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Rieko Matsuura: An Evening with a Contemporary Japanese Novelist

Rieko Matsuura: An Evening with a Contemporary Japanese Novelist

March 29, 2010

The Japan Foundation New York office invited Ms. Rieko Matsuura, celebrated female Japanese novelist, for a one week tour in New York and Seattle in late February, early March. The tour was launched in concert with the English publication of Matsuura's novel, "The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P," a gripping read and award-winning best seller in Japan.

Joining Ms. Matsuura on her first US tour was the book's English translator, Professor Michael Emmerich, Assistant Professor of Japanese Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

During her stay, she met with almost 200 readers at seven book events, including universities (Columbia University and Bard College in New York; University of Washington in Seattle) as well as bookstores (McNally Jackson and Kinokuniya in New York) and other public venues (Panama Hotel in Seattle).

"The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P "tells the story of a young woman who wakes up one afternoon to discover that her big toe has turned into a penis (Ms. Matsuura revealed that this was a dream she actually had when she was in college). This subsequent phase, or “apprenticeship” finds our protagonist, Kazumi, falling in love with with a blind pianist and together, they join a troupe of sexually and emotionally challenged people who perform sexual freak shows.

Ms. Matsuura explained that the motivation to write the book was to question the prescribed roles of men and women in Japan, forcing the reader to reconsider what many passively accept: one’s body and one’s sexuality. She explained that the novel’s allegoric nature is meant to be understated. As satire, it creates a rather absurd situation as both a questioning and exploration of the mutability of gender roles in contemporary life.

Ms. Matsuura was intrigued by the reception of her novel by her readers here in the US. Although Matsuura’s work is thoroughly Japanese, many people mentioned that the themes were universal: that the individual’s questioning of meaningful relationships in the hostile world is characteristic of contemporary life around the world and that people’s desire to connect with other people and create meaning amidst a sometimes unforgiving society is the means through which this can be accomplished. Many readers were so enchanted by the sharp-eyed, captivating comments of the author that they stayed after the event, wishing to have a small, informal discussion with her.

It would be negligent to forget the significance of having her English translator side by side her with throughout the tour. Professor Emmerich’s participation helped initiate a very lively discussion between the author, translator and the readers, with topics including Ms. his motivation to write the book, translation issues, and the differences and similarities in the publishing world between the US and Japan.

Since Japanese contemporary authors rarely have the opportunity to be introduced in the US, we are hoping that through these encounters, more and more American audiences will become interested in Japanese contemporary authors and their works.