On the longevity of loaches

Just a week ago, the loach—or to do these unsung fish scientific justice, the hundred or so members of the Cobitidae family of true loaches—were scavenging in benthic obscurity, as they have for eons. Now the loach has been catapulted to fame, if a transient one, thanks to an August 27 election day speech by incoming Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, a speech in which he revealed hitherto unsuspected powers of oratory and which may have played some part in his victory. After warming the audience-electorate up with tales of how he learned the art of politics from his beloved historical novels, he cited a verse by calligrapher-poet Mitsuo Aida (1924-1991) that goes like this:

どじょうがさ 金魚のまねすることねんだよなあ

but more importantly looks like this (poem on the left, Aida’s exposition of it on the right):

and could be treacherously translated thus:

Loaches, eh? They don’t imitate goldfish, do they?

Noda continued on the loach theme:


Loaches have their own attractions. Even if they try and become goldfish, they can’t. They can’t become goldfish all dolled up in red bibs. I may be a loach, but I’ll work up a sweat for the people in my homespun way and push politics forward.

The loach reference was widely reported in the Japanese media, in tones of some incredulity, and swiftly picked up by the foreign press, resulting in some hilarious commentary as ichthyologically ignorant hacks struggled to explain to their supposedly equally ignorant readers just what a loach might be, with “bottom-feeding”, “mud-loving”, “humble”, and “homely” being the favored epithets of the hour. The perceived need for explanation came as a surprise to me, as loaches, true and their close relatives, the suckers and the sucking loaches (I’m not making this up) are widely distributed over the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. A special dunce’s prize goes to the ever-hapless Lalaland Times, a newspaper in terrible trouble, which editorialized about the speech above thus:

In his acceptance speech after (sic) being elected head of the Democratic Party of Japan, he compared himself to a mud-dwelling fish, saying his looks wouldn’t win his party any votes but promising to work hard anyway. “Sweating ineptly, but with all my strength and all my heart, I will advance this country forward,” he said.

I look forward to an exhibition of inept sweating by our new Prime Minister.

Seemingly the loach allusions were a coded message from Noda to party elder and fan of Aida’s oeuvre Azuma Koshi’ishi (75) that he would be given a position of influence under a Noda administration; if Noda is a loach then Koshi’ishi resembles nothing so much as a walking cadaver. That the loach, who is as hawkish as they come on a host of issues and would make a fine LDP politician, and the cadaver, who hails from what was once a hothouse of radicalism, the Japan Teachers’ Union, and was first elected on Japan Socialist Party ticket, can coexist in the same party is, put generously, testament to the broadness of the church that is the DPJ. That they both apparently profess a fondness for the works of Mitsuo Aida is testament to his status as a post-war people’s poet.

My initial reaction to the loach, I confess, was derision and scorn. Writing midweek to a friend, I ranted:

Wikipedia informs us that among the cypriniformes, “The superfamily Cobitioidea contains hillstream loaches (Balitoridae), suckers (Catostomidae), true loaches (Cobitidae), and sucking loaches (Gyrinocheilidae) in the traditional system.” Wonder to which faction Mr Noda regards himself as belonging? Not being much of an ichthyologist, I guess he thinks he’s a dojo, the Oriental Weather Loach, Misgurnus anguillicaudatus (“not a gurnard with a tail like an eel”), a true loach. The Wikipage, which was evidently written by a fishkeeper buff rather than an expert, comments that, “Solitary weather loaches tend to spend much of their time hiding.” Confidence inspiring. It’s not a subject I’d given much attention to before, but I guess the loach is admired in Japan for its resilience and hardiness. Or something… I predict a fleeting loach cuisine boom, with the curious flocking to the shitamachi old-town loacheries. Better get the loach jokes in quick, though, because Mr Noda has been trying fervently to massage down expectations even before taking office, and those lowered expectations are almost sure to be met.

Later, though, I grew grateful to Noda for reminding me of my own teenage loach-loving days, when I kept a handful of a species whose name I can no longer identify with confidence, even with the aid of loaches.com, but which is fusiform (loosely the shape of an aerofoil) rather than the vermiform, worm-like shape of the dojo, and which were, in their drab mottled brown plumage, even duller than the generally silver and strikingly patterned dojo, which is something of a peacock among loaches. My loaches spent much of their time hidden in the aquarium’s nooks and crannies, as loaches are wont to do, but were assiduous harvesters of algae, docile to the point of complete passivity, and I grew fond of them, although not too fond, as they upped and died with distressingly regularity.

