This conversation with Judit Vihar, professor of Japanese literature at Károli Gáspár University and president of the Hungary-Japan Friendship Society, focuses on what it meant to be a humanist in Hungary during the socialist era and beyond and what public humanities is (or can be). The conversation was conducted in Hungarian. Please find the English summary below.
Photos of the objects featured in the conversation:
(Slightly abridged) English translation (note: in order to keep things as authentic as possible, all Hungarian and Japanese names appear in their original order, ie. family names first, followed by given names)
HA: Welcome to the latest episode of Humanista: The Podcast. Today, I am sitting here with Vihar Judit, professor of Japanese literature at Károli Gáspár University, translator, and president of the Hungary-Japan Friendship Society. I am particularly happy to have the opportunity to interview you because you were one of the first individuals who came to my mind when I started conceptualizing this podcast. The purpose of this series is to introduce the role, value, and versatility of the humanities, and your work is a great example to illustrate this diversity. I am also honored to have been invited to your home for this conversation. We are surrounded by Asia-related objects here, which surely carry some important memories for you. Could you introduce some of them to us?
VJ: First of all, I have to say that I have spent my entire life here, so the things here are all related to my life. This vase, for example, is probably the first object I would introduce. (Photo 1) This several century-old Chinese vase, which is now a lamp, was owned by my grandfather, Widder Félix, a painter, who transformed the vase into a lamp. When the 1956 revolution began, it was forbidden to leave the house due to the shootings and the presence of the military on the streets. But my father, who was a poet, thought that poetry and culture would be a way to escape from political upheavals. So Granasztói Szilvia, my best friend and a famous artist, my father, and I created a lamp shade which has unfortunately been damaged since then. The lamp shade had six sides, and my father wanted us to draw six different pictures on them. Each was related to a major historical region, such as Egypt, China, Greece and Rome, and all pictures were created with crayons. I remember the Chinese one, on which Laozi was riding a donkey. It was very entertaining for us.
HA: So Asia has become a major part of your life early on then.
VJ: Yes. Well, languages in general and the East. I had three majors at the university: Hungarian, Russian, and Japanese.
HA: What attracted you to Japan specifically?
VJ: Well, I had a difficult childhood. Not only because of a variety of sociopolitical issues and financial problems, but also because of my brother, who was seriously ill. He was physically mature, but mentally ill. My mother did not want to send him to an institution, so the situation required a lot of accommodation. I am sharing this in order to make it easier to understand how complicated my life was both internally and externally. I was born during the most chaotic phase of World War II, so it created a desire in me to escape. This is what the East meant to me. I enjoyed reading about the East, as well as learning the languages and the cultures of these countries. I really wanted to learn their languages to native level, I wanted to be able to speak the way they do, this was a very strong desire for me.
HA: Languages appear in your life through your translation work as well, so I am now starting to understand why you turned to that field and to literature. I noticed how abundant your publication list is, which includes translations as well. I have been thinking about how remarkably diverse your interests have been from Matsuo Basho’s 17th century haiku to Akutagawa Ryunosuke in the 20th century. I find this incredibly interesting. How do you select the materials to translate? How does this process work?
VJ: This has changed a lot over time. Translation for me started when I went to university. Russian was a fairly weak program there, it was weaker than in high school, so I realized that this would rather cause me to forget the language. This was really disappointing to me, so after discussing this with my family, I decided to also major in Japanese. Back then, there was a Hungarian teacher there, Major Gyula, who was actually an art historian. But his classes were really about reading and writing. We had no proper textbooks either, so we did not cover “real life,” to the extent that the first sentence we learned there (I still remember it) was that “the wings of a fly are bigger than those of a mosquito.” The teacher said that it was a compilation of useful sentences. Then we had a great instructor, Hani Kyoko, who paid attention not only to teaching Japanese, but also to the individual talents of the students. She noticed what each of us could use for future purposes. For example, she recommended linguistics for Mártonffy Ferenc (well-known East Asia scholar, Vihar Judit’s first husband), whereas to me she recommended the short stories of Oe Kenzaburo from the 1950s. So she had such a great taste that she gave me the work of a future Nobel prize winner to translate. There was a periodical, titled Nagyvilág. Back then, only Hungarian pieces and the literature of other socialist countries were allowed to be published. Western literature was forbidden to publish or to read. Once we, Japanese majors, went to a trip to Visegrád with the employees of the Japanese embassy. We had lunch at a beautiful restaurant when a Japanese lady said that she would like to use the “benjo”. We were surprised to hear that they wanted to do so (wordplay for banjo and toilet). We first said that unfortunately there was no benjo there. She was disappointed and then came back with a smile saying that there is a benjo there after all. That was when I realized what benjo meant – we had not learned such useful terms in class before. Now they do not use this word, just otearai or toire, but apparently it was in use in her region.
