Kyoko Nakajima and David Peace talk about the uses of history in fiction, Tokyo’s hidden histories and the writers who inspire them.
I hope you are well on this bright, fine and much warmer morning.
Thank you very, very much for agreeing to this conversation; it is such a great honour and a wonderful opportunity for me, too. Thank you, sincerely.
To begin with, I really must apologize, in advance, for my clumsy questions and thoughts; I hope you’ll forgive me. I very much enjoyed and greatly admire ‘Things Remembered and Things Forgotten’. I am so impressed and astounded by how much you communicate and convey in such a short and subtle story which, at the same time, has so many depths and resonances. Perhaps because I live in Sumida Ward in Tokyo, I particularly admire and was moved by your portrayal of Tokyo as a very modern city yet built on layer upon layer of hidden histories. And, of course, ‘the twist’ at the very end of the story is quite brilliant!
I would like to begin our conversation, then, by asking you about the writing of history. I have also written about the period of the US Occupation of Japan (in my novels Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City) and am actually now writing about this time again, and so I find it fascinating. As well as this immediate post-war era, I know you have also written about the pre-war years too, in Chiisai ouchi (The Little House). And so I was wondering where your own fascination with the pre- and post-war years began? And then to what extent and how do you research ‘the history of a story’ before you begin to write.
Thank you for your patience.
With my very best wishes,
Thank you for reading my short story ‘Things Remembered and Things Forgotten’. I am delighted you enjoyed it. For my part, I read the first two books in your Tokyo Trilogy with great excitement. In your inimitable way, you have brilliantly captured the multiple voices of that period. I particularly liked the second book, Occupied City, which is unlike any novel I have read. The voices of those who died during that time remained with me long after I put it down. I am embarrassed to say I only picked up your post-war novels after reading your piece in Granta Japan. Reading the first book in your trilogy, Tokyo Year Zero, I was struck by something it has in common with my story: the use of names (not to give too much away, but I think those who have read it will understand what I mean). Indeed, I think ‘names’ are an important key to understanding that period. After all, it was during this time that Japan changed its name from Dai Nippon Teikoku (Greater Japanese Empire) to Nippon-koku (Nation of Japan).
Walking around Tokyo, I sometimes chance upon places that are surprisingly old. Tokyo’s old buildings have not been preserved the way Paris’s or London’s have, but as you rightly pointed out in your letter, Tokyo’s history lies buried beneath its modern cityscape. That is one of its great charms. The reason I am so interested in the period in Japan immediately before and after World War II is because it is inextricably tied up with the present. Even seventy years after the end of the war, I feel we still have not completely come to terms with what happened. There are many things about this period I do not understand. I think that is why I am fascinated by it.
Before writing my story, I read novels and watched films from that period to get a clearer picture in my mind of what it was like. Some of my favorite fiction from that period are the novels of the so-called Decadent School (Buraiha), such as Osamu Dazai, Ango Sakaguchi, and Jun Ishikawa, as well as the short stories of Shôtarô Yasuoka, who came along a bit later. What I like about their fiction is that it is full of sounds and smells and other sensory imagery that stimulate the imagination. In your work, too, I am struck by the use of sensory images, such as the sounds and tactile sensations like ‘itchiness’. My story for Granta was inspired by Yasujiro Ozu’s 1947 film, Record of a Tenement Gentleman, set in the Tsukiji area, which was devastated by Allied bombing. I found it very interesting that Tsukishima, so close to Ginza, in the heart of Tokyo, should alone have been left largely unscathed. When I actually started writing ‘Things Remembered and Things Forgotten’, I consulted documentary materials, contemporary newspaper and magazine accounts, and non-fiction works written about the period. In particular, Inuhiko Yomota’s essay collection, Tsukijima Story, was an invaluable resource. And, as always, I enjoyed poring over old newspaper advertisements and letters to the editor.
I’m afraid I’ve rambled on too long, but before I conclude this letter, David-san, I wonder if I could ask you – as you’ve no doubt been asked in interviews many times before –
how you first became interested in the Occupation period? Also, I’m very interested to hear – as much as you are willing to share at this time – about the upcoming third installment in your Tokyo Trilogy, which I am greatly looking forward to reading. There are also many things I would like to ask you about Ryûnosuke Akutagawa, but I will save that for my next letter.
