Friday, February 27, 2009

My new interview with Haruki Murakami in today's Daily Yomiuri

(photo courtesy of Lisa Kato)

Haruki Murakami: Japan's 21st-century cultural ambassador

Two sharply contrasting portraits of a global Japan flashed simultaneously around the world this month, like one of those live, split-screen broadcasts of two different TV reporters stationed in distant countries. On one screen, viewers watched in morbid fascination as a narcotized and nearly comatose Japanese finance minister named Shoichi Nakagawa slurred his way through a press conference at the meeting of the Group of Seven finance ministers and central bank governors in Rome. Two days later, when news broke that Japan's economy had just suffered its worst contraction in 35 years, and that Nakagawa's boss, Prime Minister Taro Aso, himself suffering severe contractions in popularity, had yet to demand Nakagawa's resignation, the emerging picture of a dangerously dysfunctional government overseeing the world's second-largest economy was as painful as it was embarrassing.

But on the other screen, viewers saw a Japanese man of Nakagawa's generation standing firm behind a podium in Israel, accepting that nation's highest literary award, and delivering a speech in eloquent, deeply felt English. He spoke about his vocation as a novelist ("telling skillful reveal the truth") and his opposition to any and all wars, his empathy with the weak and the dissident and his passion for the uniqueness of the human soul. Spoken with power and clarity, not to mention clear-eyed sobriety, this man's words blended the personal with the political and the metaphorical with the logical to make an eloquent argument for individual freedom and justice.

"We must not allow The System to exploit us," he finally said, referring to the military, industrial and political forces arrayed against the human spirit. "The System did not make us: We made The System."

The second man, of course, was Japan's premier contemporary author and literary translator, Haruki Murakami.

That Murakami presented Japan's best face to the world amid a week of public relations disasters is rife with irony ..."
[read more here]

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Haruki Murakami: On the side of the egg

This is the text of Haruki Murakami's acceptance speech in Israel to accept the Jerusalem Literary Prize earlier this month. My latest profile of Haruki is due out in this Friday's Daily Yomiuri:

I have come to Jerusalem today as a novelist, which is to say as a professional spinner of lies.

Of course, novelists are not the only ones who tell lies. Politicians do it, too, as we all know. Diplomats and military men tell their own kinds of lies on occasion, as do used car salesmen, butchers and builders. The lies of novelists differ from others, however, in that no one criticizes the novelist as immoral for telling lies. Indeed, the bigger and better his lies and the more ingeniously he creates them, the more he is likely to be praised by the public and the critics. Why should that be?

My answer would be this: Namely, that by telling skillful lies -- which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true -- the novelist can bring a truth out to a new location and shine a new light on it. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to grasp a truth in its original form and depict it accurately. This is why we try to grab its tail by luring the truth from its hiding place, transferring it to a fictional location, and replacing it with a fictional form. In order to accomplish this, however, we first have to clarify where the truth lies within us. This is an important qualification for making up good lies.

Today, however, I have no intention of lying. I will try to be as honest as I can. There are a few days in the year when I do not engage in telling lies, and today happens to be one of them.

So let me tell you the truth. In Japan a fair number of people advised me not to come here to accept the Jerusalem Prize. Some even warned me they would instigate a boycott of my books if I came. The reason for this, of course, was the fierce battle that was raging in Gaza. The U.N. reported that more than a thousand people had lost their lives in the blockaded Gaza City, many of them unarmed citizens -- children and old people. 

Any number of times after receiving notice of the award, I asked myself whether traveling to Israel at a time like this and accepting a literary prize was the proper thing to do, whether this would create the impression that I supported one side in the conflict, that I endorsed the policies of a nation that chose to unleash its overwhelming military power. This is an impression, of course, that I would not wish to give. I do not approve of any war, and I do not support any nation. Neither, of course, do I wish to see my books subjected to a boycott.

Finally, however, after careful consideration, I made up my mind to come here. One reason for my decision was that all too many people advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told. If people are telling me -- and especially if they are warning me -- "Don't go there," "Don't do that," I tend to want to "go there" and "do that." It's in my nature, you might say, as a novelist. Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands.

And that is why I am here. I chose to come here rather than stay away. I chose to see for myself rather than not to see. I chose to speak to you rather than to say nothing.

Please do allow me to deliver one very personal message. It is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this:

"Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg."

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them.

This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: it is "the System." The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others -- coldly, efficiently, systematically.

I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on the System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist's job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories -- stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness.

My father died last year at the age of 90. He was a retired teacher and a part-time Buddhist priest. When he was in graduate school, he was drafted into the army and sent to fight in China. As a child born after the war, I used to see him every morning before breakfast offering up long, deeply felt prayers at the Buddhist altar in our house. One time I asked him why he did this, and he told me he was praying for the people who had died in the battlefield. He was praying for all the people who died, he said, both ally and enemy alike. Staring at his back as he knelt at the altar, I seemed to feel the shadow of death hovering around him.

