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Meet Japanese author and translator Tomoko Kikuchi who wears her Indian heart on her sleeve

when i talk to Tomoko Kikuchi, I barely guess that she is Japanese. She speaks better Hindi than most of us. Befuddled, I switch to English. After emailing the questionnaire to her, I expect her to answer in English. But again, I’m stumped as she writes back to me in fluent Hindi. For someone who last read chaste Hindi in school textbooks, reading her answers, transcribing them and deciphering their meaning is a Herculean task. Over the next two days, her life story interests me deeply and what prompted her to make India her home 21 years ago.


Tomoko Kikuchi at the launch of Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar, Sakura Ka Desh -- the Hindi translation of a popular Japanese manga comic -- at the Japan Foundation in New Delhi last month

Kikuchi was fascinated with India since she was in senior high school. She says, “I loved India so much that very early on in my life I decided that one day I would come and settle down here. Soon, I realised that in order to understand the country’s culture better, I need to first learn Hindi. But today, 21 years later, I think that I have had some past-life connection with India. Mera dil hai Hindustani (My heart is Indian).”

After learning Hindi in Tokyo for two years, Kikuchi came to India in 1992. She enrolled herself at the Institute of Hindi in Agra and completed her graduation in Hindi from the Rajasthan University at Jaipur. Later she did her masters and doctorate from the esteemed Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi in 2005. Her fondness for the language and her quest to reach out to a wide audience prompted her to start contributing articles on culture and world peace in several Hindi newspapers and magazines. In 2006, she published her first book, Mahadevi Varma Ki Vishwadrishti, on renowned Hindi author, Padma Vibhushan recipient and Jnanpith Award winner, Mahadevi Varma. Kikuchi explains that she had always looked up to Varma and penning a book on her was an obvious decision. “I have done my PhD on her. Varma was a woman of many shades. She was an outstanding Hindi poet, a freedom fighter, an activist and educationist. She fought for the empowerment of women. I follow her ideology closely. This book was my first step towards focusing on women’s literature in India.”

The growing popularity of Japanese comic books and novels in India prompted her to use her knowledge of Hindi wisely and translate famous works. In 2011, she translated Toshi Maruki’s The Flash of Hiroshima (Hiroshima Ka Dard) that was published by the National Book Trust. Last year, she translated and dubbed for a Japanese animation film that was based on the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Last month, she released Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar, Sakura Ka Desh, her translation of Kono Fumiyo’s Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, in the capital. This award-winning comic book, which has also been turned into a live-action film in 2007, traces the impact of the nuclear bombings on the people of Japan. Kikuchi says the underlying message of the book prompted her to translate it. The original, Yunagi No Machi Sakura No Kuni, is a compilation of two stories — Yunagi No Machi that means Town of Evening Calm (Neerav Sandhya Ka Sheher) and Sakura No Kuni that translates into Country of Cherry Blossoms (Sakura Ka Desh).

The first story is about a woman, Minami, who lost her family in the Hiroshima bombing. Ten years later, she relives the horror every day and asks herself why is she still alive. One day, she falls ill due to the nuclear radiation of the bombings and eventually dies.

At Hiroshima and other cities in Japan that are located near the sea, every morning and evening for a few hours, it seems as if the earth has come to a standstill. Minami had died on one such evening. At the end of the story, Fumiyo writes, “Every evening Hiroshima witnesses such a scene. Just as the way there is no end to it, likewise this story also has no ending.” Sakura Ka Desh is about those kids who lost their parents in the bombings. 

Kikuchi says, “This book has been translated in Korea, Taiwan, England, the United States, Australia and other countries. I hope it is translated into various Indian languages so it can play an instrumental role towards the cause of world peace. Earlier, the Japanese would get so involved in their hectic work schedules that they forgot the importance of enjoying the simple pleasures of life. However, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, people have realised that they need to savour every moment of their lives. This book helps the Japanese to spread this message across the globe.”

Today, India has a population of over 12 million. Kids below the age of 15 comprise 30 per cent of this population. By the time they grow up, hopefully India will be one of the most powerful countries in the world. So, I thought this is the right time to familiarise children with the ill effects of war and the importance of simplicity in life. Also, these subjects are usually presented in a didactic manner to kids, so they find them boring. But if they are presented in the form of comics then they will appeal to everyone,” Kikuchi elaborates.

She admits it isn’t an easy task to translate such works, as she has to strive to stay true to the original story. “The fundamental rule is to stay true to the original work in every context. This requires the translator to be alert and respect the writer’s work. One also has to focus on the language, culture and history of both the nations -- the country where the book was written and the country for which I am translating it. The translator has to familiarise readers with the culture of the country. Also, finding publishers for the translated version of these books and seeking permission from the original publishers and authors is a Herculean task. Nevertheless, I enjoy the entire process immensely.”

Ask her, how she perceives the changes in India over the last two decades and she answers, “I have stayed at Agra, Delhi and Jaipur. Now, I live at Gurgaon with my husband and daughters. There has been immense development in these cities in the past 20 years. On a holistic level, I feel that though English has emerged as a popular language, Hindi is still spoken with equal fervour in villages, small towns and cities across India by people of all classes.”

However, Kikuchi ensures that her daughters speak Japanese at home so they can stay true to their roots. “When we go out, we converse in Hindi or English so that people around us can understand what we are talking. However, my 10-year-old daughter often tells me that she likes English and not Hindi as it’s not a ‘cool’ language. Unfortunately, this sentiment is echoed by a majority of the younger generation today. I hope this attitude changes.”

Kikuchi is content with her stint in India and hopes to continue translating and writing articles in the future. But ask her how do people react when they see her communicating in Hindi and she replies, “Log hairan hotey hain kyonki chehra japani aur bolti hindi hai. (People get surprised that I am a Japanese who can speak Hindi so fluently.)

rinky.kumar@mid-day.com 

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