Tokyo’s literature festival resurfaces


Special To The Japan Times

The Tokyo International Literary Festival got off to a good start. Both the inaugural 2013 event and the 2014 edition were successful, an auspicious beginning to forging cultural and artistic connections between Eastern and Western writers on a global stage. But since the festival’s forced hiatus in 2015 due to leadership changes, it has had to wade through a sea of troubles to stay afloat.

Resurfacing this year, the festival will run from March 2 to 6 at various venues around Tokyo. Headliners include an impressive lineup from both sides of the Pacific. The Festival sets off with an opening session featuring esteemed poet and scholar Elizabeth Alexander, two-time Pushcart Prize-winner Seth Fried, Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li and 2015 Akutagawa Prize-winner, Masatsugu Ono, discussing cultural and artistic connections in literature.

Other major headliners include influential novelist and film critic Steve Erickson, author, critic and editor John Freeman, Taiwanese eco-poet and writer Syaman Rapongan, Thai writer and artist Prabda Yoon and a host of award-winning Japanese authors and translators.

It’s an impressive lineup but Takeshi Yokosato, the director of the festival’s newly formed organizational secretariat, isn’t patting himself on the back just yet.

“We’re still in the mishmash of preparations,” he says. “We’ve nothing to be proud of until the successful close of this year’s fest.”

The festival relies on a variety of national and international advisers, including Motoyuki Shibata, editor of the Japanese literary magazine, Monkey, and its annual English version, Monkey Business. The Japan Times caught up with Yokosato and Shibata on the eve of the third festival to discuss this year’s events and the challenges to keep the festival afloat.

“The main reason we took a break was because we lost the person who was the nucleus of the festival and we weren’t sure how to go about planning the next one,” says Yokosato.

That person was David Karashima, the director and overall planner behind the first two festivals. He retired from the Nippon Foundation, the festival’s main sponsor and organizer, to take a teaching position at Waseda University in Tokyo. After losing its director, it took several months for the festival to get back on track.

“By 2015, with the support of Karashima and others, we formed a new, five-member secretariat and began planning the next festival,” explains Yokosato.

But just as the organizational structure fell into place, three authors scheduled to participate pulled out unexpectedly.

“I think we need to get used to these types of challenges,” says Shibata. “They inevitably occur when organizing a big event, but this time it happened more than it usually does. I think partly we were just unlucky, but it’s also because this time we reached out to writers we had never met — those we were not professionally acquainted with but whose works we admired. In the first two festivals, we could use writers we personally knew or had worked with. Without a previous relationship, sometimes writers find it easier to cancel.”

Because of the many last-minute changes, promotion of the event has also taken a hit. Throughout the restructuring and in reaction to setbacks, organizers have been very conscious of remaining true to the Tokyo International Literary Festival’s original goals.

“Our first goal is to increase interest in literature for readers in Japan,” says Yokosato. “The second is to raise awareness of Japanese literature overseas and give Japanese writers a chance to interact with foreign writers.”

Shibata adds that they are also trying to “do new things to making the event more global, such as inviting more Asian writers or reaching out across a variety of genres.”

This includes dialogue between invited authors and a who’s who of Japanese writers. Best-selling novelist of “Out” and “Real World,” Natsuo Kirino, will sit down with Malaysian writer Dina Zaman and Jhoanna Lynn B. Cruz, a writer and teacher from the Philippines, to discuss female writers challenging social taboos. Other discussions will focus on a wide range of topics: relations between China and Japan as depicted in literature; the future of fiction and how translation affects reading; and other sessions that will link literature with other forms of expression, from dance to photography.

The Festival will also showcase a core group of local, non-Japanese writers in a special reading on March 4 at Sophia University: short story writer Marc Kaufman, Roland Kelts, author of the acclaimed best-seller “Japanamerica” (who is also a columnist at this paper), and Tracy Slater, author of “The Good Shufu.”

Fittingly, the festival ends with a recently added coup, a presentation from Norway’s Karl Ove Knausgard, author of the “Min Kamp” series of novels, the European literary sensation that was first published in English last year.

With participants like these engaging local readers, Yokosato hopes the festival will be able to propel itself into the future.

“Books are not just to read,” he says. “They make you think about many things, can lead you to take action and make you want to share what you’ve read with others. Books open up a whole new world.”

As Shibata points out, “It’s a shame that there had never been a festival like this in Tokyo, as all the major cities around the world have held literary festivals for a long time. For us, it is very new, and I am glad we can continue this tradition.”

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