In “The Japanese Master Switch,” Murata’s fascinating 2013 painting of the art critic Sherry Wolf that recently won the White House National Portrait Gallery’s 2018 Portrait award, she drew on “a love of purity and modesty.” But Murata is more than a naif. She has spent her career battling stereotypes about Japan. She recently resigned as head of the cartoonists association in response to a Pew Research Center survey of 13,000 Japanese adults, which found that 63 percent of Japanese citizens believed racism against Asians and Koreans was “a very big problem.” Despite Japanese denials of the Holocaust, anyone who lived in Japan during World War II knows better than to think otherwise. “Harassment, censure, and death threats were not unheard of in Japanese society,” writes Hersman. “This awareness is a major motivation for Japanese artists to express the pain of this past and the future.”
Many of those painters, including Murata, turned to foundings, illustrations, and graphic novels as an alternative, in many cases more reliable medium. These are fantastic children’s books. There’s AiAi and Kenyata, a cosplay-inspired tale of two ordinary ladies who believe they are gods, perhaps the first of their kind. There’s Soono Masashi, who started publishing Odenwa no Odenwa by mail in 1970 in her hometown of Shifo. (The catalog includes a postcard from Hiroshima’s Nagasaki Peace Memorial Museum: “We remember you.”) Here, a simple tale of love and a revelation about fantasy as a transformative force. And “Isao Kato, the Japanese Dream” by the Chinese Communist Party journalist and artist Zhou Yushan, who won an international distinction in the 1950s for his work with the Hui and Bachano families, weaves thoughts of migrating memories into a page-turning gothic tale. These are translated and illustrated books, not traditional manga, because, as Murata said in an essay in One Hundred Best Books in Which to Poetize Humanity, “Japan cannot sustain the kind of relaxed, hazy humanism that an adult can afford.”
Other travel books described by reviewer Aaron Weiss enjoy the same intellectual freedom of vision. As I’ve written before, English-speaking readers should be wary of using translation as a shortcut to a world that is not their own. But it can also be an excuse for such bewildering non-translated travel books as “The Taiwanese Road From Fromagami to Ayawasama” by Levon Koepke and “The Crucible of Diomede” by Felicitas Lizzi and Judith Kletz, a book that recounts in painstaking detail how ephemeral travel can be and the attractions that linger.
Another tendency for Japanese travel writing is a reverence for calm. This is especially evident in the English translation of Julie Swetman’s “Hotel Memories,” a fantastic, vividly descriptive tale of how a gay Japanese writer, Tsugadzan, spent thousands of dollars on trips to various post-World War II destinations. “I thought the world was imperfect,” Tsugadzan writes. “I thought gay and Japanese weren’t normal, and it seemed that it didn’t make any sense that they could be so strange and strange together.” Likewise, amid dread of contamination and the war and the “coldness of reality,” readers of writing like this feel like sailors losing hope.