Friday, May 31, 2013

On Japan's identity crisis and nationalism for Time magazine

The Identity Crisis That Lurks Behind Japan’s Right-Wing Rhetoric 

from Time magazine

Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images
South Korean hold placards carrying the images of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto during a rally on May 23, 2013 in Seoul, South Korea. Recent remarks by the mayor of Osaka on the historic perception of 'comfort women', conscripted by Japanese military brothels during World War II, have recieved intense criticism from neigbouring countries and the U.S.
When anti-Japan protests, the fiercest in years, erupted in China over territorial disputes last September, I was attending a conference in Tianjin, roughly 80 miles south of Beijing. Footage from the capital was chilling: smashed Japanese department stores and automobiles, flags on fire, protesters hurling eggs and debris at the Japanese embassy with chants of “F*** Japan.” Someone tried to crash into a Japanese diplomat’s car on a Beijing highway.

By comparison, the Tokyo I returned to a week later felt downright placid. Most Japanese peered down their noses at the violence in Beijing, finding the scenes embarrassing and barbaric. One Japanese government official I spoke to privately blamed then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his administration for bungling the whole affair through diplomatic incompetence. “They should have kept quiet about [the purchase of the disputed islands],” he said. “None of this would have happened.”

A few months later, Noda was gone, replaced by Shinzo Abe and his conservative Liberal Democratic Party (infamously neither liberal nor democratic), high on a nationalist-leaning platform. Suddenly, the yen tanked, aiding Japanese exporters, and right-wing rhetoric and behavior spiked. High-profile politicians, including Deputy Prime Minister and former PM Taro Aso, visited Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japan’s war dead and criminals that whitewashes the nation’s imperialist massacres in Asia. Abe floated revisions to Japan’s 1995 war apology and its pacifist constitution, Article 9 of which forbids Japan from having a standing army. He dressed up in army fatigues and posed in a fighter jet emblazoned with the numerals 731, the number of the most notorious Japanese chemical and biological warfare unit in World War II.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

My Murakami feature story in Newsweek Japan

I wrote the lead story for Newsweek Japan's new feature on Haruki Murakami, and it's available in digital format here.

Monday, May 20, 2013

On Haruki Murakami, Monkey Business & the art of literary translation for The New Yorker

Lost in Translation?

Last month, Haruki Murakami published a new novel in Japan. Before anyone could read it, the novel broke the country’s Internet pre-order sales record, its publisher announced an advance print run of half a million copies, and Tokyo bookstores opened at midnight to welcome lines of customers, some of whom read the book slumped in corners of nearby cafés straight after purchase. But this time, the mania was déjà vu in Japan—a near-replica of the reception that greeted Murakami’s last novel, “1Q84,” three years ago. The response was news to nearly no one. Except, maybe, Haruki Murakami.

“The fact that I have been able to become a professional working novelist is, even now, a great surprise to me,” Murakami wrote in an e-mail three days before the release of “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.” He added: “In fact, each and every thing that has happened over the past 34 years has been a sequence of utter surprise.” The real surprise, perhaps, is that Murakami’s novels now incite a similar degree of anticipation and hunger outside of Japan, even though they are written in a language spoken and read by a relatively small population on a distant and parochial archipelago in the North Pacific.

Murakami is a writer not only found in translation (in forty-plus languages, at the moment) but one who found himself in translation. He wrote the opening pages of his first novel, “Hear the Wind Sing,” in English, then translated those pages into Japanese, he said, “just to hear how they sounded.” And he has translated several other American writers into Japanese, most notably Raymond Carver, John Irving, J. D. Salinger, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose “The Great Gatsby” Murakami credits as the inspiration behind his entire career.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Japan Times column on pop and tourism in Japan

Pop tourism gains traction

Pre-flight shopping at Narita airport a couple of weeks ago, I passed a mannequin sporting a light-blue necktie and a turquoise wig with pig tails dangling down to its mini skirt. The vision spoke volumes: It was Hatsune Miku, of course, Japan’s holographic, animated virtual pop star, beloved fashion icon and model for pop culture fans and cosplayers worldwide. But why was she suddenly manning the plaza concourse of Japan’s busiest tourist portal, standing tall beside Uniqlo and Shu Uemura?

It turns out Miku is part of an expansive display in the new airport outlet of Cospa Akihabara, a shop devoted to Japanese pop culture products for global otaku (geeks)and cosplayers. The Narita venue opened in February and had a lively crowd of consumers at its counters when I stalled next to Miku last month, gingerly fingering my wallet.

Tourism has long been a fiscal conundrum for Japan, the country’s potential cash cow stifled by its resistance to foreigners and xenophobic anxieties, and hampered by a reputation for overblown prices — a crude hangover from the bubble years of the 1980s. The 3/11 disasters and ongoing plight of Fukushima only exacerbate the problem.

Worse, the nation’s soft-power selling point often seems stuck in centuries past. Those of us who live, work and travel here know well the virtues contemporary Japan boasts. But for years, Japan has promoted itself overseas as a bastion of bygone traditions — demure kimono-clad girls and stoic samurai boys cowering beneath a volcano called Fuji, with raw seafood and grass mats for comfort.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Thanks -- and Monkey Finale in NYC

Thanks for the tremendous support of Monkey Business this week in NYC.

Our final event takes place tomorrow, May 4, at The Asia Society of New York, once again hosted by The PEN World Voices Festival. Paul Auster & Charles Simic will join Genichiro Takahashi & Mina Ishikawa for a "Japan/America Writer's Dialogue," facilitated by Monkey founders and editors Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goossen.

Copies of all three issues of Monkey Business will be on sale at a special on-site only price.  Tix & info here.

Joe's Pub, 5/1

BookCourt, 5/2

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

On traveling to Cape Town, South Africa ...

... before I even went.  Latest travel column about anticipating and imagining a voyage to virgin territory. For Paper Sky magazine. 

[click to enlarge]
(photos courtesy of Sevgin Adaliev)

Virgin Visits

V.S. Naipaul wrote about the futility of a man trying to understand a city he’d never seen by studying its map.  I feel that way when traveling to a new destination, which I do less often than I’d like to.  More often I travel between cities I’ve visited or known before or inhabited or worked in or live in today—New York, Tokyo, Osaka Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Vancouver, Seoul.  Traveling to a city I’ve never seen brings me the twin sizzle of joy and apprehension.