A view from Japan: An interview with Motoyuki Shibata

In Japan, even a serious writer may be seen on mass advertising, and a translator can become a star. One of Japan’s most famous intellectuals, Motoyuki Shibata is a specialist on American literature. He has translated books by Thomas Pynchon, Paul Auster, Steven Millhauser and Stuart Dybek, among others. Shibata is also the editor of two popular literary journals, the Japanese-language Monkey and the English-language Monkey Business. His book of essays, The American Narcissus, won the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities in 2005. Among the pieces are “Wonder If I’m Dead,” “The Half-Baked Scholar” and “Cambridge Circus.”

I got to know Shibata when he translated my short story collection, Blood and Soap, but we didn’t meet until the Singapore Writers Festival in 2015. After an event in which we appeared together, Shibata pointed out that our Singaporean host was visibly more excited when introducing the American participants, meaning myself and Ravi Shankar. (No, not the dude who turned on the Beatles, but a poet and editor who was teaching in Hong Kong.) English is a formidable weapon, and our blue passports gave us extra cachet, even if neither I nor Shankar is native-born or whitish.

That evening, I had a few beers with Shibata and his wife as we sat under a bar awning that was pounded by bullets of rain. Unassuming in appearance, Shibata is also entirely free of conceits in conversations. This April, I saw Shibata in New York over several days, and again, he made some pointed observations about the U.S. and Japan. Why don’t we do a more in-depth interview? I suggested, and Shibata immediately agreed. Here, then, is the result.

How do Japanese view the United States, as far as culture, political system, politicians and foreign policies, etc.?

“The US is no longer a model” would be the briefest answer.

During World War II, Americans were mortal enemies, but with the end of the war, America was suddenly a model, an ideal we should live up to, more so than the West in general was at the time Japan opened up in 1868 after 250 years of seclusion. Although there was always a protest against American militarism—“Yankee, go home!” was the first English sentence I learned as a kid—but there were plenty of things that made up for it: democracy (at least the struggle for it), equality (at least the struggle for it), jazz, movies, literature, etc. Even at the height of the Vietnam War, we knew that so many Americans were against it.

Things began to change perhaps in the 1980s. America began to look back, as if everything were perfect back in the 50s; the Reagan administration looked out for the rich rather than for the poor. And suddenly there were no more redeeming quality in America that used to compensate for whatever was wrong. America entirely ceased to be a model after all the havoc George Bush II made after 9/11. I gave a talk at a high school several years ago, and when I asked the students if they liked America, everyone said no. Then I realized that these kids belonged to the generation that grew up only knowing the Bush administration.

Some people have been disappointed by Obama, but I think more people—including me—sympathize with him and would like to believe that he would have accomplished more if the Republicans had not hindered him on every chance they got.

Did the high school kids say anything specific about why they disliked the US?

When I asked them what they didn’t like about the US, they said: “Americans think they are always right”; “They force their ideas on others.” Remember, they only knew Bush’s America!

What were your own perceptions of the U.S. before you came here for the first time?

First I learned about America from the TV dramas I watched as a kid. Father Knows Best, The Dona Reed Show, and I Love Lucy: a world of opulence where every family owns a big house, a family car, a refrigerator, and a vacuum cleaner, largely mythical commodities in Japan back then. It was an entirely different world which had nothing to do with me. Then I started listening to American and British music, and it seemed as if something new was happening every month in the late 60s: the Flower Children, Monterey, Woodstock . . . and though I was thrilled with all the new music it still was a distant world for me.

Please talk a bit about your experiences of the United States, and how your understanding of it has evolved over time.

My brother went to live in the US in the mid-1970s, when he was in his early 20s. I went to see him first in Oregon in the early 1980s; he was living in a community where people came to stay over the weekend to enjoy hot springs and healthy food. I think I saw the best aspect of the United States then: a place where people are free to create their own community, free from profit-first mentality.

Then I lived in New Haven as a graduate student in 1984–85. It was hard for me to catch up with my studies but it was certainly not America’s fault! These twenty years I have been visiting the US once a year on the average, to see the authors I translate and more recently to launch my journal. Whatever problems there are in the US, I still feel this country is based on the idea of equality more than my own (though how much that idea is realized is open to questions, of course).

