Since 2014, out of sheer interest and respect for the language, Naomi has published nine books in Bangla
Naomi Watanabe was first introduced to Bangla in 1989 when she chose Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War as the subject of her master’s thesis.
Her first book based on her experiences and travels in Bangladesh, titled "Japito Jibone Amar Bangladesh," was published at the Amar Ekushey Book Fair in 2014.
What struck Watanabe the most was the 1952 Language Movement, drawing her respect not only for Bangla but also for those who sacrificed their lives in defence of the language.
Since 2014, out of sheer interest and respect for the language, Naomi has published nine books in Bangla. And she is at present writing another book.
Watanabe has been writing in Bangla since 2009. Her goal is to write a book based on the accounts and perspectives of those who were three to five years old during the 1971 Liberation War.
While Watanabe was conducting research at Ramkrishna Mission in Kolkata, she lived with a Bangali family. Every Sunday, they would watch movies on a black and white television.
One Sunday, Watanabe was watching "Pather Panchali," a masterpiece by Satyajit Ray. The film birthed her enthusiasm and propelled her towards Bangla language and literature.
Watanabe’s thirst for Bangla made her come to Bangladesh after her thesis.
A law graduate from Niigata University of Japan, Watanabe sought the opportunity to volunteer for a Japanese NGO, Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica), that worked on the development of a Bangladeshi village in 2000.
By 2008, she had learnt the language informally with the help of locals.
"The first Bengali word I learnt to say was 'eat' [khabo]. The villagers were very hospitable, telling me that if you become hungry, say ‘eat’ or ‘I want to eat’. They used to serve me local food," Naomi told Dhaka Tribune.
However, her formal lessons in Bangla started when she came to the country again in 2009.
"I started my Bangla classes every Friday. At the time, I was practising Bangla and started writing on Bangla blogs. After 5 years, I began writing a book with encouragement from a Bangladeshi friend," said Naomi, who is now working in the development sector of Bangladesh.
Gradually, Naomi strengthened her ties with Bangla and Bangladesh. Her second book in Bangla, "Ami Kothae Darabo," was about her uncertainty between leading Bangladeshi and Japanese lifestyles. All her books were published by Biswa Sahitya Bhaban.
Biswa Sahitya Bhaban Publisher Tofazzal Hossain said Naomi visited the fair every Friday and enjoyed taking photos with readers and talking to them.
“She is a Bangladeshi in her language, attire and behaviour. Only by face is she Japanese,” he said.
“Since 2014, every year we have published one of her books. When people see a Japanese national speaking fluent Bangla, they gather in front of the stall,” said Tofazzal.
She said she had visited 20 districts of Bangladesh from 2009 to 2014. She has travelled to different parts of the country and written books on her experience.
“Before the Holey Artisan cafe attack, my learning curve was huge. I used to travel by rickshaw, CNG and even by local bus around Dhaka city.
“I used to quarrel with rickshaw pullers and talk with bus conductors a lot. People would tell me to stand aside in public buses and I talked with them as well,” she explained.
Watanabe said she enjoyed Bangladesh, which is why she has been living here for almost 20 years.
But after the Dhaka attack, following instructions from Japan, she now restricts her visit from office to her house, using a car.
“A specific boundary has been set for my movement in Bangladesh after the attack. In keeping with that, for the last 5 years, I could not converse independently with the general public,” she added.
Claiming that Bangladeshi people’s hospitality trumped that of the Japanese, she said: “I have lots of friends who invite me with my favorite Bangladeshi local food, especially chepa shutki bhorta [mashed dry/fermented fish] which I wrote about in my book 'Protibeshigon'.”
The 53-year-old author’s family lives in Japan. She goes home thrice a year for a few weeks.
“I am a ‘Japani Bangladeshi’ in mind. I love to think of myself as a writer. However, I work as a Japanese development worker. But my goal is to write my special book based on the liberation experience of the general people of those times. I know this is too tough for me but it is my destiny,” said Watanabe.