Five Questions for Shogo Oketani

 Shogo Oketani was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1958. His great-grandmother was a geisha, and his great-grandfather was a gambler. He graduated from Keio University and spent over a decade as a staff writer for The Sangyo Times. He has been a translator for Apple, Eastman Kodak, The Mori Group, Lucasfilm, IBM, Hitachi, Applied Materials and LAM Research, and others.

Oketani is author of a collection of poems, Cold River, co-author of Designing with Kanji: Japanese Character Motifs for Surface, Skin & Spirit, and co-translator of America and Other Poems by Ayukawa Nobuo: 1947-1986, for which he received the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Award for the Translation of Japanese Literature, and a grant from the NEA.

His translations have appeared in Manoa, Another Chicago Magazine, The Poetry of Men’s Lives,  and  W. W. Norton’s Language for A New Century, among others. His essay on translation appeared in The Poem Behind the Poem: On Translating Asian Poetry (Copper Canyon).  His fiction has appeared in Wingspan (All Nippon Airline’s inflight magazine) Kyoto Journal, and Another Kind of Paradise: Short Stories from the New Asia-Pacific

His story “A Farewell in the Snow” appears in Yomimono #15. It will appear in slightly different form in his book J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo 1965, which  is forthcoming in Summer, 2011 in English translation by Avery Fischer Udagawa with Stone Bridge Press.   

Oketani is a black belt in Karate and Shaolinquan and also practices Kendo and Judo. He teaches Self-Defense workshops at Sun and Moon Yoga in Tokyo and at various corporations.

What was the inspiration for your story?

This story is based on a memory from childhood. When I was ten years old, my classmate, whose father owned a local meat shop,  disappeared after summer vacation. We weren’t that close,  but we sometimes played together after school. Towards the end of summer vacation, I was walking along the street in the shopping district when I heard someone call my name. I looked around to find him in front of the shop. “Hey, did you finish your homework yet?” he asked. “No, not yet. I still have a lot to do!” I said. He laughed. “Me, too. See you at school in September.” That was it.

But he never came back to school. The teacher even tried to find him, but he’d completely disappeared. Later, another classmate told me that his father had mixed rabbit meat with pork meat at their shop, and  no one knew where his family had gone.  At the end of September, the teacher told us that his family had moved because of a family matter (katei no jijo). This memory stuck in my mind, so I used this episode in one of the stories of J-Boys. 

 Describe your writing space.

I mainly write at a kotatsu (heated table) in my home office,  sitting on the floor. I write by hand, vertically, with a fountain pen, on Japanese notepaper.  I’ve studied at a small Japanese desk on the tatami mat ever since I was a teenager, and I just got used to writing and thinking sitting on the floor. 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on edits to J-Boys.  I’m also writing a story about Kazuo, the main character in J-Boys, who is now in his fifties. And I plan to revisit a draft of a novel about an eccentric medieval Samurai lord, called Basara, and work on a sequel to a YA novel about a ninja that my wife (Leza Lowitz) and I wrote.

What’s the last book you’ve read?

Ant Soldiers (ari no heitai), a nonfiction book (also now a documentary) about soldiers who were forced to stay in China after WWII by top-ranking Japanese Army officials in order to fight with the Kuomintang against the Communist party. Even though the war had ended, the Japanese Army wanted to maintain Japanese military power in China and forced 2,600 soldiers to stay in Shantung province in China against the Potsdam Declaration.    

 What is your favorite place in Japan?

The back streets of Ginza in Tokyo. They’re very quiet and not so crowded. You can still feel the earthy atmosphere of old downtown Tokyo (shitamachi) there, even amidst the glamour of the Ginza.

You can buy a copy of Yomimono #15 here.