Her Story : L.A. Writer Foumiko Kometani's Novella 'Passover' Created a Sensation in Japan, Winning an Unprecedented String of Literary Prizes. In This Country, It Created a Sensation of a Different Kind. 'Passover,' Critics Charged, Was a Work of Anti-Semitism.

Ellen Hopkins is a contributing editor of New York magazine

AFTER FOUMIKO Kometani's novella, "Passover," was published in Japan, it received no fewer than three important awards: two from highly regarded literary magazines, and the Akutagawa Prize, Japan's most prestigious literary award for new authors. It was the first time any writer had ever won three such laurels in Japan. Given these accolades, it isn't surprising that the book has sold 140,000 copies, and that the writer, who's lived in America for almost 30 years, has appeared on virtually every Japanese television talk show. "Passover" was one of last year's major media events in Japan.

What is surprising is all the attention that's since been lavished on the book in this country--a write-up in Newsweek, a review in World Literature Today, and a series of letters debating aspects of the novella in the New York Times--an astonishing amount of press for a book by a fledgling novelist that has yet to be translated into English.

Why all the fuss? The key lies in the book's subject matter, which has led a handful of American critics to accuse Kometani of anti-Semitism. For most of her adult life, Japanese-born Kometani was best known as the wife of Los Angeles writer Josh Greenfeld, a successful screenwriter (he was nominated for an Academy Award for "Harry and Tonto") and the author of a popular series of books about the couple's severely retarded son, Noah. In those books (which are excerpts drawn from his daily journal), Greenfeld has been searingly honest about the difficulties of living with a handicapped child, including the strain such a child inevitably places on a marriage. During a dissection of one particularly nasty quarrel, he confesses that their "marriage is over."

Actually it isn't. Far from it. But anyone reading the Noah books would consider this a minor miracle. Life with a man who seems more than willing to expose the dirty laundry in one's home can't be the easiest of fates.

Then Kometani published a book of her own. In "Passover," the narrator is a Japanese woman married to an American Jew living in Los Angeles. The couple has a brain-damaged son. So far, the outline could be drawn from any of Greenfeld's Noah books. Except that the setting of the novella is a Passover seder, held by the husband's relatives. And the driving force is the all-encompassing hatred the narrator feels for her Jewish in-laws.

The immediacy of the anger in this work, apparent even in a rough translation, is startling. So is the woman who wrote it. Kometani, an extremely small woman, somehow fills a room with her presence, which has a good deal in common with that of a four-star general. Despite her quiet dress and speech, it is Kometani who rivets the eye, rather than the chattier Greenfeld, a slight man who seems a cross between a stand-up comic and an elf.

Greenfeld barely mentions his own family in the Noah books. And his one passing reference to a seder is a loving one--though he admits that "neither Foumi nor Karl (the couple's other son, who is not handicapped) was so happy about the seder. They kept casting me dirty looks from behind their Haggadas."

Kometani's descriptions of a seder have garnered her more than dirty looks. First there was the letter in the New York Times from David Goodman, an associate professor of Japanese and comparative literature at the University of Illinois. He referred to "Passover" as an anti-Semitic work. This sparked a series of letters debating his charges. An article in Newsweek continued the furor. Today, Goodman says of "Passover": "It's an extraordinarily bad book. She's merciless in her denigration of Passover and its meaning. She goes on from there to attack the Jews and Judaism and finally all of Western civilization, saying the West is corrupt, benighted and ugly. The popularity of this book is indicative of the willingness of the Japanese to give credence to the worst stereotypes of the Jews. It's indicative of how seriously we've deluded ourselves about how much the Japanese have accepted a pluralistic view of the world."

Kometani's response? "First," she says, "no one understand me in English; now people misunderstand me in Japanese."

WHEN FOUMIKO Kometani came to the United States in 1960 at the age of 29, she was seeking the sort of personal freedom that was then unobtainable for women in Japan. Kometani was a talented painter--she had a fellowship from the prestigious MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire--but her Japanese art teachers were continually after her to stop throwing paint around the canvas.

"They kept saying, 'Not that way, no one uses paint that way. Use the orthodox technique.' I wish I knew then about Jackson Pollock," she says.

The artistic constraints weren't Kometani's only reason for leaving Japan: She was also determined not to have an arranged marriage, an all-but-assured event if she stayed at home. In fact, she had no desire to marry at all.

"I wanted to escape the in-law problem," she explains with quiet irony after glancing at her husband.

