President Talks (with Ms. Wen Yuju, Hosei University Alumna and Writer)

October 13, 2017

Hoping to continue to connect with a diversity of people from the world of literature while searching for “my own words"

The university helped me develop my ability to express my own experience objectively in words

Tanaka: You were among the first students to study at the Faculty of Intercultural Communication*.

Wen: When I was considering what I would do after graduating from high school, my homeroom teacher told me about the faculty, saying, “Hosei University will establish a new faculty. Are you interested in studying there?” This was the Faculty of Intercultural Communication. Upon learning that its Study Abroad (SA) Program would send students to study in Shanghai, I was instantly interested. I thus took a special entrance exam called the SA Self-Recommendation-based Entrance Exam, and passed.

Tanaka: I heard your desire to learn Chinese was what propelled you.

Wen: Although I have lived in Japan since the age of three, my parents spoke Chinese or Taiwanese at home, so these languages felt very familiar to me as I was growing up. Until I started junior high school, I assumed I had an adequate level of Chinese proficiency. But when I tried to read and write in Chinese, I became aware of my shortcomings. Since I was especially weak in characters and grammar, I keenly acknowledged that I had to study the language seriously. That’s why I began to learn Chinese in earnest at the age of 16. My desire to learn Chinese comprehensively was what led me to choose Hosei University. I feel I was very lucky.

Tanaka: What impression did you have about Hosei University after you actually arrived?

Wen: I remember that, probably because the faculty was new, then Dean Minato Kawamura and other professors were very enthusiastic about making the faculty a lively one. I realized seminars held by the faculty were opportunities for all participants, including both instructors and students, to pursue the discipline of “intercultural communication,” rather than settings where students would just be passively taught at. Such an atmosphere suited my own disposition. I was also able to learn academic terminology by attending classes in various fields. As a result, I was happy that my ability to analyze what had been making me feel slightly uncomfortable was gradually developing.

Tanaka: You became better able to objectively express what you had felt or undergone in words, and to understand it logically. What a valuable experience!

Wen: For example, when learning the meanings of such terms as signifiant, signifié, langue and parole from Professor Osamu Morimura, who specialized in contemporary thought, I was deeply impressed that the relations between words and the world were not fixed, but arbitrary and free. I also had my eyes opened by Professor Yumiko Imaizumi when she taught us that thought imprisoned in the frame of the nation-state could make us fail to notice some important things. I believe my several years as a student at Hosei University helped me develop my ability to express my own experience objectively in words.

Tanaka: Understanding, reinterpreting and reconstructing through learning what you have inside but cannot express in words—this is studying in the true sense of the word, isn’t it? I think it’s meaningless to learn by taking something from outside and just dropping it into your mind.

 

Boundaries between languages are actually vague

Tanaka: After graduating from the undergraduate faculty, you advanced to a graduate school at Hosei University. Were you originally interested in academic research?

Wen: Since Professor Kawamura started a seminar in literary creation when I was an undergraduate, I participated in the seminar and dashed out various pieces, which I called novels. But, the fiercer my desire to write grew, the more seriously I worried about how I should write. Honestly, the biggest reason why I decided to enter graduate school was that I wanted to know myself better, rather than being interested in academic research. I had a series of questions concerning myself, including about why I spoke Japanese, and why my grandparents were able to speak Japanese so fluently, though my parents didn’t speak it. I prolonged my “moratorium” period, hoping to seriously confront such questions in social and historical contexts, instead of a personal one. After graduating from the undergraduate faculty, I studied at the International Japanese Studies Institute for one year, and then transferred to the master’s program at the Graduate School of Intercultural Communication. While I was doing my master’s dissertation under the guidance of Professor Kawamura as before, I also learned a great many lessons from Professor Osamu Tsukasa and Professor Hideo Levy. Professor Levy in particular demonstrated merely through his presence that everyone could have Japanese as his own language, which greatly encouraged me.

Tanaka: What led you to write novels?

Wen: I guess it might have been a setback in my studies in Chinese. Actually, I was slow to make progress in Chinese despite my continued study. The pieces of information that had long remained in my memory held back my progress, so no matter what I tried I was unable to study with a fresh mind. Seeing my friends who had started learning Chinese from scratch making more rapid progress than me, I acknowledged my limits. However, the experience of failing to easily progress in Chinese led me to discover that I had a very close relationship with Japanese. As a Taiwanese who somehow failed to progress in Chinese and had an adequate level of Japanese proficiency, I wondered who I was. I thought I might be able to express this question in novels.

Tanaka: It seems to me that your writing, from the essay collection Taiwan Umare Nihongo Sodachi (lit. “Born in Taiwan, Grew up in Japanese”) to your Akutagawa Prize-nominated novel Mannaka no Kodomotachi (lit. “Children In-between”), has opened up new horizons. What for you are the differences between essays and novels?

Wen: I had long wished to write novels, so I published two novels before writing the essay collection. I wrote Taiwan Umare Nihongo Sodachi to consider what it was that so powerfully drove me to write novels, what novel I wished to write next, and other questions. Frankly, I wrote Mannaka no Kodomotachi aiming to creating a space for a person like me to confront the problem of language by connecting with other people, instead of treating it as a personal problem.

