Matt Alt is, like me, an American with a Japanese wife who lives in Tokyo.
Also, like me, he is interested in 妖怪 (Japanese monsters).
His wife and he have written a few books, including “Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide” which I reviewed (Click here to read my review and to enter (by 2014 September 27th) for a chance to win a copy of the book).
Matt Alt has kindly agreed to do an interview with me.
– My questions and comments are in red. Matt Alt’s answers are in black.
1. Could you give us a short self-introduction (that covers info not answered in the questions below) ?
I’m Matt Alt. I co-authored Yokai Attack!, Ninja Attack!, and Yurei Attack! with Hiroko Yoda.
When we aren’t tracking down yokai, ninja, and ghost stories, we live in Tokyo where we run a translation company.
2. Where are you from? When / why did you come to Japan?
I was born and raised in Maryland, just a normal suburban kid.
There is very little in my family’s background to suggest any underlying interest in Japan. I was obsessed with robots, though, and that coincided with the first wave of Japanese robot toys hitting the American marketplace – Micronauts, Shogun Warriors, and then Robotech and Voltron and the Transformers and the whole Eighties toy boom.
This being the Eighties Japan was getting a lot of attention as the next economic superpower, and as a result my school system set up a Japanese program at my high school. It was one of the first at a public school in the US. Both there, and in university where I majored in Japanese, the vast majority of students were studying the language for business reasons. I and a few friends were the only ones studying because we loved manga and anime. I’ve heard that proportion has totally flipped in recent years.
3. How did you become interested in yokai (Japanese monsters) ?
I owe my interest in yokai to Hiroko, my wife and co-author of our books. I’d known about them through pop culture sources like Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro, but Hiroko really pounded it home to me that these weren’t anime characters, that they were folklore with a great deal of history in Japan. As she introduced me to old woodblock prints, stories, and art, I got more and more excited — and shocked that there was so little information available about them in English.
4. I’m also interested in Japanese yokai…but don’t know nearly as much detailed information about them as you do! How did you learn so much about them?
Besides my “living database” of Hiroko, there is a great deal of scholarship about yokai in Japanese. There are a huge number of books and magazines on the topic ranging from stuff for kids to pure entertainment to scholarly treatises. Besides the usual art books you can often find abroad, the writings of people like Kazuhiko Komatsu, Katsumi Tada, and Murakami Kenji offer a lot of insight into Japanese yokai culture. Being able to read Japanese is key. We rely heavily and almost exclusively on Japanese resources when we write our books.
5. What did you imagine Japan would be like before you first came here?
An otaku paradise! That was the naiveté born of a robot-obsessed fifteen year old. But it wasn’t, not at all, and I realized I actually preferred the reality all the more.
6. What type of culture shock did you experience here? Do you visit your home country often? Experience reverse-culture shock there?
Business takes me back to the States semi-regularly and I always try to go back for the holidays. Without question it’s tough to live so far from family and old friends. But I have a lot of new family and friends here in Japan too. I don’t really get homesick or culture shock, but it is often shocking to me, with the speed of modern travel, that I can be having breakfast in Tokyo one morning and dinner in Maryland that evening. That plane flight feels long when you’re on it, but by historical standards it’s the blink of an eye.
(As for me, I rarely travel outside Japan. It’s so expensive. My most recent trip to Japan was in 2004. And I experienced a lot of “reverse culture shock”! (Click here to read my post about it. — Tokyo Five))
7. What is you favorite yokai ? Favorite “non-Japanese” monster?
With so many yokai it’s hard to choose from. I love what you might call the weaker ones, the less malevolent ones, most of all. Tofu Kozo is one. The idea of this tofu-carrying kid being a supernatural creature. Or Aka-Name, the yokai whose idea of haunting is licking out dirty bathtubs. Those sorts of creatures are the most interesting to me, because nearly every culture has a folklore tradition of scary monsters. Annoying or silly ones, not as much.
8. What do you think of manga / anime such as “Ge-Ge-Ge-No-Kitaro” ?
As I wrote in the preface to Drawn and Quarterly’s English translation of “Kitaro,” which came out earlier this year, Shigeru Mizuki is a genius at his craft and responsible more than anyone else in the 20th century for popularizing yokai among the public at large. I’m a big fan of Miyazaki’s work as well – he weaves yokai, or yokai-like, creatures into his work very subtly and deftly. I love the mix of the historical and supernatural of “Mononoke Hime,” for example. And I really like what I’ve seen and played of “Yokai Watch.” The way it sort of remixes rather than simply parrots old yokai lore is really charming, and the way kids are reacting to it reminds me of how kids used to react to Kitaro.
9. What question are you never asked in an interview that you should be asked (and what’s the answer) ?
A lot of people interview us about yokai, but very few ask about their impact on modern culture – I’m not talking recent iterations of yokai shows like “Yokai Watch” but Japanese character and culture in general. They are very much the key to understanding the question of why Japan is so great at creating mascots and characters in general. They represent an intersection of folklore, craftsmanship (illustration), and storytelling that forms the fabric of modern Japanese pop culture.
10. Any final words? Links? Plugs?
Thanks for reading our books! If people enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed writing them, that makes us really happy. Even though writing is sort of a side business for us (our main one being localizing Japanese games and manga and other content into English and European languages) we have many other book projects simmering on the back burners even as we speak. Stay tuned!
Thanks again to Matt Alt.