Despite her convictions, soon after Kometani met Greenfeld at MacDowell, the two decided to be married. Kometani's family didn't have any problems with the marriage. "I think they felt relief, because I was always complaining in Japan, saying woman not equal to the man," she says in her still-far-from-perfect English. "Now I stay here, and they don't have to hear my complaints. Only Josh's side had problems."

"Now wait, wait, wait," says Greenfeld. "Your American sponsor gave you plenty of problems. They said to her, 'Do you realize he's Jewish ?' "

Kometani laughs, remembering. "That's right. 'They are very difficult,' my sponsor said."

"There were so many kinds of people I didn't know existed in Japan," she says. "For a time I was so curious I would ask everyone, 'Are you a Jew?' 'Are you a homosexual?' just because I want to know. I stopped when someone finally asked me, 'Are you Hitler?' Then I realized it wasn't OK to ask."

Her initial euphoria at American freedom soon soured. Kometani's reluctance to become fully Western--seen most clearly in her speech--may have its roots in this ambivalence about her adopted country.

"I was so naive before I came," she says. "I thought all women here were like Simone de Beauvoir. Really idealistic person I was. And I thought I escaped the in-law problem coming here. Instead, far worse: Phone calls from his mother, his sister, trapping me every day. His sister never treated me like adult. Treated me as if I didn't exist. And I couldn't believe the religious limits going on here--all these restrictions on your daily life with what food you can eat, who you can marry, birth control. I couldn't believe it. I thought everyone here was free. Real shock to me."

Finally, the couple decided to escape. They went on a world tour, ending up in Japan, where they stayed for two years. Things were different for Kometani there now that she was married. Their first son, Karl, was born, and they toyed with the idea of staying in Japan forever. But Greenfeld became restless, and they decided to return.

"We should have stayed longer," Kometani says. "Two more years in Japan, and I don't think we'd have Noah. Great mistake to come back."

Kometani could never be accused of being a sentimentalist: Japan then had legalized abortion; the United States did not. By the time she realized she was pregnant with her second, unplanned child, the couple had returned to the States. While they had no interest in bearing any more children at the time, they couldn't afford an illegal abortion. Instead, they had Noah.

For Kometani, Noah is her nemesis. Today, Noah is 21. He functions on the level of a normal 18-month-old baby--on his good days. When "60 Minutes" did a feature on the Greenfeld family 10 years ago, Noah wandered in and out of the frame, crooning to himself, pulling threads from blankets, stopping only to have violent temper tantrums. There was little behind the facade of the beautiful Asian face that seemed human.

Perhaps the most telling glimpse of the hell that living with a Noah can be was when Dan Rather asked Greenfeld about the section in "A Place for Noah" where Greenfeld discusses his fear that someday he will kill his son: "Killing him will be a kindness. His brain has stopped working; he has not been functioning anyway. I dread it but I see myself killing my son not as myth but as fact."

Greenfeld admitted to Rather that one of the reasons he allowed this excerpt of his diary to be published was to make this mercy killing an impossibility: Once the confession existed in print, he couldn't exactly go out and have "an accident" in the car with Noah.

When Greenfeld's heart disease made it impossible for the family to keep Noah at home, the couple finally surrendered to the idea of institutionalizing their child. Today Noah lives in a small adult residence; his parents visit him once a fortnight.

Noah has been the central fact of Kometani's existence. It was because of him that she gave up painting and took up writing. "If Noah is around you can't paint, he mess everything up," she explains while giving a tour of the simple, one-level tract house she and Greenfeld have in Pacific Palisades. The walls are covered with large, beautiful oils that Kometani did years ago. One, a shimmering work in blues and greens, appears to be an abstract rendition of Icarus, struggling to fly inside his triangular prison. When complimented on it, Kometani's response is to silently point out another painting, in darker hues, scarred by a deep gash. "Noah had tantrum that day," she says with a shrug.

Years of caring for Noah have clearly left Kometani angry--at fate, at the West for not having better institutions, and at her husband for not being the primary caretaker. In "Passover," the narrator describes how the brain-damaged child repays her round-the-clock care: He sinks his teeth and nails into her scalp, leaving lasting scars. Someday, she thinks, this child will kill her.

"PASSOVER" IS essentially a plotless work. Michi, the narrator, comes to New York for a vacation with Al, her husband, and their normal son, leaving the handicapped one in California. She's looked forward to this trip for a long time, but as soon as they arrive, they're trapped by Al's family into going to a seder. Michi is an atheist and abhors all religious rituals. During the seder, she becomes more and more frustrated with what she sees as the hypocrisy around her--Jews who aren't religious in everyday life suddenly engaging in rituals for the sake of a holiday. Finally, inspired by the theme of the Passover seder (the emancipation of Jewish slaves from the Pharaoh), and reflecting that all the future holds for her is more nursing care, for her ailing husband and someday perhaps even for her despised sister-in-law (the villain of the book), Michi walks out on her family.

