In November last year I spent 10 days in Tokyo attending a conference: that might not sound like the most exciting of opening lines but for me it represented a double revolution. Until last year, 'conferences' and 'Tokyo' were two things I simply did not do.
Before last year, I had only been to one conference in my life when, as a hard-up post-grad student in the mid 1990s, I was encouraged to attended a two day literary conference in Nagoya. Bereft of funds, I took an achingingly slow bus from Kobe to get there and then slept through two days of excruciatingly boring papers on such exciting themes as 'Post-Lacanian Stream of Narrative Correlatives in Polysemic Discourse: A Multi-textual Consideration of the Early Poems of Obscure Japanese Poets'.
Soon afterwards, I pulled the escape cord on my fledgling university career and consequently failed to register the blindingly obvious: that conferences - preferably in as exotic and luxurious locations as possible - are what scholars consider their reward and their raison d'etre.
Meanwhile there was my Tokyo phobia: when I was 20, I spent a term at the International Christian University in Tokyo and lived in a little shack by a railway line under some electricity pylons, which every day I imagined falling on top of me when the long-overdue calamitous 'Big One' struck. Leaving Tokyo (or more accurately the suburb of Kichijoji) after four months, I disappeared to Kansai and thereafter for the next 25 years studiously avoided returning, believing that to do so would cause the deaths of millions of innocents.
In truth, extreme circumstances did force me on two occasions to spend a few days in Tokyo and I had the time of my life, partying with Bacchanial excess in the bars and clubs of Roppongi and Shinjuku, giving myself over to end-of-world abandon like the guards in Hitler's bunker.
'Would I like to appear on national television?', I was asked once or twice. No, not if it meant going to Tokyo (of course it did). Would I like to be the keynote speaker at some Tokyo university event? What? And cause a devastating earthquake! NO WAY!
What changed my thinking was coming to realize how monumentally unsafe every part of Japan is (as painfully evidenced by events in Kyushu in the last week). A double page spread in the Asahi newspaper recently showed 30 metre waves striking the entire southern seabord of central Japan when the Nankai plate moved. In the circumstances, could I really maintain a resistance to Tokyo?
And as for conferencing, I happened to be invited last September to speak at a three day conference in Durham (see my blog: 'Celebrating the Life of Lafcadio Hearn') which I enjoyed enormously. This was conferencing at its very best with expert contributors from Ireland and Greece offering multi-faceted perspectives on the complex Irish-Greek background of Lafcadio Hearn.
Then, an invitation to a Mishima Conference in Tokyo came in. Taking a look over the starry assemblage marshalled for the conference - including novelists, theatre directors, photographers, distinguished academics - I could only conclude that this conference was likely to be rather different to the dull affair in Nagoya I had endured 20 years earlier.
In mid November I emerged blinking out of Tokyo Station as bewildered by my surroundings as any first time visitor to Japan. I clutched in my hand a copy of Baedeker's Tokyo circa 1990 (nothing has changed, right?) and discovered I had not a clue where I was, the Tokyo of my mind being confusingly at variance with the overwhelming vista of skyscrapers and indecipherable subway maps before my eyes. With a little difficulty - and determined come what may I would never suffer the indignity of hailing a taxi - I eventually found my way to Shibuya and on from there to the Komaba Campus of Tokyo University.
So complete was my Tokyo alienation that until this trip I never actually knew that Tokyo University had any campus apart from its central Hongo one and was surprised to discover how wooded and leafy Komaba was despite being only a couple of stops from one of the busiest traffic centres in the world. I'd been booked into Tokyo University's guest house and somehow took it into my head that all the conference participants would all also be staying there. I imagined that when I pulled through the doors with my bags, dozens of heads would swivel on bar stools and a greeting of 'Yo, Damian! What kept ya?' would go up.
In fact the guest house was entirely deserted apart from an old man on reception who informed that there was no wifi on the campus and in 1990s fashion offered me a long ethernet cable. From that point on, for the next week, I was effectively cut off from the outside world.
Again contrary to expectation, I discovered I had been allocatted a spacious suite with a walk-in closet and views of trees on all sides. I descended to a sleepy French bistro on the ground floor and discovered only one table occupied with some musicologists and a solitary Russian lady.
The conference was a three day event stretching over two consecutive weekends. The first day's gala proceedings were held in the very hall where Yukio Mishima himself had engaged in a famous debate with left wing student radicals in 1968 (picture of me above in front of the hall), which from the beginning lent the event a considerable aura of authenticity. I was slightly confused to be greeted at the entrance by all types of Japanese people who somehow seemed to know who I was, so after collecting a plethora of Mishima merchandising and goodies (posters; DVDs; a book; flyers) made my way to the front of the main hall and settled down in the 'participants enclosure' at the front, a couple of rows back from the stage.
