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.

*         *         *

As an author of published novels, I was thrilled to attend the Tokyo International Literary Festival, where I met Hiroko Tabuchi of the New York Times. I was chatting with Japanese writers, event staff and other gaijin there, as was Tabuchi. It was a fun event. I got my first impression of Tabuchi. She seems like a bubbly young Generation Y person. She was eager to meet authors.

Tabuchi seemed left out of the ‘in crowd”. She was scrambling to get into the ‘after party’ as any celebrity reporter would. She seemed starstruck to meet the hip-hopper Junot Diaz, a Pulitzer winner. He immediately began to trash the NYT over their coverage of Latin America. He also hurt gaijin in the crowd with his comment about the ‘weird gaijin’ scene.

We had mutual friends who introduced us in the lobby.

“I read your Gaijin Gulag stories,” said Tabuchi. “But I’m not going to report about this for the New York Times. Some of my friends in the media are angry at you because you broke the story before we did. That’s why people are attacking you.”

“This is likely the goal of whoever is fooling you or framing me,” I said. “Please try to see the bigger picture here. You are better than this. Please realize that certain cyber-haters out there are trying to smear the names of both you and I.”

“I don’t have to listen to anybody. I’m a reporter with the New York Times.”

“It’s nothing personal. I frequently praise your articles. I often try to defend you from cyber-haters. On a professional level, I have to question the work of anybody who reports false accusations from dubious sources. Reporters have to show verifiable evidence to back up accusations. It’s rule number one of journalism: always consider the source.”

“Yes, my editors told me that.”

“We actually have friends in common. Our housemate is the bass player for SMAP and he also plays with your friend Roland Kelts in Ali-mo. I haven’t met or contacted Roland Kelts in several years. We should all get together more often. My Japanese partner is the keyboardist for Asai Kenichi. They have real star quality, and they would like to speak with you. Why don’t you come to their next concert? We can hang out backstage and discuss things privately. Nobody will bother you there. We’ve all been friends for a long time. You can come meet our tight group of 50 friends in person to see our world. It’ll be a fascinating look into the rock music scene in Japan. My friends and I are living our dreams with true passion.”

“I don’t feel comfortable at concerts. I’m afraid of people stalking me. I’m dealing with many right-wing trolls in Japan.”

“Actually, these people are stalking me and my partner. Q and I have a letter from police saying a person (who I last met 15 months ago) accused me of stalking. It’s ridiculous. Everybody knows this.”

“I’m just not in a friendly mood these days. I’m stressed out from work. People think I’m the ‘Queen of Twitter’ in Japan, but I’m a tiny cog in the big NYT wheel.”

“If you don’t want to hang out backstage, fine. But it won’t help your career to defend alcoholics and pathological liars who try to mislead you. We are all better than this.”

“People are making threats.”

“I didn’t make any threats. These haters are the ones making threats against you, me and other journalists. Sadly, I felt that Jake Adelstein, whose writing I like, was sincerely making attempts to reconcile previous issues. I wish he had more friends like I have.  Actually, I feel sorry if people have never experienced the true love that I feel from my old friends. These are not fake people. These haters and trolls can try to ruin my writing career, and my friends won’t care. The haters can never touch my lifelong friendships here with musicians. I’ve seen many local hire journalists come and go. Some are flash in the pan, and they burn out early. But Asai Kenichi and Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra are national treasures.”

“Thank you for your offers. But I’ve been friends with Jake for a long time, and he doesn’t like you. He says you are a stalker and child molester. That’s why he blocks you on Twitter.”

“One cannot make false accusations, without evidence, about a trained veteran reporter and then hide behind a wall of silence. I suppose that Jake is attacking me because of what sources told me for my story. Maybe you know the true story, or another side of Jake. If your evidence contradicts what sources and the National Geographic crew members told me, then it’s my duty to correct the story. It’s not a hate piece, like Jake says. The story is based on serious allegations of fraud. You did many stories about the former CEO of Olympus. Is he a hater, or a whistleblower?”

“He’s a whistleblower, and Jake and I helped him get his message to the world.”

“True, but he has to back up his claims with verifiable evidence. The 170-year old craft of journalism is based on hard facts and verifiable evidence from multiple sources, not idle gossip. Jake often reports without any hard facts or verifiable evidence. It’s mostly anonymous sources, and they aren’t credible. Jake routinely libels people. The onus is on him to restore reputations fully and immediately. ‘You break it, you fix it.’ Jake is the one making the accusations. So he has to fix it.”

“People also question your Gaijin Gulag story.”

“The big difference is that when I do a story, it’s backed up with verifiable, overwhelming hard evidence, not gossip. It’s different with Jake. He makes false accusations with no evidence. The onus is on him to apologize and get the story right and restore truth.”

“He’s successful because he gets a lot of hits and clicks.”

“I don’t care about ‘hit counts’ or Twitter followers. I have a big tight circle of real longterm friends. That’s enough for me.”

“I’m sorry, but this conversation is also enough for me. I don’t like people bullying me.”

“OK, I’ll bow out for now in case you think this is somehow ‘bullying’. It’s not my intention. You often speak your mind, so I can speak mine. We are journalists in the communications business, not bureaucrats or public relations flacks. I’m showing you respect rather than gossiping behind your back, which seems to be the root of the problem here within our media circles. I realize that you are young and learning. I don’t like it either when people blame you for the pathetic state of journalism in Japan and elsewhere.”


(copyright Christopher Johnson. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use of this copyrighted work in any form is strictly prohibited.) 


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