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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.

November 19, 1992|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — 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."

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