Frederik L. Schodt first traveled to Japan in 1965 as a teenager, and since the early ’80s he has written numerous books about Japanese culture both popular and obscure, including the landmark Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, the first substantial English-language work on the art form. Schodt also has translated a wealth of books and manga series (many by his late friend, the “god of comics” Osamu Tezuka), and in 2009 he was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette for his contribution to the introduction and promotion of Japanese contemporary popular culture.
Out Nov. 13 is his newest book, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe, the true story of “Professor” Richard Risley Carlisle, an American who introduced the Western circus to Japan in 1864, and in turn gave many Americans their first glimpse of the East when he took his “Imperial Japanese Troupe” of acrobats and jugglers on a triumphant tour of North America and Europe, stirring a fascination with all things Japanese that, Schodt says, eventually led to today’s boom in manga and anime.
In part one of this exclusive, wide-ranging interview, I spoke with Schodt about his fascination with the late 19th century, his relationship with contemporary pop culture icons like George Lucas, and the story behind his middle initial, which is colorfully connected to the events of the film Argo.
It’s been more than five years since the release of your last book, The Astro Boy Essays. What else have you been up to since then?
I’ve actually gone through this and done some rough calculations, but it seems to take me about five years between books. I’ve been doing this same sort of thing that I always do, which is a mix of writing books and translating and then also working as a conference interpreter. For different periods, the weight and the ratio changes, but the mix is pretty much the same. And I’ve been working on the book of Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe, I guess, for the last two or three years doing research. But it’s been a lot of fun, I have to say—it’s been one of the most fun books I’ve worked on in a long time.
The book is published by Stone Bridge Press, whom you’ve been with for quite a while. How has this long relationship with them helped with your book projects over the years?
It’s helped enormously, and not only have I had a long relationship with Stone Bridge Press, but I owe a great deal to the founder and president of Stone Bridge Press, Peter Goodman, because I’ve been working with Peter Goodman before he founded Stone Bridge Press when he used to work for Kodansha International. And actually, when I first met him, he was working for Tuttle. So Peter Goodman and I go back a very, very long way, and I find it’s been wonderful for me. It’s a very, very small press, but there are a lot of advantages to knowing someone who is the publisher, and it means that I have a lot more input that I would with a big publisher. It’s been a great relationship, I have to say. I owe a lot to Peter.
You’ll be in Japan in November to promote the book?
That’s right. I’m giving a talk on a book that I didn’t write but that I basically edited and annotated called The Four Immigrants Manga by Henry Kiyama, and I’m giving a talk at his birthplace on the third of November, and then after that we move to Tokyo and I have a talk scheduled on the new book on Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on the sixth. And then I’m speaking to the Japan Association of Translators also on the same subject on the tenth, so I’m getting ready for that. I don’t even have copies of the book in hand yet, but the real launch will be in Tokyo, especially at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, if that all works out.
Will you be making any promotional appearances in the States?
I hope to do more and more, because as you know, publishing has become much more difficult than it used to be. Another element of the type of publications I do and the fact that I work with a fairly small press means that I really have to get out there and try to push it myself as much as I can, and I really believe in this book. So I intend to give some talks wherever I can, and I’ll probably have a book launch party. There’s all kinds of things, actually. I’m excited about publicizing it because it’s the kind of book that’s fun to publicize, frankly. There’s a lot of different angles, and they’re all fun.
You live in San Francisco. Do you get out to New York much for your work?
I don’t get out to New York very often, actually. I used to go there more often, but I do go to the East Coast every once in a while, more to the D.C. area, that sort of thing. But I like New York, and I occasionally go to Boston. But I don’t go there often as I might, like the D.C. area.
Talking about the book, what attracted Risley to Japan?
That’s one of the central themes of my book. It’s really an explanation into why this man, this American acrobat, would have gone to Japan when he did and what he was trying to do. Because there’s a mystery to all this—Risley himself did not leave any writing that I know of, other than a few published articles. There are no journals that I know of that survive, and he didn’t write any books, so there’s a lot of mysteries about his actual motives.
It was such an extraordinary thing to go to Japan when he did and to introduce an American circus, because he introduced the first American style circus into Japan. And it was also such an extraordinary thing that he would put together a group of Japanese acrobats and bring them to the West, to the United States and Europe, as early as he did in 1867. So that is really, I guess, one of the things that motivated me and sort of obsessed me while I was writing the book: just trying to figure out how he did this and why he did it (laughs). It was a lot of fun.
You traveled around the world to research this book. Was the outcome what you were expecting it to be in terms of what you generally knew about the subject at first?
