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Invisible Man Ralph Ellison
The Japanese cover for Ralph Ellison's book "Invisible Man" alongside a 1961 portrait. Image: Japan Today
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Ralph Ellison makes himself visible in 1950s Japan

By Patrick Parr

On Sept 2, 1957, Japan’s 60-year-old foreign minister, Aiichiro Fujiyama, stood on the stage of Tokyo’s Sankei Hall. The Corsica Daily Sun reported at the time that in front of him — and among hundreds of Japanese patrons — sat an audience of “170 PEN [Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists] delegates from 24 countries.” It had been exactly 12 years since the Japanese government formally agreed to its surrender, its representatives signing aboard the U.S.S. Missouri that was docked in Tokyo Bay. Fujiyama used the moment to reflect on how far his nation had come in just one zodiac eto (the rooster). As he greeted the audience, he also welcomed them to a country that “has grown in the last 12 years into a modern industrial nation dedicated to peace and culture.”

Outside, heavy rain pounded the Sankei Hall, and — as historian Kiyohara Yasumasa reported — then-PEN president and future Nobel Prize in Literature winner Yasunari Kawabata attempted a stiff weather-related joke: “International PEN is supposed to transcend politics, human rights, and nationality, but even we are today buffeted by the typhoon of politics. Still, we want to believe that our tower of ideals will not fall. We hope it will be there standing beautiful in the clear sky after the typhoon has passed.”

Invisible in Japan

One of the delegates patiently listening was Ralph Waldo Ellison, author of the incendiary "Invisible Man," a novel published in 1952 that attempted to breathe fire into the faces of American readers and awaken them (sloth-like white Americans, in particular) from their unchecked racist ignorance:

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me."

The novel made Ellison extremely visible, winning the 1953 National Book Award as critics declared it a modern classic and one fellow novelist, Wright Morris, writing that the book “maps a course from the underground world into the light.”

As far as the conference was concerned, Ellison was overshadowed, says Nakayama, by the “three Johns” — the PEN-visiting American authors John Dos Passos, John Hersey and especially John Steinbeck had all garnered more Japanese media attention than Ellison. "Invisible Man" may have been a literary lightning strike in the United States, but in 1957 Japan the racial conflict in the U.S. was only beginning to be debated after the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama ended in December 1956. According to scholar Kiyoshi Nakayama, in the 1950’s most Japanese readers were devouring American novels from authors such as Steinbeck, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, whose complete works had been translated into Japanese in 1956. So, while Steinbeck was “chased after by reporters” and “repeatedly interviewed” at the Imperial Hotel while battling a high fever, Ellison chose to stay from Aug 31 to Sept 14 at the Dai-Ichi Hotel in Shimbashi, mainly having his meals (scrambled eggs, coffee and a chocolate sundae were examples) at the hotel’s Grill Room while staying in room No. 679.

Ralph Ellison's Dai-Itchi Hotel Bill for the first week of September 1957. Photo courtesy of the Ralph Ellison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress..jpg
Ralph Ellison's Dai-Ichi Hotel Bill for the first week of September 1957. Image: Courtesy of the Ralph Ellison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Ellison may not have been able to travel far those first few days due to the typhoon slowly passing through. In fact, Japan’s weather had been altered from a nearby nuclear test in Siberia in late August. One Japanese scientist, Hironobu Watanabe, told newspapers that “radioactivity of 1,000 counts per minute per liter was detected in rain which fell in Niigata city” on Sept 1. In Osaka, that number went up to 4,400 counts after a Siberian atomic explosion on Aug 22. The result of all this was “hot rain” fallout, an issue continuously reported in newspapers throughout the 1950’s due to the arms race between the United States and Soviet Union. In Tokyo, however, Ellison and the PEN Conference did not have to suffer through radioactive raindrops.

Between fulfilling his duties as a part of the American PEN contingent and dodging the miserable weather, Ellison managed to find time to some sightseeing. During his trip he wrote home to his wife Fanny that “Japan simply takes you over with its unique beauty. I’d love to stay a year.”

First impressions

For Ellison, the two weeks he spent in Japan was re-energizing. He and Fanny were going through tough times, according to Ellison biographer Arnold Rampersad. For the past two years, Ellison had been employed as a fellow at the American Academy in Rome, Italy, but had grown tired of his routine and Italian culture in general. Writing post-trip to perhaps his best friend, novelist Alfred Murray, Ellison revealed how much he’d fallen for Japan. “Japan was so exciting that if I could go back tomorrow I’d leap. I spent 14 days there and took in as much of that modern-ancient civilization as I could cram. They’re an efficient people — which is always a pleasure to encounter after these slackassed Romans — and damn near everything they touch takes on beautiful form.”

