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Japan’s pop culture and literature drive soft power

by Roland Kelts

Anime, manga and Haruki Murakami may form an unlikely trinity, but outside of Japan they’re responsible for filling Japanese Studies departments and sprawling convention halls with generations of the devoted. They’re at the core of Japan’s global allure, the center of its soft power, and last month I was immersed in all three in the span of two weeks in two countries: the United Kingdom and the United States.

In Japan, of course, they’ve all been around a while, yet they continue to draw young audiences abroad. It was 40 years ago that Murakami decided he could write a novel after watching an American baseball player hit a double for the Yakult Swallows, his favorite Japanese team. That novel, 1979’s “Hear the Wind Sing,” won Japan’s Gunzo Prize for New Writers and launched the literary career of a rarity: a bona-fide international best-selling writer who is now short-listed annually for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Twenty years ago, I met Murakami for the first time. Our one-hour interview at his Tokyo office spilled into three hours of free-form conversation that touched upon rare jazz recordings, Japanese youth culture, American individualism — and that epiphanic baseball game.

Since then, we have met on several occasions in cities as far-flung from Japan as Boston, New York and San Francisco, where we conducted an onstage dialogue and reading together. I watched him hold an audience of 3,000 in thrall for 90 minutes. Far from fading over the years, Murakami’s star has brightened and expanded, absorbing literary awards at home and overseas, inspiring cinematic and theatrical adaptations and translations in over 50 languages as his new books post sales in the millions.

A writer’s work is subject to constant reevaluation, but few living writers warrant four days of it. At Newcastle upon Tyne in the U.K. this March, Murakami’s work commandeered the attention of more than 120 scholars from 59 universities around the world for “Eyes on Murakami,” a project incorporating visual art, film, translation workshops, academic presentations and symposia. And while he wasn’t physically present, Murakami’s stories and visions filled an art gallery, a cinema and several lecture halls on the campus of Newcastle University.

“Eyes” was first conceived two years ago by professor Gitte Marianne Hansen, a lecturer in Japanese Studies at Newcastle, who told me that Murakami is the only author who could draw together individuals across several disciplines, nationalities and ages. Interest in attending the event was so overwhelming that she had to opt out of advertising it publicly and decline quality proposals.

“I’m not doing this conference because I’m a fan of Murakami,” she said. “I really like some of his books and others I don’t like at all. But he’s unique in that he brings together readers from beyond academia, from film and other arts, and they have a personal investment in his work.”

Hansen added, “Yesterday I spoke to two girls who traveled to Newcastle just for this conference — one from Spain, the other from Italy. Neither of them study Murakami. They just read his books.”

For the following generations of Japanese writers, reading those books is like getting a “new dose of oxygen,” said Japanese translator and scholar Motoyuki Shibata, quoting author Yoko Ogawa’s appraisal of Murakami’s impact. Instead of rebelling, rising literary stars such as Hideo Furukawa and Mieko Kawakami, 20 and 30 years younger than Murakami respectively, embrace him as a model of independence and what Shibata called “a release from solemnity.” Both have conducted published taidan (dialogues) with Murakami, asking him about his craft and expressing gratitude for his embrace of societal crises in books like “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and “After the Quake.”

At the closing panel in Newcastle, American professor Barbara Thornbury made a striking observation: Were it not for anime and manga, she might not have a job.

The following week, I flew from post-industrial northern England to the prairie lands of Middle America for a return visit to Naka-Kon, the region’s largest Japan pop culture convention. Naka-Kon was a single-day fan meet-up at The University of Kansas when it was first held in 2005. Today, like Hansen, convention director Takuya Jay Inoue and his team have to cap attendance numbers (10,000) over a full three days to prevent the event being overrun or having to move to a larger venue.

I attended my first anime convention more than 10 years ago in New York. I was teaching at The University of Tokyo at the time. Being plucked from a staid lecture hall and dropped into gaggles of cosplayers in Manhattan’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center was as invigorating as it was daunting. Armed with only a dinner jacket and a set of PowerPoint slides, how could I possibly command the attention of a crowd full of bright orange Gokus and golden-tailed Pikachus? And did what surrounded me really have anything to do with Japan or its centuries of culture?

Since then, I’ve learned to embrace the chaos and bridge the gap between the academic conference and the anime convention, a space that has shrunk on its own. Attendees of the former have become less solemn, to paraphrase Shibata, and at the latter, a maturing fan base wants to learn more about the history and aesthetics behind the stories and drawings that entrance them.

What may unite both is the sense of independence that Japan represents from dominant Western cultures that no longer seem to inspire.

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.