Japan Now: Manchester, storytelling and literature as art form. 

The culture of Japan has long fascinated me, like many others. Though I’ve dabbled in Japanese literature, I can probably count the literature studied on two hands; strange for something I’ve found intriguing but not pursued.

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via Unsplash

“Join us for an evening in conversation with Takashi Hiraide and Kyoko Yoshida, two authors whose work exemplifies the genre-bending ambition of contemporary Japanese literature…The authors will discuss their writing and contemporary Japan before taking questions from the audience, followed by a book signing.”

Japan Now: Takashi Hiraide and Kyoko Yoshida was held earlier this week at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester. A slightly out-of-the-centre, intriguing location with the conflicting architecture expected from a converted 18th century mill; exposed red brick walls, chunky silver piping from floor to ceiling and glass frontage. A theme of red makes the place unique and draws you into its personable grasp. Not far from where my partner had his first painting studio, I’m familiar with it all from the outside, but inside, it’s cosier than I expected. The music is calming…soft lights and heavy red curtains remind me of the church hall in my home village and I feel as I would feel there; expectant of a show – not a big one, but one that would interest me. What we’re presented with is beautiful. A part-English, part-Japanese and part-interpreted study of literature, art and storytelling. A discussion of where the line between experimental and mainstream lies, and whether either is real or exclusive. 

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via Unsplash

Takashi and Kyoto both agree there’s a fluidity between mainstream and experimental, which is more so in Japanese literature and the use of the Japanese language.

The act of translation provokes philosophical musings such as querying how it feels to get outside of your own language to take an external view of your approach to the world; shaped by your knowledge of language. The authors question how difficult it is to express whatever it is you truly mean and how that could ever be accurately translated.

I wasn’t aware that many Japanese writers now write primarily in other languages. Both Takashi and Kyoko said that literature in Japan is changing a lot in this way. Kyoko, who writes mostly in English after studying in Wisconsin says there is a short answer and a long answer as to why she chooses this. After a delay of interpretation, we hear the short answer: “Because my Mum can’t understand it”. It raises snickers and laughter across the room as I’m sure a lot of writers feel this way, specifically when covering certain topics. Her long answer is, put simply, that it is more of a challenge. Kyoko is influenced by the new world and its creative writing and she enjoys the challenge of being able to improve her language and writing. She equates translation to solving puzzles and remarks how there is something often treacherous about playing with words you don’t understand, citing when she used to seek words by flicking through a dictionary until she found the right one. Because of this, though she works as a translator, she would never translate her own work but instead, looks forward to others doing this. Seeing new interpretations of your words must be illuminating.

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via Unsplash

There’s a huge difference in the make up of both languages. It’s revealed that the use of “I” isn’t necessary in Japanese. In fact, you could write a whole novel without mentioning I, she or he. To us, that would seem disorientating because these terms are essential to our understanding of text.

Takashi, who’s book ‘The Guest Cat’ has just been translated into English (after a delay of 15 years) equates his writing to an extension of poetry to prose. First, and foremost, he classes himself as a poet. For the last few years however, he calls himself a ‘book architect’ expanding the idea of his craft beyond words. He has been working on a project that he calls ‘post of art’ which is remarkable and inspiring. Writing books, he produces literature in limited runs (40 is the perfect number he says, so reaching the New York Times Best Seller List is somewhat disappointing, I presume), which he prints himself and mails to individuals who request to read the work. Takashi also designs the book cover as it is all a piece of art that he creates.

Reducing the print run keeps Takashi in direct connection with his readership. 40 is personal; he can imagine the people who receive his works. Limited prints are the best form of literature – why does it become mass produced and consumed, unlike more typical visual art? He brings all of our awareness to the ease in which we usually access literature and hence, why it’s often considered less as art and more as commodity.

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via Unsplash

Through the evening, and through the pause between Japanese answers and interpretation, the audience’s attention is brought to other things, including the slideshow of images that plays in cycle behind the speakers. A series of images that particularly capture my attention is that of a Japanese man and a very basic shack. As the night progresses, Takashi makes reference to it. The man in question is Chotaro Kawasaki, Takashi’s late mentor. He lived in this simple fisherman’s hut with no gas, electric or running water and kept illuminate only by candlelight. He often took visits to the closest town to speak with the prostitutes who lived there. Takashi tells us that unlike others writing about these girls, Chotaro wrote about them from the same level – he was not above them, he didn’t write about their lives, but he wrote about his life with theirs. Takashi learnt a lot about writing from this man and his simple home, and we’re reminded of the importance of mentors.

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Takashi (second left) and Kyoto (right)

Back to the thought of language disorientating us, Kyoto’s recent book is called ‘disorientalism’. There’s a pleasant duality in this term; the act of disassociation from the orient, and the lack of direction experienced with disorientation. Kyoto says when she was studying in the States, she was frustrated when people suggested her work seemed ‘oriental’. Takashi understands this too. Both seem to enjoy tripping people up on their expectations through their writing. When people expect haiku and ikebana, both try to avoid it. Takashi remarks that he enjoys poetry for it’s ability to disorientate; you can manipulate time and space in so many ways, and empower the poetry you are writing, through taking a different approach to daily life.

The evening sits at a beautiful crossroads of language and does more than excite me. I am now drawn to read more Japanese literature. I’m inspired to write and I’m inspired to see things differently. The barrier of language doesn’t invalidate the importance of expression – whilst we try and decode speech before it is interpreted for us, it’s a joy to try and understand through gestures, smiles and laughs alone.


All images except the last one, via Unsplash

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