The Saga of Sweet Bean Paste: A Conversation with Alison Watts

by Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

I first read Sweet Bean Paste, by Durian Sukegawa and translated by Alison Watts, in 2019. It was just after a string of deaths in the family and just before the pandemic. Recently I decided it was time to go back to the book and talk to the translator about it. After a re-read, I set up a video conference with Alison Watts and ended up glued to my seat as she told me about her life-changing experiences with Sweet Bean Paste and author Durian Sukegawa.

First of all, the book is about Sentaro, a man of about forty who has spent time in prison, is in debt, and works at a job he doesn’t particularly like. He makes dorayaki, sweet bean paste sandwiched between pancakes, and sells it from a little shop. The profits go to pay back a loan. His only pleasure in life is an occasional beer. One day, a woman named Tokue comes to call and apply for a job. She’s quite elderly and her hands are misshapen. Tokue turns out to be a former Hansen’s disease patient. Sentaro turns her down again and again, but her bean-paste making skills win him over. She cooks up huge batches of the bean paste for dorayaki as she teaches Sentaro how to make it too. The story includes the basic history of the treatment of people with Hansen’s disease in Japan, and takes the reader inside Tenshoen, based on Tama Zenshoen in Tokyo, a sanatorium where many people were forced to stay for decades even after they were cured.

Alison Watts, a translator and long-term resident of Japan, found Sweet Bean Paste in 2013 when a foreign rights agent working on behalf of Poplar, the original publisher, gave her the book to read.

Alison: I read the book and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wanted to translate it, so I did a synopsis and sample translation, and gave it to the agent. After that I didn’t hear anything for a couple of years. Then in 2016, Oneworld Publications contacted me and I got the contract to translate it. They wanted me to consult with the author as well, but instead of contacting Durian by email, I turned up at a musical-dramatic reading performance he was giving in Nasu to introduce myself. He wasn’t even aware that a translator had been assigned, so it was a complete surprise to him. He offered to show me around Tama Zenshoen, which he said the French translator of Sweet Bean Paste also found very helpful.

(Deborah: For more on Alison’s meeting with Durian, see the story Alison wrote about it for the Words Without Borders website.)

Alison: After I got to know Durian, I discovered how his own colorful history led to writing this story. To start out, he wanted to go into publishing, but he was apparently barred from entering many companies because of colorblindness. He went on to run a bar in Shinjuku; did part-time work in production, radio, magazines; became a star on late-night radio giving straight, non-judgmental advice to teenagers; was a TV presenter; and was an agony uncle on a help line. He also formed a moderately successful punk spoken-word band, Screaming Poets, which broke up when one of the members was arrested for drugs. After that, he spent time in New York to take a break from life. There he studied English, sang in a band, wrote poetry, and was on hand for the devastation of 9-11.

Guitarist Pickles Tamura, Alison, and Durian outside the farm temple at the 2016 Nasu performance where Alison first met Durian.

After that, he came back to Japan and resumed many of his creative endeavors. The common thread in all his work, I think, is that he is on the side of the underdog and the powerless, those who don’t get their voices heard.

Durian had wanted to write about Hansen’s patients after the law enforcing their isolation was repealed in 1996, which made their situation more widely known, but he didn’t feel qualified. Then quite by coincidence in 2006, some former Hansen’s disease patients came to see a concert he gave, which resulted in his getting to know them and going to Tama Zenshoen. The end result was Sweet Bean Paste. Hansen’s disease was touchy subject matter and the novel was rejected by many publishers. Poplar Publishing finally took it on and the book took off. Naomi Kawase made a film, starring the late Kiki Kirin, which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015.

Deborah: That’s some personal journey. What happened after you met him in Nasu?

Alison: A month later I toured Tama Zenshoen in Higashimurayama, Tokyo with Durian, the place on which the sanitorium in the novel is based, and also the location of the film. When we arrived, a musical festival was underway in the restaurant there, which is open to the public and even sells a zensai dessert based on Sweet Bean Paste. That day they were selling dorayaki too, which of course I ate. The mayor was there along with many people. It was fun. The sanitorium definitely seemed to be part of the community. The book and film have brought it much attention.

We visited the Hansen’s museum, and walked through the Zenshoen grounds, following a path described in the book that ends up at the charnel house where the remains of the dead are kept for those whose families refused to allow their ashes be interred in family graves. It was incredibly moving, and brought me so much closer to the story.

At Nagomi, the Zenshoen restaurant. Alison and Durian are pictured with Mi-chan, the manager, and the mayor of the city of Higashimurayama in Tokyo.

