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From Japanese fascism to American sexism, author Fumiko Kometani unflinchingly speaks about her book "Passover" and how art has been an instrumental companion in her fight against non-traditional forms of slavery.
Artist, painter, and writer Foumiko Kometani has cultivated a melieu of perspectives and inspirations from her Japanese origin and unique background-over forty years living in the United States and being married to a Jewish man. Her writing is a reflection of her life experiences that have shaped her strong political and social views about America, Japan, and the rest of the world. Having raised a son with disabilities, she does not hide the hardships that life creates but expresses them and brings out the humor that is embedded in life.
Interview with Foumiko Kometani
Interview by Allan Axibal
Transcribed by Jennifer Chong
APA: Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background.
Foumiko: My name is Foumiko Kometani. I am 73 years old. I was born in Osaka, Japan. I came to this country in 1960 as an abstract painter. I came to the MacDowell colony in New Hampshire in 1960. I am now a writer.
APA: When did you begin painting?
Foumiko: I started in high school. In high school, I won a prize for oil painting and that was encouraging. I always dreamed of becoming a painter. When I was in elementary school, in the first grade, I got very bad grades. My mother found a woman painter near our house and she really inspired me. She was an independent female painter at a time when it was rare to be one.
APA: When did you begin to write?
Foumiko: Well, my younger son is brain damaged and so I stopped painting. With painting, I could not paint because he was running around. Oil painting is very difficult. So, what else can I do? I can write. My husband is a writer and I was working with a writer's friend. I got so frustrated looking at society. There were many things I could criticize. It [writing] was easier, I thought. With a pen and paper you can go anywhere, but painters have to carry so many things so I began to write with my kids around. I sent it out to many Japanese publishers, but they didn't print it.
APA: You immigrated to America from Japan to escape repressive conformity. Please tell us about your decision to move. What was it about Japan that made you feel so stifled?
Foumiko: I went through fascism during the war. At that time, women did not have any rights to say anything. After the war, I thought we had freedom, but people's mentalities were still fascistic. There were still the men who had much more power than the women. Even in the artist's society, the men had authority all the time. I didn't like that. I saw that America had much more freedom for the expression of painting and the arts, and that's why I came here.
What I found out at that time shocked me; it wasn't that way in America. For the women, there weren't any abortion rights and no gun control. We had health insurance in Japan, but those things the occupational army gave to Japan. The Japanese women had freedom to choose abortion rights and a right to vote. America didn't have so many freedoms for the women. That was a surprise.
Another thing is maybe [the reason] I've become an abstract painter is because I once made a "wall" for myself in Japan so people wouldn't bother me to come to these old fashioned rituals like Buddhist ceremonies and Shinto ceremonies. "Oh, she's an abstract painter. She's strange." (people would say). So, I didn't do any of those kind of traditional things.
I didn't realize [the existence of rituals] until I came here and I met my husband in the MacDowell Colony. He was a playwright. He was Jewish American. He didn't believe in any religion, but his family was Orthodox. I didn't know they were keeping those rituals until I married. I didn't know those things existed here until I realized that Catholics keep much more traditional rituals here, and the Buddhists too. The very old fashioned things are preserved here better than the original country. Yes, that was a shock to me. If you go to Europe and you talk to many people, they are not that much religious like here [America]. Religion here was much stronger than in Japan maybe because the occupational army came and separated state and religion [in Japan]. They did a thorough job and they took off any kind of religious holidays from the calendar. I thought that America was like that, but it wasn't.
APA: That is very interesting. How is Osaka the place of your self-formation, the place where you developed your identity?
Foumiko: I don't know. I was born there. I grew up there. I used Osaka dialect since childhood until I left Japan. I never lived outside of Osaka except two months during the wartime in Tottori Prefecture. I really don't know the standard Japanese. I can read it, but I never use Tokyo's Yamanote's language because I never lived in Tokyo.
In Osaka we have Kabuki, Noh plays and Joururi, you know, the old-fashioned puppet show. Those things came from Osaka. Really, that traditional culture was born in Osaka. We have a lot of comedians too because the dialect is very funny. We tease each other and criticize each other and joke with each other. If somebody cannot joke, we don't become friends.