Kometani never walked out. She wrote "Passover" instead. "I wanted to show my side," she explains. "It began to hit me when I translate. (Kometani translated the first two Noah books into Japanese.) Nothing left for me. What I can do for my life now when I'm taking care of kids all the time? Always cleaning up the filth of Noah, always him pulling my hair, hurting me. And I had emotions left, a lot of complaints, and I had to put them somewhere. His Noah books, always he is the hero, my problems are not there. I want to write my side of the story and get rid of my chest."

"Rid of your chest?" Greenfeld asks incredulously.

Kometani smiles good-humoredly, obviously used to years of marital baiting about her English.

"How do you say it?" she asks him.

" 'Get rid of my chest,' said the flat-chested Japanese woman," Greenfeld proclaims. Kometani laughs but isn't willing to let the subject drop.

"The Noah books, they are not really about the awful part of my life; he doesn't write about the in-law problem," she says.

Kometani's book more than made up for the omissions in Greenfeld's. Sylvia, the sister-in-law in "Passover," is a grotesque harpy--large, loud and bejeweled, a glutton who likes to squeeze her immense body into baby-seal coats and stuff slabs of meat heavily layered with fat between her lipstick-smeared lips.

The descriptions of the relatives and the seder have particularly offended "Passover's" detractors. In a letter to the New York Times, Fumiko Feingold, a Japanese woman married to an American Jew, translated portions of the novella that she found especially derogatory to Jews: Written Hebrew looks like "little worms jumping up and down." The young people at the table who don't follow kosher laws, but nevertheless participate in the seder, Michi calls "greedy sentimentalists who want to have it both ways." When Al and Sylvia eat the traditional fatty meats, the narrator remarks: "People who can't take care of their health without being cautioned by others must be willing to die and, therefore, why don't they die? Get lost, stupid people."

Feingold found the references to Judaism "uniformly antagonistic. . . . Whatever the author's intentions, her story is bound to confirm the worst prejudices and falsest stereotypes."

David Goodman goes even further. He found Feingold's translation of the "Get lost, stupid people" passage "if anything, too kind. There's no profanity as such in Japanese. This is the closest you can get to it; this is what a samurai would say as he's about to deliver the coup de grace , as he's about to bring the sword down on someone's head."

Kometani says the real problem is that her critics have no sense of humor. "And they don't seem to understand Osaka dialect (the argot used in 'Passover')," she says. Osaka dialect is the Japanese equivalent of a Brooklyn accent. A lot of Japanese comedians come from Osaka. Or, put another way, says Kometani, "the passage is like throwing up your hands, saying it's hopeless, I try to keep these people healthy and still they eat fatty meat. What can I do about it?

"It's like. . . ." Kometani struggles to collect her thoughts for a moment, and then it comes to her. "It's like, oy vey ," she says triumphantly.

In the end, what Kometani's critics find especially disturbing about her work is not so much its content as its reception in Japan. "Let's suppose a woman in the United States wrote a book that was this dismally written, this profoundly offensive to the Jews, this wrongheaded, saying that Judaism is responsible for Nazism, colonialism and proselytizing," says David Goodman, who recently published an article on Japanese anti-Semitism for a Japanese intellectual monthly. "It's quite conceivable that we would publish it--we publish all kinds of junk. But the idea that this book would receive the most prestigious literary award there is in the country is beyond my comprehension. It's simply another piece of evidence that anti-Semitism has greater intellectual currency and respectability in Japan than anywhere else in the world."

WHILE anti-Semitism does remain prevalent in many parts of the world, its Japa nese variant is noteworthy purely for its strangeness. Given that even today, there are probably fewer than a thousand Jewish citizens in Japan, it's hard to see just where this prejudice comes from--except perhaps as an extension of the recent resurgence of racial pride, demonstrated most blatantly last year when then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone declared that Japanese society is "more intelligent" than that of the United States because "blacks, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans lowered (the) level of intelligence" in America. If pressed, most Japanese would be unable to identify a Jew. Their stereotypes seem imported from other countries (oddly, "The Merchant of Venice" was the first of Shakespeare's plays to be translated into Japanese) and have little basis in Japanese history and experience.

