In Japan, God Isn’t Dead–But He Might Be Cold

Haruki Murakami writes strange tales about parallel universes, towns filled with talking cats, entrances to other worlds hidden at the bottoms of wells, and dark rooms populated by creatures that you MUST NOT look at. He also references the militarized Japan of the early 20th century and the devastating aftermaths of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway the same year. And he writes about jazz. And classical music. And running.

And sometimes all these things are in one book.

Murakami is a superstar author in Japan, with midnight launch parties for his novels filling Japanese bookstores with hordes of fans panting to snap up his latest work. Here in the West, I and the rest of his devoted non-Japanese fans are forced to cool our jets while we wait months–or years–for the translations of his newest books to hit the shelves.

The mysterious nature of Murakami’s narratives attracts me in a powerful way–I enjoy stories that take place in liminal spaces, in places that can’t be found on a map, but that are quite real to the characters wandering around in them. So it’s very intriguing that the most recent English translation of a Murakami novel contains a small mystery of a different kind, involving wordplay, a fairly famous quotation, and Carl Jung.


Murakami’s giant novel 1Q84–published in Japanese in 3 volumes between 2009 and 2010 and in a single English volume in 2011–moves its characters in and out of two parallel timelines–one taking place in the Tokyo of 1984 and the other unfolding, amidst mysterious “Little People,” disturbing sex and violence, and beings split into two physical entities, in a place/time that the protagonist calls 1Q84; the Q, she says, stands for “question.” And she–and we, the readers–do have many questions about that alternate world. (The title itself is a bit of bilingual wordplay: the Japanese word for “nine” is pronounced “kyu”–like the letter “Q.” In Japanese, the title is pronounced ichi kyu hachi yon–“one nine eight four.”)

Near the story’s end (don’t worry, no spoilers here), a trained killer is philosophizing with the person he is about to assassinate, and he tells a story that invokes Carl Jung, whose theories and archetypes Murakami frequently references in his books. The killer explains that Jung, with his own hands, built a small stone castle on his property in Switzerland. And over the door to this structure, the renowned analyst inscribed the following quotation: COLD OR NOT, GOD IS PRESENT. The killer continues:

“I don’t know much about God. I was raised in a Catholic orphanage and had some awful experiences there so I don’t have a good impression of God. And it was always cold there, even in the summer. It was either really cold or outrageously cold. One or the other. If there is a God, I can’t say he treated me very well. Despite all this, those words of Jung’s quietly sank deep into the folds of my soul. Sometimes I close my eyes and repeat them over and over, and they make me strangely calm. ‘Cold or Not, God is Present.’”

Touching words, perhaps, coming from a hardened fellow who finds meaning in a quotation from a long-dead man of science.

But here’s the thing: The quotation is wrong.

I’ve always loved the story of Jung erecting that castle–Bollingen Tower, it’s called. He inscribed its outer walls with a number of quotations, and the one chiseled over the door is in Latin; it reads:



It means “Bidden or not bidden, the god is present.” Another way to translate it is “Called or not, God is present.”

Called. Not Cold.

Jung's Bollingen Tower, where the Latin quotation is inscribed above the door

Jung’s Bollingen Tower, where the Latin quotation is inscribed above the door

I was understandably startled when I read the passage, and its mistranslation of the Latin quotation, in 1Q84. I kept turning pages, thinking that at some point, the character would learn of his error, and it might prove to be a poignant moment when he would have to revisit his fondness for the altered line. But that never happened. The book ended; the mystery remained unexplained.

I was mystified. Murakami is an erudite, worldly author. Could the mistake have been made by his translator? I discussed it over dinner with my Japanese friend Toshimi, who had introduced me to her favorite author in the first place. She fetched the English and Japanese versions of the novel and looked up the passage in the Japanese volume. “It’s not a mistranslation from the Japanese,” she reported. “Murakami uses the word tsumetai–‘cold.'”

