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:
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”:
Even the nameless grasses bear seed / Make your own flower bloom full of life
This one goes without a title:
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.]