Saturday, 19 September 2015

The Joys of Norwich

At the Sainsbury Institute in Norwich on Thursday night. After delivering my talk on Yukio Mishima in the fabulous location of the cathedral hostry (pictured above), I took some questions from the floor. The first hand raised began as follows:

'I met Mishima five times and interviewed him for the BBC in 1962....'

How many people in the world can preface a question in such a way? The person asking the question was the poet and critic Anthony Thwaite - 85 years young - who regaled me at the reception afterwards with stories such as the time that Mishima asked him to recommend a 'gay gymnasium' in London. Unfortunately back in the early 1960s Anthony had absolutely no idea what the word 'gay' meant...

Many thanks to everyone at the Sainsbury Institute for a wonderful evening. The beautiful, medieval town of Norwich itself is a veritable delight to visit.

John Nathan's Extraordinary Life in Japan and Beyond

I recently interviewed John Nathan (pictured above), erstwhile associate of famous Japanese writers such as Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe and Kobo Abe. John has had an extraordinary life that has encompassed not only being a top-class translator, biographer, novelist and memoirist but also somehow found time for him to direct and produce films, write a book on the Sony Corporation and hold down professorships at Princeton and the University of California.

These days John is taking things easy by writing a biography of Natsume Soseki, the most celebrated Japanese writer of the modern age.

You can read the interview on the Asahi Japan Watch website by clicking the link below:

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Japan and the Nobel Prize for Literature

Following on from my piece in The Japan Times two weeks ago on 'Mishima, Murakami and the Elusive Nobel Prize' (see previous post), you can read the latest articles in my series on Japan and the battle for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In Part Two, I discussed with John Nathan - translator of the novels of Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburo Oe - both the winners and losers of the prize amongst the great Japanese writers of the last half century. To read, please click the link below:

In Part Three, I considered the case of the great novelist Shusaku Endo, whom many felt should have won in 1994. Will Martin Scorsese's new film of Endo's masterpiece Silence bring the international recognition the Nobel Prize Committee failed to do? To read more, click the link below:

My thanks to publisher Peter Owen for allowing us to use the 1981 picture of Endo in this piece - the first time this picture has ever been made public.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Recent Japan Times Articles

Here's a couple of links to some of my recent articles in The Japan Times. You can read 'Descending to the Depths of Yukio Mishima's "Sea of Fertility"' by clicking the link below:

And here's another piece in yesterday's Japan Times, 'Mishima, Murakami and the Elusive Nobel Prize':

Sunday, 30 August 2015

On the Trail of Lacadio Hearn

From Dublin to Durham, from Cincinnati to New Orleans, and from Martinique to Matsue we will be on the trail of legendary roving Irishman Lafcadio Hearn for a unique event at the University of Durham on September 25.

I'm honoured to be joining a symposium panel including keynote speaker John Moran of the Irish Times; expert in Irish Literature, Professor Stefan Regan; former Irish ambassador and Lafcadio Hearn biographer, Paul Murray; and Ayako Nasuno from the Yaezu Koizumi Yakumo Museum in Japan.

Join us for a celebration of one of Ireland's literary get you in the mood here's a link below to a piece on Hearn by John Moran in the Irish Times.

Speaking at the Sainsbury Institute

I'm really looking forward to speaking about the life and legacy of Yukio Mishima at the Sainsbury Institute in Norwich on 17 September. Join us if you can! Everyone welcome. Here's a link with more details of the event:

Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Eternal Appeal of The Tale of Genji

You can read my latest article for The Japan Times on the new translation of The Tale of Genji - sometimes referred to as the world's oldest novel - by clicking on the link below:

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Sex, Nightmares and Charlotte Rampling

Yesterday I visited for the first time HOME, Manchester's new £25 million arts venue on the last day of the city's International Festival. It's a pleasing addition to the already vibrant arts scene in Manchester, offering under one roof art-house cinemas, theatre and art installations as well as fine dining, cafe and bookshop (where I very nearly succumbed to buying 8 books on East Asian cinema).

The installations space included an interesting short film 'Mishima in Mexico' (2012), a 14 minute piece based on Mishima's novel 'Thirst for Love' in which director Wu Tsang and writer Alex Segade self-reflexively talk about how to make a film about the book and variously swap the roles of Etsuko and Saburo (see still from film below). In the 1950 novel Etsuko is a young, frustrated widow who conceives a jealous passion for manly gardener Saburo before finally murdering him. Albeit that the novel is supposed to be describing heterosexual passion, it was written inbetween Mishima publishing his iconic works of 'gay literature' ('Confessions of a Mask', 'Forbidden Colours') and he later remarked that he conceived Etsuko as a man. In Tsang and Segade's take on it, boundaries of gender, sexuality and dominance are appropriately blurred and transformed. (Mishima incidentally did actually visit Mexico - making me think that this was probably what the film would be about. But I guess there's another fascinating film to be made about that as well.)

My main objective in being at HOME was to watch the new play 'Neck of the Woods', a re-working of the Little Red Riding Hood fable (see image by Walter Crane below) which is virtually a solo performance by veteran actress Charlotte Rampling. The piece was created specially for the Manchester International Festival by Turner Prize-winning director/ designer Douglas Gordon and writer Veronica Gonzalez Pena. I didn't learn until later that the piece has been unfairly savaged by the critics as being insubstantial and untheatrical. Poor Charlotte Rampling has also come in for abuse for seeming to not know her lines on opening night.

It's pretty odd however that nearly all of the reviews don't actually comment on what the piece is actually about. This is a rather disturbing and thoughtful transformation of the fable of Little Red Riding Hood into the realm of paedophilic abuse. In this telling, the wolf is a voracious sexual predator, holed up with his whisky and cigars, looking to 'debauch' himself by consuming young children. Salvation would appear to arrive in the form of 'The Hunter', Little Red Riding Hood's own father, who rescues her from the bowels of the wolf. But soon we realise that the voice of the father and the voice of the wolf are one and the same...

What follows is hard to reduce to a simple analysis. At age seven, the child is abandoned by the father who disappears to the snow drifts of the north, but the child longs for him and sleeps with the body of the wolf in her bed. The father terrifies the imagination with tales of the creatures in the wood that might attack her if she makes a noise. Is this a parental abuser forcing a child into silence to cover up his crimes? Or is it also a father suppressing his daughter's sexuality? Are the two connected?

We are wandering in a dark, menacing forest of the sexual subconscious. The piece opens with the theatre plunged for several minutes into total darkness as we listen to the panting chops of a woodcutter's axe onto a tree. There is something disturbing about what is being done in the name of patriarchal order in this forest. By the end of the piece, the darkness and panting thrusts of the axe return and we are left in no doubt that this is a sexual metaphor reaching its climax with the mushroom cloud of devastation wreaked when the tree falls and slams against the forest floor.

The whole piece is accompanied by the beautiful, gently sinister piano playing of pieces by Schumann, Chopin, Brahms and many others by Helene Grimaud. It's true perhaps that the piece is not overly theatrical and could probably work as well as a radio play. But part of reason for this is the mesmeric intonation of Charlotte Rampling which just makes you want to close your eyes and savour every word, despite the fact that Rampling herself (pictured below, image Georges Biard) looks remarkably unchanged from her Night Porter heyday.