The whole day had a distinct air of opera about it in the sense that people-spotting in the audience was at least as fascinating as observing what was happening on the stage. I was sitting on the right, but looked over to the left of the hall and noticed some of the American scholar participants including Dennis Washburn of Dartmouth College, whom I had never met but had recently interviewed by email for the Japan Times in connection with his new translation of The Tale of Genji. I saw that I was sitting quite close to Professor Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit of Berlin's Freie Universitat and began to mentally amuse myself with the idea that we should set up a Ryder Cup of Europe vs America Mishima scholars.
The conference organizer bustling about the front was the redoubtable Takashi Inoue (pictured with me, above right) and it gave me a little frisson of pleasure to greet him. About 4 or 5 years earlier when I had commenced research on Mishima, the first thing I did was to go to a bookshop and randomly buy some Japanese books and take them home and read them. The first book I read was by the very same Takashi Inoue: it's a little bit of magic when you go from contemplating someone's work on your sofa in the UK to being invited to hook up with them in Tokyo. The other author I particularly enjoyed when researching Mishima was Naoki Inose, the former governor of Tokyo, whose biography of Mishima I read both in Japanese and twice in English (the English version is majorly expanded by Hiroaki Sato). I wondered whether I would also meet Naoki Inose at this conference.
Things got off to a fairly unremarkable start, but then the Ryder Cup round commenced when Professor Hijiya-Kirschnereit (pictured below) took to the stage and read out in Japanese a paper discussing Mishima's modelling of his novel 'Forbidden Colours' on Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice'. At risk of invoking every Germanic stereotype, this was rather like watching a precision instrument Audi roll over the production line.
I'd been looking forward to meeting Keith Vincent of Boston University, who has been regularly posting on Facebook a series in which he translates and contextualizes the poems of haiku master Masaoka Shiki. Keith arrived a little bit late, having only just flown in, and assumed a central position. As I strained to follow the stream of Japanese speeches on the stage, I watched him flip open a tablet and start furiously tapping away at something, as if having decided to quickly hack into the Pentagon before being distracted by anything else.
At that moment, the doors at the right hand side of the stage opened, and the figure of the venerable Donald Keene - 93 years young and undisputed don of Japanese Literature scholars - appeared and was escorted to a place in front of the stage. Soon after he assumed the stage and made his presentation (pictured below), recalling the very first time he met Mishima back in the 1950s, in the days when Mishima used to see him off at train platforms. I've always felt that Donald has probably got a few revelations about Mishima tucked up his sleeve, but he certainly wasn't revealing them on this occasion.
Decorum is of course important, or at least I thought so until the day's proceedings were electrified by the appearance on stage of Masahiko Akuta (pictured below), one of the erstwhile student radicals who had engaged Mishima in such heated debate back in 1968. If there is any way to grow old, this is how to do it. Akuta, now in his 60s, sported long hair, swivelled about manically on a chair on stage, ranted about how the emperor was nothing more than an ordinary man and generally displayed a refreshing take-me-as-I-am attitude. We also got to see some footage of him in debate with Mishima in 1968 and you only regretted that Mishima himself could not now be called to stage for a 47th anniversary riposte.
At the end of Day One, with it pouring rain outside, there was food and drinks party in one of Tokyo University's restaurants, but the American contingent, clearly having the worst of the day's golf, retired to their palatial hotels in central Tokyo while the Europeans drank themselves to oblivion with the Japanese guests. It's always my policy at such functions to completely ignore etiquette and work the room, meeting everyone. This generally works successfully and I was interested to meet both the poet Mutsuo Takahashi - an intimate of Mishima from back in the 1960s - and British scholar James Raeside of Keio University. On only one occasion did I present a name card only to be told, 'But I've received yours already...'
On Day Two proceedings moved to less operatic, though still sizeable seminar room. There were the usual spate of acdemic presentations, though easily the most memorable was a talk that was so monotone that one after another heads in the room, after resisting as long as humanly possible, dropped forwards and backwards into sleep. Entire rows were sleeping but the delivery went on and on. A distinguished academic caught my eye and gave me the giggles and I only narrowly managed to avoid breaking into unwarrantable mirth.
In the afternoon, I was due to make my own presentation, having frantically tapped something into my tablet the night before. A couple of Japanese friends had come up specially to Tokyo University for the afternoon. Keith was up first and delivered an entertaining piece comparing Mishima with Gore Vidal. I was considerably distracted however by Kozo Kyoizumi, a company president from Osaka with whom I am friends, suddenly dropping into the seat next to me. On this occasion, having surprised me with his unexpected presence, he nonchalantly said to me, 'Damian, I'll take you anywhere in Tokyo tonight you like. Let's go to some really great restaurant. Where do you fancy?'
At that point I had to hop onto my feet and make my presentation, a condensation of my argument about Mishima's lifelong obsession with time and time-keeping instruments and symbols. At the end a hand in the audience went up. It was the poet Mutsuo Takahashi. 'Here we go', I thought, half-wondering if he was about to attack everything I'd said. In fact, Takahashi told a little anecdote about how the first time Mishima had arranged to meet him on the Ginza, the appointment time was 6pm. Feeling nervous of meeting such a celebrity, Takahashi had got there early. As it got close to 6pm, a boy appeared with a message: 'Mishima-sensei says he is going to be 7 minutes late'. 'Why 7 minutes?', Takahashi thought, marvelling at the strangely precise number. Needless to say, exactly 7 minutes later Mishima appeared...
