Bringing the World Books from Japan

Feedback from Writers Attending the Tokyo International Literary Festival

We caught up with some of the writers from Japan and around the world who attended the first Tokyo International Literary Festival to find out their impressions of the event.


A Chance for Writers to Interact

Risa Wataya

Photo of Risa Wataya I thought the Tokyo festival had a much more informal atmosphere than other literary festivals. I was delighted and grateful for the chance to speak with Junot Díaz, who’s one of my favorite authors. I felt like speaking in front of an audience, as opposed to having a private conversation; it gave the conversation a new dimension. I had a really good time.

(Novelist. Won the Akutagawa Prize for her 2004 work Keritai senaka (The Back You Want to Kick) at the age of 19, making her the youngest recipient of the award. Other works include Insutoru (Install) and Kawaisouda ne (Isn’t It a Pity).) 

Mieko Kawakami

Photo of Mieko Kawakami The festival was a great experience for me. Even though our time spent together was limited, I felt like we were able to speak frankly and connect. I think the interaction at the event has the potential to take root and influence Japanese literature. I hope the festival continues to be held in the future. 

(Novelist. Awarded the Akutagawa Prize in 2008 for Chichi to ran (Breasts and Egg). Other works include Hebun (Heaven), Subete mayonaka no koibitotachi (All Lovers of Midnight), and the poetry collection Sentan de sasu wa sasareru wa sora ee wa (In the Forefront, Pointing, and Being Pointed At, and That’s Just Fine). )

Geoff Dyer

Photo of Geoff Dyer A thing that is not so often recognized is that we writers are also readers and audience members. So it is really exciting to be able to meet writers whose works you’ve admired. And there are certain perks . . . You get to actually hang out with people a bit and get to know them and all the other people partaking in the festival, and that’s a lovely thing.

(Writer, commentator. His book on jazz, But Beautiful, won the Somerset Maugham Award and was translated into Japanese by Haruki Murakami.) 

Naoki Urasawa

Photo of Naoki Urasawa It was a lot of fun. There were a lot of things I was interested in finding out from Junot Díaz, including some complex issues, but the high point turned out to be his message to young men to have a go at asking women out.

(Manga artist. Author of numerous works, including Yawara!, Happy!, Monster, Nijusseiki shonen [Twentieth Century Boys], Pluto, and Billy Bat.)

Junot Díaz

Photo of Junot Díaz The writers I encountered at the festival were all amazing people. Meeting Naoki Urasawa was the culmination of a dream. I’m drawn to Japanese manga and anime because, even though they are written for popular consumption, so many works get to the heart of society. I come from a country where there’s very little translation going on, so I’m very grateful that anyone wants to be in a conversation across languages.

(Novelist. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the United States. Author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. Also known as a fan of Japanese manga and anime.)

The Impact of the Festival

Koji Toko

Photo of Koji Toko College students today don’t read the books teachers and others in positions of authority recommend to them. The students who came to the festival were able to see, hear, and decide for themselves which books look good and which ones they want to read. It would be interesting if the festival did something to break down or alter the division between Japanese and world literature. It’s not as if there’s a fence between them.

(Translator and scholar of American literature. Published works include Nijuu isseiki no sekai bungaku 30 satsu o yomu (Reading Thirty Works of Twenty-first Century World Literature). Co-translated Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. )

Elmer Luke

Photo of Elmer Luke Twenty years ago, an event like this would not have been imaginable. In those days, we used to bring editors over in an attempt to open the door. And now the door has been opened and people are walking through it.

(Editor. Was the first to introduce the works of Haruki Murakami to English-language readers. Editor and advisor to the Read Japan program.)

Deborah Triesman

Photo of Deborah Triesman The wonderful thing has been watching the foreign writers and the Japanese writers interact, and seeing these things happen spontaneously on stage where writers who really didn’t know each other before the festival have been having conversations from different sides of a question and coming together and getting to know each other. I was surprised to hear that something like this hasn’t happened in Tokyo before. I hope the festival continues to be held because of the role it plays in deepening exchanges among writers.

(Fiction editor at The New Yorker, known for her interviews.)

Chip Kidd

Photo of Chip Kidd I find that international literary festivals are very important because a lot of the times, for example, if somebody records an album, it goes global. But that is not necessarily the case for the book. If something gets published in Japan, it does not necessarily get published in the US. The translation issue is very crucial. So festivals like this open people up to authors and books they might not have heard of before—that might interest them in the way they didn’t realize that they would be interested in.

(Book designer at Alfred A. Knopf and writer. Has been involved in the production of a large number of works by Haruki Murakami and other Japanese writers.)

Yohei Sasakawa

Photo of Yohei Sasakawa Japanese literature has a long history that dates back to The Tale of Genji, the world’s oldest novel, but until now little was done to convey proper knowledge of such works to a wider audience abroad. In contrast, Japan is one of the few countries in the world with a true “translation culture,” with foreign works of all genres available to Japanese readers. Industry is globalizing, and literary works should be no exception to this trend. I hope this year’s literary festival will serve as a springboard for more dynamic interaction between writers and publishers in Japan and overseas countries. (Chairman, the Nippon Foundation) 

Hopes for Future Festivals

Mitsuyo Kakuta

Photo of Mitsuyo Kakuta The session I took part in was about travel, so the atmosphere was relaxed and we were able to talk about various things. I hope the festival continues to be held in the future. I would also really like writers from Asia to be invited.

(Novelist. Won the Naoki Prize in 2005 for Taigan no kanojo (Woman on the Other Shore). Other works include Rokku haha (Rock Mama), Youkame no semi (The Eighth Day), and Tsuri hausu (Tree House).)

Michael Emmerich

Photo of Michael Emmerich When literary festivals are held in the United States, all of the proceedings are in English. The US and Japanese writers at the Tokyo festival were able to speak in their native language, something that rarely happens and which made the festival especially significant. It would be nice if future festivals could be held outside Tokyo in smaller cities or rural areas.

(Scholar of Japanese literature and translator. Has translated works of Banana Yoshimoto, Hiromi Kawakami, Hideo Furukawa, and others. Assistant professor of Japanese literature and cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.)

Makoto Ichikawa

Photo of Makoto Ichikawa It was gratifying to be told by both the writers and readers attending the festival that it was just the sort of event they had hoped for. If works of literature had no overseas audience, then a dialogue between Japanese and non-Japanese writers would not be possible. The success of the Tokyo festival is proof that the basis for this interaction are in place in Japan. We should try to include more writers and publishers from non–English-speaking countries if the festival is to truly live up to its “international” name.

(Critic and editor for the literary magazine Waseda Bungaku (Waseda Literature). Program planner and director of the Tokyo International Literary Festival Secretariat.)

Natsuki Ikezawa

Photo of Natsuki Ikezawa It was exciting to bring the frontrunners in the world of literature together for face-to-face discussions on various issues related to contemporary literature. To me, the event signals that Japanese literature is finally beginning to engage in global exchanges. In the future, we plan on inviting writers from non-English-speaking countries so the discussion on world literature becomes truly global in scope. I believe the festival will be held regularly in the future.

(Writer, poet, and translator. Won the Akutagawa Prize in 1988 for Sutiru raifu (Still Life). Edited a 30-volume anthology in 2011 titled Sekai bungaku zenshu (Anthology of World Literature. His recent works include Soutou no fune (Double-Headed Boat), a novel set in the area of northeastern Japan devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.)