APA: So, you have to have a sense of humor in Osaka.
Foumiko: Oh yes. Everybody so enjoys doing that. You will get in the subway and if they [Osakans] talk in rush hour, you cannot get out of the door. From the inside, you will hear someone screaming "Orimasse" meaning "let me get out." But in Tokyo, no, they don't talk. They don't talk in the trains; I didn't know that. After I became a writer, I went to Tokyo because my publisher was there. I met my Osaka friend there and we talked in the subway in a loud voice with giggling and her daughter started to say, "Shut up, shut up. Everybody is looking at you people!" She lived in Tokyo so she knows that.
APA: According to what you just said, apparently it's taboo to speak loudly in Tokyo subways. So the stereotype that Asians in general tend to be very quiet is false since you obviously had a very loud sense of humor. You grew up with a very good sense of humor in your family.
Foumiko: Yes. We like to joke. Maybe it's because Osaka was always repressed by the Samurai culture in Tokyo. [Similarly] Jews are more the comedians maybe because they were repressed. Maybe it's that kind of a culture.
APA: You talked about the competing values that are evident in both the American and Japanese traditions. Some may suggest that this duality is irreconcilable. After your departure from Japan and subsequent arrival to America, did you find yourself trying to fit in and live in harmony with American ideals or did you strive more to preserve your Japanese identity. Or, perhaps, you've integrated the two cultures?
Foumiko: First when I came here, my idea of America was that it was very democratic. Women had rights to everything and I didn't know that mother-in-laws existed. [Laughs.] I thought mother-in-laws were only in Japan.
In Japan, I imagined that America was a much more modern society. I found out when I came here that many different tribes preserve their own cultures. When I first came here, they did not talk to each other that much. Now, they are much more open.
The first thing that shocked me was that I could not communicate because my English was so terrible. That frustration was big. If I could talk much more freely, I could really argue, but I couldn't argue. When I was married to my husband, our arguments took like one week! He can talk English and I can't talk so much. I had to make all the complaints the next day so then I couldn't sleep. I used the dictionary and wrote down so many things. The next day I said something and he returned by arguing me back something, and I could not argue back so quickly, so again I had to write it down. It was really difficult.
APA: What about values - such as Japanese and American values?
Foumiko: At that time I didn't have any values, no. When I came here, I couldn't have any "this culture" or "that culture." No, I couldn't have anything to do with that. I just had to communicate; that was the main thing I had to do. And then after seven years I began to realize, you know, the different cultures, and then without knowing the democratic way of thinking, it just got into my mind. My attitude all changed when I went back to Japan. I was completely different I realized.
APA: Do you resent that? Do you resent the fact that it got into your head - the American ways?
Foumiko: We cannot resent that. They come in. This culture really absorbs you or cultivates you without letting you know. What is around you teaches you how to behave. That's the society anyway. If you are American and go to Japan, some of the Americans are just like the Japanese there. It's the same thing because society will teach you how to behave. I gradually chose the group which I liked which was much more progressive, liberal, and not religious at all. I don't like religion, I'm sorry to say because religion really restricts women everywhere and that's why I reject all religion.
APA: So going now to your novel Passover which is based around the character Michiko. She's a foreign, lonely, and emotionally troubled woman who finds America just as frustrating as her home country, Japan. This plot seems to parallel your life very closely. Why did you choose to write this story? What was your intention to write this dark novel that reads like an autobiography?
Foumiko: It is not dark. It is liberating. Many of the men don't like the story. Women like it, especially the ones with handicap [relatives]. It's really funny. I wanted to write about what I experienced in this country. I think Japanese cannot understand at all American society. Even now they don't. Look at the Koizumi government-- it's so stupid! Nobody asked for him. They are so worried about how Americans look at us [the Japanese]. They always think that way.
