Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Why Japan's lit and culture are so vibrant today

Times Literary Supplement: Japanese questions of the soul

At public readings, either in Japanese or English, the novelist Hideo Furukawa performs like a banshee. He voices his characters’ personae, tenor shifting from stentorian to hushed, growling, trilling, book held aloft in his quivering left hand. His compact frame rocks to and fro, slowly enlarging before your eyes as he rises on his toes and raises his arm into a broad arc, snug hipster beanie barely holding his cranium in place.

I have watched Furukawa read several times, in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Tokyo, and each time I have been unable to look away. At first I worried that his histrionics might be overkill. But then I re-read his prose. He writes like a banshee, too, forcing words into action, squeezing them for meaning, studding his lines with coinages such as “scootscootscoot” and “creekeek” when the words just can’t take it anymore.

At fifty-one, Furukawa is among the generation of Japanese writers I’ll call “A. M.”, for “After Murakami”. Haruki Murakami is Japan’s most internationally renowned living author. His work has been translated into over fifty languages, his books sell in the millions, and there is annual speculation about his winning the Nobel Prize. Over four decades, he has become one of the most famous living Japanese people on the planet. It’s impossible to overestimate the depth of his influence on contemporary Japanese literature and culture, but it is possible to characterize it.


Thursday, May 31, 2018

Me and my Monkey: my story behind Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan

via GLLI

Editor’s note: Forget the old saw that English language readers won’t read literature in translation. For the last seven years, Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan has been publishing an annual journal of what it calls “the best of contemporary Japanese literature” in English. The paperback editions of the first three issues were completely sold out. This year, though, for reasons the editors call “both professional and personal,” it will not be releasing a new edition. Monkey Business will return with issue no. 8 in 2019 but the digital and most paperback editions of issues 1-7 are available for purchase at its online store. I asked Roland Kelts, who has been involved with the journal since its founding, to tell us about Monkey Business and his connection to Japanese literature in translation.  

Eight years ago I had the good fortune of being asked to do a favor. Professors Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goossen, esteemed literary translators, invited me to dinner in Tokyo and asked if I could help find a North American partner for their venture: an annual English-language journal of Japanese literature.

Back in New York City, my home in America, I called Brigid Hughes, founding editor of A Public Space. (Brigid had commissioned me and Shibata to assemble a portfolio on Japanese fiction for her first issue.) We had lunch in Soho, Brigid said yes, and off we went.

Our partnership has since produced seven issues of Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan (MBI). They contain stories, poems, photo essays and manga by talents internationally renowned (Yoko Ogawa, Haruki Murakami), fast rising (Hideo Furukawa, Mieko Kawakami), and those we’ll be seeing more of (Tomoka Shibasaki, Aoko Matsuda). Each issue is unpredictable and spiked with gems – what author Junot Diaz calls “an astonishment.”

In my role as MBI advisor, contributing editor and occasional road manager, the experience has been equal parts astonishment and education.

When I first read literature in translation (Dostoevsky, Kafka), the alchemy was transparent to me. I’m embarrassed to admit that as a teenager, I didn’t even know the prose had been translated, or at least I didn’t care. I just knew that the writers’ names sounded strange and cool. It felt like they were writing directly to me.

At Oberlin, poet and translator David Young taught me to think about the sound and shape of language beyond its content, which in turn made me think of its origin – not only in thought, but also in culture, place, and time. I remember learning that Ezra Pound claimed he could understand Chinese ideograms without formal study and thinking … wha?

Context is everything, and also, like a Zen koan, nothing.

After I moved to Japan and met Haruki Murakami, I asked him several questions about translation. He likened the process to living inside an author’s mind. Of J.D. Salinger’s mind, he once said while translating The Catcher in The Rye: “It’s very dark in there. That novel (Catcher) is a battle between the open world and the closed. That’s the tension. And in the end, its author chose the closed world.”

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Is manga dying in Japan?

Will digital piracy ruin the future of manga?

Chigusa Ogino (photo: Toru Takeda)

Author and manga translator Frederik L. Schodt once pointed out to me that many of Japan’s cultural products are embraced abroad just as they are declining at home. Ukiyo-e prints became the rage in Europe in the late 19th century, nearly 100 years after they’d peaked in Edo and Kyoto. Sake sales have been climbing steadily in overseas markets, with the value of exports doubling over the past five years and hitting a record in 2017, as they continue a decades-long slide in Japan. And now: manga?

