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Twelve Views from the Distance

Mutsuo Takahashi

Publication Year: 2012

From one of the foremost poets in contemporary Japan comes this entrancing memoir that traces a boy’s childhood and its intersection with the rise of the Japanese empire and World War II. Originally published in 1970, this translation is the first available in English.

In twelve chapters that visit and revisit critical points in his boyhood, Twelve Views from the Distance presents a vanished time and place through the eyes of an accomplished poet. Recounting memories from his youth, Mutsuo Takahashi captures the full range of his internal life as a boy, shifting between his experiences and descriptions of childhood friendships, games, songs, and school. With great candor, he also discusses the budding awareness of his sexual preference for men, providing a rich exploration of one man’s early queer life in a place where modern, Western-influenced models of gay identity were still unknown.

Growing up poor in rural southwestern Japan, far from the urban life that many of his contemporaries have written about, Takahashi experienced a reality rarely portrayed in literature. In addition to his personal remembrances, the book paints a vivid portrait of rural Japan, full of oral tradition, superstition, and remnants of customs that have quickly disappeared in postwar Japan. With profuse local color and detail, he re-creates the lost world that was the setting for his beginnings as a gay man and poet.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-viii

Note about Japanese Names

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pp. ix-10

Chart of family Members

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pp. x-11

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Translator’s Introduction

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pp. xi-21

Takahashi Mutsuo is today known as one of Japan’s most prominent living poets and most versatile writers, having published in almost every major genre, ranging from modern-style poetry, tanka, and haiku to fiction, essays, criticism, opera librettos, and even and kyōgen plays. Long respected in the literary...


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pp. 1-23

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Chapter 1: The Snow of Memory

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pp. 3-20

I have a photograph. This photo, which has browned with age, is taller than it is wide and has roughly the same proportions as a playing card. In it stands my mother. She is leaning on a waist-high set of shelves against the wall of what appears to be the interior of a photography studio. She is wearing a coat of iridescent material over an under-kimono decorated with a striped pattern, and her hair...

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Chapter 2: Grandma’s House

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pp. 21-37

I spent several stretches of my youth being passed from one person’s house to another, but other than that, most of my early childhood was spent at my grandmother’s home. “Grandma’s house.” Strange that I should think of it as hers instead of Grandfather’s. For most of the time I stayed with them, Grandfather was alive and in good health. He was not one of those men who...

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Chapter 3: Tales of Long ago

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pp. 38-54

The gears in the dining room clock wheeze into position like an asthmatic trying to catch his breath. The chime sounds ten o’clock at night. Grandfather stands from where he sits beside the dining table and pounds two or three times on his lower back with his right fist. He goes to the restroom, sliding the door...

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Chapter 4: Spirited Away

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pp. 55-73

The time a young soul spends in sleep is a magical time of nonexistence. The scent of the threadbare covers give me a slight headache, but I wrap myself in them and listen to Grandmother tell her bedtime stories in a voice that speaks on and on without pausing. Then, all of a sudden, I cease to exist. As I disappear, even...

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Chapter 5: On Mother’s Back

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pp. 74-92

My early memories of happiness and of the war are, strangely enough, both linked to my mother’s back. I am not trying to say that happiness meant war to me, or that the war was a happy time. If anything, the situation was quite the opposite. Our happiness and the war were as diametrically opposed as...

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Chapter 6: Heaven and Hell

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pp. 93-113

...this as meaning ketsu-buri, which means “ass-shaking.” Since the body of the bird was dark all over, this word was further transformed into ketsuguro, meaning “dark assed.” These dark, little waterbirds would duck their heads underwater, making a movement that looked just like they were trying to put out a fire on top of their head. That is the behavior the song is describing...

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Chapter 7: The Various Types of Sea

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pp. 114-131

I was four years old when I first encountered the word sea. That was after Mother ran away to China to be with her lover, telling me only that she would be away for a short time as she did her shopping. It was three months after her disappearance that a big package arrived from China and Grandmother finally leveled with me. “Mommy went to China.” “Where is...

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Chapter 8: Princes and Paupers

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pp. 132-148

To a young soul, there is nothing more frightening than stories about kidnapping. Children always suspect there are kidnappers lurking outdoors, and those kidnappers are inevitably lying in wait for them. The first kidnapper to come after me was the yosshoi bird. At night when I was fretting about, unable to sleep, Mother would whisper quietly into my ear, “You’d better be...

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Chapter 9: The Shore of Sexuality

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pp. 149-166

...This song is what one calls an ayashiuta, a “humoring song”—a song that we would sing to entertain a small child—and it was accompanied by a particular game. An adult would lie on their back, bend their knees up, then have a young child straddle them. The adult would stick out their hands and take those of the child, and then by distributing the child’s weight over all four...

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Chapter 10: Skies of Blood

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pp. 167-187

There are many different types of skies that hang over the memories of my childhood. There are the May skies, clear as water, visible through the clusters of fresh, veined leaves of the persimmon tree over the corrugated iron fence off to the side of Grandmother’s house. There are the skies of the rainy season that drooped heavily from the heavens and, before long, would drop gloomy ropes...

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Chapter 11: Imagining Father

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pp. 188-208

Tangible things are not the only things that can leave deep scars on the soul of a young child. Sometimes things that do not exist—things that are absent from one’s life—leave even firmer imprints on the soft flesh of the heart. In my early youth, the thing that I missed above all others was a father. My father died soon after my birth, well before I had emerged from the blackness...

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Communities outside the World

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pp. 209-230

The first time I was ever visited by a sensation of something “outside this world” was probably when I was in a train. I am not sure where I was going. Perhaps I was in the train going with Grandmother to visit my aunt in Yame-gun, or perhaps I was on my way to Shimonoseki to go meet Mother, accompanied by my young relative. In any case, I do remember that I had propped...

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Afterword to the English Translation

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pp. 231-233

I wrote Twelve Views from the Distance in 1969, when I was thirty-two years old. Using that year as my vantage point, I gazed across the distance of time onto the panoramas of my childhood, examining the years between 1937 and 1952 through twelve different windows. That was what I had in mind when I gave the work this title. Since I first wrote the book, more than forty years...


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pp. 234-240

English Translations of Takahashi’s Writing

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pp. 241-262

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Translator’s Acknowledgments

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pp. 242-252

In working on this translation, I have become indebted to many people. Most important, I thank Takahashi Mutsuo for his generous permission to publish this book and for the many forms of friendship and assistance he has provided since I first met him in 1996, when I was a student, writing a master’s thesis about his poetry. Since I began this translation in earnest in 2006, I have asked...

E-ISBN-13: 9780816682812
E-ISBN-10: 081668281X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816672776

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2012