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Japan's literati impervious to politics

TOKYO -- Bookworms across Northeast Asia seem indifferent to the region's political fights.

     Literary works by popular contemporary Japanese authors such as Keigo Higashino and Kotaro Isaka are being translated quickly and sold in South Korea, China and Taiwan.

     In some cases, translation requests are filed as soon as new books are released. Foreign-language versions are sometimes released within six months after the originals hit Japan's shelves. But exports to Europe and the U.S. are not progressing as desired. New efforts to promote authors in those markets are underway.

Books written by Keigo Higashino are displayed at a bookstore in Beijing.

     Higashino's latest novel, "Shippu Rondo" (The Rondo of the Squall), was translated into Korean and hit Seoul's bookstores in January. More than a million copies of the book, which centers on a biological weapon buried under a ski slope, have been printed in Japan since publication in late November.

Widely read

"South Korea has a lot of Higashino fans who are eager for his latest works," said Akira Tateno, a translator and expert on the Korean publishing industry. 

     Higashino enjoys a stable fan base in South Korea and China. Many of his works, including the Detective Galileo crime series, have been translated. A Chinese translation of "Mugen-bana" (An Otherworldly Flower),  which was released in Japan last May by PHP Institute, arrives on Chinese shelves this year.

     "It is such a great joy that people overseas are reading my novels," Higashino reportedly said.

     Kenji Matsumoto, who handles the foreign rights to Higashino's four novels for literary and media agency Creek and River, is pleased with the author's overseas success. "Numerous Chinese publishers are interested in Higashino's work," he said. "We hope to continue translating his novels."


Kotaro Isaka, known for novels such as "Goruden Suranba" (Golden Slumber) translated into English as "Remote Control," also has Asia aspirations. Isaka met with his fans in Taiwan at an event held last August to mark the release of "SOS no Saru" (SOS Monkey). The book's paperback edition went on sale in Japan in late 2012. It is rare for the reclusive Isaka to make public appearances.

     Isaka's foreign rights are handled by the Tokyo-based literary agency Cork. Twenty of his works have been translated and sold in China, Taiwan and South Korean. "Buoyancy of Death,"  released last August in Japan, is being translated for South Korean and Taiwanese markets.

     Chinese and South Korean publishers and agents actively seek out translation rights for popular Japanese writers. Interest in Haruki Murakami's work is especially high. Last April's "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" was translated into Korean three months later, and a Chinese version came out after half a year.

     Authors who have won Japan's prestigious Akutagawa and Naoki prizes draw a lot of attention in China and South Korea. "Ana" (Hole) won Hiroko Oyamada the Akutagawa Prize in January. After that, translation requests came streaming into Shinchosha Publishing for the novel and Oyamada's first published work, "Kojo" (Factory). 

Bridging gaps

Shuppan Nenkan, a publishing industry yearbook produced by Shuppan News, says 781 Japanese novels were translated and published in South Korea in 2012. Writers such as Shuichi Yoshida and Hideo Okuda are very popular. "Young South Koreans who understand Japanese lifestyles and culture constitute the fan base," said translator Tateno. "Literature is separate from the political wrangling between Japan and South Korea."

     According to the Japan Foundation, more than 200 Japanese literary works were translated into Chinese last year. Soji Shimada and Nanae Aoyama are popular in the country. "China's economy is growing and its social, regional and familial structures are going through major changes," said Shozo Fujii, professor of contemporary Chinese literature at the University of Tokyo. "The country is trying to catch up with Japan. Younger Chinese identify with the underbelly of Japanese society these authors depict."

     Japanese literature is struggling in Europe and the U.S. Writers such as Fuminori Nakamura and Yoko Ogawa have garnered attention, but Haruki Murakami is about the only widely recognized author. It is difficult to get Japanese literature translated and sold in the U.S. and European markets, where commercial success is a prerequisite. 

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