Week 12: 小川未明童話集 - Ogawa Mimei’s Collection of Children’s Stories

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小川未明童話集 - Ogawa Mimei’s Collection of Children’s Stories Home Thread

Week 12


Start Date: Nov 13th
Previous Part: Week 11
Next Part: Week 13


Week Start Date Chapter Pages 1951ed. Pages 2013ed. Page Count
Week 12 Nov 13th 9. 港に着いた黒んぼ12 185 85 14

Vocabulary List

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Okay, I have questions.
The main one being, are we sure the end of the story hasn’t been misplaced somewhere? Because that was super abrupt even for Mimei, I thought.
The story went from “okay, same old, same old, I know where this is going”, to “yes, something bad is happening soon”, to “huh, that was unexpected”, to “sorry what now?”, to “hold on, is there going to be a happy end after all?”, to “where’s the rest of the text?!”
I may reread and get back to you.


Yes, I was equally surprised when the story ended so abruptly :joy_cat: First everything was super-dragged-out in the descriptions of the two children and their actions, then we had a bit of a normal-speed passage when the servant showed up, and then the rest almost felt like a different story to me, what with the white bird and the sailor… :woman_shrugging:
I think the morale might be something like “don’t break your promise” (she did not return in the timeframe she had announced to him) or “don’t leave your loved ones behind” (she could have taken him with her to the palace where he could have waited somewhere until the “business” :eyes: was finished).

Sometimes I would really like to better understand the imagery he uses and the deeper meaning behind it…

For grammar, I did not find that much in this story either. I will do a writeup some time later today or tomorrow.

On story's length and ending

Right? I noticed the change of speed too. So uneven. What’s your take on the parallel universe on that southern island? At first I thought that the boy and the swan had arrived on the island and maybe the swan took on the girl’s form and role, but this all happens in the span of two days, doesn’t it? Overnight, basically. No time for two swans to arrive at a faraway island, become famous as music performers, a sailor to notice them just before sailing off, then that same sailor meeting the girl in a northern harbour on that same day. There’s something I’m definitely missing here. And why did the sailor have to be black? (the term used is derogatory nowadays I think?) Black sailor, white bird, Mimei is playing with colors again.

On the passing of time and stuff

In between I wondered whether the swan had actually been the girl, but that would make even less sense to me, so I dropped this theory.

Yeah, I mean, sometimes in stories it would say something like “the next day”, but actually meaning “at some point later”. But in this case, as she was still searching her brother, that would have been quite weird if it was that far apart.
It somewhat reminded me of another Japanese folk tale called Urashima Tarō - Wikipedia where a young man lives in the palace of an ocean princess for a few days, but in the real world more than 100 years had passed. This story is pretty old but a rather modern version got included into a school textbook around the time when Ogawa wrote his stories, so the concept of different flows of time in different parallel universes seemed to be a well-known concept in those days. Maybe he incorporated something like that here?

He also described the sailor as dwarf-like, didn’t he? So I was wondering that maybe he did not even aim at a racial slur but instead at a description of “very very unusual-looking”? Again, the question remains why. Maybe to explain why the girl looked at him? So that he would get a chance of recognizing her? Feels a bit far-fetched though :woman_shrugging:

Oh yeah, nice interpretation! That also makes a lot of sense.


I reread the second half, and it seems that I misunderstood how much time has passed between events in the story. It’s definitely not all happening overnight. According to this sentence くるから、は、狂人のようになって、すはだしで町々いて、しました。, the sister started looking for her brother from the following day onwards. And the meeting with the black man happens 一, so an indefinite amount of time has gone by. I don’t know how I missed these on my first read.
I also didn’t pay enough attention to that primrose 月見草 she’d never seen before, or the jewel we’d never seen before on her kimono. What was that all about? Was the jewel payment for whatever she did with the 大尽? Is there a special symbolism connected to the flower? No idea.