According to a survey by the Research Institute for Publications, domestic manga sales were flat last year, but the big reveal in the numbers was that digital outsold physical for the first time, rising 17.2 percent while print slipped 14.4 percent. Weekly manga magazines saw the steepest drop in sales, to below a third of what they were in 1995. A lot of digital manga content is cheap or costs nothing at all, with some of the larger, more-established apps, like messaging service Line, offering free titles to entice readers to make in-app purchases.

The North American market for manga peaked in the mid-2000s, when it breached the $200 million threshold (one-fifth of the $1 billion global market), according to Chigusa Ogino, director at Tuttle-Mori Agency, Inc., Japan’s largest and oldest literary agency. But in 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (known in Japan as “Lehman shock”) and the resulting financial crisis, followed a few years later by the bankruptcy of the American bookstore chain, Borders, dealt severe blows to the industry.

“A lot of publishers left the market,” Ogino says. “We saw the bottom.”


Thursday, May 24, 2018

Keynote gig, Los Angeles, July 2018

Writer, scholar, editor and cultural critic Roland Kelts is the author of the critically acclaimed and bestselling book, JAPANAMERICA: HOW JAPANESE POP CULTURE HAS INVADED THE U.S. His writing is published in the US, Europe and Japan in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, The Japan Times and many others.

He contributes commentary on Japan to CNN, the BBC, NPR and Japan’s NHK, and gives talks at venues worldwide, including The World Economic Forum, TED Talks, Harvard University, the University of California, the University of Tokyo, the Singapore Writers Festival and several anime conventions across the United States. He has interviewed several notable Japanese artists, including Hayao Miyazaki and Haruki Murakami, and is considered an authority on Japanese culture and media.

Kelts has won a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Award in Writing at Columbia University and a Nieman Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard. He is currently a visiting lecturer at Waseda University and is finishing two books, a novel and a new version of JAPANAMERICA.
He divides his time between Tokyo and New York City.

Monday, April 23, 2018


Japan’s pop culture and literature drive soft power

Anime, manga and Haruki Murakami may form an unlikely trinity, but outside of Japan they’re responsible for filling Japanese Studies departments and sprawling convention halls with generations of the devoted. They’re at the core of Japan’s global allure, the center of its soft power, and last month I was immersed in all three in the span of two weeks in two countries: the United Kingdom and the United States.

In Japan they’ve been around for decades, yet they continue to draw younger audiences abroad.

It was 40 years ago that Murakami decided he could write a novel after watching an American baseball player hit a double for the Yakult Swallows, his favorite Japanese team. That novel, 1979’s “Hear the Wind Sing,” won Japan’s Gunzo Prize for New Writers and launched the literary career of a rarity: a bona-fide international best-selling writer who is now short-listed annually for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Twenty years ago, I met Murakami for the first time. Our one-hour interview at his Tokyo office spilled into three hours of free-form conversation that touched upon rare jazz recordings, Japanese youth culture, American individualism — and that epiphanic baseball game.


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Hie in Ho Chi Minh (personal essay on a visit to Vietnam)

When Roland Kelts was commissioned by a travel magazine to write about Vietnam, he was drawn to the vestiges of its war with the United States. But he was seduced by a man on a motorbike.

James Salter wrote that there were people we were born to talk to, and like so many of them in my memory, Hie was just there, short, squat and round-faced, a smooth-skinned twenty-something slowing down next to me as I walked. I answered his questions tersely, hoping he'd leave, but he stayed with me, turning the engine off and pushing his bike alongside: You live in Japan, ah. Oh, you're from New York. I want to go there. How can I go there?

At the hotel I asked about Hie. Mr. Lai squinted through the lobby window. "He's okay," he said.

For the next 13 days, Hie took me everywhere he thought I should go. He showed me how to slouch into the sunken nook of his vinyl bike seat and drape my arms across his belly and squeeze hard enough not to fall off, but not too hard. He took me to a smoke shop where an elderly couple at the counter handed me top value in dong for my dollars and yen and a free pack of clove cigarettes. I folded the bills into my right sock and a Ziploc bag I wedged between shirt and belt above my crotch because Hie told me to. "The thief will cut your fanny pack or back pocket with a small sharp knife." I soon trusted everything he said. (As I write this, I don't know why.)

