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Notebook on Cities and Culture S3E10: Trouble Sparks Creativity with Christopher Stephens

Colin Marshall sits down in Nishinomiya, Japan with translator, writer, and former Kansai Time Out editor Christopher Stephens. They discuss whether higher Japanese skills get a foreigner more suspicion; the nearby presence and touristic effects of novelist Haruki Murakami’s elementary school; the older writers, like Yasunari Kawabata, Junichiro Tanizaki, and Yukio Mishima, who stoked his interest in Japan; the experimental music to be found in Japan, such as the work of Keiji Haino and the Boredoms, and specifically in the Kansai noise scene; the Osaka duality between money-making hard workers and underground weirdness; the local pride taken in relative roughness and unrefinement, and the stereotype of the bad Osakan; what actually distinguishes the Osaka dialect, and how entirely different words might see use in one city but not its neighbor; Japan’s visual culture, and the problematic emphasis on beauty that can ensue; his youth in Fresno, California, whose finest quality was the way it pushed him out; the time he took Wilco to an Osaka psychedelic sixties rock bar; how, when the Japanese open a psychedelic sixties rock bar, they really open a psychedelic sixties rock bar; his early struggles with regional backwardness in the eighties, and what happens when Japanese friends still ask him to hold their babies; Osaka’s high crime rate for Japan and Fresno’s high crime rate for California; whether Paris syndrome actually afflicts the Japanese; the West’s eagerness to believe everything they hear about Japan; photographer Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s purchase of the entire collection of Toba’s science-fiction erotic museum; the cannaboid substance known as “herb” that recently made the rounds in Japan; the persistence of visual art in Japan which goes well beyond Takashi Murakami, and his own specialty, the Gutai group of painters; why no Japanese person has yet appeared on this show, and what linguistic reasons might explain it; the corrections Japanese people make to his English; his work editing Kansai Time Out during the heyday of its breed of publication; Japan’s relatively robust print culture, at least by contrast to America’s; how little time translation leaves to learn new words or savor the language; and, despite the world’s having lost confidence in Japan, his theory that darkness always brings light, and that trouble sparks creativity.

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