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BOOK REVIEW | Author Hiroaki Sato With a New Compilation Titled 'A Bridge of Words'

A particularly reflective ornithological bugbear of Hiroaki Sato is how America, a land of immigrants, could be so hostile to "alien species."



Hiroaki Sato
Book cover to "A Bridge of Words" by Hiroaki Sato,

Japan Times and Mainichi Daily News columnist, Hiroaki Sato, has left us with a thought provoking, educational and entertaining anthology of his columns, ranging from 1984 to 2017. 

Hiroaki Sato is a poet, scholar and literary translator. And he has had a near thirty year presence in the English language newspapers of Japan also. Born to Japanese parents in colonial Taiwan in 1942, raised on an island within Nagasaki prefecture, and resident of the United States of America since 1968, he is best known in Japan for his column, The View from New York. It ran in the Japan Times from 2000 to 2017. 

A Bridge of Words (Stonebridge Press, 2022) is a compilation of articles that appeared in The View from New York and its forerunner, Here and Now—in New York, which ran in the Mainichi Daily News from 1984 to 1989. 

The most striking feature about many of the articles is their date of publication. Sato was contesting the good war narrative of the Pacific War in the mid 1990s. He was also asserting the ecological sustainability of whaling in the early 2000s. And he was countering the sex slave designation of the comfort women in the early 2010s. 

Additionally, his day job from 1969 to 2013 was at Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO). He was there for a 44-year time duration which included periods of highly politicized trade fiction between Japan and the United States of America. In other words, Sato has spent his years at the sharp end of some particularly emotive issues. 

Hiroaki Sato
Hiroaki Sato (also from book jacket)

Article Groupings

The articles within A Bridge of Words are divided into four sections: "Wars and Consequences," "Birds and Other Animals," Teachers and Friends," and "Talking about Books and Such."

"Wars and Consequences" deals predominantly with the Pacific War. But it also encompasses the so-called War on Terror. It is the most voluminous section of the book. 

"Talking about Books and Such" contains a broad mix of topics that his reading and encounters inspired him to write about. The subject matter is varied and mixed and the articles uniformly stand the test of time. 


"Teachers and Friends" is largely a collection of obituaries. It is perhaps not surprising that it's necessary to die in order to be featured by a columnist. But obituary after obituary can leave one feeling a touch morose. Might columnists not occasionally highlight gifted youngsters who have won significant prizes? An article or two of this type would not have gone amiss. 

Hiroaki Sato
A female carrion crow learned how to drink from a water fountain in Yokohama.

Canadian Geese, Crows and Cicadas

"Birds and Other Animals" is an unexpected grouping and contains some delightful inclusions. Sato's Nagasaki village upbringing has clearly led to a love of nature but with a utilitarian bent. In the immediate postwar years, captured birds were a not unwelcome addition to his protein intake. Having consumed birdlife out of necessity, his capacity to coexist with them seems higher than the average urban resident. 

Be it the "kah-kah of the thick-billed crows or the gah-gah of the thin-billed crows" he defends. "[T]hose calls should be music to the ear of those living amidst urban din."

Canadian geese are either "eating or defecating" whenever you see them, he was told at one time by a critic of those migrating birds. "Isn't that what we human beings do as well, too well?" he replied. 

Other animals also receive a sympathetic reception. The carp is an "evil eater" in that it consumes almost anything that it can fit into its mouth, he quotes. "By that standard" Sato retorts, "Homo Sapiens are the evilest of them all." In one memorable article, he even forwards a passionate defense of cicadas. 

A particular ornithological bugbear of Sato is how America, a land of immigrants, could be so hostile to "alien species." It is a term that would morph into "invasive species" in the early 2000s, concurrent with a United States invasion of its own. 

In 2007, at the height of the Iraq War, The Nature Conservatory magazine declared "war on invasives," forewarning of "invaders at the gate." I have "always thought America's naked hostility toward alien species puerile", he then wrote. But, he added, he finds "The Nature Conservatory's talk of war and invasion" against undesirable species, at this point in time, "simply mindless."

