Although he’d just flown in from a trip to Toronto, San Francisco and New York City to launch the English translation of the third issue of his literary journal, Monkey Business, Professor Motoyuki Shibata was kind enough to sit down with me in his office at the University of Tokyo last September for a chat about Western writing on Japan as well as Japanese literature today. Below is a transcript of our conversation.


Fran Bigman: So many American and British novels seem obsessed with imagining Japan, from Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle to David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’ve read some arguments that these Western depictions of Japan follow a chrysanthemum-and-sword pattern, meaning that they cycle between romantic images of a feminized Japan and images of a masculine, aggressive, devious nation that provokes anxiety in the West. I’m interested in how these depictions have changed from the years of ‘Japan Panic’ – the period from the early 1980s until around 1995 when the West made a lot of noise about how Japan was going to take over the world – to the post-bubble world of today.

Motoyuki Shibata: I translated Richard Powers’s first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, a book that came out in 1985. My translation came out in 2000 and I talked to the author, Richard, about it, and the book hasn’t really dated except for one thing. In that book, Japan is depicted as a menace, economically. ‘America in the ’80s produced ten lawyers for every engineer . . . Japan, on the other hand, produced ten engineers to each lawyer,’ so Japan is sort of taking over. I am a specialist in American fiction, so I can only think of American examples, but do you know Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II? There is a description of Midtown Manhattan early on, and most neon signs have the names of Japanese companies.

FB: And in White Noise the main character’s daughter repeats the words ‘Toyota Celica’ in her sleep, and it’s quite menacing, so he seems to have a thing about that. I’m interested especially in literary depictions, because there seems to have been a lot of work written on pop culture, like Rising Sun and Back to the Future, that depicts Japan as a menace.

MS: So in popular fiction the depiction of Japan is simpler, you think?

FB: It’s more straightforward, or at least people might assume that the same blanket stereotypes that are presented in popular fiction might not apply to literary fiction, but it would be interesting to see how literary fiction reflects some of the same anxieties in a subtler way. I think that if you look at Ishiguro, for example, themes of suicide and reticence and other stereotypes of Japan are still really present in his work.

MS: That’s true. Even after he stopped writing about Japan, there were still possibly Japanese elements in his novels. These could also be seen as British elements. This idea that everyone is a butler and serves someone else at the top, that could be called a very Japanese idea too.

FB: It would be interesting to look at how British and American writers see Japan – if they see Japan differently.

MS: Certainly writers like Ishiguro couldn’t have appeared from the US. Well, maybe.

FB: The form of his works is so similar; no matter what the topic is, you have an unreliable narrator.

MS: False memory, too. I feel he’s moved on to new forms now, though.

FB: Even though the protagonist of Audrey Hepburn’s Neck, a 1996 novel by American novelist Alan Brown, is Japanese, and the story is set in Tokyo, the narrator refers to dorayaki, a common Japanese sweet, as ‘damp cake filled with red bean paste’. This sounds like the way a Westerner who doesn’t like dorayaki might describe it. In this case, translation creates distance between a Western author and the Japanese protagonist he is attempting to write. For you, when you translate, how do you manage elements that a Japanese reader might not know about? Some novels leave the foreign word and include an explanation – like ‘mochi, a rice powder cake’ – but those translations are often awkward. Also, Ruth Ozeki’s recent novel A Tale for the Time Being, which is supposed to be the diary of a Japanese girl, uses Japanese words normally, but then has footnotes to explain things to the Western reader.

MS: A writer like Junot Díaz uses Spanish words in his novel, and he doesn’t bother to explain them. And that seems to be one of his points, that this is told from a Dominican point of view. And that seems to work, more or less, even though American readers don’t get some of these words, they can mostly tell from the context. As a translator of American fiction, those kinds of problems I have are mostly quite mundane, words like ‘driveway’ . . . or ‘porch’; mostly about houses. And usually they are not that important, so not worth a footnote. Footnotes break up the rhythm, so you like to do without them as much as possible. But if it’s a crucial term or concept you’ll of course have to explain it in some way. I don’t encounter that difficulty all that often. Probably because I translate only fiction. Poetry might be something else.

FB: I was noting that in Monkey Business there are some footnotes to explain, for example, a kanji (Japanese character) being used in a slightly different way. Or as a kind of pun.

MS: Aha. Like in the tanka poems of Mina Ishikawa.* I think translators of Japanese literature into English would encounter these difficulties much more often. Like in Japanese fiction, you see a depiction of a room with six mats of tatami, or eight mats, or 4.5. In Japanese, 4.5 feels small, six is regular, eight slightly bigger, but that’s of course lost in translation. That kind of thing must occur quite often.

FB: I’m interested in Western writers creating Japanese characters, and the politics of that. Do you come across Japanese writers who make American characters their protagonists sometimes, or is that quite rare?