HA: Yes, I think many of us have had similar experiences with famous lines that we learned as beginners.
VJ: The next day we were called in by the administrators of the university and were warned that maintaining contact with the representatives of an “imperialist country” would lead to our dismissal from the school. We did not want to leave, so we did not go out with them anymore. This is how we were able to learn. Going back to Hani Kyoko, she was very diligent. We did not have dictionaries, so she gave us homework, went home, looked up all the words for us, and sent these words to all of us by mail every week, so we could prepare for class.
HA: Wow, picturing this in the age of the internet is very difficult. This opens up a completely different world. You have already started talking about this, but what was different then and now in terms of the content of Japanese programs and research topics at the university? How do you see the difference?
VJ: The difference was huge. Everything had to be written by hand then. We collected money and Hani Kyoko bought dictionaries for us in Japan. She gave us the textbooks of Japanese children. We did not have tapes or listening materials either. We had a good textbook, Teach yourself Japanese, which I really liked because it taught us the skeleton of Japanese grammar. But all the other things were quite random. Conversation practice? It was impossible. Nowadays, of course it is all about speaking-centered pedagogy. When I first travelled to Japan in 1986, I could not even speak. I had to learn everything there, so it was a difficult time for me, but I succeeded thanks to the Japanese. Until then, I had read and translated everything. So the periodical, Nagyvilág, which I already mentioned, was established after ’56 and already contained Western literature as well. It was so successful that when it was published each month, it was sold out in a day because it contained things like the screenplays of Fellini’s movies or Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita chapter by chapter translated by Szőllősi Klára. Kardos László edited it, it was very successful. They invited me to translate Japanese short stories. I asked Hani Kyoko what to translate. She always knew what to give me. At first, it was very tough, but I gradually got used to it. The first one was very embarrassing, so I ended up retranslating it. It was The Dancing Girl of Izu by Kawabata Yasunari.
HA: …who also won a Nobel prize.
VJ: Yes! When he won the Nobel prize in ’68, I received a telegraph from the journal, asking me to translate something from him. Now nobody knows what a telegraph is, you know when they ring the bell at night and then something happens…then I translated a short story from Kawabata with biographical annotations.
HA: Have you translated from Russian as well?
JV: At first yes, but, as you sensed it correctly, I have always been characterized by dichotomies. So Japanese and Russian have been like two children for me. I like them in a different way, but to a great extent. I could speak Russian so well that the Russians asked me how long I have lived in Hungary because I spoke the language that fluently. For example, I knew all the different fish types that they were not familiar with.
HA: Oh, that is a great compliment.
VJ: So I spoke the language very well and liked teaching it too. I also liked Russian children literature. Their range of children literature is wonderful, just like their music and novels. Russian language was mandatory then, but its teaching was horrible, with things like kolhoz and factories, as if we had been talking about these things all the time. It was very boring with topics like “Lenin took children to sled” or “the úttörő (member of the communist pioneer movement for children) waved with his red scarf, and Lenin stopped the train so there was no accident when the rail broke.” But nobody was able to ask for a glass of water in Russian. Then I thought to myself that there is this great children literature which could be used. There was a language textbook competition which I could apply for with a colleague. At first I hesitated due to the generally foggy application process, but fortunately the chair of the committee was very progressive, so he selected a traditional book and our more modern one. Both were published in parallel for a year, and they were called the “blue book” and the “red book”. Then, with the changes of politics, the two had to be unified because there could only be one textbook. Eventually, we created the content with the name of the other person on the cover…There was a lot of work, effort, and tears in that project.
HA: Yes, this is particularly interesting because since the democratization of Hungary, Russian is not mandatory anymore and has been completely relegated. I did not have to learn it either, and although there is a Russian department at several universities, it is not as popular as it used to be. I remember we had several language teachers in high school who taught us Romance languages, but they were originally double majors with a Russian component. This was very common when they were at university, it was essentially part of their education, but now I only know a few people who speak the language.
VJ: Yes, it has become a “luxury language”, like Chinese and Japanese.
HA: It is not as accessible as it used to be.
