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Author Podcast: Edward B. Fowler


Take a look at facinating elements of Japanese culture as revealed in Oyama Shiro's prize winning novel, A Man With No Talents (Oxford University Press 2005) Bookbuffet interviews Edward B. Fowler who translated from Japanese to English this unique memoir, and provides us with insights on areas of his expertise surrounding the culture and language. Listen to the audio and read along with the transcript.


December 04, 2005

Edward B. Fowler is the translator from Japanese to English of Oyama Shiro's first novel, A MAN WITH NO TALENTS, (Cornell University Press 2005)

He is Professor and Chair PH.D., at the University of California, Irvine, in the Faculty of East Asian Languages and Literature, Film and Media Studies. He has been a Fulbright Scholar, NEH, and Japan Foundation research fellow. He presently teaches Japanese literature and film at the University of California, Irvine.

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  • Part I:         Japan’s Yoseba and Oyama Shiro’s background
  • Part II:        Meeting the Elusive Author
  • Part III:      Understanding Japan's Class Structure  
  • Part IV:       Professor Fowler reads in English & Japonese


Japan’s Yoseba and Oyama Shiro’s Background

Part I BookBuffet: Mr. Fowler your forward in the book gives an excellent description of the background and history of Japan's yoseba.  I wonder if you could speak to this, and set in place how the author came to experience and write about his life in San'ya?


Edward B. Fowler: Well very briefly the yoseba or day labor quarter in Japan ever since the end of the Second World War was a truly thriving place, that has changed dramatically in the last decade, but until then it was a ready made pool of labor, especially for the construction industry, and those men who found themselves either out of work, or in transit, or escaping from something or another often found themselves ending up in a yoseba like San’ya, which is the largest day-laborer quarter in Tokyo – although it is not the largest in Japan. Osaka, which you might call Japan’s second city, actually has the largest yoseba by far and is home to some 20-25,000 men who get their money working off the street. In San’ya presently there are only 5-6,000 [men].  In its hey-day there were 10-15,000 men working at one time. 


Oyama [the author of this book] once-upon-a-time was a salaried worker. He was a white collar worker who was very uneasy about his life in the corporate mainstream and he actually got out, it took a couple of bail-outs, but he eventually got out of it for good in 1987 when he set up camp, if you will, and began working as a day-laborer in San’ya. 


BB: And so we have a man who is a white collar worker, educated at the University who literally drops out of mainstream society into this day-laborer workforce, which has a whole camp in another part of town that they live in and come and go from, and a whole different life, which is really such a fascinating thing to have done.


At what point after the Japanese publication of Oyama’s work did it come to your attention, and how did you come to translate A MAN WITH NO TALENTS?


EBF:  Well I found out about the book at the very beginning. I have friends who knew that I was interested in this phenomenon in Japan.  I myself wrote a book about the San’ya day-work quarter some years earlier, also published by Cornell, and because of that people there helped me keep track of what was going on currently, and one person from Japan immediately sent a review of this book when it first came out in 2000. Not long after that a colleague of mine who happened to be in Japan actually bought a copy of the book and brought it back to give to me.  So I read it fairly soon after it was published and realized that it would provide a kind of sequel to my own work on San’ya and day laborers in Japan. That was the inspiration.


BB:  What are the aesthetics and politics of translating Japanese literature?


EBF: A large question indeed! I’ve had the chance to give the matter some thought and write a bit about it.  In talking about Japanese literature of course we are talking about literature in the English language, meaning we are totally dependent on what is available in translation. Just as in any language there is a lot written every year, and a lot published every year whether it be in English or in German or in French or in Chinese, and so forth.  What actually gets translated is far, far less.  It turns out the United States, unlike in other sectors; it’s very much in the black when it comes to exporting its literary works to other places to get translated. It translates and publishes relatively few into English [from elsewhere.]


This is unlike Japan, which has a much more active translation industry, and of course it extends far beyond literature.  That being the case what appears in English from the Japanese literature is quite limited and quite select. Those of us who read just in English of course are dependant on what is available in the English language, and because of the limited number of works that are translated, that fact alone almost necessitates a rather skewed view of what Japanese literature is all about… since only a couple of authors are being published currently, our view of Japanese literature tends to revolve around what is actually available [as translated] in English language. So we see a couple of trees but not the forest.


BB: Are you talking about Tuttle Publishing, can you name some of the publishers?


EBF:  Oh, not just Tuttle which of course has over the years published numerous works from Japanese, it is a much smaller press, but in terms of mainstream press, Knopf is the main place that people look to, I think.  And not only is that true today, it publishes novels by Murakami Haruki Harikami, who is perhaps the best known writer working in Japanese available in English. But from the very beginning, within about a decade after WWII there were novels coming out in English translation from the Japan by two or three writers and it’s these two or three writers who have left the largest impression by far on the English language readership: Kawabata [Yasunari] is one, Tanizaki [Jun’ichiro] is another and the third writer is Mishima Yukio – all of them were very well known in the early 60’s and 70’s.