I was grateful to Noda for something else, too: renewing my acquaintance with Mitsuo Aida. So it was that I found myself one typhoon-tossed day aboard a half-deserted train that had journeyed in from the dormitory suburb of Kawagoe, much like Noda’s hometown of Funabashi a loach of a place, where once, in the dawn of the Internet, I lived, and whence I solicited—with some success—gentlemen callers with a tripod-taken self-portrait in which I stood to the right of a wall-mounted scroll-calendar bearing a poem by Mitsuo Aida,

which might be rendered, “the bitter and the sweet / all stem from human encounters / have good encounters”, a train bound for Yurakucho in central Tokyo, where the Mitsuo Aida museum is housed in the cavernous steel-and-glass cages of the Tokyo International Forum, a train that passes through the political nerve-center of Nagatacho, a district whose name, like Washington and Whitehall, serves as a metonym for the world of politics and where, I had learned the day before, the scandalous gossip on the street was that Noda would try and ram through a hike in the consumption tax before the end of next year.

My loach-boom prophesy has proven correct, albeit with an unexpected twist: The Wall Street Journal’s Japan Real Time blog, which has a delightful dog’s nose for the odd but illuminating angle, reports that business has not boomed in the capital’s few remaining loach restaurants but that the Mitsuo Aida Museum has seen a 40% rise in visitor numbers in the last week. The museum, a joyous symphony of ochres and umbers and assorted earthtones, which generously has English plaques for many of the exhibits, was indeed packed, and it was easy enough to tell from whispered loach exchanges among the reverent visitors that many had been lured by the loach eruption.

It’s hard to overstate the place of Mitsuo Aida in the collective consciousness: he was, and remains after life, a people’s bard, a poet of the masses. These are expressions that usually have intellectuals sharpening their most venomous quills, ready to pounce on every schmaltzy sentimentality. Andy Joyce of the WSJ, who to his credit is the only reporter as far as I know to have pursed the story, writes of Aida:

Celebrated for his ability to draw deep truths from the minutiae of everyday life, his reflections are the kind of warm, insightful writing that would probably appear framed on bathroom walls in the US.

Certainly what are perhaps Aida’s two most widely appreciated pieces could be construed as saccharine sweet and suitable for the smallest room. This one’s titled “Your own flower”:

名もない草も実をつける いのちいっぱいに花を咲かせて

Even the nameless grasses bear seed / Make your own flower bloom full of life

This one goes without a title:

しあわせはいつも じぶんのこころがきめる

Happiness is always / Decided by your own heart

Aida’s also billed by the publisher of his own works, according to the dust jacket of one of two books of his I picked up in the museum shop, as “someone who will gently heal your heart”. But Aida is a far more complex figure than these two pieces taken in isolation would suggest. He was steeped in a particularly rigorous form of Zen from an early age and it shows. Here are a couple of many of his works that might discombobulate the constipated or the incontinent in the lavatory:

Covetous, lustful, hungry for honor / Humans, eh? / Just a lump of desire / The human I am

This one bears the innocuous title of “Homeowner”:

“That kinda guy / Be better if he were dead” / The demon in my heart cries / “Hey, when you hate / The one you really hurt / Is you” / The Buddha behind the demon whispers / Demon-heart / Buddha-heart / Dwell together in our house / The homeowner is you

Aida makes formidable play with an array of conventions in the Japanese language that are often beyond the scope of treasonous translation—“tradurre e tradire”, as the Italian saying has it. Both of the above poems build to a climax at the point of selfhood—a first person pronoun (there are many in Japanese) in the first, the eelishly slippery jibun, which can according to context mean “I” or “you” or “everyone”, in the second. Let’s return to the loach poem and see what else it might reveal.

First, note the calligraphy itself—it’s intentionally childish and easy to read, ugly in places even. Aida was an accomplished calligrapher but chose not to be for most of his life, as part of his philosophy of suteru, the discarding of the unnecessary. He is a deft exploiter of the tension between cursive hiragana script and denser, angular kanji characters: here, “loach” could (just about) be written 泥鰌 (though few could read it) and “imitate” could be written 真似—but they’re not, which leaves only “goldfish” (金魚) privileged with kanji, befitting its  exalted, unreachable station within the poem. The fourth line (reading from right to left) ends with a manly “dayonaa” auxiliary question tag, meaning (here) “do they?” and what works well here (and in the many other places Aida employs it) is the gaping mouth-void infinity of the final “a” syllable (あ).

