Outsider Captures Soul of Japanese : Books: Berkeley-born Ian Hideo Levy has done the unthinkable: written a serious novel in his second language and won prizes for it.


Amid tatami mats and rice paper screens, one of Japan's most celebrated new writers lives in a weathered building of prewar wood. Calligraphy scrolls adorn the three-room flat.

Hardcover collections of the novelists Ogai Mori and Riichi Yokomitsu fill wooden bookshelves. Sheafs of paper covered with handscrawled Chinese characters are scattered across two writing tables.

Like his apartment, the writer's literary style is orthodox Japanese. But Ian Hideo Levy is blue-eyed and Berkeley-born. And he has taken Tokyo by storm for being the first Westerner to write a serious novel in Japanese.

Levy prefers to call himself "a person of Western origin." Maybe a "white Japanese," or a "new Japanese."

But after 25 years of living in and out of Japan, moving almost exclusively in the Japanese language and taking on many of Japan's cultural values, Levy partly longs to call himself simply a Japanese, as immigrants to America call themselves American. But he says this still-insular society has never allowed it, and he feels ashamed for even harboring such an audacious desire.

The question of what to call himself is more than semantics: It is a matter of self-identity and the heart of Levy's debut novel, "The Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard." The work, based loosely on his own life as the son of a U.S. diplomat in China and Japan, portrays the spiritual escape from America of 17-year-old Ben Isaac and his quixotic search to find a new country and culture in Japan.

Ironically, however, the country he tries to embrace happens to be one of the most exclusive in the world, and he is confronted by endless barriers.

The book has sold 8,000 copies, small by U.S. standards but twice the usual number in Japan for a first-time novelist of serious literature. And it has been critically acclaimed by the likes of Kenzaburo Oe, Japan's greatest living novelist. Last week it also won Japan's prestigious Noma Prize for new writers, the first time a foreigner's work has been so recognized.

In addition, Levy has vaulted up the grueling literary ladder that separates real writers from wanna-bes in Japan, drawing praise from Japanese for not using his foreigner's status as a passport to easier treatment. He now critiques for the Bundan, the prestigious literary critics' circle--another first for a foreigner.

Beyond its literary merit, however, Levy's work stands out because it proves a long-debated cultural point: that the Japanese language--and by extension the culture --can be mastered by those who are not ethnically Japanese. While that may seem obvious, the proposition is something of a sacrilege in this society, where language has long been equated with ethnicity and the sense of Japanese "uniqueness" has been promoted and used to keep outsiders away.

"Japanese have never imagined that someone not brought up in Japan could produce a novel in Japanese. The Japanese consciousness toward the language is very nationalistic," says Yoichi Komori, a Tokyo University associate professor of Japanese modern literature. "Levy's work has forced Japanese to begin questioning those assumptions."

Komori adds that Levy's work has opened a new era of contemporary literature in Japan, one moving away from the themes of monoculturalism that have dominated since the late 1800s. A crop of bicultural writers, including Lee Yang Chi, a Japanese of Korean descent, and Norma Field, whose mother is Japanese and father is American, have begun commanding considerable attention here.

"There is nothing intrinsic about the Japanese language or culture that is single-race," says Levy, an intense and disarmingly candid 41-year-old whose dark shadows under his eyes bespeak his all-night writing stints. Punctuating his words with hand gestures, he adds, "This is an understanding of culture that has emerged in the modern period, and government policy in the face of the threat from the West in the 19th Century probably has a lot to do with it."

Only in the last 100 years, after U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry wrenched open the nation under threat of warships, has the Japanese government deliberately promoted the myth of uniqueness in order to unify the populace and steel them for the task of catching up with the West, he argues. An inferiority complex also may lie behind the society's fierce cultural possessiveness--a deeply hidden unease, he suggests, with the fact that much of the Japanese language was borrowed from China.

In the early 1970s, when Levy first began telling his Japanese friends he dreamed of writing a novel in Japanese, he recalls that elements both of exclusivity and inferiority colored the reaction--a sense of "How dare you? Go back to your own country and write in your own language" mixed with "You must be third-rate if you want to imitate an imitator."

While thousands of Westerners flock to Japan to study Zen, martial arts or other cultural endeavors, Levy asserts that the more accomplished they become, the more uncomfortable many Japanese feel. As one example, he cites the American sumo wrestler Konishiki, who competed from ground up in this most Japanese of sports, but was denied the ultimate rank of yokozuna in an international controversy over racism and exclusivity.

Japan is opening up, however. That the literary world today has recognized Levy, that the late esteemed writer Kenji Nakagami encouraged him to "join us and compete," means the nation is gaining enough confidence to share its cultural riches.

But, Levy says, there is still a long way to go. Just recently, while he was celebrating the book's publication with his editor at a bar, a college student scowled at him and mercilessly mimicked Levy's Japanese in a loud voice all night. Such gestures of rejection, mirroring those experienced by his semi-fictitious character Isaac, leads the author to his main message.

"Japan ought to accept people not born in Japan who want to participate in Japanese culture," Levy declares.

When Levy speaks, he weaves back and forth from Ben Isaac to himself, and it becomes difficult to ascertain where fiction ends and fact begins. But for both characters, the relentless search for a homeland was propelled by a complex brew of estrangement, alienation and rootlessness.