Meeting The Elusive Author

Part II BB:  I understand you have met the author. Can you describe him for us?


EBF:  I did have a chance to meet him; it took about a year though to do so, however, he is a very reclusive sort. In writing I wrote a letter in Japanese to him and had his publisher deliver it to him. Later on he divulged his own address when he was living in San’ya, and I proceeded to mail letters to that address. We corresponded for quite some time. 


About a year later I finally was able to hold a meeting with him. That itself was rather interesting because he did not wish to be observed, and he wanted to retain his anomynity as he was meeting with a foreigner, and of course I would stand out in most situations.  So I agreed to meet him at a place he picked and that was actually in the middle of a bridge over the Sumida River; the very bridge that he writes about in his book from where you can see the blue tarpaulin tents where one of the largest homeless communities is in Tokyo.


BB: A translator remains quite invisible in the process of their work, gaining a reputation for the degree of success in tone, intent and accuracy they bring from one language to the next. Since the author, Oyama Shiro is also a reclusive person, I wonder two things: How has the notoriety of winning awards and the ensuing attention affected him? And have you found yourself, more than usual, on the forefront of the book's promotion at least in the USA if not in Japan?


EBF: Speaking first and quickly about myself, I suppose I would be a little more in the forefront than otherwise, although I don’t think anyone expects this book to a best seller necessarily.  But as far as Oyama, the author is concerned, he actually addresses this question in the afterward to the English translation.  This part of the book is unavailable in Japanese because he wrote it after he wrote the book, and he wrote it at the request of the English language publisher. In it he talks about how the award affected him. In a word, although I hate to spoil things by divulging too much, he decided not to live any longer in San’ya.  That’s not to say that he made big bucks and was able to move into a condominium, he in fact ended up on the streets, and he lives on the streets as we speak.


BB: Which sounds like a more difficult circumstance than ever.


EBF:  And the reason for that is a situation he describes in the book, and that is the most difficult time for a day laborer is that one decade time period when they are too old to work [as a day laborer] and too young to receive a pension from the government.  So from one’s mid-fifties to one’s mid-sixties, it is that ten-year period that has to be bridged. Many men are doing that by literally trying to survive on the street because they can no longer afford the relatively inexpensive sum to stay in a small doya, or as it is somewhat inaccurately translated, flophouses.


He has chosen to marshal his savings very carefully and eek out the decade by working as little as possible and simply surviving by living under the stars.



BB:  You mentioned that you lived in Japan for a period of time and I was wondering if could tell us if that is where you acquired your language skills and your appreciation of the culture?


EBF:  From many places – that would be the short answer. I first spent three months in Japan as a high school student on an exchange program.  I had not chosen Japan but that is where I ended up, and the experience made enough of an impression that I wished to return, and I did so in college and later in graduate school, and ended up living there for sometimes a year, sometimes two or three years when I was between degrees and not going to school at all. I spent perhaps a total of ten years in Japan. I did have formal training as well, I did study the language in college, and I went to an intensive language school that was then run by Stanford University that was then located in Tokyo for a year.  The biggest boon to my ability over the long haul has been my study of the written language, because that’s what really counts if you want to be serious about the language. 


BB: You have undertaken "a study of modern literary representations of the descendants of outcasts in Japan commonly know today as burakumin, setting several key 20th-century texts in the historical context of more than half a millennium of discrimination." Tell us about that work.


EBF:  Traditional Japanese society, and by traditional I mean the pre-modern period which ended with the Meiji Restoration back in the middle of the nineteenth century.  It was what you might call a caste system, and it did have some parallels to the caste system in India. There were social classes that were so rigid that once born into a certain class one remained in that class ones whole life, and ones descendants remained in that same class.


There were certain social groups that are not part of this system, they were outside of it all together, both on the high and low side: the aristocracy was not part of this, the clergy was not part of this, also what we refer today in English as “outcasts” were not part of this either. The outcasts had their own separate social system, which itself had higher and lower social groups within it – it is a very, very complex social phenomenon.


The descendents of these various groups of outcasts in the pre-modern period are known today as Burakumin.  Although this one-term reference rather oversimplifies what is going on.  That said they have been through out the modern period victims of social discrimination particularly at the point of entry into schools, entry into the corporate world, and at the time of marriage when backgrounds are scrutinized and people with roots in outcast society are weeded out. There has been a movement to try to eliminate discrimination, which has been to a fairly large degree successful, but it has been slow and hard fought.