Hie showed me how to cross the streets, none of which had traffic lights or signs. Look straight ahead, like this, he said, eyes comically wide. Don't look at drivers. If they know you see them, they keep going.

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

After disaster: my personal essay 7 years after Japan's tsunami ("Ghosts of the Tsunami")

After Disaster: Embracing a Living Past through “Ghosts of the Tsunami” (Words Without Borders)

I flew out of Tokyo two days before March 11. There was a mild tremor as I packed, causing the overhead lamp in my kitchen to sway. I crouched over my suitcase, arms extended in my usual high-alert stance, but the earth soon resettled and I went back to folding my socks. Mild side-to-side rocking and the occasional vertical jolt are standard stuff in Japan, the most earthquake prone country in the world.

During the days of the disaster and its immediate aftermath, I was in Oregon and California, giving university lectures and an NPR interview about, of all things, Japan’s obsession with apocalypse in its art and popular culture. I would not have remembered that tremor on the ninth had it not been for what happened on the eleventh.


Friday, March 02, 2018

Meet the man behind the anime at Netflix

Netflix is animated about anime

Roland Kelts

Taito Okiura

Netflix’s director of anime, Taito Okiura, tells me he feels like a local baseball player who got drafted into the U.S. Major Leagues. Except, he doesn’t play the sport.

A producer and entrepreneur with over a decade of experience in the industry, Okiura was offered the job twice by Netflix before joining last October. He was unavailable three years ago when first tapped by the company to help open its Japan branch. In 2016, he took a conference call with the talent acquisitions department from corporate headquarters in Los Angeles.

“I told them I wasn’t sure how serious Netflix really is about anime. Then I hung up the phone,” he says.


But Netflix knew how passionate Okiura was about anime. In 2007, he was a key producer on the then-groundbreaking transcultural project, “Afro Samurai,” written and illustrated by Takashi Okazaki, animated by Japanese artists, voiced by American actor Samuel L. Jackson and scored by rapper RZA. Later that year he co-founded David Production Inc. (“JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure”), which he sold to Fuji Television in 2014.

Last summer, when Okiura learned that Netflix was again seeking a director for its anime operations, he took the initiative. “This time it was up to me,” he says in his airy Omotesando office. “I really applied myself. The timing was right, and I didn’t want anyone else to have this job.”

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Monday, February 12, 2018

Thank you, Columbia University Alumni Japan

My generous thanks to Hajime Kosai, my fellow Japan alum from Columbia University, and a brilliant audience at Aux Bacchanales in Tokyo. Hope to see you in the UK & US next month.

(photos: Hajime Kosasi)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Foreign anime artists launch studio in Japan

Arthell Isom and Henry Thurlow of D'Art Shtajio (Ben Gonzales)

In an interview with Buzzfeed two years ago, American animator Henry Thurlow, who had moved to Tokyo from New York six years earlier, summed up his dilemma. “When I was working as an animator in New York, I could afford an apartment, buy stuff and had time to ‘live a life,'” he said. “Now (in Japan) everything about my life is utterly horrible, (but) the artist in me is completely satisfied.”

Indigo Ignited (D'Art Shtajio)

He’s still here. I tracked Thurlow down in a quiet corner of Nishi-Shinjuku, where he is now in what he calls “the inevitable next iteration” of his journey through the anime industry: his own studio.

Friday, January 19, 2018

My review of GHOSTS OF THE TSUNAMI for The Monitor

Author Richard Lloyd Parry

I started reading Ghosts of the Tsunami half-expecting to be bored. Not because of its author, Richard Lloyd Parry, the Asia editor and Tokyo bureau chief for the Times of London, who over the course of three books has proven himself an excellent reporter and writer. But as a fellow expat and journalist in Japan, I have already seen so many stories and documentaries about its subject – Japan’s 2011 tsunami. I have visited the devastated region, interviewing survivors and public officials for media in the US and Japan. Aside from some updated statistics and reportage, I couldn’t imagine the book would tell me anything I didn’t already know.

Japanese translation from Hayakawa

I was wrong from page one. “Ghosts” is less an analytical or journalistic account than it is a character-driven, novelistic narrative about loss and trauma in a community disfigured by tragedy. While it is filled with meditations on the rituals and possible meanings of death, it begins with a new life.