Monday, December 22, 2008

Japanamerica on NPR

In answer to two of my most Frequently Asked Questions: Is Japanese Pop Culture really Japanese? And does it actually turn foreigners onto Japan?

From The World by PRI, an interview with Patrick Cox.

Japanamerica in this week's NEW YORKER magazine

I was interviewed by Dana Goodyear this fall for a story that is just out in this week's New Yorker magazine, about Japan's rising tribes of cell phone novelists (online here): "I (Heart) Novels."

Dana very skillfully balances skepticism with curiosity--and manages some fine reporting on a difficult subject for any journalist to pursue (accidental authors who opt to remain both pseudonymous and anonymous), let alone a non-Japanese journalist who neither lives in Japan nor speaks the language. Kudos to Dana and to her encyclopedic assistant on the ground in Tokyo, the ever-brilliant David d'Heilly.

My passage begins thusly: "Roland Kelts, a half-Japanese writer born in the United States and the author of “Japanamerica,” sees the Internet as an escape valve for a society that can be oppressive in its expectation of normative, group-minded behavior. 'In Japan, conflict is not celebrated—consensus is celebrated ... '"

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Monkeying around in Japanese media

My friend, literary translator, author and Tokyo University scholar Motoyuki Shibata, launched his literary journal Monkey Business at a rooftop party last spring in Roppongi, Tokyo. The latest two issues, nos. 3 and 3.5, are focused on J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories. Issue 3 carries Moto's translation of the entire book; 3.5 features a segment about the stories.

I first read Nine Stories when I was in my mid-teens. Like many young American boys, I was deep into the Salinger world, feeling both drawn to it and a part of it at once. I discussed this former obsession with Moto over dinner one evening in Tokyo, and he subequently invited me to contribute an essay to Monkey Business 3.5.

I was honored, and am even more so now that issue 3.5 has been released. My work appears alongside a 'taidan' (scholarly discussion) about Salinger between Moto and Toshiki Okada, and a prose poem about Nine Stories by Mieko Kawakami.

If you read Japanese, you can find the full table of contents on the Monkey Business order page here, and an article about Moto and the new issue from a recent edition of the Asahi Shimbun here.

My essay is titled: "Nine Stories and the death of the storyteller." I suspect I didn't realize how dark and even brutal the stories are when I first encountered them as a teenager. Or perhaps, like Orwell in Such Such Were the Joys, it is I who have changed.

Finally, Japanamerica received a nice nod from Douglas Glen, CEO of Imagi Studios, producers of the forthcoming CGI features of Astro Boy and Gatchaman, two watershed anime titles cited in the book. You can read (in Japanese) Glen's interview with Japan's Diamond business magazine online here.

And you can also grab a sneak preview (in English--er, actually in no specific language at all) of next year's Astro Boy release at the film's newly opened official web site.

As my friend Charles in LA often euphemistically signs off: "Back to shoveling snow." Though in this case, in NYC at least, I could mean it literally.

I don't, though. Not my job.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christian Science Monitor Probes Japanamerica

Earlier this week, Amelia Newcomb, senior editor at The Christian Science Monitor, published a series of articles under the rubrik, JAPAN INFLUENTIAL. The series is probing and thorough, covering Japan's overseas pop juggernaut, the nation's new efforts to exert 'soft power,' the rise of female voices via new technologies in contemporary Japanese literature, Japan's eco-friendly culture and more.

I and my dear friend Bruce Rutledge of Chin Music Press were interviewed by the amicable and very well-versed Newcomb for the stories, the first of which ran on page 1 of Monday's issue (above), and can be read HERE.

The second, about blogger-turned-novelist Mieko Kawakami and other innovative young female writers, features insights from another dear friend, Motoyuki Shibata, and can be read online HERE.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Big in Japan/Adbusters: "The Crab Canning Ship," a novel

My dear friend Leo and I penned a story that is just out in the new 2009 Adbusters magazine: "Big In Japan." It's about the surge of interest in a long forgotten novel, first published in 1929, about socialist sentiment in Japan.