MS: I think that’s quite rare. I think in Japan, traditionally, Japanese have been learning from the West, so we have been looking up to the West. So the Westerners are the Other to be learned from and in that kind of context it’s very hard for a Japanese writer to create an American or British narrator.

FB: For a Western writer to put himself or herself in the position of a Western traveller in Japan makes a lot of sense, but there is something slightly uncomfortable for me about their Japanese characters. I guess I feel divided about it.

MS: When I read the David Mitchell book, his Nagasaki novel (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), I thought that the last hundred pages were excellent. I thought Mitchell did a really wonderful job. Usually if you’re Japanese, you feel kind of condescending towards Western writers trying to write from a Japanese point of view. And sometimes, they give themselves away. But in that novel, Mitchell is really thorough, and it reads like a wonderful English translation of a Japanese novel.

FB: I have a British friend, Laurence Williams, who’s a postdoc at the University of Tokyo, and he’s looking at British cross-cultural contact with Japan during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There’s this idea, of course, that Japan was so isolated before it ‘opened up’ to the West, or ‘was opened up’. But Laurence thinks that’s prevented scholars from looking at the relationships that did exist between Britain and Japan in this period. 2013 saw lots of events to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the first English ship to reach Japan, but even though the trade post established in 1613 closed just ten years later, Britons carried on buying Japanese goods, and even visiting the country from time to time. Writers carried on thinking about Japan, as a fellow ‘island nation’ on the far side of the world. Jonathan Swift describes Japan in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), of course: even Robinson Crusoe tries to reach Japan, in the sequel Daniel Defoe wrote to the first novel. So a more interesting thing for a novelist to do might be to look at the actual encounters that took place between the two nations, and show that Japan was not as closed off as people imagine.

MS: Do you know the novel The Dream of Lafcadio Hearn by Roger Pulvers? Roger is an interesting character. In fact, Roger is the reason I went to New York this time, because he received this translation prize and I was the judge. He received the award for his translations of the poet Kenji Miyazawa, and the collection is called Strong in the Rain and came out two or three years ago from the British publisher Bloodaxe. The Dream of Lafcadio Hearn was published by Kurodahan Press, a small publisher in Fukuoka, in the southern part of Japan. It’s written from the viewpoint of Lafcadio Hearn, who, as you know, came to Japan 150 years ago and collected Japanese folk tales and didn’t speak any Japanese but heard all the tales from his Japanese wife and left a wonderful collection of stories. He actually taught English here, in the English department of the University of Tokyo, so we have his photo on the fifth floor. And in Roger’s novel, Hearn is not really in love with Japan any more. He is disappointed by so many things like bureaucracy, arranged marriage and a lack of freedom, especially on the part of women. As the title suggests, he’s in Japan but he’s not really of Japan. He’s sort of looking at people and the country from a distance.

FB: Hearn also seems part of a pattern of romanticizing the past Japan. So everyone seems to do that when they come, from Aldous Huxley to Alex Kerr. I think it does create this pattern of a retreat from a Japan that is seen as the future into this idyllic past. But I also think it’s a way of containing the threat of Japan, if you accept the idea that some threat remains after the 80s. It’s a very narrow perspective to see everything contemporary as a betrayal of the past.

MS: This is a very broad question, but do you think Westerners in general still see Japan as a threat?

FB: It does seem, of course, that a lot of that fear has transferred to China. I heard an interview with a female Chinese astronaut on an American radio station recently and the interviewer asked her, ‘Should Americans feel threatened by the Chinese space program?’ But there are instances in the post-bubble years where Japan-bashing has come back, like when Japan was blamed for the 1997 economic crisis. Some American commentators even said that the decline of the 1990s was an elaborate deception and that Japan was actually doing fine. So I think even after the circumstances changed, people’s ways of thinking continued. I also think that even if Japan isn’t seen as a threat at this moment, there’s still a sense of distance, so Japan is still seen as somehow really very different, or even the most different. I was interested in a recent Roland Kelts piece in the New Yorker that suggested that Japanese and English are so far apart linguistically that translation is futile. I wonder what you think.

MS: That’s the kind of feeling you encounter at one point or another if you translate, and it’s certainly a viable starting point, but I’m sure Roland would have wanted to elaborate on it had he had more space.

FB: The article he wrote really focused on Murakami, and I know that in past interviews you’ve mentioned that the popularity of Murakami in the West represents a really good opportunity for Japanese literature in the West. I can understand, but I also wonder if it doesn’t narrow the kinds of narratives that get translated. There is this focus on Japan as a source of the surreal, you get horror films and anime and manga, and I wonder about other writers who don’t fit into that pattern.

MS: Haruki identifies with the Japanese baseball player Hideo Nomo, and the other Japanese baseball players who came after him, like Ichiro or Matsui, did a greater job, probably, as ballplayers. But Haruki respects Hideo because he created a path where there wasn’t any path for Japanese baseball players to play in the major leagues in the US. Haruki is a bit like that. It’s true that so many publishers are looking for the second Murakami, but, you know, the second Murakami doesn’t have to be exactly like Haruki. Even if this new Japanese writer is quite different from Haruki, simply because he or she is Japanese, maybe the American audience will be quite receptive, or at least there will be fewer barriers for him or her.

