Start a dialogue with people living in Japan ...


Matt-san: I want to make a living through literature that celebrate the richness of human life


Matt-san: I want to make a living through literature that celebrate the richness of human life


―In Czech universities, the basic length of a degree program is only three years, but right at the end of my second year, I’d finished two years of study and decided to study abroad at a university in Tokyo. I studied there for one year, returned home, then came back here as soon as possible.


Originally from the Czech Republic, Matt-san is a young man of letters who has come to Japan twice as an international exchange student.


―I like literature as a whole, but there are several Japanese novelists whose styles share something in common with mine, so I love Japanese literature, too. Literature also enables us to understand culture more deeply, too.


I love literature, but I used to be a science guy.


―Right now, my major is Japanese literature, but originally, I spent one year at another university studying programming. I was into science.


There’s a difference between what you love, and what you do for work.た。


―When I was in junior high school, I loved math, tinkering with computers, programming, that kind of thing—those were my hobbies. But studying them at a university-level, I started to hate them, you know. If I did that as a job, I thought I’d quickly end up killing myself (laughs). When you’re just starting out in the industry, it’s very repetitive, always the same kind of work.



Also, I find it hard to get along with typical folks in the sciences.


―Of course, I had quite a few friends at the science uni, but I felt somehow different from most of the people around me. Yeah, it was weird but somehow, despite the fact I loved computers and science, I didn’t really feel like a “science student”. I started to realize that deep down, what I loved most was literature and the humanities. There’s a lot of science students who can’t see the point of things like paintings and books and novels.



I made up my mind to start over and reapply to university.


―Of course, my initial motivation to start over and reapply to university was the fact I loved literature, but I also realized I wanted to study Japanese, and about Japanese history and society.


I could be myself around people in the humanities.


―To be honest, within just one week of starting classes at my current university, I felt like I had known the people around me for years. Of course, I’m not close with everyone, but after the first class, we ended up all going for dinner and the conversation just really took off. Music, films, stuff to do with Japan … It just felt like I was surrounded by people who I understood, and who understood me.


Changing to the humanities wasn’t such a big deal.


―Programming and linguistics have a lot in common. We can say that programming is a mathematical language, and, in fact, there are linguistics researchers who I’m studying at my current uni who have taken classes in mathematical languages at STEM unis.


My love of novels started in childhood.


―I’m told I could read around age four, and even when I was very small, I was fascinated by letters. I don’t know why (laughs). I was reading novels around the ages of four or five. Well, of course, at age five, it’s mainly adventure stories (laughs) and there was lots I didn’t understand. As a kid, whenever I had free time I was reading, trying out more accessible novels, at lunch time, on the train—if I had just a little bit of time, I would fill it with reading. Of course, if it was a more challenging novel, I would have to carve out a decent two or three hours to read properly.


My love of novels came in large part from the family environment I grew up in.


―My parents, everyone in my family, we all loved books, but the biggest factor was simple age difference. Among my family and relatives, there was no one around my age. On weekends and such, most Czech families will get together to have fun with their relatives who live nearby. But in my family, it was mostly adults, no one around my own age. Being surrounded by so much grownup talk was boring. I couldn’t bear it for long, so I used to read novels instead. We didn’t have enough for video games, so that wasn’t an option.


Growing up in the Czech Republic, we had a lot of opportunities to encounter English.


―Everyone in the Czech Republic starts learning English from the second grade of elementary school. Also, the Czech Republic is a small country, so most of the films are subtitled, and the games are never translated (laughs). Everything’s in English. That means you end up absorbing a lot of English vocabulary naturally. For example, a lot of junior high school kids who are into fantasy, playing video games, card games and so on, they tend to become very good at English.


I discovered the charm of reading something in the original.


―So, when I was still around 14 years old, there was a series of fantasy novels that I liked. They were a bit philosophical, not the easiest read. At that time, there were ten books in the series, but only four of them had been translated in Czech, so I order the English versions form Amazon. They were difficult to read, but I could do it, and I discovered an interesting new dimension to them. That’s how I learned the charm of reading something in the original.


I didn’t know anything about Japan.


―Up until I was a junior high school student, I was just into reading fantasy novels, or classic European novels, that kind of thing. The idea of reading a Japanese novel never even occurred to me. To be honest, at that time, I knew so little, I couldn’t really differentiate between Japan, China and Korea (laughs).


I got into Japan through the films of Akira Kurosawa.