Tanaka: You mean you universalized your own experience by writing about it.

Wen: The word “universalization” is too good, and makes me feel slightly embarrassed. I think I rather wanted to create a kind of springboard to connect with those who might share similar experiences with me by exposing very personal aspects of myself to public view. While confirming, “I’m here, and I know you are here too,” I hoped readers would enjoy the world in the novel and playing with the characters without regard to the name of the author.

Tanaka: Mannaka no Kodomotachi has three main characters with slightly different backgrounds. That seemed very realistic to me. The novel reminded me of Agota Kristof, a Hungarian-born novelist who wrote in French.

Wen: Thank you very much. I feel very proud. I’m extremely happy that you felt that way, because I was greatly inspired by her autobiographical essay The Illiterate. As a matter of fact, language is not inherent to any one, but learned from the outside. However, if you live and grow up on the Japanese archipelago where Japanese is spoken and understood in every corner, you gradually incorporate the language as part of you, so you may wrongly assume you were born with the language inside you. I understand a considerable number of Japanese people think so.

Tanaka: I completely agree with you.

Wen: I wrote the novel hoping to argue, from my standpoint, that boundaries between languages are actually vague. I wish to say to “in-between” people like me, “You can exist here,” against the exclusive atmosphere in Japan, which make such people believe they are abnormal. Instead, abnormality is what makes everyone shine.

Tanaka: Come to think of it, everyone is “in-between” in some aspects.

Wen: I agree. I have never believed anyone can be perfectly Japanese in all aspects. I wish to emphasize the joy of the mutual and shared “existence here and now” among people who are all slightly on the borderline.

 

Tanaka: What do you currently think about your own identity?

Wen: At one time, I wanted to acquire a Taiwanese identity. But Taiwanese people in my generation living in Taiwan are distinctively different from me in terms of their accumulated experience. There is too large a gap to bridge even if I try hard. In this sense, I cannot completely become Taiwanese. But there is a gap between me and Japanese people too. I have long faced the challenge of figuring out how to be positive about my way of staying in-between in such a manner. At one time, I considered this problem while reading materials about the history of overseas Chinese and memoirs of Japanese migrants around the world.

Tanaka: What further complicates the problem is that Taiwanese people are often treated as the same as Chinese, as you mention in the novel.

Wen: That is based on what I really experienced when studying in Shanghai. I thought I couldn’t belong to any country out of China, Taiwan and Japan.

Tanaka: In the future, more and more people will be “in-between.” I don’t believe Japanese people will continue to be untouched by this issue.

Wen: I myself sometimes speak from the viewpoint of a Japanese person. The Japanese language has most deeply penetrated my sensibility, so I sometimes find myself saying, for example, “Japanese people are too sensitive to the prevailing mood,” meaning to include myself. But, in such cases, some people take my words as a foreigner’s criticism of the Japanese, and express their opposition, saying, “Don’t criticize the Japanese.” However, my hope is that Japanese society gradually is permeated by the recognition that “Japanese people” includes people like me. I hope to do so through literature.

Tanaka: I think literary works can be created through exploring various expressions amid the gaps between the words inside you and those outside you.

Wen: You use words that you have learned from outside, to communicate with other people. You use words as such aiming to bridge the gap between yourself and others. I believe words exist to help us share “existence here and now” with one another. Hoping to learn words useful for this purpose, humans all read and write.

Tanaka: We are all searching for words to express ourselves. Books are quick and easy tools for searching for words.

Wen: Books are tools for experiencing the world from a perspective other than your own.

Tanaka: Yes. You are free while reading a book. At one time, my school grades deteriorated because I spent too much time reading books, so I forced myself to stop reading books for a while. Writing also helps you discover your own words. I believe it is very important to express your own experience in words. I really look forward to your next work.

Wen: Sure, thank you very much. Although I am a “child in-between” who has failed to completely master a language, I hope to continue creating spaces for different people to encounter one another through literature.

* The Faculty of Intercultural Communication was founded in 1999.

 

 WEN Yuju, writer

Born in Taipei in 1980, Wen Yuju has lived in Tokyo since the age of three. She creates literary works focusing on language and identity from her perspective as a Japanese-language writer of Taiwanese nationality. She also places importance on reading aloud her Japanese writings that include Chinese and Taiwanese words to express her literary world.

   Her books include: Raifuku no Ie (lit. “House of Happiness,” published by Shueisha), Tatta Hitotsu no Watashi no Mono dewanai Namae (Kindle version) (lit. “The Only Name That Does Not Belong to Me,” published by Happa-no-Kofu), and the essay collection Taiwan Umare Nihongo Sodachi (lit. “Born in Taiwan, Grew up in Japanese,” published by Hakusuisha in 2015). The novel Mannaka no Kodomotachi (lit. “Children In-between,” Shueisha) published in April 2017 was nominated for the 157th Akutagawa Prize (for the first half of 2017).

 

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