Japan Now 2018 (or Slow Boat to Chinatown)

What follows is my original report on Japan Now 2018, written for the Japanese web magazine Kami no Tane and published there in translation.

japan now pic

Suzi Feay, Okada Toshiki, Bethan Jones, and Hoshino Tomoyuki in conversation.

Japan Now, a British festival celebrating contemporary Japanese literature and art, is now in its third year. Created by Martin Colthorpe, former event programmer at the Southbank Centre (Europe’s largest centre for the arts), the festival is centered around a single day-long event in London at the British Library but also includes a week of events across the nation, bringing guests into contact with audiences in places such as Sheffield, Manchester, Norwich, and Newcastle.

This year’s guests were Furukawa Hideo, Hoshino Tomoyuki, Okada Toshiki, Miyake Kyoko, Ninagawa Mika, and Nagai Mariko, as well as Richard Lloyd Parry of the Times newspaper and Suzannah Mooney, a Tokyo-based Irish artist. Guests spoke in sessions chaired by academics, authors and reviewers from the UK, asking questions about their work and the current state of Japan—conversations which sparked debates about politics, society, history, and the future of Japan.

Most guests have new works available in the UK, so all events include the ability for the audience to buy books and have them signed in person by the author or artist.

“That’s what’s really special about Japan Now to me,” said Patrick from Pages of Hackney, an independent bookstore in Clapton, East London. For the last three years, he has run the book stall at the main event at the British Library. “It gives the audience a chance not only to hear the authors speak, but also to buy their books and have them signed in person. There’s a real excitement, too, for the people who come to the event getting to see what a great range of books translated from Japanese are available. They’re willing to take a chance on something they might not have read otherwise because the author is so interesting to listen to.”

I’ve helped organize the festival for the last three years behind the scenes, and it is definitely thrilling to see authors connecting with an audience they didn’t know they had in the UK. Authors sometimes worry that their English isn’t good enough to talk to readers here, but we always provide interpretation if needed so that these personal connections can happen. And for readers in the UK, the ability to actually meet and speak to a Japanese author or artist whose work they love is so special because it is so rare. Their excitement at getting to tell someone from far away how much they love their work is obvious and infectious.

“I’ve been to Japan Now each year so far. The opportunity to hear from contemporary Japanese authors and learn more about areas of Japanese culture I may not be familiar with is what makes the festival so exciting,” said Hayley Scanlon, who attended the London event.

People in the United Kingdom are more excited than ever about Japanese literature, as British publishers are increasingly willing to take a chance on publishing the English translation of a contemporary Japanese novel. Breakaway successes such as Kawakami Hiromi’s Strange Weather in Tokyo (『センセイの鞄』translated by Alison Markin Powell), Nakamura Fuminori’s The Thief (『掏摸』translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates), Shimada Soji’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (『占星術殺人事件』translated by Ross and Shika Mackenzie) and Hiraide Takashi’s The Guest Cat (『猫の客』translated by Eric Selland) have built a new wave of interest in Japanese literature of all genres, and the appearances at Japan Now by all four of those authors were greeted with intense interest from readers and the media.

Each year, guests have been invited to appear in conversation on BBC Radio 3, introducing them and their books to an even wider audience. Additionally, their British publishers will often arrange interviews or additional events for guests in order to promote their books while they are in the UK. There is a strong culture of readings and book events in the UK, and publishers and readers expect writers from around the world to take part. In many cases, it’s also the first time the author has got the chance to meet their British publisher and translator.

After a Friday night opening party at Foyles attended by all guests and everyone involved in the festival—from organizers to sponsors such as the Japan Foundation—most authors went off to explore the nearby Chinatown and pubs.

The main event at the British Library was well-attended—the highest number of audience members since Japan Now began. There was a sense of excitement and nervousness in the green room before the day began, as guests and panel chairs huddled together to discuss how to structure their sessions. One of the guiding principles of Japan Now is the concept of putting people who might not otherwise talk to each other—authors, journalists and artists, for example—together to create conversations across artforms and genres.

The first session featured artist Suzanne Mooney, journalist and author Richard Lloyd Parry and filmmaker Kyoko Miyake, discussing 3.11 and their roles as outsiders whose work involves Japan. Lloyd Parry, the Times’ correspondent in Japan, has recently written a book called Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone (『津波の霊たちーー3・11 死と生の物語濱野 大道 (翻訳)) focusing on the people he met in Fukushima after the disaster, and Miyake, who lives in London, traveled back to Japan to make a documentary (『波のむこう』) about her family in Namie, Fukushima. Both Lloyd Parry and Mooney spoke of the freedom that being a foreigner in Japan gives them in their work compared to Japanese artists and journalists, while Miyake described the way that living abroad gives her a similar freedom to escape social expectations both in Britain and Japan.

In the second session, Hoshino Tomoyuki and Okada Toshiki discussed those same social expectations and questions of identity affecting young people not just in Japan but around the world. Okada’s work with Chelfitsch has found audiences globally, and now his novel The End of the Moment We Had (『わたしたちに許された特別な時間の終わり』, translated by Sam Malissa) has appeared in English, bringing its story of two young people holed up in a love hotel as the War in Iraq begins to a new audience. Hoshino and Okada’s conversation touched on social media and how it is an online extension of the everyday, as well as how to live in a society that sees public expression of real emotions as an imposition on others. Both emphasized the need for people, especially young people, to remember that they are not replaceable parts of society but individuals who deserve the freedom to express themselves.