It's probably true too that this piece is as much an art installation as a piece of theatre (the same is also true for nearly all of Beckett's plays), but for me that's exactly what a venue like HOME should be doing, bravely breaking down the boundaries between art forms. This was a really interesting collaboration between stellar art, music, writing and acting talents. Thanks to the Manchester International Festival for having the courage for putting it on and I really hope to see more of it in the future.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Liverpool Comic Bringing Japanese Humour to the World

The English port city of Liverpool is internationally famous for its music - the Beatles and Merseybeat of the 1960s - and its football, with Liverpool FC having lifted the European Cup an impressive five times. Yet the first sight that greets you as you disembark your train at Liverpool's Lime Street Station is a statue of veteran comedian Ken Dodd (1927- ), holding erect his trademark 'tickling stick'.

In the nineteenth century Liverpool absorbed waves of Irish immigrants, whose 'gift of the gab' combined with the English trait of dry irony, made for a city crackling with wit and banter as the caustic asides of John Lennon testify. Liverpool produced an impressive array of domestically popular comedians from Arthur Askey back in the 1930s and 1940s to alternative comedians of the 1980s 'new wave' such as Alexei Sayle and the current favourite John Bishop, filling vast arenas up and down the country.

Liverpudlians (or 'scousers') take their instantly recognizable drawl with them wherever they go in the world. Considering themselves something of outsiders in the UK itself, the city was notorious for urban decay and a hotbed for radical socialism in the 1980s before engineering an impressive renaissance.

Diane Orrett is one such Liverpudlian, whose dream as a child was simply to travel the world. After training as a graphic designer in the late 1980s and working in the evenings as a restaurant, she saved up enough money to head off as a globe-trotting backpacker. She fancied dropping into Japan on her travels but feared it might be prohibitively expensive. Working in a ski resort in New Zealand in 1990 however, she met someone who strongly advised her to go: 'Don't worry, the Japanese will look after you', she was told. And so she headed off on a three month trip, hitchhiking all over the country.

25 years later she is still there, based in an apartment in Osaka with her collection of 400 kimono dresses, and travels from there to every corner of the world (54 countries and counting) with her one-woman show based on a traditional form of Japanese comedy called rakugo.

Her development as a rakugo (Japanese 'sit down' as opposed to 'stand up' comedy) artist came about quite by chance. In 1995 a famous rakugo performer called Katsura Shijaku, interested in the possibility of translating the medium into English, was looking for an assistant (known as a o-chako), and asked his English teacher, a friend of Orrett, if he knew of anyone. Orrett leapt at the chance and soon mastered the form, becoming from 1998 a full-time professional rakugo-ka.

In rakugo, the performer wears traditional kimono and sits on a large cushion while recounting setpiece comic tales that often last 20 or 30 minutes. At the end of the tale there is a punchline known as an 'ochi', but it's really the brilliance with which the story is related that is key. The tale usually involves several characters and the rakugo-ka plays all the parts, skilfully adjusting eye direction and vocal tone to indicate who is speaking.

The audience's imagination plays a big part in proceedings too. If the rakugo-ka lifts up and down his or her knees, it means the character is meant to be standing up. To do so repeatedly indicates that they are walking or with greater speed, running. There are just two props - a fan and small hand towel - but these are used to indicate a huge variety of objects, from books to writing brushes to hot sweet potatoes.

Watching Orrett, who performs in both English and Japanese, is at times like watching the brilliant facial contortions and deadpan of a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. Her pretended munchings of hot tako-yaki (octopus dumplings, an Osaka speciality) with comically inflated cheeks is a joy to behold.

Orrett performs all over Japan, but has also taken her show across the UK, on tours of the USA, to the Baltic Republics, India and beyond. Just this year alone, she has performed in Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Turkey as well as on cruise ships operating from Taiwan and Korea. Through her shows, the world is being introduced to a hilarious aspect of Japanese culture most people never even knew existed.

Orrett's mastery of rakugo is however just one of an array of performing talents. She also doubles as a balloon artist and has recently added 'laughter yoga' (from India) to her international show. She relates how in the aftermath of the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Tsunami, all the bookings in Japan for the following six months were instantly cancelled. Orrett took the opportunity to travel to the affected areas and offer her services, teaching homeless children balloon art and performing rakugo at refugee centres. She worried that comic performances might be thought inappropriate but soon realised that the victims desperately wished for an escape from their daily troubles. Laughter was always the best therapy.

In Japan, Orrett performs under the stage name Daian Kichijitsu (a pun on the name for an auspicious day in Buddhist calendar). Her shows incorporate not just a performance of traditional Japanese comedy - fascinating though that is - but the means by which someone has been able to forge her own unique life path. 'Follow your dream; don't be afraid to make mistakes; and always greet people with a smile' are just some points of her accumulated wisdom.

For Orrett herself a fascinating life odyssey is still very much unfolding.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Why Sci-fi and Kabuki Offer all the Life Wisdom You Need

It's about 30 years since I first saw the classic British sci-fi series, Blake's Seven, but one scene has always stayed with me. The rebels have to get through an impassable doorway, protected by a force field. Their techno guy Vila (pictured above) gets to work, but no code will unlock it and no amount of energy can blast it open. Eventually he works it out: the barrier is absorbing all the energy applied to it and making itself ever stronger. To open it he simply has to apply such an incredibly small amount of energy the force field ceases to be functional and completely disappears.

We're very often told in life that to be successful, you always have to put all your energies into a project. That's usually true, but there are also occasions where doing the absolute minimum is the smart play. I've always found, for example, that when dealing with any kind of bureaucrat - clerks who are paid by the hour to compile files - feeding them the minimum amount of information is the best way to make them disappear. Getting riled and raising all kinds of complications merely makes the administrative force field in front of you ever more impassable.

You can sometimes gain life wisdom from a sci-fi show, but even more from watching the great plays of Kabuki. I always find it regrettable that not just the magnificent drama, but the piercing psychological insight of Kabuki is not more widely appreciated.

A play like Kanjincho (The Subscription List) is one of the greatest plays in the history of the world. It's one of the most thrilling, spectacular nights at a theatre you will ever have, but the chief reason has little to do with Japan. The play actually offers profound wisdom on how to live your life on a daily basis.

The set up is this: in the 12th century a famous general, Yoshitsune, has fallen foul of his elder brother, the new Shogun Yoritomo, and is on the run, fleeing north with a small band of loyal retainers. Yoritomo is determined to wipe out this potential threat to his power and has installed guards and barriers on the road heading north. His vassals have been warned to keep their eyes peeled for Japan's most wanted man.

Yoshitsune is a handsome youth, looked after by his chief retainer Benkei. To escape detection, Yoshitsune and his followers have disguised themselves as Buddhist priests travelling the country to raise funds for their temple, looking for donors to add to their 'subscription list'.