Hiroaki Sato
Scattered Fan Paintings from The Tale of Genji

Translating Genji

Being an award-winning translator, a particularly informative article concerned the many choices that the translator is obliged to make. An early translation of The Tale of Genji by Englishman Arthur Waley is "easy to comprehend," suggested novelist and subsequent Tale of Genji translator, Tanizaki Jun'ichiro. Meanwhile, the original in classical Japanese, by Murasaki Shikibu, is "hard to decipher." Arthur Waley may add seimitsu "precision" but in doing so loses anji, "suggestiveness," Tanizaki concludes. 

Alternative translations of a paragraph within The Tale of Genji by Waley, Tanizaki and American Edward Seidensticker are evaluated. The article ends by comparing the choice of translation of the single word, himegimi, within the context of Murasaki's famous novel. The logical choice is "princess," but it's an option that none of the translators employ. 

"Which is better?" Sato asks the reader after setting down their choices. "Which do you prefer?"


Dangerous Tales by Irresponsible Journalists

An article that I found to be particularly welcome concerned the alleged sword contest between two Japanese second lieutenants to see who could be first to claim one hundred heads during the Japanese pursuit of the army of Chiang Kai-shek as it retreated from Shanghai to Nanjing in late 1937. The story never made much sense as you don't bring a sword to a gunfight. Surely, during the course of this rivalry, one would-be victim would simply pull out a gun and shoot his attacker dead. If, however, the competitors were executing civilians, as historian Katsuichi Honda would claim, why would that constitute a personal contest?

Sato points out a whole host of other irregularities as well. Both men were adjutants — assistants to senior officers — and would not have spent much time with the forward units during battle. One commanded an artillery piece. Had he left his post after the enemy had been engaged to pursue personal ambition, he would have been court-martialed.

The 100-head contest was invented, concludes Sato, as propaganda scripted for the folks back home. One of the second lieutenants willingly traveled to the Chinese war crimes tribunal in Nanjing after Japan's defeat, so sure was he that "no sane person would believe such a fantastic" tale. He was tragically wrong. 

Sato pairs this story with that of Jessica Lynch, a female US soldier during the Iraq War whose capture led to media hysteria about her fate after capture. Fortunately for Jessica Lynch, she was less impacted by the "nonsense concocted in her name."

comfort women Hiroaki Sato
Professor Emeritus Park Yuha of Sejong University in South Korea. (© Sankei by Tatsuya Tokiyoshi)

Restoring the Humanity of the Comfort Women

My favorite article can only be the one that I remember most vividly after reading it at the time of publication in 2016. It is "Sex-Slave Wrangling Misses Human Picture." The article discusses the writings of Park Yuha, a South Korean academic. Park has faced trial for expressing views on the comfort women controversy that are contrary to the "correct view" as proscribed by South Korea's government.

The term ""sex slaves" actually deprives the Korean comfort women of their humanity," Sato also paraphrases Park. "Some of them found Japanese soldiers kind and considerate, some commiserated [about] their fate, some fell in love with them." The comfort women were indeed individuals who lived a broad variety of experiences. Yet, so many from nations that prize individuality cannot grasp that reality. 

A Bridge Spanning Continents and Linking Generations

Appropriately, A Bridge of Words, written by a noted poet, ends with a poem, a haiku. It was inscribed on a single line, rather than three, as Sato was apt to do. The poem was penned to mark the end of the Pacific War. But could just as easily apply to a columnist who has put down his pen: 

All gone, nothing left to say, in the westerly sun

Hiroaki Sato may or may not have more left to say. But within the highly recommended A Bridge of Words, his legacy as a columnist will live on. 

Hiroaki Sato
Book cover to "A Bridge of Words" by Hiroaki Sato

About the Book

Title: A Bridge of Words

Author: Hiroaki Sato, author and translator


Publisher: Stone Bridge Press

ISBN (Print): 9781611720785 ($24.95)

ISBN (Ebook): 9781611729580 ($11.99)

For More Information: See the publisher's website or an online book seller.


Author: Paul de Vries

Find other reviews and articles by the author on Asia Pacific history on JAPAN Forward.

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