Oriental weather loaches are reputed to live up to a decade in captivity. No one of sound mind would expect our new Prime Minister to last that long. If Noda is a loach, then he has surrounded himself with a cabinet of minnows, as the DPJ, on its third prime minister in two years, has run out of talent. Already, the gaffes have started, with the defense minister cheerily confessing that he knows nothing of his brief. Already, the scandals are swirling, with tales that Noda received donations from a Korean resident, which would be illegal. The most loach-like of the post-Bubble incumbents of the prime ministerial chair, Keizo Obuchi and Yasuo Fukuda, lasted 615 and 364 days, respectively, which does not augur well for a a loach’s long reign in a world full of sharks.

A friend crunched the numbers on the general longevity of Japanese prime ministers and animatedly reported the following:

Still, I don’t think we should be too harsh on [departing prime minister] Kan… After all his 451 days is only 25% below the average span since 1885 of 611 days.

The average since WWII (Higashikuni) is 730 days, but if you exclude outliers (i.e., long-standers over 1,000 days) like Yoshida, Kishi, Ikeda, Sato, Nakasone and Koizumi, the average is only 461, almost bang in line with Mr K!

Similarly since the Bubble (Kaifu) the average is 576, but exclude Koizumi and the average is 468!  Has anything really changed?  A bit like the summers of your childhood always being warm and sunny perhaps? 

I guess the really shocking part is that even during the 1955-2009 LDP period the average was only 799 days, without the government even losing an election!

This analysis, I think, reveals an important point: that however much the revolving-door premiership may irk foreign dignitaries (former Brazilian president Lula quipped that in Japan, you say good morning to one prime minister and good afternoon to another), the lifespans of the highest elected servants in the land are of mayfly brevity and are unlikely to be lengthened anytime soon. It also ever-so-seditiously hints at something the leader-writers would rather not hear: that in a pen-pusher nation running on autopilot it may not matter very much who is prime minister and how long they last.

So how long might Noda have? The first electoral obstacle he faces will come in less than 400 days, as the absurd party rules of the DPJ dictate there must be another leadership election by the end of September 2012. If he remains popular (unlikely), he will probably be returned uncontested. If he is in the doghouse (likely), he will almost certainly lose. In the 400 days between now and then, almost anything could cause him to trip and fall. But that’s okay, as Aida, a poet who is all about tripping and falling, would no doubt have counseled. One of his longer and to me most magnificent poems, which is of all things about judo—and Noda is a black belt in judo—begins like this:


The essence of judo is the defensive stance
The defensive stance is about being thrown down
About being flung down in front of people
About falling in front of people
About losing in front of people

[With many thanks to A.P. for the number-cruching.]

11 responses to “On the longevity of loaches

  1. Congratulations on more than just serviceable translations. They are all quite good despite your humble disclaimers.

    The only translation I wondered about was “Yanushi”
    Alternate possibilities:
    “devil” ==> “demon”. (I think of “oni” as a demon rather than a devil. Devil would be an “akuma”)
    Be better if he were dead” ==> Better if he were dead”
    Can’t decide whether the last word should be “you” or “me”

    Aida’s calligraphy (in kanji) for “yoku” is very eloquent. I can just feel/see the depraved covetous tentacles slithering out to grab.

    Have not had dojo-jiru in ages!

    • Absolutely fair–I will exchange “devil” for “demon” tomorrow.
      “Aida’s calligraphy (in kanji) for “yoku” is very eloquent. I can just feel/see the depraved covetous tentacles slithering out to grab.”
      I couldn’t have put it better myself. I was going to comment about the brilliance of the repetition of “yoku” in the “desire” poem, but didn’t want to drag the story on too long.

  2. “as part of his philosophy of suteru”

    My Jap. Culture class had an abridgment of the Tales of the Heike & and the Hōjōki . . . the latter had an impact on me.

    I might like to come back to Japan and live a simpler life in the wilds of Izu.

    Then again I don’t know how well regular visits to Costco would align with suteru.