Thank you so very much for your very interesting and very generous reply. I am so grateful you have even read Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City and am overwhelmed by your kind words about them. Thank you, sincerely.
Thank you, too, for sharing the ways in which you research your stories; they are actually almost identical to my own ways and we even share the same inspiration in Dazai, Ango and Jun Ishikawa. As you say, their fiction is full of the sounds and smells of that period and, for me, their texts act as keys to unlock the doors to that particular time.
I think my own fascination with the Occupation period also began (and remains) for very similar reasons to your own. I moved from Istanbul to live in Tokyo in 1994 and, in many ways, it was like moving from the past to the future. Although it is something of a cliché, I remember being overwhelmed by places such as Akihabara and Shinjuku when I first moved here. However, the longer I stayed, and the more people I met, and particularly the more I walked about the city, the more I became aware of this contradiction between the futuristic surface of the city and its buried, hidden past(s). And then the more I asked, and the more I read, the more I became intrigued to know how this city – which had been destroyed once in 1923 by the Great Kant? Earthquake and then again in 1945 by the Allied firebombing – had rebuilt and resurrected itself. And because my children were born here, I also felt a necessity to know the history of the city for them, too. And so these were the reasons for my initial interest, which then became the inspiration and motivation to write Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City.
Thank you, too, for asking about the third book of the Tokyo Trilogy. In each novel, I have built the story around an actual crime, or crimes, that took place during the Occupation because I feel crimes have the potential to teach us a lot about the societies in which they take place. To give an obvious example, in Tokyo Year Zero, Kodaira Yoshio was only able to entrap his victims with promises of food or work because of the extreme desperation and poverty of the women and the city. So the third book, which I am writing now but still remains untitled, is based around the Shimoyama Incident of 1949. As you know, some people believe the President of Japan National Railways committed suicide, while others are convinced he was murdered. And then there are the many, many theories about who was responsible. But as well as the mystery of the death of Shimoyama, 1949 was also a great turning point in the Occupation and post-war Japanese history; it is the year of the so-called ‘reverse course’, when GHQ started to backtrack on labour and trade union rights, for example, and many of the legacies of that year remain.
Sorry! I really have gone on too long. However, I was struck in your own story, and then in your reply to my question, by your sense of the pre- and post-war years being inextricably tied up with the present and yet, at the same time, of Japan not having fully come to terms with what happened during those years. Your own work is obviously, but in a wonderfully subtle way, an attempt to address this inability or reluctance to come to terms with the past. However, as you intimate, ‘the past’ in Japan is particularly disputed and your historical fiction is very different from, say, the historical fiction of Naoki Hyakuta. I wonder if, perhaps, you could say a little about how you see the role of contemporary fiction in debating and discussing the historical past? And because I often write about actual historical events or figures, and am often asked why I choose to write novels and not non-fiction, I am also particularly interested to know what you feel are the advantages but also the dangers of writing historical fiction as opposed to non-fiction?
I am sorry, though, for such a long-winded reply, and such very vague questions, but thank you for your patience.
For the last couple of days I have been down south in Kagoshima, in Kyushu. Hence I apologize for being late in replying to your last letter. Kagoshima is a fascinating place to visit. There is an active volcano nearby called Sakurajima which erupts annually. It holds a special place in the hearts of people there. Though they grumble about not being able to hang out their washing sometimes because of the ash spewing from the volcano, they also say it’s the reason the daikon radishes grown there taste so good.
David-san, the subject of the final installment of your Tokyo Trilogy sounds most intriguing! What especially intrigues me is how you will approach it. But I suppose you’d prefer not to say too much about that right now? Of course, you mustn’t give away all the best parts.
As for your questions concerning historical fiction, they are very difficult and I’m afraid I may not be able to answer them very well. Incidentally, I hope in the future interviewers will stop asking you why you choose to write novels rather than non-fiction. To me that is like asking a painter, ‘Why do you choose to paint pictures rather than take photographs?’ Even if a painter painted pictures indistinguishable from photographs, the act of painting is still completely different from pointing a camera at his subject, isn’t it?
I suppose the reason problems arise when writing a novel based on historical material is that, for better or worse, fiction is an art rooted in the imagination. By appealing to our imaginations, novels set in the past can help us, as readers, understand a historical moment and the people who lived through it. For if we want to understand that which has been lost to time, there is no way other than through the exercise of imagination. And novels – as opposed to non-fiction – do a good job of forcing us to use our imaginations (or, I should say, good novels do). A novel’s strength lies in its ability to stimulate our five senses, probe our memories, and appeal to our emotions, intelligence and sense of humour.
