Quiet crystallisation

Quiet crystallisation

“The Memory Police” (hisoyaka na kesshō, 密やかな結晶) is a novel from 1994 by Yoko Ogawa, one of Japan’s most renowned writers.

It’s set on an island but the community there is otherwise quite similar to mainland Japan. Things disappear from the community’s life, and people forget about them. They don’t simply disappear. For example, when the “perfume” disappears , people pour out their perfume bottles in the river. Then they forget that perfume ever existed. And when “birds” disappear, people set free their caged birds, and totally forget all about birds.

The book centres on three characters: the narrator (watashi わたし, “I”), the old man (ojii-san おじいさん, jii is old man and o and san are honorifics) and the narrator’s editor, “R” (R-shi, shi 氏 is a formal form of referring to a person, typically someone one is not close with).

I started reading near the end of February and it took me three months to read the novel in Japanese, reading a few pages most evenings.

I would recommend this book because it is very taught-provoking. Although nothing really bad happens explicitly, it is a very sad story. The book has 28 chapters and the real turning point is by the end of Chapter 25. It’s very beautifully written, with a great eye for small details and remarkable control over specificity: early on, the setting of the story seems very generic but as the book progresses, there are more specific Japanese cultural references; towards the end they disappear again. I really like the way the author expresses e.g. unease of a character by describing how he keeps putting his feet into his slippers and pulling them back out, or the details about the type of shoe that makes a specific sound, so you can tell the wearer is a young woman, etc.

In the title in Japanese hisoyaka means quiet, still, surreptitious; kesshou means crystal or crystallisation but also fruits of labour etc. So it is “Quiet crystallisation”. (The French title is “Cristallisation secrète”.) According to the afterword, the Yoko Ogawa was thinking of “crystallised” memories we carry inside us. The English title puts the focus on the Memory Police themselves but they are not the focus of the novel. The problem with the English title is that it leads the reader to expect some totalitarian political novel, which it is not. The memory police serve as a cause for fear because of their control of the population, but that is not the point at all. To my mind, the novel is really about the acceptance of loss. Loss of memories, loss of many good things in life, loss of loved ones, loss of abilities.

Issues of translation from Japanese

I am increasingly interested in issues of translation from Japanese. Reading a Japanese novel does not require full translation, because I don’t need to turn a Japanese sentence into an English one (or a Dutch one, as that is my native tongue) to understand it. I’ve written a few blog posts on reading Japanese, especially as a learner.

But while reading this novel I did think a lot about how it could be translated. What is peculiar in this novel is that there are hardly any typically Japanese elements. It could be set anywhere. Mentions of food are very unspecific; people drink coffee, black tea or cocoa and sometimes wine. Even terms that could have been specific such as the mention of an altar to the sea gods in an old ferry, are not: the word used is umi no kamisama no saidan 海の神様の祭壇 rather than the more common Shinto term watatzumi no kamidana 海神の神棚. There are the typically Japanese politeness levels and honorary pre- and suffixes, but if I were to translate it, I would not try to emulate them. Especially the old man is very polite, and always refers to the narrator as ojousama お嬢様, a very formal way of saying “Miss”. The word used for clothes is youfuku 洋服, Western clothes, but I feel that is purely for the benefit of the Japanese audience, so I would just translate it as “clothes”. The climate is definitely not Scotland but not specifically Japan either, nor is the vegetation that is mentioned.

So it is carefully unspecific, at least in the initial chapters. It made me wonder if there was any benefit at all in reading it in Japanese. The translation is excellent, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. And yet, I find the Japanese very beautiful and I think impossible to convey entirely in translation.

The translator, Stephen Snyder, says in an interview: “Yoko Ogawa’s prose in Japanese is extraordinarily beautiful, so it’s always a challenge to try to find a way to capture even a vague sense of that beauty in English.”

And I just like reading Japanese, slowly.

While reading I noted down some typical Japanese cultural elements that caught my eye.

(Indented sentences are quotes. English quotes in italics are from the translation by Stephen Snyder, other translations are mine.)


