An interview with Randy Taguchi


Ms. Randy Taguchi is the author of Fujisan and other bestsellers. I recently met up with her for the third time and reaffirmed that she is truly a many-splendored person. Not only is she an author and essayist, but also an activist, a practitioner of Zen meditation, and a mother. Here’s what she had to say about her sources of inspiration, her creative process, and what’s in store for her fans.

Can you tell me what inspired you to write Fujisan? What got you started?
I always used to have this vague notion of using Mount Fuji as a theme. Fujisan is a tall mountain and you can see it from various places in Japan. You can often catch a glimpse of it beyond the vista of an ordinary cityscape, looking absolutely surreal and mystical. Perhaps because of such an omnipresence, I’ve always had this sense of being watched by Mount Fuji. In Japan, you’ll find many ancient towns named Fujimi, which literally means “see Fuji.” So these towns were probably ideal places for sightseeing Mount Fuji before modernity set in and obstructed the view with tall skyscrapers and other buildings. At any rate, what this tells me is that the Japanese are a people who have been conscious about Mount Fuji, that they have been feeling since time immemorial that they have always been and continue to be observed by the mountain. I wanted to capture that aspect in my fiction.

What is your favorite story in Fujisan?

One of the recent reviewers of Fujisan on Amazon also mentioned Jamila as his or her favorite. It happens to be mine as well.
Is that right? I’m delighted.

Can you tell me what’s attractive about Jamila? What is it that resonates with people about this character?
When I was little, I used to watch this show called Ultra Q and it was this action monster drama for kids, and Jamila was the name of a monster that appeared on this show. This monster was a really tragic character and I’ve written the backstory about her in Fujisan as well, but the thing is I could never forget about this monster and I even own a Jamila action figure, a miniature. What do you call that?

Action figure?
Yes that’s right. So with this action figure in my mind, I constantly wondered how I could make use of the character.

While translating Fujisan, it occurred to me that the image of the hole is a recurring visual motif throughout most of your stories, including Jamila and the Blue Summit.
Yes, uh-huh.

On the whole, would you say that this motif was something you intentionally wove into the fabric of your stories?
No, it wasn’t intentional. It just surfaced, unconsciously.

Well that seems quite right. After all a hole is the perfect metaphor for the unconscious, isn’t it? Can you tell me if this imagery in your stories articulates the value of the philosophical concept of mu, or nothingness, as in the idea of the void?
The presence of Fujisan itself is on the one hand something physical and at the same time there’s the Fujisan that’s abstract and transcendent in the mind of the Japanese. Mount Fuji has such a duality you see. In my writings regarding Fujisan, what emerges is this multidimensional aspect; the two qualities of what exists and what’s nonexistent.

I see, so the idea of the hole is a vehicle in you stories to convey this duality?
Yes, the hole to me is basically an entryway into a different dimension, into another world. So while I was writing about Fujisan as a physical object, to also show Fujisan as an event, as a happening, I needed the hole. So you can say the hole in my stories represents a gateway.

Yes, gateway. I hear you loud and clear. It’s a passage. In fact, just like in Alice in Wonderland, it’s a rabbit hole, right?
Oh yes, yes. That’s exactly right. Rabbit hole.

Do you have any personal accounts related to Mount Fuji?
Yes, well, the final story, Child of Light, is based on my actual experience of having climbed Mount Fuji. I actually climbed the mountain and came across these people running the mountain lodges found along the way to the summit there. They were such mean people I tell you. Anyway, my personal accounts of them made it into Child of Light, along with other details of trekking up Mount Fuji.

During your childhood, did you visit Fujisan often?
No. I used to just see it from afar. I was living in an area from where you couldn’t see the mountain.

So I suppose your curiosity for Mount Fuji grew all the more.
Yes, I suppose so. Mount Fuji was also depicted in an ofuroyasan (public bathhouse). We had our own private bathtub and all, but sometimes my mother would take my siblings and me to an ofuroyasan. In most Japanese public bathhouses you’ll find a mural depicting Fujisan.

Do you go hiking often?
Hiking, ha, ha. Well, I used to live out in the countryside where hiking was a daily routine. I mean that’s what I had to do to get to school, ha, ha. It used to take me about one and half hours to reach with my kiddy feet back then. I grew up in a rural area.

Where was this?
Ibaragi prefecture. At the foot of Mount Tsukuba.

Oh right. It’s beautiful out there.
It used to be when I was a child, but now there’s a lot of residential areas.

