Banzai To Japanese Print Media! Kaori Shoji’s Picks For Excellence In Japan’s Written Word World 2017

 

As Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” would say with a sigh and drag on her cigarette holder, “Quelle year.” As far as bad years go, 2017 pretty much did us in and it’s not even over yet. Still, the news isn’t all bad, at least in the Japanese publication world. Paper and ink is still around. The Japanese language is not dead (though it may be mired in poop – more on that later). Here are some of the best publications that restored my faith in print, life and native country, and shone through like beacons of light on a dark and murky sea.

1. “Kimitachiwa Dou Ikiruka” by Genzaburo Yoshino

Part self-help book and part shining example of the epistolary art, “Kimitachiwa Dou Ikiruka (How Do You Live)” was written 80 years ago by journalist Genzaburo Yoshino, famed as of one of the last great philosophical writers of post-war Japan. Yoshino always wrote from a humanitarian, anti-war stance (he was arrested and imprisoned during WWII) and launched legendary leftist magazine “Sekai (The World)” a mere one year after the Japanese surrender in 1945. Lesser known is that Yoshino also wrote for children and young adults in the pre-war era. Published in 1936, “How Do You Live” is a book of letters from a gentle, enlightened uncle to his thirteen-year old nephew, as the latter tries to navigate the difficulties of growing up in a Japan controlled by militarists and headed toward a destructive war. The uncle comes up with the nickname “Coperu-kun” (after Copernicus) for his smart and always pondering nephew. What is life? Why are we here? What’s friendship and what does it mean to be human? Together they tackle all-important questions while being respectful of each other’s boundaries and getting each other’s backs. If only I could go back in time and give this to my 13-year old self, I’d discover that life could be beautiful in the bleakest of times.

The publishing house behind “How Do You Live” is Iwanami Shoten Publishers. The manga version authored by Shoichi Haga (published by Magazine House) was rushed to bookstores at about the same time as the novel, and on its own, has sold over 33,000 copies. Japan’s beloved filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki chose “How Do You Live” as his back-from-retirement project, and has said in interviews that it will take 3 to 4 years to do justice to this masterpiece.

2. “Sabishii Seikatsu” by Emiko Inagaki

Ms. Inagaki was 50 when she decided to quit her job at Asahi Shimbun, one of the nation’s most powerful newspapers. The reasons were varied but as she put it in her previous book “Tamashii no Taisha (The Soul Wants to Quit)” she was fed up with the work/spend treadmill and longed to break free. Two years on, she’s still unemployed, single and nearly 2 decades away from drawing a pension. “Sabishii…” is all about how Ms. Inagaki sustains body and soul – and has the time of her life doing it.

“Sabishii Seikatsu” literally translates as “The Lonely Life” but a more apt English title would probably be “In Praise of Solitude.” If you’ve wondered whether it’s possible to live in Tokyo on 100,000 yen a month (no, she doesn’t have roommates and yes, she likes going to bars) including rent, the pointers are in this book. And you got to hand it to her – Ms. Inagaki knows how to do semi-poverty in style. She frequents the public bathhouse instead of using her own shower, forgoes electricity for a single gas ring and candles, hand-washes her clothes and does not own a refrigerator. She finds infinite joy and fascination in adjusting her life as if this was the Edo Period, albeit with an iPhone and laptop. Her sole indulgence is a monthly trip to her favorite hair salon to maintain a snazzy afro She goes out for the occasional latte and bagel but otherwise, she’s a perky flower child forming a one-woman front against authority, energy waste and nuclear power plants. If the Abe Administration’s nuclear re-booting policies are getting you down, here’s Ms. Inagaki to tell you to stop fretting, turn out the goddamn lights and hop on a bicycle. The best revenge is written out in these pages.

3. “Moshi Bungotachiga Kappu Yakisobano Tsukurikatawo Kaitara” by Keiichi Kanda and Ryo Kikuchi

The Japanese think they see the universe in a cup of tea and a single tatami mat. Authors Keiichi Kanda and Ryo Kikuchi saw a bestseller in instant yakisoba noodles, and they got to work to make it happen. “Moshi Bungotachiga Yakisobano Tsukurikatawo Kaitara (What if the Literary Giants were to Write How to Make Instant Yakisoba Noodles?”) has its tongue firmly ensconced in the cheek, but offers preposterous fun. One of the sleeper hits of the year, the book has spawned a sequel and sold over 15,000 copies so far.