For about the first quarter of the novel, there are no Japan-specific references, but then, in Chapter 6, with the disappearance of the roses, there was one after all: primary school kids with randoseru ランドセル , firm-sided school backpacks made of leather. A less specific word would have been 学生鞄 gakusei kaban (school bag). The word randoseru derives from the Dutch “ransel”; they are very typical for Japanese schoolkids. Still, when I was in primary school in Flanders, I had one too, with a slightly different shape, wider and less deep; we just called it “boekentas” (book bag). I loved the sound the clasps made. And when you ran with it on, the books and pens etc would rattle inside, which is exactly what the writer describes as well:

The children took off running along the river, their backpacks rattling behind them.


kodomotachi ha RANDOSERU wo narashinagara, nagare wo oikakete itta.

With rattling school bags, the kids went chasing the flow.

And another, perhaps less obvious, cultural reference, occurs at the start of Chapter 7:

At the base of the bridge next to my laundry platform stood an elegantly dressed woman.
“What lovely roses,” I told her.
This was the first thing that came to mind.


sentakujo ni kakaru hashi no tamoto ni mo, okanemochi fuu no fujin ga hitori, tatazunde ita.
“kihin no aru bara desu ne” watashi ha itta.
sore de futo atama ni ukanda shoushokugo wo, sono mama kuchi ni shita no datta.

The “What lovely roses” in Japanese is “kihin no aru bara desu ne” (what elegant roses), and the narrator comments on her random choice of “kihin no aru” with the term shoushokugo 修飾語 which is the general grammatical term for “modifier” (she is after all a novelist). That is because it is an adjectival sentence rather than an adjective (“roses that have elegance”).

Once her work was done, she turned and, without a glance at the stream, gave me the sort of graceful bow typical of people of her class and left.


subete no sagyou ga owaru to fujin ha, kawa no nagare wo me de oikake you to mo sezu, jouryuukaikyuu no hito dokutoku no yuttari shita ojigi wo shite, watashi kara hanarete itta.

The “graceful bow” is a jiki 辞儀, a bow accompanying a greeting, rather than rei 礼, a bow to thank someone. The narrator uses the words jouryuukaikyuu no hito 上流階級の人 (upper class person) and yuttari to shita ゆったりとした (easy, leisurely) bow.


In Chapter 8, where R visits the narrator’s mother’s workshop in the basement, the narrator recalls her mother eating iriko イリコ (also written 炒り子). This is quite specific: the term is only used in the West of Japan (and also in Hawaii, because of immigrants from Western Japan). It refers to Japanese anchovy fry (kataguchi-iwashi, 片口鰯), boiled in brine and then dried. In the rest of Japan they are called niboshi or jako. The writer was born in Okayama, Okayama Prefecture in Kansai, so that is probably why she uses the word iriko rather than niboshi. To translate it in a culturally context-free way, you could of course just say dried anchovies.

“My mother always kept dried sardines wrapped in newspaper on the desk in her studio, and she would snack on them as she worked.”


haha ha shigotoba no tsukue ni, itsumo shinbungami ni kurunda IRIKO wo oite itandesu. sore wo MUSHAMUSHA tabenagara shigoto wo shite ita no.

The Secret Police does not take prisoners

In Chapter 13, the narrator is at the head office of the secret police and talking to a kind of receptionist. She says 「差し入れ」 (“sashiire”) and the person she’s talking to says 「さしいれ?」(“sashiire?”).

The word 差し入れ (sashi-ire) has the following meanings: (1) Insertion, letter drop. (2) Things sent to a prisoner. (3) Supply of provisions, refreshments, etc. to someone carrying out a task.

In the novel the meaning is clearly “Things sent to a prisoner”

The subtext is that the receptionist pretends not to understand this word (because of course the secret police does not take prisoners). The use of hiragana for this word normally written in kanji makes that very clear, but is difficult to bring across in translation: use of italics or quotes do not have quite the same effect.

“I have a package I’d like to have delivered to an acquaintance…” My voice trailed off, echoing from the ceiling before being lost in the vastness of the hall.
“Package?” He paused, twirling his pen in his fingers, and repeated the word as though trying to recall the meaning of some rarely used philosophical term.

Kanji and the Latin alphabet

In the second chapter of the novel, the narrator refers to her father’s documents about birds with containing “”鳥”という 字” (“tori” to iu ji). You can translate that as “the word ‘bird’, but although ji can mean “word”, it usually means “character” and is anyhow more specific than kotoba (word).

