Two weeks ago with Wendy Tokunaga we got insights from an author looking from outside into Japan. This week’s interview presents the opposite: Christopher Stephen Belton is an author living in Japan mostly since 1978. Since 1991 he is working as a freelancer and had close to 50 books published as an author, plus more than 70 books as a translator. For sure I am amazed on how active Christopher Belton is as an author, furthermore co-authored English learning related bookes or working then in a translation function.
Sibylle Ito: Looking at the amount of books that you have published, the rate between the books outside of Asia (3 books), compared to the 50 books published in Asia/Japan is so different. Is the Japanese market much more profitable?
Christopher Belton: It comes down to supply and demand, really. The books I write for the Japanese market tend to concentrate on the study of English, and there is, for obvious reasons, no market for them in English-speaking countries. Another reason is productivity. The books I have had published in the UK and the U.S.A. are full-length novels, which usually require about one year to write from the initial concept through to the final draft. Non-fiction books, on the other hand, can be written at a much faster rate, and because of this I am able to bring out approximately five to eight books per year in Japan; hence the unbalanced ratio.
SI: Twitter had become a strong tool for learning English in Japan. One of your books focuses on this topic too. Why do you think is Twitter so suitable for Japanese English learners?
CB: Because it provides people with the opportunity to practice the English they have expended so much time learning. Studying English in Japan is very much based on ‘input,’ in that the students use their eyes and ears to gather information together, but they rarely get the opportunity to ‘output’ the knowledge they have garnered for practice purposes. And, without output, I personally believe that it is impossible to master a language. To my mind, it is the same as learning to play the piano without ever touching a keyboard or learning to play tennis without ever touching a racquet. Twitter provides the perfect forum for such ‘output,’ and account users do not have to be fluent in the language to take part. I think it also helps people get over any embarrassment that they might have about actually using their English. A few days on Twitter is sure to convince anyone that nobody cares what level their English skill is, and this provides invaluable encouragement.
SI: I have noticed very few actual really thick books in Japanese exist. Is the context of a book in Japanese so much shorter or are the books in Japan mostly divided up in several parts?
CB: Although I don’t know for sure, I would guess that it is because Japanese companies are extremely wary of marketing products that may be judged on their appearance and not content. They carry out exhaustive market research to find out what the public wants, and the answer that invariably comes back is ‘convenience.’ And, large, heavy books are generally perceived to be ‘inconvenient.’ I had the opportunity a few years back of hosting an online reading forum in which people from all over the country read the Harry Potter series of books in the original English, and the majority of the people involved complained about the size of the books. They were too large to fit into their bags, they looked silly reading such thick books on the train, they made their wrists ache, and they were just too heavy to read comfortably in bed. In fact, some people even took scissors to the books and cut them into three or four manageable parts for reading on the train.
It is probably because of this that e-books have been so slow to take off over here. The e-book readers that have been available so far have been slightly larger or heavier than the actual books, and this turns people off. I therefore believe that this side of the market will expand rapidly once a more conveniently-sized e-book reader becomes available, and this may, in turn, result in larger books being published.
SI: I have learned that over the years the expectations for English skills in schools has decreased. As you actually wrote university text books, what are your observations to this topic?
CB: I think it depends on how you measure English skills. The purpose of English language education in Japan has never been for improving communication skills. English is taught for the sole purpose of passing examinations and nothing else. The system of measurement therefore tends to be based on a comprehensive understanding of grammar and rote memorization, and I would certainly say that these have deteriorated over the past decade or two. On the other hand, I get the impression that the ubiquitous presence of overseas culture made available through the Internet, movies, literature and music, etc., has led to young Japanese people having a greater understanding of colloquial English, not to mention the confidence to use it. From this point of view, I would say that English skills have improved at the communication level, although at the expense of the academic level.
Thank you so much for taking time to answer all my questions. For sure it was an eye opener for me to better understand why Twitter has become so attractive and thick books cannot be seen much in Japan. Although I love books dearly and treasure them very much, I do understand now much better how much work is involved to bring out a novel.
Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (シビル伊藤）