Wednesday 11 March 2009

Big in Japan

Good Lord, do you remember that song? How old was I when it came out? Fourteen? Fifteen? I think it rewrote the OED definition of “cheesy” and “camp” in one go. It was also responsible for growing a few pimples on my face. If you are too young to remember, you can still listen to that masterpiece and watch the video here (hurry up as they are taking down all music videos from YouTube apparently). Don’t worry about the Japanese script – it will not harm your computer. And if you feel Abba-nostalgic and look up the Alphaville Wikipedia entry – yes, that’s right, they have almost as long an entry as Dante Alighieri on dear old Wiki – you’ll also find out that they have been releasing and re-releasing albums uninterruptedly since their debut in 1984. Now run to your nearest HMV shop.

Well, here I am – three-thirty in the morning: my body in one time zone, my brain in another. I was hoping they’d be showing the Champions’ League matches on state TV here in Japan – instead, all you can find is night-time karaoke and baseball replays. So I’ll sit down and write a short blog before breakfast.

Tokyo – what a strange city. It looks like a giant-size Manhattan. On the way from the airport, it took us fifteen minutes on a traffic-free motorway to drive through the industrial parks alone. The streets have no names, and the district signs are all in Japanese. It’s all a chaotic maze of tenement blocks and skyscrapers, as far as I can see. And no one speaks English. You really feel you are arriving from a different planet when you get here.

Yesterday I entered this place, and after ten minutes of cringing gesticulation I managed to get a giant noodle soup with slices of pork and a beer, at the end of which I paid through a talking machine, as if I was buying a ticket for the tube. Total cost, around £7.00. Two days ago I got a tiny American Club Sandwich from a bar for around £25.00. A strange place indeed.

But I love the people. They are extraordinarily kind and helpful. I bought a couple of books from a bookshop yesterday, and when I paid the counter boy curtseyed, put his hand on his heart and seemed to recite a prayer for me after giving me the receipt.

Everything – at least the part of town I am in – is unbelievably clean and new. I haven’t seen a single cigarette stub in the street so far. You have the feeling you are in an enormous barracks at times, and I have seen security guards giving the military salute to our coach driver as we were heading into town.

I have had two long but fruitful days of conferences and meetings, and I am now looking forward to meeting Watanabe and Tsutsui in the next few days. But it was also great to be here with some other interesting publishers, such as John O’Brien of Dalkey Archive (whom I knew already), Jennifer Crew of Columbia University Press, Adam Freudenheim of Penguin Classics (I haven’t poisoned his coffee, he’s a very nice man), Jack Shoemaker of Counterpoint Press and Racha Abazied of Éditions du Rocher.

The highlight of my stay so far was on the first day. At the end of a very long day of talks and meetings, we were offered a large buffet dinner with tempura, sushi, sandwiches and other delicious stuff. But before we could touch the food, there was speech number seventy-three of the day, by the head of the Japanese Publishing Association. You are made to work very hard for your food in this country. Someone whispered in my ear that it was a very long speech even by Japanese standards. Still, as I saw the poor guy pour his soul into the salient statistics of the Japanese book industry – unit sales were apparently down only 0.6% last year, but because of the Harry Potter phenomenon and high discounting gross sales were down from four hundred and twenty-two trillion, two hundred and seventy-eight billion, nine hundred and sixty million, three hundred and forty-five thousand yen in 2007 to around four hundred and seven trillion, four hundred and ninety-nine billion, one hundred and ninety-six million and four hundred thousand yen last year – as I saw him talk and talk and wipe sweat off his brow among the repressed giggles of the audience, who were wondering why he didn’t elaborate on the colour of his socks, I couldn’t help but thinking that Japan is a great country, and that I want to come back soon and see more of it.


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