Over the past several decades, a steady stream of fascinating writers from Japan have appeared in English, including two Nobel prize winners, Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe, as well as the now wildly popular Haruki Murakami. It may seem, however, that in recent years the stream has slowed to a trickle. Therefore, it has been my pleasure to act as guest editor for the Japan issue of Words Without Borders, and to have the opportunity to introduce new writing and new authors to WWB's audience.
The Japanese authors and works assembled here are not necessarily unified by any particular theme. I set out to showcase the robust variety of contemporary Japanese fiction, and I think these writers demonstrate just that, brilliantly. Most of the authors featured here have been writing for years and have well-established audiences in Japan. They have all been recognized with various literary awards and accolades, yet very little of their work has been published anywhere in English.
Almost all of these pieces are extracted from longer works, be they full-length novels, novellas, or longer short stories. Selecting works for publication in an online magazine—searching for short fiction that could be read easily on screen—brought to light that Japanese writing often tends to a longer form. Of course, that's not to say that Japanese writers don't write short pieces; however, it may be an inadvertent effect of the eligibility requirements for awards, such as the coveted Akutagawa Prize, on the standard length of published fiction.
Hiromi Kawakami is one of the most popular writers in Japan. The first stories she published were science fiction, and her affinity for the genre is apparent in the fantastical element that threads through many of her stories, including the novel excerpted here, Manazuru, in Michael Emmerich's ethereal translation. What I find so breathtaking about Manazuru is the way that Kawakami seamlessly weaves the supernatural aspect of the story into the everyday realism of the narrative.
Years ago, when I first met the acclaimed film subtitler Linda Hoaglund, one of the first things she said to me was that I had to read Sogil Yan. She described the visceral brutality of his writing as unlike anything else she had read in Japanese. A zainichi (resident) Korean born in Osaka, Yan drove a taxi for more than ten years and later published a book based on his experiences, Notes of a Taxi Driver. Several of Yan's novels have been made into films, and Corridor of Dreams, translated here by Linda herself, is also being adapted as a screenplay.
shinji ishii's genre-bending writing has been called “children's stories for adults.” ishii's first novel, Once Upon a Swing, narrates with a childlike simplicity an ingenious tale of a young girl and her brother, who is a prodigy on the swing. Watch WWB's blog for entries from ishii's translator, Bonnie Elliott, to give us the fascinating backstory to this wildly imaginative novel.
Kaho Nakayama's novel shares more than just a title with Gustave Flaubert's Sentimental Education, although Nakayama's version is a beautiful lesbian love story set in modern day Japan. While the book is not necessarily autobiographical, Nakayama has written an intensely personal story of two separate women's troubled and tender emotional involvement and the events that ultimately bring them together.
And in “Beyond Between” Michael Emmerich speaks to the spiritual nature of translation in general and translation from Japanese specifically. He catalogs the remarkable variety of possible cognates for translation, and his thoughtful approach to the process will be appreciated by all who have ever tried their hand at the craft. I am grateful to WWB's editors, who have continued to inspire me with their enthusiasm for Japanese literature, and I hope you enjoy the selections in this issue.