Big in Japan: United States of Japan Author Peter Tieryas Reflects on Traveling East, Winning the Seiun, and What Comes Next

Photo by GP Solo.

We were primed for Peter Tieryas United States of Japan from the moment we revealed the cover almost two years ago. The book didn’t disappoint, and made our best of 2016 list. We followed with interest as we learned that while it was popular enough in the U.S., it had become a phenomenon in Japan. We thrilled at the recent news that Ace will be publishing two sequels, beginning in 2018. And when we learned Peter would be traveling to Japan to receive the prestigious Seiun Award, we asked him to write about the experience.

This is his account of that life-changing trip.

Every book takes on a life of its own. You never know where it’ll end up, or how it’ll do.

I wrote United States of Japan with a desire to explore tragedies on the Pacific front of World War II I’d learned about growing up, and to share them with American readers. At the same time, I wanted to pay tribute to Japanese culture, which played a pivotal role in my childhood.

And though the book was well-received by many in America, I was honestly taken aback when I first started seeing tweets and pictures expressing excitement and enthusiasm for the book from Japanese readers. The Tuttle Mori Agency and my amazing agent, Misa Morikawa, soon worked out a deal with Hayakawa Publishing to translate the book into Japanese (I was excited to learn they were the Japanese publishers for Philip K. Dick, whose The Man in the High Castle is an obvious inspiration for USJ.)

My excitement turned into sincere astonishment when I found out the book went to a seventh printing in its first month in Japan, and that I’d come in second for the Honya Taisho Award (chosen by all the booksellers throughout Japan). It was nominated for the Booklog Award (a major Japanese readers’ award), and this past summer, won the Seiun Award for Best Foreign Translated Novel, Japan’s top science fiction award (often called “the Japanese Hugo”).

Art by Coco.

My interactions with Japanese USJ fans have been incredible. They’ve designed their own art inspired by the book, and built custom models of the mecha on the cover that look like the toys I used to buy from kit shops as a kid. One fan recreated the breakfast eaten by one of my characters, Beniko, and gave their opinion on the cucumber with bacon and miso soup. Readers asked about obscure references I’d made to “bondage baseball” and poked at obscure pop culture references I assumed were inside jokes with myself (Beniko’s last name, “Ishimura,” is an oblique reference to Moby Dick’s “Ishmael;” his age, 39, is a nod to 1984’s Winston Smith).

I obsess over character details, spending ridiculous amounts of time fleshing out backstories and trying to find symbolism even in their names. That Japanese readers were catching these details was astonishing—and a big testament to the work of my Japanese editor, Aya Tobo, and my translator, Naoya Nakahara.

Nakahara-san added so much to the books. One of his most important choices was to make Kujira Jr., the young mecha pilot, speak with a Kansai dialect, a decision that not only helped make him a fan favorite, but also influenced his development in the forthcoming USJ novel Mecha Samurai Empire. Kujira Jr. plays an important role in the battle against the Nazis; after consulting with Nakahara-san, I decided to officially make Kujira’s family come from Osaka, home to the Kansai dialect.

The fan response was especially touching because it brought me back to my roots. I grew up poor, and my family moved often, following work opportunities. I still remember how important Nintendo and Sega were for me, not just in inspiring stories, but helping me make sense of all the new places I found myself in. Their stories transcended culture; the heroism of the characters helped me cope with the ever-shifting environments around me. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without Japanese games like Bionic Commando, Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star II, and Metal Gear.

To find myself, all these decades later, on the other side of the equation, creating a story Japanese readers and audiences were connecting with, was surreal. So when I learned I’d won the Seiun Award, I decided to take the opportunity to travel to Japan for the first time and meet my readers directly.

It was mid-August when I found myself in the middle of Shinjuku, surrounded by the bright neon of Tokyo, in awe that I was finally there.

While playing the tourist wase fantastic (the bustle of Shibuya Crossing, the neon glimmer of Akihabara), it was the unexpected moments that stuck out for me. Like the evening we got lost as we wandered the alleys of Tokyo in search of the train station, and encountered a small Inari shrine, barely lit, with an altar where locals prayed (fortunately, my wife Angela was able to read the Chinese characters from the Kanji).

Or finding a restaurant where the chefs had perfected their sukiyaki recipe over four generations, and took immense pride in the secret ingredients that made it so rich with flavor. We were famished, on the point of collapse, when we entered the restaurant. I’ve never had better sukiyaki.

