THE mystifying Japanese language has made Japan's literary world one of this country's last bastions of cultural isolationism. Now, Ian Hideo Levy has come along.
The first Westerner to win a Japanese literary award, the blond, blue-eyed Mr. Levy has challenged the faith of the Japanese in the impossibility of foreigners mastering their complex language with his "Seijoki no Kikoenai Heya," or "The Room From Which the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard." A few non-Japanese Asians have published serious fiction in Japanese, but Levy is the first Caucasian to do so.
His semiautobiographical novel tells the story of Ben Issac, a United States diplomat's teenage son who's trapped between a distant, domineering father and a mentally unstable mother.
Ben flees family and culture to immerse himself in the sleazy counterculture of Tokyo's Shinjuku bar district, where he confronts the reality facing the hundreds of thousands of foreigners who have come here: Just because you're tolerated doesn't mean you're welcome.
"It's a matter of Japanese or non-Japanese," Levy says, describing life for Westerners in Japan. "I think the only solution is to have people who are not born as Japanese move into elite positions in Japanese society."
Levy won the Noma Prize (and its accompanying $8,000) for new authors this year. He has received assignments from major Japanese literary journals and recognition from some of the country's leading writers. "Can't you hear the resounding music of Mr. Levy's earnest tone? Clearly, Japanese literature has a new novelist," wrote Kenzaburo Oe, one of Japan's most distinguished writers, in the national Asahi newspaper.