That in a nutshell is the plot, but the fascination of the play lies in something much more elemental: as in Blake's Seven, a group of rebels have to pass through an impenetrable barrier. How are they going to do it?

The commander of the guards at the barrier is called Togashi and he is immediately suspicious of the group of priests whom he suspects of harbouring the wanted Yoshitsune. An elaborate psychological battle then plays out between Benkei - posing as the chief priest - and Togashi. It's gripping theatre, with a steady ratcheting up of the tension. In the end, just as Yoshitsune is about to be apprehended, Benkei, in an unforgiveable transgression of the samurai code, strikes his own master on the pretext of his being a slovenly porter and urges him to move along.

The traditional analysis is that Togashi is so moved by Benkei being prepared to go to such lengths that he sympathetically allows the group to pass through the barrier.

Personally, I'd question that analysis. Is Togashi moved solely by sympathy, or is it rather that in the intense confrontation between Benkei and Togashi (pictured right), as in a chess game, one player is admiring of the brilliant tactical move of his opponent - at his ability to turn the unreal into the real?

No matter: after Benkei has got his entourage through the barrier, he is left alone on stage and what ensues is the most famous moment in the whole of Kabuki. Compromised and full of contradictory emotions - though equally elated and determined - Benkei (pictured left) strikes a torturous pose known as mie and then builds up to a charged run along the walkway (hanamichi) through the auditorium seats. Our hero has come within a whisker of defeat, but now he is ready to fight another day.

The key to understanding this amazing play is to grasp the universal insight in it.

In your everyday life, you will find yourself confronted with obstacles which can seem completely insurmountable. What Kanjincho is telling you is two things: firstly, sometimes you are going to have to do something completely unexpected - to compromise your most dearly-held principles - to get past that obstacle. Yet, you can get through...

Secondly, the obstacle in front of you is, more often than not, a human barrier. The way to get through that opposition, Kanjincho potently argues, is to psychologically disarm your opponent - make them understand your position, make them feel that it would be unworthy to maintain their resistance.

This powerful psychological insight has much bearing on our daily lives, but it also extends right up to matters of national and international politics. Supposing that you are faced with an implacable ideological opponent that you can't defeat by force? How are you going to turn them round and make them open the barrier? By making them see, Kanjincho answers, that it's their position that needs to be reconsidered.

On an almost weekly basis you can catch me in some personal crisis - be it business, bureaucracy or thorny family dilemma - thinking I've got some impossible problem, that this time they've got me for sure. But always Kanjincho advises me to think outside the box, encouraging me to psychologically prise open the human barrier in my way. Before I know it, I am there in my kitchen, face contorted into pain and ecstasy, starting a thunderous victory shimmy down the length of my kitchen units.

If you get the chance to see Kabuki, seize it. And don't get bogged down with historical detail: look for life wisdom instead.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Reviews and Rakugo

The Times Literary Supplement last week re-ran their 2005 review of my book about Soseki in Britain, 'The Tower of London'. Interesting to read this again - click on link below - and hard to believe it's 10 years since they first ran this...

My thanks also to Dr Matthew Shores of University of Cambridge for his review in the Bulletin of SOAS of my latest book, 'Yukio Mishima'. To read the second page of the review, click on 'next abstract' at top right of link page:

On Monday I ventured forth to Durham and was delighted to watch the fascinating Diane Kimono perform at Teikyo University in Durham her unique rakugo comedy show. There was a very nice buffet afterwards and I was pleased to meet (pictured below left to right) General Manager Shigeto Imai, Consul General Hajime Kitaoka and Principal Masao Imaseki.

I'm already very much looking forward to returning to Durham and participating in a forum on Lafcadio Hearn at the end of September. More details to follow.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Corporate Publishing and the Japanese Classics

You can read my article for Japan Today, 'How Corporate Publishing Often Ruins the Japanese Classics', by clicking the link below:

The unfortunate practices of some of the major publishing houses has been noted before on this blog. See also my 2007 blog: The March of the Penguin.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Chopsticks and World History

You can read my review of Q. Edward Wang's new book, 'Chopsticks, a Cultural and Culinary History' in today's Japan Times by clicking the link below:

Here's a few more of my musings on the subject...

One thing that leapt to my mind reading Wang's book was a curious insight into Natsume Soseki's 1910 novel The Gate, a novel I feel have exhaustively analyzed in the past (See my blog: Visions of the Gate). The novel is a masterpiece of subtle psychological insight, full of incredibly important details. In one key scene the timorous, neurotic protagonist Sosuke inspects a Mongolian sword (example below) with a holder in its handle for a pair of chopsticks. What is the precise meaning of this detail? Certainly the symbolic combination of savagery (sword) and sophistication (chopsticks) - indeed the accenting of primeval brutality with the accoutrements of civilization - is a key factor in tipping the novelist's protagonist into complete spiritual turmoil.

Reading Wang's book, I finally saw just how perceptive Soseki was: knives it turns out were always the unspoken 'other' of chopsticks. Indeed it was precisely because the aristocracy of ancient China were not required to kill animals or cut up their meat - it being neatly prepared for them in bitesize morsels - that chopsticks found their way out of the kitchen and into a diner's hands. Why after all have forks when there was no need to prong and cut meat?

I was fascinated to discover too that for millennia in ancient China, chopsticks were neither the chief means of eating one's food, nor indeed was rice the chief staple of the people. Right up until the tenth century, millet was the chief grain eaten throughout northern China and the most important dining utensil was a spoon. Chopsticks were a mere accessory if indeed one used anything at all: Confucius and his followers mostly used their fingers.

Several factors powered the unstoppable rise of chopsticks. Around the first century CE, the Chinese started milling wheat flour and gorging on noodles and dumplings, best picked up with chopsticks rather than spoons. Then, the large movements of people between north and south and the government's encouragement of the cultivation of new strains of rice - always the main staple in the warmer, wetter south - pushed millet and spoons out of the way and opened up a new millennium of rice and chopsticks.

Wang persuasively argues in the book that the diversification of chopsticks use is affected not just by the food we are eating, but by the surrounding cultures. Koreans have stuck to the traditional combination of spoon and chopsticks, and prefer their chopsticks to be metal, both because of a fine metalwork tradition and because they are eating the meat-rich foods bequeathed to them by the Mongol invasions. The Vietnamese, for long centuries under Chinese cultural dominance, eat all their foods with chopsticks, but the more culturally removed Thais use them mainly for noodles while often eating rice with their fingers.

Chopsticks soon became important cultural artifacts. As symbols of inseparability, they are bestowed in Japan as husband and wife sets of differing lengths and colours. They are sometimes a symbol of life itself. A shogun who inauspiciously broken his chopsticks while eating, fell off his horse and died ten days later. A Chinese emperor continued to hold his chopsticks to allow his favoured minister to talk and eat at his leisure (though later had him killed).

My favourite, laugh-out-loud anecdote in this fascinating, handsome book concerned Nixon and his advisers practising with chopsticks ahead of their momentous state visit to China in 1972. It's somehow infinitely gratifying to know that Henry Kissinger was completely hopeless with them.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

On a Different Plane

The other day I was sitting in a cafe reading a newspaper when a woman whom I vaguely recognized made eye contact from a distant table. Middle aged with fair, curly hair, full-bodied and friendly. The next minute, she was stood over me and asked if she could join me.

