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Early spring in Tokyo

This blog was originally published in 2013 on UEA’s New Writing website.

I’m writing this as I fly over Siberia, on the way home after my visit to Japan as a guest of the Nippon Foundation for the inaugural Tokyo International Literary Festival. Despite working for the British Centre for Literary Translation, my knowledge of Japanese is limited, to say the least. After a couple of days I’d learned:

ume – plum blossom
sakura – cherry blossom
arigato – thank you, a feeble attempt at reciprocating the legendary Japanese politeness
kissa – an old style coffee house with red tins of Caravan coffee and bakelite phones, offering a rare glimpse of the history of the city

pink telephone
pink telephone

I picked up a few more words during my visit, but these first four words summed up for me the themes of the festival and of my stay in Japan: history and memory, destruction and rebirth, gardens and literature, travel, cultural differences, and notions of home.

History and memory

Walking around the Koishikawa Korakuen Botanical Gardens in search of plum blossom, I was struck by the signs explaining that these old teahouses and shrines were in fact replicas, rebuilt either after the Great Kanto earthquake in September 1923 or the firebombing of Tokyo during the Second World War. I couldn’t help but agree with Junot Díaz’s comment that Tokyo is a vulnerable city.

This first festival comes almost exactly two years after the latest disaster to strike Japan, the 11th March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In our welcome packs, we received a poignant reminder in the form of the anthology March Was Made of Yarn, containing pieces by a number of writers taking part in the festival, raising ideas we continued to discuss throughout the weekend.

In Japan disasters take place in the past and in the future, according to Mieko Kawakami; even now, after the earthquake, we’re still living in a pre-disaster age. When a writer responds to disaster, she is bringing both memory of what happened and imagination of what will happen. This theme was echoed by a 22-year old Japanese man in the audience, asking who asked how someone his age can keep alive historical memory for future generations. Junot Díaz said that he learned most about contemporary Japan, and its history, from the work of Naoki Urasawa. In Naoki’s manga, the characters are affected by both World War II and the Cold War. Díaz spoke of the need for contemporary writers to bridge the generation gap by including that history in their work, connecting the chain to carry on the memory. It’s important we try to live – like Naoki’s character Kenji – in three dimensions: past, present and future.


Hideo Furukawa is living and writing in both past and future. Most people come to Tokyo in search of both work and identity, he said. Hideo himself grew up in Fukushima until he was 18, then came to Tokyo, and after 25 years in the city felt like a Tokyoite. But after March 11th, he remembered his old self in Fukushima, and now finds himself writing in two dialects, reflecting his two different homes.

As David Peace wasn’t in Tokyo at the time of the March 11th earthquake, and tsunami he found it difficult to write about the event directly; rather, his story in the anthology is a fictionalised version of another writer’s response to a comparable event – the Japanese writer Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s response to the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923. Peace’s Tokyo Trilogy is set in the aftermath of World War II. He is interested in how the city has rebuilt itself twice in the 20th century, retracing old Tokyo through historical maps. Tokyo is not a museum, Peace said. You can’t see the history unless you look deep into its alleyways, or read novels by writers such as Akutagawa, Natsume Sōseki and Dazai Osamu. The city isn’t signposted, so it’s hard to find places mentioned in these novels, or the bars where Dazai drank, but it’s always worth it when you do.

concealment and revelation
concealment and revelation

Jonathan Safran Foer compared a walk through a Japanese garden to the reader’s journey through a physical book. The reader doesn’t see everything at the outset, as the contents are concealed by the cover. Foer described reading as a journey of discovery, revelation and surprise; expectations are affirmed or undermined as the reader moves through the pages of the book. Nicole Krauss compared the design of Japanese gardens – off centre, full of empty spaces – to the spaces, silences and imperfections in a novel, which also create beauty. However, Natsuki Ikezawa talked about how Japan is losing its beauty of silence and emptiness; nowadays the country only seems quiet to people coming from noisier places. He spoke of his need to rediscover Japanese features and integrate them into his own work.

Walking around Koishikawa Korakuen, I wasn’t the only visitor to be drawn by the plum blossom as well as the sight of the gardeners rebuilding sections of the garden, digging ponds and creating hills, preparing for spring.


