Though I appreciate a well-made physical book, I don't collect the things aggressively as some do. Yet I can't suppress my desire to possess certain, highly specific volumes. At the top of that stack of literary desiderata stands this one by Generation X, Microserfs, and jPod author Douglas Coupland (star of Close Personal Friend, featured here last week).
"In 2000, Mike Howatson, a gifted Vancouver animator, and I produced an illustrated novel called God Hates Japan,” writes Coupland on a blog he briefly kept at the New York Times. "It was published only in Japanese — beautifully and elegantly, I might add — by Kadokawa Shoten in 2001. It’s the story of characters lost in a malaise that swept Japanese culture after the burst of the bubble economy in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. It also depicted the way some of these characters lived in the shadow of a death cult’s 1995 sarin-gas assault on Tokyo’s subway system."
Though he seldom deals directly with Japanese themes in his work, Coupland has a history with the country. He first went there in 1983, as an exchange student at the Hokkaido College of Art and Design in Sapporo. Later, he would return for a degree in Japanese Business Science from the Japan-America Institute of Management Science ("I know, it’s as random as it sounds").
A connection made there put God Hates Japan on the cutting edge of digital publishing. One of Coupland's classmates "owned a mobile phone advertising company in Tokyo, so we simultaneously published the book in a digital form that could be read via cell phone. Images from the book became animated and appeared on screen in between chunks of text as readers clicked their way through. It was kind of crazy, and maybe 11 people finished the whole thing (that’s a lot of clicking), but the illustration and themes lent themselves to the format nicely, and it was definitely some kind of first."
The timing of Coupland's own experience in Japan placed him well to write about that malaise that set in after its seemingly unstoppable postwar economic growth ground to a halt. He worked as a researcher-designer at Magazine House in 1985 and 1986, a period of which he recalls this: "We'd go out for $4,000 lunches. It was obviously unsustainable, and everyone knew it, but it stopped nothing. It was a death spiral."
Still, even a "lost decade" in Japan has more to offer than a prosperous decade in a fair few other countries, and it all looks even more interesting when processed through the Couplandian filter. But will his large English-language readership ever get to read God Hates Japan?
Not before it goes through one further filter still. The publisher must, Coupland says, "find a novice Japanese-English translator, and then publish his or her first, uncorrected translation of the book. It would be such a wonderful piece of Japanglish, those weird contortions of English that the Japanese put on their shirts and products, mostly from the 1980’s into the mid 1990’s, but not anymore, really." Okay, young English Translation Studies majors of Japan: who dares take on this challenge?