Episode 27: Japanese Children’s Literature

Check out Episode 27 of the Read Literature podcast.

Transcript available.

In this episode, we’re talking about Japanese children’s literature.

  • The history of children’s literature in general
  • The history of children’s literature in Japan
  • And Sachiko Kashiwaba and Temple Alley Summer—a story that is about Japanese children’s literature (at least a little bit!)

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More by Sachiko Kashiwaba:

RJL’s list of Japanese children’s books in English translation.

This episode also mentions:

*These stories are only mentioned in the extended version of the episode available to Patreon supporters.

Find Out More

“Through the Looking Glass: Has Children’s Books Have Grown Up” at NPR, 2016.

The official website of the Newbery Medal.

The National Diet Library’s Japanese Children’s Literature: A History from the International Children’s Literature Collections. In English.

The Freer-Sackler Library’s collection of Illustrated Japanese books.

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCWBI) Japan’s Blog

A list of “One Hundred Japanese Books for Children (1868-1945”) from the International Institute for Children’s Literature, Osaka. In English.

On How Do You Live?—”How a Once-Banned Japanese Children’s Book Became a Classic… and the Next Studio Ghibli Film”, 2021. Note that Studio Ghibli’s move turned out to be completely unrelated to the novel, which is nevertheless worth reading.

My review of How Do You Live? in the Asian Review of Books, 2021.

“A Japanese Author, Her Translator, a New Classic” at Kirkus, 2021. Laura Simeon interviews Sachiko Kashiwaba and Avery Fischer Udagawa.

The Japan Foundation New York Presents a Conversation with Kashiwaba Sachiko and Avery Fischer Udagawa, 2021. English and Japanese.

“Interviews with Tomo Contributors Author Sachiko Kashiwaba and Translator Avery Fischer Udagawa” at the Tomo Blog, 2012.

My review of Temple Alley Summer in the Asian Review of Books.

Japanese Literature at Facebook

Japanese Literature at Goodreads

Other RJL Episodes of Interest:


Allen, Celeste. “‘Alice in Wonderland’ Changed Literature Forever, by Not Trying to Teach Kids, Just Entertain Them” at Timline.com, 2017. (free)

Copeland, Rebecca. Lost Leaves: Women Writers of Meiji Japan, U of HI Press, 2000.

–, ed. Women Critiqued: Translated Essays on Japanese Women’s Writing, U of HI Press, 2006.

Doppo Kunikida. “On Women and Translation” in Women Critiqued: Translated Essays on Japanese Women’s Writing. Rebecca Copeland, ed. U of HI Press, 2006.

Frustuck, Sabine and Anne Walthall. “Introduction” in Multi-Sensory Histories of Children and Childhood in Japan, Sabine Frustuck and Anne Walthall, eds. UCA, 2017.

Grenby, M. O. “The Origins of Children’s Literature” at The British Library, 2014. (free)

Hewins, C. M. “The History of Children’s Books” in The Atlantic, 1888. (free)

Huffman, James L. Creating a Public: People and Press in Meiji Japan, University of Hawaii, 1997.

“Japanese Children’s Literature: A History from the International Library of Children’s Literature Collections.” National Diet Library, 2017. (free)

“Kashiwaba Sachiko” at SFE: The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 2023. (free)

Kashiwaba Sachiko and Avery Fischer Udagawa. “JFNY Literary Series: Sachiko Kashiwaba x Avery Fischer Adagawa”, 2021. (free video)

Korniki, P. F. “Literacy Revisited: Some Reflections on Richard Rubinger’s Findings” in Monumenta Nipponica, 2001.

Mack, Edward. Manufacturing Modern Japanese Literature: Publishing, Prizes, and the Ascription of Literary Value. Duke, 2010.

Moretti, Laura. “Kanazoshi Revisited: The Beginnings of Japanese Popular Literature in Print” in Monumenta Nipponica, 2010.

Pinkerton, Byrd. Through the Looking Glass: How Children’s Books Have Grown Up. NPR, 2016. (free)

Rubinger, Richard. “From ‘Dark Corners’ into ‘The Light’: Literacy Studies in Modern Japan” in History of Education Quarterly, 1990.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories” (1947). (free)

Treat, John Whittier. “Yoshimoto Banana Writes Home: Shojo Culture and the Nostalgic Subject” in The Journal of Japanese Studies, 1993.

Wakabayashi, Judy. “Foreign Bones, Japanese Flesh: Translations and the Emergence of Modern Children’s Literature in Japan” in Japanese Language and Literature, 2008.

Transcript of Episode 27: Japanese Children’s Literature

Find out more about Episode 27 of the Read Literature podcast on the episode page.

  • Link to listen
  • Notes and sources
  • Ways to support the podcast

This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher. Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works. All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want. And you can find out more at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.

A quick correction from our last episode: Thank you to a listener who pointed out that I made a mistake. Astrid Lingren and her Pippi Longstocking stories are Swedish and not Norwegian. I’m glad to have an opportunity to make that correction today because, in honor of World Kid Lit Month, we’re going to be discussing Japanese children’s literature.

  • The history of children’s literature in general
  • The history of children’s literature in Japan in particular

And Sachiko Kashiwaba and Temple Alley Summer—it’s a story that’s about Japanese children’s literature (at least a little bit!).

[1:25] I want to make clear from the get-go that this episode is still very much relevant to you, my almost-certainly-adult listener, for at least two reasons that aren’t “you might someday want to buy a book for a kid in your life”.

#1: Children’s books aren’t just for children. Yeah, this is a bit of a cliché, but it’s worth saying again. Children’s books can be hugely enjoyable for adults, both for nostalgic revisits and fresh reads. They also offer different perspectives than adult novels.

