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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.

June 12, 1988|ELLEN HOPKINS | Ellen Hopkins is a contributing editor of New York magazine

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."

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