What has led to the great resurgence of literature from Japan

With their novel experiments with form and content, bold literary conceits and sense of rhythm, Japanese writers in translation are getting commercial success and critical acclaim more than ever before

Japanese writers

The Latin American literature boom of the 1960s and 1970s, led by Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia), Carlos Fuentes (Mexico) and Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), changed the contours of world literature in unprecedented ways. The publication of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), the multi-generational saga of the Buendía family set in the fictitious town of Macondo, in particular, marked a ‘before and after’ moment for many writers around the world.

Soaked in the rich history and culture of Colombia, the novel made the genre of magic realism, which blurs the line between the real and the fantastical, a part of the literary consciousness of several generations of readers and writers. Márquez’s blend of myth and fantasy and his vivid metaphors left an indelible imprint on the imagination of several writers, including Salman Rushdie, whose phantasmagorical novel Midnight’s Children (1981), in which he mines his family memory, is an overwhelming ode to magic realism.

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Chinese writer Mo Yan (67), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, was so dazzled by One Hundred Years of Solitude that he read its Chinese translation many times over. His novels, in which he evokes his childhood and homeland, bear this literary influence. The Nobel citation described Yan as a writer who merges folk tales, history and the contemporary with hallucinatory realism.

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Decades after the Latin American boom, a clutch of fiction writers is at the forefront of the resurgence of Japanese literature. With their novel experiments with form and content, bold literary conceits and sense of rhythm, Japanese writers in translation are getting commercial success and critical acclaim more than ever before. Their works get routinely published in the UK and the US, and have garnered global readership.

Magic realism: The arc of influence  

The Japanese translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude, published in 1972, was a landmark in Japan’s 20th-century cultural life. Besides writers, it became a source of inspiration for professionals in the fields of cinema, drama and anime film. Japanese writers such as Kōbō Abe (1924-1993), Kenzaburō Ōe (87) and Natsuki Ikezawa (77) openly acknowledged Marquez’s influence on their writing. More recently, in Haruki Murakami’s novels, magical realism serves as a tool to depict the twisted reality of his traumatized characters. Ōe was awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize, the citation said, for creating “an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.”

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Incidentally, Abe had entered into a period of depression after he read Marquez’s epic. He was struck by prolonged writer’s block that lasted until 1982, when Márquez won the Nobel Prize. To Abe, the Colombian author had been immortalised and ceased to be his direct competition after the Nobel recognition. His widow, Machi, had revealed this years after his death.

Natsuki Ikezawa (77), another best-known Japanese writer, once said that had it not been for One Hundred Years of Solitude, he would never have written his own novel, The Navidad Incident: The Downfall of Matias Guili (1993); the fictional Pacific island called Navidad in which it’s set is, like Macondo, a universe unto itself, and Ikezawa, like Marquez, resorts to allegories in order to explain modern Japan.

Japanese poet, filmmaker and theater director Shuji Terayama (1935-1983), who adapted the novel for the big screen, had to change its title to Saraba no Hakobune (Farewell to the Ark), after he failed to impress Marquez and the latter did not allow him to use the title of the novel for the film; it was screened at the Cannes in 1985 as a posthumous work of Terayama. In Terayama’s film, Macondo is infused with Japanese folk culture. At some point, all the town’s clocks disappear. There are notes stuck on objects to identify them. A woman is punished with a chastity belt, which is shaped like a crab.

The resurgence led by women

While manga (comics) and video games are the popular forms of entertainment in Japan, it is literature that remains the best way to grapple with the country’s plights and predicaments. Today, Japanese contemporary writers are telling quixotic, unconventional stories that boast of intriguing characters and indelible imagery. If Haruki Murakami (74) and Keigo Higashino (64) have earned their perpetual place in the global publishing calendar, readers are also discovering the dystopian world of Ryu Murakami (70), whose novels are also centred on the alienation and existential crisis — as surrealist and sinister as Haruki Murakami’s.

In recent years, it’s the young Japanese women writers, who are feeding the increasing demand in the West for Japanese stories enmeshed in social precarity, perversion and psychic wounds. Last year, Heaven (Europa Editions, 2021), the heart-breaking story of a 14-year-old boy who is bullied by Mieko Kawakami (46), was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Known for her slice-of-life novels like Strange Weather in Tokyo (2001) and The Nakano Thrift Shop (2005), both translated by Alison Markin Powell, are set in the heart of backstreet Tokyo. In 2020, Yoko Ogawa (60) became the finalist for the International Booker Prize for Memory Police. Translated by Stephen Snyder, it’s a “haunting and provocative fable about the power of memory and the trauma of loss,” as the jury for the Booker Prize termed it.

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In 2021, Aoko Matsuda (43) received the World Fantasy Award for the English translation of her short stories, Where the Wild Ladies Are, translated by Polly Barton. In 2020, Miri Yu (53) won the US National Book Award for Translated Literature for the English translation for Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles. Sayaka Murata (43) won the Akutagawa Prize for Convenience Store Woman (Portobello Books, 2018), which chronicles the struggles of a single woman working at a convenience store, with a dash of humour; it was a bestseller in the UK and the US and sold more than 2,50,000 copies.

In Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Yoko Tawada (62) portrays Japan as a dystopia where the youth are born frail and old. Translated by Susan Bernofsky, it features tales told from three generations of polar bear. Her 2014 novel, The Last Children of Tokyo (translated by Margaret Mitsutani), was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Among the younger generation, Emi Yagi (34) published Diary of a Void, her first novel, in which a woman fakes pregnancy to avoid the unpaid office work, last year.

In their quest to find more and more Japanese stories, publishers and translators are also turning to writers like Kōno Taeko (1926-2015), who was known for her acerbic essays, and Yūko Tsushima (1947-2016), who earned a reputation for her unflinching portrayal of a woman’s innermost fears and desires.

The ascent of Japanese literature in translation looks set to continue in the years to come. Its modern literature was shaped by the interactions between the native tradition and the imported forms and styles during the Meiji period (1868-1912), which marked the re-opening of Japan to the West, ending over two centuries of self-enforced national seclusion, and triggering grand experiments in literature. This was long before the Latin American boom and Marquez. The literature being produced in the first quarter of the 21st century in Japan has the undercurrent of another boom, signalling the literary world’s shift to the East.

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