For example, I’ve never read a book for adults that deals with death and grief as well as some children’s novels do. Temple Alley Summer is a fantastic example of a book that deals with deal in some really nuanced ways—we’ll talk about that a little more toward the end of the episode.

The second reason you might want to read children’s literature from Japan, particularly for fans of Japanese culture in general, is that this literature can give you a window into the world of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

I’m not going to go into the Ghibli connection too much today. I’m going to save that for an entire episode later this fall. I want to do something around the same time that we non-Japanese residents can finally get access to Miyazaki’s most recent “last film” outside of Japan. Anyway…

[3:00] I’m going to start with the story of children’s literature in Europe because Europe was the first place to have an industry of printed children’s literature. (Not, obviously, because Europeans were the first people to tell their children stories—I believe that’s a fairly universal part of parenting and living in community with children.)

European—and later American—children’s literature also had a lasting influence on Japanese children’s literature.

People like to trace the oldest children’s stories in any literature back to that literature’s folktales and fairy tales. It’s certainly true that children would have been a part of the audience for those kinds of stories—virtually everyone was a part of the audience for those kinds of stories. You sit around in the evening as a group and entertain yourselves with a nice folktale—with a nice fairytale.

But I tend to side with J. R. R. Tolkien on grouping these kinds of stories (the stories he calls “fairy-stories” just as a group) with children’s stories—it’s bad literary history and a bad plan in general.

According to Tolkien, “Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the nursery, as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is used”—not, he goes on to explain, because they belong there. In other words, fairytales aren’t particularly good for kids. It’s just that adults aren’t especially interested in them anymore.

[4:50] If we’re looking for texts specifically for children, the earliest records only go back to the fifteenth century. These stories were not for children’s enjoyment. One of the earliest surviving “children’s books” in English is an English adaptation of a Latin text called Puer ad Mensam (“A Boy at the Table”) called The Babees Book. It’s an instruction manual for waiting at table for the lord of a manor.

Many English and American children learned how to read from the King James Bible.  Lucky children learned to read from chapbooks, cheaply printed editions of popular stories. And again, these weren’t printed for children, but they often had the kinds of stories we associate with children today—folktales, fairy tales.

Other children were handed books like James Janeway’s 1671 classic A Token for Children: An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives and Joyful Death of Several Young Children. Believe it or not, this book sold well for over a century.

One of the first “big breaks” for child readers was actually the work of philosopher John Locke. He’s the modern Englishman who popularized the idea that children are tabula rasa—blank slates—and ought to be molded into the right kind of people. In his 1691 Thoughts on Education, he suggested that children should learn to read something (*gasp*) pleasant like Aesop’s Fables.

A generation later, a handful of publishers revolutionized books for children. And this is really why the English language is so central to the story of children’s literature. It’s in England that this generation of publishers does the work to make printing books for children an industry for the first time. The most celebrated of these publishers is John Newbery.

(That name might ring a bell if you’re a connoisseur of children’s literature. John Newbery is the namesake of America’s most coveted prize for children’s literature, the Newbery Medal. We’ll talk about the Newbery Medal again in just a minute.)

Newbery actually made most of his money selling patent medicines and publishing for adults. But he made enough money selling stories for children that he changed the game—publishers realized people would buy stories written specifically for children. Newbery is responsible for the A Little Pretty Pocket-Book—it’s often cited as the first book explicitly created to actually entertain children. 

Over the next century, publishing for children became more of an international project. Swiss author Johann David Wyss published The Swiss Family Robinson in 1812. The Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen published his first collection of Fairy Tales Told for Children starting in 1835.

I want to make note of two things about all of the stories I’ve mentioned so far. One, is that they all have obvious lessons to teach their young readers. The Swiss Family Robinson is about family and self-reliance and manly virtue. The Little Mermaid is about sacrificial love.

 Many children’s stories continued to have a strong moral element.

The other thing I want to point out is that many Anglo-Americans don’t think about stories like The Swiss Family Robinson or The Little Mermaid as translations—as part of any culture outside of our own. For several decades, children’s fiction was a more international enterprise. 

Bu today, very Anglo-American children read very little in translation. And when Anglo-American do, they often still don’t realize they’re reading a translation. 

I mentioned Astrid Lingrid and Pippi Longstocking, although, again, I got the language wrong—it was written in Swedish.

I suppose many people do realize Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince was translated from French, though almost no one knows that it was translated by Richard Howard.

And this is true of even more recent fiction. Marcus Pfister’s The Rainbow Fish was originally written in German, translated by J. Alison James. Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story was translated from German by Ralph Manheim. And Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart was translated from German by Anthea Bell.

[9:52] 1865 was a game-changing year—it’s the year Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carrol) published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice was the first widely-read work of children’s literature that was pure delightful nonsense—no morals, more-or-less nothing to teach, just fun. (In case you’re wondering, the first Japanese translations of Alice appeared in 1911 and 1912.) It was really only after Alice that we get original works of pure fantasy written specifically for children—and especially books about leaving “our world” and escaping into a fantasy world.

The post-Alice, late 19th century is regarded as a golden age of children’s literature:

When we come back to Japanese children’s books in a few minutes, keep in mind that these are the first Western children’s books to come into Japanese hands. These are the models of “modern” children’s literature to the Japanese—almost always in English translation.

The “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” really ended with World War I—and I think it’s safe to say that newer Anglo-American children’s books were also less influential on Japanese children’s books for the next several decades as well. So you can keep that in mind in the next section of the episode.

My discussion here is also going to become more focused on US children’s books. They become more influential. Children’s fiction becomes less international in general (at least from an English-language perspective). And US children’s books are what I grew up with.

There were, of course, important developments in the world of children’s books. In 1922, the American Library Association started awarding the John Newbery Medal for the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” each year. (That “American”, by the way, is increasingly controversial. The Newbery is maybe the world’s most prestigious prize for children’s literature. Today—always—it’s limited to US citizens and residents.)