The journey of translation

A parallel and equally fascinating journey through Japan takes place through literature, but if your Japanese is as limited as mine, you can only hear voices from Japan once they are available in English translation. Generally Anglophone writers have a much greater chance of being translated than Japanese writers, but those Japanese voices that do make it into English tend to be distinct.

Lexy Bloom talked about how she decides what to commission for translation. With any literature, whatever its origin, she is looking for great stories told in a different yet beautiful way. In Japanese writing Bloom is struck by the unusual metaphors. In the title story of ‘March Was Made of Yarn’ by Mieko Kawakami, the opening is an everyday scene of a couple in a hotel, resting. But the story drifts from the real to the fantastical as the pregnant wife dozes off and dreams that everything is made of yarn, a strongly physical image, puzzling, ultimately – but in a good way.

A couple of years ago, at the Worlds festival in Norwich, Alfred Birnbaum explained why English-language readers sometimes find it difficult to fully appreciate Japanese literature, as there are significant differences in literary sensibility between Japan and the UK. Japanese writing is sensual rather than dealing in ideas and concepts; it has an emotional logic and doesn’t need to be conclusive. Writers favour poetic nuance over precision; what is left out is just as important. As a result, good writing in Japanese doesn’t always sound quite so good in English; it can come across as vague, inconclusive and inarticulate, while English writing translated into Japanese can seem forced, petty, harsh and cold.

Despite these differences, if the translator can get the voice right, the rest will follow, according to Michael Emmerich, who emphasized the need to create a relationship of trust with the reader. When tenses are deliberately misused by the author, it’s accepted as literary style, whereas in translation the reader may suspect that the translator has made a mistake. But if the voice in English is still strong, it’ll carry over any irregularities in the original. Emmerich demonstrated his own flair for distinctive metaphors when asked to differentiate between literary style and voice. According to him, the novel is a runway, and literary style the airplane; when that plane takes off is when you get the voice. Yet that voice isn’t composed of individual words, but is connected to the author by yarn, and stays with the reader long after they’ve finished the book, like the smell of smoke on clothes after a night out in Tokyo.

But what happens to the translator? Should he or she become invisible to the reader’s eye? Koji Toko describes the process of translation as going into zero, achieving a Zen-like state where the self vanishes, allowing the translator to follow another style, beat and music, the breath of the translator’s body exhaling and inhaling at the same time as that of the author. Emmerich disagreed. A poor translation is one through which you can see the original text, he pointed out, whereas a good translation is one in which not the translator but the author – and his or her original text – is transparent.

plum blossom
plum blossom

Travelling with a foreigner’s eyes

Usually Mitsuyo Kakuta thinks that the Japanese way of thinking and behaving is normal. Everyone else is different, and quite possibly wrong. When she goes to other countries, however, she starts to wonder whether it’s she who has things the wrong way round. Yet she becomes even more Japanese when she travels.

In Japan, the relationship to words and verbal expression is very different to other countries, Birnbaum had also explained. Verbal communication is a last resort. When she was abroad, Mitsuyo was struck by how much people talk. The Japanese express themselves by thinking, a silent, staring telepathy. To make matters worse, most people in other countries don’t speak Japanese, so even if she does talk, no-one will understand her. Still she travels as, in her experience, people will always help her out. As she comes from an island nation, like many Japanese Mitsuyo has to overcome certain fears in order to travel. While she is in Japan, Mitsuyo is a rock surrounded by water and can see her limits, but when she travels, she moves away from her limits into shock and newness.

Travelling, talking, reading – these are the ways we learn about other people, other ways of doing things. But what are the ethics of outsiders or foreigners writing about a country they’re not from – an issue in my mind as I write this blog after one brief visit to Japan. Junot Díaz and Natsuki Ikezawa agreed that such writing and sharing is an attempt at communion, at communication. Even if the writer gets things wrong, at least it’s opened up the dialogue between self and other.

bird man
bird man

Journeying to a new place helps you see yourself, and your own place, differently; on returning home, Pico Iyer walks around and looks at those familiar surroundings with a foreigner’s eyes. Still over Siberia (Japan is a long way away), I’m wondering what I will see when I return to Norwich.