Sunday, 18 November 2007

No More Covering Up

And so, after what seems like an eternity of delays, the new book in Japanese was finally published last week.

Let me share some details of the animated 'discussions' we've had about the cover of the book. With any of the previous books I've been involved in, I've always been closely involved with the cover design. For the first book I did in Japanese with Sekaishisosha, I was shown a variety of cover designs and they were all great - so good I was quite sad to have to reject some of them. With The Tower of London, Peter Owen at first came up with a fairly horrendous design - a sepia photograph of the Tower of London from about 1900 with some horse-drawn cabs in front, accompanied by some cack-handed calligraphy. I hated it and howled to high heaven in objection. I pointed out that this gave the impression that the book was nothing more than a historical record of a distant age - but actually this was not at all the case. The book was a contemplation of the nature of time and existence and the cover had to present a symbol of something timeless and mysterious.

I personally drafted in the calligrapher Kosaka Misuzu to do the Japanese characters for The Tower of London and in fairness to Peter Owen, the cover they subsequently produced was exactly as I wanted it to be - they even threw in a sinster-looking raven for good measure. And once having established the style of the series, they did a great job in producing covers for The Gate and Kokoro. In fact, it's a shame that due to copyright reasons we were never able to produce a version of Botchan for which an excellent cover was also prepared.

Similarly with the edition of Endo Shusaku's Scandal for which I wrote the intro, there was an initial proposal that the cover have some bizarre image of a very small man engaged in an act of procurement with a woman who towered over him. I was pretty insistent that the cover represent the fact that Scandal is a novel about a doppelganger and I suggested that the cover have a vision of the protagonist Suguro as a Jekyll-like figure in pursuit of a leering, lecherous Suguro as a kind of modern day Hyde. In the end, although the cover was not exactly like this, it did show two identical images of a Japanese man on the loose in Tokyo's Kabukicho, thereby nicely representing the doppelganger theme of the novel. (For the interested reader, the final covers of these books are now all on display together on the home page of my website).

So, as you can see, I have some experience in getting involved in producing ideas for covers. As Kodansha International had spent so much time and effort over the new book in Japanese and as the editor was so determined to produce a completely original book, I naturally assumed that we would be having a bookcover that was something a little special - that a lot of thought would be going into it and that I might be allowed some influence on the design before it was finalized.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I was initially told that the bookcover had been decided and that it was nothing more than a fairly old-fashioned looking picture of Soseki set against a blue background. It seemed to project the image that Soseki was a conservative writer and that his books belonged to a long-distant age. It was contradictory to the modern, fresh, international perspective of the book and its central message that there is no such thing as 'national literature' and that great literature has to speak to people throughout the world.

Yet I was presented with this cover as a fait accompli. In fact it turned out that this was actually the better of two options - the other one was an even worse sepia-coloured cover (pictured above). So I simply had to accept the blue cover. I was mentally exhausted when I was shown these images and the publication timetable was pressing. I really couldn't decide whether it was worthwhile kicking up a fuss. Besides, in Japan bookcovers do tend to be very simple and plain. I wasn't sure whether a conservative-looking cover would actually harm sales. So I thought perhaps I should just leave it as it was.

However the night before I was due to fly back to England, at 3 in the morning, I finally decided that no, these covers simply would not do. I didn't care about company rules; I didn't care about timetables or expense. We simply had to come up with something better. I composed a plaintive email and, at the airport, just before I was due to get on my flight, I fired it off.

When I got back to England, I was still in a fluster about the whole issue and decided it might be better to come up with a cover design myself. So I talked my girlfriend - who is an expert in computer animation and quite handy when it comes to these things - into coming up with a design in a mere 24 hours. Personally I think what she came up with is great. It actually represents what the book is all about - a dialogue between a Westerner and Japan's greatest modern literary figure. It shows the light of Japanese literature shining through the libraries of the western world; and most of all there is a globe to tell you that the vision of this book is not just confined to the little world of 'Japanese literature', but is about what this literature has to say to people around the world.

But I kept on receiving emails from Tokyo telling me to 'please leave it to them'. The book designer had taken on board my concerns and had come up with a new design. When I saw the new design, I was, to be honest, a tad ambivalent. Compared to the previous one it was certainly more interesting, but perhaps a little bit psychodelic? I fretted whether to insist on one of my own designs, but appreciating that the publishers had at least met me halfway, I decided that I should offer no more objections. And so it is that it is this design that has provided the cover for the book.

Now that I've seen the actual book, I'm really quite happy with it - the only question is: how will it go down with the Japanese public?

Saturday, 3 November 2007

A Call to Arms

It's one of the seemingly eternal debates whether literature should involve itself in matters of contemporary politics. Generally speaking I think the answer is 'no'. Literature should aspire towards the universal and the timeless, getting embroiled in the muck of politicking usually gives a book an immediate read-by date. Who now is seriously interested in the 'proletariat literature' of the early twentieth century? Probably about as many people who read the political pamphlets of John Milton. I'm sure the issues all seemed terribly important at the time, but a few years down the road the context changes and the relevancy is completely lost. Politics and literature, it seems, don't mix.