In recent years, anti-Semitism has become increasingly prevalent in Japan. Two anti-Semitic works published in the last two years--"If You Understand the Jews, You Can Understand the World" (which asserts that Jews caused the Depression of the 1930s) and "If You Understand the Jews, You Can Understand Japan" (a revisionist view of World War II, stating that the Holocaust death toll was greatly exaggerated)--have been massively popular, with sales of more than half a million copies.

While some of Kometani's critics are willing to admit the possibility that she never intended the book to be offensive to Jews, they do believe that the anti-Semitic climate in Japan contributed to the book's positive reception.

And, says Goodman, "complaining about in-laws is a venerable tradition in Japan, going back about 1,000 years. One magazine devotes about 50 pages a month to this sort of stuff: 'My mother-in-law beats me, my husband's never home, my sister-in-law's always criticizing me. . . .' The only thing that distinguishes this book from the rest of these complaints, the only reason this sort of sob stuff got the Akutagawa Prize," he says, "is that it's about the Jews."

There's another well-loved literary tradition in Japan: exposing the foibles of the West. In her review of "Passover" in World Literature Today, Waka Tsunoda, an authority on Japanese literature, panned the novella but offered an explanation for its success: "Right now in Japan there is a growing trove of literary works written by Japanese who have either lived abroad for some time or are married to Westerners. The works usually expose intimate details of American and European lives. Japanese readers . . . apparently find all such books fascinating."

Not that "Passover" was applauded by all Japanese. While most of the Akutagawa Prize judges were effusive in their praise, calling the novella "thoughtful," "wonderfully humorous," and "intense," several gently criticized the work as sounding a bit like "a housewife's composition." One judge, Shusaku Endo, refrained from commenting on "Passover" at all. Later, he offered his somewhat sarcastic explanation in a letter to the New York Times: "That I did not place a high value on this novel is clear from my comments on selection. . . . It would be an extreme misunderstanding and completely untrue if the American people thought I supported the anti-Semitism in this novel."

But when questioned about Endo's letter, judge Junnosuke Yoshiyuki professed bewilderment: "In Japan, too, we have in-law troubles, and people end up saying some awful things about each other at such times. The heroine's criticism of Judaism in this story is nothing more than an extension of a family fight."

THERE'S A popular Japanese literary genre that may be even more applicable to Kometani's work than that of the housewife's complaint or trashing the West: That of the "I novel." The most famous example of this is probably "The Pillow Book of Shonagon," a diary of sorts written by a 10th-Century Japanese court lady.

In this confessional, highly opinionated work, the author gives her views on such matters as the weather she finds appropriate: "On the first day of the First Month and on the third of the Third I like the sky to be perfectly clear." She mandates that "oxen should have very small foreheads with white hair." There are lists of things the author finds unsuitable, such as "snow on the houses of common people."

Kometani clearly comes from this speak-your-mind tradition. Both Kometani and Greenfeld have the habit of honesty, with each other and the world at large. "Publish and Be Damned" could be embroidered in sampler form for their living room wall. It's a peculiar marriage, one that seems to thrive on conflict: The more unpleasant and true things they can write and say about one another, the happier they appear to be. While flipping through the family photo albums (the grand finale of the house tour), Greenfeld points out his sister with a dramatic flourish. "Here's the ogre," he says. (Actually, now that he mentions it, Greenfeld's sister, who is on the large side, does seem to loom rather menacingly over the petite Kometani.) His wife laughs.

Both enjoy teasing each other about sensitive topics--especially when it comes to racial stereotypes. Greenfeld refused to allow his wife to take pictures throughout their first trip to Europe. "Typical Japanese, he said," Kometani now cheerfully explains. When her son Karl once called Kometani a "dumb Jap" for making him do his math homework, she responded, "Get the smart Jew to help you." And when Dan Rather asked Kometani on "60 Minutes" why Josh should feel guilty about Noah, she bubbled over with laughter. "He's Jewish," she said, as though that settled the matter, as perhaps it did.

Irreverence is second nature to her. When her publisher insisted on putting the Star of David on the cover of Kometani's book, she pointed out that the artwork might mystify the Japanese. The five-pointed star is the symbol for Japan's leading brand of ketchup.

IS "PASSOVER" an anti-Semitic work? Yoshiko Samuel, an assistant professor of Japanese language and literature at Wesleyan University, thinks not. She recently wrote an analysis of Kometani's work for a collection of essays on Japanese women writers, due for publication this year, both in Japanese and English.

