Japanese Literature in 2020

Everybody starts their summing up of 2020 by saying that it was a year of challenges and difficulties, and I suppose it really was, but it was also a year that forced a lot of latent issues brewing underneath the surface into the open, and it also showed us the meaning of a global world. It is not about being “on the move,” and “being nomadic.” Rather it is about a common responsibility for the planet we all share. It is about caring for other, more vulnerable people, rather than being stuck on our personal (undoubtedly important) wellbeing. It is also about making a conscious effort to create meaningful cross-cultural, cross-national, but also small-scale intra-community connections. It is about acknowledging heterogeneity, without becoming atomized individuals. It is about solidarity, community, civic society, and political action.

In a recent interview, Haruki Murakami said that he believes that “Japanese politicians were horrible” in dealing with the crisis, because “they failed to speak in their own words and were unable to deliver their message.” Murakami proceeds to say that he felt disappointed that the officials, including prime ministers (Shinzō Abe resigned in September, citing health problems, and was replaced by Yoshihide Suga) were reciting their messages from the page, without addressing the people in their own voice. Of course, talking with passion and from the heart, acknowledging mistakes, and being truthful, like, for example, Angela Merkel, is important. But it is not about speech, it is about seeing people. And seeing people means seeing all the people –  the homeless, the non-nationals, people with disabilities, single mothers, those who suffer from domestic violence. Murakami’s comment is important, but, as always, a bit diluted and vague. Facing political issues is not his forte. Which is fine. A writer is not necessarily an activist. But literature can be and is a great venue to sound the alarm, to raise problems, without losing its “literariness.” I think the last decade (and since we are about to enter a new one, I think it is appropriate to refer to the whole decade) saw important developments and emergent new voices, disturbing the perceived (and promoted) neat homogeneity of Japanese culture.

This summary is very subjective and lacking, but I thought to put in writing some of the things I found interesting and important regarding Japanese literature in 2020 and in the 2010s as a whole.

Akutagawa, Naoki & Bookseller’s Awards winners

First, to record the most recent winners of the most prestigious literary prizes – Akutagawa & Naoki, as well as Japan Booksellers’ Award, a prize that in recent years becomes increasingly important, reflecting tastes in popular literature.

The Akutagawa Prize, for the first part of 2020, was awarded to two writers – Haruka Tono (遠野遥) for破局 (Breakup) and Haneko Takayama (高山羽根子) for 首里の馬 (A Horse from Shuri). Tono’s novel is a somewhat absurdist take on the question of what happens if a young man tries to conform and do everything society expects him to. The last scene weirdly reminded me of Tsutsui Yasutaka’s (way more outrageous and absurd) short story “I am naked,” in which a guy runs naked on the streets of Tokyo after escaping from a fire that erupted in a hotel where he spent his time with a married woman (if you don’t read Japanese, but read Spanish you can find it in Estoy desnudo, translated by Jesús Carlos Alvarez Crespo and published by Ediciones Atalanta). Tono is getting a lot of media attention in Japan, so we should expect more from him. As for me, I found Takayama’s work and subject matter more interesting. It deals with the interconnection between personal and national memory and features a refreshing idea to keep Okinawa’s memories in digitized form around the world and even beneath the ground. You can read my short reviews of these books here:

The Naoki Prize went to Seishū Hase, who is well known for his yakuza-themed novels. The winning work, 少年と犬 (A Boy and His Dog) also features delinquents of various sorts, but it centers around a mixed shepherd named Tamon and inspired by the devastation inflicted upon humans and animals by the Great East Japan Earthquake. Through several connected stories, featuring Tamon, the work explores the relationship between humans and animals. I haven’t read this one yet, but I hope to get to it in 2021.

Yū Nagira (凪良ゆう), a writer whose popularity up until recently was limited to the niche of BL novels, made a breakthrough to a wider audience, with the Booksellers’ Award-winning 流浪の月 (Wandering Moon). The work problematizes, from an unexpected angle, the issue of the victim’s lack of voice within a social and penal system. My short review is here:

I also have to give an honorary mention to a young writer who was nominated for Akutagawa, but didn’t win. Though she missed the most prestigious prize, Rin Usami (宇佐見りん) won the Bungei newcomers’ prize in 2019 for かか (Kaka), a story of a girl growing up and figuring out her relationship with her mother. The work also made her the youngest winner of the Mishima Yukio Prize, awarded in 2020. Her latest work 推し、燃ゆ (a difficult to translate title, literally meaning “Idol, Burning”), focusing on the inner world of a young fan of a music group member, is nominated for Akutagawa Prize to be announced at the beginning of 2021. You can read more about these here:

A great year for Japanese fiction in English translation

Despite the pandemic and its impact on the publishing industry, this has been a particularly good year for Japanese fiction in English translation, both in terms of variety and number of translated titles, and in terms of the attention they received in the media. Miri Yū’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles (Tilted Axis Press, 2019 & Penguin Random House, 2020) won the National Book Award for Translated Literature. The book is also included in the TIMES’ list of “100 Must-Read Books of 2020,” as well as Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori), Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs (tr. Sam Bett and David Boyd), and Aoko Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies Are (tr. Polly Barton).