When they came upon something they considered dangerous—in other words, anything that contained the word “bird”—they threw the item unceremoniously on the floor.


kiken to minasareta mono ha – tsumari nanika hitotsu demo “tori” to iu ji ga mitsukatta mono ha – dondon yuka ni hourinagerarete itta.

In the third chapter there is a scene of the narrator writing a novel, and she describes the typical genkouyoushi 原稿用紙, i.e “paper for manuscripts”, Japanese writing paper lined with a square grid, one square per character. Of course as a translator you could just say “writing paper”.

But in Chapter 14 there is a scene where the narrator, still in the HQ of the secret police, mentions specifically that someone is writing using the alphabet (arufabetto アルファベット ):

His papers were thickly covered with numbers and letters in a script I did not understand.


shorui ni ha imi no yoku wakaranai suuji ya ARUFABETTO ga, bisshiri kakikonde atta.

If I would have translated the earlier kanji-specific terms in a generic way, then I would have to say

The forms were densely filled in with numbers and letters the meaning of which I didn't understand very well

Whereas if I had been specific about the earlier writing being in kanji, I could translate

The forms were densely filled in with numbers and characters in the latin alphabet, the meaning of which I didn't understand very well

It does not matter much of course, but in the latter case the story would be more clearly set in Japan than in the former.

Onomatopoeic and mimetic words

As an aside, Japanese has many words with the structure like the word bisshiri びっしり (densely written) used in that sentence: four hiragana characters, the second a small tsu っ which indicates a glottal stop, and the last one ri り. For example, bikkuri (surprised, frightened), tappuri (plentiful), sappari (feeling refreshed) etc. Someone at made an attempt to enumerate them and counted 158 of them.

The National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics says that 103 of these words with pattern AっBり are onomatopoeic and mimetic words. Japanese has about two thousand of these onomatopoeic and mimetic words; there are many forms but the most common is ABAB (like wakuwaku わくわく, nervous, trembling, excited; or mushamusha ムシャムシャ, munching); the pattern ABり (like shikiri しきり, frequent, continual) is also quite common.

Yoko Ogawa makes liberal use of such words and it is one of the aspects that is hard to convey in translation, especially the mimetic words.


At the end of Chapter 13 is a very specific Japanese cultural reference, the mention of baumukuuhen バウムクーヘン, “Baumkuchen”. This is a kind of cake of German origin that looks like a cross-section of a tree trunk with a hole in the middle, as it is baked on a spit. It is very popular in Japan. I used to buy them in the konbini to have with my coffee. And it is specifically popular as a gift to guests at weddings, which is exactly the case in the novel.

“My parents had come home from the wedding, but neither of them seemed to realize that I’d slept the entire day. They were animated and wanted me to taste the cake they had brought home from the reception.”


“ryoushin ga kekkonshiki kara kaette kitandesu. futari tomo watashi ga nemuritsdzukete ita koto ni, kidzuki mo shimasen deshita. saa, omiyage no BAUMUKUUHEN wo tabemashou nante, ukiuki shite iru data nandesu”

If as a translator I wanted to avoid the cultural reference I could replace it by “wedding cake”, and that would at least work in Anglo-Saxon countries. In other countries where guests don’t get to take a piece of cake home (like in Flanders), the text gives me a way out because it refers to the Baumkuchen as omiyage (お土産, local specialty or souvenir bought as a gift while travelling) so I could simply call it “the local speciality cake” or something similar. 

On the whole, if I were to translate this novel, I think I would prefer to keep the few Japanese cultural references as they are. It would fit better with other culturally specific elements such as the politeness levels, which it would be rather a shame to remove entirely in translation.


Japanese has a lot of loanwords that are written in katakana. Most of them are from American English, to the extent that it is a running joke that you can speak Japanese with only katakana-English.

I am generally more interested in the katakana loanwords that are not from English. In this novel there are quite a few. I already mentioned randoseru and baumukuuhen. Other examples are mesu メス from Dutch “mes” – Japanese meaning “scalpel”, Dutch meaning knife; kokku コック from Dutch “kok”, “cook”; karute カルテ from German Karte – Japanese meaning “clinical record”, German meaning “card”; and noruma ノルマ from Russian “norma” – Japanese meaning “quota”, Russian meaning “norm”.

