Notes from a Garret

by Michael Hoffman

You don’t have to pay half your salary in rent or brave commuter crowds every day to pursue a successful writing or translating career in Japan. From his “garret” looking out on the waters of Ishikari Bay in Hokkaido,  Michael Hoffman contributes articles regularly to two of Japan’s English-language dailies, translates, and, most recently, writes fiction. How did he get there?

Addendum 2012: Michael Hoffman's latest book is Little Pieces: This Side of Japan (VBW, 2010), available in Japan here and outside Japan here.  His new novel, The Naked Ear (VBW, 2012) will be released in October 2012. (Cover image here.)

Addendum 2007: In this 2004 article, Michael Hoffman revealed that his “computer-phobia” hadn’t helped his garret-based writing career as of 2004.  His latest book is Nectar Fragments AuthorHouse, 2006).

imageLet’s see, how did I get here? And here is where, exactly? A pause on the way to there? Or the last stop?

The future will unveil its mysteries in its own time, but for now “here” does feel like an arrival of sorts. In my dreamy adolescence, I saw myself as an impecunious writer in a garret overlooking the sea in a place I’d never heard of; and thirty-odd years later, here I am, in my garret by the sea, writing. So much was foreseen, but . . . Japan? Land of Zen, higher states of consciousness, and a language they said only natives could speak? No. lt never entered my adolescent head.

The place I’d never heard of, and unless you’re from around here you’ve probably never heard of it either, is Zenibako, situated on Hokkaido’s Ishikari Bay midway between Sapporo and Otaru, physically distinct from both though administratively (and irrelevantly as far as I’m concerned, except for tax purposes) linked to the latter—it’s an old fishing village, and still retains traces of that flavor, though the herring that swarmed here a century ago are gone. So are most of the fishermen.

The population consists now mainly of retired folk who have lived here for generations and can tell me about the old days when a strong wind would send roofs flying, plus a sprinkling of newly-arrived Sapporo salaryman families drawn by the tangy sea breezes. Then there’s me. Where do I fit in? Nowhere, really. But that would be true anywhere.

I didn’t come here to stay when I moved in 14 years ago—any more than I came to Japan to stay 22 years ago. I suspect that’s true of most of Japan’s long-term foreign residents. Life in this country has its drawbacks, God knows, but something about it seems to appeal to a certain kind of personality. Most people reading this will undoubtedly know what I mean.

I arrived in Tokyo in 1982, not knowing the language and married to a Japanese woman who didn’t speak much English. Our lingua franca was French. Looking back, I wonder how we managed. One good thing was that we never fought; our vocabulary would break down long before we could do any real damage. Still, with a small child growing up, we needed a common tongue that one of us spoke as a native speaker, and since we were in Japan (though supposedly not to stay), Japanese it was. Ten years later (I’m not the world’s fastest learner) I bid the shadow-world of Eikaiwa farewell and hung a “writer/translator” sign on my garret door.

So much for prehistory. There have been numerous ups and downs since then, most of them familiar to everyone in this line of work; one or two of them maybe peculiar to myself. My computer-phobia hasn’t helped, though I think I have that more or less under control by now. What I went through to get it under control I won’t describe. I have no desire to relive it, thank you, or to be laughed at by those of you to whom being webbed and wired comes naturally.

A relatively narrow range of interests, combined with a stubborn unwillingness to enlarge it, is another problem. Technology and economics are beyond my pale, and will remain so. That’s saying a lot. An analogy would be a medieval European saying, “I’m not interested in religion.” He would be closing a lot of doors.

With a background in journalism, it was to the newspapers that I turned. The Asahi Evening News, as it then was, was my first client, the Mainichi Daily News my second. God bless them for putting up with my novice bungling. Actually, we got along famously from day one. We hardly ever saw each other, which helped. No office politics came between us. Moreover, we agreed on one vital fundamental: original articles are to be translated freely rather than literally. Accuracy is important, of course, but needn’t be at the expense of good English prose, which more often than not is incompatible with good Japanese prose. My attitude is—and I am fortunate to work with editors who give me every support in this—that the information is the reporter’s; the writing is mine.

