He wrote over 120 novels and essays; in 2003 he received the Purple Ribbon Medal, a prestigious award for his contribution to the Japanese culture. His books are translated in China, Taiwan, Korea and Europe, in English and Czech. He was appointed Minister of culture and from 1999 to 2005, he also taught at Waseda University and Tokyo Jogakkan College. Takashi Atoda, 75, is the President of Japan Pen club since 2007. We have interviewed him in connection with the forthcoming international congress of Pen in Tokyo at the end of September.
Your term will come to end next year. Which guidelines and tasks will inherit your successor?
All through my term my commitment was the achievement of a total sharing inside the association about some issues which I consider fundamental. I mean: the independence of our association which is constituted as a no profit cultural organization and also the promotion of freedom of expression, speech and press.
This 76th congress of the International Pen coincides with your 75th anniversary. A striking convergent evolution?
Since its foundation in 1935, the Japan Pen club has pursued freedom of expression and peace, even at hard times. The Japan Pen is inspired by the principles of the International Pen Charter, which is the most fundamental reference for us as regards the decision-making. Tradition helped us to create a common ground to interact at international level with the Pen club worldwide, though its members have different cultural and social backgrounds.
The leading theme ‘Environment and literature’ is a vast and topical subject. How can Pen clubs contribute to the debate from the point of view of literature?
Environment is something that concerns everybody, no one excluded, our aim is to evaluate how we, as writers, can address this global-scale theme in our writing.
The Environment committee of the Japan Pen club has confronted the specialists in many occasions and their arguments have proven to be rather inspiring for the writers themselves.
Japan Pen club has officially taken a stance about freedom and social issues: human rights, freedom for the writers in prison, freedom for Aung San Suu Ki, North Korea nuclear disarmament, peace in the Gaza strip. Did you have any significant responses?
The statements signed by Japan Pen club, especially those concerning the freedom of expression, are always reported in the main Japanese newspapers and mentioned in the editorials. Here, the opinion of the Japan Pen club is perceived as the voice of the writers. More than often it influenced the public opinion.
You enjoy cultural relationships with many countries around the world. Which are the ones where you get the most active cooperation?
China, above all, and with most of the Asian countries. Last year, at the Linz Congress, we supported Mongolian Pen’s membership and this year we had an interesting cultural exchange program with the Canadian Pen. Our member, Mr. Takeaki Hori, is part of the board of the International Pen.
Europe has always had a sort of fascination towards Japanese culture. Think about Madama Butterfly, Roland Barthes and his essay Empire of signs, modern design and last but not least that constant research of minimalist aesthetics. How is the situation today?
Europe confronts nowadays a renovated Japanese culture if compared to past stereotypes. European themselves nurtured them by describing a rather exotic country. Now the picture is changing because the Japanese literature is more popular. On the other hand, Japan has become more familiar with the diversities of Europe: our youngsters know and appreciate not merely the traditional features, but follow closely new fashions and trends.
At the Tokyo Congress, there will be a seminar dedicated to manga . An interesting subject, though a rather new cultural phenomenon from the point of view of culture. It might answer the question whether there can be a common cultural background.
How do you succeed to involve young people in your initiatives?
The main venue of the Literary Forum of the congress will be held in one of the major universities of the city, Waseda University. We hope it will be of interest for the students and more in general for the young public. We will have readings of famous authors from well-known actors, theatre performances with the most promising artists of the National Theater. We would like to show that literature is a common asset across generations.
Japanese culture and art though fascinating are rather peculiar. Japan and Italy share a long and passionate reciprocal love but it seems mostly a bequest of highly educated people. Maybe there are not enough works translated and this makes it a niche culture?
No Japanese consider Italian culture as a niche one, instead people admire the various cultural aspects. You can easily find the major Italian titles translated in Japanese, but new publications are scarce. Maybe the reason is that nowadays, people can get information from many different channel besides books. Though, I am personally convinced that books are the sole way to understand in depth other cultures.