But there are also dangers that go along with giving the imagination free rein over the past. Last year I read Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH. One thing that stood out about this unique work of fiction is precisely the author’s paranoid reluctance to blithely fill in the gaps of history with imagination and invention. There are a thousand pitfalls and no upside to playing fast and loose with historical fact. Imagination must be applied with delicate rather than broad strokes. David-san, wasn’t it in order to subtly evoke the voices of the past that you employed several different literary styles in Occupied City?
When we talk about history, the dangers of embellishment, fabrication and wilful distortion are ever-present. In fiction, when imagination is used ‘correctly’ (this sounds strange, but I can’t think of another way of saying it), the basis that underpins it must be true to historical fact. It is not surprising that the writers most conscious of this end up writing works almost indistinguishable from non-fiction. This is not true in my case because my work does not draw directly on actual social or political events, but I do place great importance on acquiring a solid grasp of the historical facts, social mores, and societal norms that underpin my fiction. That said, when writing a novel about the past, no matter how careful I try to be, I can never escape the feeling I am going to commit some terrible blunder. Sometimes I feel that writing about the past is like handling hazardous materials!
I hope I have answered all your questions, David-san. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on ‘writing history’ and why you think it must be written in the form of fiction. Also, concerning your story ‘After the War, Before the War’ in Granta Japan, about Ry?nosuke Akutagawa’s trip to China in 1921, although it is set during the period between the First and Second World Wars, the subject of war is never actually mentioned in the story. Did you sense the shadow of the two world wars hanging over Akutagawa’s account of his travels in China, as you seem to be suggesting at the end with the fable of Momotar?, the Peach Boy? And how did you get the idea to write a novel about Akutagawa in the first place?
I apologize for running on so long and asking so many questions. Please do not worry if you do not have time to address them all.
I hope you are well.
Thank you very much for your last letter; I am very pleased to hear you had such a good trip to Kagoshima. However, you have obviously been very busy, so thank you, sincerely, for taking the time to reply in such detail to my rather ambiguous and vague questions. But as with your last letter, I was struck and heartened by the similarities in our ideas and working methods. It is both interesting and encouraging for me. Thank you!
When discussing the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction, I have also often used the analogy of the differences between painting and photography. And perhaps it is to state the obvious, but I feel so-called ‘non-fiction’ is just as subjective as ‘fiction’; no matter the intentions or qualities that a non-fiction writer brings to their work, any writer will always have their own preconceptions and perspectives, and will then be making highly personal and subjective choices about the material they choose to include or ignore, and the language and words with which they choose to write. This is inevitable.
Perversely then, because a novel will by definition always be fiction, I feel an ‘historical novel’ has the potential to be more ‘honest’ in openly admitting and accepting it is not ‘the truth’. And as you say, I feel the novel also has the potential to illuminate an historical event or moment on a much more emotional and visceral level than non-fiction (although many great works of non-fiction and reportage have achieved this, too).
As we discussed earlier, history is always disputed and I feel perhaps the only truly accurate way in which to discuss or write about it would be to put all the conflicting accounts and versions together side by side. This was the very reason I chose to have the twelve different narrative voices in Occupied City. Of course, this was not my own invention but, in fact, was greatly inspired by Akutagawa’s own In a Grove (Yabu no Naka).
There is a brilliant essay on Edgar Allan Poe from 1978 by Jorge Luis Borges, entitled ‘The Detective Story’, in which Borges claims that the genius of Poe was to not only invent ‘the Detective genre’ but to create a new and special type of reader. I feel Akutagawa has done exactly the same in In a Grove; in this story, Akutagawa has created a new type of reader and way of reading. And thanks to Kurosawa’s great retelling of this story in his brilliant film Rash?mon\\, this method is actually now known as ‘the Rash?mon technique’ in ‘the West’. And impractical though it would be, I believe this would be the best way to write about anything! Particularly history.