And so I thought maybe if I write about what I experienced here, like of course culture shock, but besides that, I have a brain damaged son so I know that part of society--the handicapped societies. They are a subculture. So I know more than normal people I think, I thought. So I should write whole things especially because Jewish Americans are different from the mainstream Protestant society. I thought that way. So I wrote very honestly about what I was thinking, what I experienced, and what I think about many things. I attacked religion in general because I was observing the Passover Seder [Jewish rituals] and that reminded me of the Buddhist rituals and the Shogatsu [New Year's ceremony] rituals. It's ridiculous. I wrote about how women had small bowls and men had big bowls even if they were three-year-old boys. That I could never understand.
APA: There were bowls?
Foumiko: Yes. There were soup bowls and rice bowls. In Shogatsu, we had this kind of small table and they had a name on it. My brother got the bigger bowls, soup bowls, and rice bowls. And I got the smaller ones because I was a woman. Before the [Shogatsu] we [women] had to work so hard and where were the boys? They went to see the movies. That kind of thing was really resentful.
I see the Passover Seder and they are doing the same thing there. Then, I thought about everywhere that religion is and all the time women are always underneath the men. So, I wrote my emotions about that and criticized that. I wanted to liberate this woman Michi, and I wanted to liberate myself. I really let her go, yes. I couldn't myself, but she could.
APA: With that in mind, there was obviously a female audience that you had in mind for writing his book. Was it more for Japanese women or American women?
Foumiko: I wanted American women to read it too because at that time in 1980, America was very prosperous. There must have been a lot of women who had a handicap [family member] and staying at home all the time. They can't complain. They can't write. I was fortunate that I had a little help. Now he's [Kometani's son] in the state hospital so I have more time. But, if you are living with a handicapped child, you cannot rest; that's why I wasn't liberated. Passover is freedom of slavery; they are celebrating freedom of slavery.
APA: Another thing about your book is that it created a lot of controversy. It was attacked for being anti-semetic. How do you respond to these attacks?
Foumiko: The guy who attacked me was the only one, but he wrote everywhere, every year. That guy is really something. I found out that he teaches Japanese literature at Illinois University. Many people know him, but I didn't. Out of nowhere this guy came out and wrote for The New York Times first in "The Letter to the Editor." Then, somebody sent that to me and I didn't know what to do. Everybody said to ignore it, but I could not ignore it, so I wrote back. That was a big mistake.
He was attacking not to me really. He was attacking the Akutagawa Prize Committee. He thinks that they are anti-semitic. I don't know why. He wanted to have Endo Shusaku on his side. He was a clever guy. He attacked especially Endo who is Catholic and who is a very famous Japanese writer. So Endo's translator wrote back and Endo didn't vote for him. I was different. I wrote that I was married to a Jew and that many of my friends were Jewish, so what was he talking about? I'm attacking male chauvinistic religions-- that's all as far as religion is concerned.
Then somebody else, his friend in New York wrote in the "Letter to the Editor" again saying, "She's saying that all Jews are stupid." In the Osaka dialect, "Ahorashii" means, "Oh, stupid. What can you do?" She cannot understand Osaka dialect so she attacked me! She said I meant that all the Jews were stupid. So, what can you do? So I wrote to this professor. He's married to a Japanese lady. He really wanted to take advantage of that prize. He wanted to be conspicuous to other people. He wanted attention. He has been doing this for ten years.
APA: This is all very interesting--the attack on Endo, your self-liberation, and the story of somebody's liberation from all sorts of social restrictions. I'm sure our readers will really enjoy this.
Foumiko: That's good.
APA: Were you surprised to receive the prize (Akutagawa Award)?
Foumiko: Yes. The prize was really a surprise. I was shaking.
APA: Was this the first time this prize has been given to a Japanese living outside of Japan?
Foumiko: No. [The prize was issued to] Masuo Ikeda, but he went back after that. Everyone goes back.
APA: But you haven't gone back. You have such critical acclaim in Japan and you are very popular over there. Why stay here in America?
Foumiko: Well because I have a brain damaged son who's in a hospital. We cannot leave him.
APA: You don't want to take him over to Japan?
