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Japanese-German writer Yoko Tawada
Japanese-German writer Yoko Tawada
Ric Wasserman

STOCKHOLM — Some say Japanese-born Yoko Tawada who has adopted Germany as her home is a writer with a split cultural personality. After 30 years, she still struggles to reconcile the differences.

“Like two personalities, they don’t want to be one,” she says. “They didn’t want to tell one story. I couldn’t put them together. It’s impossible.”

In Sweden to launch her 23rd book, The Naked Eye, the award-winning author says the story has links to her own experience traveling by train from Japan to Germany. “I came to Europe by the Trans-Siberian Railway,” she says. “It is a slow way. It’s not like flying to Europe. You’re in Siberia and all the other cities and places that are between Japan and Europe.”

Somehow, Tawada has stayed in limbo, between two worlds — Asia and the West. After moving to Germany, she saw that Germans looked at things very differently than the Japanese. “In Germany, people try to understand the world as a problem, and they criticize it and they try to find the answer, how to change it.”

Not so in Japan, a country where Confucianism has strong roots, and where people tend to take a different, softer approach. There, Tawada says, “You try to understand the universe as one, and you are a part of something that you criticize.”

There are many examples. In the West, anger is often directed at inanimate objects, Tawada says. Not in Japan. “In Japan, tradition tools — like a pen for the writer, or knife for the cook — they have respect for those tools. So you can’t say ‘stupid pen!’ If something is stupid, it’s you, not the knife or the pen.”

Standing in line at the book signing is Niklas Broman, a longtime admirer of Tawada’s work on the subject of alienation in society. “As a European myself, I can relate to it. Maybe because I sometimes feel like I don’t fit in.”

For the launch of her book, the German Goethe Institute is hosting a reading and discussion, the sort of event that would never happen in Japan. For the Japanese, reading is a personal experience, not something shared with an audience, Tawada says. “In Japan, the readers don’t ask questions to the author. So you never have to answer questions. You just write.”

Tawada has inspired many others to write, among them one of her readers, Miniko Vaneuler. “I also cherish a dream of writing something in Swedish and Japanese, and I actually translate and interpret sometimes,” Vaneuler says. “So I wondered if I could try — as she did.”

Tawada says it is difficult to write in two langauges, but there are special rewards for the effort. “When I think in the German language, it’s like a dialogue. There are two people in my head, and they’re discussing something. In Japanese, it’s a monologue.”

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