―But, thanks to the films of Akira Kurosawa, I learned about Japan for the first time (laughs). When I was in the fourth year of junior high school, there was a program in our school in which we’d watch cinematic masterpieces from around the world, one every month. As part of that program, I watched films like Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Rashomon, and that was when I first learned about Japan.



The world I want to know opened up before me—Japanese history, Japanese literature, the Japanese language …


―I thought Japanese samurai were cool, so I thought, well, let’s read about the history, so I started off by studying about the history a little by myself. Of course, I thought the historical background was cool, but it was also the start of me reading literature. And as I watched Japanese films, I became interested in the sound of Japanese, too. If that hadn’t happened, I probably would never have thought of studying Japanese (laughs).



My mom recommended some Japanese novels to me, too.


―Another reason for me getting into Japanese literature was my mom’s recommendation. Inspired by the films, I had studied a bit of history, and when I mentioned that to my parents, my mother recommended one of Kōbō Abe’s novels to me. My mom really likes literature, and when she was young, she read a lot of world literature, including the work of Abe and Junichirō Tanizaki.


I tried studying Japanese, but I couldn’t maintain my efforts on my own.


―When I was in the third or fourth year of senior high school, I tried to learn Japanese on my own, but I couldn’t really keep it up (laughs). You can find lots of stuff on the internet—grammar explanations, example sentences, practice questions … I downloaded a PDF of Minna No Nihongo. And there are online communities of independent learners, and sites aimed at them. So I could ask them questions and discuss with them. All these people from all over the world, posting on the message boards in English (laughs). I don’t think they exist anymore. Like an English version of 2channel and those other sketchy sites (laughs). there were loads of different message boards, but only one about Japanese culture. But, yeah, it’s difficult to stay motivated on your own.


I studied Japanese because I wanted to read novels in Japanese.


―Finally, after that, I entered the science university and studied Japanese for a year. But I realized for me, my motivation for studying Japanese is less about learning the language itself, and more about being able to read novels (laughs). I had read a lot in Czech and English, and being able to read fluently in English, I realized that there was something different about reading the original work, rather than a translation. And so around that time, I was thinking that it would be more enjoyable to read the Japanese novels I loved in their original Japanese.


It’s not true that you have to study Japanese before you can read a novel.


―When you get a bit tipsy with Japanese people, it really doesn’t matter if you make a lot of mistakes—you can still have a fun conversation. So, you don’t have to study a lot of Japanese before you try and use it for real, you know? If you really try and put what you’ve learned into practice, you’ll find that you’ll soon be able to use it naturally. It’s the same with reading. Actually, among the people who live in my dorm and my classmates, there are loads of people who have been studying Japanese for three, four years and reached a very high level, but they are convinced they can’t read novels. When I see that, it makes me a bit sad. because even if you’re at a low-intermediate level, you can read an easy novel. For me, being able to read a novel was my main goal at the start, so after about a year and a half, I had a go at one. Sure, it took me two months to read a 250-something-page novel, but I could do it. After that, I realized that there was a lot I could do, and when I found myself daunted at the idea of doing something, I developed a mindset of just giving it a go. If I didn’t have that, I’d probably have been one of those people who thought they couldn’t do it, that it was too hard, even though they’ve reached an advanced level. And that’s a waste, right?


Thanks to website that helps you track what you’ve read, I managed to stay motivated.


―I’ve been able to keep reading Japanese novels. So, there are English-language sites where you can keep a record all the films you’ve watched, or all the manga you’ve read, or the anime you’ve watched, that kind of thing. I quite like those kinds of sites, so I tried searching for a reading one. That’s how I found a reading log site. I’ve been using it since I started the exchange program. Basically, I like that kind of site (laughs), ‘cause with that kind of site, I can really boost my motivation.


The reason is the reading list.


―One of the great things is that is produces a list. By looking at the list, you can see a lot of stats, like how many books you’ve read so far, that your average rate is three and a half books per month or something, it produces those kinds of stats for you, which is one of the merits of the site. Another great thing is that the it picks out books and anime and stuff that other users have logged and presents them to you as recommendations. I’ve discovered a lot of interesting novels that way (laughs).


It enables you to connect with others.


―Your real name doesn’t appear on the site, but there are topic threads and groups. For example, “set in Kyoto” that kind of thing. And in that group, other people will recommend novels, talk about them, lots of things. If I find someone who’s read an interesting book, I’ll have a look at their list. Then, I’ll check out which authors they’ve been reading a lot of recently, and if I find one that looks interesting, it makes me want to read their work. And you can comment on each other’s reviews, too. We don’t know each other, but somehow it feels a bit like you’re friends, at least online.


