One of the Greatest Writers on the Contemporary Russian Literary Scene, Mikhail Shishkin's "Japan"

Mikhail Shishkin


A Japanese poetry book on our shelf was my first impression of Japan. I still can recall that red book.

"Climb Mount Fuji, O snail, but slowly, slowly" 
(katatsumuri soro-soro nobore fuji no yama)

I repeated these lines during my life again and again, so they have become something like my own lines but not Japanese.

And there was a movie, Rashômon directed by Akira Kurosawa. I watched the film in a semiofficial cinema club when I was in the eighth grade. That time we had neither Internet nor VCRs. This strangely narrated Japanese story struck me just like Tarkovsky's Mirror did. Perhaps then I was becoming a writer without a single line written yet. And it really didn't matter that my teachers were not writers, but film directors. The essence of art is integrated and it does not depend on the language of expression whether it is a picture or a word, in Russian or Japanese.

Japan, which had been another planet

At that time, Japan seemed something unattainable - another planet. Indeed, it was another planet. The idea to visit this incredible country someday seemed completely unrealizable and fantastic. I had two dreams in my youth: having my novels published and traveling. And I was well aware of the fact that both endeavors were unfeasible: I was born in a country of slaves, my parents were slaves and I would be a slave of the system from the cradle to the grave. Soviet slaves were not allowed to publish what they want or travel abroad.

Now we are all living on another planet. Everything is possible. Borders are gone. My books are published in Russia, win prestigious awards, and are translated into nearly 30 languages around the world. Last year, my novel was translated by Yuri Nagura and published by Shinchosha publishing in Japan.

Letter-Book by Mikhail Shishkin, translated by Yuri Nagura, published by Shinchosha publishing

I was so happy when I received an invitation from the Japan Foundation to come to Japan to present my first book in Japanese!

I'd like to express my deepest gratitude to Yoko Sakanoue and Masanori Takaguchi, the employees of the Japan Foundation who prepared the agenda of our stay in Japan and perfectly organized the trip. It was especially important that I could share the joy of this trip with my wife, Eugenia.

Communicating with Japanese readers, writers, and intellectuals

The presentation of my book at the University of Tokyo and at bookstores in Tokyo and Kyoto was made possible with the active support of Prof. Mitsuyoshi Numano. When you go to a new country - where nobody knows you - to introduce your freshly published book, you can't expect much interest from the public. All the more, we were pleasantly surprised to see full-house sessions and the enthusiasm of the Japanese listening and asking their questions. I believe the reason was the generally keen interest of the Japanese in Russia and Russian literature. Of course, it imposes a great responsibility: after all, these readers perceive a modern Russian writer against giants such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov.


A special event took place on November 2, 2012, at the University of Tokyo (Hongo Campus). Mr. Shishkin gave a lecture entitled "The Meaning of Russian Literature," and had a discussion on literature, with writer Masahiko Shimada, Mitsuyoshi Numano, Professor of the University of Tokyo, and Miho Matsunaga, Professor of Waseda University.

A talk session was held on November 4, 2012, at a bookstore in Kyoto. Hosted by Kumi Tateoka, Associate Professor of Kobe University, Mr. Shishkin talked about his novels, and Yuri Nagura, who translated Letter-Book (left), read aloud some phrases picked from the work, in the Japanese-language. This gathering enabled Mr. Shishkin to have a closer communication with his readers in Japan.

For me, it was very important to get to know and communicate with the Japanese creative intellectuals, university professors and students, Japanese writers. It was a special honor for me to speak in front of the audience with such well-known Japanese writer as Masahiko Shimada. I have known him for a long time through the Russian editions of his novels translated by my old friend Dmitry Ragozin, who is a writer and Japanese translator. Since then, my every encounter with Shimada - we met at international book fairs and festivals - has been a new discovery: I learn a lot about modern Japanese culture from him.

An amazing combination of the ancient heritage and the contemporary civilization

This trip gave us an amazing opportunity to see the sights of the Japanese capitals, Tokyo and Kyoto. We were really impressed by museums, temples, monasteries and parks. The contrasts were particularly striking: an amazing combination of the ancient heritage and the 21st century civilization. It's just wonderful how the Japanese cherish their past and pave their way into the future.

Guests from Russia, of course, noticed the eye-catching cleanness in the streets, neatness and respect the Japanese have for their neighbors and themselves. We were pleasantly surprised by their emphatic politeness. And now I'm persecuted by the idea that for the Japanese traveling in Europe we all should look like barbarians in our everyday life... Or shouldn't we?

A wonderful surprise in the Tokyo subway

Naturally, bookstores enticed me as a writer. Although I can't understand Japanese characters, I was impressed by the shelves crammed with translations of Russian authors. And another significant thing. There are talks throughout the world of the death of printed books. Perhaps, indeed, the future belongs to e-books, but it hurts me so much to think about it! To replace a paper book with a soulless e-reader is to deprive oneself of the true joy of reading. In Moscow subway, you can see people reading e-books only. If someone takes out a printed book, his neighbors look askance at him as if he had no money to buy an e-reader. In fact, Tokyo subway had prepared an amazingly wonderful surprise for me: the Japanese read printed books! This is really great!

shishkin01.jpgMikhail Shishkin
Born in 1961 in Moscow. His major works include One Night Befalls Us All, The Taking of Izmail, Maidenhair, and Letter-Book. Through these works, Shishkin has become the first novelist to win all three of Russia's major literary awards: the Russian Booker Prize, the National Bestseller Prize and the 'Big Book' Prize. While fusing the best of Russian and European literary traditions, Shishkin's works forge an expansive vision for the future of literature, with a focus on inner lives of human beings. His sophisticated writings are often reminiscent of Russian literary masters Tolstoy and Nabokov and have brought him an international reputation as one of Russia's greatest living writers. In November 2012, he visited Japan to celebrate the publication of his latest novel Letter-Book in Japanese translation, and participated in the exchange gatherings to meet Japanese readers, writers, and intellectuals.

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