On 月見草:

Huh, so according to Weblio the word can be used to mean a prostitute, because it blooms at night? What a very strange thing to include in a children’s story. On the other hand, all the clues seem to point there. The new jewel, the fact that she stayed all night, and now the primrose’s double meaning. So the white swan represented the innocence and purity she has now supposedly lost? Again, I’m very surprised Mimei went there in a children’s story. But then it never seemed like he tried to protect children from any harsh realities.

Edit: Oh, and we already knew that 青 can mean unripe, but it can specifically mean inexperience in “love affairs/romance”, if I understand this correctly:

(Again from Weblio’s 隠語大辞典). So her blue kimono is probably not random either.


Wow, very nice detective work! I mean, it was pretty obvious why she would go to the palace, but it’s very interesting that he hid all those hints in the story.


Innocent me was sure it was just for a dance performance , this being a children’s story and all. How wrong I was!


Oof, I finally finished my first read-through of the story. This week was really rough for me. So much unfamiliar vocabulary and hard to parse sentences. Took me back to when we started these stories. Definitely much much harder than last week. I’ll have to go through it again to collect my questions (and I’m not sure I actually have the energy for that).

Regarding what has already been discussed

Indeed some intriguing symbolism in this story and what you have said so far makes sense. It definitely feels like there is a story here that is ‘unsuitable’ for children that is hidden under one of Ogawa’s usual sad stories.

Another reason for the foreignness of the 黒んば sailor (I thought) was to emphasise how far away (and therefore unreachable) the parallel world is for the girl. I was afraid it was going to be a racial stereotype, but I’m glad it didn’t seem like that in the end.


At the very first moment I assumed the same, but how could that work without her brother being with her? That made me sure it was for some other reason…

It’s a story from about a hundred years ago, and back then children were much more exposed to what is nowadays considered harmful. I guess knowing about sex and stuff was the least of their concerns…
Also, the living conditions with many people in a small house were probably often so that the children were pretty much aware what their parents were doing in bed at night…

That’s interesting because it did not feel like that to me, so I’d be looking forward to seeing your questions to get a better grasp on what was difficult for you! But if this story was too exhausting to go through once more, I can totally understand.

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Oh, I’m sure the 大尽 had his own musicians to entertain him. Maybe he wasn’t in the mood for a plain flute. :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

I don’t know if sex was ever openly discussed with young children, although I’m sure it varies from culture to culture, era to era, and of course depends on the child’s age as well, and like you say, older children would have been aware of what was going on. In any case, the story can be read on several levels. The clues are there but they’re subtle enough that a child not getting what’s going on wouldn’t wonder too much about what the story isn’t spelling out. After all, there are much larger mysteries in the story than what the girl did during the night.

That’s funny, because on my first read I had some trouble too, but when I read it again (only the second half, admittedly), I wasn’t sure where I was stumbling before. I wonder whether the problem was that in the beginning the story tended to drag on and lose itself in long descriptions.


Fun fact: mixed-gender onsen and sento were the norm up until WWII, after which point the occupying American forces went “ew, no. Stop that”.


Partly it was just vocabulary (I can imagine that would be less of a problem for you): it just took so much time to look up all the unfamiliar words, but there were also some parts that I had a hard time breaking down, so I’ll see if I can post some questions about a few of those.

I have to say that I also didn’t really enjoy this story, probably due to the structure. The first part is just so drawn out like you said and it’s already clear that it will end badly, then there’s a weird part that is hard to relate to the rest of the story (and only makes it more sad) and then the “pay-off” at the end is just so short and abrupt that it all hardly seems worth all the trouble… (sorry if I’m being too negative).

I do have one (slightly weird) question: somewhere in the middle there is a part that almost seems repeated word-for-word. It’s the part where the boy thinks that playing his flute really well might bring his sister back. もし自分の吹いた笛の音を聞きつけたら etc. It’s almost as if the person who transcribed it made a mistake and put in the same part twice. But the wording isn’t exactly the same, so it’s not just duplicated text. I’ve noticed it in some of the other stories as well. Is this some sort of poetic repetition do you think?