For me, Akutagawa is one of the truly great writers of the world, on a par with, say, Kafka, Orwell and Borges (who, incidentally, was a great admirer of Akutagawa). The breadth and range of Akutagawa’s work – from his retellings of old Chinese and Japanese tales, through the biting satire of Kappa, to his later, last and harrowing biographical pieces – is both stunning and unique. I am also very intrigued by his own life and the period in which he lived. As you know well, Akutagawa’s own life spans one of the most turbulent periods in modern Japanese history.
In an attempt to try to better understand the man and the times in which he lived, I have begun to work (very slowly) on a novel about his life. I have written three pieces so far and hope, one day, to complete a loosely biographical novel about Akutagawa. ‘After the War, Before the War’ is one of these three pieces. I had read a translation of Akutagawa’s own account of his trip to China in 1921 and was particularly struck by both his great admiration and love for classical Chinese culture and then by his great confusion and disappointment when faced with the reality of China in 1921. Of course, Akutagawa was visiting China after the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 and before the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45 and I felt the shadow and fore-shadows of both wars hung over his time in China. After his visit to China, Akutagawa wrote his own retelling of the popular, well-known Japanese tale Momotar? and it is one of the most biting attacks on nationalism I have ever read. And I believe these shadows continue to darken and haunt the relationship between Japan and China, now more than ever.
Well, I have gone on much, much too long. I am sorry, but it is a great pleasure and an education for me to be able to have this discussion with you, Kyoko-san, and one day I hope we will be able to continue it. Thank you. And so to close our conversation, I would like to end by asking you about your own future writing plans. I’d also like to say that I sincerely hope much more of your own work will soon be available in translation.
Thank you again, Kyoko-san, and my very best wishes,
Thank you for your letter.
I see now that the title of your story ‘After the War, Before the War’ is a reference not to the two world wars but to the two Sino-Japanese wars. As you know, the assassination of the Korean politician Kim Ok-kyun, which is mentioned at the beginning of both your story and Akutagawa’s Travels in China, was one of the causes of the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War. It is depressing to think that a war fought 120 years ago between Japan and China over control of the Korean peninsula should still be adversely affecting relations between Japan and its neighbours today.
For a long time, when Japanese people spoke of ‘classical literature’ they meant the Chinese classics. Moreover, all educated Japanese people wrote poetry in Chinese. Even today, many of the idioms we employ in modern Japanese have their origins in old Chinese literary sources. As you said, David-san, what makes Akutagawa so fascinating a figure are the conflicting emotions he embodied – on one hand esteem for Chinese classical literature, on the other disillusionment at the reality of early twentieth century China. Though 120 years may seem a long time to us, it does not represent even one tenth the length of Japan and China’s historical interaction. I sometimes wonder if a solution to our present problems is not to be found in the fact that Japan and China share a common writing system and cultural tradition, and in the historical fact that that culture was transmitted via the Korean peninsula.
As for Borges, another thing he had in common with Akutagawa was that he only wrote short fiction. Borges had a dislike for the novel form, didn’t he? I sometimes wonder if Akutagawa might not have gone on to write a novel if his life hadn’t ended so tragically. That’s something I would have certainly loved to read.
David-san, I sincerely want to thank you for inviting me to take part in this project. Since you were kind enough to ask about my future writing plans, I will tell you that I, too, am writing a novel set during the Occupation. The subject of modern and contemporary Japan continues to fascinate me. Since I wrote about life in Tokyo before and during the Second World War in The Little House, now I want to write a novel set after the war. My piece for Granta, ‘Things Remembered and Things Forgotten’, was a first attempt, as it were, at writing such a book. But it is difficult to know how to approach the recent past when there is yet no common consensus, and I am struggling to get started. But I have learned many things from you over the course of our correspondence and I feel greatly encouraged. It has enabled me to put some of my disordered thoughts into order. I want to give more thought to what’s special and appealing about fiction. I feel that will help me get started on my next novel.
I am very sad that this conversation must come to an end. But now it is time for me to say goodbye. Of course, I hope that sometime we might have the opportunity to continue it. Until then, I eagerly look forward to reading the third volume of your Tokyo Trilogy. I understand that you are off soon to the US and Europe, so in closing let me wish you safe travels and bon voyage!
This conversation was made possible thanks to translations from the Japanese by Ian M. MacDonald and into the Japanese by Takafumi Kondo.
Photograph of Kyoko Nakajima courtesy of Tokyo International Festival. Photograph of David Peace courtesy of carre.