VJ: Going back to translation – I had to explain all these things to clarify the context. Whenever I read something interesting in the late ‘60s, I asked the editor if I should translate it, they loved it and encouraged me. It was so delightful, so to some extent, it was better than now because if I translate something now, I also have to become a person who can solicit money, which I am not really skilled at, in order to publish anything. You can find a publisher anytime, but finding money is very difficult, at least for me. For example, I translated Matsuo Basho’s beautiful book, Oku no Hosomichi. I went through his trip first to be able to translate it properly, but was only able to publish it ten years later because making arrangements with others for the financial basis was that difficult. So compared to this, the ‘60s were better, because culture was in the forefront, and what we translated was published, and I did not have to solicit money like this. The job of the translator is not to beg for money.
HA: Yes, ideally.
VJ: But I had to learn it. If you are born into it, it might be easier. Now form has become more important than content. Both are important though, but it is still something that has to be learned.
HA: And what do you think is popular in Japanese literature today? What is in demand in Hungary? For example, Murakami Haruki’s works have all been published in translation.
VJ: No, I do not think he is that popular, he is just promoted skillfully. The quality of the translations is mixed and depends on the translators. My students do not like him that much either. His short stories and Norwegian wood are good, but his contacts are rich and he can market himself well. The endings are quite entertaining, but not real. And in literature truth is important. I do not think he is comparable to Matsuo Basho and Akutagawa, whom you have mentioned, who are both very profound and real, and are particularly precious to me.
HA: Yes, even though they lived and worked several centuries apart in different genres. I also wanted to return to Matsuo Basho. You also mentioned that you took the same trip as he had done when translating his work, Észak ösvényein (Narrow Road). When I was preparing for this conversation, I also read about this story, so I thought I would ask you about it.
VJ: Well, it happened coincidentally. My son, Attila, has been very skilled at computing since he was little. He found a haiku association on the internet who organized a conference in Oxford in 2000. There were people there from a variety of countries. We are still in contact with each other. A Japanese person there organized a trip to Japan, which included the entire journey that Matsuo Basho had taken. It took 2 weeks and ended with a haiku convention and a competition in Akita. I learned about the Oku no Hosomichi there and decided to translate it. When I travelled to Japan for the second time, it was much easier for me language-wise than the first time, so I thought I would spend my time translating. I also found some videotapes at night, one of which was the Oku no Hosomichi. It was wonderful, so it became clear that I had to translate the original work. This is why I joined the 14-member trip. It was the most beautiful trip of my life.
HA: Haiku is definitely a genre that is associated with you. What does it mean to you?
VJ: Well, first of all, I admire it as a genre. It is so brief and little, but perfect, like a small pearl. You can squeeze so much into it. And when we are busy and our life is a hassle, it can express so much so beautifully. Japanese pieces and now poems in other languages are also wonderful. For a long time, I did not dare write myself. The association I just mentioned encouraged me to write. But when we were at the trip in 2002, and there was a haiku competition and everybody encouraged us to write, I ended up writing one in English and submitted it to the competition. Eventually, I won the English-language competition which surprised me to no end since I did not even take it seriously. Now I think that I should collect my works into a volume.
HA: Before we started this conversation, you mentioned that there is a haiku-related object here in the room, the picture on the wall. Could you tell us about it in more detail?
VJ: Yes, the picture on the wall is related to the world haiku convention in Pécs in 2010. Then, Pécs was the cultural capital of the EU which entailed a major financial source. The director of the association, Banya Matsuishi, asked me to organize it. I live in Budapest, not in Pécs, but received serious help from Sági Judit, the current leader of the Hungary-Japan Friendship Society’s local group in Pécs. It was a very successful event, we had participants from 36 countries and even managed to publish a book there. One lady was unable to come, but we sent her all the materials, and she felt so grateful that she created this picture for me using my haiku. This is a very precious piece since it contains gold and silver as well. (Photo 2)
HA: Dichotomies appear in your case in relation to haiku as well since it comes up in your life not only in translation and research, but also as a way to promote Japanese culture to a broader audience. You started to promote the reading and the writing of haiku in Hungary through the haiku club within the framework of the Hungary-Japan Friendship Society.
VJ: Let’s add that this year marks the 6th time when we organize the annual haiku day every April. The American Jim Kashian, who collects haiku poems in the US, possesses Hungarian pieces as well. We participated in the Japanese trip together in 2000. I also published a collection, entitled 1000 Hungarian Haiku.
