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August 28, 2011

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Time-traveling prince

MASAHIKO Shimada turned heads at the Shanghai Book Fair with his good looks, stylish clothes, expressive gestures as he spoke, and his insights into contemporary Japanese literature.

Before the fair that ended last week, Shimada was little known to Chinese readers and only two of his books have been published in Chinese, "Endless Canon," a trilogy about a young woman, which suggests the experience of Crown Princess Masako (who is said to be depressed because she has not borne a son) and the royal family, and "The Idle Prince," a Faust-like time-travel story of a modern Japanese prince. Some extreme conservatives consider the book insulting to the royal family and Shimada said he has received death threats.

He is noted for the novel "Dream Messenger" about an orphan "rental child" - a surrogate paid by families to visit their aging relatives. It has been published in English, but not Chinese.

The 50-year-old Tokyo native, looking much younger than his age, is not only a renowned writer in Japan but also has directed four films, written and performed in stage dramas and operas.

Shimada is also a member of the judging committee of the prestigious Akutagawa Award for Fiction, named in memory of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), writer of the international classic "Roshomon" that was adapted into a film of the same name.

"The Akutagawa Award is like a big stage and the judges' duty is to decide who should stand at the center. It's important to have this stage; otherwise, pure and serious literature might have disappeared long ago," he told Shanghai Daily, speaking in Japanese through a translator.

He also said that young Japanese writers are often too self-centered and focused too much on their own stories and experiences.

"I hope that they can demonstrate greater range and versatility in the future. Writers can have personal styles, but writing also has to involve transformations and it cannot be the same all the time," Shimada said.

Shimada also made surprising comments on Haruki Murakami, author of the best-selling "Kafka on the Shore" and one of the most translated contemporary Japanese writers. Murakami is a best-selling author both domestically and abroad; he is especially sought after by Chinese readers who like Japanese literature.

"His literary achievement is great, but his works are popular all around the world mostly because he intentionally made his novels 'globalized,' deleting from his draft parts that contain too much sense of ethnicity. So his books are more accessible to foreign readers, and that doesn't mean that he represents Japanese literature," Shimada said.

His trip to the book fair was Shimada's eighth visit to China, and he mostly signed books and promoted his latest novel, "The Idle Prince" (2008) available in Chinese but not in English.

Citing "Faust" and "The Divine Comedy" as influences, Shimada follows the mythical journey of a modern Japanese prince who travels back in time to turning points of Japanese history, such as the Jomon Period (14,000-300 BC); when the first signs of civilization and stable living patterns appeared; the Edo Period (1603-1868), known for its cultural attainments; the Meiji Restoration (beginning 1868), among others.

The prince speaks to historical figures in his time-travel quest for more understanding about Japan's present through its past. Written in 2008, it references the global financial crisis.

In one chapter, he speaks to Chinese court sorcerer Xu Fu (born 255 BC). Xu was famous for his journeys, initiated and sponsored by Emperor Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC), to look for legendary heavenly mountains and the secret of immortality. Records and legends suggest he lived in Japan, with 500 boys and 500 girls, who are said in some tales to be the ancestors of Japanese.

"Although some Japanese still see the story of Xu Fu as a legend, much recent research proves that he did arrive in Japan and that ancestors of the Japanese came from all over the world to settle in Japan," Shimada said. "I like the fact that there are few records of Xu's story in Chinese history, which gives me a lot of freedom to imagine."

In the book, the heir to the Japanese throne travels across time and space. In reality, Shimada also loves traveling and has visited more than 50 countries.

"I try to find myself through trips. The first impression I have of foreign countries becomes a self-portrait of myself. For example, if I go to India, it is not to discover India, but to unveil my tiny self, and to understand more about Japan," he said.

(Xiong Suya contributed to this article.)


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