You go into a shop and the salesperson says hi to you, and you say hi back. In Japan, it’s not that way: the salesperson says Irasshaimase (Welcome to our store) and more often than not you don’t say anything back, you don’t even look at them: that’s the norm. A small thing, but it sort of epitomizes the basic premise on which human interactions are conducted in the two countries: horizontal in one, vertical in the other. Of course the ideal is betrayed so often in one country, and some equality is achieved despite the unequal assumption in the other, but the fact remains that the American premise is better than the Japanese.

These behavioral observations are fascinating to me, since they reveal so much about cultural differences and attitudes? Please give us a few more!

In the “English” Ho Muoi invents in your great short story “‘!’” there are “so many personal pronouns, each one denoting an exact relationship between speaker and subject, that even the most brilliant student cannot master them all” (Blood and Soap, p. 16)—the Japanese language is exactly like that! You have constantly to remind yourself whether you are speaking to elders or youngers, to superiors, peers or inferiors—depending on that you refer to them as well as to yourself in different ways.

What attracted you to American literature in the first place? What makes it so distinctive?

The idea that the self is—or should be—something you create, rather than something that is given to you, attracted and frightened me.

But the most important fact is that I had a wonderful professor of American literature when I was a sophomore. I wanted to be like him. If I had met a wonderful professor of British literature, I might be talking about Dickens and Hardy now, and my idea about the self might be more conservative.

Who would you consider the most representative American writer, and why?

Herman Melville, because both he and his characters aim for the impossible and fail monumentally, which I think is very American. Mark Twain, because he established that American literature is all about getting rid of the literary from literature.

Recently in New York, we talked about the decline of both the US and Japan. How are these countries in trouble, in your mind? What lessons can the world learn about the problems afflicting Japan?

I grew up with the assumption that politicians’ first duty was to make sure that not all the money went to a handful of people, that everyone got help whenever they needed it. No one seems to work on that assumption anymore, either in the US or in Japan. The lesson the world can learn from Japan? Don’t imitate America! Japan is imitating America in the worst possible way!

Japan has a highly intelligent and disciplined population living in a comparatively cohesive culture, and yet there is so much unhappiness, as revealed by survey after survey. The happiest adult Japanese are the oldest, those closest to death. It’s as if a weight has been lifted. Why do you think Japanese consider themselves so miserable, and what can be done about this?

We work too much. You see, things really run right in Japan—the train arrives on time (they profusely apologize if it doesn’t) and the packages are delivered between 2 and 4 pm if you so request—this is made possible because we work hard, not at the human pace but at the pace of computers. Working 9 to 5 is just a fairy tale to many office workers, and so many work from morning till midnight. Economy is bad on the other hand and jobs are scarce, so once you’ve got one you have to show your loyalty to hang on to it—therefore you work as hard as the next guy. What can be done? I don’t know if it can be done, but it would be really great if we became less ashamed about being lazy.

Resource depletion will be an increasingly grave problem for all countries, but Japan is particularly vulnerable. James Howard Kunstler has even declared that Japan would lead the global descent from modernity. In a Business Insider article, he states, “Japan’s only good choice is to go medieval, that is, to give up on the rather hopeless 150-year-long project of being an industrial-technocratic modern super-state, and go back to being an island of a beautiful artistic hand-made culture.” Does this kind of thinking have currency in Japan?

I’m not sure if medieval is the right word—especially if it involves returning to the former social structure with a lot of discrimination in it—but yes, after the 2011 earthquake/Tsunami and the ongoing nuclear disaster in Fukushima more of us have grown suspicious about the equation of more technology with more happiness. One of the artists who have been living out this sort of thinking is Kyohei Sakaguchi, known, for example, for his Zero-Yen House Project.

The zero-yen houses are both tragic and hopeful, fascinating and appalling. If Sakaguchi ever comes to Philadelphia, I can show him quite a collection of zero-dollar dwellings!

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.

One Response to A view from Japan: An interview with Motoyuki Shibata

  1. Super cool as always Linh. Tragic hope the coincident courage and desperate need to dream.