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Japanese woman bringing Slovakia to home audience

Yuko Nakamura, 65, remembers first coming across the work of Slovak illustrator Miloslav Cipár in Paris in the early 1980's. She was fascinated by his drawings, which accompanied a Slovak children's book, and decided on the spot to translate the work into Japanese. She also resolved to travel to Slovakia and meet the people behind the fairytale.
"I had no idea where the country was," she says, admitting that she also hadn't known that Slovaks lived under communism. But it was that knowledge, of Slovakia's communist experience, that gave her what she felt were her first keys to decoding the cultural mystery behind Cipár's fairytale illustrations. "The book was very different from our children's books," she recalls. "I thought that it was perhaps because the [communist] system prevented [Slovak] writers from writing freely, and that some had thus found a way to express their feelings and desire for liberation through fairytales.


Yuko Nakamura...
photo: Ján Svrček

Yuko Nakamura, 65, remembers first coming across the work of Slovak illustrator Miloslav Cipár in Paris in the early 1980's. She was fascinated by his drawings, which accompanied a Slovak children's book, and decided on the spot to translate the work into Japanese. She also resolved to travel to Slovakia and meet the people behind the fairytale.

"I had no idea where the country was," she says, admitting that she also hadn't known that Slovaks lived under communism. But it was that knowledge, of Slovakia's communist experience, that gave her what she felt were her first keys to decoding the cultural mystery behind Cipár's fairytale illustrations. "The book was very different from our children's books," she recalls. "I thought that it was perhaps because the [communist] system prevented [Slovak] writers from writing freely, and that some had thus found a way to express their feelings and desire for liberation through fairytales.

"In Japan, all fairy tales have happy endings. Slovak ones often don't. This both provoked and fascinated me."

Her fascination drew her to Slovakia, then part of communist Czechoslovakia, in 1988. Just getting there presented huge obstacles, she says, as Japanese travel agencies "had only a foggy idea of where the country was, and nobody could give me any advice on how to get there."

She remembers her sense of letdown when she finally arrived: "To me, it was a gloomy place. Restaurants yawned empty, and people seemed to have disappeared from the streets." Nor was she successful in meeting Cipár.

Undeterred, Nakamura returned in 1991. She made telephone contact with Cipár from Paris, but found the artist unenthusiastic about meeting a Japanese woman who wanted to get to know him.


...says she was hooked on Slovakia the first time she picked up a children's fairytale illustrated by Miloslav Cipár.
photo: Ján Svrček

"It was just before Christmas, and I already had plans with my family," Cipár says. "To be frank, we were quite annoyed to hear that a Japanese woman was looking for us and wanted to meet us. However, I actually found Yuko to be very pleasant, and I enjoy every visit she pays us."

And there have been more than a few visits. When Cipár and his wife Vilma, a former tour guide, introduced Nakamura to the country in 1991, the Japanese woman was so enthralled that she decided to start writing books about Slovakia to introduce the country and its culture to her compatriots.

Her first book, dwelling on the atmosphere in Slovakia before and after the 1989 anti-communist revolution, was published in 1992. This summer she again found herself in Slovakia compiling material for a third tome on her adopted country.

Nakamura also started work two years ago for the Japanese-Slovak Association in Osaka, bringing a slice of Slovak culture to her home soil.

"Ms. Nakamura is the most active of our 300 members," says Akihiro Ishikawa, the president of the Japanese-Slovak Association. Ishikawa, a silver-haired man in his 50s, has spent the past summer taking a Slovak language course in Bratislava, and when The Slovak Spectator met him, he was encouraging his younger course-mates in the singing of Slovak folk songs in the Bratislava restaurant Veľkí Františkáni.

"Her books are not highbrow but have a more general appeal, and in this sense her writing certainly helps spread the popularity of Slovakia and Slovak culture in Japan," Ishikawa says.


Arabeska' illustration

Nakamura's second novel, a three-part work entitled Cipár's World, was published this year and includes material from Vilma Cipárová's speech on Slovak culture in Tokyo, trips Nakamura took around Slovakia, and her studies on the work and history of Slovakia's traditional tinkers. Cipár's World appeared among the top 200 books selected in 2001 by the Japanese Library Association to help local libraries navigate the country's ocean of literature (Japan sees about 1,000 new books printed a week).

"I think the reason my book was chosen was its beautiful cover [illustrated by Cipár]," Nakamura says, covering her smile with the book. Cipár, sitting across the table, waves his hands in protest.

Hooked

So what is it about Slovakia that keeps Nakamura - and her Japanese readership - coming back for more?


A postcard designed by Cipár.

Nakamura herself said it was the originality of Slovak art which first drew her. The book which caught her eye that summer day in Paris was The White Princess by Mária Ďuríčková, whose cover Cipár had illustrated. "I'd never seen a painting like it in my life," she explains. "Cipár's illustrations remind me very much of Japanese writing (see 'Arabeska' illustration above)."

Ishikawa, who from October to December will be in Prešov, the locus of Slovakia's growing Japanese community, notes that Japanese investment in and visits to Slovakia "have increased remarkably recently; Slovak folklore ensembles are invited to Japan almost every year, making the cultural flow from Slovakia to Japan more visible. Most Japanese can now sing the Slovak folk song Horela lipka, horela in Japanese, but I doubt many Slovaks know a Japanese song."

Ishikawa ascribes much of the change to the work of Slovakia's former ambassador to Japan, Mikuláš Sedlák.

On the other hand, Jana Kadlecová, head of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Slovakia, says it is Slovakia's relatively pastoral culture that appeals to the highly urbanised Japanese.

"Japanese people who come to Slovakia generally like the country's traditional folklore, its preserved natural values; Slovakia didn't experience the wave of industrialisation after the second world war that Japan did. And, compared with other central European countries, they also value Slovak people's hospitality and their willingness to do favours without expecting anything in return."

Nakamura, who says her name means 'lucky girl living in a village', says she feels just that - fortunate to be earning a living writing about Slovakia's rural culture. "I don't know how many books I'll write, because I don't know how many more years I'll live. However, since Japanese women have the highest life expectancy in the world, I might manage a few more."

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