:: Article

Japanamerica: Fantasy, art & the real Japan

By Roland Kelts.


For several years, I have been trying to marry my two chief interests in Japan’s contemporary culture – its popular arts, represented by anime, manga, fashion and design, and its literary voices: fiction writers and poets whose visions of a surreal 21st century Japan use postmodern conceits with a preternatural calm, as if skies full of falling frogs (Haruki Murakami) and swimmers with suddenly detached limbs (Yoko Ogawa) were perfectly commonplace in today’s Nippon. In my book, Japanamerica, and in my lectures, I incorporate comments from Murakami and woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai alongside stories about Osamu Tezuka and Hayao Miyazaki, with splashes of Pokemon, Naruto and Hello Kitty. If I’m successful, the integration feels organic. If not, I feel like a hustler.

But this month, I had the good fortune to participate in an evening that gracefully wedded both. Amid a series of events in New York City to launch Monkey Business: New Voices from Japan, the first English-language edition of a Japanese literary magazine by University of Tokyo scholar and literary translator Motoyuki Shibata and York University scholar and translator Ted Goossen, I shared the stage with Shibata, American novelist Steve Erickson and Japanese novelist Hideo Furukawa to talk about storytelling. [Full disclosure: I am involved in the publication as a curator and contributing editor.] We focused on the visual elements of all narratives – fiction, manga, film, woodblock prints and scroll painting. Miraculously, it all made sense.

The English edition of Monkey Business contains a manga created by a sibling team of manga artists called the Brother and Sister Nishioka and based upon Franz Kafka‘s The Country Doctor.


It also includes Furukawa’s spastically apocalyptic short story, ‘Monsters’, in which the eponymous creatures have overtaken Tokyo’s most famous neighborhoods, Ginza and Shibuya, and express deep longing and exasperation about what the humans have left behind. And Furukawa’s conversation with Murakami is the centerpiece of a thrilling manuscript.

With all the news from Japan about ongoing aftershocks, the nuclear threat in Fukushima, and rising casualties in Tohoku, the opportunity to bring together manga, anime and literature in a peaceful setting was an inspiring gift.

I’ve been in the United States since the Tohoku quake and tsunami. I previewed Makoto Shinkai‘s new film, Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, a Dantesque Inferno-like narrative, at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, last month. I gave lectures in London and Eugene, Ore., spoke to audiences in Baltimore, and recorded new interviews for NPR with Shibata and Furukawa in New York City, via my new series, Pacific Rim Diary, on the Madeleine Brand Show in Los Angeles. The threads of my interest are interweaving many miles from Japan’s embattled shores.


The hunger for Japanese culture in the United States remains unabated, insatiable. Two weeks ago at the Japan Society in New York, the first question from the audience was directed at me. “Is anime misrepresenting Japan,” a young man asked, “by showing a hyper-futuristic Tokyo that doesn’t really exist?”

He was right, of course. Anime and manga present non-Japanese with impossible images of a stylized Japan that doesn’t, and could never, exist in reality.

But he was also wrong. The Japan represented by manga and anime artists is a truth – one among many – that is both as true to its source as it is a dream, a work of imagination. Are our imaginations limited by our realities? Let’s hope not.

I answered that the futuristic, fascinating Japan in manga and anime is as real as Hollywood movies are real, equal parts fantasy and desire, longing and projection. But I was undercut by my fellow panelist, Furukawa, who said: “If you read Tanizaki, Mishima and Kawabata, you will get an equally skewed view of Japan.”

Hear, hear. Long live fantasy – and art – gateway drugs for us all.

Roland Kelts is a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 24th, 2011.