tomoka shibasaki


ILT and photos (October 24, 2016)


Japan is a long, narrow country on the far eastern side of the Eurasian landmass. On the maps we use in Japan it is in the middle of the world, but in the maps used in the West, it is far off to one side.

This map assigns colors to countries based on the number of other countries with which they share a border. The closer to red they are, the larger the number of countries they border. The number for Japan, completely surrounded by the sea, is zero.

Perhaps owing to this, nearly everyone in Japan thinks that the Japanese have lived in the same place for generations, that everyone speaks Japanese and holds Japanese citizenship, and that a country is thus a monocultural place where everyone speaks the same language. The truth is, not even Japan is like this. But, since coming to the IWP Fall Residency and talking to other writers, I have come to realize that Japan is in the minority when it comes to this geographical situation and this way of thinking.

Japanese has three sets of scripts, and also uses the Roman alphabet, for a total of four kinds of writing in use in daily life. Kanji, or Chinese characters, came to Japan from China, so we are able to use them to communicate with Chinese speakers in writing. The two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, are used to sound out Japanese;  katakana is the syllabary used to write words that are derived from foreign languages. A number of different cultures flowed across to the eastern edge of the Asian continent and then drifted over to the islands on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean; various foreign words came to be used in a way that worked for Japan.

When I introduce myself as a writer from Japan, these days the reply is nearly always, “Oh! Haruki Murakami!” Given the short amount of time I have here, it would be too much to attempt to discuss Japanese literature or Japanese culture in total with you.  Instead, I’ll begin with a discussion of my hometown, Osaka.

I can’t speak English very well, so I am unable to express more than a tenth of what I want to say in English. But in fact, when I speak in standard Japanese, 60% of the time I feel that, although I am able to convey facts, I am unable to convey my feelings. There are a great number of dialects in Japanese, and of them the Osaka dialect, Osaka-ben, stands out because it is the one spoken by the greatest number of people. Osaka-ben is a dialect designed for communication, in which humor plays a huge role. Since moving to Tokyo I have felt this even more strongly. When I say I am from Osaka people will mention The Makioka Sisters, which makes me very happy. This is because it is a novel that brings to life the pleasures of those conversations in Osaka-ben that go on and on. Its author, Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, was born in Tokyo but moved to the Osaka suburbs after the great earthquake of 1923, becoming completely entranced by Osaka-ben and using it in his novel. It is hard to directly convey the nuances of Osaka-ben in English, but I feel the way the novel unfolds—detailing the relationships of the four sisters in a world in which nothing particularly eventful happens—is enriched by the use of Osaka-ben.

Osaka was a location of the shifting Imperial capital even before Kyoto was, and it is home to the oldest company in the world, a construction firm that built the Shitennō-ji temple in 578 CE. In front of the entrance to the shrine that plays host to Osaka’s biggest festival is the site where Kawabata Yasunari was born. During the Edo period, it flourished as a merchant city, and it retains that air of freedom; it produced such magnificent writers as Ihara Saikaku and Chikamatsu Monzaemon. The bunraku puppet theater for which they wrote scripts is particularly wonderful, but recently a Donald Trump-like figure became the mayor of Osaka and slashed the public funding for the theater. Please, everyone, if you ever make it to Japan, go see the puppet theater!

Because it is an old town, the way the city is laid out and the names of places all have a history behind them. You can get a feel for how people lived in the past and what they were like simply by walking the streets. For example, there is a large intersection called Yotsubashi, which literally means “four bridges.” Long ago, it was where two canals intersected, one running north-south and the other east-west, and bridges were built on all four sides of the crossing. I want to feel the presence of these people who walked this area  the same way I do, only in a time when the pedestrian crossings were bridges. I became interested in writing novels about time and place.

I was born and raised in Osaka, and I even think in Osaka dialect, but my father was born on the small island of Shōdo-shima in the Inland Sea in 1943; my mother was born in Hiroshima in November, 1945. She has lived in Osaka for over 40 years now, but she still speaks with a Hiroshima accent. “Hiroshima in 1945”  is heavy with meaning—an atomic bomb was dropped on it in August of that year. I have been told that my maternal grandfather had been working as a cook in a hotel not very far from ground zero up until two months before the bomb fell. But he was never one to stay at any job for too long, so he quit and moved to a military port a good twenty kilometers away. If my grandfather had been a reliable employee, perhaps I wouldn’t exist. Because of him, my mother’s childhood was one of extreme poverty, it seems. Thinking that I would write about this in a novel, I consulted some old maps of Hiroshima, but I couldn’t find the hotel I had heard about.  My grandfather and grandmother have both passed away, so I can’t verify anything with them, but if the whole thing was nothing but a fabrication, it means that the origin of what I think of as my life is a fictional story.

If one hadn’t been in that place, at that time. If one had been in that place, at that time.

To imagine what it was like in a place where I was not, in a time when I was not.  Meaning, to feel for myself the life of someone who is not me, whom I have never met, together with the time they lived in, and their thoughts. And to feel it personally, truly.  Isn’t that one of the forms of magic that occurs in stories?

Time and place are the main themes of my stories. The things that have exerted more influence on my writing than anything else are maps and photographs. Over the course of this program, the writers with whom I have walked around Iowa City and Chicago and New Orleans are probably aware that I am always looking at Google Maps on my iPhone.  A map contains traces of human activity. Whether the inhabitants built according to the natural blessings that the location bestowed upon them, or fought against it and mobilized according to someone’s will, the traces accumulate and are left behind on a map of the place. One of my favorite everyday activities is to conjecture about streets and buildings; no matter how many hours I observe them, I never get tired of this.

This is a photo I took on my iPhone on my second day in Iowa, on the first day of the IWP program. This is possibly the first and last time in my life that I will see thousands of teenagers all at once. In this picture there is a man with a lot of legs.

(Please click on the thumbnails below to view photos full screen, captions appear upon hover.)

In Times Square in New York, this woman’s severed arm is grasping the arm of a man who appears to be her husband; in Japanese we have the word ikiryō, the spirit of someone still living—here, a petty ghost. When you take a panoramic photo with a digital camera, you pan the camera as you take the photo, so there is a difference of a few seconds between the left of the photo and the right of the photo. The space that wraps around the vantage point in real life is depicted as flat in a panoramic photo, distorting it in the process.

What is captured on film here is not something that I have imagined and written down; it is undoubtedly something that actually existed. But it is not something that anyone has actually seen. Perhaps human memory and perception are similar to these panoramic photos. I can look at these photos any time I please, and I can go back to the spot where I took them, but I can’t ever get back to that spot as it existed at that time. Isn’t that pretty descriptive of the kind of stories that I want to write? This is how I am feeling now.


Translated from the Japanese by Kendall Heitzman