Daigaku Z: Secrets And Lies

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

Also: Thanks for bearing with last week’s absence. The semester is wrapping up and next week will be the last Daigaku Z in 2014; I’ll return on January 11th, 2015 with the new year’s start. Thank you again for your continued support– yoroshiku, baby!

I’m not the first person in my family to be enamored of the Land of the Rising Sun. My cousin Patrick is a teacher in Colorado, having previously spent a year in Japan studying the literature of the nation. I’ll freely admit that his ambition– and success– played a big role in my decision to get back to school; then again, this isn’t a column about my massive (and massively exaggerated) inferiority complex about my family.

The reason I mention Patrick is because, earlier this week while I was reading through an assignment for a final project, I happened to rant in his general direction regarding the book I was reading. Kenzaburo Oe’s The Changeling is a book which, at first blush, infuriated me. Initially presented as fiction, the book takes about ten pages before turning into an autobiography metaphorically separated from truth only by the opaque ministrations of a busted-out window. It was a bait-and-switch con job that, if the book hadn’t been required reading, would have caused me to stop reading at the exact moment that the tome went out my very real front window.

Well, that and I bought it as an e-book and I don’t want to replace my reading device just yet. Not the point.

So when I wrote that idle Facebook comment, I honestly wasn’t expecting too much in the way of anything outside of catharsis. Patrick’s response was even-handed and very illuminating, however, and it took me a little while to really get what he was saying. As it turns out, that was likely why I was having so much trouble understanding the book– and probably why the book was on my list in the first place. The project for which I was reading it was my Intro to Translation Studies class.

Culture clash is a very real phenomenon, and nowhere else is it more evident than in the Anglophonic otaku world. After all, we’re a community that can accept infamously incomprehensible statements like “people die when they are killed” and “I have never seen a yeast such as this– it brings me to tears!” at more-or-less face value, because we have knowledge of the context in which these are made (in reverse order, Yakitate Ja-Pan and terminal misogyny– I mean, Fate/stay night‘s protagonist Shirou Emiya). It’s when those statements’ references in their original culture have an unrelated, often unintentional reference in the destination culture, that the culture clash becomes a stumbling block to enjoyment and understanding. In some cases, the dissonance is mild and amusing, such as a character supposedly raised in America using the word “pierce” to refer to an earring (as happened with Momoko in Ojamajo Doremi).

And then there’s Oe’s work, which is representative of a greater genre of work known as “I-novels”. Typically confessional works of autobiography, these are less like the traditional Western term of a roman à clef and more like Dragnet: the stories are real but the names have been changed to protect the innocent– and not-so-innocent. Where a roman à clef is usually considered allegorical where its plot most closely aligns with reality, the I-novel instead (and this is typical of the genre but varied across its writers in its century-plus of existence) uses events virtually exactly as they are, to the point of referencing real-world events. The Changeling‘s protagonist of Kogito Choko is an exact döppelganger of Oe, from his disabled yet brilliant composer son to the titles of his past body of work. The Changeling‘s plot deals with the 1997 suicide of Kogito’s brother in law Goro, known in reality as Juzo Itami– director of Tampopo among other films.

In Western literature, we expect a clear delineation between fact and fiction. Fiction may draw upon reality as a backdrop or as context, but it must never give even the slightest appearance of being anything but made-up. Where fiction blurs the line separating itself from history makes most Anglophonic audiences extremely uncomfortable. A good example of this is Spike Jonze’s 2002 film Adaptation, which fictionalizes the process of its own writing. While it’s a great film and well-constructed, it often can be confusing for the audience to separate what really happened from what never did.

Probably a better example of the dangers of autobiographical fiction, though, is the story of JT LeRoy, more accurately known as Laura Albert. From 1999 to 2007 Albert wrote her work as the wholly-fictitious LeRoy, who was portrayed in public appearances by her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop. This culminated in The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, which has a plot that parallels the trajectory of LeRoy’s fictitious history. When Albert was unmasked in 2005, after the filming (but before the release) of an adaptation of the book, the entirety of the book and “LeRoy”‘s ouvre were thrown into question. As it stands, they’re strong work, but the shadow of deception still lingers over them. For people of my generation, their questionable status is divisive: some of us believe they’re enhanced by being so successful in their ruse, while others (myself included) do not appreciate the dilution of fact into fiction, a solution that once mixed can never be distilled.

The earliest parts of my training as a writer were in journalism, and it was drilled into me at that early age that the reporter must never put too much of themselves into the story. We treat that objectivity as sacrosanct within the news, although within the last ten to fifteen years there has been a subtle backlash against that particular line on the stone tablets of journalistic ethics. So Oe’s work was a very bitter pill to swallow, in particular because there were more barriers blurring the lines than I had signed on for: first Oe’s own obfuscation and then the translator’s decisions to represent the works referenced in subtly altered forms. The fact that the cheesecloth of fictionality covering the account of actual events was threadbare and missing in spots made it very difficult for me to figure out what parts of the whole were real and what weren’t.

In the end, short of actually interviewing Oe myself (which is about as likely to happen as my swimming from Long Beach to Puget Sound by way of Okinawa), I’ll never know what side is which when discussing The Changeling. That might be the point, actually; it’s entirely possible that Oe wrote the book for his own catharsis, and dressed it up as fiction as a way of saying “Don’t take this too seriously; it didn’t happen to you, so there’s no sense worrying about it”. I have a hard time believing that, though, considering Oe’s real-world history of being ardently anti-war and, more importantly, being accurate when writing on those topics: he was cleared of libel in a case regarding Okinawan forced-suicides in World War II when the judge concluded that Oe’s assessments were correct, and holding with the precept that the truth is an absolute defense against libel.

But then again, I don’t want to throw the book out the window anymore, either. So maybe there’s something more to it than just truth versus lies. Who knows.