Could Russia invade Japan

In this issue, the Japanese writer Yoko Tawada introduces news from Japan. She was born in Tokyo in 1960 and has lived in Hamburg since 1982. Studied literature in Tokyo and Hamburg. Numerous prizes in Germany and Japan, including The renowned Akutagawa Prize in 1993 and the Junichiro Tanizaki Literature Prize in 2003. She writes in German and in Japanese.

NaJ: Which of your characteristics do you find typically Japanese?

Tawada: When writing, I have no problem writing associatively; that is, it's not about the logic or the plot, but about images that come to my mind at certain moments. I think I know when a picture is right or wrong in a certain place, even if it seems inappropriate or random.

NaJ: What is it about Germany that fascinates you so much that it practically became your second home?

Tawada: At first it was more or less a coincidence. Since I studied Russian literature as a major in Japan, I originally wanted to go to Russia. Since it was unfortunately not possible to study in Russia at the time, I applied for a scholarship for Poland. But because of the unrest in Warsaw in 1980, this wish did not materialize either. In the end I found an internship in Hamburg. At that time, an internship was very important to me because I didn't just want to continue studying. I wanted to look at a European language, in this case German, from a non-academic point of view. I wanted to find out how people deal with and live with it, because it is so different from the Japanese language. In retrospect, however, I took a look at the University of Hamburg. It was really chaotic there. It wasn't like in Japan, where you know exactly which courses to take and when. It seemed to me that there was no real university, just a whole bunch of groups of people talking about a book. But I got to know a professor who inspired me. That's why I continued to study and even wrote my doctoral thesis. At that time I mainly wrote poems which were then also published by a German publisher. The readings were also a discovery for me because they are rather unusual in Japan. In Germany you have the feeling that as a writer you are doing cultural work to which you ascribe a certain social value, even if a book does not sell particularly well. That was the reason why I stayed here.
NaJ: You have been living in Germany for over twenty years now. Are there any German qualities that you have acquired over time?

Tawada: When a German publisher asks me whether I would like to write a text for a magazine, for example, I have no problem clearly rejecting it if I don't feel like it. But the Japanese publishers are also very different. You first invite the authors to various events and at some point you find yourself in a “yes” context. Sometimes I feel this as a trap and it is precisely this feeling that may be German about me. Still, I appreciate the Japanese publishers because they go out of their way to offer their services to the authors; because for them it is about the overall relationship with the writers, not about the individual things where you have to ask yourself every time whether you are obliged to do so or not. Sometimes this works very well.

NaJ: Ms. Tawada, you live in Hamburg, but you fly to Tokyo two to three times a year. In your opinion, where is it more beautiful to live?

Tawada: You can eat better in Tokyo, but I can write better in Hamburg. In Japan you have a guilty conscience somewhere when you are alone and shield yourself and only work on your own text the whole time. This behavior is not considered normal in Japan. That's why you prefer to go out and talk to other people. This wastes time. In Germany I have a lot more friends, but I still don't have any remorse here.

NaJ: Have you ever felt that the structure of language has in any way affected the content of your statement?

Tawada: Yes, but strangely not when I talk about literature. There is no difference in content between what I say in Japanese or in German.

NaJ: Probably because you're experimenting in both languages, right?

Tawada: Yes, that too. But in everyday life it's very different. For example, it would never occur to me to curse the weather while thinking in Japanese. I wouldn't even be able to internalize the curse. The weather may not be sacred, but neither is it something to be "insulted". But in German I curse about the weather without having to pretend.

NaJ: Do you think that the structure of a language is so important that it could possibly influence a person's character traits?

Tawada: Rather, I think that every language has its own structure. However, it never corresponds to human feeling. But we have to get along with her and so we say things that are not necessarily lies, but are still not identical to our feelings. The adjective "sad" itself has a position within the language, but it means nothing. But in literature you can write about something completely different, for example about water or a certain color, and they correspond in the mind of the reader with the feeling of sadness.

NaJ: Do you think you can think without words?
Tawada: That is a very good and big question. I have a feeling that you can, but a lot of people say no, then it's no longer thinking.
NaJ: I think that words can help you remember things better. You can use your memory to build more complex thought structures.

Tawada: I think that you can perceive smells or colors or moods unconsciously, which then suddenly trigger a depression in later life. One day you could get anxious or become more aggressive than you usually are and this may also have something to do with experiences that were not necessarily verbally processed.

NaJ: It is well known that the Japanese have major problems with foreign languages. How do you explain your linguistic talent?
Tawada: I don't think I'm particularly talented, but through literature I have a completely different approach to the language. I also make a lot more mistakes than those who are linguistically gifted. I have a relationship with the language that is peculiarly literary. Through this relationship I learned the language in a completely different way.
NaJ: But you have really worked up the patience to understand a foreign language and that is exactly what I consider to be a talent in itself.

Tawada: I think society is such that adults take care not to appear speech-impaired. But I have doubts about the perfect language I have already learned, because various possibilities of expression are lost in the process. When people speak correctly, they usually speak like their fellow human beings. It is at all uninteresting what they talk about and how they talk. I find it much more exciting when the language is broken and weird somewhere. Or if someone says something inappropriate, an artistic intensity arises. Anyone who believes in this philosophy is no longer embarrassed to say something wrong or funny. If you learn a foreign language as an adult, you naturally have to have enormous patience in order to be inventive and willing to experiment without constantly paying attention to avoiding embarrassment. This is of course an important thing for creativity, because otherwise I would not have bothered to learn the German language. There is an embarrassing story behind every German word ...

NaJ: We come to the very last question: Do you have a favorite German word?

Tawada: At the moment my favorite word is "spine". The "column" gives a solid, almost immobile impression, but the "vortex" brings movement into the word. I also like the “spiral staircase” very much.

NaJ: Thank you for the informative interview!

Tawada: All mine.
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