The stats are super motivating for me.


―Also, what’s very motivating for me is to compare my stats, for example, comparing my stats from two years ago with now. If my current stats are low, it’s a little wakeup call for me. On the other hand, when I look back and see, “Wow, my pace is really getting faster,” that spurs me on, too.


I’ve met a lot of people through literature.


―It’s not just the faceless people on the website. Nowadays, I also go to a reading group run by the literature society at the neighboring university. It’s not just once a month, I go when there’s an interesting novel and I have time. Probably around twice a month. The facilitator presents an outline or analysis, then everyone gives their response, or we have a discussion, or the big fans of that novel get together and talk about it. There are lit majors, but also just people who love reading.

We chat about literature in a coffee shop that’s featured in a novel.


―There’s a coffee shop I go to sometimes. It’s got a very particular atmosphere (laughs). There’s a novel by an author I like, Tomohiko Morimi, that’s called The Tatami Galaxy, and it features places around Kyoto, the Sankyo Ward, stuff like that, and this coffee shop pops up twice, I think. So quite a few people go there as a kind of pilgrimage. So I went there to read, and sitting next to me were these three students, earnestly discussing the story of the novel. Seeing that, I couldn’t help but say something (laughs). Of course, I was embarrassed, and it took some courage, but if you see people that you’ll probably get along with, you’ve gotta say something, right? And I’ve been approached by others, too. Anyway, somehow we got to talking about literature and stuff (laughs).



I’ve had some random encounters, too.。


―Sometimes a local person will start talking to me when I’m sitting on the banks of the Kamo river, reading a book. “What are you reading?” That kind of thing (laughs). Yeah, sometimes that happens (laughs).





It’s my second time as an international student, so I wanted to push myself even further.


―I didn’t really do this kind of stuff during my previous stint as an international student. I wasn’t really adventurous, I didn’t really get out of my comfort zone. When I saw something that looked interesting, I never really tried to give it a go. This time, I wanted to have a go at those things, try and overcome my lack of bravery. To be honest, my time in Japan is limited, and I want to study, but when I go back to Europe, I won’t be able to go to the Kamo River, or any shrines. I won’t be able to go to all those fun places, or chat with people. So I have a strong desire to prioritize all those things.



My passion for literature probably comes from my parents.


―Actually, neither of my parents went to university. Under Communist rule, people who wanted to dissent would slip wastepaper into the voting box instead of the voting form. But someone figured out what they had done, and my parents were identified as political undesirables, and barred from going to university. They couldn’t even take the entrance exam. So my mother works in a printing company, and my father works in a factory that makes cups and plates and stuff. The two of them have a pretty strong belief that we can improve our lives and become better people through literature and acquiring other forms of knowledge, and I think I’ve been brought up with that way of thinking, too.


I thought it would be impossible, but I had a go at joining some of the specialized classes for literature.


―I thought I could do some literary research during this second period as an international student. After taking some Japanese literature reading classes and some literary analysis classes, I thought I would try to and it went quite well. Thanks to that, I came to realize that literary research wasn’t an impossibility, but, yeah, this was something I could do.


I want to study more, but the problem is time and money.


―At my home uni, I’ve finished all of my required courses, and I only have my graduating thesis and my final exams left, but according to the university’s records, I’m in my fifth year. That’s because I have to be officially enrolled at the university, even while I’m here as an exchange student. I’ll be graduating two and half years late, but if I can, I’d like to go on to graduate school. To be honest, if possible, I’d like to go to graduate school in Japan, but there’s one problem—money. I think it would be possible if I can get a scholarship, but if I have to work parttime while I’m studying, I think it will be impossible for me to study at the level required for graduate school.


I’d like to do research that will help with translation.


―Also, I think becoming a scholar might be a bit of a stretch for me, so if it’s not possible, I’d like to be a translator at least. Besides, my strongest motivation is to do the research itself, but to do the research so that I can become a very good translator in the future. I don’t want to research just for the sake of it (laughs).


Doing it as a job is probably going to be tough.


―However, making a living from literary translation is probably impossible. I won’t be able to get by. So, having another job and doing occasional translation work would be pretty ideal, I think. That’s what all the Czech translators of Japanese do (laughs), so I guess that’s what I’ll do, too.