Border crossings at Kyoto's Gion Festival.  David Zoppetti's novel 'Ichigensan' examines the issues raised in a romance between a fluent foreigner and a blind Japanese woman.

Border crossings at Kyoto’s Gion Festival. David Zoppetti’s novel ‘Ichigensan’ examines the issues raised in a romance between a fluent foreigner and a blind Japanese woman.

Suzanne Kamata has written a paper ‘Sister Cities: Border Crossings and Barriers’, comparing David Zoppetti’s Kyoto-based Ichigensan with John Warley’s A Southern Girl set in Charleston, South Carolina.  In the extracts below, which appear with her permission, she outlines Kyoto’s literary tradition before considering the border-crossing implications in the romance between a Japanese-speaking foreigner and a blind Japanese woman in Zoppetti’s novel.


Japan’s literary tradition harkens back to the courts of Old Japan, where Lady Murasaki penned Tale of Hikaru Genji, widely considered to be the world’s first novel. Courtiers such as Ono no Komachi communicated via poetry or kept diaries, such as The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan, while beyond the castle walls, illiterate peasants laboured in the fields. The city has also inspired many modern poets and writers such as Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, who chose Kyoto as the backdrop for his novel The Old Capital and other works.

Many foreign writers have also employed Kyoto as a setting in their novels, including Arthur Golden, whose best-selling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, was written after the author interviewed a veteran of the rarefied world of Kyoto teahouses. Liza Dalby also managed to penetrate Kyoto’s inner sanctum by conducting anthropological studies as a geisha-in-training. She utilised this experience in the writing of the nonfiction tomes Geisha, Kimono: Fashioning Culture, and her novel The Tale of Murasaki, in which she re-imagines the life of the twelfth-century scribe, which are all composed in English and directed at a Western audience. David Zoppetti’s novel, Ichigensan, discussed later in this essay, is unique in that it is a novel of Kyoto written in Japanese by an ‘outsider’ for a Japanese audience.


Swiss writer David Zoppetti by J. Souteyrat

Swiss writer David Zoppetti by photographer J. Souteyrat

Ichigensan’s Kyoto

Geneva-born David Zoppetti won the Subaru Prize for Literature in 1997 for Ichigensan, his first novel, written in Japanese. The novel was also nominated for the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most  prestigious literary award, and was praised by the Japan Times as ‘a beautiful love story’ and by Kyoto Shinbun for being ‘refined and sensual.’ According to his biographical notes, Zoppetti studied at Doshisha University in the 1980s, then went on to work in broadcasting as the first full-time foreign employee of a Japanese television network. He also became the first employee of the company to claim paternity leave. He later decided to devote himself to writing, and thus produced Ichigensan (The Newcomer), his first of four books so far. The title refers to the policy of refusing first time customers who attempt to enter an establishment without a proper introduction, which is still intact at some of some Kyoto’s more exclusive geisha teahouses and restaurants.

Ichigensan was made into a film, and translated into English by Takuma Sminkey, who has also lived as a foreigner in Japan. As Sminkey writes in his afterword to the book, Ichigensan ‘has sometimes been categorized as ekkyo bungaku (border-crossing literature), a genre that includes other non-Japanese writers of Japanese literature, such as Hideo Levy, Arthur Binard, Kaneshiro Kazuki, and more recently Yang Yi and Shirin Nezammafi.’


These writers have been singled out for their seemingly extraordinary ability to write in Japanese, a notoriously difficult language for speakers of English, and for their insights into a country often deemed impenetrable and unknowable to outsiders. According to Sminkey, ‘Ichigensan questions the validity of the kokusaika (internationalisation) paradigm, in which international exchange is always seen in terms of national identity, and the difference between insiders and outsiders is assumed to be obvious.’

In writing about the novels of Zoppetti and other recent foreign-born writers of Japanese, Chinese scholar Li Jiang points out that ‘border-crossing’ suggests an illegal act: There is probably no denying that the word ekkyo [border-crossing] has a negative overtone. The word implies that the action is illegitimate. No one speaks of the foreigners who are staying in Japan legally as border-crossing aliens. The word only refers to people who cross borders without the documents required by law. The term indicates a sense of  possession: a certain language belongs to a certain group of people, and if a member of another community uses the language, he/she is perceived as committing an illegitimate act. And the same holds true, it seems, for cultural borders.

It is especially significant, then, that Zoppetti’s novel begins in ‘Dejima’, a lounge for foreign students at a university, nicknamed for the artificial island constructed for foreign traders off the coast of Nagasaki in the seventeenth century. For many years this was the only site where cultural exchange was legally permitted in Japan.

The narrator is idling in this oasis for foreigners when a Japanese woman wearing a kimono, and her blind daughter, appear. They are entering this foreign space in search of someone to read literature to the daughter…


A Japan Times article on the remarkable David Zoppetti.

Ichigensan – The Newcomer by David Zoppetti, English translation by Takuma Sminkey (Birchington, UK: Ozaru Books, 2011).