About Japan's New Literary Golden Age
Updated: Jul 20
Recently, I was led to an article in The Japan Times called Is Japan enjoying a new literary golden age?
With more and more Japanese novels in translation achieving commercial and critical success, Nicolas Gatting and Damian Flanagan argue over whether a new wave of writers are transcending Japan's literary past.
Interesting, I thought. Tell me more.
Do I have thoughts on the recent wave of Japanese novels hitting the translation landscape? Absolutely.
Most of those thoughts run alone the lines of, I’m glad it’s happening. Not because I think more people need to read Japanese literature, necessarily. I’m simply delighted that the people who do enjoy reading, are given more choices.
Many of you know I’m neither a Japanese Literature scholar nor literary critic.
What I am is a Tokyo-born, Los Angeles-raised book nerd who reads whatever book - English or Japanese - cries out to me in the moment.
I’ve only recently read my first Yasunari Kawabata. Having not grown up in Japan and never having studied Japanese literature, it never crossed my path before.
(I asked a Japanese friend if everyone in Japan studies Kawabata in school, like how we in the US are assigned Steinbeck and Hawthorne, and she said, yes. Followed by, “But no one remembers anything.”)
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I gaze admiringly at readers who have a clear idea of their reading tastes. I am not one of those people. I’m still figuring out what I love, and what I love, are the books and writers that help me (selfish selfish!) figure out a little more of who I am, where I came from, what cultures have shaped me, and why I think the way that I do.
I don’t necessarily relate to Japanese novels the most - not as much as I would relate to, say a writer who moved to a different country at a very young age and grew up adopting the viewpoints of their new home, and then went back to their birth country as an adult, wanting finally to understand it. They’re often tasked with trying to balance multiple cultures in one life span. That's my genre. The immigrant experience in literature that does not end at immigration.
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When I read Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (a novel cited in the above article as a key player in the recent wave of modern Japanese literature), for example, I didn’t exactly bond with it, shall we say. It was a blockbuster hit in Japan in 2016, scooping up the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. Reactions by Japanese readers swung wildly from one end of the spectrum to the other. I put my researcher's cap on and started studying those reactions. It seems of some relevance to note here, that the original Japanese title is not Convenience Store Woman, but Convenience Store Person or Convenience Store Human. And the cover is decidedly non-feminine, with a massive brick block oozing various objects and who-knows-whats.
The author herself worked in a convenience store while she wrote the book (she has a deep love for conbinis and says they saved her), and notes that convenience stores put all people in the same uniforms, eliminating the concept of gender altogether. That’s the entire point, that people are stripped of their human-ness and turned into mechanical beings, and there, happiness lies.
As a side note, for any of you looking for productivity tips, Murata says in an interview that she worked about three days a week in the convenience store as she wrote this novel. She wrote much more on days she worked, so much so that her editor suggested she take on a few more shifts.
On days I’m not working at the conbini, I sit at home and let my imagination go wild. And that’s different from writing a novel. For me, writing a novel is a very realistic activity, and sitting at home daydreaming is not real. I need to be forced to face reality, and working at the conbini did that for me. On days I wasn’t working, I filled my schedule with english lessons, meetings, doctor’s appointments, writing in cafes. I’m able to write only when I make myself leave the house.
In the novel, a 36-year-old woman who has difficulty connecting with people in real life becomes the definition of efficiency (for 18 years) at a textbook-driven convenience store. The eerie novel creeps along, continually redrawing the line between normal and...not. I don't know Japan well enough to decipher (though I'm learning) how the Japanese define normal, but what I did recognize was that this novel triggered something hidden deep within the culture.
Murata herself was a painfully shy child who couldn’t do what the “other kids did." She couldn’t talk to members of the opposite sex, her parents worried she wouldn’t be able to find work when she grew up, and she shared in those concerns. While she was a student (likely college age), a convenience store opened in her neighborhood. She applied for a job because the store was new, and she would’t have to be the “new girl”, forced to join an already tight-knit group.
The conbini had a strict set of rules that freed her from having to try to be normal. The rules put everyone on the same playing field, and she found she could talk to people of all genders and backgrounds.
It was the first time she felt she blended into society.
But her title Conbini Ningen (Convenience Store Human) implies those rules can also turn you into a robot version of your human self.
That the convenience store, the MOST VISIBLE thing you will see when you visit Japan, signifies societal aspects people most want to avoid facing, is an exhilarating piece of information about Japanese culture.
The conbinis popping up all over Japan are zapping towns and humans of their character. But there is a comforting anonymity to it, not to mention the convenience. Paying a bill? Sending a package? Picking up concert tickets? Need make-up remover? A rip in your stocking? Forgot to wear stockings today? Your phone out of battery? Just head to the nearest conbini.
The Japanese have gotten so used to having conbinis, there is less and less reason to think about things like taking an umbrella because of threatening-looking skies.
For me, it wasn't the novel so much as learning how people in Japan responded to the book that gave me context.
That this novel exists on a global literary landscape and readers around the world are intrigued, curious, distraught, or simply, and this is a big simply, stop seeing Japan as the land of kimonos and samurais is a joy to me.
(I was grabbing lunch in a Tokyo cafe recently when a group of American tourists sat at the next table asking their Japanese guide to explain geishas. I felt from the bottom of my heart for the Japanese guide.)
Who do we have to thank for this movement, if it can be called that? The translators, absolutely. What is translated these days depends mostly on a translator's passion to share the story in their own language.
What I hope for then, is for more brilliant translators - and cultural interpreters - to come along and introduce the authors that move their worlds. And to encourage more translators to emerge, more Japanese novels (of all stripes) need to be put out there.
As to a comparison to the literary greats of the past…I'm not confident about the role of comparison.
We’ll only know when a few hundred years have passed, which of today’s novels have become classics, which authors legends spoken in the same breath as Mishima and Kawabata.
Will people look back on the “convenience store” and sigh about a simpler time?
If, in my time here (by which I mean on the planet), the Japanese become slightly better understood in the wider world, I see no reason to complain.
And I feel the same about every culture out there. I don't see Japan as central to this story. Japan is changing, and I have nothing but admiration for the people who document, report on, and translate those changes.
What I hope to do - besides translate a novel someday - is to research culture (Japan, America and beyond) and try to interpret it in ways that apply to 2020.
Thank you for joining me in this wild journey.
I wouldn’t and couldn’t write this if not for you, there, reading.