Can you tell me how you launch your stories? What inspires you to create one?
Well, I have two approaches. First there’s the title, and the story just unfolds from the inspiration I get from the title. The other way is, for example, in the case of the Blue Summit, what I wanted to do was basically write about the convenience store. So the seed of the story was my fascination for the convenience store. I like that space very much. Well it’s not so much the space of the convenience store that I’m fascinated about but the phenomenon that is the convenience store. It’s such a special and strange environment and I wanted to find an expression for that.

I remember you telling me that it’s a place for people who are clean-freaks.
Yes, yes. It’s a really strange place, and I like it. That was my angle into the story.

Do you carry out research for developing your characters?
Not really. Not for my characters.

But you do carry out research, right? What is it for?
For things like the setting in a story. For example, I visited the Sea of Trees (a forest at the foot of Mt. Fuji notorious for suicides). But as far as characters are concerned, they just appear in my mind on their own. While I may visit the convenience store to gain a better understanding of what an attendant there does to round out my character in my story, I basically let my subconscious come up with the personality and motivation.

You were taking part in a Zen meditation program the last time we talked. You said it was for research, but are you still continuing that?
Yes I am and I’ve been doing Tai chi and meditation for about four years now.

Was it for researching a character?
Going to the zazen dojo (seated meditation hall) was for character research but I’ve been involved in meditational practices for personal reasons, for improving concentration and posture too. We writers tend to have back problems, so we need to be careful.

Can you talk about your project, Fukushima Kids?
Sure. Basically I’m participating in two projects that are related to the nuclear incident that occurred in Fukushima. One is Fukushima Kids and this involves taking kids in Fukushima to a forty-day summer camp within the prefecture in an area considered to be radiation-free. The idea is for them to let their mind and body relax. After the incident, the kids in Fukushima have become very nervous, and their parents in particular have become highly-strung, so the kids are leading stressful lives. My hope is that they will have some time to just hang out and have fun among friends in the great outdoors and get cheered up. The other project is holding seminars and workshops on nuclear power. It’s something I’ve been doing since some time prior to the nuclear accident, and it’s held at a university in Tokyo. The audience is made up of the general public and scientists researching nuclear power.

How long has this project been underway?
We started in October 2010, so it’s been two years exactly.

Any progress? Targets achieved?
Actually we’re not aiming for something like that. Our aim is to keep a dialogue going with young people. What’s important is continuing to do that. So as long as I can continue this project, I intend to do it until I die.

You were talking about Sakura as a theme for your next short story collection. Can you talk about that?
I’ve had this wish to write about Sakura for several years, but these days I have been preoccupied with the radiation issue related to Fukushima so I’ve shelved the Sakura project for now. After I finish the Fukushima project though, I intend to return to the Sakura stories.

Sakura is really iconic of Japan isn’t it, just like Mount Fuji.
Yes that’s true, but to me what Sakura symbolizes is death. Originally, the flower of Sakura is written as tomuraiboku, which means funeral tree. So Sakura trees were originally trees that were planted where the dead were buried. That’s why Motojiro Kajii said Dead bodies are buried under the cherry trees! They were memorials. So while the cherry blossom is a beautiful sight to see, the deeper appeal of the Sakura tree for the Japanese is the beauty of chirigiwa, or being on the verge of the end like the petal of a cherry blossom that could fall any moment. In essence, Sakura blossoms resonate well with the Japanese view of life and death, and I wished to capture that resonance in my fiction.

In my grade school years, I wrote a haiku with the image of Sakura in my mind, and it won first place.
Oh that’s terrific!

So when you’ve completed your Sakura stories, please think of me again.
(Buoyant laughter).

In my mind the Sakura tree is all about celebrating and having parties, and images of drunk salarymen (businessmen) at hanami (flower viewing) parties come to mind. Hanami is a very Japanese thing, isn’t it?
Ha, ha. Yes that’s right.

What are the stories going to be like? Do you already have some characters in mind?
Oh no not at all. With me, until I’m on the verge of starting to write a story, I have nothing. It’s a blank slate. All white. But when I sit and start to write down the first line, the story starts writing itself. It’s pretty handy I have to say.

Who are your favorite authors?
Ray Bradbury. I love him. Since junior high.

What do you like about him?
Everything! The beauty of his prose, the raw strength of his prose. He’s overwhelmingly good. Really good. Just wonderful. He’s sensitive, lyrical, poetic, melancholic, nostalgic. Really nice.

What’s your favorite work of his?
That would be Kaleidoscope.