Translations of great fiction rarely live up to their originals. Sometimes the failure to do justice to the original work boils down to one word. When a single key word cannot be properly translated into the other language, it can become the stake that kills the work.

Koyashi is a Japanese noun difficult to translate to another language. Its etiological origin is the word that means “to fatten”, koyashi is a “fattener”, therefore it implies nutrition. However, its meaning in actual usage is “fertilizer”. Koyashi is the material that fattens the soil and makes it nutritious to crops. It is also used metaphorically in phrases such as “gei no koyashi” – “fertilizer for art”. “Gei” (芸) can mean any act of art, but usually implies performance art. A “fertilizer for art” is any experience that enriches the performance of the artist, but is usually associated with vice and hedonism. A musician, for example, can claim that his womanizing is simply food for his art, and thereby justify his actions by disguising it as devotion to his craft. “It’s all part of the process”, as they say.

Up until quite recently in history, in most Japanese cities, human excrement was collected from homes and carted away to be mixed with chopped hay and animal manure and fermented into organic fertilizer. An ultimate form of waste recycling, this fertilizer, koyashi, was kneaded into the soil each year to produce a richer harvest and provide sustenance for the consumers from whom the fertilizer came from. Japanese people were quite aware of this cycle. And it is telling that this word was chosen to describe the acts of vile deviance that produced richer performances for the consumption of the public.

The lack of a word equivalent to koyashi in the English language subtracted greatly from the English translation of The Tattooer, a short story by Junichiro Tanizaki. The word used in the translation is “victim”, which is clearly not the same thing. When, at the end of the story, the young woman says to the tattoo artist “You have become my first koyashi,” the tattooer is not just a victim, he is food. His life and blood had been sucked dry by the vampire of his own creation. That is the point of the story.

The story is so short and minimalist, the modern parlance for it would be “flash fiction”. It barely spans three pages in a paperback book. The original story in Japanese, first published in 1910, is written in a style, modern for its time, that became a template for generations, mixing commoner dialect with almost melodic colloquial prose. A prime example of turn-of-the-century Japanese aestheticism, the story is set in the waning days of the Edo period where a talented but sadistic tattoo artist named Seikichi, who loved to torture his willing patrons with his needles, is scheming to create a masterpiece. For that he needs a perfect canvas, a young woman who has not yet fully blossomed.

The title in Japanese is not “The Tattooer” but “Tattoo“. The word for “tattoo” in Japanese is “irezumi”, “ire” meaning “to infuse” and  “sumi” meaning “ink”, it can be written with two characters, each meaning “infuse” and “ink” (入墨). But Tanizaki chooses an alternate, more elaborate way of writing it, one character meaning “pierce” and the other meaning “blue” (刺青). The word possibly comes from the color of traditional tattoo ink which is somewhat bluish or greenish. It makes no grammatical sense to pronounce this combination of characters “irezumi“. This is called “ateji“, a spelling that has nothing to do with the actual pronunciation of the characters, and the ideograms are employed only to convey the meaning. There is no way you will know how to pronounce the word without some kind of assistance if you do not already know how to read it. We do not know, when we first see the title, just two characters on the cover page, why Tanizaki chose to write “piercing blue” instead of “infusing ink”. But those are the two letters that first enter our eyes.

Because of his talent and artistic reputation, Seikichi was never short of customers. But he loved to watch strong men struggle to hide their agony as he employed the most painful techniques to bring out the best effect. He secretly enjoyed seeing them, after being pierced hundreds of times in the most excruciating ways, then soaked in a hot bath to bring out the colors, collapse at his feet, exhausted from pain, unable to move. He would comment on how painful it must have been in dry, mock sympathy. Then he continued to work on them, day after day, for a month, sometimes two, secretly gleeful of their agony. Such was the man who was constantly on the lookout for the perfect girl to be his canvas.

One day he chanced to catch a glimpse of a perfect ankle, and knew immediately that this was the woman he was looking for. He did not see her face, and lost her in the crowd. He searched for her frantically. His ambition turned to obsession. His obsession turned to desire. His desire turned to pain. His pain turned to fire. The fire burned until this man, a genius artist but a sadistic torturer, chanced upon a geisha’s teenage apprentice, and knew immediately that this was the one he sought. He knew it was the same perfect ankle, the same perfect skin, the same perfect toes. He abducted her and lied about his knowledge of the girl’s whereabouts when people asked. Then got to work. He would turn the young girl into a work of art, and that ankle would become his agent to crush the souls of unsuspecting prey, whose juices would further empower his carnivorous creation.

He started by first showing her a scroll, an elaborate painting depicting a legendary Chinese princess who was said to have derived pleasure from watching the torture of innocent victims. Adorned in heavy jewelry and glamorous costume, holding a goblet, she looked over a man chained to a post about to be sacrificed for her pleasure. The languid decadence of the moment was captured vividly. The girl resisted looking at the painting but the tattoo artist insisted that the painting reflected herself. The second scroll he showed her was a painting titled “koyashi“, which showed a woman leaning against a cherry tree in full bloom, whose roots spread over the ground at her feet strewn with bodies of dead men. Perhaps she was a part of the tree itself soaking nutrition from the blood of men. She smiled triumphantly as birds sang around her. Seikichi told the girl that this was her future. The girl begged him to put the horrible painting away, but eventually looked at it, like a woman coerced into sex for the first time, gradually coming around to enjoying it.

He anesthetized the girl and worked all day and all night to inject ink into her skin. He poured his soul into the ink. He worked with great concentration. He held his breath at every entrance of the needle. He exhaled deeply at every extraction. As the girl lay unresponsive, he worked by moonlight and candle light. Black slated rooftops turned frosty blue and slowly changed to a stardust of dew, and white sails of river boats faded in the mist, ever so slowly as night turned to dawn. He whispered as he worked “You shall no longer know fear nor intimidation, for you shall become the greatest beauty of them all. Every man shall drop at your feet, and be reduced to your koyashi.” He painted a picture of a giant spider, its legs extending into her arms and legs; a black and yellow spider, known for its habit of eating the males with which it mated, known as jorogumo, the whore spider.

When she awoke the tattoo was done. She felt the pain of a thousand needles through her skin and moaned as she slowly began to move, the spider rippling on her skin. Her fingers flexed, her brows knitted, her toes twisted as voice left her lips. She awakened to the pain, her initiation. She woke up sharp, and walked by herself to the bath to pour hot water over her searing skin.Her high pitched cries echoed through the house. She emerged from the bath, her wet black hair draped over her naked flesh, and found the tattooer drained. He had injected every last drop of his soul into his art.
“I shall not be afraid any more,” she said, as she pulled her kimono over her shoulders. “I have thrown away my cowardice.”
“Take the scrolls with you,” he said. “They are yours, as is the tattoo.”
There was a powerful glow in the girl’s eyes as she spoke to the artist.
“You have become my first koyashi.”
“Please, I beg of you!” said the artist, “before you go, show me the tattoo one last time!”
She nodded, complied, and dropped her robe. Morning light filled the room, and shone on the glorious tattoo.

And that is the story. Piercing Blue.


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