Understanding Class Structure in Japan

Part III BB:  I am interested in canons of literature and how they affect our perception and understanding of other cultures in the world.  For example, people are aware of the caste system in India through Colonial and Post Colonial literature (E.M. Forester, A PASSAGE TO INDIA; Rhohinton Misry's novel, A FINE BALANCE) and so as readers we are aware of the untouchables and so forth.  Literature brings these social conditions to our attention in a way that can be felt and experienced by people who may have never traveled to India or known any people from there.


[Is the knowledge of the Japanese "caste system", for lack of a better simile, new?  What has been the response by people here in North America, and indeed from within Japan been to Oyama Shiro's novel, A MAN WITH NO TALENTS?]


Do you have any other recommendations for further reading for people to follow up on the ideas you’ve brought forth here?


EBF:  Yes, in respect to the outcasts there is a book that is worthwhile to take a look, it’s called, River With No Bridge (Tuttle) and it’s a written by a woman by the name Sue Sumii, the family name is Sumii, and it was translated about fifteen years ago and it’s published by Tuttle, the publisher you mentioned earlier. 


In that story the narrator looks at a particular family and through that family views the history of the descendants of outcasts in a creative way.  It is a novel, but based on historical facts. 



BB: People sometimes think of Japan as an impenetrable, homogenous state with little interest in cultural diversity.  What is your experience?


EBF: I don’t find that the case. Although it is quite true that Japan is certainly a more homogenous society than ours, but we are comparing extremes because I suppose it could be argued that the United States is the most homogenous society on the planet, and so just because we can say that Japan is less heterogeneous than the States, that’s not necessarily saying all that much.


People who originally settle Japan came from all over Asia, from the north, from the west and the south.  There are ethnic minorities who inhabit Japan, perhaps the most well known, although it’s not a large group there are the Inu, who live in Hokkaido who have a history much like North American Indians.  Because of Japan’s colonial history – this is more recent of course – there are a number of Chinese and Koreans.  Especially Koreans as it turns out.  Korea was colonized in 1910 and in the process of colonization it actually flushed out many native Korean came to Japan to work, and many of them stayed on after the war.  There were as many as two million Koreans living in Japan around 1945.  Many returned, but the migration back to Korea stopped with the conflict that led to the Korean War in 1950, and so there remains leaving 600-700,000 Koreans in Japan, plus quite a few more who have become Japanese citizens since the war.



BB:  Chapter 3 has two characters that most Americans would find quite perplexing and interesting.  Could you describe the Masked Man, and Tsukamoto who is obsessed with the fear that his relatives will be informed of his death?


EBF: Yes, those two are perhaps a couple of the more spectacular examples of what maybe about a dozen portraits that Oyama paints in that chapter. The author is very interested in the shear variety of personalities that one finds in this neighborhood.  And I must agree, I found it to be the same way.  All thoughts of homogeneity disappear when you visit a neighborhood like San’ya because people do wear their personalities on their sleeves, so to speak, much more certainly than in corporate society. But the masked man is a true eccentric as the book explains.  He refuses to take the mask off even when admonished by the employment agency that gives him work, and the author, Oyama figures it has nothing to do with anything he wishes to hide, like some scar, but it is a quirk of his personality, and the mask actually forms this person’s personality, and Oyama does a good job conveying that.  


As for Tsukamoto, of course this chapter is named after this particular person. It is a man with whom Oyama the author finds himself very much attracted to this man.  He is a well-built older man who is very reliable and solid, not just in terms of physique but also in terms of character.  Although it turns out that Tsukamoto is an inveterate gambler and he is probably in San’ya because he has run away from various gambling debts.   And even though he has these debts, he continues to gamble when he’s there, and all of his earnings as a day laborer feed his gambling habit. 


BB: But it was interesting that he was so… obsessed with not being found out by the police – to the extent that he did not even want his dead body identified for fear that the news would be transmitted back to surviving family members.


EBF: This is not a quirk just of Tsukamoto but many men living in San’ya have come there because they can be invisible to the rest of Japan.  So if one has any reason to escape mainstream society one finds comfort in a place like San’ya.  The people that I also came into contact and discussed a similar subject with all told me that they did not want to establish contact with their family. Those who did were in the minority. Tsukamoto is clearly one of those. The author gives no indication why Tsukamoto refuses to have contact with his family, for the simple reason that he does not know, Tsukamoto has not told him.  One can only surmise that it has something to do with his gambling habit. Perhaps he has caused much grief to his family members because of that.  He wants to make sure that he causes his family no further grief and the best way to do that is to die an unknown.  And his worry now is to make sure that he does in fact die without having him traced back to his family…


BB: Who might come after them for any of his debts?


