ken-chan on the shoulder in surprise. Yorie-chan’s mother came home around nine o’clock.
When Ken-chan told about the man who had been there earlier, their mother said, “Oh-ho,” in a worried voice. Ken-chan brought the wet bicycle into the earthen-floored entryway; he was about to lock the glass door. The frog from earlier was still there.
“Yori-chan, the frog is still here!” When Ken-chan picked it up, the frog bent up its two spread-out legs stiffly, and tried to escape. Ken-chan put the frog into a small, empty box, and brought it to her bedside, where Yorie had gone to bed.
Yorie put the box to her ear and for a while enjoyed listening to the sounds of the frog rustling around.
Their mother still seemed to be busy with something. Yorie, still holding the box, fell asleep, snoring quietly.
The next morning, the rain from the night before had cleared up, and the weather was fine. Ken-chan went to school. Yorie made a fuss because the frog had disappeared. Outside, the sunlight was dazzling—it shone so brightly the green leaves seemed to be aflame. Yorie amused herself by picking the red flowers of the impatiens. Her mother, cleaning her bicycle in the store’s earthen-floored entryway, called to her—“Yori-chan! Yori-chan, come here for a moment.”
Yorie, wondering what was up, ran over. There was the man from the night before; he was holding a basket of bananas and was sitting in the wooden-floored room. Mother was grinning.
“Well, I’d been wondering to myself whether he wasn’t a thief after all,” she said.
The man was an employee of the Office of Forests and Fields; he’d newly come to the prefecture, and as soon as he’d come down out of the mountains, he’d gotten lost on the road, gotten a chill in the rain, and had gotten sick to his stomach, he was saying.
“Really, when I took the medicine, I felt saved! This is a little thank-you present.” He put the umbrella, tied up in a cord, and the basket of bananas on the earthen floor, and patted Yorie’s head. Yorie looked up at the man’s happily-laughing, shining-bright teeth. When her mother had finished cleaning the bicycle, she put it in a sunny spot in the storefront to dry, and went to bring tea for the man.
“Hey, there’s a rain-frog here!”
The man agilely moved his legs apart; there, behind his tall boots, the rain frog from the night before was looking up blankly at them. Yorie thought to release the rain frog somewhere where there was water. She picked it up gently in her two hands, and put it down in a hollow in the road; but perhaps because it was worn out, the frog sat absent-mindedly by the side of the road. Yorie took some water in a ladle and let it drop little by little on the frog’s back. The frog was startled, and stretching out its long legs, hopped up two or three times—but while Yorie was blinking, it had disappeared somewhere, as if it were smoke, towards the hedge.
With a rumble, the bus drew up. “Well, I should be getting up to the mountains, I guess…” the man said, and when he stood, Yorie’s mother came down into the earthen-floored entryway, holding a red flag. Yorie, too, holding the ladle, came out into the sunshine, behind her mother.
—August, Showa 11 (1936)
Article copyright Timothy Iles.