I like such words because they relate to Japan’s history, for example Japan imported the German medical system in the 19th century; the Baumkuchen were created by a German baker, an ex-prisoner-of-war, for the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition in 1919. The Dutch words are even older as they were one of the few nations allowed to trade with Japan in the Tokugawa era (early 1600s), together with the Portuguese from which amongst others パン “pan”, bread was loaned.

In the novel, the bread is usually ロールパ roorupan which means “breadroll”, the rooru (roll) borrowed from English, or furansupan フランスパン “French bread”. In common Japanese, the most common word is shokupan 食パン which is typically a white square loaf; shoku just means “food”.

An English loanword that is interesting from a translation perspective is ショートケーキ shootokeeki, “shortcake”, because this is a typical American cake also popular in Japan. If I were translate this novel into Dutch with Japanese cultural references I would leave it as “shortcake”; but it’s a type of cake not so well known in Flanders so otherwise I would probably use “gâteau” as that is a similar cake for a Flemish audience. (And yes, that is a loanword from French into Flemish.)

Cherry blossoms

If there was still any doubt about the Japanese setting of the novel, the following sentence in Chapter 16 puts an end to that:

Even if we couldn’t recall the exact date, I knew that his came around every year just as the cherry blossoms were budding out. I was quite certain that time was fast approaching.

日付けは思い出せなくても、毎年桜がわずかに開き始める季節だったことは確かで、 そろそろそういう時期が近づいてきたという予感は間違いなくするのだった。

nittsuke ha omoidasenakute, mainen sakura ga wazuka ni hirakihajimeru kisetsu datta koto ha tashika de, sorosoro sou iu jiki ga chikadzuite kita tou iu yokan ha machigainaku suru no datta.

Even though I couldn't remember the date anymore, it was certainly around the time when every year the cherry blossoms just started to open, and I had the unmistakeable premonition that that season was soon drawing near.

The sakura, cherry blossoms, are quintessentially Japanese.

Music box

In Chapter 16, another nice loanword appears, again from Dutch: orugooru オルゴール from “orgel”, meaning music box. The word “orgel” literally means organ. The mechanism for music boxes were initially based on the barrel organ, “draaiorgel” in Dutch. According to Kotobank, the first mention in Japanese is in a publication from 1750.

The scene where this orugooru is introduced is one of my favourite scenes in the novel. Such a nice description of the emotions that listening to the melody played by a music box evokes. It is all the more poignant because the narrotor and the old man have no memory of music boxes anymore.

This is one of the two Japanese words kept in the English translation:

“It’s not really magic,” R said. “It’s an orugooru.”


“majutsu da nante oogesa na mono ja arimasen. kore ha ORUGOORU desu” R-shi ga itta.

Yamato and wa

In Chapter 19, there is an explicit reference to Japan: washitsu 和室, Japanese-style room. The character 和 (wa) means both harmony, peace and Japan, Japanese-style.

Needless to say, I offered them the Japanese-style room on the first floor, as far as possible from the hidden room.


mochiron watashi ha ikkai no washitsu – kakushiheya kara ichiban tooi heya – wo teikyou ageta.

The story behind the use of this character to mean Japan is quite interesting. Long ago, Japan was called Yamato. Originally, that was a region in what is now Nara prefecture, where the first capital was. Eventually it came to mean all of Japan. (Later it came to be called Nihon (日本) but that’s another story; as is why it’s called “Japan” in English.)

From the 3th century CE, the Japanese adopted the Chinese writing system and until the 7th century, “Yamato” was written 倭, the character the Chinese had been using for a long time to refer to the inhabitants of the Japanese islands.

As I explained earlier, most kanji have two types of readings, “onyomi”, which is based on the Japanese rendition of the ancient Chinese pronunciation of a character, and kunyomi, which is the native Japanese reading. The kunyomi for 倭 is yamato; the onyomi is wa.

Then at the start of the Nara period, in 713 CE, the empress Genmei decreed that Yamato (and in fact all important place names) should be written with two “auspicious characters”. Therefore 倭 was prefixed with the character 大, “great”. So it became 大倭, pronounced in full Ooyamato but usually just Yamato.

Then, for reasons lost in time, later in the Nara period, 倭 became replaced with 和 which has the same onyomi (wa), but also means “peace, harmony”.

Both writings coexisted for a long time but eventually 大和 became the preferred writing. And so now 和 wa is used to mean “Japanese”.

