Look, Here’s America: Part One
Interview with Motoyuki Shibata and Riyo Niimoto
Motoyuki Shibata’s translations include: Paul Auster’s Ghosts; Rebecca Brown’s The Gifts of the Body; Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed with Magellan; Edward Gorey; Steve Erickson’s Tours of the Black Clock; Ben Katchor’s The Beauty Supply District; Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler; Richard Powers’s Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance; and Barry Yourgrau’s Haunted Traveller.
Riyo Niimoto interviewed: Russell Banks, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Ford, Denis Johnson, Grace Paley, Tobias Wolff, Howard Zinn, and others for American Choice, a discussion of the 2004 U.S. elections. He has also published Foreign Literature Book Café, a collection of interviews with Japanese translators of American fiction, including Murakami and Shibata.
ROLAND KELTS Why did you choose to study American literature?
MOTOYUKI SHIBATA When you become a scholar of a literature in a foreign language, you tend to imitate their nationality. Scholars of British literature tend to be more respectful toward organization and tradition; for French scholars egoism appears to be the rule; Russians tend to be very deep-thinking and troubled-looking. American scholars tend to be very individualistic. They don’t care much about the organization and more or less go their own way. That suited me. Or maybe the study of American literature made me more that way.
RK But that maverick mentality seems to be directly at odds with Japanese culture.
MS Well, we didn’t grow up to love who we are. We always wanted to become something else. America was one place we were hopefully headed for, especially in terms of material goods. As a kid I watched Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show (which, incidentally, was translated as Our Mom Is the Best in the World). We did have TVs, but Americans also had washing machines, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners. We didn’t have any of them, so they represented our material dreams. And spiritually, we had respect for American democracy and individualism, although we didn’t know those words yet.
RIYO NIIMOTO I remember reading A Farewell to Arms when I was a junior-high student. There was a train station nearby, and there was a girl I used to walk with. We’d exchange books, though I think she returned the Hemingway to me without reading it. It may sound a bit macho now, but in Hemingway’s work, the main character does what he wants, travels all over the world, and falls in love with beautiful women. I guess I was romanticizing those stories for myself, sort of saying, “Look, here’s America!”
MS Then in college, I read Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Melville; and I read Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller on my own. I don’t know if I could articulate it at that time, but I began to understand that the best part of America was the part that criticized the notion of an always strong, always correct America.
RN There’s a book I could single out as a sort of vehicle for me to change the course of my life, and that was The World According to Garp. Before I read that book, I was still in my dream of America: big, rich, always smiling, white teeth. There’s one scene—it’s a peaceful time in a suburb, like this one, and a crazy driver is passing the house Garp is in. Garp runs out of the house and chases him. It’s crazy. I thought, What’s wrong with these people?
That was my wake-up call to look at society again—not just American society or Japan. I realized there was something very important that I didn’t know, and that I should find out about myself. That was the reason for me to make up my mind to move to the U.S.
RK That book?
RN That scene. I wanted to learn about violence, craziness, madness. You know, Japan seems like a safe country. You step outside and there are no crazy people. But maybe that’s not true. I began to question myself.
RK But there’s a lot of danger, violence, social criticism in Japanese fiction. Kenji Nakagami, for example. He writes about suppressed rage exploding into violence. Why read Garp and decide to move to the U.S.? Why not read Nakagami and move to Wakayama?
MS That’s an interesting question. In Nakagami’s fiction, violence is for doomed people. Typically, his characters are doomed to live a harsh life. I think it was Nathanael West who said that in America, violence is idiomatic—which means to me that violence is everywhere. You think you’re living in a safe place, but you actually you aren’t. Violence in Nakagami doesn’t have that kind of ubiquity.
RK What first impressions do you both recall most clearly upon arriving in America?
RN I came to Los Angeles in the winter of 1982. I checked into a cheap hotel near the airport. The next morning, I went outside and couldn’t believe how big the road was in front of the hotel. Six or eight lanes! I thought, This is such a waste of space.
MS You need a car everywhere here. I remember asking my brother’s friends when I first came to the States, “How do you commute?” They looked surprised. “By car,” they said. “What else?” One reason that conversation stuck was that it seemed connected to American individualism. You have to take care of yourself in everything; the government doesn’t help you.