In 1937, the ALA started awarding the Caldecott Medal specifically for picture books, which almost never win the Newbery.

By the way, I’m mostly avoiding using the words “picture book” versus “chapter book” versus “middle grade fiction” versus “young adult fiction” today. They aren’t relevant until relatively late in our story. They don’t translate perfectly between Anglo-American markets and Japanese ones. But I can’t avoid them entirely. So I’ll give you a very brief explanation right now:

Today, a picture book is the sort of book that relies heavily on illustrations. It’s usually intended for preschoolers and young primary or elementary schoolers.

A chapter book is a step up in difficulty for early readers—in the US, 1-3rd graders or so. Short chapters, large print. Think Nate the Great or The Magic Treehouse.

A middle grade fiction book is usually what comes to mind when people say “children’s literature”—it’s a book written for independent primary or elementary school readers and tweens. Most “children’s classics” that aren’t picture books probably qualify as middle grade fiction.

A young adult (or YA) book is for… young adults… usually on topics grown-ups think are too mature for the middle grade crowd.


The 1950s are really when these types of labels started to matter. When people got really invested in the experience of reading a book as a part of a child’s education. That’s because there was another big shift in publishing for children. The 1950s inaugurated a new era of children’s literature.

I want to mention two particular trends in “contemporary” children’s fiction. (And yes, I know “contemporary” here is one of those broad uses that essentially means “within the lifetime of Baby Boomers”—but I didn’t choose the term.)

One trend is a growing willingness to address difficult issues—especially issues faced by kids who aren’t white, suburban, and middle class kids. In a few minutes, you’ll see that this trend—a willingness to address difficult, “real-life” issues—held true in Japan, too.

Another trend is a growing effort to include more diverse voices in children’s literature. In 1975, Virginia Hamilton was the first black person to win a Newbery Award with her M. C. Higgins, the Great.

In 2016, Matt de la Peña won the first Newbery Award to go to a Latino author with Last Stop on Market Street. This one is a rare picture book to win the Newbery and it’s definitely worth a read. Several Latina authors have won since.

Children’s publishing has also (slowly) become more open to LGBTQ+ authors and authors with disabilities.

[16:00] The story of Japanese children’s literature looks a lot like the story of European children’s literature. You could say that the oldest Japanese children’s stories are the setsuwa (fables) from Heian and medieval we talked about a long time ago. But just like in Europe, the setsuwa were stories for everyone. Children just happened to be part of the audience.

The Edo Period saw a growth of printing in general. [Learn more in RJL’s episode about “High and Low Literature in Edo Japan,” marked mature.] Children were especially associated with a kind of printed book called an akahon or, literally “red book”. Akahon were woodblock printed books that dominated the print market between about 1660 and 1750. They often included folktales. While there was text, the big draw for lots of people—maybe especially kids, we don’t know—was the illustrations. Kids liked them, but like European chapbooks, they weren’t for kids. They were used as tools to help teach people to read. And gradually, akahon readership shifted from children to adults.

The first big revolution for children’s literature in Japan is tied to that major political and cultural change in mid-19th century Japan—the Meiji Restoration. The Meiji Restoration brought about radical and rapid social change. And some of the biggest changes to come to Japan were in the realm of education. As you might expect, huge cultural change means… new norms about what grown-ups want children to read.

[17:45] By 1868, Japan was a comparatively literate country already. It seems likely more Japanese people had some level of literacy than their contemporaries in Europe. And it seems like even Japanese commoners loved books in a way that European visitors noted and remarked on. Lev Mechnikov, a Russian political exile who lived in Japan in the 1870s related that “few are the common laborers, grooms or rickshawmen who do not hide in their underwear or belts some work of light literature.”

But a modern country is a fully literate country, and Meiji Japan was desperate to be a modern country. (I should point out that none of the “modern countries” with which Japan was then interacting were fully literate. But…)

In 1872, the government of Japan made it official policy that all boys and girls had to attend school—at least for elementary school. This increase in literacy—and this increase in promoting literacy—created a new demand for books for children.

But Japanese writers didn’t begin producing original children’s literature until around 1890. Some of the earliest Japanese literature explicitly for children was translations from Europe and the US. 

This is where I want to come back to the role of Meiji-era women. (We did an entire episode on Meiji-era women writers in season one.) There are really fascinating developments for women’s rights and women’s roles in society in the late 19th century. After the Meiji Restoration, the daughters of the people at the very top of society attended not only elementary school and not only middle school but also high school. Some of them become the first generation of women writers to feature prominently in Japanese culture for almost 700 years.

Of course these highly-educated women weren’t supposed to be writers—they were supposed to be ryōsai kenbo—good wives and wise mothers. As you can imagine, being a “good wife, wise mother” doesn’t leave a lot of room for becoming a great writer. 20-30 years of social developments really killed off the positive social developments that spurred the first generation of Meiji women writers.

For women born a little bit too late for this brief shining moment for women’s writing, translation turned out to be a culturally-sanctioned alternative. If women who translate is a topic you’re interested in, you might want to pick up a copy of Anne’s Cradle: The Life and Works of Hanako Muraoka, Japanese Translator of Anne of Green Gables by her granddaughter, Eri Muraoka (and translated by Cathy Hirano). It catalogs the life of a highly-educated woman of the Taisho and early Showa Eras who wrote and translated for children. It’s extremely informative.

I’d like to point out that Meiji-era translation was fairly… creative? Today, translators are expected to preserve a certain fidelity to the text. Judy Wakabayashi at Kent State University, though, describes a different status quo 150 years ago, when translation included “domestication, omissions, additions, and changed endings” that were supposed to “make the foreign more familiar and acceptable to Japanese children” and the adults who read along with them.

