Tokyo event celebrates literature of EU nations

Courtesy of Embassy of Ireland, Japan
Paula Meehan

Can free speech save the world? The idea came up in the opening minutes of the European Literature Festival, which kicked off on Tuesday night in Tokyo with an onstage dialogue between Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, whose books include “Utopia for Realists,” and University of Tokyo Prof. Kohei Saito, whose “Marx in the Anthropocene” will soon be published in English.

The theme of the event, which continues through Sunday, is “100 Years of European Literature: Europe Then and Now,” as 2022 is the centenary of such milestones as the birth of Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago and the publication of Irish novelist James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

Bregman said the current situation in Europe, particularly Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has reminded him of “just how incredibly precious and important democracy is, freedom of speech, freedom of association.”

Referring to his recent study of the antislavery movement in 18th- and 19th-century Britain, Bregman said that “a very small group of thoughtful, committed citizens who dared to risk their reputations” were able to succeed because their society respected freedom of speech. “It’s so important for progress in society that we are willing to discuss ideas that we may not initially like.”

Twenty European Union countries are taking part in the multilingual festival, with events held at venues around Tokyo. Some are also being shown live online. Presentations in English include a Friday talk on “War in Ukraine” by journalist Tomas Forro, who will read from his book “Donbass,” and a Saturday discussion of Greek views of haiku with poet Harry Ioseph.

Several sessions feature leading Irish poet Paula Meehan, including a Sunday event where she will present elegiac verse from “For the Hungry Ghosts,” a collection written in response to “Ulysses” and “through the powerful and deeply personal lens of the grief and trauma she has experienced, inherited and lived,” according to the program.

Admission is free, but those attending are asked to register in advance. For details and to register, visit