Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Japan Times profile of a favorite blogger

The Japan Times, my favorite English-language Japanese newspaper, has posted a profile of one of my favorite bloggers about Japan, Shari Custer, who writes one of my favorite blogs about Japan, 1000 Things About Japan.

Asked whether her attitude toward Japan has changed over time, she is quoted as saying, "I went through the same phases that most people do when they live in Japan for some time. At first, all is sunshine and roses, then I got angry and depressed. Eventually, my perspective became more balanced. Part of my blog’s purpose is talking about both sides of life here. There are good things, but also bad ones. I realize that conclusions about Japan are subjective. My experiences are authentic, but my emotional responses to them are ones that others may not share."

At the end of the interview (which I encourage both my faithful reader to read), she is asked about other bloggers.

"I love Shibuya 246 for the way in which it feels both like a 'brand' blog (not personal), but still has a real human feeling and the author connects with his readers. The pictures are also excellent. I also follow a lot of personal blogs written by women in Japan because I think you learn the most by hearing about experiences that others have had and most male Japan bloggers don’t tend to write about their lives or experiences."

Thanks to Sheri, I've also begun following Shibuya 246, and commend it to your attention.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What to see in Tokyo

A friend asked for suggestions where a first-time visitor to Tokyo and Kyoto should go, an impossible question. Tokyo is like New York City; it is overwhelming and there is something for everyone. Indeed, lots of somethings for every taste, so one could spend one's entire week looking at art, going to theater, checking out fashion, visiting shrines and temples, go clubbing, or just sitting around and people-watch. That said, here's what I suggested:

Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. A collection of the best of Japanese art.

International Forum Building. A contemporary architectural marvel beside Yurakacho Station on the Yamanote (circle train) Line.

Tsukliji Fish Market. Overwhelming, but go first thing in the morning--and stay out of the way of the people who are working.

Sensoji Temple, Asakusa. Famous temple at the end of the Nakamichi, a shopping street where Japanese tourists buy their souvenirs.

Edo-Tokyo Museum. Close to Sensoji (a cheap cab ride); the building is extraordinary and the museum covers the history of the city from its founding to the 1962 Olympics.

Meiji Jingu (Park and Shrine). A lovely park in the center of the city dedicated to the emperor who started the modernization process.

Harajuku (a train station and area) at the entrance to Meiji Park is where the most fashion-forward teens hang out on weekends.

Akihabara (train station and area), "Electric town" with scores of electronics shops.

National Museum of Science and Emerging Technology on Odaiba, an island in Tokyo Bay. Get there by monorail, which is interesting itself, and we found the museum and its exhibits fascinating. Odaiba also has one of the world's largest Ferris Wheels.

Finally, I would go to one of the big Ginza department stores—Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi, or even Tokyu Hands. Arrive before opening and be welcomed by bowing sales clerks when the doors open, check out the kimono department (and the prices!), the art exhibit on one of the top floors, and stay for lunch in one of the restaurants.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Guardians of Literary Culture? Ha!

Makoto Rich began a recent article in The New York Times, "Book publishers have long seen themselves as the gatekeepers of literary culture."

Book publishers might have seen themselves as gatekeepers of literary culture when Maxwell Perkins was editing Thomas Wolfe, but that was a long time ago. They may still see themselves as such at certain self-congratulatory awards events, but who are they kidding?

Book publishers have always been profit-making enterprises. At one time, if you believe the industry's story, they made enough profit that they could take a chance on a talented unknown author, support him through several money-losing but increasingly assured books, and be rewarded either in profit or literary status or both. Today, I suspect, profit is all. Is there any publisher today who believes it is worth spending the company's money cultivating an author? Is there any editor who would go to his or her publishing committee and say that "this might not be a best seller, but it's a fine book by an author who shows a lot of talent and any house would be proud to publish it."

The irony it seems to me is that while publishers reportedly spend big bucks to buy best selling authors, no one knows what makes a best seller. (Okay, a brand name helps: John Grisham, Danielle Steele, Stephen King, Clive Cussler, James Patterson...but how do you become a brand name?) Publisher's Weekly has run year-end review stories about the books publishers flogged enthusiastically that the public just as enthusiastically ignored and the books that took off with virtually no publisher support. Rather than trying to hit a home run (read: publish a best seller) with every manuscript, a publisher would probably be better off trying to hit a lot of singles and doubles, knowing the odds favor an occasional home run.

None of this is to say that if a book is a best seller it cannot be "literary" whatever that means. Nor is it to say that if a book is literary it cannot be popular. It is to say that if a book does not fit into a well-defined niche—mystery, romance, thriller, science fiction, chick-lit, etc., etc.—most publishers don't know what to do with it, and rather than work to find out, it is easier, and certainly cheaper, to pass and literary culture be damned.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The interpreter's dilemma

I've wondered what an interpreter does when his client says something that cannot be translated directly—an idiom, or a cultural reference that does not exist in the other language. I presume that at the highest levels of government and diplomacy, the interpreters are so good they can find equivalents on the fly...and their clients try to avoid idioms and obscure cultural references.

I have rarely had to act as an interpreter. For one thing, my Japanese is not good enough. and for another I've seldom been in a situation where I was the bridge between an English-speaker and a Japanese who spoke no English. The one time I was enlisted was a lunch at the New York City Princeton Club.

I'd met all morning with a client with whom I was writing a book. He had a lunch that day with a Japanese executive and an American consultant who were visiting a number of US companies. At the last minute, Kevin asked if I would like to join them.

When we met in the private room for lunch, I introduced myself in Japanese to the executive who, I am sure, spoke excellent English but who complemented my Japanese ability to Kevin. The consultant apparently spoke no Japanese. As we sat down for lunch, the consultant remarked that they had just come from Philadelphia.

"Well, as it says on W.C. Fields' tombstone, 'All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia,'" said Kevin. The Japanese executive looked blank. Kevin looked at me and said, "Translate it."

Aside from the fact that "tombstone" is not a word in my vocabulary, the line has so many cultural references—who was W.C. Fields, his attitude toward Philadelpha, what one writes (or not) on a tombstone, which are very different from Japanese tombmarkers—I could not possibly convey the point.

So I said was I was able to say Japanese, "Doctor Clancy has just told a joke. Please laugh."

The executive gave an appreciative chuckle, and we ordered lunch.