Yet there is the reverse view. What after all is the point of spending your life buried in artistic dreams if you allow the world around you to degenerate? Isn't the most important thing to try and make the world a better place, to try and put some of your most cherished beliefs into practise?

It's often dismissed by critics as a later fabrication, but I love the story of the great Chinese writer Lu Xun making the sudden decision to abandon his medical studies and devote his life to literature. In A Call to Arms Lu Xun recounts how when he was a student in the northern Japanese city of Sendai in 1906, he and his Japanese classmates were shown a slide of a Chinese man in Manchuria about to be executed by the Japanese for being a Russian informant during the recent Russo-Japanese War. What struck Lu Xun was the total passivity of the Chinese people watching the scene, meekly acquiescing to the brutality of the colonial oppressors. The Chinese people, he realised, were spiritually sick and no amount of western medicine would improve their condition. What his people needed was a strong injection of spiritual inspiration by means of a literature with a socially purposeful mission. That was the only thing which would change China and shake the country to its senses.

I puddle around between Japan and England, and other places besides, indulging myself in scribblings, but what about what is happening in the world right now?

In the worlds in which I move, politicking has never seemed to me particularly urgent. It always used to be the case, for example, that you could safely forget about Japanese politics. There was always some grey caretaker prime minister from some LDP faction or other, but nothing much changed no matter who came or went. Years ago, I took a Japanese politics course at university in England, and although I must have learnt about prime ministers Sato and Kishi and many others, these days I can't remember the slightest thing about any of them. There really was nothing to remember. Japan was mostly interested in its economy and although many people used to criticise the Japanese for being 'politically unaware', it was actually one of the best things about Japan: You could almost say there was no politics.

And yet, of late, I have started to change my mind. What is going on in Japan these days disturbs me. Now for the first time I worry about the future course of Japanese politics and the nation as a whole. There was of course always a right-wing fringe in Japan, but you could dismiss them as an irrelevance. Mishima Yukio and his gang of nancy boy samurai were never going to take over the state. But these days ultra-nationalists really are in danger of deciding the future of Japan.

The examples are countless. There's the ultra-nationalist mayor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, who hates China and is a firm defender of all Japan's actions in the Pacific War. There has been Prime Minister Koizumi and his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals are enshrined, followed by the recent flop, Prime Minister Abe, who pushed for the instillation of patriotism in schools and the abandonment of the peace constitution by which Japan forever revoked war. There's endless talk of Japan returning to being a 'normal' country, meaning that it will have an army capable of active military deployment overseas.

But for me the most disturbing aspect of this rise of ultra-nationalism is the fact that the best-selling book written in Japanese last year was Kokka no Hinkaku (The Dignity of the State), selling over two million copies. So offensive is this foolish nationalistic diatribe, that it is tempting to just completely ignore it, but not only has it been a best-seller, but it actually reflects much of the contemporary political zeitgeist.

Last week (much later than everyone else as usual) I read it. I should point out that I'm not sure I could have actually ever brought myself to buy it - I knew in advance it would be the usual arguments about how Japan must embark on a return to the 'spirit of bushido' or to Japanese (or perhaps Asian) values. But I was given a copy by someone who presumably thought that I would sympathize with the contents.

It's hard to know where to begin. As mentioned on a recent post, over the summer I read Richard Dawkin's wonderfully inspiring book The God Delusion, which convincingly argues that we don't need 'God' or the Bible or a lot of church dignitaries to lead purposeful and moral lives. We can think for ourselves, thanks very much. How depressing then to come across a book like The Dignity of the State which argues that no, actually we can't think for ourselves, we can't be individuals, we can't have an international perspective. No, we can only be tiny cogs, mass-produced automatons of 'the state'. The Japanese, Fujiwara tells us, need something to provide a moral framework and since they don't have Islam or Christianity, they should stick with 'samurai values'.

My old acquaintance from university in England, Andrew Rankin, recently wrote a succinct and measured review for The Japan Times of The Dignity of the State. He wrote how bogus were Fujiwara's solutions to the problems of the modern world. Yet curiously he offers some praise for the first half of the book. Fujiwara's critique of western values, we are told, is 'spot on'. This seems to be because Fujiwara points out that 'freedom' and 'equality' are incompatible and after all 'not all people are equal'.

I think even a young child could tell you that 'equality' does not mean that we are, or should even aspire to be, equal, but rather that we shall be treated equally in the eyes of the law and that as much as possible we should be offered equal opportunities in life to develop our inevitably unequal abilities. It means that hopefully you won't be hindered from achieving success in life because of race, gender, disability, social background etc. It's exactly the type of thing that Japan didn't have until it underwent a process of Westernization in the 19th century - before that you were either a samurai or a farmer or an artisan, or you were master or servant or wife, and you were stuck with that role for life. There was an extremely rigid hierarchy, and no concept of 'equality' or 'freedom'. But apparently this is the value system Japan should go back to...

