America Cheers for Japan--and Change
by Roland Kelts
I have spent the past few months trekking between the coasts of the US for a series of events associated with my book, Japanamerica. More recently, I flew back from Tokyo to American shores - San Francisco, specifically - to spend time with a Japanese author whose work and friendship I value deeply.
America was locked in the dance of its own election throughout. Whether I was talking to Japanese and American teens at a summer program at Keio Academy in New York, museum-goers in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, or college students and their professors in Berkeley, California, it was impossible to ignore the beat of American politics.
Aside from the policy positions, the question on Americansf minds seemed to be: Can we really change direction and grow up?
One of the challenges of road work, or book tour gigs, or just speaking gigs generated by a specific book, is confronting wildly divergent audiences and attempting to reach them for forty minutes or so--in the absence of a drum kit, a loud guitar and a dazzling vocalist (i.e., my rock band).
In early August, I greeted audiences at the newly minted gSubversion Anime Festivalh in Portland, Oregon, so named for subtitled anime films that appeal to serious American fans of the genre, who prefer to hear and see the dialogue in Japanese. The audience was laid back and curious: How could they help the Japanese producers increase profits?
Tricky question, but it seems that the answers are forthcoming. I spoke on a panel at New Yorkfs Kinokuniya Bookstore for the launch of a book called Art Space Tokyo, to which I contributed an essay on Takashi Murakami. A member of the Kinokuniya audience noted that Murakamifs sculptures were selling for $15 million each, even amid an economic downturn. Japanese artists seemed to be doing fine. Whatfs the problem?
The problem, thus far, has been format. Delivery. Interactivity. And empathy. Japanese artists, producers and publishers have been largely dismissive of Western fans and readers. But with the declining birthrate in Japan, and our tanking global economy, change is stirring.
When I spoke at the New York Anime Festival in late September, I was thrilled to learn that American web sites are teaming up with Japanese producers to help make anime downloads more accessible - and profitable. I happily signed on to a new project, Anime Masterpieces, based in New York, to join esteemed colleagues in the US and Japan to help spread the word about Japanfs creative geniuses.
Then I visited the Berkshires for a talk at the Clark Museum, whose members were admiring their new building, designed by Ando Tadao.
Thereafter I was blessed with the opportunity to spend time with another Murakami, Haruki, in California. Over four days, Haruki greeted students in a classroom, signed books for over two hours - and shopped for records, of course.
The two of us conducted a conversation (taidan) before more than 2,000 fans at the University of California, Berkeley.
Haruki was visibly relaxed, having just completed what he called his longest novel yet, a tome twice the size of Kafka on the Shore. Within minutes he had the crowd chuckling at his wry, self-deprecating humor. Then he read in Japanese his early short story, gThe Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes,h lowering his voice to utter gtongariyakih, the spooky refrain of a clan of crows.
I read the story in English afterward, then sat down beside Haruki. I was nervous, but Harukifs easygoing charm calmed me. We cruised through topics serious and silly, some of which were prompted by questions on note cards collected from audience members.
I marveled at the audiencefs size - and attentiveness. Haruki is a literary author who writes in the foreign language of a land thousands of miles away from America. At the end of the two-hour event, the fans granted Haruki a lengthy standing ovation.
He deserved every clap.
By Roland Kelts, Author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, Lecturer at The University of Tokyo and Contributing Editor of A Public Space
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