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.