RN I was born and grew up in a city, so I always thought I was protected—there were so many houses, and you could hear the neighbors talk. The openness of the land in L.A. made me uncomfortable.
MS Sometimes you get that feeling in Poe. Even though he rarely describes wide open spaces, you get that feeling of desolation in stories like “The Fall of the House of Usher.” You don’t get that sensibility, with no connection to history or time or even place in Japanese fiction. I think that’s distinctly American.
RN There is a book from the nineties, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The young soldiers each have their own stories. They’re driven to war by major forces—government, conflict, history—so they just go, without thinking about why. They just do what they’re told. And they experience their selves; they hit bottom. I think I could relate to that. That book reminded me that people have their own individual stories to tell, even in a lonely or horrible circumstance like war.
RK In that book, those catalogs of personal items seem to indicate a need to create an identity through the accumulation of things. Typically in Japan, the society assigns a role to you, and you accept it, and that becomes your identity. But in the O’Brien book, the characters seem to have no idea what their identities should be, so they collect material items—letters, cards, pens—to identify themselves.
MS So it’s not so much just the American sense of loneliness as the feeling that you don’t know who you are. In America, who you are is not something you inherit, it’s something you’re supposed to create on your own. For example, Huckleberry Finn. Though Huck experiences many adventures, in each one he calls himself something else: Sarah Williams, Adolphus, even Tom Saywer. In Moby-Dick, the narrator starts by saying, “Call me Ishmael.” But only once in the entire book does anyone call him by that name. And of course Jay Gatsby is a creation of his own “platonic conception.”
RK But these concerns and concepts seem almost diametrically opposed to what the Japanese care about in their own culture. Do you think the Japanese attraction to American fiction a kind of voyeurism?
MS If you say “voyeurism,” that means something that doesn’t have much to do with yourself. But as I said, America was always a place we were headed for, whether it was rich and materialistic or falling apart into violence and chaos. It was always a part of our possible selves, what we might be.
Some American writers are critical of what America is. By doing that, by denying the status quo and aiming for something higher, I think they are being more American. In fact, to me that’s what America is all about. You created a country with a Declaration of Independence—by stating an idea about what America should be. An idea is always more real than reality in this country.
In Japan, young people aren’t satisfied with what’s happening right now. They’re trying to be something else. But by doing so, they aren’t being more Japanese. That is a huge difference between our cultures. If they’re trying to be something else, what are they trying to become? One answer is: American.
RN I think that’s a critical point. In a way, America was, and still is, an alternative for Japanese readers. Living in such a closed society, compared to the U.S., Japanese may find that reading American novels opens up their minds.
RK Moreso than, say, British or Russian literature?
RN Yes. As I said, I always dreamed about America. My dream probably wasn’t an accurate picture. But, then again, that dream is probably the same image Americans are chasing, too. That ideal.
MS That’s something you don’t get from British fiction or Russian fiction.
RN When you pick up an American novel or story, the characters might be desperate, but you still get some sense of that spirit, I think.
MS But in addition to the attraction to the American dream , there are plenty of people who are suspicious of those notions, both in the U.S. and in Japan. It’s impossible for everyone to be a winner. A lot of good American fiction is about the deceptions in that dream. Raymond Carver, for example, appeals to Japanese because it’s sort of a negative view of the American story.
Perhaps I’m more attracted to the B-side of the American dream, the flip side. The hopeful part of me feels that’s where we should be headed. But the suspicious, probably stronger part fears that it’s a trap—of having a dream and never being able to achieve it.
RK What American writers do you think depict that B-side especially well?
MS All great American writers alternately have great hope for the American dream and rage against it, sometimes simultaneously, but as time go on they become more skeptical of that dream. Vonnegut and Heller, for example, were very good at revealing its absurdity while making you laugh.
Brautigan was also great at demystifying the myths of America. Trout Fishing in America was the first book that gave me the sense that good American fiction can also be a witty critique of the American dream.
RK What about Saul Bellow or Norman Mailer? Did you read them?
MS Back in the sixties and seventies, when American fiction was read for “serious enlightenment,” people read Bellow, Mailer, Updike, and so on to be cultured. The appearance of Brautigan’s work in translation was a turning point—that was the first time I felt that translation was fun to read on its own. It was hard to feel that way reading Mailer or Bellow.