Huh. Could the writer have misheard the quotation at some point and thought that “cold” was the correct word? Not likely, we decided. Given the author’s fascination with Jung and his theories and archetypes–and given also Murakami’s mastery of English (he has translated The Great Gatsby, among other books, into Japanese), it’s just not possible that the famous writer doesn’t know the correct translation of the Vocatus line.

So we have a small, real-life mystery, courtesy of the author who writes large, mysterious novels. I’ve searched for an explanation in online reviews and articles, but I’ve come up emptyhanded. A couple of sites mention the mystery, but offer no explanation except to assume that it was a mistranslation from the Japanese. And I haven’t found any comments from the author on why he did what he did.

My theory: I think Murakami read or heard the quotation translated into English at some point and noticed the resemblance between the words “called” and “cold,” especially when pronounced with a Japanese accent. Japanese doesn’t have that “aw” sound, so “called” sounds just like “cold” when pronounced by a Japanese speaker. In fact, the two words are spelled and pronounced exactly the same way when written in Japanese katakana, the syllabary used to write out foreign words. They are both spelled as コールド  (which sounds like kourudo). Given the Japanese love of puns and wordplay (just look at the book’s title again), I think he purposely created the character’s story around the mistranslation to add a layer or two of complexity to an already complex story. One could argue that the mistranslation is sad: a quotation that has calmed an unfortunate man in the midst of a painful life is not real–it’s meaningless. He has been drawing sustenance from a mistake. Or, looked at from another angle–from a parallel universe, if you will–one could argue that Murakami has added a layer of hopefulness to his story: the quotation as remembered may be meaningless, but the character has imbued it with meaning. And that imbued meaning has become the important thing, the thing that sustains him.

Life is like that, Murakami might be saying. Maybe there’s no intrinsic point to our existence; maybe it’s all nasty, brutish, and short–but we have the power to give it meaning. To make it count. To think we hear “Cold or not, God is present” and to make that nonsensical axiom into a source of comfort. I like this possibility best of all.

Of course, his Japanese readers would have an extra layer to peel away before they could get this meaning–they would have to know the Latin quotation and know the correct English translation before they could recognize the English pun at play. This seems like a fiendishly twisted path to the author’s ostensible message.

But keeping in mind what Haruki-san puts his characters through in his beautiful, violent books, it might not be outside the realm of possibility for him to put his readers in a bit of a puzzle, as well.

Tower Image: By (site (avec accord)) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

A Passion for Squiggly Lines on White Paper


Day Five’s question in BootsnAll’s #indie30 project is an easy one for me to answer:

What else (besides travel) are you passionate about?

In a word: words. Words are my profession and one of my greatest passions.

I write, I blog, I teach writing. I write when I travel, I write about traveling, I write so I can afford to travel.

I write to make sense of my thoughts. I write to make sense of the world.

I write to make my readers recognize their thoughts in my words; I write so they can read and say Yes.

In the international workshops I teach, words connect American kids to their peers in far-off corners of the planet. They introduce themselves in letters, they write about their hometowns, they write about their hopes for the future, they write their good wishes for their new, distant friends. By exchanging words, they exchange knowledge about each other. They exchange understanding. Words bridge the distances; words broaden their world.

And when I’m not writing or teaching writing, I’m often reading other people’s words. Stories, plays, poetry, essays. Backs of cereal boxes. Tubes of toothpaste. If words are in front of me, I’m reading them. Right now, words are behind me, too: I’m sitting in my office with my back to an entire wall of books, filled with other people’s words.

As the playwright Tom Stoppard said:

“Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”

That’s my hope, my goal, my passion. That’s why I play with words.

Image: By Juanedc from Zaragoza, España (Letras Uploaded by juanedc) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Want to Be Creative? Relax. And Look Around.

Archimedes having a Eureka moment

Archimedes having a Eureka moment

Sure, it’s all well and good to talk about being creative, to agree that creativity is vitally important to success in school, to effectiveness on the job–and even to a joyful life (see Glorious Curious To-Do List and Credo, Item #2)–but here’s the fundamental question that underlies these notions: Where do creative ideas come from?

