Czech Author Anna Cima on
What It Means to Look for a "Map" of Tokyo

Anna Cima

【Contributed Article】An essay by Czech author Anna Cima—whose 2018 debut novel, I Wake Up in Shibuya, swept the Czech literary newcomer awards—about the many faces of Tokyo.
Photo: © Barbora Votavová

Ever-Changing Tokyo

There is no one definite Tokyo. It isn't just that the Tokyo you saw with your own eyes yesterday has become something different by the time you wake up the next morning. It's that the Tokyo you live in, and the Tokyo you see, are completely different cities. It's true that the city is always changing. But mostly, it's the city and its different faces, changing depending on the day—based on how you're feeling, and whether you're upset. Although 14.03 million residents live in Tokyo, and tourists from all over Japan and the world flood into the city, the Tokyo they see one day is different from what they'll see the next.

To me, it feels like the city is losing its shape, becoming amorphous. How am I meant to understand it? I was 17 when I walked around Shibuya for the first time, taking photos. But looking at those photos now, I don't recognize any of the scenery. If I were able to wander into the city depicted in these photos, I would get lost right away. That's how different it feels to me.

Anna Cima's first full-length novel, I Wake Up in Shibuya. The life of the main character, Jana, who is studying Japanese literature in the Czech Republic, intersects with that of her alter ego, who wanders the streets of Shibuya. Cima drew the cover art for the Czech version of the book, shown on the left.

Buildings I once saw, but that no longer exist, reassert themselves in the photos, turning them into something unknown. But the reason I'd get lost isn't just because the scenery has changed. Seventeen-year-old Anna was so excited to be in Japan as a tourist. But later, after beginning my life in Japan, I'd gotten used to the cityscapes, the scenery. I'd lost interest in the things I'd found so engrossing before, and became interested in other things.

Looking at old photos, no matter how many of them there are, just isn't enough. If I were to recreate the Tokyo I saw back then, I'd have to find it within the Anna that existed back then. The map of the city that I want to bring back into reality must lie somewhere deep within the depths of my soul. The problem is that it's impossible to plumb those depths completely. So what you're left with is a strange sense of unease—the feeling that you'll never be able to walk the same streets again.

Acquiring a Map of a City Through Literature

But there is one way in which you might be able to walk the same city streets again, feeling the way you used to, and that's if you walk the streets of a city contained within literature. Pick up a book, and you pick up a map of the city portrayed within it. This is because literature is one way to press pause on a world that changes with such dizzying speed. You can flip through the pages, taking your time, walking leisurely through the same places again and again (I imagine some people might complain here that if people are always changing, they'll also never be able to recreate the experience of reading that book for the first time, the second time, and so on. They'd be right of course, but at the very least the text doesn't change, making it an immovable foundation for the imagination. In other words, the starting point will always be the same).

When I read a novel set in Tokyo, I discover countless different Tokyos as felt and imagined by authors who lived through so many different times. There are so many different depictions of Tokyo, and not a single one is unrealistic. These fragments of completely different Tokyos, all lined up in front of me, make me realize how difficult it is to see the city as a whole—like an enormous jigsaw puzzle, larger than just a single work of art. Perhaps, if we could read between the lines, we could get a glimpse into the real Tokyo.

But this is not an easy task. While the depictions printed in the book are still and unmoving, the Tokyo within literature is like a living creature, constantly slinking away from authors, readers, and characters alike. It's been like this for 50 years, 100 years, and for a long, long time before that. In Sanshiro, by Natsume Soseki, the author writes about the eponymous character as follows: "What startled him most of all was Tokyo itself, for no matter how far he went, it never ended. Everywhere he walked there were piles of lumber, heaps of rock, new homes set back from the street, depressing old storehouses half demolished in front of them. Everything looked as if it were being destroyed, and at the same time everything looked as if it were under construction. The sheer movement of it all was terrible."

Sanshiro was published in 1908. Seventy-seven years later, Hino Keizo wrote in Isle of Dreams, published in 1985, "It felt as if, instead of building a single city, we'd called forth and unleashed some strange and unknowable force. Something completely different, wilder than the force that had grown the trees, the paper, and the houses with their tiled roofs, like clusters of mushrooms. Something is changing, subtly. As if a force beyond human control is beginning to grow by itself." It seems that Tokyo's destiny, from long, long ago to the 20th century and to now, is this constant movement and rebuilding.

The Tokyo of the Novel Becomes the Protagonist's, Becoming Separate from My Own

I didn't want to let go of the Tokyo that I'd experienced as a seventeen-year-old, so I trapped the female protagonist of my novel, I Wake Up in Shibuya, in Shibuya, and kept her from going home to the Czech Republic. I did this for many reasons, but I think one subconscious reason was so that I could re-experience the Tokyo I'd seen back then whenever I wanted. But my efforts betrayed me—when the protagonist began to take on her own personality, the Tokyo that she saw became different from the one I saw, becoming an entirely different Tokyo yet again. The personal map of Tokyo I'd made had become someone else's map.

As time passes, I have no doubt that the protagonist's map of Tokyo will become more and more different from my own, eventually becoming something I won't be able to use at all. But even this map, this map made by someone else, will be enjoyable to the readers of the book. If, one day, you want to take a walk around Shibuya as experienced by one fictional foreigner, perhaps pick up a copy of I Wake Up in Shibuya.

Anna Cima

J-186_AC_02_cut.jpgPhoto: © Barbora Votavová
Novelist and translator. Born in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, in 1991. Her debut novel, I Wake Up in Shibuya, was written in Czech, and published in 2018 by Paseka, winning literary newcomer awards such as the Magnesia Litera award. The Japanese translation of the book was published in 2021 by Kawade Shobo Shinsha (co-translated by Abe Kenichi and Sudo Teruhiko). Her second novel, Memories of Eel, was published in the Czech Republic in 2022. Co-translations with Igor Cima include Takahashi Genichiro's Sayonara, Gangsters, and Shimada Soji's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. Has resided in Tokyo since 2019.

Memories of Eel, written by Anna Cima

J-186_Cover_V_C.jpgPublished by Paseka
Cima's second novel, published in September 2022. The protagonist is Fukuhara Sara, who has a Czech mother and a Japanese father, and lives in Yokohama doing research on Japanese eels. Her only friends are Nakajima, who runs a tropical fish store, and Miyu, who speaks in "unagi" to her pet eel. Her peaceful life is upended when she receives a visit from her former classmate Suzuki Yuka, who is looking for her missing colleague—a newspaper reporter.

*Quotes from the article are from Sanshiro, Natsume Soseki (translated by Jay Rubin), Penguin Books (2009), and Isle of Dreams, Hino Keizo, Kodansha (1985), translated in an unofficial capacity for this article.

Translation by Amitt