Then, it was time for lunch. In the green room where we all gathered for sandwiches and coffee, guests were carrying on conversations from the earlier sessions, finding new strands of thought as they discussed each other’s work and opinions. In this moment, it was wonderful to stand back and watch this group of talented people being excited by each other’s ideas. This is, to me, another one of the things that makes Japan Now so special to be a part of: we are not simply bringing Japanese creatives to Britain, we are also bringing them together, full stop. We don’t know what friendships or collaborations may emerge from bringing authors and visual artists together in a foreign country, but it creates a distinct energy.

In the first of the afternoon sessions, Furukawa Hideo and Nagai Mariko read from their Fukushima-related works, Horses, Horses in the End the Light Remains Pure (「馬たちよ、それでも光は無垢で」translated by Doug Slaymaker) and Irradiated Cities, before discussing the main question that had interested them in the morning’s sessions: who has the right to speak? Both rejected the idea of letting disasters and tragedies settle into comfortably defined clichés—both Furukawa and Nagai’s works involve the mixing of genres (fiction with nonfiction, prose with photography), and both agreed that this technique allows them to break through conventional expectations and evoke a renewed emotional response to tragedy. The danger, Furukawa said, is that after you wake up to a tragedy, you may fall back asleep. Activism and art are, he suggested, two ways to stay awake.

Finally, Ninagawa Mika took the stage, in conversation with Simon Baker, senior curator of photography at Tate Modern, to discuss her photographic and filmmaking careers and the development of her aesthetic. Ninagawa was quick to pay homage to her father and describe him as a major influence on her work—not visually as some might assume, but in how he modeled for her the value of working hard. As a slideshow of photographs hand-chosen by Ninagawa played, she walked the audience through a miniature retrospective of her career, including the ambivalence she felt over being labeled as part of a mid-90s wave of female photographers (「女子写真家」) when she saw few commonalities between her work and other young women’s.

The day was now done, and out in the lobby the audience were talking excitedly and buying the last few books on the table. After a short break, guests and organizers headed off for a well-deserved celebration at a nearby Indian restaurant. Over delicious curry and drinks, everyone chatted happily about the event and about daily life, making plans to meet up in Tokyo perhaps.

The next day, guests were off to various parts of the country for events, escorted by organizers to make sure everything went smoothly. This year, for the first time, Japan Now included a week-long series of events in Sheffield in the north of England, organized by the University of Sheffield. Sheffield is a vibrant city with its own strong artistic culture, and people like Mark Pendleton, a lecturer in Japanese Studies there, are very serious about bringing international artists and authors there for events. Even as university staff across the United Kingdom were on strike, the Japan Now North team remained dedicated to making sure that this exciting series of events, screenings and exhibitions were a success.

A few days later, I accompanied Furukawa Hideo and Hoshino Tomoyuki to Newcastle for an event there as a massive snowstorm gripped the United Kingdom. We slipped and slided our way from the hotel to the University of Newcastle, pausing along the way to look at St James Park (Newcastle United FC’s stadium) and to marvel at a quaint street of 18th century houses draped in fresh snow. “It’s like walking in a painting,” said Hoshino, meaning not only the beauty of the scene but also the sense of dislocation brought on by travelling around Britain, a place he had only briefly visited before.

The weather did not keep the people of Newcastle from showing up that evening, though.  In a lecture hall at the university, Furukawa and Hoshino spoke about their two most recent books to appear in English—Slow Boat (『中国行きのスロウ・ボートRMX』 translated by David Boyd) and ME: A Novel (『俺俺』 translated by Charles De Wolf). Both gave readings from the original, accompanied by readings from the translations given by interpreter Bethan Jones.

Furukawa’s theatrical reading style, unusual in Japan, proved to be spellbinding in Britain, too, even across the language barrier. “Literature is best when it’s performed from the author’s body,” said James Proctor from PM Press, who attended the event. Again and again, people in the audience told me that simply getting to see and hear authors read was their favourite part of these events.

One of the most interesting parts of the discussion was in response to a question about translation. The title of Hoshino’s book, 『俺俺』(“Ore, ore”), cannot be fully translated into English, because English does not have first-person gendered pronouns. Hoshino and Furukawa described to the audience the full possibilities of characterization available to them in Japanese just by the simple choice of which pronoun the character uses. Furukawa said that he had not thought much about the problem before, but that he now realized that the problem of choices of first-person pronouns represented something about the complexity of identity in Japanese society. Hoshino smiled and said that he could not have described the premise of his own book better.

Afterwards, we joined the audience for a glass of wine. Again, I was struck by what a magical thing it is to bring authors from Japan to a place in Britain to meet people who have read and loved their books. Audience members did not seem to want to leave, in order to avoid breaking the spell.

Outside, the snow had gotten deeper and the cab we had ordered did not arrive because of the weather. Slowly, we made our way toward a restaurant in Chinatown on the fifth floor, where we watched the snow come down as we shared Peking duck and dumplings. Later, walking back to the hotel, we paused by an ancient city wall and talked about the day, the odd quality of the snow, and the strangeness of thinking about Japan’s North-East while in England’s North-East.

Though both Furukawa and Hoshino had one more event each, those events would be solo and in different cities—meaning this was the last time each would see anyone else who had been brought over for Japan Now. Although their styles of writing are very different, it was clear that both held the other in high esteem and had forged a connection over the previous few days.

The next day, as we all bowed to each other in the hotel lobby before trooping off through the slushy snow to the train station, I thought again about what a remarkable thing it was to bring Japanese authors and artists to Britain—not just for the audience members who were thrilled to see them speak, but also for the authors, given a chance to step outside of their usual worlds and come together, across genres and artforms, to speak. The magic spell has still not broken.

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