:: Article

Cultural Appreciation as Sleep Deprivation

Andrew Stevens interviews Japanamerica author Roland Kelts.

3:AM: Japanamerica is published by Palgrave Macmillan in the UK, a publisher I’d more associate with academia than cultural criticism. But what do you consider as the best description for the book for those who’ve not read it?

RK: Japanamerica was written for those readers who are intelligent, curious and realistic about what we now call ‘hype’: readers who want to read good writing, and care less about the subject at the core of the writing — less about information, more about delivery.

Japanese pop culture has been showing up in Western markets with alarming frequency, and this summer you can sample the broad appeal with Spielberg’s Transformers, out in July, and the more specialized version via Tekkon Kinkreet, out the same month.

Palgrave asked me to write this book; I didn’t ask to write it. I agreed when I realized that there was nothing like it for intelligent readers. There are lots of books written by geeks for other geeks — masturbatory texts that reveal nothing to the general reader –and other books written by academics who want more status and money from universities.

But before Japanamerica, there was nothing to explain to the intelligent person — like Pete Townshend, who endorsed my book — why Japan has gone from dull to cool in the span of a decade.

As a narrative writer positioned in both cultures, I felt I was up to the task. And Palgrave, while academic, is giving the book room for a broader audience.

The best description of the book is a work that appeals to intelligent readers who care about our shared futures.


3:AM: It’s interesting that the proposal fell into your lap, as it were. As someone who’s written extensively on Japan beforehand, what do you make of the recent outsider accounts of Japan, given your own deeper appreciation?

RK: My mother is Japanese, and I have attended school in Japan as a child and lived here for a number of years as an adult. But many writers and artists who have visited Japan and have no ethnic connection to the culture have written with a deep appreciation of what Japan is and the character of its citizens.

I do think I am unusually empathetic — which may be closer to what you mean. There is a great deal of sloppy writing about Japanese culture, but that’s true of any culture. When a journalist writes that “the Chinese” are rejecting UN demands for this or that, it’s misleading. I’ve traveled extensively in China. As soon as you speak with someone thirty miles outside of Beijing, they tell you how much they despise government officials. Yet papers like the New York Times and The Times of London, not to mention CNN or the BBC, keep claiming that “the Chinese” think this or that based on what those officials have released to the press.

As I explore in my book, what you call ‘recent outsider accounts of Japan’ generally fall into two categories: Japanophilia or Japanophobia. The former exalt Japan into some kind of ‘very model of a modern major nation’, as if its people were as sleek and cool as their robots and anime/manga images. The latter hone in on sub-currents, like the group suicide phenomenon or hikikomori (pathologically withdrawn kids), as if they were indicative of endemic cultural illnesses.

The reality, as always, is both greyer and more colorful than all that. I take as my model Elias Canetti, whose masterwork, Crowds and Power, I always have with me, wherever I am. To paraphrase Canetti, ‘one should be absolutely dedicated to an interest in every nation — and devoted to none of them.’

I am ultimately a fiction writer. The truth of the dream of Japan is, to me, a universal narrative — which is why a writer like Haruki has such a global audience.


3:AM: It was the sloppiness I was referring to. Anyhow, before embarking on the book you wrote extensively for an American audience about love hotels and the like. Did you feel you had to play up to a certain pre-conceived image of Japan in that journalism and did you view yourself constrained by that?

RK: For a while, yes. But not with this book. I have a whole chapter that explains ‘hentai,’ and I wrote it honestly, without prejudice. Japan is no longer ‘foreign’ for Western readers. It is becoming real — and my book explains how that happened.

3:AM: True. What do you make of the opposite process — the Japanese resistance to Americanisation, such as the electoral rightists like [Tokyo Governor] Ishihara (author of The Japan That Can Say No!) and the militarists?

RK: To some extent, I think it’s a healthy sign of Japan’s shift away from American influence — which is partly a response to and acknowledgment of China’s rising regional and global power. I wish former PM Koizumi had been willing to resist the Bush administration’s strenuous efforts to get him to deploy Japanese troops in Iraq, for example. But then Japan fared well in that deal: a mere 50 troops, none of whom saw combat, and no casualties, while the Bush administration dropped US steel tariffs, causing unemployment figures to spike in the American Mid West.

Extreme nationalism is as ugly in Japan as it is elsewhere, of course, and it seems to be rising nearly everywhere at the moment.

