Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor John Paul Catton

John Paul Catton (author of the Tomo story “Staring at the Haiku”) is a British writer who has lived in Japan for 15 years. He teaches at an international school in West Tokyo and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Canberra. Japanese myths, folktales and urban legends are a major influence on his work.

Can you tell us about how you came to live in Japan? 
John Paul Catton

I have been interested in Japan ever since university. I bought books on the subject, and I went to a special performance of kabuki, noh and taiko drumming at the Barbican in London. Many years after that I decided to leave the UK and go traveling, it was kind of inevitable that I would end up working in Tokyo. 

Tell us about your fascination with yokai and how that began. 
The Japanese supernatural presents a range of complex themes, characters and tropes that are fresh to Western eyes. Even after the Hollywood remakes of the J-Horror films, the subject has barely been touched in Western fiction. I find it to be a fascinating way to explore universal conflicts and issues important to all of us, in new settings. 

Your story takes place in the days leading up to hina matsuri or Doll Festival. Can you tell us a bit about this holiday and how it ties into your story?
The Doll Festival (Hina matsuri) takes place on March 3rd, also known as Girls' Day, the day to celebrate the daughters of the family. It has always struck me as unfair May 5th, now Children's Day (Kodomo no hi), which traditionally celebrated the boys in the family, is a national holiday, but March 3rd isn't. The festivities that usually take place on March 3rd are special meals of chirashizushi (sushi and vegetables over vinegared rice served in a special box), ushiojiru (hamaguri clam soup), and a glass of shirosake (sweet nihonshu/sake) to toast the daughters of the family.

Every Japanese festival has its own special ornaments, and for Girls' Day those ornaments are a special set of dolls displayed in the house. The dolls are placed on a series of platforms covered with a red carpet, although the number of platforms, dolls and accessories will depend on how wealthy the family is--the full set extends to seven platforms and can be very expensive to purchase. The dolls are dressed in traditional costumes from the Heian Era (794-1185). The two dolls on the top platform are always the Emperor and Empress, and the dolls on the platform below represent the Imperial Family's court servants, musicians, ministers, guards, accessories and miniature furniture. 
Seven-tiered set of Hina matsuri dolls on sale (WikiMedia Commons)
The inspiration for "Staring at the Haiku" came from the highly ambivalent position of dolls in Japanese culture. Dolls can inspire feelings of great sympathy and affection--but also fear. The religion of Shinto teaches that everything, both natural and man-made, has a soul--and that 'soul' can easily be seen in something that is artificial but resembles a human form, like a statue, a scarecrow, a doll. Looking at a doll, with its blank eyes and fixed expression, makes you afraid to look away, because of the feeling that it will move as soon as your back as turned. 

Or, as Xin Yao put it herself, in "Staring at the Haiku"; "I saw a doll once. It freaked me out. End of story."

Do you have more adventures planned for the ghostbloggers led by Tomoe Kanz
Yes! I am currently working on the YA Urban Fantasy Trilogy Sword, Mirror, Jewel which features Reiko, Tomoe and a hellish host of yokai.

Where were you and what were you doing on the afternoon of March 11, 2011? 
Strangely enough, I had taken the day off from work, and I was in a record shop in the Kichijoji district of west Tokyo. I had just picked up an album when the whole shop began to vibrate. I ran outside with the manager and staff and customers and we huddled in the middle of the road, with dozens of complete strangers, while we watched the city sway around us.
Now I understand the feeling when you cannot trust the ground beneath your feet. It is a feeling that is with me every day, I have to look at what I am doing and examine it, listen to what people are saying and then question them, because I cannot take anything for granted anymore. There is no promise that tomorrow will be the same as today.
And the title of the album I was looking at at 2:46 pm? "Heroes," by David Bowie.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
It is very difficult for me, sitting here in Tokyo, to say anything about  your pain, your loss and your struggles in your new life; but if I say anything at all, I would like you to think of this as the start of something new. You know that you can't rely on those ministers in Tokyo for support. Think of self-sufficiency in the community, of the local crops, animals and construction materials that can keep all your families united, fed and sheltered. At the same time, look to the Asian and Western volunteers, students and business people who are coming to help Tohoku rebuild and rediscover itself. Look at the sources of energy that do not rely on nuclear plants and nuclear waste in your back gardens. Together, you have the potential to make a Tohoku unlike anywhere that human beings have seen before.    

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