The recent success of Japanese literature, and especially that of Japanese women writers, has been discussed during the “Bungaku Days” Symposium organized by the Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP). The editors of Japanese literary journals, as well as editors of Western publishing houses, pointed out the trend for diversity in Western (especially English-language) publishing. It seems that the publishers are looking beyond Western literature, with a special focus on women and minorities, a trend that creates spaces for the voices previously ignored . Yoko Sakanoue, the editor of Bungei journal (and the only woman on the panel of Japanese editors), also stressed the fact that in Japan in recent years there were many women who won the Akutagawa Prize and that in general women writers put out great literature and therefore no wonder that it is being picked for translation.

Niwa Kensuke, the editor of Bungei Shunju, mentioned also the role of translators, who become agents and promoters of non-English-language literature. I think it is a very important point. After all, the trend for diversity in literature did not come from nowhere and cannot be attributed solely to the changing social climate. The proliferation of excellent translations and the prominence of women writers in translation has benefited immensely from what might be called translation activism. The appearance in 2016 of the enthusiastic collective Strong Women, Soft Power, comprised of Lucy North, Allison Markin Powell, and Ginny Tapley Takemori, the emergence of new talented and highly motivated translators, such as Morgan Giles, Polly Barton, and Sam Bett, as well as the efforts made by independent publishers, such as Tilted Axis Press and Strangers Press, dedicated to discovering of new, sometimes off-center authors, that are not being picked up by the big publishers, all contributed to the increasing success of contemporary Japanese literature in the English-reading sphere. So my hope is that as long as there are enthusiasts of translation we are going to see more and more exciting new publications in 2021 and beyond.

To watch the editors’ discussion online (with English translation when necessary):

An aside note: one of the positive implications of the global pandemic was that symposia, book readings, and meetings with authors became available outside of the physical venues, which meant that those who are unable to afford the travel expenses, no longer have to miss out. It also means that more people can be exposed to these talks, which is a great thing and should be implemented even after we no longer social distance.

Feminism front and center

As Yoko Sakanoue mentioned, women writers in Japan are increasingly gaining acclaim. If between the years 1991-2000 only 4 women out of 21 winners were awarded Akutagawa prize, while in the new millennium the gender distribution of winners is equal (10 women and 10 men won between 2001-2010 and 10 women and 11 men won between 2011-2020). However, an even more exciting phenomenon of recent years is that feminism gradually loses its status as a “dirty word,” and more and more writers are willing to associate themselves publicly with feminist ideas and claim feminist identity. Of course, it does not mean that previously women writers were not producing subversive literature and by their very presence in the literary field defied stereotypes, but when asked about their feminism, many would usually distance themselves from such self-labeling. However, more and more young and upcoming writers are not shying away from discussion of their feminism. Women are no longer carving space in the crevices of the dominant patriarchal culture, but are fighting to take up as much space as they can. Mieko Kawakami positions herself as a feminist (English-language profiles will always feature the word “feminist,” see for example 1, 2, 3, but you will find it also in Japanese language profiles). Kanako Nishi sites Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as a major influence, Yamazaki Nao-Cola urges to reconsider the rigidity of gender roles and especially of masculinity, and Matsuda Aoko incorporates feminism both in her work as a translator and in her own writing. In a 2016 interview, when told that she talks a lot about her discomfort in the feminist context, she answers: “Of course. It’s something that I get to experience on a daily basis.”