[21:30] When we start talking about Japanese children’s literature written in Japan for Japanese children, you can roughly divide Japanese children’s literature into two periods—and this is a division I’m taking from sources by the Japan’s National Diet Library—the age of dōwa and “contemporary children’s fiction” (which, like in the Anglo-American world, means children’s fiction beginning after World War II).

Dowa is a category of children’s writing made of poetic and figurative language, often in a fairy tale world. It’s often aimed at younger children—picture books or the younger-aged readers of middle grade fiction. And it came into its own in the 1910s and 20s. That’s when educational reformers began to demand products specifically targeted to Japanese children.

Dowa saw some of its greatest successes in literary magazines. We talked a lot about literary magazines in a different episode in season one. In Japan, magazine publication became serious business during the Meiji and Taishō Eras.

There were some Meiji-era children’s magazines. Shōnen en (“Children’s Garden”) launched in 1888. It was followed by a handful of other successful magazines.

The Meiji-era children’s magazine par excellence was Shonen sekai (“Children’s World”), edited by novelist Sazanami Iwaya. Iwaya wrote the tale that is sometimes regarded as the Japanese language’s first modern story for children, “Kogenamaru” or “A Dog Named Kogane” in 1891.

The first recognized dowa children’s story was “Akai Fune” or “Red Boat” by Mimei Ogawa.

You might have caught the word shonen in both of these titles. Shonen is written with the characters for “few and years”. But most often it’s translated as “boy”. But the Meiji Era is also the origin of shojo media—media targeted at girls. In Meiji Japan, the concept of shojo most obviously evolved at girls’ boarding schools. The end of the Meiji Era saw the first magazines explicitly for shojo—magazines like Shojokai (“Girl’s Circle”) or Shojo sekai (“Girl’s World”) or Shōjo no tomo (“Girl’s Companion”).

I also want to note that writing for children didn’t just show up in these children’s magazines. Many women’s magazines carried stories for women to read to their children. And these stories were often translations from foreign stories. For example, Jogaku zasshi published Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy between 1890-1892. It was translated by a female translator named Shizuko Wakamatsu.

The first translation of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit to appear in any language besides English was in a Japanese farming magazine in 1906! The magazine didn’t include Potter’s name. And in an example of that creative style of translation, it called Mr. McGregor Grandpa Mokubei and described him as “more fearsome than red and blue ogres”.

[24:45] As in Europe and the US, the 1910s and 20s closed the first great age of children’s literature in Japan—the great age of the dowa.

Kenji Miyazawa is maybe the most fascinating author of children’s literature from the Taisho and early Showa Periods, even though his genius wasn’t recognized at the time. I’d like to do an entire episode on Miyazawa, maybe later this season.

Miyazawa’s The Restaurant of Many Orders: Children’s Stories of Ihatov was his only collection for children published during his lifetime—and it was mostly ignored. Ihatov was a fantastic version of what is now Iwate Prefecture in the Tohoku Region, where he lived.

Today, he is best remembered for Ginga Tetsudō no YoruNight on the Galactic Railroad or Milky Way Railroad—which he finished in 1927 but wasn’t published until after his death in 1933.

Broadly speaking, the Pacific War was a low-point for Japanese writing in general. No surprise it was a low point for Japanese children’s writing. Keep in mind that dōwa literature is supposed to teach children moral values. In the 1930s, those values would be the values the Japanese state wanted to encourage—things like patriotism, martial enthusiasm, loyalty to the emperor…

Nevertheless, there were some excellent children’s books to come out of the mid-1930s . I want to mention one book in particular that found itself banned in the later 30s and 40s—that’s How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino, published in 1937 [and translated by Bruno Navasky]. The novel is a coming of age story for fifteen-year-old Copper. It’s mostly episodic, but the central external conflict is the rise of bullying by older students at the school judo club in the name of “school spirit”. The bullies insist the prodding is necessary because, “Once they enter society, students with no love of school will surely become citizens with no love of country. People who don’t love their country are traitors. Therefore, we can say that students who don’t love their schools are traitors in training.”

Again, it’s remarkable to me that Yoshino was able to publish this book in 1937. And I’m not the only one to note this. Many Japanese people fondly remember How Do You Live? as a childhood favorite.

The post-war period saw a flowering of new magazines for children. Two of the most popular were Red Dragonfly and The Milky Way. In the early 1950s, publishers also began to issue a new series of children’s books called the Iwanami Children’s Library, a collection of classics and contemporary children’s fiction from abroad. The books not only entertained their intended audience, they also inspired a new kind of children’s literature in Japan.

The inspiration helped lead to the end of “Dōwa” Period of children’s literature in Japan. Remember that dowa had been about imaginary landscapes and poetry and idealized worlds; new “contemporary” children’s fiction was about the real world kids lived in, written in prose. And that  “real world kids lived in” is a world that just finished a brutal war.

There are two novels are credited as the first works of “contemporary” children’s fiction in Japan. One is Satoru Sato’s The Tiny Country That Nobody Knows. And the other isnd Tomiko Inui’s Yuri and the Little People. Yuri and the Little People is a rare children’s book from this period of Japanese literary history you can read in English. Ginny Tapley Takemori translated it into English in 2016 as The Secret of the Blue Glass. Because it has been translated, I’ve actually been able to read it—which means I can comment on it—which is nice.

It’s maybe… slower… than a book written for an audience of 2000s kids? But it is typical of this new “contemporary” Japanese children’s literature. It’s about a little girl in a slightly fantastical situation. But her world is more or less “the real world”. And she’s dealing with the problems kids faced during World War II—evacuation… food shortages…

[29:20] Japanese literature in English translation has exploded in the last decade. We’re still seeing only a tiny fraction of what’s available, but Japanese is one of the most popularly translated languages into English today. But there still isn’t a lot of children’s fiction being translated… especially not the kind of “middle grade fiction” I’ve been focusing on today.