When I started out, I really didn’t know that much about the subject. I don’t have a background in performing arts, and I don’t have a background in the circus other than having liked the circus and that sort of thing. To me, this story is a lost history, and I guess I’ve always had sort of an obsession with lost histories. I enjoy discovering things that have been forgotten about, or for whatever reason, interesting stories that are dropped through the cracks in history, and this is really one of them; it’s a real lost history.
And that was such a surprise to me, was to find out how a story like this could have been pretty much forgotten about; it’s really only known by scholars and performing artists and some circus aficionados, and only the very sort of sketchy outlines are known. So for me to uncover this process of learning for myself—because I didn’t have any idea, for example, that Japanese performers were so popular in North America and Europe in the 1860s—that was a real shock. It’s just something that existed and was phenomenally popular and was forgotten about.
You’ve mentioned that Risley’s larger than life nature appealed to you in writing this book. Did you feel any other kinship with him as a fellow cross-cultural pioneer that helped introduce a unique slice of Japan to the West?
Yeah, in the sense that I grew up overseas in a variety of countries, so I have a very international upbringing, and even now my life is very international. I was just fascinated by the idea of this man. He was born in 1814 in New Jersey when the War of 1812 was still going on, actually. He was born around the time the White House was being burned down by British troops, and it was that time when Japan was closed to the outside world, so most Americans had no idea about Japan, and probably if they used the word “Japan” in conversation, it was as an adjective to refer to something that was lacquerware, because in those days, people would say that something was japanned and it was lacquerware.
Just like “china” was dishware.
That’s right. And you couldn’t go to Japan in 1814, obviously; there were no Japanese leaving Japan officially in 1814. So in the course of this very unusual man’s life, he somehow got it into his head to go to this exotic place, but of course it was only one of many exotic places—he was one of the most international people for his time that I can think of, and his mobility in those days is just extraordinary. He must have spent an awful lot of his life on ships, actually (laughs), because he was all over the place.
And considering that they didn’t have airplanes—when he started traveling, most people were traveling by sailing; there were very few steamships in use. So it’s just extraordinary how well traveled he was, and it wasn’t just Japan; he went everywhere. I’ve done a lot of traveling in my life, but I have to say he really loved to travel. But he didn’t have the problem we have today where the airline service is so bad and the seats are so small. He was on ships; he could walk around a little bit.
No TSA in those days, either.
That’s right (laughs), the security. And customs was obviously not much of a problem, either.
The book chronicles the immense popularity of Risley’s Imperial Japanese Troupe in the States. Can you tell us a little about how they were received in New York?
New York is really where they hit their peak. Risley had appeared in San Francisco, and he just drove the San Franciscans wild. So there were correspondents in San Francisco from the New York newspapers, including the New York Times, and they wrote back to the people of New York, and they were just raving about the Imperial Japanese Troupe and the acts they had seen in San Francisco. It took Risley a long time to get to New York, because in those days, of course, it wasn’t easy to get to New York from San Francisco, and the Transcontinental Railroad hadn’t been completed yet. So he went down with his troupe and they crossed over the Isthmus of Panama, which was the most popular route in those dates, and they took a steamship up the East Coast to New York.
When they initially arrived in 1867, they weren’t able to get a booking, so then they went to Philadelphia, and then they went to other towns. They actually went to Washington, D.C., and they met President Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, who was a general then. And they were a huge hit in not only Philadelphia, but also D.C., and the fact that they met the President of the United States was huge news. So by the time they finally got back to New York, they were just an enormous hit, and they were written about in publications not only in New York City, but in publications with a national scope such as Harper’s Weekly. There’s just a fabulous full-page illustration that appeared in Harper’s Weekly depicting all the acts that the Japanese had, and writing about them. So they were a phenomenon in New York, a real phenomenon.
One of the interesting things about this book is that it’s not just Japanese culture, but it opens up an aspect of American culture that a lot of people are probably completely unaware of.
It’s a particularly interesting area, because not only is this a little-known aspect of U.S.-Japan relationships—not only U.S. Japan relations, but European-Japan relations as well—but it also is an aspect of popular culture that’s not so well documented. We know a lot about, for example, the Japonisme that started around the same time, actually, and was stimulated partly by Risley in Paris in terms of the artwork; we know how the impressionists were influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e and woodblock prints.
