Irrepressible Irishman promotes Japan culture

Poet and literary translator Peter MacMillan finds visual art as 'another way to communicate'

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Humor may be the hardest genre to translate, but laughter speaks any language. Poet and literary translator Peter MacMillan’s recent foray into visual art, “Thirty-Six New Views of Mount Fuji,” delights with wry whimsicality, employing mixed-media print-making to reveal a multicultural drollery.

It’s exactly the witty disparity you’d expect from a philosopher with a mischievous sense of play, a dedicated classics scholar from Ireland who has made Japan his home.

MacMillan approaches his many artistic endeavors with irrepressible energy. He started the year with an exhibition both inside and outside the iconic Sony Building in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district. Outside on the Sony Wall, its entire facade measuring 37.6 by 6 meters, he created a festive visual marvel, “The sun, the moon, and Fuji,” as part of Sony Corp.’s annual charity event. Inside, he displayed the “Thirty-Six New Views,” created under the artist’s name Seisai (meaning, artist from the West or an artist with a studio in the west) a pun of homage to Katsushika Hokusai, the Edo Period ukiyo-e master whose original “Fugaku Sanjuroku-kei” (“Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji”) series inspired MacMillan’s creations.

During the last year, he’s completed two literary translations, founded an institute to promote Japanese culture overseas and published his first volume of poetry in Italy — all the while continuing his duties as a visiting professor to universities in Tokyo, most notably Kyorin University and the University of Tokyo.

How does he do it? MacMillan quickly turns thoughtful. “One of the things that attracts me the most to Japanese culture is how the visual and the poetic overlap. In classical Japanese poetry, I discovered that often the poets were writing poems based on paintings of famous scenery rather than from the actual scenes themselves. In the poet’s mind, the painting and the poem were closely linked. For me it’s the same; I don’t see the poem or the image as separate, but as one inspiring the other.”

There’s a literary term for such artistry, and wordsmith MacMillan provides it: ekphrasis. “Japanese culture is particularly ekphrastic, with image and poem deeply interrelated.”

As a literary scholar, professor and translator, MacMillan is obviously dedicated to words. Born in the countryside of Ireland, MacMillan explains: “When I was young, I was influenced by my mother (who was a writer of children’s books) because she was a great reader of literature — she still is — and she would give me books to read all the time and then we would discuss them together.”

After graduating with degrees in English literature and philosophy from University College Dublin, MacMillan accepted a place in the United States at the University of South Carolina to earn his Ph.D.

Although he chose a career path laid with the verbal, his love of visual arts also flourished in his upbringing. His father was an art dealer working from home, “so in our house, there were always different paintings on the walls. I saw many, many paintings growing up as a child, and I thus developed a deep interest in art.”

In 1987, just as MacMillan finished his thesis at University of South Carolina, he became aware of a teaching position at the University of Maryland’s Japan campus. Although he knew nothing of Japan, “it seemed very exotic and far away, and I thought I could have a splendid adventure.” MacMillan quickly fell in love with the art and literature of Japan, and found a permanent position at Kyorin University.

Translation came later. MacMillan says, “I never really saw myself as a translator. But in my early 40s, in order to capture a better image of Japanese culture and to help me decide whether I should stay in Japan or not, I began to translate the ‘Hyakunin Isshu’ — one of the four pillars of classical literature in Japan. I never imagined that it would get published.”

Back in 1996, MacMillan was awarded a two-year visiting fellowship to Columbia and Princeton as well as Oxford University. At Columbia, he worked with pre-eminent Japan scholar Donald Keene. When he later showed his manuscript to Keene, “he told me it was the best translation of the work that he had ever seen.”

With such encouragement, MacMillan pursued publication. Keene later wrote the foreword to his translation, and “One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each” was published in 2008, winning awards in both the U.S. and Japan.

MacMillan believes the success “really changed my life. It gave me a whole new direction and through it I discovered an engagement with Japanese culture that was truly rewarding for me. As a foreigner living in Japan, it gave me a unique role.”

Last December, MacMillan launched the Japan Institute to continue that role: “It is still in a fledgling state and we don’t even have a website yet, but I realized there is a limit to what one individual can do. I want to promote an understanding of Japanese culture overseas. After the (March 2011) Great East Japan Earthquake, I decided I should be doing something that makes it worthwhile for me to stay. So I decided to make the translation of Japanese poetry part of my life work.”

He also regularly donates a part of the proceeds from his prints to Tohoku and UNESCO Japan.

Although MacMillan finds much to enjoy in his adopted country, he finds much to question — including sustainability — and he is grateful his visual art gives him a platform to ask these questions.

MacMillan first studied print-making at Musashino University near his home, wondering if he should eventually take over his father’s business as an art dealer. “I realized I was not really fit to be an art dealer, but when I took courses in print-making, I discovered I could create my own work.”

The visual art has given him another way to communicate in Japan. “I have quite a strong satirical streak,” MacMillan admits, a nod toward fellow Irishman Jonathan Swift. “But these days I think satire is a very compromised art. We live in an age where we are conscious that we all leave carbon footprints. None of us are perfect. We might like to attack the various industries that damage the environment, but we all, in a sense — just by living — are contributing to the depletion of the Earth’s natural resources. Satire has to be done more subtly. One way to do that is through visual images that pose challenging questions in a more indirect and playful way.”

With his translation of “The Tales of Ise” expected later this year and a literary anthology on Mount Fuji complete with a three-month exhibition at Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki from June, MacMillan’s energy shows no signs of flagging: “I’m not a radical politician who can go out marching the streets. I have to do it in my own style, gently and with play, honoring the wonders of Japanese culture, its art and literature.”

For more information on MacMillan’s work, see www.peter-macmillan.com.

  • kyushuphil

    Good to see Peter MacMillan’s whimsy — spot-on, resonant, provocative.

    Sugggestion for his Japan Institute — partner with universities abroad which have programs or interest in international exchange.

    First step in exchanges: students abroad read some Japanese lit (probably in English) and comment on that by reference to poets or others from their own culture. Send those essays to classes of university students in Japan, who read them and then respond further — to the foreign poets, the foreign culture, and foreign youth individually themselves — and also to the foreigners’ Japanese references that best resonate with them.

    Any number of embassies and consulates in Japan can help Peter and the Japan Institute find U programs abroad interested in cross-cultural communication.