Foumiko: I tried to find out how it is in Japan. I found out that Japanese parents cannot complain to the teacher [about] anything. Here, they would go and tell the teacher, "You know, my son came back like this stage, what happened?" They ask all these things. [In Japan], they never ask. And in hospitals, it's much worse. The doctors say something and that's it. Here, we complain to doctors all the time. I stopped the medicine once. "You want to kill my son," I said. I stopped them. But in Japan, you can't do that so I think I'll stay here until this country becomes a fascistic country. [Laughs.] I don't know how Bush will run this country. It's terrible now.
APA: Can you be more concrete about what it means to be "fascistic" in terms of your experiences in Japan?
Foumiko: They [the government] controlled newspapers and media and we were always lied to about the conditions of war. We knew that bombings were here [in Japan], but still they were saying to the people that we were winning. That was nonsense. The government can't lie to people all the time. For instance, self-defense went to Iraq recently. You read that yesterday, but in Japan, they don't know. Even that they don't know about, so they can't report it
APA: The Japanese self-defense forces have been expanded.
Foumiko: Even here, during the Iraqi wartime there are embedded reporters. How can they report freely if they are embedded? Their life is dependent on it.
These big four channels on television, how they have changed! That is scary. Dan Rather and Peter Jennings-- they were much more liberal people than now.
APA: How do you feel about emerging Asian artists and authors today?
Foumiko: The Japanese ones, I know [about]. I read recently about the prize these two young people got this year. I don't know what they are writing. [Laughs.] Of course, they are too young. This year they gave it to a 19 and 20-year-old. It's usually around '40s or '50s. I got it in my '50s. Artists maybe start at 25 or 24. They [emerging artists] just imitate us and especially those selecting committees. They are just imitations. They are very clever now. Like an entrance exam cram school, they train you to do this. My former editor who takes care of this selecting committee told me that they choose the S&M [Sadism and Masochism] people. I said if the committee [continues to] choose S&M people, the whole Japanese literature will become S&M. It is becoming S&M now. That's a very low culture. They like to hurt themselves [pretends to slice wrists.] They talk about killings.
APA: So S&M is a popular writing genre in Japan right now?
Foumiko: I feel that way now since this new committee. I feel it's really terrible. They don't write about life or what's important in life, no. They don't care. I don't know about American young people though.
APA: You've won numerous awards. What do you think it is about your writing that makes it so appealing to the public?
Foumiko: I'm not winning that much like other people. They hate me now because I speak very honestly in my essays. [Laughs.] I attack government, politicians, prime ministers, and foreign ministers. It's those people I criticize, and I also criticize society. I write those things so I think that's why they are kicking me out from the literary field.
Some people like me because I speak very openly, but not so many. They are so afraid of how I talk. I talked in Japan last October about the media-- the American media and Japanese media. And afterwards somebody would come and attack me. They are so afraid. It's strange. I cannot understand the whole thing. Yesterday Makoto Oda's wife said that they'll kick me out soon. Maybe I was kicked out already, but I don't care. I'll keep writing. If somebody prints me, that's fine.
APA: Some younger writers have difficulty finding their voice. You said that many of the current prize winners are imitators. In other words, they are mimicking members of the committee and other prize winners. Did you have trouble finding your own voice?
Foumiko: No. I had a voice, but I didn't have the language.
APA: Do you have any heroes today?
Foumiko: I like Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth. Phillip Roth really opened up everything.
APA: Speaking of keeping with writing, what are your future plans?
Foumiko: I'm writing now. Whatever I think is important, I'll write about. My collection of essays come out this October. This time it will be much more critical of American government-- the Bush government. I wrote criticizing him because he is like Hitler and Mussolini really. He imitates Hitler. I didn't want to put this in our [Japan's] newspaper. They [Japan] are so afraid. Also, I will do fiction too.
APA: Have you ever thought about doing something together with your husband?
Foumiko: We could never work together. [Laughs.] We could never agree. He is very difficult to work with.
APA: Thank you for speaking with us.
Foumiko: Thank you.
Date Posted: 6/25/2004