THE WRITING LIFE ... Taichi YAMADA
SURREALISTIC, CEREBRAL, HAUNTING
Japanese novelist TAICHI YAMADA tells TAN MAY LEE that he looks forward to soaking up Singapore’s melting-pot ambience at the Singapore Writers Festival 2009
TAICHI YAMADA, whose real name is Taichi Ishizaka, is an acclaimed Japanese screenwriter and novelist. He worked at the Shōchiku film studios before beginning his career as a freelance scriptwriter and novelist. His novel, Ijin-tachi to no Natsu, first published by Shinchosha, Tokyo, in 1987, won the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize for the best human-interest novel. It was later translated into English by Wayne P. Lammers as Strangers. His other translated works are In Search of a Distant Voice and I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While.
Are you looking forward to visiting Singapore? Coming from Japan, how do you find Singapore’s unique multicultural and multilingual society?
It is very difficult for me to comment on this subject because I am from a monolingual country. We use only Japanese as the national and vernacular language. We have a lot of different dialects in each region until a few decades ago. Some are very different, but all the dialects still originate from Japanese.
We do import some words from other languages though. We see a lot of English, Korean and Chinese on names of stations and town guides nowadays. The population of foreigners in Japan has also increased over the years. However, we still do not get much opportunity to communicate with them in our everyday lives.
Thus, I am very curious to visit a place where four languages coexist. I’ve never been to Singapore before. I cannot even speak much English, so I’m a little worried about how well we can communicate, but I’m really excited about visiting a place I’ve never been to.
What are your thoughts on language in general?
I feel that literature can never be detached from its native language.
The recent years have seen an influx of English-speaking foreigners in Japan, and English-language schools are flourishing. What are your thoughts on the inflow of other languages—particularly English—into Japan?
The Japanese language consists of three letters: Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. Kanji was brought from China, and Hiragana and Katakana were created from Kanji. We inherited a lot of words from China when we adopted Kanji.
During the Meiji era, Western influences flowed into Japan. Our ancestors learned English, German, French, Russian and so on to absorb Western culture. Many books were translated into Japanese and translation has become a Japanese specialty.
The common people may not be able to read or speak other languages well, but they’re still able to enjoy foreign cultures by reading translated material and gaining the knowledge from these cultures. Japan has been successful in using these influences and knowledge effectively to its advantage. English has greatly influenced Japanese culture today. It is a good thing for locals to learn English for work. However, I do not think English will ever be a vernacular language in Japan.
You write scripts as well as novels. What’s the difference between screenwriting and writing novels?
All screenwriting for movies, television dramas and stage plays are collaborative efforts with directors, actors, actresses, cameramen and other staff who are involved in the creative process. I enjoy both the risk and fun of creating a show with a lot of people.
Writing novels gives me joy, and also the difficulty of having full responsibility of completing every detail, such as the placement of every comma. Stylistics is in screenwriting also, but it is much more important in novels. Scenes in novels can also be spectacular. There are no limitations in creating storms or floods due to a tight budget, which screenwriters must consider. Television dramas and movies must also incorporate the schedules of actors, locations, studios and other factors.
What are you currently reading? How much time do you allocate to reading Japanese books and books in other languages?
I am currently reading Kiyoko Tamura’s I Will Leave This World Together With You. I am also reading a translation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Summing Up. What I read constantly changes. I read about 50 per cent Japanese and 50 per cent foreign literature.
Have you been to Singapore before? What are you looking forward to experiencing at the Singapore Writers Festival?
I am afraid I have never been to Singapore before. I cannot even speak much English, so I am a little worried about how well we can communicate, but I am really excited about visiting a place I have never been to!
Reproduced from the special issue of Quill produced for the Singapore Writers Festival 2009