Page after page, “Moshi…” simulates how different authors would take on the same theme of making the perfect instant yakisoba, in their individual literary styles. And that’s it. There’s nothing else. You may well ask, so what IS this yakisoba? It’s fried noodles flavored with worcester sauce, a kind of soup-less version of the cup noodles we’re all so familiar with. Yakisoba comes inside a plastic square container accompanied by a packet of a few strands of dried cabbage. You pour in some boiling hot water, let it sit for a few minutes and (this is the all important factor), you then POUR OUT the water through a little hole in the container. This is called the “yukiri” process. You then prise open the lid, mix in the sauce and dried veg and there you have it – yakisoba. In this book, eminent authors from Ryunosuke Akutagawa to Haruki Murakami to Kanzaburo Oe are pulled off their pedestals and riffed on as they virtually write their own perfect instant yakisoba recipes. From the west, the exalted likes of Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan Doyle, Andre Breton, Dostoyevsky and Susan Sontag are called to take a stab at yakisoba creation.

The perfect companion for the times you want to run away from the world and computer screens. Just keep a yakisoba on hand and try mimicking your favorite wordsmith as you make those noodles.

4. “Kyujussai Naniga Medetai” by Aiko Sato
The translation of the title is: “Ninety Years Old, What’s There to Celebrate?” Personally, I feel it’s closer to “So I Turned 90 – No Biggie!” Japan’s treasured granny authoress Aiko Sato is an amazingly youthful nonagenarian with a badass attitude toward life, politics and the general yuckiness attached to growing old in Japan’s super-aging society. This book started out as a column in women’s magazine “Jyosei Seven” and was published by Shogakukan Ltd. It has sold well over a million copies.

One out of 4 adults in the Tokyo metropolis is now over 70 and it feels like the nation’s dwindling population is growing grayer by the week but Ms. Sato shrugs off the hand-wringing negativity. Part memoir, part self-help guide for every generation and a sizzlingly entertaining read, “Ninety…” was published in 2016 but has marked week 63 on the bestseller list and is still the most lucrative title of 2017.

What rises from the pages is a cheerful nihilism. Ms. Sato dispenses the wisdom garnered from nearly a century of life but she warns us none of it is particularly warm or heartfelt. Nearly all of the chapters deal with disappointment and despair and in one segment she discusses love. “If you love a man to the point that you’re ready for marriage, don’t let anything stop you. But don’t bank on happiness ever after. Life is volatile and love even more so. Nothing lasts forever so be prepared for sadness and suffering, betrayal and all the rest of it.” In other words, shit happens. Or more to Ms. Sato’s point, shit is inevitable and the less fuss we make about it, the better. The mostly hilarious read is tinged by moments of sadness – for all her sharp wit, Ms. Sato admits to feeling crushed by loneliness. She has pretty much outlived her friends and loved ones and the ones that remain are “not feeling so chipper.” But navigating the minefield of depression is one of her “projects” and she considers everyday a “learning experience.”

Surprisingly, “Ninety…” is popular among children and millennials. Says 24-year old Saeko Kato, an OL who has written a gushing fan letter to Ms. Sato: “No one can escape growing old, but I like to think that there will be fun times ahead. This book fills me with hope, and the energy to face whatever lies ahead. Being a Japanese woman, I think I’ll live a long time so I need to know that it’s going to be all right.”

5. “Pen Plus” Magazine, November 20th Edition
Cover Story: “Made in Japan wo Sekaie! (Let’s Bring Made in Japan to the World)”

Once upon a time, the “Made in Japan” logo was a brand to be reckoned with, standing for quality, reliability and thousands of labor hours that fueled the nation’s legendary work ethic. This year, that logo crash-burned on the tarmac as we saw one mighty manufacturer after another indicted for falsifying data, covering up scams and more. On the other end of the work spectrum, “Premium Friday” and the whole “Hatarakikata Kaikaku (Work Style Reform)” thing kicked in. Even as demand for quality went up, Japanese workers face the pressure to go home and not spend so much time being dedicated employees. What to do?

