Author David Mitchell

The author of Ghostwritten and Booker short-listed Number9Dream, two books strongly received by critics and readers around the world, has for several years made Hiroshima his home.

GetHiroshima catches David Mitchell just before he leaves Japan for England.

Some months ago a British newspaper reported that David Mitchell author of Ghostwritten and Number9Dream lived in Tokyo. This kind of confusion is not unusual. I suppose, just as Paris and London are metonyms for France and England, Tokyo for most people represents Japan. In fact, Hiroshima has been your home for the past eight years. Could you say something about your relationship to Hiroshima? What does this city mean to you?

Hiroshima has been my home for eight years and I know it better than I do any other city. In our minds, I think, plot and perceive cities in terms of major or minor things that have happened to us in its various locales: this coffee shop is where I had that conversation with A, I crossed that bridge with B when my umbrella blew inside-out, that doorway is where C told me nantoka. The more ‘memory-mapped’ a city is, the stronger your affinity to it.

You’ve used Tokyo, amongst other places, as a setting for your first two novels. Have you ever considered writing about Hiroshima?

The Tokyo of Number9Dream is dripping with Hiroshima: the Rihga Royal Hotel even makes an appearance – in Harajuku. (I also have Pinkerton’s Souk performing a cameo in the New York of novel in progress. These trifles are for us Hiroshima gaijin.)

Until such time as I know another East Asian city better, I think Hiroshima will be the archetype from which my ficitional (Asian) cities are derived. I am wary of trying to address the A-bomb issues, partly because it has already been done so well not much is left to be said, and partly because I don’t think I have the right.

Mishima Yukio said that he needed to be surrounded by people speaking Japanese in order to write. During his stay in New York he was completely unable to write. How has living in Japan helped or hindered your writing?

I never knew that about Mishima. For my part, because I only became a writer since I lived in Japan, I can’t compare the two states, though as a writer I never feel hindered by Japan. Being a foreigner in an excluding society seems to reduce the quantity of random-entanglements of time or language, and maybe you can see the workings of human or social relationship with a more X-ray vision because you don’t get distracted by surface protocol (because you don’t understand it or have no same-culture response reflexes.) Perhaps we are also allowed to blunder our way into fairly private areas of peoples’ lives – a direct question from a gaijin sometimes earns a direct answer, whereas the same direct question from a Japanese person might meet with a muzukashii ne… All this is bread and butter to writers.

What are you favorite places in Hiroshima?

Nice question. The pond-side pavilion that juts out over the water in Shukkueien Garden. After about 3 pm on a sunny day the sunlight bounces off the carp-rippled pond and dances on the inside of the thatched roof. What a sight! Those starship captain seats at Salon Cinema, while the trailers are being shown, with a tub of Haagen-Daazs and a friend. Browsing through the magazines in the International Library in Peace Park. Saying “I’ll only be five minutes” to my wife as we enter Tower Records in the new PARCO. That Japanese restaurant on the (9th) floor of Tenmaya, when the unagi-teishoku arrives. That odd and very old footbridge that goes over the river near Hijiyama, in fact that whole stretch of river between the station and the turning up to the modern art museum. The home-made udonya-san that hasn’t changed since Mishima’s day, just up from Plid’s game centre with the grimy white lantern hanging outside. Their nabeyaki-udon brings tears to my eyes. The magazine rack in Maruzen where you can tachiyomu the interviews in Q magazine. Okay, I’ll stop here.

You will be leaving Hiroshima to return to England soon. What do you think you will you especially miss?

All the places in the last question! The way the weather and the mountains interact. Being tall. To quote you,Marc, the bourgeois-bohemian lifestyle gaijin teachers can enjoy here (although just because you miss something it doesn’t necessarily mean you would choose to have it back if you could.) Being able to go out in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt on your bike on summer mornings, and knowing you’ll be (all too) warm all day. The sense of personal safety, and the cleanliness (if not the appearance of) the towns. Ichigo-daifukus, and various culinary joys.