 

Deborah: So the author took you to the location of the story and answered all your questions. Your connection to him must have had an effect on your translation.

Alison: Absolutely. I literally walked right onto the set of Sweet Bean Paste and learned so much. But I also read Durian’s stage version of the story, a dramatic reading. It had details that weren’t in the novel that I felt would add to the reader’s understanding, so I asked his permission to include them.

Deborah: Any examples?

Alison: These lines of Tokue’s: “‘with this disease the eyesight gets weaker and sensation in the fingers and toes is gradually lost. But for some reason sensation in the tongue is the last to be affected. Can you imagine what it’s like for someone who can’t see or feel, to taste something sweet?’”  

Another thing was the Author’s Note. Talking with Durian taught me a lot about his reasons for writing the book, and I realized he had a philosophy on life that was integral to the story, which I wanted readers to hear too. So I asked the publisher if we could have an Author’s Note with the English version. She agreed and I translated this as well. Whenever I see it quoted on Goodreads or blogs, I feel really satisfied at having brought that about—it is such a powerful statement. For example, these lines:

“Some lives are all too brief, while others are a continual struggle. I couldn’t help thinking that it was a brutal assessment of people’s lives to employ usefulness to society as a yardstick by which to measure their value.” And these: “Anyone is capable of making a positive contribution to the world through simple observation, irrespective of circumstance.” This is the gist of the message Tokue had for Sentaro and Wakana in the book, both of whom struggled to make sense of their existences. These words really resonate with readers.

At the stone cairn at Zenshoen commemorating filming of An. Calligraphy (same as on movie flyer) by Naomi Kawase.

That aspect of the book had a great influence on me personally. My brother, who had schizophrenia, died a couple of years ago at the age of 51. I had to give his eulogy, and suspected some people might be feeling his life had been wasted because of his illness. But thanks to this story I had a means to frame my thoughts. I was able to stand up straight and say with confidence that my brother’s life had been as full and worthwhile as anybody’s.

Deborah: (searching for a tissue) Is that the end of the story?

Alison: Actually, no. Another result of my visit to Nasu was I decided to ask Durian and his guitarist, Pickles, to give the same performance in Tokai-mura, where I live. Up until the 2011 Fukushima disaster, it was the location of Japan’s worst-ever nuclear accident, which occurred in 1999. Of course Fukushima also had enormous consequences for Tokai-mura, but it’s hard to discuss them openly as most people in the town are connected to the nuclear industry. So Durian and Pickles came and gave a performance in February 2017. It was great—even the mayor came!

Poster for the February 2017 dramatic reading concert that Alison organized in Tokai-mura; Pickles Tamura, Durian, Alison and Tokai-mura’s Mayor Yamada and Deputy Mayor Hagiya at the concert.

Deborah: So you are still connected.

Alison: Yes, we met in Kamakura in early January. Durian is writing a series of animal fables and is a professor at Meiji Gakuin University these days.

Deborah: How is the book doing?

Alison: Ever since the pandemic started, Sweet Bean Paste has quietly boomed. Every single day I get alerts that somebody somewhere is reading, recommending or talking about it. Not bad for a novel published in 2017 by an independent publisher with little fanfare! Goodreads reviews have zoomed to 1500.

Deborah: I see Oneworld has it labeled “bestseller” in their pamphlet. Congratulations! What do you think is the connection with the pandemic that has drawn so many readers?

Alison: I think the experience of lockdown helped many readers identify with Tokue. Plus the struggles and uncertainty of life caused by the pandemic have set many people thinking about what makes life worthwhile. But Sweet Bean Paste doesn’t hit you over the head with heavy philosophical discussion. It’s an artfully simple, moving story that leaves the reader feeling better for having read it, and about their own place in the world, whatever that may be. I think that quality is what people appreciate the book for.

A flyer for an event featuring Durian and Masako Ueno, the former Hansen’s disease patient on whom Tokue was based. (Click to enlarge.)

Deborah: Alison, thanks so much for sharing your journey with Sweet Bean Paste. When I contacted you, I had no idea where it would lead. Are you working on any other books these days?

Alison: Yes, I’m currently translating What You Are Looking For Is In the Library by Michiko Aoyama, and I have two translations coming out this year: Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda in June, and The Boy and the Dog by Seishu Hase in November.

Deborah: Then I guess I’ll be talking to you again soon!

To our readers: See also Alison’s bio.

Alison Watts and Deborah Iwabuchi

 

One response to this post.

  1. […] SCBWI Japan Translation Group – The Saga of Sweet Bean Paste: A Conversation with Alison Watts, by Deborah Iwabuchi […]

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