reprinted with permission from YELLOW SPRINGS
written by Lauren Heaton
The sound of language has always fascinated
Harold Wright. From the honky-tonk twang of his kinfolk down
in the Ohio hills, to the staccatoed precision of the Japanese
of Mount Fuji, he has made it his life work to build bridges
between two seemingly opposite corners of the world.
Wright retired last week from 34 years of teaching Japanese language
and culture at Antioch College, but, at 74, he is still in overdrive
on his mission to experiment with the music of language.
It was the sounds of his granddaddy strumming the banjo and telling
stories on the front porch that first attracted Wright to language,
he said. His grandfather, known as the banjo-picking king of
Ohio, told hilarious tales in a dialect Wright recognized as
curiously different from the English he heard in his Dayton elementary
classroom. As an urban Appalachian, Wright straddled the divide
between his rural roots and his city upbringing, always listening
for the common chords between them.
Poetry, with its musical meter and breakable rules, appealed
to Wright, who particularly identified with the Beat writers.
When he joined the U.S. Navy and was sent to New Orleans in the
late 1940s, the sounds of the Cajun South lured him to the Bohemian
French Quarter, where he spent his evenings in the waterfront
bars listening to exotic tales of sailors and their journeys
to the Orient, he said.
“There, amidst every evil port cities are known for, I would sit around
and listen to these old guys tell about their travels to Shanghai, jumping
ship and getting tattooed in Hong Kong,” he said. “Then, I knew
I wanted to be a world traveler.”
Wright first set foot in Japan in 1952 as a Seabee during the
Korean War. Surrounded by the new sounds of a language he couldn’t
understand, he felt a strange familiarity with the place, he
said. Watching men in the shipyards who could join curved wood
with straight wood in a way the craftsmen in his family never
could, he recalled, he knew that the Japanese had something to
Karmic events have had a way of guiding Wright’s life,
he said, and one of the most memorable was the day he met Aunt
Suki, the relative of his first wife, Kumiko. Not yet proficient
with the Japanese alphabet, Wright went to meet Aunt Suki one
night by the light of the full moon. She told him she had been
waiting for him for 25 years, and that his path was to build
bridges between his country and hers. Aunt Suki showed him photos
of people he didn’t know and laughed, telling him that
someday he would, he recalled. Wright became a scholar of classical
Japanese poetry. On a trip to Japan during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics,
he was commissioned by the government to translate Emperor Meiji’s
poetry, which would be distributed to all Olympic guests. When
he went to collect the manuscripts at the royal shrine, Wright
said, he saw a photo he recognized as Emperor Meiji and realized
Aunt Suki had indeed been counting on him to facilitate cultural
understanding between the U.S. and Japan.
Wright received his second karmic call when he came to Antioch
in 1973 to teach Japanese. In the early 1980s, when Antioch refused
his request to start an off-campus program in Japan for lack
of funds, he took a leave of absence without pay, organized a
group of students to go on co-op teaching English, and they all
met in Japan for a semester abroad.
Now Wright is known on the Antioch campus as the founder of the
Antioch Education Abroad program to Japan and also the first
Antioch faculty member ever to go on co-op.
He introduced the students to Japan, while he worked as a translator.
When Wright learned the students were making more money teaching
than he was translating, he had the students introduce him to
their employer, the Nissan corporation, and he was hired to teach
English at a much higher salary, he said.
Wright returned to Japan many times with a Fullbright fellowship,
a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and other grants
to translate poetry, and in 1986 the Shambala Press published
his first collection, Ten Thousand Leaves: Love Poems from the
Manyoshu. Wright had not only a scholar’s eye but also
a good ear for language, both of which are necessary to maintain
the form, rhyme and syllabic count from one language to another,
I’m very fussy about what makes a good translation,” said
Wright, who writes an occasional column in the News that includes
a translation of a Japanese poem. “You’re dealing
with imagery, and you’ve got to be familiar with the culture
to comprehend it and be comfortable in your own language to capture
In addition to publishing eight other volumes of translated poetry,
Wright has invented several forms of his own that, he said, represent
another bridge between cultures. He combines Shakespeare’s
sonnet with the Japanese choka love poem to get what he calls
the “chonnet,” a 14-line poem with each line alternating
between five and seven syllables and ending in a couplet. Always
a professor in addition to his other interests, Wright continued
to usher students back and forth between Japan and America. On
one of his trips abroad, he attended a reading of a Japanese
translation of the Beat poets at Kyoto Seiko University and thought
the funky, liberal college would be a great match for Antioch.
In 1991, he established an exchange program between the two schools
that continued until last year.
Since retiring, Wright said, he has fully taken on all of the
projects he had set aside in order to teach. Each morning before
breakfast, he sits down to write for several hours. He chooses
between a collection of his own poetry called Haiku, Triku, Tanka
and More, a book of translations of his favorite poems called
A Story of Over 1,300 Years of Japanese Poetry, and a memoir
called Temples and Truck Stops.
He and his wife, Jonatha, also host a weekly storytelling group
at their home in Yellow Springs when they’re not traveling
in their new RV to various storytelling festivals and fundraisers
around the country. Japanese stories as well as Appalachian stories
enter into their repertoire as another manifestation of Wright’s
After all, it was in Japan, sitting around a camp fire drinking
sake and telling nostalgic stories about the good old days, that,
Wright said, he was flooded with memories of the good old days
on his grandfather’s porch. He had traveled overseas only
to be called back home to Dayton to continue building his bridges,
Wright fancies himself a “Jappalachian,” a term coined
by a newspaper reporter some years ago. The two worlds couldn’t
be more contrary, and yet both have shaped Wright and continue
to propel his work.
“Sometimes I have to tell Jonatha to save me from my crazy life,” he
“But somehow, the sounds of language, the sounds of Japanese, it all
fits together in my head.”