I loved the bookstores. It was my silly obsession to check for copies of USJ in every one we passed, and I was delighted to find so many throughout Japan, whether in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, or Shizuoka. We visited the four-story Maruzen bookstore outside Tokyo Station, and found it so full of people, I had a hard time getting from one end to the other (that’s not to mention the three or four smaller bookstores within the station too).

The same applied to Kinokuniya’s Shinjuku Main Store: seven floors, totally packed (they have a fantastic English language section on the top floor). It felt wonderful seeing bookstores thriving in Japan.

It was also a thrill to see so many arcades. As a kid, I was in awe every time I visited one in the States, just feeling the energy of so many people crammed into a small space, juggling quarters, eager to get one more game in. These days, if you can even find an arcade in America, they seem like desolate museums to an age long past. In the arcades of Tokyo, I felt like I’d taken a portal to my childhood.

Silent Hill

Donburacon: a two-day conference in the city of Shizuoka, about an hour from Tokyo by bullet train, where the Seiun Award Ceremony was to take place. “Seiun” actually translates to “Nebula,” though the award corresponds more to the Hugo, in that it’s chosen by the members attending the annual conference, organized and overseen by the Federation of Science Fiction Fan Groups of Japan. It’s Japan’s oldest science fiction award, dating to 1970, and previous winners of the best foreign novel include Ancillary Justice and The Martian.

When we were just 10 minutes from arriving, I looked out the window and saw a massive mountain towering above the countryside. It was Mount Fuji, grander and more majestic than I ever imagined. I excitedly pointed out the window, awed at its scale. I’d seen countless pictures, but to see it with my own eyes was truly remarkable, encapsulating perfectly my feeling about this entire trip.

The characters for “Shizuoka” translate literally as “Silent Hill,” which is also the name of a horror game in which the memories and emotions of characters are made physical within the eponymous city. I jokingly asked Angela, “Is it safe to walk around at night?”

Fortunately, it was (though if you’ve followed my video game writing, you’ll know Silent Hill is one of my favorite topics of discussion). We had incredible, incredibly cheap sushi nearby and got ready for the ceremony the next day.

With so much of our lives taking place in the digital space, I “know” many people I’ve only met online. I have no idea who they are in real life—what they do, how they look, or anything about them aside from an online persona. One of the best parts of the trip was visiting my Japanese publisher, Hayakawa, not only to meet my editor and translator, but to see where everything happens.

They prepared a ridiculously warm welcome for me, with a display case full of USJ books that really caught me off guard. My editor, Aya Tobo, and translator, Naoya Nakahara, would be my companions throughout the entirety of the conference. Spending so much time with them (as well as S-F Magazine editor, Marie Umeda) gave me the opportunity to ask them a hundred questions about anything and everything, and it was great to sync up on so many issues—including the forthcoming release of Mecha—and eat some really good food together.

The awards ceremony itself was fantastic. It was super cool to meet all my fellow winners, including author Haruna Ikezawa, an incredible writer and also the voice talent behind many amazing anime. She won in the best Non-Fiction category for her book SF is Suteki Fiction, which includes wonderful illustrations from talented artist Coco-san.

Gengen Kusano gave one of the most hilarious performances of the night as he received the award for best short story, “Last and First Idol,” and became a crowd favorite. The best artist category went to legendary artist Naoyuki Kato, who established many of the standards for mecha art, and whose work I was familiar with growing up.

Behind every book is a team of people, and most of my speech involved thanking all the countless people who supported it, from the incredible staff at Hayakawa; to my agent, Misa Morikawa; to the amazing reviewers and fans; and, of course, to Angela.

I’ve often spoken about the many challenges of writing United States of Japan. It took a mental toll, studying and researching the darkest horrors of World War II. I spent many sleepless nights haunted by what I’d learned, imagining the suffering endured by so many people during that terrifying period. There were times I questioned my gall at attempting to depict the dehumanizing nature of war, the way it impacts everyone, irrespective of ethnicity or culture.

But at the moment of receiving the award (even though I awkwardly walked to the wrong position on stage), I felt tremendous gratification and joy. The journey, hard and painful as it was, had been worth it. To share it with my Japanese readers, in Japan, was an unbelievable honor.

The Grand Ship

The Shizuoka Convention and Arts Center where Donburacon took place is called the “Granship” because it’s literally shaped like a massive ship. I’ve been to many different writing conferences, and Donburacon is among my favorites. Everyone was so friendly, and shared a passion for all things science fiction. And you know I loved getting to talk about all my favorite video games.

