Over the past few years, much of my reading time has been spent shuttling back and forth across the-sea-that-shall-not-be-named (politics…), so it’s little surprise that after my trip to Korea earlier this week, I’m redressing the balance by moving on to Japan today. This post introduces something a little different, looking at the first two offerings from a new project, Keshiki – new voices from Japan, a series of eight chapbooks released by Strangers Press, a project associated with the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia (it’s also supported by the Nippon Foundation through Writers Centre Norwich). These small books each present forty pages or so of stories (or story) from contemporary Japanese writers, and I decided to start at the beginning (of course), mainly because of a couple of familiar names.
The most well-known among the eight writers is Yoko Tawada, and Time Differences (translated by Jeffrey Angles) is a long story that makes the most of her multinational background. The story follows three men over the course of one day: Mamoru, a Japanese living in Berlin; Manfred, a German academic in New York; and Michael, an American working as an English teacher in Tokyo. Despite the distance separating them, the men are all in regular contact as they are linked by sexual relationships, with each having slept with both of the others – although none of them know about the connection between the other two…
It’s a clever story that pivots not on the sexual side, but on the men’s desire to connect with someone who isn’t physically present. Written in 2006, the story doesn’t really feature internet technology, so it’s the humble telephone that comes to represent the last links tying the men together:
That day he’d go “together” with Michael to the gym – or more properly speaking, they would speak to each other on the phone and confirm that they were both going to the gym at the same time. Despite the distance, they would work out at the same moment – that was what Manfred meant by together. If it was early in the morning in New York, it’d be nighttime in Tokyo where Michael was. If they went to the gym simultaneously, they could sweat at the same time.
p.16 (Strangers Press, 2017)
It’s a nice idea, but there’s no guarantee that someone living across the globe will actually follow through on these promises (and in a nice touch, this is something that goes both ways). This intercontinental love triangle works on the premise that each of the men is yearning for the one who has moved on from their home country, while tiring a little of the one they left behind…
Quite apart from the relationship theme, Tawada’s main focus in Time Differences seems to be on people relocating to find something new in a global society. The three main characters are scattered quite evenly across the developed northern hemisphere, and while they’ve moved on, each of them spends their day with people wanting to make the return journey (for example, the group of kanji-obsessed students Mamoru meets up with in a café). Interestingly enough, China is mentioned on a couple of occasions in different strands, indicating a new path for these globe-trotters to follow.
Sadly enough, moving on doesn’t always mean becoming any happier, and the overwhelming feeling expressed in Time Differences is one of boredom and dissatisfaction. As we move from one perspective to the next, often abruptly between sentences, we get the impression that we’re flicking between television channels, hoping to find something more interesting elsewhere. This dizzying sensation of literary jet-lag reaches its culmination at the end of the story, when each of the men (for very different reasons) suddenly find it all too much. Yes, even for privileged world travellers, modern life, well, it’s rubbish…
The second in the series, Nao-Cola Yamazaki’s Friendship for Grown-Ups (translated by Polly Barton) is a slightly different work, consisting of three shorter pieces. The first, ‘A Genealogy’ is a brief, quirky story, a mix of evolution and origin myth, with some rather dubious science taking us from a rock, to a fish, to a dinosaur, to humans, all in a few pages. It ends with a woman called Kandagawa lying back in a bath musing on how her painted toenails look like fins, which segues nicely into the second story, ‘The Untouchable Apartment’, in which we meet a woman called… Ayumi Kandagawa!
This longer story has Kandagawa, a thirty-one-year-old woman living by herself, receive a drunken phone call from her ex, Hideo Mano. They haven’t spoken for years, but Kandagawa senses a change in him, and despite herself she thinks back to happier times. When he mentions that the apartment block they used to live in has been torn down, she makes a snap decision to meet up, partly because of her curiosity about how her former lover has changed.
‘The Untouchable Apartment’ cleverly contrasts two sets of changes: the physical changes in the environment (the torn-down building, the new shops near the university the two met at) and the differences in the couple themselves, both in character and in the way they interact:
Kandagawa walked on the stone border separating the road from the trees. The border was about thirty centimetres high and she often used to walk on it in the olden days, That way, she was slightly taller than Mano. She used to have him hold her hand as she walked on it as though she was on a balance beam, but now, of course, thy did not hold hands. She got down almost immediately.
‘The Untouchable Apartment’, p.22
This short passage nicely illustrates the main themes of the story, with Kandagawa painfully aware of the differences time has wrought. She discovers that things change, and not always for the better – for her, this stroll down memory lane has the effect of drawing a line under this part of her past.
The final story, ‘Lose Your Private Life’, has fairly similar themes. Terumi Yano, a young writer working on her new novel (Friendship for Grown-Ups), meets a man at a literary talk and decides to pursue a relationship with him. The only problem is that he seems to be more interested in her public persona than in her as a person, meaning the two never really manage to get close. However, she eventually realises that it’s not all his fault – if she’s being honest with herself, one of the main reasons she’s interested in him is because she wants to experience a relationship so that she can describe it more effectively in her writing…
I thoroughly enjoyed my first encounters with the Keshiki collection, and they’re pretty little things too. Measuring around 21 cm x 13 cm (8″ x 5″), they have beautifully illustrated covers, and are perfect for a short read. I wouldn’t say they’re as well presented as, say, The Cahier Series, but they’re certainly nice little books all the same. I look forward to trying some more in the near future, especially as that means sampling work by unknown (to me) writers – and continuing my J-Lit education 🙂