One way out of the conundrum is to look at small to mid-sized companies. While the manufacturing giants that defined Japan’s rapid growth era are flailing sheer size and antiquity, smaller operations are full of ideas, light on their feet and zipping around. “Pen Plus” magazine is a spin off of the monthly “Pen” magazine and they’ve dedicated an entire issue to rethinking the “Made in Japan” logo. The conclusion? It’s not about high-tech gadgets and appliances anymore but handwork and craftsmanship. And thanks to the Internet, Japanese artisans can collaborate directly with offshore brands to come out with products that have global appeal and marketing power.

Kaihara Denim out of Fukuyama City in Hiroshima prefecture, has wowed fashion designers like Jean Toitou of A.P.C., and Marcus Wainwright of Rag & Bone, and morphed into some of the world’s most coveted pairs of jeans. Japan’s chocolate artisan extraordinaire Susumu Koyama is now one of the most revered figures in the international chocolate industry. Toward the end of the issue, there’s an interview story with former soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata. He launched a project called ReValue Nippon, from his very own, Japan Craft Sake Company. Admittedly, it has less of an impact than Cristiano Ronaldo’s men’s underwear but hey, it’s a start.

Honorable Mention:

Grades 1 Through 6.
THE publishing sensation of 2017, “Unko Kanji Doriru (The Poop Kanji Drills)” series enables elementary school kids to have a jolly fun time while studying kanji. It gave a new twist to the heretofore ho-hum kanji learning experience, and provided entertainment for parents as well. There are reports that the series took some of the pressure off of pooping in school – which has always been a traumatizing experience for generations of Japanese school kids (for the girls, it’s the squat toilet that does it.)

Most of the practice sentences in “Unko…” are master stroke combinations of education and hilarity. Like this one for second graders: “Ima sugu kokode unko wo surukotomo dekirundesuyo (It’s okay for you to poop right here, right now).” Or this one for third graders: “Yoyaku shiteita unko wo torinikimashita (I came to get the poop that I had reserved).” And so it goes for six solid issues. Some of my friends have bought the series to use as prizes for their company Christmas parties. If nothing else they do provide solid reading for the holidays.

Japan, Mother of the World’s First Novel Hosts Its First International Literary Festival

South African Nobel price winner for Literature, J.M. Coetzee reading a chapter of his upcoming novel "The Childhood of Jesus" in front of a literary audience in Tokyo
South African Nobel price winner for Literature, J.M. Coetzee reading a chapter of his upcoming novel The Childhood of Jesus in front of a literary audience in Tokyo

Some famous writers refer to Japan as the “reading society.” With a higher literacy rate than most of the Western countries in the 18th century, Japan’s educational system allowed children from all backgrounds, from peasants to aristocrats, to learn reading and writing.

The Genji Monogatari, or the Tale of Genji, a Japanese classic written by a woman from the Japanese aristocracy, (Murasaki Shikibu) in the early 11th century, is credited as being the world’s first novel by some scholars. However, Japan has allegedly never hosted any Literary Festivals. This year, David Karashima, the manager of international projects at Read Japan, a division of the Nippon Foundation that promotes Japanese literature abroad, directed the first Tokyo International Literary Festival, held from March 1st to 3rd of this year.

According to the organizer of this international event, readings and book discussion groups have just started to become popular in Japan, mostly for business books. “We want to grab those readers who are already looking for that shared experience and expand the kinds of books they reach out for, ” David Karashima said in an interview with the Japan Times.

Aiming to “mix up” different literary cultures and inspire young fiction writers, mainly from the English and Japanese literary world, the first Tokyo International Literary Festival invited a dozen English-language authors to Japan. They participated in conversations and workshops together with about thirty Japanese authors, sitting together in different locations of Tokyo such as cozy rainy day bookshops, university auditoriums or even in fancy nightclubs.