The reasons for the rise of feminism in Japanese literature are of course numerous. One of them is the recent proliferation of feminist groups and movements, like Tomorrow Girls Troop, ETC.BOOKS publishing house specializing in feminist literature, and one-woman #kutoo movement Yumi Ishikawa (who, in fact, should be credited with a brave attempt to start a Japanese #metoo movement). Feminism becomes more and more visible in the virtual Twitter-sphere and spills out into the physical world. However, the feminist breakthrough specifically in the world of letters can be attributed to Korean influence, especially the translation and publication of Cho Nam-ju’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Korean literature started to gain traction in Japan in 2011 when CUON publishing house started a series of “New Literature from Korea” (新しい韓国の文学), which currently includes 21 titles. Cho Nam-ju’s novel was published in 2016 in Korea and instantly became a runaway, sparking a large-scale movement for equality. When it was published in Japan in 2018 in Mariko Saitō’s translation and with her enlightening afterward, it has not failed to touch the hearts of Japanese women as well. The same year also saw the Japanese publication of Lee Min-Gyeong’s (이민경) We Need a Language: Vocal Feminism (우리에겐 언어가 필요하다 입이 트이는페미니즘, not translated into English). Thanks to the imported literature from Korea, Japanese publishers started to realize that unapologetic feminist literature has an enthusiastic audience. In February 2019 an anthology of Korean feminist fiction was published by Hakusuisha. Translation here worked as a testing ground for possibilities. While a publisher would not position a Japanese collection as “feminist,” it was fine to do so with something a bit foreign, an import, especially following Cho Nam-ju’s success. In autumn 2019 Bungei magazine published a special collection of short stories titled Korea-Feminism-Japan, acknowledging the way in which feminism connects Japan and Korea and the way in which Korean feminism has an impact on Japan. The collection turned out so popular that it has been reissued already three times. The collection includes short stories by Cho Nam-ju, Djuna, Kanako Nishi, Han Kang, Nowaki Fukamidori, Lee Lang, Hiroko Oyamada, Park Min-gyu, Haneko Takayma, Pak Sol-moe, and Tomoyuki Hoshino. In this way, the tide that came from Korea, allowed Japanese writers to position themselves within the emerging sphere of feminist literature in Japan.

Non-Japanese Japanese Literature

Another, probably not unrelated, development is the increasingly conspicuous presence of non-Japanese writers writing in Japanese. The myth of Japan’s homogenous society keeps cracking at the seams, igniting rage from nationalist quarters. Miri Yu, among the few non-Japanese nationals who won the Akutagawa Prize, has been fighting courageously and continuously against bigotry and xenophobia. The international recognition has helped to amplify her voice in Japan as well. At a recent press conference at Japan National Press Club, when introduced as 日本人女性作家 Japanese woman writer, she responded by saying “I have South Korean Nationality, so I am not Japanese.” This utterance highlighted the insidious problem of Japanese Korean nationals, who even when legally naturalized as Japanese, are kept being treated as foreigners. Later she wrote in her Twitter account:

I am NOT Japanese.
I am NOT Korean either.
NOT having a national identity is the basis and root of myself as a writer.

And just to give you an idea about the sort of hate she gets, here is a mild example without death threats: “I’d really like this Miri Yu to leave Japan. She’s the kind of activist that keeps parasitizing on Japan because she’ll be discriminated against in Korea.”

Yu herself does not position herself as an activist, but the very desire to be acknowledged and not attacked becomes activism. And she is not alone in the field. More and more non-Japanese writers are having their voices heard, thereby enriching Japanese literature. Ushio Fukazawa (深沢潮), a daughter of Korean permanent residents who was naturalized upon her marriage to a Japanese national, has been publishing since 2012 books that touch upon subjects of national identity as well as sexism in Japanese society. Yuju Wen (温又柔) is a writer of Taiwanese descent, who moved to Japan when she was 3 years old and has been publishing since 2009. She won the Essayist Club Prize for her book of essays titled Born in Taiwan, Raised in Japanese (台湾生まれ 日本語育ち), was nominated for Akutagawa prize, and her latest novel Minced Pork Rice has won her Oda Sakunosuke Prize. Kotomi Li is a newcomer to the Japanese literary scene but has already made a splash, bringing a unique and very needed voice to Japanese literature. She was born in 1989 in Taiwan, started learning Japanese when she was 15, arrived in Japan in 2013, and won the Gunzo New Writers’ Prize for Solo Dance (独り舞) the first novel she has written in Japanese in 2017. She skillfully uses both Japanese and Chinese to create visually and semantically multilayered texts. Her writing is both lyrical and sharp, depicting the struggles faced by lesbians and other minorities, including immigrants. She has also been nominated for Akutagawa and Noma literary prizes. Recently she announced on her Twitter account that Solo Dance is to be translated into English and published by World Editions.

Some final thoughts

I started this write-up without any clear conclusion in mind. Rather I wished to create a snapshot of the Japanese literary scene as I see it. But I think all the points ended up leading to the importance of soaking in new cultures, letting them infiltrate the so-called “our own” culture. Thanks to Mariko Saitō’s dedicated work, Japanese literature was able to expand, try out “feminist fiction,” before accepting it as a valid and welcome possibility. Thanks to the efforts of translators to English and other languages, we are now able to read stories and hear voices that we otherwise would not be able to. The non-mainstream voices are enriching the literary scene. Without cross-fertilization cultures cannot develop, grow and become richer. So let’s wish for more exciting original and translated literature in 2021, no matter where we live!

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