HA: Yes, and you have also established the haiku club for a broader audience.
VJ: And I teach haiku poetry at Károli University.
HA: And what do your students think about haiku?
VJ: They love it! They love it because what Japanese schools give to children is something that they can get here. Some of them hate it and drop the class after one session. If you want to deal with poetry, you have to return to your childhood to unearth your childhood emotions. In class, we create together, so they learn the process of creation. Unfortunately, the Hungarian school system only trains students to memorize a lot of information. This is particularly true for literature, because instead of enjoying the works, students have to memorize biographical data and struggle with premodern texts that use old terms. So we have to “sweat blood” in class to dig out their creativity and encourage them to like what they do. There are always a lot of students, the limit is 20, but I usually have 50 interested students. This is my favorite class.
HA: So they also write haiku, instead of only translating them?
VJ: No, they first read a great deal and I lecture, and then I let them create. And you usually publish these in the Kizuna.
HA: Yes, we can share this with the listeners. Years ago, we first met through the Hungary-Japan Friendship Society, when I joined the association and you served as president. That was when I became the editor of Kizuna, the quarterly periodical of the society. And even though I spend most of my time abroad now, when the materials start to come in, I always get the chance to learn about the events of the society, as well as the translations that your students and the members of the haiku club create, both haiku and short story translations. Do you see any difference in the approach of your students and the members of the haiku club to creation?
VJ: I love teaching my students because you can see their progress very clearly. Many of them come to the haiku club as well. In the club, there is a versatile audience. Fajcsák Györgyi, director of the Hopp Ferenc Museum of Asian Art (the location of the club sessions), said that the quality of the haiku pieces had increased a great deal recently. Sometimes even I get surprised by the poems. Haiku is very popular in Hungary, and there are numerous groups on the internet as well. However, many people write them without knowing what haiku really is. But those who come to the haiku day are well-prepared. Some of the participants have included the former member of an award-winning pop band and a professional poet as well.
HA: And what might be the reason for such popularity in Hungary?
VJ: Perhaps the lack of rhyme. In Hungarian, rhymes are common in poems, but in Japanese, it is not the case. It is brief without rhymes, which liberates the writers. Interestingly, when I was working on the 1000 Hungarian Haiku collection, I also read the haiku of homeless people who published their works in Fedél nélkül (the magazine of homeless people). They write beautiful poems. Or there is a bus driver whose daily work is quite monotone, but haiku spices up his life.
HA: Yes, we never know what we can learn from and about others. I understand that haiku is a brief and simple form. I think this mirrors what I think about the Japanese in general. I really like the simple, but profound, character of their art. And due to its simplicity, the content becomes even more effective. This, by the way, characterizes their films as well, I find. In many cases, there are few dialogues, but the pieces are aesthetically beautiful, since their aesthetic sense is very strong, which emphasizes the intellectually and emotionally profound content. And my impression is that this can be detected in the case of the haiku as well.
VJ: I completely agree.
HA: We have talked about the Hungary-Japan Friendship Society so much – I think it is also part of the dichotomies of engaging with Japan. It is a different side of dealing with Japan beside research and translation. The society was established 31 years ago, but since you have been in it for a longer period of time than I have, could you explain what we need to know about it?
VJ: It was established in 1987, during the socialist era. It was a huge achievement that a so-called “imperialist nation” could have a friendship society in Budapest. Back then, only the Hazafias Népfront (Patriotic People’s Front) was able to fight for this, led by Pozsgay Imre. I did not join them at first because I initially thought that it was similar to the Turán movement, the slogan of which was the creation of a Hungarian-Japanese border. But when I heard about its popularity, I decided to join in. Szentirmay József, who organized all the engagements, invited me to join the board. The president, Hidasi Judit, moved to Japan temporally, and I was elected as president. I love this so much, because the people there are my friends, and participating in the events calms me down. In the Society, everyone puts their efforts into the activities voluntarily, and it shows in the atmosphere. You do the editing of the Kizuna because you like it too.
VJ: That’s why the Kizuna is of such high quality.
HA: You are very kind. I also think having a president like you impacts the Society in a very positive manner. The fact that you enjoy this work, as you mentioned, and have an enthusiastic mentality and strong motivation, all show clearly and are contagious.
VJ: Well, the administrative part is still a struggle because it can become work and that is not what a friendship society is supposed to be about.
HA: And, along with the shifts of international relations, how has the nature of the membership and the range of events changed, if at all?