EBF:  Thus his worries about the Japanese Police who he regards as being way too efficient.


Japanese Reading by Edward Fowler


Part IV  BB: I’m wondering now if I could I ask you to read one paragraph from the book in English first so people know what they’re going to be hearing and look at the intonation and your expression when you read it in Japanese.


EBF: The first chapter describes the physical feel of a doya, which is one room in a lodging house where Oyama stays.  He does not sleep alone; he’s in a bunkhouse with several other men, each occupying his own bunk. Perhaps this paragraph will give people a sense of what it is like to be living in these very, very close quarters.


“When I heard about another doya where the bunks were enclosed by curtains that blocked the occupants view of the other, I located it and moved in. Each bunk also had a television set, I discovered, and a good-sized locker with a key. The latter was most convenient for it meant that I had one mat of space entirely to myself without it being cluttered up with odds and ends.  If anything it felt too spacious. When I lay down on the upper bunk, my belongings in a locker and curtain to partition me from the outside, the enclosed space was as long and as wide as a tatami mats, and as high as I was tall. It gave the impression of vastness. A cubicle measuring one point eight meters long, one meter wide and one point seven meters high is indeed quite sizeable. I had no quarrel with the dimensions. The problems lay elsewhere.”


EBF: The problems that he’s talking about is the noises that he has to contend with and the smells of the other men. 




BB: Thank you!  Japanese language, I was looking up the derivation of the language itself, which of course is spoken by 127 million people, mainly in Japan, but also in other Japanese immigrant communities around the world.  It is considered as an agglutinative language.  Can you describe what that is?


EBF: Oh yes, well if you have another hour and a half.  The world agglutinative, all that means is morphemes  that have grammatical meaning are attached to the word to add to the meaning and this is very unlike Chinese to which Japanese is often compared.  So for example to turn a verb into the past tense an extra suffix is added.  And that goes for adjective too, adjectives can be conjugated if you will or declined.


There is also a language of honorifics to express respect or humility toward the person is actually speaking, and this is also done is by adding suffixes to the word. 


BB: Is that the same as Spanish and French; the “tu” and “vous” word form in French?


EBF: Actually it is much more complex and much more finely graded in Japanese. There are at least a dozen ways to say “you” in Japanese. What is interesting is that there are many, many ways to say “I” in Japanese and we only have one in English.


BB: That is just so fascinating; it gets to the whole root of the culture and sense of identity and as you say the honorifics, the hierarchical nature of the Japanese society itself.


EBF: Right of course the language does bear out the fact that the society is in fact hierarchical, even though the post war claim is that everyone belongs to the same class, but it doesn’t take much to find out that things are rather more complex. 


BB: The written characters, is my understanding correct that it is somewhat borrowed from Chinese characters, Kanji and Kana.


EBF: Oh yes, not just somewhat, there has been heavy borrowing.  The language makes plentiful use of Chinese characters.  The problem though, and this is why Chinese cannot read Japanese easily, is because of the agglutinative nature of the language.  All of the suffixes, all of the additions to the verbs, adjectives, and the connectives that go between nouns and what have you, all this is in a syllaberry, which is a phonetic script which you cannot comprehend visually, you have to know what these symbols mean and what they sound like. The Chinese characters can be recognized by someone who does not know Japanese but knows Chinese instead, because there is meaning that you can grasp visually, but you don’t know if it is being spoken about positively or negatively for example, unless you understand all this stuff that goes in between the characters.


BB: Hmmm. I understand. Well do I call you Dr. Fowler, Mr. Fowler or Professor Fowler?


EBF: In private life I just get called Ted.


BB: Thank you so much for taking a moment to speak to us about this fascinating book, A MAN WITH NOW TALENTS that you have translated.


EBF: Not at all, I’m glad that it attracted your attention.





Suggested Books

The Rhetoric of Confession, Edward Fowler (California University Press 1995) The detailed index alone indicates what treasures are in store for the reader interested in analysis of Japanese literature.

The Other Side of the River, Miyuki Aoyama  



Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (UNESCO Collection of Representative Works: European)
Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Mid-Nineteenth Century
, Donald Keene, Editor (Grove Press) This anthology will provide you with complete works and excerpts of all the most important works through the centuries. An excellent primer with fantastic editorial comments.

Modern Japanese Literature: 1886 to Present, Donald Keene (Grove Press) Once again, Professor Keene has been translating Japanese literature for over thirty years. He is regarded as Japan's most formidable cultural ambassador, with 50 books to his credit.

Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology Beginnings to 1600's, Haruro Shirani (Columbia University Press 2006) Although you will have to place an advance order on this book and wait until May, it is well worth the wait.

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