“Japan was so exciting that if I could go back tomorrow I’d leap.” – Ralph Ellison, 1957

The beauty Ellison saw in Japan didn’t come from general sights such as temples and shrines, but in its attention to detail. As he told Fanny, he was touched by the way Japanese people “bind up the wounds of an injured tree” in the yuki-gakoi style, by bundling weak branches together with rope made from straw.

After being invited to a house, Ellison started to see how the country had remained unique in its approach to design. “They’ve taken the Western way, especially the American, and done something of their own with it. When you visit one of their houses you realize what [modernist architects Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson are trying to get at with their frigid designs, but they miss it a mile. A Japanese house is austere but it’s also warm; reduced to essentials not by hacking but by blending, brewing, testing until that which is left out is not only the least that is necessary but also the most aesthetically satisfying.”

When Ellison moved with the PEN committee to Kyoto, he called “the old capital” the “most beautiful” city he’d so far seen in Japan. A highly skilled photographer, Ellison took this rare chance to snap as many photos as he could, even though “it was raining most of the time we were in Kyoto.” Still, he had a chance to upgrade the camera he brought. To Murray, also a fellow photographer, he confessed to indulging a bit on a new model: “I’ll have more to say about Japan later,” he told his friend, but “right now it’s enough to say that I knocked myself out (traded my Summaron wide-angle for a Nikkor 35mm f l.8 plus $27.00) and that was the best part of the trip.”

Ellison would soon leave Japan and travel to India and Pakistan, on his way back to Rome. He would stay there only briefly before returning to New York City and resuming his life as a sought-after lecturer and social critic.

March 1970 Ellison video interview in color, ends at 9 minutes.

Ellison’s novel comes to Japan

In 1958, a Japanese translation of "Invisible Man" was published in Japan. The translator, Fukuo Hashimoto, (who also translated J.D. Salinger’s "The Catcher in the Rye") avoided using the same kanji that was used for H.G. Wells’s 1897 sci-fi classic "The Invisible Man," which had been titled Tomei na ningen (透明な人間). That title, compared to Ellison’s, would have had a flatness of tone to it, since tomei is the adjective “transparent” and doesn’t carry within it a form of judgment. Instead, Hashimoto went with Mienai ningen (見えない人間), which was a choice that at least alluded to the idea that the reader could perhaps see what they are telling themselves is not there. Also, since the main character has no actual name, Hashimoto chose to use the boku (僕) form of  “I” instead of the ore (俺) form, perhaps because boku, like the main character, has a more sensitive and thoughtful ring to it, whereas ore is more masculine and commanding — a word one might hear at a bar between two salarymen, for example.

As far as I’ve been able to find, Ellison never again returned to Japan for a visit. Still, however, he held a deep appreciation for Japanese people, and there is a record of "Invisible Man" influencing future Japanese writers. According to author and professor Anne McKnight, one Japanese author, Kenji Nakagami, took inspiration from Ellison’s novel. His 1968 novella, Nihongo ni tsuite (“On the Japanese Language”) about a Japanese student paid to convince an African American soldier to “desert the military,” begins with a direct approach (I, you…) that echoes Ellison’s novel:

"If you met a foreigner who understood virtually no Japanese, and it were you, what in the world is the first word you would begin to teach him with?"

If you’ve never heard of Kenji Nakagami, it may have to do with the fact that Nakagami, once a general laborer and baggage handler at Haneda airport, is one of the only writers in Japanese history to identify with Japan’s own version of invisibles — the burakumin.

Next month, we’ll take a look at author John Hersey’s 1946 trip to a recovering Hiroshima.

Other stories in the Japan Yesterday series:

-- Audrey Hepburn Casts a Spell Over Post-War Japan

-- Bertrand Russell’s blinding Japanese resurrection

-- Birth control advocate Margaret Sanger brings 'dangerous thoughts' to Japan in 1922

-- Helen Keller brings hope and light to Japan

-- American President Ulysses S Grant talks peace in Meiji-Era Japan

-- Mrs and Mr Marilyn Monroe honeymoon in Japan

-- When Albert Einstein formulated his Japanese cultural equation

-- Charlie Chaplin tramps his way past a Japanese coup d’état

-- The Sultan of Swat Babe Ruth Visits Japan

Patrick Parr is the author of “The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age.” His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Politico and The Boston Globe, among others.

© Japan Today

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A very enjoyable article. Looking forward to reading the rest in the series.

If I may, I would say that I disagree with Mr. Ellison's judgment of the Romans. They have an intense love of life, a wonderful sense of humor, and an appreciation of the irony in life. I do not understand someone who would judge Romans so harshly.

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Great article, looking forward to more of these.

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