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Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010


Late P.E.N. Club president sets tone of Tokyo global writers' meet

This month, The Japan P.E.N. Club hosts the annual International PEN Congress, whose wide variety of lectures, readings and symposia will feature guests from Japan and overseas.

The theme of this year's congress of the worldwide association of writers is "Environment and Literature" — specifically, the ways that "literature can express and portray the environment as something which exerts such a controlling influence on human life."

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of The Japan P.E.N. Club, whose first chairman was the father of Japanese naturalism, the novelist Toson Shimazaki (1872-1943).

For the official opening on Sept. 26, the congress is staging Hisashi Inoue's play, "The Water Letters," and copies of the work's English-language translation will be handed out to foreign participants and guests. (I should note here that I have done the translation.)

The choice of "The Water Letters" is apt, not only because it delivers a profound and moving statement about human beings in their global environment, but also because Inoue was president of The Japan P.E.N. Club from 2003 to 2007. Yet although he was passionate about the protection of our natural environment, that didn't become a major preoccupation of his until relatively late in life.

Inoue, who passed away in April at age 75, began his writing career as a commentator on purely Japanese matters, some of them relating to the Tohoku region of northern Honshu from which he hailed. He wrote dozens of plays and novels on historical themes, taking up famous people in history and illuminating the social and familial pressures that shaped their destinies. Though he traveled widely around Japan, he made only a few trips overseas, the longest being a nearly six-month stint in Canberra in 1976, where he researched and wrote "Kiiroi Nezumi" ("The Yellow Rats"), a novel about Japanese prisoners of war in Australia.

But Inoue, whom I had the privilege of knowing well for more than 35 years — and in whose home I lived for the better part of a year — was, curiously, not the sort of writer to be described as an "internationalist." He approached human nature from a particular, provincial Japanese angle that shot sharp sideways glances and made pointed critical stabs at the Japan represented by centralized power in Tokyo.

An indoors' man, Inoue was a dedicated bookworm who read more voraciously than anyone I have ever known. He was a staunch champion of Article 9 of the Constitution, according to which Japan renounced "the right of belligerency" and also its right to maintain armed forces for anything more than self-defense. In addition, in many conversations, he explained to me his belief that Emperor Showa should have taken personal responsibility for Japan's war crimes.

But Inoue, for most of his life, wasn't drawn to nature, the source of inspiration for so many writers and poets throughout the ages. Instead, he immersed himself in the subject of how people interrelated with others. Yet I believe that, in the early 1990s, something began to transform him. Perhaps it was the collapse of the economic model of seemingly unending growth that came with the burst of Japan's bubble at that time; perhaps it was an increasing awareness on his part that Japan did have a part to play in international peace and the ecology movement then coming to the fore.

Whatever the reason, Inoue first turned to the tragedy of the 1945 atomic holocaust in Hiroshima, writing his most intimate, small-cast (two actors) play, set in that city and titled "Chichi to Kuraseba" ("The Face of Jizo"). In the play's preface, he states that the atomic bombs were dropped "not only on the Japanese but on all humankind." When he died, he was planning a similar drama set in Nagasaki.

However, throughout the 1990s, as Japan continued to be stymied for solutions to its economic and social problems, Inoue became increasingly concerned about its place in the worldwide ecology movement. He premiered "The Water Letters" in his predominantly rural home prefecture of Yamagata in 2003 — a decision that also reflected his typical approach to universal problems as being local ones, too.

The play centers on a group of letters read to the people of Yamagata, urging them, in the end, to link the fate of their own water with that of the waters of the world.

The people reading letters about how water affects them are the following: A brother and sister in Uzbekistan who are forced to leave their village because the Aral Sea is drying up; an old man bemoaning "the endless stretch of mud and the feeble flow" of his beloved Colorado River in the United States; a 12-year-old Chinese boy who is scared because the Yellow River "just vanishes away the closer it gets to the sea"; and a girl in Mexico City whose school is teetering on its foundations because the government has been pumping up too much underground water for the city's 20 million inhabitants.

In addition, theatergoers hear from a man who lives in the Maldives, an island state in the Indian Ocean that's threatened by rising sea levels; a woman in Venice researching the sinking of her city; two little children in Chad who must walk 22 km a day to fetch and bring home two pails of water from a well; and a university student in Paris who decries the toll that acid rain is taking on the city's statues.

"What about Japan?" she asks the audience. "Are the bronze statues of Yamagata also corroding away?"

In this way, Inoue links people in Japan with people around the world.

"Earth is the planet of water," he writes. "Our planet is blessed by water. We are given life by its powers. But more than that, we were born of water and that's why we are water ourselves."

In the mid-Edo Period (1603-1867), a scholar from the city of Sendai named Shihei Hayashi (1738-93), wrote, "The water of the Sumida River (in Tokyo) is linked to the water of the Thames" — succinctly stating, at that time when Japan was a closed country, how, if anything connects Japan to the world, it is water.

Similarly, in "The Water Letters," a Japanese aid worker in Afghanistan says, "The water here flows into the Kabul River and from there into the Indus River and then into the Indian Ocean. Without a doubt, the water is carried in the ocean currents to Japan."

With its references to global problems we all face this very day, "The Water Letters" carries the perfect message for a congress concerned with environment and literature.

In his later years, Inoue was turning his attention to the problems of the world. But his feet were forever planted in his native Yamagata. "The Water Letters" are sent from him to Yamagata — and then, in a brilliant flash, back to whoever may be listening around the world.

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