Changing Trends for Japanese Women in the World of International Literature

Japan Racing Association

Works of modern Japanese literature are increasingly attracting attention in English-speaking countries. Over the past few years, female authors have received one remarkable literary award after another. Indeed, the novel by Mieko Kawakami, 45, Heaven (Europa Editions, 2021) is one of six titles this year in the running for the UK’s 2022 International Booker Prize. In addition to the power of her writing, her breakthrough can be attributed to changing trends in the publishing industries in the UK and the US.

“It moves me to have my work read in another language,” Kawakami said enthusiastically of his nomination for the upcoming International Booker Prize. The prize, announced May 26 in the UK, is for the translated works category of the Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary prize. In the past, a laureate was even awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Kawakami is the second Japanese writer shortlisted for the prize, after Yoko Ogawa, 60, who was shortlisted two years ago.

The nominated novel Heaven (published by Kodansha, 2009) is the story of a bullied 14-year-old boy. When the English version was published last year, the book was highly praised by major British newspapers. It was a hot topic in “The Independent”, which described the feeling of reading it as follows: “[It] it looks like there is a beautiful and cruel teenager sitting on your chest.

Last year, 42-year-old Aoko Matsuda won a World Fantasy Award for her short stories. And two years ago, Miri Yu, 53, also won the US National Book Award for Translated Literature.

Japanese and English editions of “Heaven” by author Mieko Kawakami.

Behind the Popularity of Japanese Female Writers

The reason for the surge of Japanese literary works written in the prize race is also due to the growth of foreign audiences. The US Academy Awards film festival is reforming its awards programs over lack of diversity seen as a problem. Awareness of racial and gender diversity is also growing in the publishing industry.

“Thoughts are starting to spread that we had been rather confined to one language which is English. There is a growing interest in translated literature that captures the diversity of voices,” says translator David Karashima, associate professor at Waseda University.

The National Book Awards’ Translated Literature category returned in 2018 for the first time in 35 years. And since 2016, the International Booker Prize, which initially rewarded the achievements of writers, has transformed into a prize that selects a single literary work.

These changes are considered symbolic. As a result, writers who still lack a catalog of English translated works are now also recognized as legitimate competitors.

Change the role of translators

The range of translators is also expanding. After the war, when authors such as Junichiro Tanizaki and Yasunari Kawabata were introduced, their works were translated by scholars of Japanese literature like Donald Keene. However, since the 1980s when the works of Haruki Murakami began to be translated, freelance translators not affiliated with universities have increased. The cases that particularly stood out were those who were actively translating new literary works that matched their feelings.

Woman convenience store (Portobello Books, 2018), an Akutagawa Prize-winning novel by Sayaka Murata, humorously chronicles the struggles of a single woman working at a convenience store. The novel was translated into English by a freelance translator four years ago and became a bestseller in the UK and US, selling over 250,000 copies.

The discovery of new Japanese talent is gaining momentum. As one publishing subsidiary puts it, “Many people appreciate the unique originality and humor of Japanese female writers.”

“It is important to establish a strong and trusting relationship with foreign translators and publishers in order to create an environment where books can be published continuously. So that this positive trend doesn’t end up becoming just another fad,” says Karashima.

(Read this article in Japanese on this link.)


AUTHOR: Rui Ebisawa


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