So I want to wrap up the discussion of Japanese children’s literature by mentioning three contemporary Japanese children’s writers you can read in English—they aren’t the only children’s writers, but I think their work is some of the most widely read and some of the work that most safely qualifies as “children’s” writing rather than young adult:

First up is Eiko Kadano. Kadano is a hugely prolific Japanese author. I believe, though, only one of Kadano’s books has been translated into English. It’s a big one: Kiki’s Delivery Service, translated most recently by Emily Balistrieri. As I mentioned, I’m hoping to do an episode on Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli later this season, and I think it’s going to focus on Kiki. But I will mention here that Kiki is a series with eight sequels, none of which are available in English—which I think is a real shame and really upsets my 9 year old daughter. By the way, the most recent sequel was published last year, in 2022. Eiko Kadano is currently 88. 

The next author I want to mention is Miyuki Miyabe. I briefly mentioned her in the episode about Japanese science fiction as an example of a fourth generation SF writer. A lot of her books are children’s literature. (Be careful what titles you grab for the kids in your life—some of her books are detective fiction for adults.) 

I’ve only read Brave Story, which is maybe her best-known work of children’s fiction in English. It’s about a bullied fifth grader who escapes into the fantasy world of Vision. Brave Story was also loosely adapted into a series of video games and an anime film.

The last author I want to mention, certainly not the least, is Sachiko Kashiwaba.

[31:45] Sachiko Kashiwaba was born in 1953. That makes her a few years younger than Izumi Suzuki (and Haruki Murakami), a few years older than Hiromi Kawakami. She’s from Iwate Prefecture—a part of the Tōhoku Region.

We’ve talked about the Tohoku Region in our episodes about “Japan’s Have Nots” and “Fukushima Fiction”. It was the region most affected by the March 2011 Triple Disasters. Tohoku has remained very dear to Sachiko Kashiwaba’s heart. She has lived there almost her entire life. And her most recently translated work, The House of the Lost on the Cape (translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa) is a touching piece of Fukushima fiction for children.

Kashiwaba trained as a pharmacist. She wrote part-time until her children were born. And after she started a family with her husband, she became a homemaker and writer. Her first novel was 1975’s Kiri no Mukō no Fushigi-na Machi, translated by Christopher Holmes as The Marvelous Village Veiled in Mist. Director Hayao Miyazaki was actually in talks to acquire rights to the story before he made Spirited Away. There are a lot of similarities between the two stories. There were accusations of plagiarism… that’s all outside of the scope of this episode.

Today, I’ll be talking about Kashiwaba’s story Temple Alley Summer, translated by Avery Fischer Adagawa. Temple Alley Summer debuted in Japan in 2011, shortly after the March 11 Triple Disasters.

I decided to talk about Temple Alley Summer for two reasons.

First, because it’s a fantastic story by an excellent (and important) writer, translated by a great translator.

And second, because, at least a little bit, it’s a story about the last 50 years of children’s writing from Japan. I’ll explain as I go.

I’m going to provide a lot of spoilers from the first half or so of the book because they’re necessary to get into the meat of what I want to talk about today.  I’m not going to give away the ending. I’m not going to give away the “story-within-a-story” that’s central to the book. So when I’m finish, you’ll still have many reasons to pick the novel up on your own when I’m finished.

The protagonist of the story is a boy in the fifth grade—Kazu. He’s also the narrator and the opening paragraph introduces us to his really distinctive voice:

“I never dreamed my house had a secret unknown to my parents or me—and believe me, when I discovered it, I had no plans to get involved. I am a scaredy-cat.”

Within a few pages, our narrator is peeing out his second-story window because he watched a bunch of scary movies and he’s too terrified to go downstairs to the bathroom by himself.

But when he looks out the window, he sees a girl about his age leaving his own age in traditional Buddhist funeral garb—white kimono, white sash, bare feet. The only color are these red plastic baubles in her hair. Could she be a ghost?

The morning after Kazu sees the girl leaving his house, he has a new classmate… except no one else realizes she’s new… and she has red plastic baubles in her hair.

He asks his friend, “Why is she here?”

And his friend is baffled: “Her name’s Akari. You’ve known her since kindergarten—no, before kindergarten.”

And Akari isn’t the only mystery facing Kazu. He has also just learned that his street was once named Kimyo Temple Alley, and he’s decided to find out why for a school research project. After all, Kimyo is written with the characters for “come back” and “life”. That just can’t be a coincidence, right?

His investigation of Kimyo Temple Alley takes him to the apartment of an elderly neighbor named Ms. Minakami. Ms. Minakami claims not to know anything about Kimyo Temple, but she’ll become one of the most important characters in the book.

Eventually Kazu thinks to write his historian uncle an email: “Did Grandpa tell you anything about Kimyo Temple?”

He did.

His uncle writes back, “Apparently, there’s a kind of folk religion where people pass a Buddhist statuette from one family to another. The followers might have a temple structure some place, but they mainly make offerings to the statuette… The idea with the statuette was that if you prayed to it, someone could come back from the dead… The person who died also had to want to come back. But they would not come back to their own family; they would come back to an unrelated family.”

To top off all this news, Kazu’s uncle informs him that his family has been hiding and treasuring just such a statuette in his own home for several generations.


When Kazu goes to look for the statuette, though, he discovers that it has gone missing… and he has every reason to suspect that Ms. Minakami has stolen it. Kazu confronts Ms. Minakami about the theft, and Ms. Minakami threatens to destroy the statuette. If she has it. And she won’t say she does.

She makes a surprisingly compelling argument. And this is where the novel gets into some of its nuanced thinking about death: “Everybody in this world gets one lifetime, Kazu. One chance. We all try to live in such a way that we have no regrets… People have to live as if there is no second chance—so they’ll make the most of every day.”