FB: Words Without Borders published two issues in the summer of 2012 edited by Michael Emmerich (the translator and scholar of Japanese literature); the July one was dedicated to the fantastic, and there was another one in August dedicated to the ordinary. I was wondering about his decision to split them off. Do you think there’s two strands of Japanese literature?

MS: That’s a wonderful question. I always think the borderline between reality and non-reality, or fantasy, is much thinner in Japanese fiction than in American or British fiction. Back in the mid ‘90s, Granta did a feature on young American novelists, so they had twenty short stories or excerpts from their novels. All of them were realistic. So something strange might happen, but it was always explained as a dream, or someone’s crazy idea. If you did the twenty best young writers under forty here, I would guess that at least half of them would be dealing with non-realistic elements. They won’t be regular fantasy or sci-fi writers – their fiction will sort of go back and forth between reality and non-reality. So I can say that they find it very easy to go back and forth between two realms. If you see it as a result of generational differences, I would say that more older writers would be more comfortable in realism, and more younger writers would be more comfortable in non-realism. But, you know, Haruki Murakami is over sixty now, and he is so at home in sci-fi and fantasy and with those kind of elements, so maybe that doesn’t really hold up. Sometimes you do see that, though. The Akutagawa Prize is the most prestigious award here, and two or three years ago, two authors received the award. One of them, Toh EnJoe, he is a non-realist. And the other one, Shinya Tanaka, is a 100 per cent realist. Among Akutagawa judges, most of them subscribe to realism, and with a writer like Toh EnJoe, they say, Oh, I didn’t get it, but if younger critics get it, it’s fine with me.

FB: I was thinking about the category of novels that tackle social problems, like the way Natsuo Kirino’s Out calls attention to the difficulties women face in Japanese society. These novels may get read in a certain way, more for the problems they describe and less for the story and the writing. I wonder if that’s part of the danger in splitting them off, if that gives rise to an idea that the experimental or surreal is better. Do you think the ‘social-problem novel’ is a big strand in Japanese writing?

MS: Yes, yes, especially with female writers. Because they are on the more exploited side of society. And of course, that kind of inequality can occur in terms of people’s race too. But here in Japan, you hear very little of this literary voice from people coming from overseas and working here. Somebody sent me a manuscript written by an Iranian working here, and I thought, wow, this is finally a chance to find out how they’re feeling, working here. But it turned out that his wife was Japanese, and his stories were based on the stories he heard from his wife, so it was all about Japanese women. I keep telling my students that literature is not primarily a tool for getting information about others, about other races and genders and classes, but I realize that I am doing it myself.

FB: What was the first book you translated and how has your working method changed since then?

MS: I started translating quite late. My first book came out in 1989, so I was already thirty-five at that time. My method of translation was more or less fixed at that point, so I don’t think it’s changed much. My ambition as a translator has always been to make myself disappear, become invisible. This is what Haruki Murakami says: a translator is like an amplifier. You are not the speaker, or the source, like a CD or a record. An amplifier doesn’t really come to the fore. Haruki also says if people think, wow, this is a good amplifier, it’s not really a good amplifier. If people think, wow, this is good music, then it’s really a good amplifier.

FB: I’ve noticed that a lot of my Japanese friends here who study American literature study a Big Author, like Melville or Poe. Does that relate to the idea of looking up to the West?

MS: I think there is a romantic idea of studying literature, and that most people in Japan still believe in the idea of great literature. I myself feel a little bit disappointed when some of my students go to the United States and find an obscure writer for their PhD thesis just because nobody else has done it. But this is changing. Around the mid 1980s or early ‘90s, general readers ceased looking up to Western literature or the West in general and began to look more levelly at it, and they read contemporary American fiction just like they do contemporary Japanese fiction. Paul Auster, one of the authors I translate, is very much like Haruki Murakami to many young Japanese readers.

FB: Something that’s really interesting that’s emerged from our conversation is the idea of writing about the Other as translation, even if you do it in your own language: so Japanese writers writing about America for Japanese audiences, or Western writers writing about Japan for Western audiences.

MS: At Monkey Business, we don’t do it intentionally, but we are happy if what we do confuses Westerners’ idea of Japan. We don’t want to fall into any stereotypes and we don’t want to be anti-anything. But we sort of want to be hard to pin down.


* In this poem, there is a footnote explaining that when recounting the legend of Urashima Tarō, a fisherman who, like Rip Van Winkle, spends some time away and comes back to find centuries have gone by, Ishikawa twists the title by using a different character for ‘Ura’: instead of the usual one, which means seaside, she uses one that means ‘the other side.’


Photograph © Writers’ Centre Norwich

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