VJ: What is constant is the presence of students and retired people because those in the middle work all day, so they have neither time nor energy to participate. They love the Kizuna precisely because they go home and browse through the content. They are very interested in it and receive a lot of information from it. It also gives them a sense of belonging. Japan is also well-liked in Hungary, so the range of members is broad. Most of them are Hungarians with a few Japanese. There are white- and blue-collar workers among them, people with disabilities, and corporate leaders as well. The approximate membership currently amounts to 600. It used to be higher when there were fewer cultural programs in general. Interestingly, the society has 17 groups in the countryside. If they organize an event, thousands of people show up because there are fewer cultural programs there in general. We usually travel there from Budapest because there are less professionals who can run the events in the countryside. However, the events in Budapest are often not as well-attended.
HA: Is there any consistent tendency in terms of the types of activities that become more popular? What kind of events are in demand?
VJ: It is very difficult to organize the monthly club events. From this year onwards, each event will be organized by a different member of the board as an experiment, so they only have to focus on one event.
HA: In general, the events are still quite successful. There are local groups and thematic groups as well, such as ikebana, origami, clothing, gastronomy, Japanese garden, tea ceremony groups, so everything that comes to mind about Japan is covered. But, based on your experience, is there anything that you would do differently?
VJ: I have learned a great deal over the years. Now I have a better understanding of finance and how to organize certain things. For example, every March, we have an event, the Tavaszi hangok (Spring voices) concert, with the participation of Japanese students from Ferenc Liszt Music Academy. It is usually organized by Mr. and Mrs. Sűdy, the former ambassador, but this year, we took over it from them. It turned out to be an amazing event with full house. It became successful due to my previous experience and the efforts of others on the board. I am now able to delegate tasks better too. The entire board has improved as well. Originally, everyone was older, whereas now the majority of the board is young with a background in Japanese. Not everyone can be a Japan-China-Korea specialist like you, but they are trained in Japanese and like this circle. There is only one thing I hope to improve and spread in the group: patience.
HA: Do you see any difference in terms of how Hungarians and Japanese deal with certain issues and how they communicate?
VJ: The difference is huge. It is important to mention that 2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the diplomatic relationships between Hungary and Japan. This entails close cooperation with the embassy. I see that Hungarians work fast, whereas the Japanese are slower. Then, the Japanese finish later but without fault, which does not always characterize the Hungarians. The other thing is mutual respect, asking multiple people to understand a problem from multiple perspectives. They might overdo it sometimes, but we could learn a great deal from them regardless.
HA: So it is a question of attitude then.
HA: And what do you think about the role of the Society in Hungarian-Japanese relations?
VJ: We have to make ourselves seen. Now that the anniversary has begun, we were not even invited to the first event. I mentioned this to the person in charge, whom I happened to teach at the university, he was not aware of the Society either. We organize 50 events every year without getting paid. I try to spread the word, but we will see how successful this will be.
HA: And what about the Japanese? How do they see the situation and the Society?
VJ: They appreciate it and value it a great deal. The Japanese partner society is fantastic. Kono Yohei, former foreign minister, is the president by name. The de facto leader is Nabekura Shinichi, who used to serve as ambassador in Hungary. They are aware of the difficulties of organizing these engagements. The largest friendship society in Japan is the Hungarian one. Here too, there are 25 societies, and the Japanese is the largest. We are an example for others, we have the best events as well, but we do not seem to exist on an official level. More financial support would be advantageous as well.
HA: By the way, there is another picture on the wall which is related to the Society. Could you tell us what we need to know about it? (Photo 3)
VJ: This is a photo of Mount Fuji. The cloud is particularly interesting because it has the shape of a fish. I received it from the Japanese partner society in 2011. That year the Fukushima disaster shook us and we decided to collect money. Even children donated their pocket money for the purpose. We were able to support the rebuilding of a kindergarten and a school. We managed to donate them more than the Hungarian state. It is always great to give, receiving is more difficult though.
HA: I think this is a beautiful way to finish this conversation. But before we do so, I would like to ask you something that I always bring up here. What does the term humanities mean to you?
VJ: It is my main area of interest. Electrical engineering and cell biology must be interesting too, but for me this is home. This is where I can move, I can see the windows, the doors, and the walls… and all of the rooms are so interesting that I do not even know which one to choose.
HA: This was very beautiful. It was worth asking this question! Thank you and please join us next time as well.