RK It’s quite different in America. Here the giants would be Bellow, Updike, Philip Roth.
MS This is a touchy question. Roth, for example, is extremely hard to translate. He simply puts too much into his sentences. You know, in a typical Roth passage there are all those self-inflections. In English it makes sense, but in Japanese, you have to break a Roth sentence down into two or three sentences. And if you have to break it down into ordinary Japanese sentences, you lose most of Roth’s touch.
RK What about younger writers? Do they translate any better into Japanese?
MS Yes. I think for Japanese readers, contemporary American fiction is just different enough to be interesting, and similar enough to what’s happening in contemporary Japanese fiction to not be intimidating. It remains difficult for them to relate to the lives of Turkish characters, for example. America still has just the right amount of exoticism and familiarity.
RN And I think our knowledge of American popular culture may have made it easier for us in Japan to grasp the work of American fiction writers.
MS Pop culture is now part of our unconscious. Writers descend into themselves to create fiction, and my guess is that, especially if they are under fifty, what they often encounter in their own deeper psyche are fragments of tv programs they saw as kids, books they read, music they heard. Children can acquire a real sense of death from a B-class vampire film, if it kindles their imagination at the right moment.
RN Pop culture leads us into fictional worlds by stirring our psyches.
MS Yes. The abandonment of straight realism is a similarity between younger writers in both Japan and America today. But in American fiction—in writers like Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Matthew Sharpe—the family is still a big subject. I don’t think we can say the same thing about Japan’s contemporary fiction.
RK That seems paradoxical. If one of the attractions of the American dream is the freedom of absolute individualism, then why is American fiction more tethered to the family?
RN Even though reinventing yourself is a big part of American society, in order to claim your own identity, I think Americans need to go back to the family—they need something they can hold on to.
In Japanese society, the landscape is small. When you leave school, you get work and you usually still live with your parents. Your family is still around you, and the society itself acts more like a family. It takes care of you.
MS I’m trying to think about this in relation to the beginning of Anna Karenina, you know, Happy families are all alike but unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. I think this is true in general, but in America unhappy families are all alike in one way. They seem to be haunted by the ghost of a perfect American family: the family of Father Knows Best; think of Geoffrey Wolfe’s The Duke of Deception, Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude…
RK Is there a Japanese equivalent of the perfect family?
MS We don’t aim for a perfect family. “Semai nagaramo tanoshii wagaya” is a memorable part of the translation of the lyrics to “My Blue Heaven,” and it means that “It’s a tiny house, but we are happy in it.” We seem to need some drawback, some limitation, to be assured that our happiness is real.
RK What other similarities—or differences—do you notice? You mentioned the violence and craziness in Garp earlier. I suppose violence in Japan still tends to be more hidden than in America.
MS It seems to me that American violence is an almost necessary byproduct of American individualism, which can always turn into the every-man-for-himself kind of chaos. As Riyo suggested, if you push individualism far enough, maybe it explodes. In Japan culture works more repressively, and keeps you from openly exploding into violence. But it doesn’t mean that the impulse of destruction is not there.
RK You can sense the rage behind some contemporary Japanese fiction.
MS But it’s somehow different from the violence in American fiction. In the fiction of a writer like Masaya Nakahara, for example, or if you go back to the cartoons of Katsuhiro Otomo, like Akira, the violence is more movie-like, and it seems to come mostly from the author’s imagination.
RK Like video-game violence.
MS Yes, playful. But, in a way, apocalyptic, too. The sense of rage you find at the heart of the fiction has something to do with what’s happening in Japan. There doesn’t seem to be much optimism. I believe my present undergraduates are the first generation in modern Japan to grow up without the sense that things would get better. Naturally, they become more defensive and conservative. They want to get a job. They don’t want adventure.
And in the worst way, we’re becoming just like America. It’s that ranking culture—a blockbuster or nothing.
RN All or nothing. Winners or losers. That’s coming to define contemporary culture in Japan. You buy expensive brand-name products, or you buy nothing. I’m not advocating socialism, but what’s happening in Japan right now lacks imagination.
MS Have you heard the expression kachigumi, makegumi? It means, winning crowd and losing crowd. We’re hearing that a lot these days.