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AY2020 Yoko Tawada Academic Workshop Report

On October 29, 2020 (Thur.), a workshop with writer and visiting professor Yoko Tawada was held at the Global Japanese Studies Model Unit. Professor Miho Matsunaga of Waseda University’s Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences served as both the coordinator of the event during preparations and its moderator on the day. A total of 15 undergraduate and graduate students, primarily those studying under the supervision of Matsunaga, attended the workshop. Such workshops with Tawada have been held annually, but this year’s was different in that it took place online via a Zoom meeting in response to the spread of COVID-19.

The participating students had sent Tawada physical letters beforehand; after the participants introduced themselves, the workshop proceeded first with Tawada noting how she reacted and felt about the letters from the students, then with the students encouraged to ask questions, and then with Tawada responding to those queries.

First, Tawada responded to questions about COVID-19. Tawada evaluated today’s world beset by COVID-19, and in particular, the various events that have unfolded in the societies of Germany, Europe more broadly, and Japan, based on her own lived experience and from a cultural standpoint. However, she also noted the dangers inherent in discussing all of today’s problems by connecting them to COVID-19 and argued for the importance of looking at the various phenomena that have been developing in Japanese society recently (particularly since the turn of the millennium).

The discussion also turned to the inevitable topic of “travel” as it relates to Tawada as a writer; Tawada, who considers herself “lazy,” talked to the participants about why she travels. She described the joy of being able to witness and come to understand diverse experiences and sets of values by physically venturing into the outside world and how such experiences and values have greatly contributed to her work as a writer, arguing forcefully that it is vital to encounter various kinds of people by traveling to other worlds, be it through a theater stage or by going overseas. She further noted that coming into contact with various value systems should also be done through the exploration of history and frequently mentioned the importance of looking back at the past. These moments touched upon Tawada’s career as a writer, which she has developed by gazing broadly at things now and deeply at things past and skillfully weaving both into her works.

Provided below is the reaction of one of the workshop’s participants after encountering the world of Tawada.

The workshop held on October 29 and sponsored by the SGU initiative in which Ms. Yoko Tawada and Waseda University students participated took place by connecting Ms. Tawada in Germany and us in Japan over the Internet.

The core activity around which the workshop proceeded was Ms. Tawada’s responses to the letters that we sent to her. During the workshop, there was a flurry of discussions about the differences in the cultural policies of Japan and Germany amid the coronavirus pandemic and Ms. Tawada’s creative endeavors in Germany.

I was particularly impressed by how Ms. Tawada noted that she felt that “what letters and novels have in common” is that “despite writing them under your own name, they drift away from you.” I myself remembered how, while I was writing my letter to Ms. Tawada, the text that at first I was supposed to be writing to someone who was definitely other than myself—Ms. Tawada—seemed to develop more and more into something intended for me. It was as though the letter I had written had drifted away from my intentions for it as its writer.

Today, the motifs that Ms. Tawada explored in The Last Children of Tokyo have manifested in all facets of society. I would like to use my participation in this workshop as an opportunity to go back and re-read Ms. Tawada’s works.

(Shinya Yonekura, third-year student, School of Culture, Media and Society)

Tawada also expressed how she feels that there is something “off” about the various words and phrases that have come down from the Japanese government (for example, fukkou [reconstruction] after the Great East Japan Earthquake). Similar reactions were found among the workshop participants, leading Tawada’s responses to questions in even more directions and sometimes eliciting laughter as the workshop went on. The planned two-and-a-half hours for the event seemed to pass in a blink of an eye before the workshop concluded.

■Workshop Overview

Date and time: October 29, 2020 (Thur.), 5:30 pm to 8:00 pm

This year’s workshop was held online, connecting Berlin and Tokyo, because of COVID-19.

■See here for clip of Ms. Tawada speaking on the day of the event.

*The open period of this video clip has ended.

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