'By all means', I said, abandoning my paper.

She settled into her chair and looked sweetly into my eyes. 'I dreamt about you the other night', she began.


'We were travelling on a space ship together. I could tell it was your first time. You were very nervous and trying to escape out of the window...'

'That sounds like me.'

'We weren't travelling over Earth, it was a distant planet. The landscape completely different. I've done so many of these journeys before, but I could see you were worried. I wanted to calm you down. When I saw you just now I wanted to come over and tell you that it's OK.'

'Thanks, that's very kind of you.'

'You'd entered another frequency of existence. Most people just don't realize how many frequencies there are, that what we see around us is just one tiny wavelength. Of course we didn't really come from this planet in the first place, we were brought here from a different world. Once you connect to the different frequencies of your existence, you can begin to understand who you really are and where you came from...'

'Yes, there's so much about life we don't understand...'

'So just to say, it's alright: Don't worry.'

'I won't, and thanks again for looking after me up there...'

Regular readers of this blog will know that although I have little time for mainstream religions, I am constantly fascinated by individualistic belief systems (see my blog: 'Penetrating the Occult'). If you are going to have 'faith' in something, you might as well go the whole hog and believe in something of Ridley Scott-esque, thrilling, technicolour proportions. Setting off in a spaceship every night to revisit distant planets? Why not indeed. In the early 1960s, the great Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima was supposed to have spent some nights on his balcony keeping an eye out for UFOs and in a nearer pop universe Robbie Williams apparently threatens to abandon his showbiz career in favour of full-time UFO-logy.

In my abandoned newspaper I had just read a review of a new biography of Sir Thomas Browne, the great 17th century essayist, by the reliably good David Aaronovitch in The Times. Browne was a man of quite extraordinary breadth of interests and inexhaustible curiosity. The books he produced are some of the most uniquely fascinating in the English language. Aaronovitch slightly criticizes him for not quite being able to deny the existence of witches: Browne apparently didn't actually believe in witches, he was just reluctant to categorically state they didn't exist. But in fact Browne's indefatigable curiosity resides in this very open-mindedness, in this ability to find fascination in the mental borderlands of fact and fantasy.

The spaceship-lady rather drifted out of my mind and then a few weeks later while seated in another cafe (when the stars align, I can wangle a decent amount of time sitting in cafes), she joined me again, this time while I was sitting with someone else. Truth to tell, I had completely forgotten about our dark secret, that we had spent a night together on a spaceship with me trying to escape out the window. The lady began relating how she had attended a meeting that morning in a hotel conference room of a 'mystic master' from India, whose very presence had changed the energy of the room and connected everyone to their hidden 'frequencies of existence'.

My companion unfortunately gave it all short shrift, bursting into snorting laughter and uttering sardonic, mocking remarks. I reprimanded him for his rudeness and then suddenly recalled the 'spaceship dream'. The moment became strangely Freudian, as if tapping into a hidden world of dreams.

So I wonder: will I be heading off tonight again in spaceship travels while I sleep? Will I feel confident enough this time to sit down, opening myself to the experience and not try to scramble out the emergency exit?

And in those dreams, what will I encounter? All my fears and longings? And of the recognizable humans I meet up there, will I be brave enough to go up and tell them when I spot them the next day on the other side of my cafe?

I began to think I really rather admired the self-confidence of the spaceship-lady, though recalled hearing she had also made attempts to pay for local services in 'moon therapy' rather than cash. One local merchant took her up on it and found himself seated in a chair for an hour staring up at the moon, wondering why he had not asked for payment by bank transfer instead.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Japanese Universities: Among the Best in the World?

You can read my most recent article for the Asahi Shinbun, 'Why are Japanese universities not regarded as among the best in the world?' here: 

As a footnote, a little anecdote: an editor inserted the subheading, 'The Criteria is Suspect' leading me to email him that 'The Criteria are Suspect' was actually grammatically correct...but looking into this I saw that the use of criteria as a group singular is now one of the great battlefronts - the Ypres salient - of the English language. Apparently the old guard cling to criterion/ criteria as the last redoubt, despairing that it will ever go the way of datum/ data or agendum/ agenda. 

As a little test, I thought I would wait and see if any complaints came in, but none so I decided to high five with the kids and let 'criteria' hang loose as a group singular too...

A Short History of Terror

Throughout the Charlie Hebdo outrage and its aftermath earlier in the year, pundits in their desire to defend Islam often pointed our attention to the depredations of Christianity over the ages: the Crusades; the Inquisition; the 30 Years War; the conquest of the Americas. When it came to savagery, they bewailed, few religions could hold a candle to your fervent Christian, who would slash, burn and massacre everything in his path.

Ah, came the counter-response, these are all matters of the remote historical past. Christianity has now moved on, matured, lost its bloody zeal, acquired sense, tranquillity and good order. Most British Christians hardly believe half of it all anyway, they are only in it for the carols, and tea and cake at the vicarage on a Sunday. Show me today the militant Christians ready to inflict terror on the world like the extremists of Islam?

There is something to these arguments. Yet in the end for me it's not really a question of whether historically Christianity has been more or less bloody-thirsty than Islam. What people in the West tend to forget is that a reinterpretation of the Christian narrative is central to the very genesis of Islam.

Terror is I think intrinsic to the historical legacy of Judaism and Christianity, impinging on the psyche of people in the West from a very early age. Yet I am also intrigued at how a re-interpretation of that 'terror' has manifested itself in the Islamic world.

Let me start off with my own small universe. As a little Catholic boy in England, the figure of Jesus writhing in agony on a crucifix was the dominating image of my childhood, an image I was subjected to constantly in my primary school classrooms and in weekly masses at church. Before I could hardly form sentences, this intense horror was my constant companion. I was soon informed that it was all my fault: I was guilty and Our Lord had died to redeem my sins...

This terror was forever planted in my psyche, such that no amount of rationalizing could ever quite wash it away. I'm keen however that my own children will not be exposed to the same abuse. Even in today's secular age however, it's surprisingly difficult to keep an impressionable young mind away from a sudden avalanche of religious terror.

Let me give you an example. The other day my 6-year-old son happened upon a mounted reproduction of Leonardo's 'Last Supper' given to me as a gift by my grandmother for my first Holy Communion when I was 7.

'I know this picture, Daddy' he said. 'We learnt about it at school. It was made by someone whose name begins with a L...'

'That's right', I marvelled. 'Leonardo! Like one of the turtles.' (6-year-olds see the world refracted through a lens held up by Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles.)

'My friend T says that he cut off his ear and shot himself.'

'No, no, darling. That was Van Gogh.'

(Looking at the picture) 'And one of them did something quite naughty to Jesus...'

'Oh, that was Judas...'

'And what happened to him?'

'He hung, he got quite sad and died.'

'And what happened to Jesus?'

'Er, he was cru....he died too.'