Now that the statuette is in danger, Kazu thinks he has to confess everything and warn Akari. He tells her he knows that she’s come back from the dead. She tells him that she’s always wanted to be a doctor. Kazu says, you might not be around that much longer. What can I help you do right now? And Akari confesses she’d love to read the rest of a serialized story she encountered in her first life.

[37:57] Here we get to the Japanese children’s literature!

Akari had enjoyed reading a story in a magazine called Daisy. As far as I can tell, Kashiwaba made the magazine up, but it’s close enough to the sorts of magazines that really existed for Japanese girls in the 1970s.

Kazu finds several issues of the magazine later, and this is how he describes them:

“On the covers, girls… struck cute poses, touching their cheeks with one finger and so on. Inside, girls who must have been famous back then posed in clothes that were once trendy. [There was] a page of horoscopes and an advice column to a reader who had quarreled with her friend. Three different manga stories. Three fiction stories. The people who made the magazine had thrown in a little of everything.”

The story Akari loved was a serial story called “The Moon Is on the Left”. There was an installment published in each issue of the magazine. Kazu suggests that maybe, when the story was finished, the magazine published it as a whole in book form. This is a reasonable course of action. Popular serials were often published as books. Kazu gets the idea from manga, where it’s a lot more common. But there are still serials in Japanese magazines and newspapers and they still later get published as books. It turns out, there isn’t a book called “The Moon Is on the Left”.

A friend eventually clues Kazu in that the next course of action is to call the publisher. (It’s fun to imagine a relatively clueless 5th grader doing all of this to help a friend. He does, and it’s realistic because Kazu stays very much in character.) He calls the publisher and finds out Daisy shuttered in 1975. The publisher now considers it the “forerunner” to their manga magazine Chocolat. This, too, is consistent with real Japanese literary history. There are far fewer fiction magazines today. Japanese children (and people in general) are much more likely to buy and read manga magazines.

The publisher offers to send Kazu issues of Daisy with the story, but he finds out that Akari has already read all of the story ever written. The story was never finished. There’s only a message to readers that “the story is on hold, due to the author’s circumstances.”

Kazu also learns some things about the author. She was an aspiring mangaka—manga artist—but her career never quite got off the ground. Again, historically realistic—there were very few female manga artists at the time, so her story is not surprising. The editors claimed her cartoons weren’t quite right for Daisy’s audience, so the editors encouraged her to write a story and illustrate it instead.

Kazu is able to find copies of every published installment of “The Moon Is on the Left”. He reads and loves the story. He passes the copies on to Akari. The reader gets to experience “The Moon Is on the Left,” too. 

It is very much in the tradition of Japanese stories heavily influenced by Western fairy tales. It actually reminds me a lot of the stories written by the 19th-century Scottish writer George MacDonald. And it is completely different than Temple Alley Summer in both tone and narrative voice. (I think that’s quite an accomplishment not just for Sachiko Kashiwaba, but also for translator Avery Fischer Udagawa.) I’m not going to spoil “The Moon Is on the Left”, but I will say that there is a lot of thematic overlap and it develops the main plot of the novel.

I hope everything I’ve just mentioned explains why I think Temple Alley Summer’s sort of “side quest” about Japanese children’s literature is so fascinating. We get to see how children’s literature has changed between Akari’s first lifetime and Kazu’s—and really that’s a glimpse into how much children’s literature has changed in Kashiwaba’s lifetime. We get a behind-the-scenes glance at those two moments in Japanese publishing. And we get to see examples of two different kinds of Japanese writing for children.
I don’t want to give away any more of the book, but I hope you can see that Temple Alley Summer has a lot to say that’s worth a look for readers of any age. It’s also quite a page turner. We still don’t know how “The Moon Is on the Left” ends. If the characters get to find out. If we get to find out. And we don’t even know if Akari is going to get to finish her second life or not. How many children’s books leave an existential threat like that hanging over a character for more than half the book?

[42:42] So why read Japanese children’s literature?

As I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, Japanese children’s literature is full of great stories for everyone. I’ve truly enjoyed Sachiko Kashiwaba’s stories that are available in translation. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a delight. And children’s stories are the source material for some of the most popular or important anime movies coming out of Japan.

Buying and reading translated children’s literature also clues publishers in that English readers are interested in expanding what’s available. As we’ve discussed, there’s been a real boom in Japanese fiction for adults in the past decade. With any luck, we might convince publishers that English readers of all ages are excited to pick up children’s titles, too.

I’ve been reading from Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa. Buy your books from our Bookshop.org page to support the podcast.

You can also support the podcast by leaving a review on your podcast app of choice. Or if you’re using Read Japanese Literature as a classroom resource, be sure to let us know. We’re grateful to the professors and high school teachers who have been in touch.

The very best way to support Read Japanese Literature is through Patreon for as little as $3 a month. Thank you so much to all of our supporters! Find out how you can join them at patreon.com/readjapaneseliterature.

We’d love to hear from you about the podcast. There are so many ways to stay in touch.

Through the website.

Thank you to the Japanese Literature group on Goodreads and the Japanese literature Twitter community.

And thank you as always to Producer Khaim for today’s music, @khaimmusic and khaimmusic.com.

Japanese Children’s Literature in English Translation

RJL’s booklists don’t include children’s literature, so here’s a list for your reference.

Support RJL by buying through our links. Check out our Bookshop.org page.

Check out the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Japan Translation Group’s blog for more suggestions, including young adult titles.