“By looking attentively at old and smeared walls, or stones and veined marble of various colours, you may fancy that you see in them several compositions, landscapes, battles, figures in quick motion, strange countenances, and dresses, with an infinity of other objects. By these confused liines the inventive genius is excited to new exertions.”

That’s our hero, Leonardo da Vinci, giving advice on “The Method of awakening the Mind to a Variety of Inventions,” from A Treatise on Painting, a volume that was assembled from his writings by his assistant and companion Francesco Melzi. The master prefaces his suggestion with an admission that students of painting might find his comments a bit unusual: “I will not omit to introduce among these precepts a new kind of speculative invention,” he says, “which though apparently trifling, and almost laughable, is nevertheless of great utility in assisting the genius to find variety for composition.”

By looking closely and losing himself in the random lines and designs of old walls and stones, Leonardo found inspiration for his masterworks. Other “inventive geniuses” discovered their creative ideas in equally odd places. In 1934,The New Yorker reported that Gertrude Stein was fond of driving around the countryside every morning, with her partner Alice Toklas in the back seat, seeking inspiration in the great outdoors:

“Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn’t seem to fit in with Miss Stein’s mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow.”

Yep; observing cows stimulated Stein’s creativity.

Often, inventive geniuses get their creative ideas in a “Eureka!” moment, when they’re sitting around not doing much at all; in fact, the very term “Eureka” to describe such a moment comes to us from Archimedes, who stepped into his bath, watched the water rise, and realized that he could measure an object’s density by comparing its weight to the volume of water it displaced. The story goes that he was so excited by this epiphany that he leaped out of the bath and ran,  naked and dripping wet, through the streets crying out, “Eureka!”–which means “I have found it!”

J.K. Rowling was pretty much doing nothing, as well, when the idea for a story about a boy wizard came to her:

“I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head…. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one.…I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.”

Rowling even credits this lack of a writing tool with helping her to develop her idea for her novel: “Perhaps,” she muses, “if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them.”

When Ernest Hemingway was interviewed by George Plimpton for The Paris Review in 1958, Plimpton asked the writer where his ideas came from. Hemingway talked about the importance of observing the world around him:

“INTERVIEWER: So when you’re not writing, you remain constantly the observer, looking for something which can be of use.

HEMINGWAY: Surely. If a writer stops observing he is finished. But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Perhaps that would be true at the beginning. But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen.”

“The great reserve of things he knows or has seen.” From that reserve come ideas, connections, realizations that inform all sorts of creative work. Shakespeare was of a similar mind, penning these lines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (V.1. 12-17):

“The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”

The poet observes, as Hemingway did, as Leonardo did, and out of the “airy nothing” of his observations come creative ideas.

It seems, then, that inspiration comes to us not when we’re chained to our desks but rather in the in-between times, when we’re driving or bathing or wandering about. This speaks clearly to the necessity for taking breaks–for stopping our work for a bit and going out in the world, to relax, to look around, to think and breathe and absorb the landscape. The more we do that, the more material we have in our “great reserve,” and the more easily we can make connections and have realizations that lead to exciting, creative endeavors.

Image: By Giammaria Mazzuchelli ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Reflecting Is Not Loafing. Really.

Eternal reflection: Rodin's "Le Penseur" (The Thinker)  [Wikimedia Commons via Thinking at Hell's gate]

Eternal reflection: Rodin’s “Le Penseur” (The Thinker)

“The painter or draftsman must be solitary, and most of all when he is intent on those speculations and considerations which, continually appearing before the eyes, give material to the memory to be well stored.”

Thus Fritjof Capra, in The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance, quotes our hero, Leonardo da Vinci, on the subject of contemplation and reflection. It was apparent to the master that in order to process what we have learned and to commit it to memory so that we can use it later on, we need to be still for a bit and think about the things we’ve observed, absorbed, and created.

