Forging New Links Through Literature

Society Culture

The annual Salon du Livre was held in Paris this past March 16–19, and Japan was the "guest of honor" for the first time in 15 years and the second time in the book fair's 31-year history. Before leaving for France, novelist Hirano Keiichirō, one of 20 Japanese writers taking part, talked to about the significance of the event and the role of literature in postdisaster Japan.

Hirano Keiichirō

Novelist. Born in 1975. Published his first novel Nisshoku (Solar Eclipse; 1998) while still an undergraduate at Kyoto University and was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize the following year. In 2005, spent a year in Paris as a cultural envoy under a program sponsored by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs and was appointed tourism goodwill ambassador by the French tourism agency in 2011. Recent works include Kekkai (Dam Break; 2008), Dōn (Dawn; 2009), and the serial novel Kūhaku o mitashinasai (Fill the Void), currently appearing in the manga magazine Morning. His works have been translated into French, Korean, and Chinese. An English translation of the story "Shimizu" appears as "Clear Water" in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature (Columbia University Press, 2007).

INTERVIEWER The Great East Japan Earthquake and its aftermath were clearly a major factor behind the decision to highlight Japanese literature at this year's Salon du Livre, the Paris Book Fair. I suppose we can expect the disaster to emerge as a major theme?

HIRANO KEIICHIRŌ An opportunity like this for dialogue between writers from France and Japan—two countries with long and rich literary traditions—would be extremely significant even under normal circumstances. The opening decade of the twenty-first century has been a time of great turmoil and change, what with the explosion of the Internet and the spread of global terrorism. So novelists already have a lot to discuss with one another in terms of what we can write and how we can set about depicting this new world. But for Japan, of course, the overwhelming issue is the catastrophe we experienced in March 2011—not a terrorist attack but a natural disaster virtually without precedent in the developed world. This event presents an important opportunity for a large group of Japanese writers, all of whom shared in this experience, to come together and talk about Japan from a variety of different perspectives. Each of these writers is going to have his or her own personal outlook on things, and I hope that by listening to these differing viewpoints, French readers and writers will come away with a deeper understanding of the situation.

Doing What Fiction Does Best

INTERVIEWER I’m sure there will be a lot of interest in the kind of messages that Japan's writers choose to communicate to France and its people. What is it that you most want to convey?

HIRANO I haven't really prepared a particular message. I think people in France, as elsewhere, have been exposed to a lot of information about the tsunami and the nuclear accident via the Internet and other media. Certainly the Salon du Livre is a chance for Japanese writers to speak to people in France, but it's also an opportunity for us to get a better idea of how Japan is seen overseas. I'm hoping that by interacting directly, both readers and writers will learn things from each other that one can't get from media images and reports. That will give me a better sense of what I need to talk about. I think dialogue along these lines can lead to all kinds of discoveries.

INTERVIEWER I suppose a lot of attention will focus on Fukushima and the nuclear power issue, given the high level of public concern over nuclear safety in France nowadays.

HIRANO Personally speaking, I'm opposed to nuclear power. I think it should be abandoned. After everything that's happened, no one can seriously argue that it's safe. The March 11 disaster has really changed the way people think about this and other political, environmental, and energy issues. But literature isn't journalism. For me, fiction begins at the level of one's immediate, personal interaction with the world. You focus on a single person's life, and along the way you end up revealing something universal about humanity. So my plan is just to speak to people as a novelist and take in their impressions and reactions from that perspective as well. And maybe one day, after I get back from France, I will write a novel that incorporates the lessons I learned from those interactions.

INTERVIEWER Since last September, the weekly manga magazine Morning has been carrying a serialization of your latest novel, Kūhaku o mitashinasai [Fill the Void]. Did the events of March 2011 have an effect on that work?

HIRANO Naturally they had an effect, but in fact I was already working on the outline when the disaster happened, so the story doesn't deal with the events directly.

I do believe it's important for people to speak out on issues like nuclear energy and the progress being made with recovery efforts and supporting disaster victims, and so forth. But there are other emotional and psychological issues that fiction is better equipped to explore than any other medium. For example, the question of how we perceive time. Last year’s disaster was on a scale that occurs only once in a thousand years, and we're also facing the problem of what to do with nuclear waste that remains radioactive for 100,000 years. How can we accommodate such mind-boggling concepts within our ordinary, day-to-day human perception of time? What happens when a community is there one day and gone the next? Or when the neighbors you have exchanged greetings with on a daily basis suddenly vanish forever? I’d like to use the medium of the novel to grapple with issues like these.