Middle Grade

The Animals: Poems by Michio Mado (translated by Empress Michiko)

The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi (translated by Cathy Hirano)

  • First entry in a series that straddles middle grade and YA

The Birth of Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki (translated by Zach Davvison)

  • First entry in a series

The Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe (translated by Alexander O. Smith)

Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe (translated by Alexander O. Smith)

Classic Japanese Fairy Tales by Mimei Ogawa (translated by J. D. Wisgao)

  • First entry in a series

Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara (translated by Cathy Hirano)

The Friends by Kazumi Yumoto (translated by Cathy Hirano)

How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino (translated by Bruno Navasky)

The I Wonder Bookstore by Shinsuke Yoshitake (translated by Geoffrey Trousselot)

Ico: Castle in the Mist by Miyuki Miyabe (translated by Alexander O. Smith)

J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo 1965 by Shogo Oketani (translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa)

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadano (translated by Emily Balistrieri)

The Magic Pocket: Poems by Michio Mado (translated by Empress Michiko)

Night on the Milky Way Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa (translated by Roger Pulvers)

  • There are many translations of Miyazawa’s work available in English. The stories often overlap.

The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Soul Lanterns by Shaw Kazuki (translated by Emily Balistrieri)

Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba (translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa)

Tomo: Friendship through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories edited by Holly Thompson

Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi (translated by Dorothy Britton)

The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine by Akiyuki Nosaka (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemura)

  • These stories are best read together with an adult.
  • Learn more about Nosaka and his stories with the RJL podcast.

Picture Books

14 Forest Mice and the Harvest Moon Watch by Iwamura Kazuo

Animals Brag about Their Bottoms by Maki Saito (translated by Brian Bergstom)

Blackie, the Crayon by Miwa Nakaya (translated by Mia Lynn Perry)

Chirri & Chirra by Kaya Doi (translated by Yuki Kaneko)

  • First entry in a series with different translators

The Doll’s Day for Yoshiko by Momoko Ishii

Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi

  • Everyone Poops is Gomi’s most famous book in English, but a huge body of this popular author’s work has been translated.

A Friend by Tanikawa Shuntaro

The Holes in Your Nose by Genichiro Yagyu

  • Part of the My Body Science Series

The Gas We Pass: The Story of Farts by Shinta Cho

Guri and Gura: The Giant Egg by Rieko Nakagawa

Gracie Meets a Ghost by Keiko Sena

It Might Be an Apple by Shinsuke Yoshitake

Little Daruma and Little Tengu: A Japanese Children’s Tale by Satoshi Kako

The Tongue-Cut Sparrow by Momoko Ishii (trans. Katherine Paterson)

The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out by Yoshimi Kusaba (translated by Andrew Wong)

You Look Yummy! by Tatsuya Miyanashi

  • Series

Podcast and YouTube Resources

“A woman looking over the shoulder of a young man who is smoking a pipe and reading a book” by Utamaro (via Picryl)

Read Japanese Literature has compiled a list of other podcasters and YouTubers we rely on for information. These are places you can turn to learn more about Japan’s literature, culture, and history.

I’ve adapted these descriptions from the podcasts’ public listings. I’m happy to make corrections or add resources you think we’ve missed.


Asian Review of Books (podcast): The Asian Review of Books Podcast interviews authors of some of the same titles as the widely-referenced review journal. The podcast is also is part of the New Books Network

Books and Bao (YouTube): The Books and Bao YouTube channel is a spin-off from Willow’s literature and culture blog. She posts about fiction in translation, as well as books by women and queer writers.

Books and Boba (podcast): Books & Boba is a book club and podcast dedicated to spotlighting books written by authors of Asian descent. Every month, hosts Marvin Yueh and Reera Yoo pick a book by an Asian or Asian American author to read and discuss on the podcast. In addition to book discussions, they also interview authors and cover publishing news, including book deals and new releases.

Books on Asia (podcast): Books on Asia is your guide to finding quality books on Japan and Asia. By offering thought-provoking content in the form of book excerpts, reviews, literary criticism, author interviews and a podcast, we hope to create an intelligent space for people to explore issues on Asia in-depth.

Japan Archives (podcast): Two friends coming together every week to tell the history, myths, folklore and poetry from Japan’s long history.

The Japan Foundation of New York’s Literary Series (YouTube)

Japanese History and Folktales (YouTube): These comic YouTube videos take a humorous look at Japan’s historical and mythological past.

Meiji at 150 (podcast): In the Meiji at 150 Podcast, host Tristan Grunow (UBC) interviews specialists of Japanese history, literature, art, and culture.  Topics covered will range from the position of the Meiji Restoration and Meiji Period in each scholar’s research, to how they view the significance of the Restoration in Japanese and global history, and finally to how they teach the Meiji Period in their classrooms.

New Books—East Asian Studies (podcast): New Books in East Asian Studies is an author-interview podcast channel in the New Books Network.

New Books in Japanese Studies (podcast): New Books in Japanese Studies is an author-interview podcast channel in the New Books Network.

Read Japanese Literature (podcast): RJL is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works.

Uncanny Japan: Uncanny Japan is the brainchild of author Thersa Matsuura. Thersa has lived over half her life in Small Town, Japan, first arriving back in 1990 to study at the University of Shizuoka for two years. Her fluency in the language as well as her immersion in the culture allow her to do quite a bit of research for her books and stories. She is especially passionate about strange legends, unfamiliar folktales, curious superstitions, and all those obscure aspects of the culture that aren’t generally known. As a way to more widely share these fun and fascinating facts, Thersa started the Uncanny Japan Podcast back in 2017.


Against Japanism (podcast): This podcast seeks to challenge the commonly held assumptions about Japan as harmonious, homogeneous, and traditional by recasting its history as a history of conflict and change, as the history of class struggles, from anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, and intersectional perspectives.

Deep in Japan (podcast): The Deep in Japan Podcast provides rich and insightful interviews with people who have lived in Japan. The show seeks to get under the surface and explore Japan through the rich and variegated experiences of the people who know it best.