I was thankful he didn't ask me what happened to all the other apostles: crucified, beheaded, crucified upside down (image by Michelangelo below) ...Is there any religion in the history of the world that is as brutal in its iconography as Christianity? In Britain, I rarely take my children into churches but while on holiday in Spain recently, I frequently entered churches only to be confronted with ghastly images of nails being hammered into Christ's feet, blood dripping from his crown of thorns, a soldier plunging a lance into his side. My children wanted to know why poor Jesus was constantly being savagely tortured in this way (Flagellation scene by Cranach the Elder below). At the time the best secular response I could muster was, 'He was a man of ideas, darling, and people didn't like that', but a more accurate response would be, 'Because the Church wishes to terrorize your imagination and fill it with horrors'.

I had always thought that the one advantage I had over those people such as my partner who had a completely religious-less education ('Who was this King James who wrote the Bible?', she once asked) was that at least I could make sense of the history of Western art. How could you navigate your way round the Italian quattrocento and quintocento without a solid Catholic education?

But now, I've moved on. Who after all would want to look at any of these pictures anyway? Endless gallery rooms filled with excruciating Grunewald-esque crucifixions, occasionally enlivened with a St. Sebastian studded with arrows, or a scene of flagellation or flaying. And don't forget the Massacre of the Innocents (early version by Giotto below) and the beheading of John the Baptist (below, 19th century version by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes). Sudden exposure to the brutal iconography of Christianity can be almost as shocking as watching the obscene images of torture produced by Islamic State - and for good reason because they are both inspired by similar sources.

There is however a key difference. In the post-Jesus, Christian version of terror, it is the victim - the Imitation of Christ - who is the stoical, indomitable hero, looking forward after unspeakable suffering to the rewards of virtue in the after life. This is what Nietzsche referred to as 'ressentiment', the canny ability of turning seeming defeat into transcendent moral victory.

But for the Moslems, the Christians were just kidding themselves: Jesus, despite being a great prophet, was not 'resurrected' at all, he was simply murdered by his Roman oppressors. To bring justice to the world, they argued, force had to be met with force. To watch the obscene torture images of the IS fanatics is like strangely reliving the medieval images of Christianity but with the torturers now cast in their own minds as heroes.

But Christianity too was only glorying in self-sacrifice in its post-Jesus aspect; it, like Islam, also drew on the cultural legacy of Judaism. Concurrent with the New Testament version of 'transcendence through torture and sacrifice', in utter contradiction Christian art also turned for inspiration to the Old Testament. Here, it was always the purveyors of divine terror who were the heroes: Abraham sacrificing his son Issac (below); Judith cutting off Holofernes' head (below); David slaying Goliath (at top, all three versions by Caravaggio).

Catholic churches have always teemed with this type of ultra-violent imagery. Confusingly some images are a straight-forward glorification of violence, while others are supposed to offer a critique - though in truth the artists were mostly just interested in a juicy subject matter. It's hardly surprising if the Christian observer missed any supposed subtleties: the brutal images were transposed to a corner of the psyche, waiting to be awakened and re-enacted, often, ironically, in the defence of the faith and particularly when encountering so-called 'heretics'.

My flippant self has to laugh when I hear priests opine that Christian values don't approve of all the sex and violence in the movies and on the internet. Huh, I groan, it's all utterly amateurish in comparison to the extraordinary pornography of violence and sadism available at many churches and art galleries.

It's too late for my brutalized soul, but I do wish my young children to avoid looking at and contemplating these grotesqueries.

If we search for the cause of the appalling atrocities currently being committed by Islamic State, then the brutality of the US-UK Coalition's bungling and unnecessary invasion of Iraq is certainly a contributory cause. But the way in which those atrocities manifest themselves with Old Testament-style beheadings shows that far from this being a 'clash of civilizations', IS is actually an abhorrent aberration of a religious culture with which we are in our own not-too-distant historical past all too familiar.

If you want to get inside the mindset of an IS fanatic, you don't need to travel to Syria, just try wandering through the Medieval and Renaissance Europe section of your local art gallery...

Thursday, 28 May 2015

So Farewell Then, Murphy's, Japan

I'm in Baden-Baden, Germany, but my thoughts are over in Shinsaibashi, Osaka, Japan where my 'local', Murphy's, is apparently closing down (or 'moving') this weekend. As the death-knells for the old place ring out, I thought a few words were appropriate...

I've been a regular at Murphy's for 19 years, having discovered it along with the rest of Shinsaibashi after being marooned the wrong side of my home turf of Sannomiya in the general chaos following the Great Hanshin Earthquake. It was never remotely 'local', being about 10 miles from where I lived, but at the time I'm pretty sure it was the only Irish pub in Kansai (it branded itself indeed as the first Irish pub in Japan). 

These days it seems like you can't walk 200 metres anywhere in the world without tripping over an 'authentic Irish pub', which makes it impossible to believe that when I first lived in Tokyo as an undergrad in 1988, residing under the pylons by a railway track, it seemed surreal that a country like Ireland actually existed at all. If you mentioned it to the Japanese, many would think you were talking about Iceland; if you pointed to it on a map, most would adamantly declare that it was 'Igirisu' (Britain). 

And then suddenly, there in Shinsaibashi was a little hole in the wall, where you could drink draught Guiness (and good Guiness too, better than the flat dregs they sell in the UK) and where the people of the world came for the craic. From the first time I went, I loved it and spent hundreds of nights there and millions of yen. (Photo below, courtesy Murphy's)

I have adored Shinsaibashi with a passion - I have it expressly written in my will that a share of my ashes are to be scattered, at night, along its streets. Many of the happiest nights of my life have been spent there. From glitzy restuarants to roadside noodle stands, I love the smell of the streets, the loitering characters, the infinity of possibilties and encounters waiting for you as you turn into each alleyway or entertainment building replete with its tapestry of bars and clubs.

On far, far too many occasions, I have celebrated in Shinsaibashi until the first train at some bleary-eyed hour after dawn and fallen asleep next to bright-eyed salarymen on their way to work. I've danced in bars in Shinsaibashi that indeed only open at dawn and don't get into their stride until 7am (once happening to be in Shinsai at bright-and-early 11am, wondering if it could possibly still be open, I popped my head inside that bar and was greeted as if still on a roll from the night before). 

Those nights in Shinsaibashi might lead you anywhere - a bottle of shochu and a deep debate about your favourite Japanese author somewhere; or into the dancing arms of a beautiful Canadian, Korean, American or Australian girl. On one magical evening in Shinsai, I was tottering along a quiet street with delicate snow flakes fluttering down when a lift door opened and a topless hostess in heels stepped out and formally bowed farewell to her businessman client as he clambered into a taxi. 

For me, all those nights started in the same place - Murphy's - with a pint of the black stuff in my hand. It wasn't of course just the Irish thing. Subsequently a slew of Irish pubs opened, though none exerted quite the same appeal. It was something to do with the dynamics of the space. Fanning out around you in high rise after high rise are bars, nightclubs, restaurants, street stalls, massage parlours, within touching distance from this little room on the sixth floor. Shinsaibashi is one of the world's great pleasure grounds. But at Murphy's it was all about intimacy: it was completely normal to go up and talk to everyone in the bar. The seats along the bar positively demanded interaction to left and right. 