Hirohide Hirai, the international liaison for the conference, was a great host, and helped set up my schedule. I got to take part in some really interesting panels, including a discussion with Daisuke Onitsuka about my favorite films and games, including the works of Akira Kurosawa, Mamoru Oshii, Kinji Fukasaku, and Hideo Kojima (a two-part article about our talk was published in the legendary film magazine Kinema Junpo). I also took part in a conversation with the other Seiun-Award winners.

I was especially happy to give a talk about the history behind the United States of Japan, which I began with a reading from the book. As my focus turns to Mecha Samurai Empire, I realized this would be the last time I gave this kind of public attention to USJ. A few attendees pointed out that readings aren’t common among Japanese authors, so my translator, Nakahara-san, actually explained the concept to everyone first, which was cool—for many in the audience, it was their first reading.

It was also a very unique experience, in that everything I said was translated live into Japanese, so the back and forth made me change the rhythms of the presentation on the fly. During the Q&A, I was able to really delve into the deeper themes of the book, and it felt like the perfect bookend for the series of talks and readings I’d given over the past two years.

I thought my participation in an evening ceremony for the award winners would be limited to a dinner and maybe some drinks, but it was much more involved. It started with the Kagami biraki, or “Opening the Mirror,” a tradition that goes back many years. All the winners received big hammers, which we raised in a team effort. We then broke open a sake jar with a simultaneous pounding. Small wooden sake boxes were given out. Many attendees used them to collect signatures from all the winners. I took a lot of pictures with fans, signed a ton of boxes and books, and was asked questions about everything from porticals to the videogames within the USJ.

There was also a big janken match—think rock-scissors-paper—with me set against a group of attendees. Whoever defeated me would receive a signed copy of USJ. After several rounds, one person emerged successful. I was happy to lose.

I met a lot of people that night, had fascinating conversations with many I deeply respected, and had a blast overall. I was also exhausted. When we finally got back to the hotel, I crashed.

The next day, Nakahara-san and Tobo-san drove us to Sunpu Castle, the retirement home of the first Tokugawa Shogun. It was especially interesting, as one of the main characters in Sons of War looks to shogun, Ieyasu, as an inspiration. We had a signing in the afternoon, but it was only for 20 minutes. We caught a quick lunch and headed back to the conference.

I honestly wasn’t sure if people would show up to the signing after I’d signed so many sake boxes the night before. I was stunned when I entered and saw a long line that went way past our table. I wondered who it was for until I saw Umeda-san wave toward me, and everyone in the line turned to look. I actually ran out of the hall to wait until Nakahara-san arrived so we could face the line together.

There are a handful of times in my life I can say deeply changed me as a writer. This was one of them. So many years I’d spent struggling through the rejections, sending story after story, hoping for an opportunity. Doubt was my continual companion, and still frequently shows up to needle me. So to experience such an encounter, with so many fans, was unbelievable.

Many had read my previous interviews and articles and prepared presents related to my favorite video games like Phantasy Star and Silent Hill (we ended up having to buy a new suitcase in order to carry all the gifts we received).

Others shared their favorite moments from the book, asking questions. I received a lot of inquiries about the release of Mecha Samurai Empire, and its focus on the mecha wars with the Nazis. What was supposed to be a short session ended up going on for two hours. I tried to personalize each of the books, because I was so touched by each reader coming and waiting. To the last person in line=, I wrote an especially long piece as a big expression of my gratitude.

I was pleasantly surprised when Gengen-san, one of the fellow winners, came by and asked us to sign his t-shirt; we gladly obliged. Throughout it all, my editor, Tobo-san, and Umeda-san were so wonderful in helping keep me in line. It was a truly moving event, and I was deeply touched to meet all the fans. It made me excited to share Mecha Samurai Empire, pushed me to up my game for the third book, Sons of War.

That evening, we went back to the hotel and slept for a few hours before going out to grab dinner. It was a warm, humid evening, and I thought about the past few days. I thanked my wife for believing in my strange dream of becoming a writer, and for dealing with all my weird author whimsies. She smiled.e held hands and walked together through the streets of Shizuoka.

Fiction helped me through the toughest parts of my childhood, and fiction had brought me here, many decades later. There was no place that idea seemed to resonate more than in Silent Hill. I wandered through its quiet roads, reflecting on the long journey, and wondered where we would go next.

United States of Japan is available now.

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