"There are some very hard things about the West in it, but she has plenty of hard things to say about Japan as well," says Samuel. "As for the sister-in-law, Kometani has harsh descriptions of her, but I see those primarily as irony. The heroine makes it quite clear she is against all forms of religion, against all forms of social constraints. That is what she leaves Japan for--to have some freedom. And the irony is she finds there is no social or religious freedom here. She attends Passover unwillingly. Her freedom has been restricted by her son and her husband and now by her Jewish in-laws at a ceremony that's supposed to celebrate the freedom from slavery. It's a fantastic use of irony. She could have done it with any organized religion, it didn't have to be Judaism.

"Most of all," adds Samuel, "it is a very humorous work, very witty." Even though Samuel says the realism of Kometani's writing technique may show a lack of sensitivity to the feelings of Jews, "as I read it, it is not anti-Semitic. Now it can be interpreted that way--just as 'Huckleberry Finn' can be interpreted as a racist novel. Everyone is free to their own interpretation. But I think you're missing a lot in 'Passover' if you read it as an anti-Semitic work."

A full-fledged assessment of Kometani's novella will probably have to wait until an official English translation comes out. As of now, several major publishing houses are bidding for it. But in a sense, the answer finally lies in Kometani herself.

First, a few relevant facts: Last year, before the whole "Passover" debacle erupted, Kometani withdrew the serialization of her second novel, "Tumbleweed," which details more observations of a Japanese woman living in the States, from a Los Angeles-based Japanese publication because she discovered they were printing anti-Semitic articles. The withdrawal cost her $3,000.

Then there are the reactions of Kometani's friends to the charges--a uniform bewilderment. Writer Joan Didion, a friend of the Greenfelds for almost 20 years, said she "giggled helplessly" when she heard. "It's so absurd--anti-Semitism has so little to do with Foumi. It's as though someone had to be found to fit an argument and Foumi happened to be it."

Finally there are Kometani's other writings: numerous essays published in major Japanese magazines and newspapers criticizing the Japanese for their failure to address the problem of racial and religious prejudice in their own country.

This is not to say that Kometani could ever be called an advocate of Judaism, or any organized faith. She is vehemently opposed to all religions. Kometani is ecumenical in her hate. And this is a woman who knows how to hate.

"Once Foumi hates someone, that's it, she hates that person forever," says Greenfeld. Then he adds: "But she's also the only person I know who treats everyone the same way. I'll accuse her of a thousand things, of paranoia, of a lack of ability to distinguish between what's important and not important, so many things. But anti-Semitism ? I've never seen an ounce of prejudice in her."

"Passover" now contains a postscript that Kometani used as the acceptance speech for her first award: "I am grateful to my husband who, for 35 years of marriage, did not learn to read or write my language. I have told him that this is a story about an Osaka merchant who went to Africa in the hot jungle and sold underwear with zippered pockets. Therefore, if you have read the story, do not tell him the contents of what I have written.

"What I have just written is a joke. If he could read Japanese, he might get angry, but I did tell him the rough story line."

Feingold, one of Kometani's detractors, found this postscript particularly disturbing, regarding it as a flip confession that Kometani was telling the story of her own life.

"I think none of these people have sense of humor," says Kometani. "The whole idea of Osaka merchant trying to sell long underwear in Africa, in very hot place, it's funny, right? Of course Josh knew what I'm writing about--though he fell asleep most of the time I explained it to him."

"That didn't mean I wasn't interested," he says.

Kometani has since done more than merely explain the book to her husband: She recently did a rough translation for him. True to form, he was unperturbed by the fact that the narrator leaves her husband, or by the hatred felt by the narrator for her husband's family. He admitted only to being slightly "surprised" that she loathed his sister to the extent that she did.

His sister, who died after the book was published, never read the translation. "Josh told her 'Passover' is about family problems, women's lib, that's all," Kometani says impassively. "But I wanted her to really know."

"You never understood my sister, did you?" says Greenfeld, holding up a hand to silence his wife, who is shaking her head energetically. "She's dead, someone has to speak for her. You're so un-understanding of the American neurotic, you thought this was just her particular problem. Yours is the traditional Oriental story, the Oriental who believes in the West and then finds out it's a crock. . . . You went through all the traditional disillusions with the West, and it just isn't fair to lay it all on the feet of my sister."

"I never said this sister-in-law is responsible; I never said this sister-in-law is representative of all Jews," says Kometani. "And this David Goodman, saying that I wrote that Judaism is responsible for Nazism, colonialism and proselytizing--I never said that. I think maybe he didn't read my book. I wrote that all Western religions with their exclusiveness might connect with these things. I think this David Goodman cannot understand fiction. Why can't heroine say what she want to say? Does everything in novel have to be wonderful?

"Anyway," she concludes "still this is fiction. Why the heroine cannot say the West is ugly? Whatever she want to say, she can say. She is just a character, right?"

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