Fujiwara tells us in his best-selling book that not only are 'freedom' and 'equality' a waste of time, but so is democracy. Because most of the population in Japan and Germany supported the war effort in the last world war, what's the point in having a democracy, we are asked. Andrew rightly pointed out in his review that the level of debate in this book is type of thing you might hear at the local streetside noodle stand.

Britain and the British are also repeatedly referred to in the book. The author lived for a year as a mathematician at Queen's College Cambridge (pictured above) and this has given him deep insights into British culture. The British are apparently a people who 'kneel before tradition'; noone would ever consider throwing away a thousand-year plus tradition of monarchy. (He's obviously not heard my opinion on the subject).

There are many hilarities to be had in the book. Advancing his argument that Japanese people should spend more time steeped in their own glorious culture rather than opening their minds to the rest of the world, we are told how the author was asked by a great mathematician (winner of the Fields Prize no less),
'Is there any connection between Yukio Mishima's suicide and the suicide of Sensei in Natsume Soseki's Kokoro?'

You might think the correct answer to this is, 'You know, I think we'd really need to stitch Yukio's head back on and ask him...'

But the author instead mumbled something about the Japanese 'aesthetics of death' and acutely felt his shame for not being to properly answer this profound question.

Then we are told that a Japanese businessman was invited to dinner in England and was suddenly asked by his English companion,

'I wonder if you could tell me what is the difference between the pots of the Yayoi Period (300 BC to 300 AD) and those of the Jomon Period (13000 BC to 300 BC)?'

You can easily imagine the mischievous Englishman having fun with his poor old Japanese guest in this way. He apparently then followed this tease with,

'Oh, and can you explain what the difference was in circumstances between the First and Second Mongol invasions of Japan?'

The Japanese person apparently believed that if he could not answer this question about his own culture, he would not be thought worthy of any conversation.

(The appropriate answer would of course been along the lines of,

'Sure, I'll tell you that just as soon as you've explained the differences between the types of armour taken on the Second and Third Crusades and the geometrical differences between the Standing Circles found on the Outer Hebrides and those on the Orkneys. Oh, and while you're at it, could you also explain the workings of the Danelaw in the Ninth Century?')

But it seems the Japanese person did not respond like this, but instead felt deep unease and embarrassment about his ignorance of his own culture (Oh, the years I have wasted learning English when I could have been brushing up on my Yayoi period pottery!)

All of this perhaps indicates that what the Japanese person in these anecdotes really needs is not so much a dose of nationalism, but a cultivated sense of irony.

Oh dear, poor old Japan. Fujiwara's book is full of laughable Orwellian Doublespeak. The Japanese, we are told, should have patriotism instilled in them. But because of the nasty connotations of old-style patriotism, it should not be called 'patriotism' ('aikokushin') but rather 'love of one's county' ('sokokuai'). Hmmm, subtle distinction.

I hope I am worried unnecessarily about recent trends in Japan. I even feel a bit sheepish talking about it. After all I really love Japan and I'm certainly aware that noone likes to hear foreigners make adverse comments about their own country. But on the other hand, it's only sometimes when you hear an outsider's opinion that you begin to get a different view on things. Many Japanese friends have said to me that all they know is Japan so it is impossible for them to tell how things here compare to the rest of the world.

I have a friend who tells me that rise in nationalism is part of worldwide trend, and maybe this is right - Russia's upsurge in nationalist tendencies is also worrying - but somehow a lurch towards nationalism in Japan, given its history, insularity and economic power, seems particularly dangerous. Fujiwara in his book calls for Japan to be more assertive in its international affairs. Instead of playing puppy dog to America, the Japanese should tell everyone else to get out of Iraq, for example, so they can send over 100,000 troops with 10,000 auxiliaries and sort everything out.

Meanwhile I find myself being told all the time that Japan should abandon the famous article nine of the 'Peace Constitution' preventing Japan from having a military the same as any other country. I always offer the reverse opinion that what Japan should actually be doing is exporting its Peace Constitution and trying to get other countries to adopt it. An armed and offensive Japan would be disastrous - it's as a beacon of peace and prosperity that Japan should attempt to position itself.

Meanwhile manga writers like Kobayashi Yoshinori continue to pour out best-selling manga about Japan's glorious exploits in the Second World War. The Nanjing Massacre, we are told, never happened, nor were there were any Comfort Women. All these things were lies dreamt up by the Americans to excuse their own brutality by dropping the atomic bombs on Japan.

I would really like to think that there is nothing to worry about in some of the directions in which Japan is moving, but just for the moment, I'm finding it quite hard.