There’s all these stories about how the artists came across the woodblock prints that were used as packing in tea boxes imported from Japan and so forth and so on. But that was on a very high level, sort of intellectual elite level, and the whole Japonisme art movement that we know of, at least from general writing, is really confined to the intellectual, high level audience. But when you get to performing arts and something like the Imperial Japanese Troupe, it’s a completely different story, because Risley’s group was seen by actually far more people than would have seen the artwork—thousands and thousands, if not tens of thousands, maybe a hundred thousand people (laughs) would have seen him throughout Europe, because these were events that were attended in huge numbers, but the audience was composed of all classes of people—there were people who were intellectuals and people who were wealthy, but there also were very ordinary people, some of them illiterate, who didn’t fit at all.
And the troupe members themselves, of course, even though there is a diary that survives that was written by one of the overseers of the Japanese Troupe, they were part of this sort of demimonde of circus performers and the whole performing arts community. Historically, not only in Japan but everywhere around the world, it’s been quite marginalized, and outside of the mainstream they’re very much a part of bohemian culture that’s not particularly well recorded. And that’s true of Risley himself—he was extraordinarily famous, but there’s not a lot of material written by him, or books by him, or even books about him, that sort of thing.
Compared with your other books, Professor Risley seems closest to 2003’s Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald McDonald and the Opening of Japan. Have you ever been tempted to write, or even ghostwrite, a biography of a more contemporary subject?
You know, I really like the 19th century; I don’t know why. When I wrote about this American—you mentioned Ranald McDonald, who visited Japan in 1848—I realized I was fascinated by the second half of the 19th century; it’s a really interesting period where people are beginning to encounter some of the elements of modern society and modern technology, but only in a very subtle way. It’s a real interesting transition period. I don’t know—maybe in another life, at some point, there must be something there, because I really like (laughs) the second half of the 19th century.
But all the time it would save in not having to do all the research…
Yeah. Of course, I’ve written books on much more modern subjects, like as you know, I wrote a book on Astro Boy and Osamu Tezuka—that was much more modern, and there were a lot of reference materials related to that. But this project was just for me, personally, fascinating. I learned a lot. And also, when I wrote the book on Ranald McDonald, to me, it was like opening up a new world; a world that I wasn’t aware of.
After writing meticulously researched tomes on manga and robots in the ’80s, what made you decide to tackle the U.S.-Japan relationship itself for 1994’s America and the Four Japans?
(Laughs) Well, actually, I have to say that that started out when my publisher friend Peter Goodman suggested that I write a book about America and Japan. And it’s hard to believe now, but at that time there was a lot of tension between the united States and Japan, and some people were even saying in the media that America and Japan were going to go to war again, and there were all these books coming out about problems between Japan and America, and also all these books about how great Japan was. It was a completely different world than it is today. And when my publisher Peter Goodman suggested this, I first thought, “Well, that’s a ridiculous idea.”
But then the more I thought about it, I realized that there are patterns to this relationship that the United States has with Japan, and they can be distilled down into these categories, so that’s why the book is called America and the Four Japans: Friend, Foe, Model, Mirror: because there’s sort of a cycle where we go through where Japan is held up as [these]. When I realized that, it actually became a very fun book to write, and I hope it was useful to some people, because I think that a lot of the writing on Japan tends to fall into these stereotypes, one or the other.
How did you get George Lucas to write one of the blurbs?
(Laughs) I can tell you read the book! Well, that’s another story, because I was so flattered that he would do that, frankly. And I don’t think very many people realized that…I think if the Star Wars fans realized that, I think the book might have sold more copies (laughs).
Your publisher didn’t want to put it on the front cover? I believe it’s on the back.
(Laughs) I think there wasn’t room on the front cover, but we probably should have put it bigger than the title, actually—that might have helped sell the book. I do a lot of work as an interpreter, and over the years I’ve done a great deal of working at Lucasfilm. So in the course of that work, I know many of the people at Lucasfilm, and I’ve even interpreted a few times for George Lucas himself. They were very, very gracious when I wrote the book to ask George if he would write a blurb, and he did, and I was just flabbergasted that he would have time and take the interest to do that. It’s one of the highlights (laughs) of my entire career, I have to say. It was such an honor. And I’m glad you noticed that; maybe we should have gold plated that blurb.
You know the author Roland Kelts of Japanamerica, right?
Yes, he’s a good friend of mine.
For Japanamerica, you may remember that he was able to get Pete Townshend to write a blurb, which they used on the front cover.
Yes! (Laughs) And Roland is one of the biggest fans of the Who that I know of. I was impressed with that blurb—he did it well.
Pete Townshend was here a few weeks ago for a signing at the New York Public Library. He told me, “I love that book!”