  3. The revolving door keeps on going! At least Noda seems to have a bit of a sense of humour. He did make one rather funny comment reported in Bloomberg – “After attending a G-20 conference in June 2010, Noda, who was then finance minister, said he was concerned that the Japanese face most familiar to his counterparts belonged to a translator”.

    The next few months may be interesting. A right wing prime minister and a self-described amateur defence minister. Maybe the finance minister could weaken the yen by announcing he knows nothing about economics?

    • Well, it would be true–Jun Azumi is a graduate of the social sciences faculty of Waseda and knows absolutely nothing about economics!

  4. Thanks for the mention – you’re right that it would have been more accurate to say that SOME of Aida’s poems would probably appear framed on toilet walls–I’m actually a fan of Aida, and didn’t mean to come across as dismissive of his work — but at least I am not over in the Spiked section being eviscerated for more serious journalistic crimes.

    Noda’s loach comments was actually a bit of a godsend during the recent change of government. It’s hard to find fresh things to say about Japanese politics to get overseas readers interested, especially as we’re now on our sixth new PM in five years, so the loach approach allowed us to have a bit of fun.

  5. Just stumbled across this wonderful posting, a gem among the many treasures on your blog. Your translation skills are far beyond mine, but I thought I might offer a different reading of the judo poem. I only dabbled in judo as a child, but it doesn’t feel right to me to think of ukemi as ‘defensive stance’. Ukemi are the techniques of falling, which are certainly one of the glories of the art (and one that I am convinced saved me from injury during one youthful tumble off a bicycle). So I might tentatively suggest the first line run: ‘The essence of judo is knowing how to fall’

    An alternative for the whole poem might run:

    ‘The essence of judo is knowing how to fall
    You learn how to fall by being thrown
    Thrown down in front of others
    Falling in front of others
    Losing in front of others.

    Did Aida study judo or another Japanese martial art? This poem certainly seems to catch a part of the budo spirit.

    • MD, I confess that I know nothing about judo and also that this post was written, rarely for me, in a single day. As I recall I took most of my understanding of “ukemi” from the Japanese for the passive voice in grammar, “ukemikei”, which probably coloured my translation, so I submit to your interpretation. I might just see what a couple of friends who are serious judoka think, you’ve got me interested.
      I’m not really an expert on Aida’s life and couldn’t tell from a 10-minute websearch whether he studied any kind of budo, although there’s no reference to any interest at his strangely short Wikipage.
      Glad you like the blog–you might not know but you are hat-tipped in “Japan: How bad is the fiscal mess?”
      Where I wrote:
      The Japanese state reminds me of nothing as much as an operator of one of the country’s myriad rural rail lines that are awash and drowning in a roiling sea of red ink. Take the Sanriku Railway, for instance, the subject of a great profile recently in the Financial Times (link), which has been loss-making since 1994, around the time the government debt pile began to grow from a hillock into a Himalaya, which was in deep trouble even before the tsunami swept away its southern line and most of its northern one, and which in FY3/10 took in Y377mn ($4.6mn) in revenue (taxes) and needed Y432mn ($5.3mn) in subsidies (bonds) to keep its creaking lights on.
      Good luck with the Japan reporting, I think you and the rest of the FT team do a fine and honest job.

  6. Many thanks for the kind words and delighted to hear you enjoyed the Sanriku Railway story.

    On the poem, it could morph a bit further if read strictly from a budo perspective, since the concepts of kihon and renshu loom pretty large in the martial arts — but I can’t see any obvious way to do this elegantly. Would be interested to hear what your friends think.

    • MD, I asked one of my judoka pals about ukemi, and he responded thus:
      So, a kick at the judo philosophy can… (beware: screed coming!)

      “Ukemi” is indeed generally seen in the judo world as “falling”, and probably 9 of 10 judoka — maybe 99 of 100, depending on who we sample — would say it’s about slamming the mat with your hand and forearm just before the rest of you lands, to absorb or diffuse the force of the fall and thus lessen the chance of injury to something crucial, like the spine. But it generally refers to what happens after your defenses have been breached, and you’ve been sent flying. In that sense, “defensive stance” maybe isn’t quite accurate — although indeed knowing how to land is ultimately an important part — maybe the last resort — of a good defense. So while “defensive stance” isn’t usually used as an English translation of ukemi, it’s certainly part of the concept of ukemi.