A Back Seat to Manga?

INTERVIEWER More translations from the Japanese are published in French than in any other language except English, and manga account for a large proportion of that volume. By comparison, it sometimes seems that French readers are less interested in conventional genres of Japanese fiction. As a novelist whose recent works include a serialization in a manga magazine, how do you feel about this trend?

HIRANO In Japan, manga magazines are published by major publishing houses that also handle literature and other genres. In fact, some of our manga magazine editors are dedicated readers with a deep interest in literature. One of the editors of Morning has been a supporter of my work for some time, and has suggested that I write a serialization for them several times over the years. I was intrigued by the idea because it seemed like an opportunity to expand my readership—after all, Morning has a much larger circulation than any literary magazine.(*1) To my mind, manga and literary fiction are completely different genres, and sales of one genre have very little impact on sales of the other.

But it's a fact that many of the young people studying Japanese at universities in Paris nowadays initially became interested in Japanese language and culture through manga and anime or Japanese film. I'm hoping the Salon du Livre will be an opportunity to show more people how rewarding Japanese literature can be.

INTERVIEWER I get the feeling that Japanese readers are also less interested in French literature than they used to be.

HIRANO Personally speaking, I've loved French literature since I was a child. France has had a bigger influence on me than any other culture except Japan. On the whole, though, I suppose there's been a decline in popularity since the days of the nouveau roman in the 1970s. But there was a major upsurge in interest in contemporary French philosophy in the late 1980s. And I think over the last decade or so French literature has been regaining some of its influence here. Michel Houellebecq in particular has had a major impact on younger Japanese writers and critics. I have a hunch that people in Japan are going to be reading more and more French literature in the years to come. Of course, the French aren't reading as much Japanese literature as they used to, either, but in recent years translations have started to appear of works by a new generation of writers, so I'm pretty optimistic about the future.


(Produced with the cooperation of the Embassy of France in Japan. Translated from a February 28, 2012, interview in Japanese. Interviewer Harano Jōji is representative director of the Japan Echo Foundation. Photos by Kawamoto Seiya.)

Salon du Livre de Paris 2012

Speaking at a press conference in advance of the March 2012 Salon du Livre, French Ambassador to Japan Christian Masset discusses the significance of this year's Paris Book Fair in the company of Hirano Keiichirō and others involved in the event. The press conference and reception (below) drew a standing-room-only crowd to the French Embassy in Tokyo.

The Salon du Livre, a Parisian rite of spring since 1981, is one of the world's most prestigious book fairs. Held at the Porte de Versailles exhibition center in southwest Paris, it typically features around 1,200 exhibitors and is one of the biggest events on the calendar for the European publishing industry. For visitors, it offers the opportunity to browse a mega-bookstore covering more than 50,000 square meters and to interact with writers through dialogues, panel discussions, and book signings. In 2011, some 180,000 visitors converged on the Salon du Livre over a period of four days (three days for the general public).

Each year the Salon du Livre highlights a particular country or language. This year's fair, falling just after the first anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, designated Japan as its "guest of honor" for the first time in 15 years and the second time since the event's inception. The organizers invited 20 Japanese writers in various genres, including poet Yoshimasu Gōzō and manga artist Hagio Moto, as well as noted novelists including Ekuni Kaori, Hirano Keiichirō, Nobel laureate Ōe Kenzaburō, and Shimada Masahiko. The invitees are the guests of honor at an almost uninterrupted series of author events, including a panel discussion with several distinguished French writers. The fair's Japanese Pavilion organized a special exhibit featuring some 20,000 Japan-related books for sale and an exhibition of photos of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

List of invited writers
Schedule of Japan-related events (in French)


(*1) ^ Morning, published by Kodansha, has an average weekly circulation of 311,000. By comparison, the monthly literary magazine Gunzō (also published by Kodansha), has a circulation of 7,000 according to figures from the Japan Magazine Publishers Association (October–December 2011).

manga literature nuclear accident nuclear power France Paris books book fair exhibitions publishing event Ōe Kenzaburō Akutagawa Prize novel the Great East Japan Earthquake Hirano Keiichirō