THE NEWSMAN NOVELIST
OVER THE YEARS, MANY talented FCCJ journalists have enjoyed fame and fortune through their books’ translations into Japanese. Pulitzer winner James Michener’s books sold in the millions here. And today, Karel Van Wolferen, Robert Whiting and Bill Emmott’s works make them perennial favorites on the local lecture circuit.
But it’s very likely that the most impressive career in this vein is the one of Earnest Hoberecht (1918- 1999), best known to FCCJ members as the colorful UP bureau chief and former Club president.
Horberecht started earning “a nice bit of change” producing swashbuckling western pulp in his student days at the University of Oklahoma. His big break as a novelist came after he landed in 1945 as “the first foreign correspondent in Japan” to start work at the UP office. Opportunity came knocking when the U.S. Occupation forces banned the translation of all American books in a bid to control the quality and content of American literature entering Japan, creating a vacuum in a country hungering for any sliver of Americana.
Hoberecht and his publisher found their way around the restriction by taking a rough manuscript which Hoberecht dictated to a secretary directly to translation, in effect making their first effort, Tokyo Diary, a Japanese book. The story of an American correspondent’s experience exploring the mysteries of Tokyo, it was an instant bestseller. The novel was graced with the exceptional skills of famed translator Yasuo Okubo, who had first established his reputation with the Japanese edition of Gone with the Wind in 1938, even before the movie’s U.S. release.
Hoberecht and Masunaga positioned themselves as Japan’s new literary “brain trust,” and moved quickly to exploit the momentum with Tokyo Romance, Japan’s biggest post-war blockbuster. The book once again starred an American correspondent, this time finding himself in love with Japan’s biggest film star. Most of the story took place at No. 1 Shimbun Alley. In what Time magazine described as a “richly corned-up novel” with “faint hints of Madame Butterfly” but “with a happy ending,” it featured the added allure of “sensuous illustrations by Tsuguharu Fujita, billed as the first kissing scenes ever to adorn a Japanese novel.”
Suddenly, Hoberecht was as famous in Japan as his good friend General MacArthur, and 300,000 members of the Ernest Hoberecht fan club collectively swooned at his eloquence albeit in the far more gifted Okubo’s Japanese. With Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald all shut out of the market, Ernie alone shouldered the “intellectual burden,” as he would call it, of upholding America’s literary legacy against European rivals such as Dostoevsky, Hugo and Bronte, which remained available in Japanese.
“How do you compare the literary accomplishments of Jean Paul Sartre and Earnest Hoberecht?” James Michener was once asked from the floor after a lecture at Waseda University. His Japanese audience was dumbfounded when Michener admitted he not only had never read Hoberecht, but had never heard of the author.
Soon after, Tokyo Romance was published in its original, rather unpolished form, for a U.S. public curious about its impact on modern Japanese thought. Life followed with a five-page story, declaring Tokyo Romance “the worst novel of modern times” a review rejected by Hoberecht as “near libelous seeing as I have written worse myself.”
Robust in ego and humor alike, he relished his status as the most popular American author in Japan, without any illusions about his literary talents. Until his departure in 1966 his greatest passion remained his day job at UP, though James Michener guessed his royalties in those heady post-war days may have well been the biggest earnings of any writer in the world.