How do you feel about returning to England do you expect any kind of culture shock? >

Gaijinhood teaches you cultural self-reliance, don’t you think? I mean we lead (hopefully) fulfilled lives in Japan without English-speaking TV (unless you have satellite), without English-speakers around you all day every day, without (meaningful) English-language signs, menus, instructions, ads – in short, without the thousand and one native country trappings that make you a native interacting with other natives. This experience, I hope, teaches you to be ‘at home’ wherever you happen to find yourself before very long. Sure, I’ll have eight years’ worth of popular cultural references that will be over my head (Britney Who?) but I’m looking forward to learning about these things, rather than worried about feeling alienated. In Korea last year a JET said to me, ‘Seven years in Japan? You’ll have a hard time reintegrating, you know.’ What I lacked in wit to say in reply at the time was, ‘If I felt so integrated in the first place, I would never have wanted to explore another part of the world, and anyway, what’s so great about integration?’ (Satisfying to get it off my chest at last.)

I know we are both voracious readers. Before I came to Japan to live and work I had read quite a few Japanese novelists and I continue to read Japanese fiction today. A few I like are Oe
Kenzaburo, Endo Shusaku, Mishima Yukio, Abe Kobo and Yamada Amy. Which Japanese authors do you find are worth reading?

I don’t know Yamada Amy, but I rate all the other names in your list highly, especially Mishima and Endo. If I could only have one Japanese novel aboard the Space Ark it would be The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami needs no introduction: I loved it, although Norwegian Wood lingers in the mind longer, I think. Especially if you are lonely when you read it. Kenji Miyazawa fables are international-class. Maybe you’d let me plug a Korean novel by Yi Munyol called Our Twisted Hero – only 100 pages or so, but 100 flawless, mesmeric, effortless, profound pages.

Which books have shaped your view of Japan?

John Dower‘s Embracing Defeat. To refer to our conversation of the other day again, the first 10-12 postwar years seem to be what modern Japan what the 18th century seems to be to Western Europe – the ‘Blueprint Period’ when what was to come was made well-nigh inevitable.

I was tachiyomu-ing a new Alex Kerr book in Maruzen the other day, Dogs and Demons, about how stagnant institutions (government, finance and zaibatsu) have sucked up all the talent, buried it, and ruined whole swathes of Japan in the process. It looks thorough, informative and dark. When I’m over my present cold and healthy enough to tackle something that will make me angry and depressed I’ll read it.

Japan is very fond of gazing at its image in the mirror of the West. Have your books been translated into Japanese yet?

No, not yet. If Number9Dream does well in the States then hopefully the book’s ‘share price’ will rise on this side of the Pacific enough to allow an editor to feel brave. Patience, eh. Quick decisions is not what Tokyo is made of.

How do you think Japanese readers will see themselves in a book authored by an Englishman?

Tricky one, that, it remains to be seen. Number9Dream is not Lafcadio Hearn who, notwithstanding his picturesque renditions of folk tales, didn’t seem a whole lot about Japan itself. Perhaps if Japanese readers like their reflection in my mirror I will be praised for being a perceptive foreign investigator of We Japanese. If they don’t like what they read then I’ll be slagged off for being a foreign busybody who cannot hope to penetrate the heart of We Japanese. How would a Brit respond to a Number9Dream written by a Japanese person and set in the UK? Depends on the Brit, I guess, but there might well be an initial knee-jerk reaction that says, ‘Okay, what makes you such an expert in how we think?’ Most nationalities I’ve met like to fancy that their ways are incomprehensible to foreigners.

A last question. Could you tell us a little about your current writing project?

I’m a little bit camera-shy about works in progress, just because they mutate so quickly. It’s a long novel with the structure of a Russian-doll, set in different time periods. (This novel was published asCloud Atlas.)

You are not giving much away, are you? We shall have to wait for the book to be published. Thanks for answering my questions. We look forward to having back in Hiroshima again soon.

My pleasure.


Paul Walsh

Paul arrived in Hiroshima "for a few months" back in 1996. He is the co-founder of and loves running in the mountains.