America's Anime Auteur: Michael Arias

Michael Arias, the lone American in the Japanese animation and film industries, is about to release his new film: Heaven's Door (out in Japan on Feb. 7, 09). I talked with him for hours in Tokyo last week for my latest column in Japan's Daily Yomiuri.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Japanamerica: an astute update

Writer and photographer Tony McNicol skillfully hammers home the current arc in the story of Japanamerica in this relatively brief December 08 feature. I'm impressed by both his concision and graphics.

He called me in New York this fall for an interview. I think he got it right.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Japanamerica talk & signing at Seikei

I recently gave a talk and signed books for students and faculty at Seikei University in western Tokyo, introducing both the ideas examined in the book and the latest happenings in the trans-cultural exchange between Japan and the U.S. These events are in some way refreshing exceptions in my life to the rule of writing, reading, interviewing, revising, editing and, these days, recording (for NPR). It's nice to get out in front of friendly faces.

Now, one might anticipate that a large audience of Japanese listening to a half-Japanese American carry on about their own cultural output would be a tad blase. But not so, at least not in my experience.

Both the students and their professors at Japanese universities I've visited have been unwaveringly attentive, curious and even startled by what I say, filling the allotted Q&A sessions with probing questions and pursuing me afterward to continue the discussion during book-signings.

For me, of course, it's invigorating, and flattering. But can you imagine the inverse? A half-American Japanese raised primarily in Japan, suddenly greeting American university students and regaling them with, among other narratives, stories behind the overseas popularity of contemporary American culture?

Such differences are stark--and telling.

(And, no, I'm not invoking Fred Astaire up there; just taking advantage of the broad stage, trying to keep the visuals moving beneath the big bad mobius strip.)

These particular students (above), all of whom obtained signatures and asked several smart questions, were preparing presentations on Japanamerica for a class the following week.

Wonder how they went.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Studio 360 in Japan

Among many current projects, I've been working on a program for National Public Radio--specifically, WNYC's Studio 360, a show that explores cultures via their artists. The crew was here in Japan last month, and the photos above capture them recording me and host Kurt Andersen recording a segment in Akihabara--right at the corner of the intersection in which Tomohiro Kato went on a knifing spree this past June.

The middle photo is of my interview with Ryu Murakami, novelist of Japan's uglier sides (Almost Transparent Blue, Coin Locker Babies, and In the Miso Soup), cultural commentator on youth pathologies, and film director provocateur (Tokyo Decadence).

This is hard work. I have gained an appreciation for the radio hosts, producers and narrators who make what we hear in our cars and living rooms. It's like writing a story, but with sounds taking the place of language and ideas.

Oh, it's radio. Duh.

Comics, censorship and changing cultures

Earlier this fall, on the day when then candidates Barack Obama and John McCain were visiting the campus of one of my old schools, Columbia University, I was visiting with nonfiction author and CU journalism professor David Hajdu in his festooned campus office to talk comics and culture. NYC was cloud-covered and felt ominous and edgy--entirely apt, as it was another September 11, seven years after the act.

I had to navigate police and media phalanxes to get to David, but his energetic conversation made the trek well worth it.

I first read Hajdu's work via my dear pal Paul, author and editor at FSG, who sent along a copy of David's first book, Lush Life, about the excruciating genius of Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's largely unsung collaborator, in 1997. Over ten years ago. Yeesh.

When I heard that Hajdu's latest book, The Ten Cent Plague, was about the birth and aborted growth of American comics, I was immediately interested, given my own study of Japan's sophisticated history in the medium. I wasn't disappointed. I read the book, then was asked by another pal, John at the Brooklyn Rail, to concoct a story.

Rather than spout in an essay, I wanted to talk with David, to have a real-time exchange of ideas that traversed oceans, cultures and decades. That's what we did, amid the chaos of Columbia's election season, and the grim celebration of the end of an era.

The publishable bits of what we said are in the Brooklyn Rail here.