And then the people who came into that small space were people from every part of the world: Kiwis, Aussies, South Africans, South Americans, Indians, Serbians, Turks, Finns...and quite a few Irish too. Oh, and a few Japanese. Though for me, as a Japanese Uni boy who was saturated in Japanese all week long, 'meeting the locals' was never the priority. 

You had to pan your way of course through a fair share of dull just-off-the-plane English teachers and the I'm-here-to-practice-my-English Japanese brigade, but the golden nuggets were worth the effort. Some of the greatest characters I ever encountered, I met at Murphy's. After nearly seven years spent as a graduate student in Japan, I tragically failed to produce a single friend at the uni. But Murphy's gave me some of my dearest, lifelong friends. (As a small aside, I should also note that it gave me my life partner - an erstwhile barmaid at Murphy's - and it has from there played a hand in producing three children. )

There were too the endless nights of torpor, of non-happening, of waiting-to-happen, of reading newspapers, novels and critical theory along the bar. But that was all OK too. Murphy's was one of the few bars where you could get away with that without anyone thinking it odd. 

For me there will probably never be another Murphy's, a bar whose prime happily coincided with (and abetted) my own nocturnal glory years. Never again will the lift doors open and will I strut out feeling that tonight the world is my oyster, that anything, in the magical floating world, is possible...if only I can first have a pint of Guiness. 

Hail, Murphy's, dear friend. You are gone (in present incarnation at least) but not forgotten. To a Murphy from a Flanagan I raise a glass and salute you!

While hesitating to invoke the spirit of Tony Wilson who at the closing of The Hacienda encouraged the clientele to 'loot the place', I would at least like to lay claim to some of the memorabilia: the long-lost framed article donated by Mr. Sven Serrano about how Samuel Beckett had said it impossible to get a decent pint of the black stuff in Japan. Either that, or the picture of the other half circa 1997, when she looked about twelve...

Friday, 22 May 2015

Proposing The Arthur Waley Prize

I'm a great believer in the power of literature, albeit that most of the time those benefits are fairly intangible. Just occasionally though the world of books has an opportunity to intervene in human affairs with a clear and important message.

Many of us have watched with dismay the ever-increasing rancor of the political relationships between the nations of East Asia - the triangle of suspicion and mutual disdain that encompasses China, Japan and South Korea - not to mention the waves of tension that fan out further to the shores of Vietnam and the Philippines, or the eternal stand-off with North Korea.

Here's a suggestion about how the creation of a new literary prize could make a powerful symbolic statement and make a difference not just to the mutual relations of the East Asian family of nations, but to the cultural understanding of East Asia throughout the world.

Let me row back a little and explain.

In the world of Japanese Studies, there is something called the Japan-US Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature, which is a literary award for scholars of Japanese Literature in the West.

As a past (2005) winner of the prize, I received an email the other day enquiring if there were any new works I would nominate for the award, but noted a significant change in the conditions: all candidates now have to be American citizens. Whereas previously scholars from all over the English-speaking world - including Brits like myself, Canadians and Australians - had been able to win, now it was strictly for Americans.

As the prize is about 'Japan-US Friendship', it might seem odd that non-Americans were ever able to enter in the first place, yet restricting the prize to Americans seems to me an entirely retrograde step. Opening the prize to everyone in the English-speaking world seemed a bold, confident assertion of the US's position as the leading Anglophone nation as well as an acknowledgement that books are not confined to national boundaries.

I might lament that the directors of the prize have taken such an insular step, but it also set me thinking that this was perhaps an opportunity to create a new kind of prize. After all, I had long thought that there should be some type of literary award not just for the best literary translation but for books which offer the general reader important new insights and understandings on Japan, including historical or critical works.

I was very clear about what that prize should be called: The Arthur Waley Prize.

Arthur Waley (1889-1966; portrait by Roger Fry, top), an Englishman, was arguably the greatest scholar of Japanese and Chinese literature to have ever lived. He was the first person to translate the world's first novel The Tale of Genji into English (original text followed by front page of Waley's translation below) and his poetic translations of key Japanese and Chinese classics were widely read by figures as diverse as Virginia Woolf and Ezra Pound. The great Japanologist Donald Keene, after a long life meeting the world's leading intellectuals and writers on five continents, declared that he had only ever met two geniuses: Arthur Waley was one and Yukio Mishima was the other. By devoting himself to Japanese literature, Keene declared that he hoped to at least become 'half a Waley'.

Despite the fact that Waley is one of the greatest scholars Britain has ever produced, he is hardly known in the UK and it seems fitting that a new prize should celebrate his monumental achievements.

But this made me consider: there seems something odd about an 'Arthur Waley Prize' devoted only to books on Japan. After all, Waley was equally noted for his achievements in the Chinese classics (see one of many titles below). Shouldn't such a prize also incorporate books on China?

My first reaction though was to hesitate and think that this ran the danger of old-fashioned 'orientalism' of bundling together unique cultures. But looked at another way, what Waley represented was something that today's world is in desperate need: a recognition of the connectivity and mutually influential cultural achievements of China and Japan.

Famously, Arthur Waley, despite being a great scholar of Chinese and Japanese classics, never visited China or Japan. Waley was uninterested in the modern political vicissitudes of either country: it was their enduring cultural legacy and what that offered to the world that fascinated his interest.

I believe that it's important to have in place a prize that celebrates the enduring cultural kinship of East Asia - including Korea and South East Asia - a prize which makes a powerful statement about the fact that great art vastly transcends transient and often petty political squabbles. Not only would such a prize speak of the communality and continuity of East Asian culture, but it would also recognize that East Asia remains the most important and yet least understood part of the world to the general public in the West.

I therefore propose that the Arthur Waley Prize should be an annual award to the best book in English - as judged by a panel of leading writers, scholars and journalists - on a subject offering new insights and understanding of East Asian culture. The award should include outstanding literary translations, but it should also be open to historical and critical works, and not narrowly scholastic works, but to books that have the vision to communicate scholarly research into highly readable books broadly accessible by the general public (this was a crucial part of Arthur Waley's vision).

The prize would be open to anyone in the world and at an annual awards ceremony the representatives of the Chinese, Japanese and Korean governments (among others) would come together every year to celebrate it.

As for the prize itself, a sum of £10,000 - from a fund jointly endowed by the various cultural foundations of East Asian governments - would comfortably establish it as the leading prize in its category. Though for me, just the honour of being associated with the name 'Arthur Waley' would mean more than any cash reward.

Arthur Waley is the ultimate in poet-scholars not just because of his extraordinary breadth of interests and knowledge, or his desire to communicate his findings to a broader community, but because of the very means by which he conducted his life. Until his late 50s Waley was not attached to any university, working instead in his youth as a keeper of antiquities at the British Museum before becoming an independent writer at age 40. His Chinese and Japanese (and a variety of other languages including Ainu and Mongolian) were self-taught. He was not the beneficiary of countless university grants and scholarships. He was a man working in isolation, but with a quite magnificent vision.