Writing practice

In Chapter 20, the narrator writes out a series of characters. The sequence she writes is the first two rows of the standard organisation for the Japanese syllabary, a table with ten rows and five columns, one colum for each vowel sound and one row for each starting consonant.

To warm up my fingers, I tried writing a, i, u, e, o. Then, taking care to match the size of the characters to the lines on the paper, I continued with ka, ki, ku, ke, ko.


yubinarashi no tame ni sasho, a, i, u, e, o to kaite miru. masume to ji no ookisa no BARANSU wo tashikamenagara, ka, ki, ku, ke, ko to tsudzukeru.

The word masume means a square on Japanese manuscript paper.

A childrens’ game and candy

In the later chapters, there are more specifically Japanese references, for example in Chapter 22, there is a mention of おはじき ohajiki, a traditional Japanese children’s game similar to marbles, played with coin-shaped pieces made of coloured glass or plastic.

So I sounded out the children’s songs my nurse had taught me or the tune we had used to count for tiddlywinks.


shikatanai de, mukashi baayasan ga utatte kureta komoriuta ya, ohajiki no kazoeuta wo tadatadashiku fuita.

There is also a mention of ramune ラムネ, fizzy soda candy, a typical Japanese type of candy. This is the only other place in the novel where the translator has kept a Japanese word.

“Is it medicine?” I asked.
“No, it’s called ramune. I’m impressed that your mother tried to preserve something as ordinary as this.”


“nanika no kusuri kashira” watashi ha itta.
“iiya. RAMUNE da yo. kimi no okaasan ha konna sasayaka no mono made, daiji ni totteitanda ne”

And further:

“It’s a lemon-flavored candy. When we were children, all the stores sold them and there were countless ramune on the island, but now there are only these few left here.”


“satoukashi sa. kodomo no goro ha omise ni ikurademo utteita. touchuu ni ha kazoekirenaikurai no RAMUNE ga atta. demo ima nokotte iru no ha, koko ni aru suutsubu dake da”

The Japanese word satoukashi 砂糖菓子 means simply “sugar candy”.


Chapter 23 features a train journey. Train is normally densha 電車 which literally means “electric vehicle”, but the novel always uses kisha 汽車 “train, esp. long distance, but originally steam train” (ki means steam). And as it mentions a whistle, I think it is actually a steam train.
The other word used is ressha 列車 the term for “train” used by the railway companies; retsu means “file”, so it is literally a file of cars.

There are mentions of several types trains: kyuukou 急行 “express” and tokkyuu 特急 “limited express” (faster than an express) and also of the kaisatsuguchi 改札口, ticket gates.

Trains are of course universal but this terminology is quite specific to the Japanese railway system. Also, for me personally, it evokes memories of taking the train in Japan.

The hands of the old man made many things

In Chapter 24 there is a beautiful description of the hands of the old man, with a list of objects his hands had made.

I have always loved his hands, from the time I was a little girl. They could make almost anything: a toy box, a plastic model, a cage for a rhinoceros beetle, a beanbag, a desk lamp, a bicycle seat cover, smoked fish, an apple cake.


kodomo no goro kara, watashi ha ojiisan no te ga suki datta. minna de issho ni dekakeru toki ha, itsudemo ojiisan no te wo tusnaida. sore ha omochabako, jidousha no PURAMODERU ya, KABUTOmushi no shiikubako ya, otedama ya, deki SUTANDO ya, jitensha no SADORUKABAA ya, sakana no kunsei ya, RINGOKEEKI ya, tonikaku nandemo tsukuridasu koto ga dekiru.

Some of these are very typical: カブト虫の飼育箱 kabutomushi no shiikubako, a cage for rearing a Japanese rhinoceros beetle; お手玉 otedama (translated above as “beanbag”) are balls of colourful fabric filled with rice or beans.

There is a small phrase left untranslated:


minna de issho ni dekakeru toki ha, itsudemo ojiisan no te wo tusnaida

When we all went out together, I was always holding the old man's hand.

It doesn’t work so well in English because for the narrator, ojiisan is a term of endearment, and “the old man” does not carry that connotation.

All in all, there are very few explicit Japanese cultural references in the original novel, only about one for every two chapters. It’s interesting to see that the English translation keeps enough of them that the Japanese setting of the novel is still clear to the attentive reader.

The banner picture shows green tea Baumkuchen in a shop in Kyoto.

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