“On Writing Japan” – ASIAN CHA Issue 36 Editorial

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James Shea and Kyoko Yoshida, guest editors of the “Writing Japan” Issue of Cha. James and Kyoko read and selected all the poetry, prose and photography & art submissions in the edition with Cha editors Tammy Ho and Jeff Zroback.

One of the pleasures of putting together this issue was seeing the rich interpretation of our theme. “Writing Japan” is not simply a matter of a Japanese writer in Japan writing in Japanese for a Japanese audience. Its scope is much more complex, as evidenced by the writers we’ve included. Nori Nakagami, for example, was born in Japan, but attended high school and university in the United States. Her short story “The Phone Call” (translated by Kendall Heitzman) opens with an international call, illustrating the cross-cultural experiences that lie at the heart of her work. Japanese poets Goro Takano and Yoko Danno live in Japan, but write in English. The Japanese curator Naoko Mabon lives in Scotland, and this is her first experience writing an essay in English. We also feature writers with momentary connections to Japan, such as Joshua Marie Wilkinson, whose poem “After Reading Gozo Yoshimasu” responds to Yoshimasu’s recent visit to the U.S.

Given the current rise of nativism around the world, this assembly of writers is a timely reminder that the identities of artists who are “Writing Japan” are not fixed. This issue also recalls the spheres and borders that languages can create. Writers and artists tend to represent Japan in an opaque manner, due partly to the Western gaze which can mystify Japanese culture, but similarly, because Japanese culture often prides itself as being mysterious to outsiders. This kind of exoticism is present on both sides, amplifying itself in a self-reinforcing cycle. It may explain the various forms of critical distance from Japan that we observed in our selections. Some writers employed a meta-narrative, and it struck us that this layering might relate to an anxiety about saying anything definitive about the Japanese experience, so as to resist claims about the “real” Japan and to avoid the pitfalls of exoticised clichés. Rather than present a narrator who declares with authority something about Japan, these stories use a framing device, such as in Blair Reeve’s “Haniwa Part II,” which is told in Borgesian fashion with a narrator recounting a scholar’s “translation” of a tale of a Japanese artist. Takano’s “An Andalusian Cat” is another example of this distancing effect, as when he writes: “The following broken query (in my native language Japanese, mind you) slowly swept me away …”

Distancing also operates literally as an attempt to reach beyond Tokyo, which most of us imagine as the centre of Japanese literary culture. Many of our writers focus on the provinces, such as the poet Genzō Sarashina who settled in Hokkaido; Mei Chiam who writes of her experiences in “The Dollmaker and Her Village Dolls” in Nagoro in Tokushima; Gregory Dunne, a poet who lives on the southern island of Kyushu and Chan Lai-kuen (a.k.a. Dead Cat), a writer in Hong Kong who self-translated passages from Chinese of her short essays on Kyoto. Both translation and self-translation entail a critical distance, in the sense that the translator doesn’t speak directly. Rather, her speech is delayed or displaced in deference to the author, as in the case of Mariko Nagai‘s translation of “December X,” an excerpt from Fumiko Hayashi’s 1930 autobiographical novel Hōrōki. Another kind of distance derives from the notion of the writer as outsider, and in some works this alienated point of view is foregrounded, such as in the cases of Nori Nakagami, whose parentage has always been contentious; Trane DeVore, an American who teaches at Osaka University and Naoko Mabon, who, based in Scotland, explores the notion of so-called “Japaneseness” in her work.

The touchstone for our issue was Mabon’s exhibition “Leaves Without Routes,” which we saw, independently of each other, but on the same Christmas Day in Taipei last year. We both enjoyed Mabon’s questioning of identity, and we shared the same highlight: a 1704 book by Frenchman George Psalmanazar in which he falsely claims to have been the first Taiwanese person to visit Europe. His writing is full of fanciful and false descriptions, such as the following note on Taiwanese plants:

There are two roots of which they make bread, whereof one is called Chitok and the other Magnok: both these roots are sown like rapeseed, and when they are grown ripe they are as big as a man’s thigh. These roots grow twice, and sometimes thrice a year, when it is a good season …

As Mabon notes, the information is false, and yet, “deeply serious”: “Each lie is tightly knitted without any loose ends, a remarkable creation with precision quality.”

Reading Loren Goodman’s poem “Japan Facts” recalled Psalmanazar’s hoax, illustrating how the desire to grasp the unknown can lead to inventiveness and an implicit critique of our desire to understand and, in a sense, to contain. This kind of play is also explored in Mei Chiam’s essay on Nagoro, a rural village of thirty people living side-by-side with over three hundred hand-sewn “dolls.” In the same exhibition in Taipei, we saw “A Lecture of Jun Yang” (2011) by Yuki Okumura, which is a video recording of a Chinese artist named Jun Yang, edited so that instead of showing the artist himself lecturing in his own voice to a group of young Japanese artists, it focuses squarely on his Japanese female interpreter, thereby erasing the artist’s presence altogether. As her strange voice navigates between first and third person, her gaze and body language reveal that she is not speaking for herself. This remarkable work underscores the complicated role of the act of translation in relation to a stable identity.

Japanese literature has always been a hybrid project and product—from the influence of Chinese poetry on classical Japanese literature to the ways in which translating American fiction has informed Haruki Murakami’s writing style. Although Japan may present itself as monolingual and monocultural, this portrayal is an illusion that belies the truth of fluidity and hybridity. Perhaps our most politically charged piece, Alfred Birnbaum’s “Fukushi (that’s Fukushima minus alternatives)” resembles Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” in the way it depicts an imaginary Japanese government that quantifies the value of each citizen, inviting low-scoring citizens to clean-up radioactive areas. The story is highly critical of the government’s irresponsibility in the aftermath of the disasters of March 11, 2011. A resident of Tokyo for decades, Birnbaum regards the responses to the Tohoku earthquake as an acceleration of Japan’s jingoistic turn. In a time of crisis, foreigners and writers alike can become canaries. They can give an early warning of the erosion of tolerance, for instance, in a country that otherwise may be late to recognise it. International writers in Japan can also draw attention to what may be underappreciated, such as the rich and various poetry scenes in Tokyo celebrated in Jordan Y. A. Smith’s essay, “Of Phenomeno/graphy of Poetry of Tokyo.” Smith may have even created a new category of writer: the performance essayist. Fuelled by lively wordplay and enthusiasm, his informed, pyrotechnic essay feels like a frenetic event in itself, charged with language that mirrors the speed and simultaneity of Tokyo poetry.

If “literature is society thinking,” as novelist Marilynne Robinson once put it, then we hope this issue goes some way toward complicating the growing and worrying narrative in Japan about the uniform nature of Japanese culture. The next time we think of “Writing Japan,” we may imagine, like the writers in these pages, something greater than what we may at first assume to be true. 

James Shea & Kyoko Yoshida / Guest Editors
Cha‘s “Writing Japan”
25 June 2017

Note: This introduction presents all Japanese names with the family name last, but in the published work, some author’s names may appear with the family name first, following the Japanese practice.



One thought on ““On Writing Japan” – ASIAN CHA Issue 36 Editorial

  1. Pingback: cha | troutfactory notebook

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