Kyoko Yoshida, "The First Kyoto Writers' Residency"

If our goal had simply  been to bring together authors from all over the world so that we improve literature’s economic outcomes, what an incredibly cost-ineffective endeavor it would be! 

Kyoko Yoshida 吉田恭子 is a fiction writer, translator, and  the director of Kyoto Writers’ Residency. She was an IWP fellow in 2005 and currently teaches American Literature at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. Her collections of stories are Disorientalism (2013) and Spring Sleepers (2017).


On October 21, 2022, the inaugural Kyoto Writers' Residency, the first international residency of its kind in Japan, came to an end.

A residency is an arrangement in which artistic creatives or sciences and humanities researchers visit places for a long-term stay to devote themselves to their work; in our modern age, residencies primarily take place at universities, but the history of residency programs goes further back. You might say, for example, that Leonardo da Vinci’s stay at Château du Clos Lucé under the auspices of King Francis I was also a residency; Villa Medici in Rome also has a long history of taking in artists of the Francophone world.

A literary residency is specifically aimed at writers. It provides them with time and a new place and atmosphere where they can focus on their writing.

As a writer writing in English, I had the opportunity to participate in the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa during my 2005 sabbatical. Thirty-seven writers from thirty-one countries gathered there. This was my first experience with a writers’ residency. What was most eye-opening for me was how many of these writers had left their home countries and were writing in their second or third languages. The current state of creative writing can no longer be contained within the framework of national literatures. Unlike Minae Mizumura who, in the wake of attending IWP the previous year (2004), had lamented the decline of ethnic mother tongues, I was very much encouraged by the fluidity of the relationship between writers and their creative languages.

The IWP had a major impact on my career. My opportunities to participate in literary festivals and residencies in places around the Asia-Pacific and the UK increased, and my network expanded. However, I never saw other Japanese writers at literary festivals abroad. No matter where I went, though the organizers and members of the cultural agencies involved very much hoped for participation from Japan, there were no connections between those organizers and our own.

In 2014, I took a position at Ritsumeikan University—it had been nearly twenty years since I lived in Kyoto, and as I rode my bicycle through the Nishijin district to work each day, I began to fantasize about a literary residency in Kyoto—I couldn’t think of any other city in Japan suitable for the purpose. This is a thousand-year-old city full of cultural heritage still alive. The downtown area is walkable, and the rent is still moderate. The city center is not too far away from the lush mountains. Kyoto is also a major college town, which meant potential fans and supporters for such a project. I had voiced this idea now and then, but it wasn't until February 2020 that I spoke about my idea to the author and modern Japanese literature scholar Sawanishi Yūten (澤西祐典), and with his big Bambi eyes sparkling, he immediately replied, “That sounds too fun to pass.” Only two weeks later, I received an e-mail from Sawanishi-san telling me that he had presented a plan to the president of Ryukoku University where he teaches. Through his incredible initiative, a fantasy became reality. The president agreed to serve on our advisory board.

Japanese universities are not famous for their artistic patronage. Literary art in modern Japan has mainly been supported by commercial publishing thanks to a robust readership. As the reading population shrinks and the literary forms and tastes become more diverse, there has been much effort to come up with alternative ways to publish and support literary productions, Yet, I knew that persuading any university officials to host a literary residency on campus was a Sisyphean attempt, and my goal was a gathering of writers, not institutional reform. I imagined more of a fluid organization run by a loose network of creative-minded literary scholars affiliated with different institutions in Kyoto, taking advantage of our infrastructures and resources, and accommodating writers from around the world in the middle of the city.

To form an executive committee, we began speaking with committed literary scholars at other Kyoto institutions. Fujii Hikaru (藤井光) at Doshisha University (now  affiliated with Tokyo University), Mori Shin’ichirō ( 森慎一郎 ) at Kyoto University, Kawada Manabu (河田学) and Enami Amiko (江南亜美子) at Kyoto University of the Arts. From there we also added Katsuya Mami (勝冶真美) and Cardonnel Sae (カルドネル佐枝) for their knowledgeable experience with artist residencies, Yotsumoto Hidekazu (四元秀和) a cultural administrator from the City Hall, and Miyasako Norihiko (宮迫憲彦) the owner of Çava Books bookstore.

Having gathered our cohort, our next challenge was finding funding. We'd counted on funding from the Agency for Cultural Affairs (a suborganization of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology), but our applications for grants for an artist-in-residency program were rejected two years in a row. As international arts festivals, film festivals, and theater festivals spread through every corner of Japan, we’ve seen an increase in artistic residencies. However, the concept of a literary residency was too exotic to administrators of other arts. In the end, we decided to depend on corporate and private donations with the help of small research budgets from universities. I am convinced that Kyoto has enough business owners who would endorse new cultural endeavors. I have also observed elsewhere that having a number of small donors, instead of one big patron, would give a longer life to the project. And of course, how Paul Engle managed IWP through private donations has been an inspiration.