That’s only about nudity though, isn’t it? Or did they do other things unrelated to bathing in there? :face_with_raised_eyebrow:

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Fairy tales and stories for children do tend to have a lot of repetition in every language, I’ve noticed. On the other hand, in my very, very limited experience of Japanese prose, I’ve encountered a lot of (needless, to me) repetition. The constant repetitions in Before the Coffee gets Cold soon became a running gag in the book club. I don’t know, maybe there is some value in repetition of the sake of rhythm or something. On the other hand, it’s possible that we’d never even notice some repetitions in a language we read fluently. When you have to work to understand each sentence, sentences that provide no new information feel like a waste of time and effort, whereas when you read fast and naturally you barely notice them.


Yes, that’s a good point. However, in some of these cases (as in this story) we’re really talking about three full sentences that get repeated with a slight reshuffling of the words and no new information at all. I feel like repetition on this scale would strike me as weird even in my native language. It’s almost as if Ogawa wrote two versions of the passage in his draft and then forgot to delete one of them :upside_down_face:

Japanese does have a lot of repetition in general, especially considering how you need particles everywhere to create the flow of a sentence. But sometimes it’s funny even in adult books. Like in Edogawa’s Murder Case of D Hill (or some such) it’s clear after several lines that the author’s favorite word is 眺める, because that’s what the characters often do, even though Japanese has so many synonyms for “staring” :smiley:


I had a look again at those repeated sentences. I tried translating them (badly), to see how they sound in English.


Remembering that his sister always danced to the sound of his flute, the brother thought that, if she heard the sound of the flute, surely his sister would remember him and return to him.

The brother played the flute passionately.

Never before had he played the flute with such zeal.

His sister would hear the sound of this flute somewhere. When she heard, surely she would remember and come back to him, thought the brother.

So the brother played the flute passionately.

All in all, I think it works. In English it needs quite a lot of editing to sound elegant, but it conveys quite well the brother’s agony, and his trying to reassure himself that his plan will work.

Let’s rewrite more freely:
His sister always danced to his music. So if she heard him play she would surely remember him and come back, he thought.
He started playing with zeal. He had never put such passion in his playing. She was sure to hear this melody wherever she was, and when she did she would undoubtedly come back. With this thought, he put all his heart in his music.

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Here are some parts I was having trouble with:

The third paragraph ends with a remark from bystanders followed by と、心に思わぬものはなかった. Is this some kind of idiom? I’m also confused by the double negative.

The fifth paragraph is a long description of the girl’s singing and I think I understand most of it, but it ends with 深い森林を彷徨っているように頼りなさと、悲しさを感じたのであります. Is 頼りなさ basically the -さ form of 頼りない? I’m not looking for a literal translation, but what is he expressing here? The feeling of uncertainty when you are roaming through the woods?

Later, when the representative from the 大尽 talks to the girl, there is a paragraph starting with 姉は、これまでこんなことをいったものが、幾人もありましたから、….

This whole paragraph is hard to parse for me.

Is this saying that she has had many people come up to her like this? And then she thinks ‘this again?’ (またかと思いました). But she can’t refuse because it is a famous rich person (this part has 大金持ちだけに - what is that だけに doing there?). And then it ends with her being bewildered (当惑) which seems inconsistent with the start of the paragraph, so I probably read that first part wrong…

Later, in the paragraph when the boy is alone and one hour passes, two hours pass, etc there is a sentence that goes 港の方は、ほんのりとして、人なつかしい明るみを空の色にたたえていたけれど (and continues after that). I have a hard time determining who is the subject of that sentence and what it is trying to express.

These are just the first few of my notes, maybe I will post more later (this is all I have time for now).

Thanks! The problem is probably also that in Dutch or English I can easily hear a voice in my head of someone reading such parts aloud and adding emphasis and tone to bring the text more to life and that doesn’t work (yet) in Japanese.