That’s great to hear. It’s a great book.
The name Frederik L. Schodt sounds very scholarly, but as you’ve pointed out, you didn’t begin your writing career intending to be a scholar. How did you choose to go by this name, and what does the “l” stand for?
(Laughs) That is my real name—that’s not a pen name. Now, why I use the whole name exactly like that, I don’t know, but that’s the way I sign my checks, and that’s my legal name. I don’t mean it to sound pompous or too much like an academic, because obviously I’m far outside the normal world of academia, about as far as you can get, living out here on the edge in San Francisco. My first and last names are Danish, so it’s very difficult to spell. I don’t have a “c” in my first name, and I think 99 percent of people who quote me put a “c” in my first name, so that’s a constant battle. But it’s turned out to be good, because actually if you have a name that’s difficult to spell when you do the ego search on Google, it’s very easy to find your name; it’s good.
As for my middle name, that’s not Danish, and actually if you’ve seen the recent movie Argo, there’s a slight connection, because—this is very peripheral to your interview, but my middle name, “Lowell,” actually comes from Bruce Laingen, who was the chargé d’affaire in the American Embassy in Tehran when it was taken over by the student movement, which is the subject of the movie Argo. Bruce Laingen’s legal name is actually Lowell Bruce Laingen, but for whatever reason he doesn’t use the “Lowell,” he just abbreviates it as “l”—so it’s “L. Bruce Laingen.” And he and my father were good friends, so (laughs) that’s where I got the name “Lowell” from. That’s a long story for a short question.
It’s a good thing we have Argo now.
Unfortunately, Bruce doesn’t appear in the movie. I thought he might, or that there might be a cameo role of somebody portraying him, but I didn’t see it….And my last name, as I said, is also Danish, and originally, I guess, in Denmark there would have been a—I think there was a slash through the “o”; I’m not sure. So it’s kind of an odd name, but that’s what I use. And ever since I was a kid, for my official name, that’s what I’ve always written (laughs)….Sometimes I look at that and I think, “That doesn’t sound like me.” But I go by “Fred,” you know?
Of course. It looks like something you’d see on desk somewhere, on a little plaque.
Yeah, a title on the door, to make me seem more important than I really am.
Today you’re important enough.
Gotta aim high (laughs).
Which of your books was the toughest to write? How about the easiest?
For me, I think the one that was probably the toughest was [1988’s] Inside the Robot Kingdom. That was really tough, and I think I really overdid it on that—I put so much energy into that book and spent so much money and made so many trips, and I really exhausted myself on that book. Because that was an interview-based book: it was a contemporary book about Japanese technology, using the industrial robot as a metaphor for the attitudes of people to technology. And it required visiting a lot of factories and interviewing scores of people in Japan and the United States. So there was a lot of physical movement, and this is before the age of the Web, before there was an Internet, even. It was just very, very labor intensive.
And then in terms of ease of writing, I have to say that I think this latest book may have been one of the easier ones for me to write, and also one of the most fun. Many of them have been fun, but this one was particularly fun to work on. Because it’s sort of a playful subject, and also because there was so much for me to learn about.
You mentioned before that you were an early adopter of the Web. You’ve had your own website and email for a really long time now. Can you explain how you became an early adopter of this and how it’s that helped your career and the things that you do when you’re writing this books?
(Laughs) Yeah, I was a very early adopter. I think it’s partly because I do a lot of technology-related work for a living. As I mentioned, I do a lot of conference interpreting, and I have throughout my life in San Francisco, which goes back a long time now. And I’ve always liked technology issues, and even some of my writing has been about technology.
So I did use the Web early—very early, and I also put together a website quite early, and I’ve been told that my website now looks like it has a slight late 1980s-early 1990s look, which is so retro that it may be coming back in fashion, but I’m trying to redesign it, and I have a friend who’s helping me modernize it a little bit. My website is pretty static; it’s really just a way for me to put out some information about my books and on myself. It’s sort of like a résumé, you might say, and it’s been useful in that sense.
I think that one thing that’s really good is that since I’ve had a website for such a long time and I’ve had a Web presence for such a long time, there’s a lot of stuff on me or links to my website on the Web, and that may help in terms of a writing career, but I certainly don’t sell millions of copies of any books. So it’s hard to assess how helpful it’s been in terms of sales, but I’m sure it’s helped to a certain extent. But using the Internet and using the Web has been incredibly useful in writing books, especially in doing research. And increasingly so.
Read part two here.
Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe is available Nov. 13. For more information, visit Fred online at www.jai2.com.
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