Levy was born in Berkeley in 1950, the son of a couple who gave him his middle name, Hideo, after a Japanese-American friend. At age 5, he moved to Taiwan and, at age 12, to Hong Kong. For four years after that he lived in Virginia and ever since has been going back and forth between Japan and the United States.

In shaping his search, however, Levy's emotional estrangements ultimately may have been the more powerful influences. Levy says he was cast out by his Jewish relatives because his father married a Polish Roman Catholic. And when he was still a teen-ager, he saw his own family crumble when his father divorced his mother and remarried a Chinese woman.

Not surprisingly, his art imitates his life. In his book, Levy writes of the young Isaac, sitting in a jeep while his father caresses the back of his Chinese lover, as the two watch the sunset and speak a dialect he cannot understand. Though the youth says nothing, his heart cries inside. Levy also describes Isaac's life in West Virginia with his mother, who had gone from an elite existence with Chinese servants to waiting tables and watching TV, mostly in silence. At night, Isaac can hear her sob and softly call her ex-husband's name.

Back in Japan, Isaac feels rejected by both the Japanese and Western worlds. As he strolls the streets of Yokohama during a Sunday outing with his Jewish father, his Chinese stepmother and his mixed-blood brother, the Western wives rudely stare while the Japanese whisper and giggle.

Isaac resents his father, his oppressive power and the American values he seems to represent: an individualism bordering on selfishness, what he calls "the American myth of autonomous power, that one can live almost entirely independent of the existence of other people." He looks for ways to rebel. Embracing the culture his father, a China scholar, scorns is one way.

"No matter how well you learn to speak these people's language, they will never see you as speaking it worth a damn, so in their eyes you would be the same as someone who has never even tried, like me," the senior Isaac barks to his son as he urges him to take up Chinese instead. "Even if you should go to the Imperial Palace moat, shout, ' Banzai for his Imperial Majesty!' and disembowel yourself, you will never be allowed to become one of them. "

The words only stiffen the young Isaac's resolve. One night he steals away from the U.S. Embassy compound and joins the street life of Shinjuku, a bohemian district of Tokyo filled with artists, runaways, bar girls and gangsters. There, he learns street Japanese and finds a new cultural value: self-denial to promote the greater good of the group.

In reality, Levy's father, who is retired and lives in Yokohama, is not anti-Japanese, the author hastens to add. But many of Isaac's motivations for embracing Japan are in fact Levy's.

"It was part of my adolescent rebellion against my father's China scholarship," Levy says. "Japan was something I discovered on my own."

Levy's enchantment with Japan is so ardent that he quit a tenured position at Stanford University in 1990 as an associate professor of Japanese literature to gamble on his writing career. Even during his years away from Japan, he says, he was mentally there.

While at Princeton, where he was an undergraduate and later a doctoral candidate in East Asian studies and an instructor and assistant professor of Japanese literature, he spent most of his free time in the Oriental Library, his head buried and mind lost in tome after tome. (Levy began his formal training in Japanese while a college student at Waseda University in Tokyo.)

He figures he has read hundreds of Japanese novels, thousands of short stories and poems. An accomplished translator, Levy won the American Book Award in 1982 for his work on the "Man'yoshu," one of the greatest works of Japanese poetry, which befuddles even many native speakers of Japanese.

Levy was at Stanford in 1987 when he learned that the Bundan had decided to evaluate his first novella in the Gunzo literary magazine. It was the Japanese literary world's most prestigious mark of recognition--and gave him the courage to quit Stanford.

Now, his sparsely furnished writing room is dominated by a large wooden table filled with wine bottles and juice cans. The tops are gray with ash and stubs of dozens of Philip Morris filter cigarettes. Here Levy reads or writes until 4 or 5 a.m. except for the two days a week he has to get up at 6 a.m. to teach a comparative culture class at Seitoku University.

He is negotiating a deal to translate his novel into English, although he is afraid much of the dialogue's nuances will be lost in translation.

He says writing in Japanese forces less idealization of the West and precludes Japanese readers from dismissing the work as, "Oh, just a foreigner." Those were flaws in Japan watchers he otherwise admires, such as Dutch journalist Karel Van Wolferen and James Fallows, he adds.

Levy is determined not to be used as a tool by either Japan or America in their political and cultural wars. He steadfastly refuses to reveal his own conclusions about his national identity, saying only that he regards himself as a "Japanese writer."

But if his writing is any clue, it is clear that Levy sees great heroism in the Japanese ethic of self-denial, of power through submission.

In the climactic final scene, Ben Isaac watches as three of his fellow waiters take raw eggs, deftly crack them open and slurp them up. He is challenged to do the same by one man who has relentlessly tormented him.

Isaac's first reaction is what Levy calls very American: "Smash it in his (expletive) face." But he realizes he would only lose by proving their point that a foreigner can't take it. So he swallows his ego, cracks the vile egg and eats it, albeit spilling most of it on his face.

He wins--by doing it the Japanese way. It is Isaac's rite of initiation, as "Star-Spangled Banner" is Levy's.

Researcher Chiaki Kitada contributed to this story.

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