Anna Sherman – The Bells of Old Tokyo

Anna Sherman Interview

Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Anna Sherman about her debut book The Bells of Old Tokyo (Picador 2019). Anna Sherman is an Oxford-based writer whose book has been lauded by critics and shortlisted for the 2020 Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award.

Tell us about your new book.

The Bells of Old Tokyo is my love-letter to the city. The book began with a question: why does the Japanese language have so many words for ‘time,’ when English has so few? If you look up TIME in a Japanese dictionary… you find a huge number of entries. I felt ill-equipped to answer that question myself, so I put it to the most interesting people I could find – Japanese artists, scientists, historians – to hear what they thought time was. No one had the same answer.

Tokyo is so vast that it passes what any single human can experience, and its rapid-speed development makes mapping the landscape even harder. Buildings are knocked down and replaced almost overnight; landmarks and cultural sites appear and disappear.

I was trying to catch the city in a particular era – the first decade of the twenty-first century – that was a meditation on time, too. What remains, when a person or a place disappears? What can we know about what’s gone?

What is your connection with Japan and Tokyo?

I had no link with Japan at all until I was thirty, when I moved from London to Tokyo. But my family come from a small town that’s only ten miles away from Rohwer, where Japanese-Americans were interned during WW2. (The actor George Takei grew up there.) The poems interned Japanese wrote in Arkansas are intensely moving to me. So many elements are familiar: thunderstorms, dense forest swamps, certain landscapes, trains. Loneliness. It’s my home and yet it’s not. To read those little verses in classical Japanese is like being on the reverse side of a mirror: wonderful. 

When I was researching BellsI made several visits to Mr. Nakayama Hiroyuki, the priest who officiates at the site where for almost 250 years, the Tokugawa shoguns executed criminals and dissidents. The idea of the kizuna (‘connection’) was very important to Mr. Nakayama. For him, ‘connection’ was this invisible web woven between things, places, eras, people.

The example Mr. Nakayama gave me was this: in the mid-19th-century, contact with foreigners was expressly forbidden, and a scholar was thrown into the prison (near Mr. Nakayama’s house) because of his excessive interest in Western ideas. The man waited to be executed, but while he was in prison, government policy changed, and instead of being killed, he was ordered to create a Japanese-English dictionary. He did. Mr. Nakayama used that same dictionary at university. 

One day an old, old man visited the temple: he was the grandson of the 19th-century scholar. Mr. Nakayama said to me: ‘That was a connection.’ Mr. Nakayama felt the jail itself was a kind of link – between 21st-century Tokyo & its origins – which is why he wanted the jail’s ruins preserved.

Tom Stoppard called this, ‘Six Degrees of Separation.’ We’re all linked together – the trick is to figure out how.

Anna Sherman Interview
Anna Sherman

Japan is often described as a place that Westerners have a hard time understanding due to its complexity or, perhaps, its nuance. 

Everywhere is complex! Everywhere is nuanced!

– It’s true, though, that Japan feels like a fractal. Or like that Eames movie, ‘Powers of Ten.’ You can zoom in until you get to an atom, and zoom out until you’re beyond our galaxy.

When I first arrived in Tokyo, I spent two years walking the city – I was a researcher for an architect – and then ten years writing Bells. You could say that all the research I did was an effort to understand the things I saw, and the experiences I had, in those first two years.

I never felt I was anywhere exotic, somewhere ‘other.’ I thought I was somewhere beautiful, somewhere interesting, and occasionally somewhere frustrating. It may sound like a contradiction, but while I lived in Japan, I felt I belonged as an outsider. To be always on the fringes was comfortable: for most of my mistakes – and some weren’t trivial – I always got a pass. ‘Oh, you’re a foreigner, and doing the best that you can.’ 

You note that the Japanese have several different words and ideas for “time.” 

The Japanese do have many different words for time. You could think of the language as being like your grandmother’s attic – full of inherited objects.

