Only a matter of weeks ago, writer Iain Maloney was in Scotland for a tour of his latest book The Only Gaijin in the Village, a fascinating and often funny memoir about relocating to rural Japan and his new life there.
He had an event at the Aye Write! book festival, and was lined up for other book signings and events around the country, when COVID-19 truly took hold in Western Europe. Within days he had a difficult, but increasingly inevitable, decision to make: whether to stay or return to his wife and their home in Gifu. SNACK caught up with Maloney to discover what happened next.
The last time we spoke the world was a very different place, and you were in the middle of a Scottish book tour. What has happened to you since?
A lot, and a lot of nothing. I got three dates into the tour at the start of March before it became clear that public events were untenable. I took a weekend out in rural Perthshire to rethink things around the same time that Japan was debating travel restrictions. I quickly figured it was time to cut my losses and run. I had to cancel events and move stuff online, which was obviously hugely disappointing (and expensive) but people were very understanding.
You’re now back in Japan, and are one of the few people who have witnessed reactions to the pandemic in two countries? How do they differ?
We live in the countryside so it’s already pretty isolated but I basically locked myself away for two weeks on my return. I hardly even saw my wife since I was in the spare room and she was keeping her distance – she’s a nurse, so didn’t want to catch anything from me. Fortunately the two weeks passed without a single symptom which I find amazing considering I did a book tour of Australia, and spent a few days in Spain, before arriving in Scotland.
For those two weeks of isolation I followed everything on TV and social media, so it was a little unreal. Life was going on in my village pretty much as normal. I suppose the strangest thing is that no one was wearing a mask. They’re usually a common sight here, especially in Spring when it’s flu and hay fever season, so you’d expect to see everyone masked up, but now there aren’t any available, even in hospitals.
There are a lot of similarities in responses, particularly from governments – a lot of dithering, vague statements that help no one and half measures with eyes firmly on the economy rather than people’s welfare. But whereas Scotland in the main took the threat seriously, with peer pressure to self-isolate and work from home immense, the reaction here has been different. Without a strong statement from the authorities many concluded it isn’t all that bad, ‘If it were serious, they’d tell us directly, right?’.
Your book is all about culture clashes and adapting to a new way of life. Can you set out some of the cultural differences in the reaction to the current threat?
There’s no real culture of telecommuting or working remotely here, so there’s huge resistance to that. There’s an assumption that if your boss can’t physically see you then you aren’t working. That’s causing a lot of delays.
There was a company memo recently leaked online that provoked a lot of ridicule saying that anyone working from home still had to wear a suit.
There has been a lot of discussion about how the legacy of the Second World War has affected responses. In Britain, despite our cynicism, there’s an understanding that in emergencies such as this the government can limit our freedoms – with a lot of caveats of course. In Japan that cultural memory manifests as deep unease whenever the government appears to be acting in an authoritarian manner. Last night (as I write this) there was a small demonstration in Tokyo against the government interfering with civic freedom. Now that’s extreme, and rightly mocked online given the context, but an interesting manifestation nonetheless.
You were one of the only people to appear at this year’s Aye Write! before it was shut down. How was that, and how do you see the pandemic affecting you as a writer, and the arts in general?
Aye Write! was amazing, but weird. We didn’t know what to expect given the circumstances, with just a few of us in the green room. Should we shake hands? Bump elbows? I was on at the same time as Kathleen Jamie and James Robertson; so with that and the virus, I honestly didn’t expect anyone to turn up but I got around 60 folk. It’s such a shame that the rest of the festival was cancelled. Hopefully it means a bumper Aye Write! next year.
I don’t know what this means for the arts. I don’t think anyone does. The arts will survive regardless, in one form or another. One thing we’ve learned from this is that as soon as people have free time, or need escape, or need comfort, they turn to books, to music, to TV and film. They aren’t going anywhere.
But we’re going to need to have a serious talk about how arts are funded and artists remunerated. I’m lucky in that public performance is a necessary evil, not the main thrust of my work. But for others it is everything. To give one example – after the advent of streaming, musicians reached a point where concerts were their main source of income. Now that’s disappeared. So you get pennies from Spotify, the odd donation from doing a livestream, and that’s it? That can’t be right. I think it’s time to seriously talk about stipends, rethinking things like publishing contracts, and to get a funding body in Scotland that is fit for purpose.
Iain Maloney’s The Only Gaijin in the Village is published by Polygon Books