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Chinese actors attend a press conference for movie "Namiya" adapted from Japanese writer Keigo Higashino's novel "Miracles of the Namiya General Store" in Beijing in October 2017 (Imaginechina/AP Images)

Bull market in bungaku highlights Japanese literary revival

China leads international boom in demand for new and old authors

PETER TASKER, Contributing writer | Japan

TOKYO -- Is there a relationship between the popularity of Japanese authors overseas and the Nikkei 225 Index? At first sight it seems unlikely, but Japan's cultural footprint has expanded greatly since the "two lost decades," as the economic malaise that followed the bursting of the 1980s bubble economy came to be known.

In that dismal period, Japanese publishers and media companies were in defensive mode -- indeed, Kodansha International, a high profile publisher of Japanese books in English, went out of business in 2011, when the Nikkei index was languishing at 8,000 from an all-time high of nearly 39,000 in late December 1989. Likewise foreign interest in Japan dwindled, as the then-current term "Japan passing" suggests.

Now, with the Nikkei index hovering around 20,000 and tourists and students flocking to Japan in unprecedented numbers, Japanese cultural artifacts such as anime, cosplay and cuisine are booming globally. It should come as no surprise that Japanese authors are increasingly in demand, and new publishing ventures are emerging.

According to Richard Nathan, co-founder of Red Circle, an imprint specializing in original Japanese fiction, "the revival of interest in Japanese writing is clear for all to see."

Certainly, there has been a rise in the level of international critical esteem for creative Japanese literature, known as bungaku. In 2018, Yoko Tawada's "The Emissary" won the U.S. National Book Award for Translated Literature. In the U.K., "Convenience Store Woman," Sayaka Murata's first book published in English, was named Fiction Book of the Year by Foyles, London's most famous bookshop, and featured in the year-end recommended lists of The Guardian and the Boston Globe newspapers and Time magazine.

Works of older vintage are still attracting acclaim. Among books of the year listed in the technology magazine Wired was John Bester's translation of "Once and Forever: The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa" -- indicating that the work of the "sage of Tohoku," Miyazawa's home region, who died in 1933, is still relevant in our internet-dominated world.

Sayaka Murata at a press conference for winning Japan's prestigious Akutagawa Prize in July 2016

Huge new markets are appearing too. Keigo Higashino, the king of Japanese mystery writing, has ousted J.K. Rowling as the best-selling foreign author of all time in China. His non-mystery novel, "The Miracle of Namiya General Store," has yet to appear in English, but has already sold more than 8 million copies in the Chinese market, and a film version has appeared starring Jackie Chan.

In some book stores, Higashino sometimes occupies half the spots in the top 10 list, rather as the Beatles used to dominate the popular music charts in the mid-1960s. Chinese readers also favor Japan's modern classics, with Osamu Dazai's harrowing "No Longer Human" sometimes rating as the best-selling at online bookseller

Keigo Higashino

As Wu Huaiyao, creator of China's "Foreign Writers' Rich List" puts it, "the fact that Japanese authors have captured the hearts of Chinese readers shows that the charms of literature have no borders." Higashino is also a big seller in South Korea. In 2018 he was joined on the top 10 best-seller list of the nation's largest bookstore, Kyobo, by fellow Japanese mystery writer Gaku Yakumaru.

According to South Korean publisher Joo Yeon-sun, quoted in the Korea Times, "Japanese fiction sold well due to literary sophistication and meeting younger Korean readers' higher standards." So beneath the political tensions between Japan and its former colony is a meeting of minds -- or at least of literary tastes.

One Japanese author who has never experienced a bear market and went from strength to strength even during the lost decades is Haruki Murakami -- undoubtedly the best known and most widely read Japanese writer of all time. As of late January he was 43rd in Amazon's ranking of authors of contemporary literary fiction, ahead of megaseller Neil Gaiman.

Haruki Murakami, laureate of Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award 2016, stands outside H. C. Andersen's house in Odense, Denmark.   © Reuters

Seemingly a perpetual candidate for the Nobel Prize, he earned the ”Harry Potter treatment" in 2011 as London bookshops opened at midnight to satisfy fans eagerly awaiting his latest opus. In 2018 a weeklong international conference of scholars was convened to discuss his work in the U.K., with similar events taking place in France, Australia and the Philippines.

Not everyone appreciates the global phenomenon that Murakami has become. Professor John Whittier Treat of Yale University, who describes him as a "poor writer," is just one of several distinguished naysayers. Only time will decide Murakami's literary merits, but he has certainly shown the often provincial Japanese literary world what is possible in terms of global reach, and is an inspiration to both writers and publishers.

Red Circle is an example of an ambitious publishing venture exploring new territory. Nathan and partner Koji Chikatani have commissioned original work, unpublished in Japanese, from well-established authors keen to project themselves to a global audience.

Included in their first offerings are stories by Kazufumi Shiraishi, a winner of the Naoki Prize, a semiannual Japanese literary award for rising authors, and Kanji Hanawa, who has been twice nominated for the Akutagawa Prize, Japan's pre-eminent literary award. Such entrepreneurialism by all concerned would have been an unlikely prospect in the stagnant, inward-looking atmosphere of the lost decades.

There remains a wealth of modern Japanese literature that has yet to be translated into English, with only a small selection of the work of major writers such as Yasushi Inoue and Masuji Ibuse currently available. But as long as the Nikkei index stays aloft and Japan's global profile remains strong there should be increasing demand for the work of Japanese writers alive and dead, together with a greater willingness to supply it.

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