Tearing: what is Japanese literature? | Books
“In the minds of some people outside of Japan, there’s a feeling that Japanese literature is meant to be elegant, mysterious, majestic, refined – all that Orientalist wabi-sabi bullshit that’s spread over Japan in general”, explains Daniel Joseph, translator of the “Rip it Up” recently published by Kou Machida. In Japan, Machida’s books have had a recognized influence on writers like Mieko Kawakami and Hiroko Oyamada.
But, when his book “Kiregire” (“Rip it Up”) was translated, the publishers left it untouched. Not because it wasn’t good, but because it’s so outside the general expectation of what a translated novel from Japan looks like. It took Inpatient, a small press that had nothing to lose, to try its luck.
“The idea that all of a nation’s literary output should fall into certain narrow categories is nonsense,” adds Joseph. “The idea that Japanese literature cannot be bawdy, funny, down to earth, ridiculous, absurd, exaggerated can only hold us all back. But one of the amazing things about Machida is that the literary establishment in Japan had the same reaction to him. They had internalized this tense idea of Japanese literature and were outraged by it.
This creates a cycle of self-reinforcement: readers like this Facebook mod only read Japanese books that fit their definition of Japanese literature, so publishers, regardless of their personal desire, are compelled to follow the sales and therefore only publish books that fit that mold. . Currently, that means a plethora of books with a cat somewhere in the title (“The Traveling Cat Chronicles”, “The Cat Who Saved Books”, “The Guest Cat”, “If Cats Disappeared from the World”, etc.) . It’s gotten to such a ridiculous level that Alison Watts, translator of Shusei Hase’s upcoming “The Boy and the Dog” might joke, “Watch out for the cats – your day is over!”
The guiding principle is now Amazon’s algorithm: “People who bought X also bought Y.” If you read Haruki Murakami books, he will recommend you more Murakami books and Murakami adjacent books. As you read them, the feedback loop intensifies. Editors notice that readers read Murakami; so we need to publish more writers like Murakami. Find me the next Murakami.
“The Murakami brand has been so successful that it has defined Japanese literature for the overseas market for decades,” says Joseph. “We’re finally getting out now, with the likes of Hiroko Oyamada, Mieko Kawakami and Aoko Matsuda, even though a lot of the books still travel on the Murakami train – the same simple style, very slightly transgressive but fundamentally safe.”
Machida is anything but safe, and critics elsewhere have described the narrator as vile, a freak, as the embodiment of toxic masculinity, which I don’t disagree with. “I think another reason the publishers were a bit opposed to this book is that we live in a time where people seem to struggle with the concept of narrative voice,” Joseph says. “A character says something vile or misogynistic, so the author is a vile misogynist. So I understand why publishers are suspicious about a book like this, with such a jerk as the narrator. Publishers are afraid of appearing reactionary, even if the work is satirical.
Which is understandable. The larger point, however, is that if readers of Japanese literature in English want to get as complete a picture as possible of what Japanese literature is, then important and influential writers like Machida should be published and read as much as Murakami-adjacent. those and stories of cats.
That’s why I don’t understand this Facebook mod: if we love Japanese literature, then surely we want to read as far and wide as possible? We want to explore those nooks and crannies, not close them. So rather than defining exactly what we think of Japanese literature and tricking publishers into feeding algorithms, we need to banish the exclusive attitudes that kill our chances of discovering our next favorite Japanese author. Try something new, challenge your taste buds, embrace growth. Open your borders.