Translation, in any case, was never my principal vocation. Writing was. I had been writing short fiction, and publishing some of it in what are called “litmags,” magazines with literary pretensions and no budgets; they pay in contributors’ copies. Of course, literary work is its own reward; one blushes to even think of money in connection with it. Still, there is food to be put on the table, the children’s education to pay for, and various other mundane considerations that won’t take no for an answer. Then one day—what void do these brilliant ideas spring from, I wonder?—I had a thought: the litmags were themselves a story. There were, back in the early nineties, a remarkable number of English magazines in Japan. Just the fact of their existence was interesting, and some of them were real diamonds in the rough. That was the first non-fiction story idea I ever sold—to the (now alas defunct) Japan Quarterly. It was the start of a long and pleasant association.

Around the same time something else was brewing: A Mainichi Daily News Sunday feature called (incomprehensibly to me at the time) Waiwai. Kenkyūsha defines waiwai as “noisily, clamorously.” Well, that fits. Behind it lay a luminous insight: that Japan’s weekly magazines, with their occasional gutter mentality and their nose for the scandalous and titillatingly distasteful aspects of modern daily life, were not to be disdained but on the contrary plumbed for clues to how real people—not politicians, officials and “spokespersons”—get through their lives in these troubled and chaotic times. When I was first invited to join the Waiwai team I needed a crash course; I hardly knew these weeklies existed. There they were, filling whole racks at convenience stores and train station kiosks. How could I have missed them? You can‘t browse through those magazines without finding something worth writing about. (As before, only much more so, the information is theirs; the writing, presentation, and commentary is ours). To make a long story short, the feature took hold, spawning a book in 2001 called Tokyo Confidential, and thriving to this day—as noisy and clamorous as ever—as “Tokyo Confidential” in the Japan Times and as Waiwai (still) in the online MDN.

My one other regular employment is reviewing books for the International Herald Tribune/Asahi Shinbun. This is the opposite end of the earth to Tokyo Confidential, for most of the books I review are highly professorial, frightening erudite, the footnotes sometimes taking up almost as much space as the text. Japanese history is my preference, the more ancient the better, and so my garret fills with treatises on Heian-period diaries, Muromachi-period wars, Edo-period art, and so on and so on. Not all of this is fun reading, but undeniably it is educational. It appeals to the perpetual student in me, the part of me that never left college. The tuition is free, and every now and then I am able to congratulate myself on having mined from a dull and weighty tomes a lively little article. That’s the goal, anyway.

It’s Monday morning, the garret is quiet (I’ve visited monasteries that are less so), and from the window under a cloudless sky I look out on the placid waters of Ishikari Bay—my beach in summer. Seagulls skim the waves, and . . . what’s this now? An email from Mark Schreiber, my Tokyo Confidential colleague. He’s found a magazine with an article on the latest trends in online sex—“you interested?” Our rule of thumb is that one TC story of the weekly three deal with humankind’s cruder passions. Well, sure I’m interested, why not? So that’s settled; I’ll do that tomorrow. Today I’m putting the finishing touches on a story for an American magazine about a homeless, penniless, alcoholic wandering haiku poet of the prewar era named Taneda Santoka. For Wednesday there‘s a book to read on Heian court intrigue. That’s all so far. Not quite a full week’s work, financially speaking. Hopefully a translation assignment will roll in at some point. Otherwise . . . well, otherwise it’ll be a lean week, that’s all—not the first and not the last. That’s the downside of not being an employee on regular salary, with fringe benefits and paid vacations and whatnot. You either tell yourself it’s worth it, or you buy a suit and get a job.

One new venture I’ve yet to mention: I’ve gone into the publishing business, and my author is me, entering the literary lists with a by no means slender volume titled The Coat that Covers Him & Other Stories—five short stories, one longish story, and one full-length novel, all of it written very early in the morning in the garret, all of it set primarily (not quite entirely) in Japan, featuring a largely Japanese cast of characters grappling as though in a dream with that clash of absurdities we somewhat arbitrarily call “real life.” I hope you like it.

From Newsletter No. 106 (December 2004)