A couple of comments come to mind, both uttered by Japanese friends who know far more than I do about these affairs. Motoyuki Shibata, the literary translator, author and scholar told me that Japan used to adopt the best of American ways — and is now adopting the worst, particularly America’s vast income gap. And Haruki Murakami was only half joking when he said that if Shintaro Ishihara became PM he would apply for a green card [visa status for US residency]. Haruki said that he and his friends used to joke about Ishihara’s aspirations until very recently.


3:AM: You mention [Foreign Minister] Aso’s cultural diplomacy in the book but to some extent he can also be viewed as a nationalist, almost hoping that Japan is something to be exported but there shouldn’t be any further interchange between it and the outside world, verging on hyper-defensive (the racialism, for instance).

RK: I attended a speech by Taro Aso here in Tokyo this past Monday at press conference about the Kennedy Center’s massive Japan! Culture + HyperCulture festival coming in February of 2008. I think he’s a complex figure, clearly proud of Japan’s creative output and eager to send (and sell) it overseas, but not really sure how to do it. I admit that I don’t know a lot about what you refer to as his ‘defensiveness’ and ‘racialism.’ But I do know that many Japanese creators of IP have been and continue to be burned financially when they try to export overseas. I trace many of the most dramatic stories in my book. That may partly explain his defensive pose.

3:AM: Do you think that post-Mishima, novelists in Japan tend to adopt left-leaning poses anyhow?

RK: That certainly seems to be the case, with Japanese novelists and academics alike opposing nationalist ideologies at home. The best example is probably Japan’s most recent Nobel laureate (and the only of its three postwar literary giants, with Kawabata and Mishima, who hasn’t committed suicide), Kenzaburo Oe, who has made Japanese liberalism his cause celebre and turned away, to some extent, from his role as a novelist. Haruki, on the other hand, has felt quite strongly that he is first and foremost a novelist. He prefers to leave the politicking to others, though he’s not afraid to make his positions clear in conversations and interviews.


Most of the younger generations of Japanese writers seem politically neutral — a fact which older authors and thinkers seem to find worrying, and somewhat baffling, given the state of our world.

3:AM: Japan’s ready cultural output is primarily comics and film, as your book acknowledges, though as a literary figure you have introduced that element also. What younger Japanese writers would you say deserve a western audience?

RK: I was able to introduce three of them, Kazushige Abe, Masaya Nakahara and Yoko Ogawa, last year in my “Focus: Japan” portfolio, which appears in the first issue of A Public Space (APS) — the only issue thus far to have completely sold out. There are too many others to mention here, but I’ll focus on a couple fresh on my mind: Otsu Ichii, who takes a slightly absurdist, manga-like approach to his sometimes comical narratives detailing horrific situations (and whose stories appear in both manga and so-called “light novel” format), and Ko Machida, another punk singer (like Nakahara) who writes fiction that employs his native Kansai dialect with large and brilliant doses of onomatopoeia — making his work difficult to translate into English, though I’m told someone is obsessively working on it now.

At APS, we are planning to introduce in issue 5 an excerpt from a novel by a very recent literary prize-winner–whose name I am forbidden to cite until the deal is sealed. A number of progressive publishers in Japan are hoping to export the ‘light novel’ concept–books that feature manga-like narratives and often include passages of manga, but are still constructed in prose — to Western markets, as they have proved a sales bonanza for the industry here.

3:AM: Of the US lit journals, APS seems to be, with you on board at least, the one that takes Japan most seriously. Why do you think such an otherwise prominent society has avoided the literary limelight for so long?


RK: I can think of a few reasons. One is that until quite recently, Westerners have shown very little interest in Japan’s contemporary cultural output. If it wasn’t related to advanced electronics or automobiles, Japan’s contemporary image was basically reduced to salarymen, sushi and suicide rates.

Another is that the Japanese publishing industry, like its anime and manga counterparts, made few and feeble efforts in the past to push their wares overseas — not bothering to study contracts, for example, and so often losing money, or not researching precisely which titles might appeal beyond the shores of the archipelago. Not all of them can or will, and it works both ways: Neither Don DeLillo nor Phillip Roth have found larger readerships in Japan.

Haruki Murakami blasted the door open. Just as I cite in Japanamerica a few key anime titles that served a Rosetta Stone-like function for Western audiences — helping them to decode distinctive cultural characteristics — Haruki’s rise to global prominence from the late 90s onward dramatically heightened Western interest in Japan’s contemporary lit.