With Buddhism, Japan absorbed Sanskrit, which has a specific philosophical and technical vocabulary for measuring everything from the eon to the millisecond. The Japanese also borrowed other words and concepts from China – like the twelve-animal Zodiac. Classical Chinese donated a very literary vocabulary for describing time. And the Japanese have their own time-words, the so-called Yamato kotoba, which were seasonal, and often linked with planting and harvests.I said that Japanese was like your grandmother’s attic, but English is the same: we borrow vocabulary from Latin, French, German, West Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Russia, wherever. Our own language is also full of traces and artefacts. 

What do you make of Japan’s supposed nuance and complexity?

I’ve been working with a translator called Sachiko Tytler on the Japanese edition of my book, and we go back and forth over that question. I have profound respect for her scholarship and passion. Sachiko has a kind of sixth sense for language. Her position is, translation must be precise and technical. It’s not some mystical exercise. Whereas I tilt the other way, toward the idea that you can say things in Japanese you can’t in English.

Sachiko and I had one discussion about how to translate a word describing a prostitute (page 47 in the book). I wrote that the woman was ‘golden.’ As we read together, Sachiko mentioned a Japanese term 玉虫色/literally ‘jewel-bug color,’ but meaning ‘iridescent’ – which is used to describe certain beetles. I loved the word and wanted to keep it. Sachiko said, ‘But it wouldn’t be accurate! You used another word in the printed book!’ I said, the Japanese one is better… let’s just change it. Later Sachiko wrote:

玉虫色 may be a good choice.  It means ‘gold tinged with green or purple, changing according to the angle from which you see it’.  Sometimes the word is used in a somewhat derogatory way to mean ‘ambiguous’.  The ambiguity is actually part of this girl, isn’t it?  She is a beautiful girl/great dancer/prostitute.  Also, in this dim-lit space she might look different from one moment to another.

How’s that for complexity, for nuance? I enjoy arguing with Sachiko, even though (almost always) she wins. She’s spent her career translating so-called ‘hard-boiled’ novels into Japanese, so my love-letter to Tokyo will perhaps have a darker tinge than the English version does. Recently Peter Schejldahl told the The New Yorker that ‘the American form of Montaigne-grade aphorisms are Raymond Chandler’s wisecracks.’ – I can live in that company. I’m OK with darkness.

Time is a central theme in your book. Why are you drawn to this idea?

Time has obsessed me since I was very small. Learning that it’s real is the break between babyhood and childhood. On some level, it’s the point when you understand mortality: you know that one day you, and everyone you love, will die. When you understand time, you understand that chaos is always increasing; that events never happen in reverse.

What difficulties and challenges did you encounter while writing this book?

The first was not speaking Japanese well enough. When I first got to Tokyo, I knew not even a single word. I gradually achieved a fair level, though I never became as good I wanted to be. In 2012, I had to decide between spending my free hours on fieldwork and interviews, or on becoming fluent. I chose to write Bells, and quit language school so I could focus on the book.

I’d like to go back to Japan and study the language, really study it, without any distractions. In another city – maybe Kyoto next time.

As for other difficulties – really, people were very kind. I was perhaps lucky because the idea of ‘time’ interested the Japanese as much as it interested me, so almost everyone I hoped to interview, agreed. Only one person said No: he is a famous physicist who works on something called AdS/CFT correspondence – the theory that the universe exists as a hologram. 

He quoted Bartleby the Scrivener: ‘I prefer not to.’ 

I was sorry. I would have loved to have heard what time meant to him.

The process of research and writing is often one of discovery. Did you discover anything unexpected? If so, can you tell us what you learned?

Bells is a catalogue of my obsessions. I learned so much – that was the city’s gift to anyone who lives there. I learned that the medieval jail was a distorted, miniature version of the city outside. I learned that the courtesans’ district had a specialised vocabulary for the words for ‘hour.’ I learned about Tokyo’s experience during WW2, that during the Great Tokyo Air Raid on 9-10 March, 1945, more people died than in the atomic blasts over Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I learned (in principle) how an atomic lattice clock works. I learned that the city is infinite, that it has places I will never go, things that I will never know.


Anna Sherman’s book The Bells of Old Tokyo was published by Picador in 2019. A podcast interview with Anna will be published in February 2019.

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