Friendship that has withstood time

Shuzo Matsunaga

Shuzo Matsunaga  

“He was tall and fair. When he saw me, he bowed and folded his hands to say vanakkam,” recalls S.M. Muthu from Omalur, Salem. The 93-year-old is speaking of his first impressions of his Japanese pen-friend Shuzo Matsunaga, 92. The year was 1981; the friendship between Muthu and Shuzo was about a year old then.

Muthu had arranged for Shuzo to attend the fifth World Classical Tamil Conference in Madurai. Shuzo read out a research essay on the ‘Thirukkural’ at the conference. His trip to India was the result of a few lines on the ‘Thirukkural’ he read in a book a year before. Shuzo wrote to his pen-friend Shekar, saying he wanted to read more on the work. Shekar’s father Muthu, an avid lover of Tamil literature, sent Shuzo G.U. Pope’s English translation of the ‘Thirukkural’.

The ‘Thirukkural’ fascinated Shuzo, and Muthu was fascinated by the Japanese gentleman who was attracted to Tamil literature — their friendship has lasted over 30 years. Shuzo translated the ‘Thirukkural’ into Japanese in 1980. Says Muthu: “During his visit to India, I spoke to Shuzo about Bharathiar. I asked if he could introduce the poet to the Japanese.”

Shuzo gladly agreed — the Kuyil Paatu was translated into Japanese. “He told me that youngsters in Japan were fond of the poems,” says Muthu. “The translation even won an award and cash prize from the Thanjavur Tamil University.”

Muthu and Shuzo communicate through letters in English and photographs. The latter would write to him if he had doubts while translating Thiruvalluvar or Bharathiar. “We exchanged about 50 letters when Shuzo worked on the ‘Thirukkural’. He would send me photocopies of the page in which he sought clarifications and I would write back to him,” explains Muthu.

Egged on by the letters from a friend in a village in a far-off country, Shuzo translated Manimegalai , Naaladiyar , Panchathanthira Kathaigal and Voice of Vallalar into Japanese. Muthu’s letters kept him company throughout his ventures. In 2007, the Japanese Government honoured Muthu’s services to their literature by issuing a commemorative postage stamp with his photo. Muthu has never visited a foreign country. But Shuzo has taken him to Japan through his letters. Japanese traditions, their festivals, stories about the Geishas… Muthu knows them all. “I too write to Shuzo about our festivals such as Deepavali and Pongal. He knows the practices followed in a typical Tamil wedding, the rituals performed during funerals… When my aruvathaam kalyanam (60{+t}{+h}birthday) was celebrated, I sent photos and wrote all about it to him,” he says. Shuzo has incorporated all these in a book titled My India As Seen Through Letters.

Shuzo, in turn, sent Muthu English translations of Japanese books. Muthu has translated some of them into Tamil. His stories have appeared in several Tamil dailies and magazines. Recently, New Century Book House published his translated work Japaniya Devadhai Kadhaigal. “ Thailand Naattupura Kadhaigal , a collection of short-stories, Manidha Naarkali , a crime story and Naatiyakkari , a translation of writer Kawabata’s The Izu Dancer are to be published soon,” says Muthu.

In the 31 years they’ve known each other, Muthu and Shuzo have met only once. “We are now in the final stages of life. I don’t think we will meet again,” says Muthu. Telephone conversations are few and far between, he adds. “He called me when my wife passed away. But these days, he’s short of hearing and I too can’t follow what he says.” They continue writing to each other, though.

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