My father died, and with him he took his memories, memories that I can never know. But the presence of death that lurked about him remains in my own memory. It is one of the few things I carry on from him, and one of the most important.

I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called the System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong -- and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others' souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.

Take a moment to think about this. Each of us possesses a tangible, living soul. The System has no such thing. We must not allow the System to exploit us. We must not allow the System to take on a life of its own. The System did not make us: We made the System. That is all I have to say to you.

--from Salon

Monday, February 23, 2009

*Updated Japanamerica US tour dates

(photo courtesy of Christine and Ashley)

Drinks on me.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Obama sushi

No messiah, no. But the number of Japanese friends and colleagues who have said to me 'We need an Obama' with nary a whiff of irony or sarcasm is not small.
(photo courtesy of

Friday, February 13, 2009

from Akihabara to Katsucon ...

From my latest column in today's Daily Yomiuri:

SOFT POWER, HARD TRUTHS / On the front lines of Japanese pop culture

Near the end of last month, I took two groups of graduate students to Akihabara, the eastern Tokyo neighborhood that remains the mecca of Japanese pop cultural artifacts and trends, and ground zero for the domestic marketing machine. I was skeptical at first. While not all of the students are Japanese, they all live in and around Tokyo, so a short train ride to Akihabara wouldn't really qualify as an exotic excursion, let alone academic "fieldwork."

But both trips turned out to be revelatory, largely owing to the characters who hosted them.

The first visit involved an exhaustive, three-hour tour of the neighborhood's honeycomb of nooks and crannies, its iconic otaku landmarks and legendary vending machines. It was hosted by Patrick Galbraith, an Alaskan transplant currently researching the impact of information technologies on otaku culture at Tokyo University. On weekends, Galbraith dons a bright orange costume and a spiky wig--becoming a dead ringer for Goku, a character from the international anime hit, Dragon Ball--and leads groups of wide-eyed foreigners on tours of Akihabara.

For the students, Galbraith was exceptionally generous. His knowledge of Akihabara's history and current manifestations is impeccable. Even amid venues I'd visited several times before, he managed to make the neighborhood's alleys of obsession and warrens of obscurity feel vivid and layered, like a promising archeological dig.

The second sojourn was hosted by the manager of a maid cafe, one of those themed sitting rooms in which young and middle-aged men are served by young women in French maid costumes who flatter their customers. The manager happened to be articulate and frank: an entrepreneur in a frilly smock. She advised the students to pay attention to her business methodology. "There are over 80 maid cafes in just a few blocks," she announced, spreading her arms toward the windows. "You have to be special to survive ..."
[read more here]

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Anime Masterpieces at the MFA, Boston

(John Dower, Fred Schodt and me [in hiking shoes--thanks, Ash] before an overflow audience at the Anime Masterpieces program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, February 11, 2009 [and thanks, Scott, for the pic]. )

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Boston, Feb. 11; DC, Feb 13-15

We're putting Japanamerica back on the road this week, starting in Boston. This Wednesday, February 11, join us at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for an Anime Masterpieces screening of Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka), the 1988 postwar masterwork by Isao Takahata, produced by the venerable Studio Ghibli. The discussion panel will include Pulitzer-prize winning historian and author John W. Dower, manga authority, translator and author Frederik L. Schodt and me.

Tickets are required, but admission is free. For more info, click here.


And on Friday through Sunday, Feb. 13-15, join us at the Washington, DC area's 15th annual anime/manga celebration known as Katsucon. This year's event will be held at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, VA, and I will be on hand for a couple of panels on Friday afternoon and evening, plus several events throughout. Do swing by if you're in the region.

(And, yes, that's an actual American cosplayer at a prior Katsucon, striking a pose below the DC skyline ...)

Friday, February 06, 2009

My radio segment on Japanese youth and pop for Studio 360

Click on the play button above to hear my radio segment on Japan's pop culture, Hayao Miyazaki, Ryu Murakami, youth pathologies--and a singing clown, not to mention a crooning poet. I won't lie: this was a lot of hard work. I am deeply grateful to my uber-producer, the brilliant Pejk Malinovski (pictured above at the mixing boards in the NYC studios), David Krasnow (for critical script edits), David d'Heilly, Lisa Kato, Motoyuki Shibata and Mario Tauchi, plus all of my subjects, who graciously granted me their time and insights. The entire program is at the Studio 360 web site, and will air on NPR stations across the US tomorrow.

But you can hear it right here. Hope you dig it.