The problem with this concept, though, is that reflection involves a distinct lack of moving about. It’s quiet and, well, reflective–so in some cases, it might resemble, to an alarming degree, sitting around and doing nothing. In education, where teaching time is brief and precious and the last thing to be valued is letting the kids sit around with nothing constructive to do, the practice of reflection can be easy to pooh-pooh. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable tool and an effective method of evaluation; reflection can help students process what they’ve just learned even as it provides insight for their teachers into what the class understands and what still remains to be mastered.

Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero has, over the past 37 years, been examining the development of learning processes in children, adults, and organizations. Their Visible Learning initiative features a set of “Thinking Routines”–mini-strategies that teachers can embed into their lessons so that students can reflect on their own work–on what they have learned, and on what they have yet to understand. Thinking Routines are like little games or challenges. They’re fun, they take up very little classroom time, they provide both the teacher and the students with a way to make learning visible, and they illuminate a path for continually adjusting and tweaking what goes on in the classroom.

The subset of Core Routines, in particular, encourages students to reflect on what they think they already know about a subject and what they’d still like to learn. For example, the routine called “What Makes You Say That?” consists of two simple yet powerful questions: “What’s going on?” and “What do you see that makes you say that?”

One of my favorite routines, which I often use at the end of one of the series of arts-integrated writing workshops that I teach, is “I used to think…But now I think…” I like to present this routine in the last few minutes of the last workshop, asking students to write their answers out and then calling on them to share their responses with the rest of the group. This routine can indicate progress in a much truer way than a multiple-choice test can.

Sometimes the insight I gain through this routine is deeper than I expect. Last year, I led a week-long Spring Break workshop for fourth and fifth graders from a poor neighborhood in South Florida; I centered my curriculum on a young-people’s version of Homer’s Odyssey, re-told by Gillian Cross and gorgeously illustrated by Neil Packer.  My young students spent the week hearing and discussing the episodes and then using writing, visual art, and movement to craft their own creative responses to the ancient classic. On the last day, I used the “I used to think…” routine to see what about the weeklong process had impacted them. I gave them a few minutes to think and write in their “Reflection Journals”–little handmade books that they had created during the first workshop. One boy made me grin with his answer:

“I used to think…the older times were really boring and like I was going to pass out. But now I think…they were really fun. I don’t know if the other Greek books are boring, but I know the Odyssey was super fun.”

Good to know that his knee-jerk reaction to ancient literature  had been tempered by his arts-integrated experience!

My favorite response of all time, though, came from Jakayla, a tough little fourth-grade girl and the self-appointed ringleader of my Spring Break group. After a few minutes of reflection, Jakayla concluded:

“I used to think…that this would be all about writing. But now I think…it was all about finding what you love.”

Lest this all seem too kumbaya-warm-and-fuzzy, understand that every day, in the simplest fashion, I would determine what facts and vocabulary the students were absorbing: I would fire questions at them at random moments. “What was the Cyclops’ name?” “Who turned the sailors into pigs?” “Where is Odysseus trying to get home to?” The kids would practically fall over raising and waving their hands in the air with the answers. There was no need to test those simple facts; the children were learning the story and its elements as a natural result of listening, writing, making art, and acting out the episodes.  The simple Thinking Routine, though, along with a few moments to reflect quietly on what they knew and felt, and the opportunity to write about it in full sentences rather than bubbling in a row of circles on a computer-graded test, painted a clear picture, for me and for them, of the joyful learning that took place that week.

In his introduction to John Francis Rigaud’s translation of Leonardo’s A Treatise on Painting, John William Brown notes that when the great artist was painting The Last Supper on the wall of the convent of La Madonna delle Grazie,

“[T]he Prior of the Dominicans…became impatient whenever he saw Leonardo in contemplation instead of continuing his picture; he being one of those who imagine that a painter must be neglecting his work whenever his hands are not actually employed on it.”

Leonardo, of course, strongly disagreed with this view. As do I.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons via Thinking at Hell’s gate