There are other poet-scholars out there whose achievements should be recognized. They might be outside of the university system; they might not have been fortuitous enough to have been born in the US. The Arthur Waley Prize would reward and publicize their labours in helping us understand a little bit more about the shared cultural glories of East Asia. In my view, it could also play a small but significant role in helping those nations come together to understand that they share much more in common than what seems to drive them apart.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Where Calligraphy and Art Meet

Having lived in Japan on and off for the last 25 years, and published a couple of books in Japanese, let me make a shocking confession: I don't know how to write a single kanji (ideogram). That is, I don't know how to write them as they are supposed to be written, with a precise stroke sequence. When I learnt kanji a quarter of a century ago, I objected to the idea that kanji had to be written in a prescribed sequence. 'No', my rebellious youthful self thought, 'I'll draw them in my own way, thanks very much!' There always seemed something obsequious and oppressive about having to conform to tradition in this way that was anathema to my spirit of creativity and individualism.

Subsequently, whenever Japanese friends happened to see my execrable handwriting, they would shake their heads at the idiosyncratic manner at which I arrived at my approximation of the Japanese script.

These days, with the ubiquitousness of texts, emails and computers, it hardly seems to matter: my reinvention of the Japanese writing system is (mercifully) rarely exposed to scrutiny. It has however left me with a lifelong disconnect to the grand traditions of Japanese calligraphy.

I of course recognize the talent of the great calligraphy masters of past and present. I understand the various schools and styles of calligraphy: the square style, the grass hand and so on. But none of it particularly excites me. I used to think of calligraphy (shodo) as something like tea ceremony, bonsai and ikebana: all venerable in their traditions, but far too stiff, fusty and conservative in their obeisance to tradition to catch my interest.

This all changed with a series of chance events back in 2005. I'd begun to think I might learn how to draw characters with a brush and happened to see an advert for a demonstration of calligraphy at the Kobe Club. On a weekday morning, as the only male person in an audience exclusively made up of expat wives, I was intrigued to see a lady calligrapher, Misuzu Kosaka (pictured above), dressed in a kimono, presenting calligraphy the likes of which I had never seen before. When Kosaka drew the character for 'sakura', you could somehow actually see both tree and blossom. She had the gift of making each character resonate in an entirely new light.

I was fascinated and asked her if she would teach me how to draw and for a few weeks met for private lessons at the KRAC in Kobe. I was unspeakably awful - unquestionably her worst ever pupil - and after a few weeks had concluded that I should never pick up a brush again.

Things might have stopped there, but just at that time my book 'The Tower of London' about the life of the great Japanese author Natsume Soseki in London in 1900-1902 was about to be published. The publishers sent me a mock-up of the proposed cover, containing both a picture of the Tower and the three Japanese characters for 'Tower of London' ('Ron- don-to', 倫敦塔). Even I could tell that the characters had been written by someone with a fairly clumsy hand and that we could do a lot better: it occurred to me that I might ask Misuzu Kosaka to do the characters instead.

A moment of high comedy ensued. In my naivety, I went over to her flat and asked if she would write the characters for me, expecting that she would pick up a brush and do it on the spot. Instead the conversation shifted to discussing a timescale measured in weeks for the commission and vaguely circled the question of the fee. I failed to understand how drawing three characters could possibly require weeks of profound contemplation, but trusting in her talent, I told her our deadline and left her to it.

Several weeks later, the calligraphy arrived: I instantly saw where the time had been invested. Kosaka had read Soseki's story 'The Tower of London' and managed to capture in the space of just three characters the nightmarish history of The Tower of London which Soseki had invoked. In Kosaka's characters one could recognize crucifixes, gallows and instruments of torture. Nothing could be further removed from the stiff traditions of Japanese calligraphy. This was calligraphy transformed into art, as if Kandinsky or Miro had picked up a calligraphy brush and started to paint.

The art work was so good, it seemed to me, that it deserved to stand alone on the cover but I worried that people would be confused if we juxtaposed it on the cover with an image of the Tower. So we settled on a compromise that a more convential, though beautifully drawn, rendering of the characters (pictured below) would appear on the cover, while the art work would comprise the frontispiece to the book. This set the pattern for three more books we did in the series for which I wrote the introductions and Kosaka provided the calligraphy for both covers and frontispiece: The Gate (Mon), Kokoro and The Three Cornered World (Kusamakura).

Time and again, I marvelled at Kosaka's extraordinary ability to capture the entire mood of a book, sometimes in just a single character. How for example could you do anything with the very simple character for 'gate' ('mon', 門)? Yet in Kosaka's hands, the two sides of the character began to resemble human heads facing one another, like the husband and wife of the novel facing each other across the brazier each evening, and was imbued with the same sense of intimacy, tenderness and melancholy which the novel itself so brilliantly captures.

In the case of The Three Cornered World (Kusamakura), Kosaka produced something entirely different. Inspired both by the novel's central image of a beautiful Ophelia floating in a stream and the concept that art is something which is constantly being imagined and re-imagined in the stream of consciousness of the person experiencing it, here we have multiple distorted and transformed images of the characters for 'Kusa Makura' (草枕) constantly being born anew in the mind of the reader. It is also a manifesto for a new type of calligraphy that refuses to be placed in the straitjacket of tradition, that sees the possibility of Japanese calligraphy connecting to the great art of the world.

For many years Kosaka's art has been prized in her native Kobe: every year on the anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, for example, Daimaru Department Store prominently exhibits one of her new commemorative art works, and she regularly stages exhibitions in the Kansai area. Her work on the Soseki titles represents just a tiny percentage of her prolific output.

It's international recognition and interest which will I think create the newest, most exciting chapters in the history of Japanese calligraphy. To take a leaf out of the book of the great innovative thinker, Richard Feynman, it's not by doing things the same as they have always been done before, but by experimenting and adapting the world around you to your own sensibility that the great breakthroughs in art and science are made. It's a lesson that a lot of the traditional Japanese arts would do well to embrace.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Copyright, Controversy and Electioneering

I've been intrigued over the last week by the debate over copyright law the UK Greens have stumbled into.Their manifesto seemed to imply that they would change copyright law to Publication plus 14 yrs. Coincidentally or not, this is what copyright was defined as under first Copyright Law of 1710, so this seemed a radically anti-capitalist move, turning the clock back to an age before corporations took over.

However after a flurry of Twitter criticism from authors, they revised (clarified?) this to Author Life plus 14 years (a huge difference). For me, the current Author Life plus 70 years (in UK) seems way too long, benefitting 'author estates' which often have only a tangential connection with the author. It's surely crazy that permission/ royalties could be required to reproduce work from up to 150 years ago...The 1842 Copyright Act - Author Life plus 7 years or Publication plus 42 years, whichever longer - was perhaps only slightly in need of extension. So the Greens have raised an interesting point.

