Tokyo International Literary Festival


The second installment of the Tokyo International Literary Festival took place in various locations dotted around the capital. Organized in conjunction with the Nippon Foundation the festival included events and discussions with an impressive list of acclaimed writers from both home and abroad attracting Pulitzer Prize winning authors such as Junot Diaz and Jeffrey Eugenides and Booker Prize nominees such as David Mitchell and Tash Aw.

In what could be construed as a slightly bewildering and unimaginative decision the festival decided to invite several authors and guests who participated in last year’s inaugural program. Junot Diaz, Risa Wataya and New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, who also serves on the festival’s advisory board, were once again called on to take part in events and discussions. It’s not so problematic as Diaz and Wataya are both fantastic writers and good conversationalists but it begs the question why didn’t they invite other writers and editors who could add a different perspective to global literary discussion.

Another worry is the festival’s Americentrism. It’s only international in the sense that the vast majority of participants are pretty much either Japanese or North American. Sure, the festival had a “Writing in Asia” event featuring Korean, Thai and Malaysian authors but the festival is dominated by American novelists with really only England’s David Mitchell and David Peace representing the other continents.

What’s more, the international writers they do invite often have strong and preexisting links to Japan. David Peace lives here and David Mitchell lived in Hiroshima as an English teacher for years and Ruth Ozeki studied in Kyoto and has Japanese parentage. Eugenides is married to a Japanese artist and Diaz is a self-proclaimed Japanophile and otaku. In a way, then, all this does is to reinforce the insularity of Japan and its culture. By inviting these particular guests we invite discussions about their relationships with Japan and their experiences here – which is not necessarily negative. Although to open up the Japanese audience to real global experience, literature and debate, and to deter allegations of cultural sakoku, which some critics say contemporary Japan is guilty of, is surely one of the main points of an international literary festival.

What would really solidify this festival in future is the involvement of literary talent from elsewhere in Europe such as Scotland’s James Kelman, Ireland’s Claire Keegan, France’s Michel Houellebecq, Norway’s Karl Ove Knausgaard and Spain’s Javier Marias. Or even the inclusion of some writing about contemporary China from such gems as Yiyun Li and Ma Jian. Having the input of new tongues and nationalities is a method of diversifying the festival and making it more truly international and, to be honest, more interesting and culturally significant.

Written by
Paul McInnes
Austin James Rea