With their new experiments with form and content, bold literary conceptions and sense of rhythm, Japanese writers in translation are achieving commercial success and critical acclaim more than ever before
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. Marquez’s publication One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), the multigenerational Buendía family saga set in the fictional town of Macondo, in particular, marked a “before and after” moment for many writers around the world.
Steeped in Colombia’s rich history and culture, the novel has made the genre of magical realism, which blurs the line between the real and the fantastic, a part of the literary consciousness of several generations of readers and writers. Márquez’s blend of myth and fantasy and his vivid metaphors have left an indelible imprint on the imagination of several writers, including Salman Rushdie, whose phantasmagoric novel Midnight’s Children (1981), in which he mines his family’s memory, is a rousing ode to magical realism.
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The Chinese writer Mo Yan (67), Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, was so struck by One Hundred Years of Solitudeand that he has read its Chinese translation many times. His novels, in which he evokes his childhood and his homeland, carry this literary influence. The Nobel citation described Yan as a writer who blends folktales, history and the contemporary with hallucinatory realism.
Decades after the Latin American boom, a group of fiction writers are at the forefront of the renaissance of Japanese literature. With their new experiments with form and content, bold literary conceptions, and sense of rhythm, Japanese writers in translation are achieving more commercial success and critical acclaim than ever before. Their works are regularly published in the UK and the US and have garnered readership worldwide.
Magic Realism: The Arc of Influence
The Japanese translation of One hundred years of solitude, published in 1972, it was a landmark in 20th-century Japanese cultural life. In addition to writers, it has become a source of inspiration for film, fiction and anime professionals. Japanese writers such as Kōbō Abe (1924-1993), Kenzaburō Ōe (87) and Natsuki Ikezawa (77) have 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 states, for creating “an imaginary world, in which life and myth condense to form a bewildering picture of today’s human plight.”
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Incidentally, Abe had entered a period of depression after reading the Marquez epic. He was stricken with a prolonged writer’s block that lasted until 1982, when Márquez won the Nobel Prize. For Abe, the Colombian author had been immortalized and ceased to be his direct competitor after his Nobel award. His widow, Machi, revealed it years after his death.
Natsuki Ikezawa (77), another famous Japanese writer, once said that if not for One hundred years of solitude, he would never have written his novel, The Navidad Incident: The Fall of Matias Guili (1993); the fictional Pacific island called Navidad in which it is set is, like Macondo, a universe unto itself, and Ikezawa, like Marquez, resorts to allegory to explain modern Japan.
The Japanese poet, director and theater director Shuji Terayama (1935-1983), who adapted the novel for the screen, had to change its title to Saraba no Hakobune (Farewell to the Ark), after he failed to impress Marquez and Marquez would not allow him to use the novel’s title for the film; it was screened at Cannes in 1985 as a posthumous work by Terayama. In Terayama’s film, Macondo is steeped in Japanese popular culture. At some point, all the clocks in the city disappear. There are notes attached to the items to identify them. A woman is punished with a crab-shaped chastity belt.
The renaissance 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 deal with the country’s hardships and hardships. Today, contemporary Japanese writers tell quixotic and unconventional stories boasting intriguing characters and indelible images. If Haruki Murakami (74) and Keigo Higashino (64) have earned a perpetual place in the global publishing calendar, readers are also discovering the dystopian world of Ryu Murakami (70), whose novels also center on alienation and about existential crisis — as surrealist and sinister as Haruki Murakami’s.
In recent years, young Japanese writers have fueled the growing demand in the West for Japanese stories entangled in social precariousness, perversion and psychic wounds. Last year, Paradise (Europa Editions, 2021), the heartbreaking story of a 14-year-old boy bullied by Mieko Kawakami (46), was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Known for her split novels such as Strange weather in Tokyo (2001) and Nakano’s Thrift Store (2005), both translated by Alison Markin Powell, are set in the heart of Tokyo. In 2020, Yoko Ogawa (60) became the finalist of the International Booker Prize for Memory Police. Translated by Stephen Snyder, it is a “disturbing and provocative fable about the power of memory and the trauma of loss”, as the Booker Prize jury called it.
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In 2021, Aoko Matsuda (43) received the World Fantasy Award for the English translation of her short stories, Where are the wild women, translated by Polly Barton. In 2020, Miri Yu (53) won the US National Book Award for Translated Literature for the English translation of Tokyo Ueno station, translated by Morgan Giles. Sayaka Murata (43) won the Akutagawa Prize for Women’s convenience store (Portobello Books, 2018), which chronicles the struggles of a single woman working in a convenience store, with a dash of humor; was a bestseller in the UK and US and sold more than 2,50,000 copies.
In the Memoirs of a polar bear, Yoko Tawada (62) portrays Japan as a dystopia where young people are born frail and old. Translated by Susan Bernofsky, presents stories told by three generations of polar bears. 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) has published Diary of a void, her first novel, in which a woman fakes a pregnancy to avoid unpaid office work, last year.
In their quest to find more Japanese stories, editors and translators are also turning to female writers such as Kōno Taeko (1926-2015), known for her scathing essays, and Yūko Tsushima (1947-2016), who earned a reputation as his unflinching portrayal of a woman’s innermost fears and desires.
The rise of Japanese literature in translation looks set to continue for years to come. Its modern literature was shaped by the interactions between native tradition and imported forms and styles during the Meiji period (1868-1912), which marked the reopening of Japan to the West, ending more than two centuries of self-imposed national isolation . , and triggering large experiments in the literature. This was long before the Latin American boom and Marquez. The literature produced in the first quarter of 21st century Japan has the undercurrent of another boom, signaling the literary world’s shift eastward.