The most progressive members in both industries are now scrambling to find the next Rosetta Stones, or at least trying to replicate such successes, and I don’t believe their efforts are futile. Something else has happened in recent years, as I describe in the book: “Younger generations of Japanese artists and writers have absorbed so much of the West’s cultural DNA that what they now produce can be just familiar enough to Westerners not to alienate them, but Japanese enough to feel fresh and stimulating.”

I think this is also driving the J-Horror film phenomenon. While I was touring in the US, I was happily dogged by posters and displays announcing upcoming appearances by Japanese mystery writer Natsuo Kirino. While Haruki’s early writing rather deliberately embraces the icons of Western culture he adored, younger generations do so without being conscious of it. Such icons embedded are in their cultural landscapes.


3:AM: How did Pete Townsend come to be associated with it?

RK: I met Pete almost exactly ten years ago in London. I was there to conduct an interview with him for a book to which I contributed and was later published as The Minstrel’s Dilemma. I expected the interview to last one or two hours at most; it lasted the entire day, from 10 a.m. until after 8 p.m. When Pete was on his way out the door, he asked me to send him my book when I finished.

Since then, we have remained in contact sporadically. When my publisher was mailing out galleys and review copies of Japanamerica, I contacted Pete’s very kind and resolutely efficient assistant, Nicola Joss, who urged me to mail one to Pete. We had a couple of brief meetings in New York, and right on schedule, Pete produced what amounted to a deeply thoughtful, probing and beautifully written paragraph about the book — far more than the standard industry blurb or endorsement.

That artists as different as Pete, Linkin Park’s Joe Hahn and The New Yorker magazine’s Roz Chast have all found Japanamerica edifying and entertaining — not to mention the diverse online and offline critics/reviewers in at least five countries — is part of what has made all the research, interviews, late nights and overseas calls well worth it.

Among a variety of projects, I’m now working on the updated epilogue for the English-language paperback edition, due this fall, and launching the Japanese edition with a variety of events in Tokyo and Osaka in June.


3:AM: So, do you have any new books planned?

RK: Two: One that I’m working on now is under contract to Kodansha exclusively for the Japanese market. To be clear: I will write in English, they will translate and deliver. We are targeting the end of the year for pub date, so I’m trying to write faster than I normally do.

The other will be coauthored with Leo Lewis, The Times of London Asia Correspondent who contributed greatly to Japanamerica, and will be for Palgrave Macmillan UK and worldwide. Leo is taking the lead on that one. Predictably, I’m not at liberty to discuss the contents yet, but both new books are at least tangentially related to the material in Japanamerica.

My principal task of the moment, though, is revising the manuscript of my novel, Access, for publication next year. I largely neglected that book during the crunch work for Japanamerica, and until very recently, I was paying for it. It took longer than expected to enter that dream world again with any real sense of intimacy with its inhabitants and dilemmas. I’m now there again, and I can’t afford another breakup.

I’m also reading like a maniac at the moment, and not only for A Public Space. I’ve gotten back to writing about novels, and have two novel reviews forthcoming in US publications. I am reading Haruki’s After Dark, freshly out in English, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, a couple of books on Japan by Frederik L. Schodt and Duncan Williams from UC Berkeley, that both authors handed to me during my San Francisco stop. And I am eagerly anticipating new books written by authors I interviewed for Japanamerica: Schodt’s forthcoming book on Osamu Tezuka, due in June; Patrick Macias’s just-published Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno; Susan Napier’s From Impressionism to Anime, due in the fall, and Matt Alt’s soon to be published, Hello, Please.

A few weeks ago, I introduced Roz Chast and her daughter to their favorite manga artist, Kiyohiko Azuma, in West Tokyo. Then I had lunch with Susan Napier, who was in town briefly to give a talk. On Monday this week, I met and had a great conversation with the great veteran manga artist, Leiji Matsumoto. Today I had coffee with American writer Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind.

Last year I served as story consultant for the BBC’s Japanorama series, hosted by Jonathan Ross, and this summer will do the same for America’s National Public Radio. My band, ALI-MO continues to field requests for gigs in and around Tokyo, so I haven’t stopped drumming. And I am looking forward to my UK events later next week, including appearances at the London MCM Expo next weekend.

At the moment, life is expansive. The only thing I don’t seem to do is… sleep.

Andrew Stevens is contributing editor to 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 18th, 2007.