The largest reason for the lack of literary residencies in Japan and the scarce number of Japanese writers participating in literary festivals and residencies overseas is clear to anyone and everyone: the language barrier. In the case of the visual arts, you can just show the residents’ work and even non-specialists can “see” the fruits of the residency. However, in the arena of international language arts exchange, we remain in the state of, to borrow from George Steiner, After Babel.  To start an attractive literary residency in Japan, we must make efforts to dismantle the language barrier, both for the authors and for fans of literature. Without these efforts, writers lose the opportunity to share their works with the locals. This means we have to work with literary translators all over Japan. And to make this point, that we regard them as much artists as poets and novelists, we decided to invite literary translators who worked from Japanese into their various languages. Additionally, we would invite not only writers from abroad but also Japanese writers so they could experience the residency first-hand. We hoped that this in turn would serve as the spark that would encourage them and other Japanese authors to apply for residencies overseas.

At the end of our long and winding road, we received the confirmation of our last and sixth participant a month before the residency was supposed to open. In the wake of COVID, the national border was not yet open for normal visits from overseas, so we had to apply for special visas for all the writers. The six residents who gathered in Kyoto on October 1 were, I must confess, chosen by a series of fortuities rather than by a board of judges. It was as if they had gathered, pulled by invisible forces. It turned out to be a very tight group.

An opening forum took place the day after the writers’ arrival at the very center of Kyoto, at Kunjukan Hall of Shoeido Incense Corporation. We celebrated our inaugural residency by introducing the six writers. The forum’s theme was “Writing (in) Disruption.” We asked the writers about big moments that separate their life into before and after as well as their small daily disruptions and literary works they admire that depict fractures in general.

Serendipitously, our line-up of six residents posed the question of belonging in the contemporary literary scene. Alfian Sa’at, who works as a playwright and whose collection of short stories Malay Sketches had just come out from Shoshikankanbou in Fujii Hikaru’s Japanese translation, is a Malaysian Singaporean who writes in English. Anna Cima writes in Czech and is also a researcher and translator of Japanese literature who had lived in Tokyo for five years; her debut novel is Probudím se na Šibuji (I Wake Up in Shibuya, translated into Japanese by Abe Ken’ichi (阿部賢一) and Sudо̄ Teruhiko (須藤輝彦), Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2021). At the Japan PEN Kyoto Conference that the writers were invited to during the residency, Cima graciously gave an impromptu speech about her experience with our residency in perfect Japanese. Paula Morris, a Maori writer who teaches creative writing at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, writes novels and essays that superpose her personal heritage over world history. For the occasion of her visit, she prepared an anthology, Taste of Clouds, containing excerpts of works about Japan from various contemporary New Zealand writers, a truly wonderful gift for us. Hubert Antoine, who was born in Belgium and writes in French, had just come back to Belgium from Mexico, his home for the past twenty-six years, before his first visit to Japan, expressing again and again his reluctance to be called “a Belgian author.” Emily Balistrieri hails from the U.S., currently resides in Osaka, and participated as a translator. A longtime fan of Morimi Tomihiko (森見登美彦) and now his translator into English, Balistrieri planned an event with literary critic Watanabe Sukezane (渡辺祐真) at the local cinema where Morimi adaptations were screening. It was a Morimi love fest. And lastly, our Japanese participant was О̄mae Ao (大前粟生), a writer whom Balistrieri eagerly looks forward to introducing through translation. Though this was О̄mae’s first experience with a residency, once all the writers had arrived, as a one-time resident of Kyoto, he immediately took on the job of designated guide, welcoming his fellow writers from overseas by making liberal use of WhatsApp to connect them to information about the city.

We only had enough funds to put up our guests in a modest business hotel for their three-week residency, but the nearby Wacoal Study Hall, an elegant private library managed by the eponymous lingerie company headquartered in Kyoto, graciously offered us the use of their library to provide our writers with a place to work. The writers very much enjoyed the spacious and stylish co-working space inside Wacoal’s glass-front building, and by the third day, each settled on a favorite spot. The sight of these writers, each of whom had come from starkly different places all over the world gathered in one shared space and worked in different languages to create different imaginative worlds was surreal. Simply having them in the same space was like witnessing the magic of literature.

And when late afternoon rolled around, the residents traded messages and set out to explore Kyoto, challenging new cuisines, finding comfortable pubs and bars, and discussing literature—betting drinks on who might win the next Nobel Prize in literature (nobody won the bet)—and they would walk back to their hotel. One hour on foot can take you anywhere you’d want to go—this scale is the essence of Kyoto. Sa’at, who lives in the tropics and avoids walking outdoors as much as possible, said that he rediscovered the charm of a stroll during his three weeks with the other authors.

On the day before the last day of the residency, we held a reading at Wacoal Study Hall. The event was not widely publicized as the opening forum, but still, students, local poets, foreign lit fans, and those who had heard the news, including people traveling all the way from Tokyo, filled the venue.

