The first Tokyo International Literary Fest stirs up Tokyo’s “Latent Literati”

by Christopher Johnson

For years, Tokyo, which has no shortage of literary talent, has lagged behind Hong Kong and Bangkok in terms of events showcasing authors and their unheralded support teams of editors, translators and publishers.

But now, at last, Asia’s biggest megacity has a festival of words to match its cornucopia of world class music, anime and cultural festivals.

Every event was full over the 3-day Tokyo International Literary Festival last weekend, held at venues in Roppongi, Waseda and other areas.

It’s not only because admission was free. Many people in Japan have been fixing to see and hear, in person, their favorite authors such as J.M. Coetzee, Pico Iyer, Geoff Dyer and many others. On Twitter, New York Times writer Hiroko Tabuchi called it “dew to the literary desert that has been my life recently.” Many Tokyo residents, emerging from a cold dry winter, felt the same.

It wasn’t just an oasis in the desert. TILF was a waterfall, and hopefully a watershed moment for the city’s art scene.

For literary types living in Japan, far away from the publishing centers of New York and London, it was inspiring just to rub shoulders with writers, editors and translators who have earned their acclaim through hard work and generosity. We could see, first-hand, the star quality that — not surprisingly — makes them stars. For the most part, they seemed to be very down-to-earth, intelligent, soulful folks. They don’t seem to let ego block their creative flow. They are interested in you, and in Japan as well.

And, oh my, they have SO much to say, and they say it in creative and articulate ways. (Rather than quoting them directly in this story, please hear from them directly by purchasing their work.)

Everybody was impressive in their own ways. In my view, the short list for favorite authors is too long to be a short list. For starters, there’s: Geoff Dyer, Pico Iyer, and Bin Sugawara (who “tapped” out his stunning poetry from his Ipad to a big screen at Super Deluxe). Hideo Furukawa and his Milky Way Train collabos (Suga, Shibata, and Kojima) capped off a fabulous Saturday with a multi-media performance evoking the bohemian spirit of the Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg et al). Also on the short list: Junot Diaz, John Freeman, Lexy Bloom, Michael Emmerich, Deborah Treisman, and Tokyo’s own award-winning novelist David Peace, a former Nova teacher whose Yorkshire humor and intense narrative connected with an audience roughly 90 percent Japanese and 10 percent gaijin. Many others, who this reporter couldn’t catch, also drew rave reviews from fans.

Of all the insightful panel discussions, the most riveting was perhaps the dynamic interplay between the enlightened Iyer, the hilarious Dyer, and the stalwart Japanese travel writer Mitsuyo Kakuta. Thanks to the thoughtful moderation of Granta editor and The Tyranny of Email author John Freeman, we felt like we were hanging out at a Tibetan temple with the most fun-loving travelers in the world. Dyer continued to amuse late into Saturday night, as he cajoled with skillful interpreters who had to learn the names of obscure jazz legends for the first time while delivering Dyer’s punch-lines into another language.

David Karashima, Elmer Luke, the Nippon Foundation and many others did a fantastic job of pulling it together — no easy feat in a city that, at times, can feel resistant to change. They wisely seemed to tweak it for the better as the weekend went along. Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee, a normally reclusive writer who graced the event with his powerful presence, induced a few yawns during his reading Friday night at the Roppongi Art College, when many fans were understandably exhausted from a Tokyo work week. But his festival-ending performance Sunday night, from his new novel The Childhood of Jesus, was shining with simplicity, metaphor and a childlike wonder. Instead of distracting a multi-lingual audience with simultaneous translations, the organizers found a brilliant solution: Coetzee read in English, followed by a marvelous Japanese actor performing it in Japanese.

Japan/America-based scene-makers such as Roland Kelts, Craig Mod and others have long been trying to spark a literary movement here, and this festival, if it can continue, will go a long way to achieving that goal. One idea for the next festival would be to include notable Japan-based foreigner authors such as Richard Lloyd Parry, Jake Adelstein, Alex Kerr and others, who can connect directly in Japanese with the local audience. Another idea, copying from the Fuji Rock Festival, would be to pair the overseas authors with Japan-based literatis who can show them around the city. Dyer in particular seemed eager to explore the backstreets of Tokyo, while Diaz mentioned an interest in writing a book about Japan’s over-supply of “weird” gaijin pursuing their fantasies here.

The organizers’ most effective idea, perhaps, was holding the Saturday night event in a bar, Super Deluxe, known for hosting punk bands like Molice and Natccu. Literature, like revenge, is best served cold, with a frosty beer in hand. There truly was a “festive” spirit on Saturday night, and it carried over into Sunday’s events in Waseda. As Coetzee, Diaz and others floated around the corridors signing books, you could see book ideas forming in the minds of Tokyo’s latent literati. That, alone, merits more funding for TILF II.

Christopher Johnson’s novels Siamese Dreams and Kobe Blue can be found at