      And, that said… It gets much more nuanced, of course — ukemi is one of the key principles at the heart of judo, and there is much debate over what it really means. I’ve read a few very interesting arguments about this over the years, from non-Japanese, interestingly, but non-Japanese who absolutely devoted their lives to judo and to developing an understanding of it that goes far beyond winning medals, and these gents point to your original thought, about the passive tense, as the key. That is, “ukemi” is about “receiving”, and must be seen as merely a step along the fully circular path that is “ju-do” — or the “way” of “flexibility” or “softness” or “yielding” — but in the sense that the reed yields to the wind, by bending, in order to stand up again. So one performs ukemi not with the intention of accepting defeat, but rather to receive the force directed at one in such a manner that one can roll away, get back up, and continue with the bout.

      I hope this isn’t too esoteric, but I think it’s important to an understanding of what ukemi is about. I think it may also be useful to know a very little bit about the history of judo: it was developed by one Jigoro Kano, who eventually became a professional educator and head of the Tokyo Normal School (I believe) in the 1880s — very much a new, forward- and outward-looking Man of the Meiji Era. He had been fascinated by the martial arts as a teen, but wanted one that could be more than just fighting techniques, and would fundamentally be an educational tool, physical, mental, and moral. Among other things, this required being able to practise often and safely (unlike the older battlefield-derived ju-jutsu arts, most of whose techniques were about killing and thus very dangerous to practise), and ukemi was one of the key developments that allowed this. Once you know how to “receive” force safely (generally by falling in a controlled manner with the arm bash as described above, but there are other methods), then you can practise using that force in pretty realistic ways, because you can keep getting back up to practise some more.

      So there is something about the finality of the poem that is lacking, in my eyes — unless the implication is that by being “thrown down” and “losing” in front of others, what one really learns is how to get back up and continue on the journey. In that case, the poem does indeed get to part of the essence of judo, sez me.

      So back to the poem — I think your original “defensive stance” is closer in spirit than is “fall”, though “fall” is the generally accepted (but way too limited) English translation of Ukemi. But I think this may be a case of the translation (“fall”) being based on a superficial observation of what is happening, and giving it an English label, without having even begun to understand the full principles behind the action.

      Would it make any sense to offer as a translation “the essence of judo is knowing to receive…”? I think other words that could be worked in might be “absorb”, “bend”, “deflect” (and, indeed, “fall”). Though when I substitute those into the poem as it stands, they seem rather awkward and weird. I guess this is one of those very common situations where a single Japanese word with complex meaning doesn’t have a counterpart in English with the same range of meanings.

      Aren’t you sorry you asked?!?! 🙂 In truth, I can probably have a far better discussion about judo with a scholar of Japan and Japanese, such as your own noble self, than I can with most judoka — who, sadly, don’t usually tend to know much about the “way”, and just enjoy the wrasslin’.

      It occurs to me now that while there is no decent translation of the poem out there on the Internet, as far as I can tell, there is an “official” one at the Mitsuo Aida museum at the Tokyo International Forum, as they generously provide English translations for the captions. Clearly I’m going to have to go down there one lunchtime and scrawl it out (no photographs allowed). Memory now suggests, probably faultily, that it might actually begin, “The essence of judo is the receiving stance”, which might satisfy us all. As for “kihon”, well I couldn’t find anything other than “essence” in my vocabulary banks to suit, and we could incorporate “renshu” into a translation thus:

      The essence of judo is the receiving stance
      The receiving stance is about practicing how to be thrown down
      About practicing how to be flung down in front of people
      About practicing falling in front of people
      About practicing losing in front of people

      Looking at the Japanese again reminds me why I didn’t/wouldn’t want to translate ukemi as “falling”, because the “korobu” in the fourth line is the “falling”. The first stanza is all about the build-up to the “makeru”, the losing, in the fifth line, so we go from the ukemi in line one to the “nagetobasereru” in line two, the “tatakitsukerareru” in line three, which seems more violent than the second line (although I need an judo expert to distinguish between line two and three), to the consequences in line four—falling—and line five—losing. But the poem’s only just begun…
      Now though that I look back on:
      The essence of judo is knowing how to fall
      You learn how to fall by being thrown
      Thrown down in front of others
      Falling in front of others
      Losing in front of others.
      I wonder if we’re not all debating how many judoka angels can be thrown down on the head of a pin…

  7. Beautiful

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