Morris read a dark-humored opening of her short story in progress, narrated by a mysterious intelligence agent, who could also be a serial killer of Japanese salarymen. Hubert Antoine read a new poem about the moment his eyes met those of a deer in Nara. It was a profound experience for the poet, no less so than his namesake Saint Hubert of Ardennes who saw a cross between the antlers of a deer.  Sa’at, who had talked about his mother’s death as a major life event at the opening forum, reported that finally, he could write about it by setting up a story in Kyoto, which the narrator and his dying mother visit. After drinking the spring water that promises longevity, the two climb up the famous wooden deck of Kiyomizudera Temple on the hillside that commands the city. A sunset described in the last scene crystallizes the memory of his mother in an imaginary journey—a lyrical and technical feat. Its Japanese translation was read by his Chinese-Malaysian partner who had been separated from him during the COVID times. Cima presented an excerpt from her second full-length novel Vzpomínky na úhoře [Eel Memories], which came out in the Czech Republic while she was in residency in Japan. Like her first novel, Vzpomínky na úhoře is set in Japan. This tale of adventure follows Sára, a Japanese-Czech biologist who makes friends with curious women here and there as she attempts to learn about the strange life cycle of the Japanese eel. The translation was read by novelist Fujino Kaori (藤野香織), who made a guest appearance at the event. With their similar builds and neat, cropped hair, not only do Cima and Fujino look alike, but they are also perfectly alike in disposition, both gutsy and compassionate. It was striking to hear Fujino read a story set in Yokohama through her strong Kyoto accent, but at the same time, it somehow fit to a tee. I eagerly await the day I can read the entire novel in a Japanese translation. О̄mae Ao selected one of his absurdly fantastic flash fictions, to be read in tandem with the English translation by Emily Balistrieri. It was a singular moment in which author and translator were together in the same place reading the same work side by side as if presenting the same dream in different languages.

Literature is not created in a faraway universe. People among us who live here and now give birth to poetic language. By witnessing the residents and bending our ears to their voices, the audience at a reading forms a relationship with the writers and receives a gift from them. The circle of camaraderie the writers had built among themselves opens up to invite those at the reading. This is precisely why after such a rich and nourishing reading, words beget more words, and people find it difficult to leave—because they wish to convey their words to these writers. Following the reading, small groups formed here and there, drawing the writers in. We ended up chatting past the venue’s closing time, which inevitably caused problems for staff waiting to clean up.

Those three weeks passed like a dream. However, one successful residency would mean we just got lucky. Hearing about Japan’s first international writers’ residency, people tend to imagine that we have an actual building that serves as a residence, staff members devoted to the project, and secure funding to pay for the whole thing. At present, we have none of that. Our initial goal was to get it started so that skeptics could see what it was. We have a lot of homework before us to see that our residency becomes annual.

While we were preparing for this first residency, I was compelled to demonstrate the mainly financial “benefits” of having a writers’ residency in Japan to academics, public officers, and corporate managers. This made me uneasy, and I sometimes felt myself at a loss for words. Of course, we would probably contribute to sales of the authors’ works, and of course, our authors from overseas would discover the charm of Japan and Kyoto during their long stay. But these kinds of “benefits” are, in truth, nothing more than a bonus. If our goal had simply been to bring together authors from all over the world so that we improve literature’s economic outcomes, what an incredibly cost-ineffective endeavor it would be! The moment the word “benefits” comes into play, the categories of our thoughts and imaginations are shoved into the limiting framework of a prescribed flow chart whose precondition is that any value can be turned into money.

Having now completed this first residency, I am more certain than ever that its benefits are actually in the creation of value none of us could have known beforehand. Here was born a creative space that surpassed our wildest imaginings. But looking back on it, I think perhaps our chance meetings with literary moments strike unexpectedly, betraying our own plans. The reason people invest so much passion, knowledge, time, and resources into the arts and literature is that they desire to share a horizon beyond the imagination. A literary residency can become the stage from which that vision launches.


Translated from the Japanese by Laurel Taylor

A version of this essay was first published in Japanese in the April 2023 issue of Tosho (図書; Iwanami Shoten Publishers).


Laurel Taylor is a translator, poet, and Ph.D. candidate in Japanese and Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. Her writing and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Monkey, The Asia Literary Review, Mentor & Muse, Asymptote, and elsewhere.

B.Bircher_blue abstraction

91st M 2023 vol 12 no 1


Juan Rulfo, "The Fields on Fire"; translated from the Spanish by John White

Florence Sunnen, “Bone Sharks/Ossicles”

Ao О̄mae, "Shark Friends";  translated from the Japanese by Emily Balistrieri

Kyoko Yoshida, "The First Kyoto Writers' Residency." Translated from the Japanese by Laurel Taylor

"Drawing Words from a Well: Antonio Gamoneda’s Castilian Blues": a review essay by Sara Gilmore


Victoria Amelina, "Не поезія"/ "Niepoezja"/ "Not Poetry"; translated from the Ukrainian by Aneta Kamińska and from the Polish by Krystyna Dąbrowska