2008 Pulitzer Price Winner for Fiction, Junot Diaz
2008 Pulitzer Price Winner for Fiction, Junot Diaz and Promising Japanese Author Risa Wataya, at a workshop in Tokyo University on March, 1st

At a workshop entitled “The Otaku’s Guide to Love,” which took place in an auditorium of Tokyo University, Dominican born New Jersey author Junot Diaz discussed his Pulitzer price for fiction novel “The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” with his Japanese translator Koji Toko, a professor of American literature at Waseda university, and Risa Wataya, a Japanese author who won the Akutagawa Price while she was still in high school. Topic discussions such as social phenomena described in Japanese fiction and American fiction came out to be one of the most interesting exchanges at those workshops. As Risa Wataya read Diaz’s “Oscar Wao,” which tells the story of a nerdy Dominican boy who immigrated to the U.S., she told the audience that in her fictional world, the otaku is someone who “loves anime, and who is incapable of communicating with the outside world.” However, she thought that the “otakus from abroad” are actually “aggressive,” they go outdoors, take actions, and fall in love with real women. She added that reading foreign authors about Japanese phenomena made her reflect on her own fictional world and that she was inspired by them.

Risa Wataya, Japanese author who won the Akutagawa Price for her novel "Keritai Senaka" ("The Back that you Want to Kick") chatting with her fans in the auditorium of Tokyo University after the workshop.
Risa Wataya, Japanese author who won the Akutagawa Price for her novel “Keritai Senaka” (“The Back That You Want to Kick”) chatting with her fans in the auditorium of Tokyo University after the workshop.

Junot Diaz, who mixes the English and Spanish language in his writing style, is a cross-cultural author. He said that he was attracted to the Japanese animation as he grew up in a very conservative Dominican family and in an American community in New Jersey, which valued traditional masculinity as tough and brutal. “I was surrounded by American born Japanese when I was a teenager, and while discovering Japanese subculture in the 1980s, I thought that otaku kids were much nicer than the violent kids I was surrounded by at the time. I think some boys in the States stick with anime in order to reject this extreme masculinity. Nowadays it is considered OK to like anime, in the States.” And he added that the American generation, who grew up in the 1980s was impressed by Japanese cartoons, “American cartoons were so incredibly bad. When you are ten years old and you watch ‘Scooby-Doo,’ you just want to hang yourself.” He joked.

Diaz also told his Japanese audience in Tokyo University, that he spent  7 to 8 years researching his novel, and filled an entire room with Japanese books related to the otaku culture, which he bought en masse. “My girlfriend at the time was going crazy, as I was obsessively conducting my research.” He said, “I am secretly a nerdy guy.” One of the goals of the Festival was to invite authors in their 30s and 40s, who are open to the influences of different cultures,  although they have achieved a certain level of success.

Editors, publishers and literary translators spoke and moderated the talks and the interactions with the audience “mixing up” and internationalizing fiction writing. In addition to Junot Diaz and Risa Wataya, novelist J. Safran Foer, illustrator Chip Kidd, literary critique Makoto Ichikawa, and manga artist Naoki Urasawa, took part of the event.

At an evening talk organized in Roppongi Hills, the South African Nobel price winner for Literature, J.M. Coetzee, and Japanese author and poet Shuntaro Tanikawa read their pieces to a large audience, including a chapter of the upcoming novel of Coetzee, “The Childhood of Jesus.”

 

South African Nobel price winner for Literature, J.M. Coetzee reading his upcoming novel "The Childhood of Jesus" at Roppongi Hills
South African Nobel price winner for Literature, J.M. Coetzee reading from his upcoming novel The Childhood of Jesus at Roppongi Hills

The Nobel Price winner, appeared taciturn and gloomy on stage, during his reading. However, he appeared rather smiling at a reception given after the talks. “As you can see, I am not as ‘gloomy’ as you think,” he said while asked about his reputation, however, in a sad way, he replied that he does not have any favorite jokes to tell or aspire to humorous writing. He said that he was impressed with the civility of Japan, “the politeness and civility that enables so many people to live together in densely populated cities is intriguing. Yet, the politeness is much different from that you see in England. The ideals of reciprocity are fascinating as well.”  He revealed that his favorite Japanese writer is Kawabata Yasunari, during our brief talk with him. Kawabata, like Coetzee, is an extremely somber writer.

 

David Peace, author of "Tokyo Trilogy," a well research Post War Japan crime fiction
David Peace, author of Tokyo Zero One a well researched Post War Japanese crime fiction novel

David Peace, author of several critically acclaimed crime novels, also participated in a talk about his novels revolving around atrocious real-life crimes in post war Japan. The novels are based on actual cases and David Peace himself lived in Tokyo for 15 years or more.