Every time David Karashima took a Japanese author to New York or London to do a reading, the local audiences would ask two questions: “Who’s the next Haruki Murakami?” and “Why isn’t there an international literary festival in Tokyo?”
“Finally I thought, OK, let’s make this happen,” Karashima says.
He can’t predict the next breakout Japanese novelist, but Karashima is uniquely positioned to address Tokyo’s lack of literary events. He is the manager of international projects at Read Japan, a division of the Nippon Foundation dedicated to promoting Japanese literature abroad. Now, as the director of the first Tokyo International Literary Festival, to be held March 1-3, he is bringing to Japan a dozen English-language authors. They will participate in three days of readings, conversations and workshops alongside some 30 Japanese authors at venues ranging from coffee shops to universities, and even a nightclub.
The increased interest in Japanese literature abroad, in part due to the popularity of Murakami’s most recent opus, “1Q84,” is one of the reasons that Karashima says now is a good time to host Japan’s first international literary festival. Another is that, he says, readers are increasingly looking to connect with writers and with other readers.
“Readings and book-discussion groups are just starting to take off, though it’s mostly been for business books,” he says. “We want to grab those readers who are already looking for that shared experience and expand the kinds of books they reach out for.”
Literary fiction isn’t necessarily an easy sell. Demand has declined in Japan, he says, and there’s a mistaken impression that it isn’t for everyone. “With literary fiction, there are walls up that don’t need to be there. We’re hoping that bringing in foreign authors helps break that down,” he says. “We’re trying to mix things up.”
All of the Japanese authors have some work translated into English, and most of the visiting authors have some work translated into Japanese. The authors include Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee and Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz as well as Nicole Krauss, who was named one of Granta Magazine’s best writers under 40, and her husband Jonathan Safran Foer, who has earned the same recognition from The New Yorker.
Many of the visiting writers have strong connections with Japan. Journalist Pico Iyer and novelist David Peace have both made their homes in Japan at different times. Iyer has written extensively about life and travel here, while the books in David Peace’s “Tokyo Trilogy” are fictionalized but deeply researched crime thrillers set in the aftermath of World War II.
The festival will be the 11th trip to Japan for Díaz, who won international acclaim for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” about a Dominican immigrant teenager who lives in the U.S. and has a socially crippling love of all things nerdy. Díaz will appear at a session called “The Otaku’s Guide to Love” with Risa Wataya, who won her first literary prize while still in high school. His writing is often related to immigration and assimilation. He will also join Peace and Fukushima native Hideo Furukawa at a session on “Writing Home away from Home.”
Karashima says that Nobel laureate Coetzee is a tremendous influence on contemporary Japanese writers, even if they don’t explicitly acknowledge it. And while, true to his taciturn reputation, the South African author is expected to deliver his keynote reading while shunning any audience interaction, he was quick to agree to make the trip from Australia.
“Coetzee just loves Japan,” Karashima says. “It will be inspiring for the Japanese authors to have him here.”
And that’s part of the point of the festival. The invited authors are mostly in their 30s and 40s. They have all achieved recognition and success but are still at a point where they are open to being influenced by being in an international environment, Karashima says.
All of the sessions will be presented with simultaneous interpretation in both Japanese and English. But the idea of “mixing things up” goes beyond translation. Editors, publishers, translators and cultural commentators will be speakers and moderators, talking about different aspects of what goes into internationalizing fiction. Renowned cover illustrator Chip Kidd and manga artist Naoki Urasawa will give presentations and appear in conversation, and actor Shosuke Tanihara will perform in a reading. And video and performance will mix at an event called “Night on the Galactic Express,” a multimedia evening at subterranean Roppongi club SuperDeluxe, a venue not often associated with the quieter pleasures of reading.
That’s not an accident. Yoshitaka Haba, one of the presenters and organizers, works as a “book director.” He moves book collections out of bookshops and into other urban environments, such as cafes and bars.
“I don’t want books to be a rare luxury item — I want them to be something people have with them all the time,” he says. “I want them to be in places where books have been forgotten.”
In the same spirit, the festival will bring literature into other unexpected places. Haba will also take over the loudspeaker of one of Shinjuku’s largest department stores (to be revealed soon) during the festival and replace the usual announcements to shoppers with Japanese poetry.
He will take part in a panel discussing the future of books on the last day of the festival. Novelist Safran Foer, illustrator Kidd and literary critic Makoto Ichikawa will join him on stage at Waseda University.
At the same time, novelist Shinji Ishii will be taking his work to the streets — or, rather, to the rails. Ishii is known for his sonoba shōsetsu, or “fiction of a specific place.” He creates short works of fiction on the spot, inspired by the place he’s in, whether it’s a cafe, a temple or the stage of a former strip club. He writes longhand and reads out loud as he goes. He will live-write a piece in the most novel of the festival’s venues: a fully rented-out carriage on the Toden Arakawa streetcar. Parts of the mobile writing experiment will be broadcast live to the panel at Waseda.
While the festival doesn’t have a specific connection to the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, it’s something that won’t be too far from anyone’s mind, as the event takes place just a few days before the second anniversary. Several of the Japanese authors appearing at the festival contributed to “March Was Made of Yarn,” a collection of fiction inspired by the disaster and edited by Karashima. Furukawa, Peace, Natsuki Ikezawa, Mieko Kawakami and Mitsuyo Kakuta will talk and read about writing as a part of rebuilding and responding to calamity. Karashima says, “Fiction allows us to explore the aftermath of a disaster in a way that nonfiction doesn’t.”
At an evening session at Roppongi Hills, Foer, Kawakami and Peace will read and talk about how fiction can confront disaster in “Rebuilding Narratives.” All authors are well known for fiction they wrote in the aftermath of disasters close at hand: Foer for the post-9/11 novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and Kawakami and Peace for writing about Japan’s recent and historical natural disasters.
With Hollywood movies losing popularity in Japan and fewer people studying abroad each year, is Japan really looking for international literary influence? “Japan could very easily slip into becoming more insular. That would be a shame,” Karashima says, adding that from a business perspective, Japan literally can’t afford to close itself off. “Literature is something that works on the individual level to counter that tendency toward insularity,” he says.
Díaz agrees that books connect people across cultures. He says that on his many trips to Japan it has always struck him as “a reading society.”
“The sheer amount of books and magazines I encounter during my trips to Japan always leads me, a writer, to feel like I’m in my kind of place,” he says. “Given how little space literature is given at a global level and how necessary literature is for all our well-being, it’s always a good time for a literary festival.”
Tokyo International Literary Festival will take place March 1-3 at various locations in central Tokyo. All events are free, but registration is required. For details or to register, visit www.tokyolitfest.com.