Incidentally, as candidates strive to claim votes in the UK's tightly fought election, I was amused to read in a recent obituary in The Times of singer Ronnie Carroll (RIP, a great character): 'He stood as an independent candidate in Hampstead at the 1997 general election promising to deliver 'home rule' for the Make Politicians History party and stood at the Haltemprice and Howden 2008 by-election...He hoped to enter the record books by becoming the first candidate not to win any votes at all, but was disappointed to discover that 29 people had voted for him.'

It may be difficult to get people to vote for you, but there's always someone out there determined to support you...

Monday, 27 April 2015

Youtube Interviews

I recently did a couple of Youtube interviews, discussing various literary matters, in both English and Japanese. Here's the English link below:

And here's the link for the Japanese one:

For any readers of Japanese, there was also an article on my new book on Yukio Mishima in the Mainichi Shinbun:

Racing to a Stationary Position

Anyone with small children will probably be familiar with the sensation of frustration at restriction of free movement mixed in with the delight of precious time spent with the darlings. As someone who used to travel a lot, who greedily attempted to squeeze in 3 week plus trips to South Africa or South America, before the - yawn - regular jaunts back and forward to Japan, parenthood has presented challenges. Watching less encumbered contemporaries jet off around the world over the last few years has, I must confess, evoked mild twinges of jealousy. If only, sob, I could get to go on more solo trips...

This year, I got to indulge my travel bug in spades and discovered, rather to my amazement, that I quickly tired of the longed-for freedom. I eventually found myself wanting to, well, go nowhere at all actually. Just staying home and getting on with things suddenly became my dream.

First of all, there were the places I went to give talks - London, Cambridge, Sheffield, Liverpool, Edinburgh. So great to return to them all and meet so many interesting people while I was there. My thanks to one and all. And then I absolutely decided that I had to squeeze in a four-day ski trip to Austria. I experienced the customary surge of elation as I disembarked the plane in Innsbruck and thrilled to walk round the chambers of the historic Hofburg, before winding my way to my Alpine spa resort.

Next day on the ski slopes yielded a strange experience however. Last year I'd gone for just three days and by the middle of day three was sick of it, thinking I'd rather be walking along the valley. This year I was to ski for two days. But after 30 minutes I felt strangely depressed. After an hour I couldn't wait to stop. After two hours I had completely finished and handed back skis and boots, wondering whether I would ever be skiing again...Clearly this was an Ex-ski-ential Crisis.

The next day I decided to go to Salzburg: I last visited as a teenager 26 years ago and not much has changed. Last time I stayed at a hotel backing onto a cemetery which I revisited and came across the grave of Mozart's wife, Constanze. (I never realized before that she outlived Mozart by 51 years and that her second husband spent years writing Mozart's biography.)

I made a whirlwind visit to Munich and then before I knew it I was back with the family, on the plane to Japan, for the delights of the cherry blossom season. Our sojourn this time round was greatly enhanced by the company of Hong Kong and Toronto-based film-maker Nancy Tong (pictured centre) who visited us in Kansai for a few days. Nancy's latest film 'Trailblazers in Habits' about the Maryknoll Sisters in Hong Kong has just aired on TV there.

Hot on her heels, I was also pleased to welcome to Kansai, visionary diplomat-turned-film-producer Kira Luz, who is hoping to make a feature film about Natsume Soseki. On a night out in Nanba, Osaka, she provided me with unrivalled tuition in Nihon-shu appreciation. (My, what a hangover). Kira is probably the only person in the world who can speak fluent Japanese, Spanish, English and Bulgarian (with a decent smattering of Azerbaijani). I was very pleased to receive a bottle of vintage Bulgarian wine from her and learn that Winston Churchill was such a fan of Bulgarian Melnik wine that he used to order an incredible 500 litres every year.

This year it's been quite wonderful to be out and about so much. But bizarrely, after nearly missing the flight back and watching my son projectile vomit by the toilets on the plane, I found myself hankering just to...not, not go anywhere for a while. There's so much pleasure, you know, in not going anywhere...well, at least until I go to Germany at the end of May.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Articles, interviews and a bewitching art gallery

A couple of new articles by me appeared in the last few days. You can read my thoughts on how satire could change Japan in this piece in the Asahi Shimbun:

My article on the extraordinary connection between Natsume Soseki and Glenn Gould was in yesterday's Japan Times on Sunday. The article has had a 1000 likes on Facebook and 300 shares so very pleased about that.

On Thursday and Friday last week I was in London meeting some members of the Japanese press in connection with promoting my new book on Yukio Mishima. Met some really fascinating people. Looking forward to seeing what will become of these interviews...

In the evening on both Thursday and Friday, I was at the National Portrait Gallery for their 'Late Shift' evening opening. I'd gone there for the John Singer Sargent exhibition, but had no idea what a wonderful gallery this is. On Thursday I wandered about the ground floor with G and T in hand before ascending to the second floor and checking out the Tudor exhibition and the whole run of national portraits until the 18th century. (Discovering they have a room devoted to the Kit Kat Club, one of my pet obsessions, made my joy complete. Amongst them is Godfrey Kneller's painting of architect and dramatist John Vanbrugh, left.)

Back there again on Friday night, I polished off the portraits up to the mid 19th century, only to discover there was a 'multi-art' event called 'The Poet, the Lover and the Lunatic' starting. Comprising charming choral singing of madrigals and music from Elgar and Vaughan Williams, accomplished performances of speeches from Two Noble Kinsmen, MacBeth, Hamlet, As You Like It, Richard II (which made me melt and want to watch all the plays again) and commentaries on many of the superb paintings, this was really fabulous.

My only concern is that there is so much to explore in this gallery I never got to see the Sargent exhibition I went for in the first place... Plus I still have another 150 years of portraits to get through...Hmm, I have mentally booked a third visit for when I am back in London on March 12 to speak about Glenn Gould and Natsume Soseki at the Daiwa Foundation.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Forthcoming Events in Sheffield, Liverpool and London

My thanks to one and all at FAMES, Cambridge (and particularly Dr. Barak Kushner, Professor Richard Bowring and Dr. Matthew Shores) for a great event on Monday. Always wonderful to be back to Cambridge...

We will be holding another Yukio Mishima: Time and Destiny event at SEAS, University of Sheffield on Thursday 19 February and at the World Museum, Liverpool on Saturday 28 February. Please join us.

Meanwhile if you would like to hear a talk on a completely different subject...

Serene notes soar into the air of a 18th century Leipzig church; a solitary pianist heads off into the wilds of Nova Scotia; and a Japanese scholar, on the brink of nervous breakdown, escapes to the Highlands of Scotland. Let me take you on a journey across time and space, as we travel together into the mountains of Kyushu led by an artist determined to view the world as it has never been seen before.

The journey starts on March 12 with my talk, 'Glenn Gould and Natsume Soseki'. For more details, follow this link:

Friday, 23 January 2015

Remembering the Great Hanshin Earthquake

On January 17 it was the 20th anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, a day never to be forgotten. The earthquake left 6434 dead, 43,000 injured, 250,000 homes ruined and 320,000 people homeless.

You can read my in-depth memoirs and reflections on the quake by clicking this link to the Asahi Shinbun AJW website: