Japan Now


Japan Now
British Library,
27 February 2016

Review by Jenny White

A review of the Japan Now conference organised by Modern Culture with support from the Japan Foundation, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the British Library and the Arts Council on Saturday 27 February 2016.

I came to Japan Now with a sense of curiosity and high expectations, and also a little misgiving: how was it possible that today’s Japanese society could be reflected in a day of ‘contemporary writing, politics and culture’? I was soon to find out…

On this same cloudy day in London, as Britain’s biggest anti-nuclear march in a generation was taking place in Trafalgar Square, NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, was reporting the country’s latest census figures – a decline in population of nearly one million in the past five years, attributed to a falling birth rate and lack of immigration. Significantly, if not surprisingly, the largest drop, of 115,000 people, was in Fukushima, site of the nuclear power station, hit especially badly by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. While Asian news sources gave plans to reopen the Takahama Nuclear Plant in Japan’s Fukui Prefecture prominence, British news was full of reports on Brexit, and in Japan the headlines were of the Tokyo Marathon.

Japan Now opened with consummate scene setting in ‘State of the Nation’, an all-star panel with writer Ian Buruma, journalist Richard Lloyd Parry, and Professor Shimazu Naoko, nimbly chaired by the insightful Christopher Harding who pulled together conflicting view points and provocative audience questions. Shimazu whizzed us through a ‘History of post-war Japan in 10 minutes’, citing Ozu Yasujiro’s 1953 film Tokyo Story as epitomising the tensions placed on the family unit, through two decades of growth in the 1960s and 70s, to posit the significance of signposts such as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1970 World expo as triggers for a reassessment of Japan’s position on the world stage. Shimazu reminded us that criticism of the World Expo focused on the overshadowing of other significant events that year such as the US-Japan Security Treaty, and the ‘mobilisation’ of art and artists to serve the nation, a point that could be re-examined in the run-up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020.

Lloyd Parry, one of the first foreign journalists to visit the earthquake area in Tohoku in 2011 noted the survivors’ resilience, courage, generosity and decency – ‘the best of Japan’. This was also a ‘signpost’, he said, ‘that would seem to point to a way out of the post-bubble era funk of the last 20 years’. These were, he told us, the same qualities that had led to a disengaging of grassroots sentiment and mainstream politics, such self-reliance leading to resignation and low expectations of a broader political system. Harding closed by asking whether the Japanese media was doing enough both to mediate between grassroots and politics as well as to challenge political power.

As the discussion progressed, nationalism versus patriotism in both Britain and Japan emerged as a core theme, in particular with regard to their relationship to sense of self. Buruma suggested that pacifism, as drafted in Article 9 in the Constitution, banning the use of armed force, had polarised history as something imposed from the outside; essentially, the new capitalist system – by which the economy depoliticized the emerging middle class so that they could make profits – failed during time of recession.

Such was the picture as we went into the first writer session, ‘Japan in Fiction (i)’, contrasting surrealist writer Yoshida Kyoko and her book Disorientalism (Vagabond Press), with Hiraide Takashi, poet and writer of best seller The Guest Cat (New Directions), brilliantly chaired by experienced writer and Journalist Suzy Feay. Hiraide explained that the ‘I-novel’, a Japanese term defined as writing only from one’s direct experience with no invention, might lead to a writer deliberately seeking out more interesting – and possibly dangerous – experiences. Despite the challenges an ‘I-novel’ poses to translation (the word ‘I’ in Japanese can be neutral) The Guest Cat is now published in 10 languages. Yoshida’s Disorientalism is yet to be translated into Japanese.

In this session, the writers discovered that they both came from the southern island of Kyūshū, and discussion focussed on the significance on their writing of living and working ‘elsewhere’, Yoshida now in Kyoto and Hiraide in Tokyo. Hiraide explained talked in terms of wanting to find ‘his own battlefield’, away from his birthplace.

After lunch we entered the dark side in ‘Japan in Fiction (ii)’, with two quite different crime writers, Nakamura Fuminori and Shimada Soji, chaired by writer Lesley Downer. We heard the cadences of contrasting styles as the writers read extracts from their books, our partial understanding confirmed by interpreter Bethan Jones. Nakamura’s The Gun and The Thief (both Soho Press) dwelt in the internal landscape of ‘what if?’ Bestselling crime writer Shimada’s seductive mellifluous tones, meanwhile, were clearly designed for audio books; I could have listened entirely in Japanese, which is indeed a compelling option, as only one of his hundred books, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (also reviewed in Issue 62) has been translated into English. Shimada took the opportunity to challenge us to make an English film version!

The final audience question was in some ways the most insightful, advancing a comparison with recent popular Scandinavian crime dramas, yet suggesting that what was not present in this Japanese genre was political intrigue on a larger scale. These instead display an intense and detailed focus on personal politics rather than an amorphous and broader political context. I found this a key point in accounting for the success of this genre in Japan.

By the end of the day, we were truly rewarded with a richly honest and profound account by artist photographer Hatakeyama Naoya, who had suffered family tragedy when his home town of Rikuzentakata was thrust into the spotlight as the epicentre of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Hatakeyama added ‘personal’ to the title of this session (‘Surveying the (personal) Landscape’) to highlight the way in which the tragedy had caused him to reconsider the objectivity of his work as a photographer. Hatakeyama gave an example of how this had affected a debate with curators on which of his works should be included in his exhibition Natural Stories at the Tokyo Museum of Photography. A discussion chaired by curator Simon Baker further explored notions of personal and social and the fluctuating boundaries in between.

Japan Now was a unique and balanced introduction to today’s Japan as reflected in literature and art. The writers, Hiraide, Yoshida, Nakamura and Shimada, who went on to make appearances in Bath, Manchester and Leeds were, with the panel chairs, well chosen to reflect disparate genres. Bethan Jones’ elegant interpretation reiterated its importance as integral to communicating ideas and in adapting to the flow of the event. I came away thinking that notions of patriotism, nationalism and self-identity were, more than ever, complex themes to be unravelled. I wondered why so little outside Murakami had been translated into English; where does the initiative come from for this to happen? From a Japanese literary agent to champion a writer as representative of the Japanese zeitgeist? Or is it events such as Japan Now in the UK that can drive interest at a grass roots level, presenting a colour-enhanced picture of a multi-faceted Japan with complex problems, parallel realities, and anxieties similar to our own?

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