- Views Manga and Anime in Japan Today
- Frederik Schodt’s Four Decades as a Manga Ambassador to the World
The writer and translator Frederik Schodt was in Tokyo in February to talk about his latest work, a 900-plus-page translation of a manga-form biography of legendary artist Tezuka Osamu. He also shared stories about his decades of work dedicated to sharing Japan’s manga and anime culture with the world.
Frederik L. SchodtWriter and translator. Born in 1950 in Washington DC. Lived in Norway and Australia before moving to Japan in 1965. Graduated from the American School in Japan and the University of California, Santa Barbara, also spending time at International Christian University in Tokyo for intensive language training and postgraduate work in interpreting and translation. Has translated numerous manga works by Tezuka Osamu and other leading Japanese artists and has written books on Japanese pop culture, Japanese history, and many other topics. Won a 1983 Manga Oscar Award from the Japan Cartoonists Association for Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics and a 2009 special prize in the third International Manga Awards for contributing to global understanding of manga. In 2009 he received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, for sharing Japanese culture with the world. His website is http://www.jai2.com/.
900 Pages on the “God of Manga”
“I have to admit I’m a bit nervous speaking in front of a crowd with so many old friends in it,” said Frederik Schodt at the beginning of his February 8, 2017, lecture at the Japan Foundation’s Tokyo office. The veteran translator, writer, and introducer of Japanese manga to foreign audiences was not mistaken—his quip met with warm laughter from acquaintances including fellow translators, artists, and representatives of Tezuka Productions, the animation studio founded by legendary manga artist Tezuka Osamu (1928–89) in 1968.
Schodt’s latest work, and the reason he was in Tokyo, is The Osamu Tezuka Story (2016). Achieved with financial assistance from a Japan Foundation program supporting the publication of Japanese literary works in foreign languages, this 900-plus-page tome is the complete translation of Tezuka Osamu monogatari, a manga by Ban Toshio covering the entire life and career of the “god of manga,” who created Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and many other beloved works. Originally serialized in Asahi Graph from 1989, soon after Tezuka’s death, to 1992, this manga presents not just the development of Tezuka as an artist over the years but also the development of Japan itself, from the tumult of World War II through the postwar reconstruction right up through the country’s modern prosperity.
“Manga and anime are now a field for academic work, and there are even master’s and PhD programs in manga studies at universities around the world,” noted Schodt. “I chose to translate this book in part because it was something that scholars were already referencing in their papers, and I thought it deserved to be read in English too.” Tezuka Osamu monogatari has already been translated into French, its first foreign appearance, along with Italian, Portuguese, and Korean.
One of his most pleasant discoveries while translating the work, said Schodt, was spotting a familiar face in it—his own. In December 1978 Tezuka made a trip to Los Angeles, where he visited the Disney Productions animator Ward Kimball at his home. In a frame based on a photo from the Tezuka Productions files, Kimball, an avid model train collector, shows one of his tracks to Tezuka while a vest-wearing Schodt stands by, ready to interpret.
An Early Introduction to Manga
Schodt first came to Japan in 1965. As a teenager attending an international school in Tokyo, his first years in the country were not marked by a love of manga. “I don’t really remember there being much of a manga scene at the time,” he spoke at the lecture. “Certainly not like today, when you see shelves of them even in ramen shops and cafés.” His own lifelong infatuation with Japan’s comics would not begin until his college days, when he returned once more to Japan in 1970 as an exchange student at International Christian University in west Tokyo.
The intensive Japanese language program at ICU involved eight hours a day of classwork, but the young Schodt made manga a part of his learning outside the classroom. “There was something of a manga boom underway among the university set at the time, and I got into it too.” He recalls becoming a fan of Akatsuka Fujio, whose gag-laden works like Osomatsu-kun and Tensai Bakabon (The Genius Bakabon) were easy for a language learner to approach. “But then a friend of mine told me, ‘You’ve got to read Hi no tori.’ When I got my hands on a copy, it was revelatory. It really matched the philosophical musings I was going through at the time.”
Hi no tori, published in English as Phoenix, is a sprawling, unfinished series by Tezuka set in eras from the mythical past to the sci-fi future and exploring everything from immortality and death to religion and human nature. It would be the first Tezuka work for Schodt to tackle as a translator.
After graduation, he returned to the United States and worked in various jobs, including as a tour guide for visiting Japanese groups. A desire to hone his interpreting skills took him back to Tokyo in 1975 on a Ministry of Education grant. He fell in with ICU friends Sakamoto Shinji, Ueda Midori, and Jared Cook, forming a group named Dadakai that marked the beginning of his career as a manga translator.
Dadakai would not last for long, but while it was active its members visited some of the titans of the manga scene to obtain permission to translate their works. To laughter from the audience, Schodt recalled the cold call he and Cook made to Matsumoto Leiji, author of Uchū senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato) and Ginga tetsudō 999 (Galaxy Express 999). “We heard Matsumoto-sensei was into motorcycles, so we decided to make a good impression by riding our bikes over to see him—of course, in our full riding leathers!” While it never saw publication, they were able to translate some of his work as a result of that day’s ride.
Meeting the “God of Manga”
The successful pitch was that made to Tezuka Osamu. In 1977 Schodt visited Tezuka Productions to ask for permission to translate Hi no tori into English. “We got an appointment to meet with Matsutani [Takayuki, today president of the company] and went on over. He looked very sleepy that day; I remember he was wearing slippers.” (A grinning Matsutani, in the audience for Schodt’s lecture, agreed that this was probably true—Tezuka was known for working a grueling schedule, and his company’s staff were hard-pressed to keep up.) “Imagine our surprise when Tezuka-sensei himself came out! I heard later that he thought I was quite an imposing figure, due to my height, and looked a bit scary, with my shaggy 1970s hairstyle . . .”
The great artist was not scared of the idea of working with Schodt, however. The American would go on to accompany Tezuka on several of his trips abroad, interpreting for him. More importantly, he would translate many of his works into English, sharing them with a growing global population of manga fans.
The first Tezuka work that Schodt and Cook translated was Hi no tori. They completed the English manuscripts for the first five volumes, but due to a lack of a market for translated manga at the time, they remained unpublished for nearly a quarter of a century. In 2002 they began being published by the US firm Viz Media, and the translator duo completed the 12-volume set, which was published in full at last in 2007.
Also from Tezuka’s catalog, Schodt produced translations for all 23 volumes of Tetsuwan Atomu—in Japan, the most popular work by the “god of manga”—and Tsumi to batsu, his manga reimagining of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He also translated the eight-volume Pluto, a vastly expanded reimagining of a single Astro Boy episode by Urasawa Naoki.
Translator and editor, Nippon.com. Came to Japan in 1985. After graduating from the American School in Japan, earned his degree in Japanese from the University of California at Berkeley. In 1996 joined Japan Echo Inc., where he produced translations for Japan Echo and the Japan Review of International Affairs, as well as for governmental and private-sector clients. Translator of Dr. Noguchi’s Journey, a biography of the medical researcher Noguchi Hideyo. Heads the English-language team at the Nippon Communications Foundation.
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