If you want to know the value of conferences, then you have it here in a nutshell. My personal theory of Mishima - dreamt up while reading books 40 years after Mishima's death - was here corroborated by someone with personal knowledge. I felt relieved, which is perhaps why I soon after acquiesced to taking early leave of the day's proceedings and departing in a taxi with Kozo Kyoizumi and my dear friend the calligrapher Misuzu Kosaka - specially up from Kobe - and heading up to a hotel in Shiba Park for a banquet meal. On a roll, I regaled my friends with my new 'killer theory' that is to be the subject of a new book.
I was sorry however to have missed the after-event drinks of Day Two with the other participants (letting down the European Ryder Cup team), but had the pleasure of catching up the next day with Keith and his Boston University colleague Sarah Frederick as they ransacked a second hand bookshop in the Kanda district, looting it of scores upon scores of literary works that were to be shipped back to the US east coast.
I now had a few days at my disposal until the climactic Day Three of the conference at Aoyama Gakuin University and took pleasure in rediscovering Tokyo, embarking every day on marathon walks that sometimes took me from Ueno to Roppongi and from Asakusa to Shinjuku. I also had the pleasure of dining at an exclusive ryotei in the government district of Nagatacho with some top government officials and advisors, whom I wasted not a second of time in attempting to convince of the need of creating an Arthur Waley Foundation dispensing an annual Arthur Waley Prize for the best book in English on Japan. (This project is ongoing, watch this space.)
One morning the buzzer went in my guest house room and Takashi Inoue appeared at my door bearing hot coffee and danish pastries. He also invited me to a conference within a conference, when I attended a commemorative event for the writer Hiroshi Noma, a left wing writer who wrote a monumental work called 'Ring of Youth'. After the event I grabbed some noodles with Keio University professor James Raeside who told me about the various books he had written that he had not 'got round' to publishing. James is an extremely modest person who speaks excellent Japanese, but told me that his French was 'quite a bit better'.
By nice timing, on the final day of the conference, I was running a double page spread in the Japan Times on Mishima featuring the iconic pictures from Eikoh Hosoe's 'Punishment by Roses' so it was nice to show the veteran photographer his work in that day's newspaper as he regaled us with the story of how the photoshoot took place. There was much interest too when the stage director Amon Miyamoto, impeccably dressed, appeared and discussed his forthcoming production of Mishima's 'Temple of the Golden Pavilion'. James Raeside gave an insightful presentation on Mishima's abilities as a playwright, in which he quietly demolished Donald Keene's argument that Mishima was in the same league as Shakespeare and Racine as a dramatist: when Mishima's 'Madame de Sade' played on the London stage, he related, it was savaged by one critic as a torrent of purple prose.
At the very end of the conference, there was a summation of all the talks and at a question and answer session, I observed a slumped figure in a chair, self-importantly criticizing both the day's event and the organizer. 'Who on earth was this presumptious little man?', I wondered. Afterwards we all went for dinner and drinks and to my consternation I discovered that the surly fellow had tagged along and was seated at the end of the table. Whatever happens, I thought, I do NOT want to sit next to him. Instead I seated myself at the other end of the table and embarked on a conversation with Mutsuo Takahashi about Mishima's shifting sexuality which somehow morphed into Takahashi's observations of the size of Mishima's penis.
'Flanagan Sensei, have you met Inose Sensei?', I was suddenly asked. What?
Naoki Inose was here? 'Yes, he's sitting at the end of the table.'
To my amazement, I discovered that the person I was most studiously avoiding was the person I had actually most wanted to meet. Thinking I had probably discussed Mishima's penis enough, I lifted myself up and transferred myself to a spot in the corner directly opposite Inose, who was chain smoking and still seemed to be basking in his own self regard. 'Who are you again?' he twice asked the charming Italian scholar of Butoh next to me. In such circumstances I always think it best to give as good as you get and so interrupted him by saying, 'You really need to remember her name!' Inose's eyes widened slightly and from that point on, conversation and sake flowed...(picture below with l to r, Naoki Inose, Takashi Inoue and Mutsuo Takahashi).
It was a glorious evening in Tokyo and I continued on to a hole-in-the-wall bar in Shinjuku's Kabuki-cho, where I enagaged in a bantering debate about the future of Kabuki. Then I remembered I had a flight the next morning and disappeared in a flurry leaving a hat behind.
I am now a proudly conference-able species. Tokyo, my nemesis, inevitably calls me back for a return gig at the University of Tokyo in September, when I will be joining a distinguished panel. If you are a lover of literature, please come along. My fear of earthquakes has not gone away, but won't stop me: besides, I need to go back and rescue my hat.