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From my interview archive: Japanologist and Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburō Ōe translator John Nathan

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

A few years before I ever set foot in Asia, I read John Nathan’s memoir Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere, the story of his growing up as a Jewish New Yorker in Arizona, studying the Japanese language in college, moving to Japan soon after graduation in the early 1960s, and quickly falling in with such Japanese literary and cinema luminaries as Mishima Yukio, Ōe Kenzaburō, Abe Kobo, and Teshigahara Hiroshi. The book contains many more stories from subsequent chapters of Nathan’s career on both sides of the Pacific, but the sections on Japan inspired me to seek out the memoirs of other Westerners who’d lived there as well: Donald Keene’s On Familiar Terms, Donald Richie’s The Japan Journals, Edwin Seidensticker’s Tokyo Central, or more obscure — but to me, no less fascinating — volumes like Peregrine Hodson’s A Circle Round the Sun.

Originally, though, I’d simply read Nathan’s book as preparation for an interview with him on The Marketplace of Ideas. He then held, and I believe still holds, the title of Takashima Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, where I went to college and at whose campus radio station I started the show after graduating. I’d up to that point recorded all the show’s conversations over the phone, so talking to this professor about his just-published memoir provided me the opportunity to get some face-to-face interviewing experience. It also, so I may not have realized at the time, provided me the opportunity to exhume my own long-buried interest in not just Japan but Japan’s part of the world, and not just that of a distant observer.

Nathan, by the time of my own undergraduate years at UCSB, had become something of a celebrity among that school’s students of Japanese: a highly entertaining orator full of stories about the Japan of bygone decades (many of them involving first-hand encounters with the writers and other artists whose work stoked the students’ own interest in Japan), but who could also come off — if I recall the RateMyProfessor comments correctly — as brash and lordly. I suspect I would have taken that attitude as an invigorating antidote to the simpering inoffensiveness found elsewhere in the humanities, but regrettably, I never took any of Nathan’s classes in college myself because I didn’t want to know about Japan in college: after having taught myself some basic written Japanese in middle school, I came to regard an interest in the language and the culture as the province, at least in my generation, of the sloppy, socially inept nerd, and only later, through gradual re-introduction to its less animation- and video-game-oriented fruits — such as the dark, surreal novels of Nathan’s friend Abe — could I kindle it again.

I even began studying Japanese properly, though I came to it through my interest in the Korean language, which I’d started teaching myself not long before launching The Marketplace of Ideas. With no Korean classes easily available to take around Santa Barbara (and with my having been sternly told to graduate after accruing too many credits at UCSB already), I enrolled in a Japanese class at Santa Barbara City College, having heard about the two languages’ (somewhat overstated) similarity of grammar and vocabulary and hoping to meet a Korean classmate or two with whom to practice the Asian language I really wanted to learn. That did happen, but in the process I also realized that I’d never really killed my desire to immerse myself in more things Japanese, and the example of Nathan — and Keene and Richie and Seidensticker and Hodson and many other East-going Westerners besides — led me to the realization that I could actually go to Japan, too.

My interview with Nathan, in addition to being the first I ever recorded in person, also turned out to be the first I had to air in two parts. I’d brought several question-filled notebook pages into the studio (this being so early in my interviewing career that I still felt I needed the crutch of notes), but in the event got so caught up in the conversation that I could simply let it flow naturally, and at length. Nathan, a true storyteller with his life experiences presumably fresh in his mind from having just written the book, happily obliged me with detailed answers that steered the conversation in a host of unexpected directions. I took great satisfaction from the pleasure Nathan expressed at the interview after (and even while) we recorded it, but looking back — from my current life, living in Korea, frequently visiting Japan, and writing, reading, and thinking more than ever about both of them — I wonder whether he could sense what the encounter would, a decade later, inspire me to do.