Japan Station Podcast (podcast): Discover Japan through conversations with fascinating people. Every episode, host Tony Vega is joined by a guest to talk about all aspects of Japan, including the Japanese language, history, Japanese pop culture, food, anime, manga, movies, music, comedy, the impact of Japanese culture around the world, underground social movements, social issues in Japan, and much more.

Uncanny Japan (podcast): Uncanny Japan is the brainchild of author Thersa Matsuura. Thersa has lived over half her life in Small Town, Japan, first arriving back in 1990 to study at the University of Shizuoka for two years. Her fluency in the language as well as her immersion in the culture allow her to do quite a bit of research for her books and stories. She is especially passionate about strange legends, unfamiliar folktales, curious superstitions, and all those obscure aspects of the culture that aren’t generally known. As a way to more widely share these fun and fascinating facts, Thersa started the Uncanny Japan Podcast back in 2017.

History and Current Events

Books on Asia (podcast): Books on Asia is your guide to finding quality books on Japan and Asia. By offering thought-provoking content in the form of book excerpts, reviews, literary criticism, author interviews and a podcast, we hope to create an intelligent space for people to explore issues on Asia in-depth.

A History of Japan (Justin Hebert) (podcast): This podcast is a history of Japan, from the prehistoric Jomon Period to the modern era. Host Justin Hebert is conducting the podcast in chronological order; as of March 2023, his most recent season covers the Warring States period before 1600.

The History of Japan (Isaac Meyer) (podcast): The History of Japan Podcast takes listeners from prehistory to the present day. Host Isaac Meyer has several hundred episodes that zero in on specific topics from Japan’s history. The podcast has been up and running for more than a decade.

Japan on the Record (podcast): Japan on the Record is a podcast where scholars of Japanese studies bring their expertise to bear on issues in the news.—Currently inactive

Japanese History and Folktales (YouTube): These comic YouTube videos take a humorous look at Japan’s historical and mythological past.

Meiji at 150: In the Meiji at 150 Podcast, host Tristan Grunow (UBC) interviews specialists of Japanese history, literature, art, and culture.  Topics covered will range from the position of the Meiji Restoration and Meiji Period in each scholar’s research, to how they view the significance of the Restoration in Japanese and global history, and finally to how they teach the Meiji Period in their classrooms.—Completed project

New Books—East Asian Studies (podcast): New Books in East Asian Studies is an author-interview podcast channel in the New Books Network.

New Books in Japanese Studies (podcast): New Books in Japanese Studies is an author-interview podcast channel in the New Books Network.

Transcript of Episode 26: Translating Japanese to English, part 2

Find out more about Episode 26 of the Read Literature podcast on the episode page.

This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher. Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works. All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want. You can find out more at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.

Thanks for your patience! Just when I thought I was back on track, my family was in what I think is technically a minor car accident? Our car was totaled. I’ve been on crutches for three weeks. We’re all otherwise fine. And now I’m finally getting out part 2 of “Translating Japanese to English”.

It’s appropriate that we’re still talking about Minae Mizumura because August is Women in Translation Month. In August 2014, a research biologist and booklover named Meytal Radzinski launched Women in Translation Month. People all over the world now participate each August on social media using the hashtag #witmonth. [Check out a list of RJL’s favorite books by Japanese women writers.]

If you haven’t already listened to part 1, I strongly encourage you to start there. This 2-part series is a look at translation. We’re zeroing in on how Minae Mizumura’s Shishosetsu from Left to Right made it from her Japanese manuscript onto our English-language bookshelves as An I-Novel, with a lot of help from translator Juliet Winters Carpenter. But we’re also talking a lot about the art and industry of translation in general.

In part 1, we talked about how 

  • How a book comes to be translated
  • How someone comes to be a translator
  • How a translator gets paired with a book

Today, in part 2, we’ll look at what translating a book actually involves?

  • Why isn’t translation just a process of taking a Japanese word, looking it up in a Japanese-English dictionary, and plopping that word back on the page in English?
  • What kinds of choices do translators have to make?
  • How involved are authors in the process?

And we’ll end with some big theoretical questions that people who care about literature in translation (that’s people like me—like you) need to occasionally ask ourselves—why translate a book and why read a book in translation?

To answer these questions, I’ll be bringing in the work of a lot of other translators. Many translators are very generous about sharing interviews regarding their work. I’m going to try to credit the interviewers in-episode. As always, I’ll link my sources on the website. I’ll also link to the work of the creative artists who bring us English-language readers Japanese work in translation.

I’ve also had the opportunity since the last episode to have an email conversation with Juliet Winters Carpenter to clarify a little bit more about her with Minae Mizumura. I’m excited to share that with you during this episode.

[3:35] So why doesn’t a translator just translate literally—take every bit of Japanese and translate it word-for-word into English? There are a lot of people who think this is what they want. 

There’s a certain aesthetic of Japanese media that comes from amateur “scanlations” of Japanese manga and “fansubs” (subtitles) of Japanese anime—both are unauthorized translations by non-professionals. (Piracy is outside of our scope today, but… pay your artists, y’all!)  “Fansubs” and “scanlations” are often superliteral. When a small subset of Japanese fiction readers get into a snit about non-literal translations, I’ve wondered if that’s part of what they’re expecting.

Literary translation is not a process of taking a sentence in the original language and rendering it into the “target language” word for word—for our purposes today, taking a Japanese sentence and rendering into English. There are a lot of reasons that doesn’t work—it’s actually impossible.

Most obviously, slang words and idioms don’t make any sense if you translate them word-for-word. Disney’s new adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese does a brilliant job playing with idioms that don’t really translate. One Chinese-American character wonders why his parents are arguing (in Chinese) about “fried squid”. A more fluent friend explains “friend squid” is a Chinese idiom for being fired.

On a more practical level, the most literal translations often come across as stilted and awkward.
In a kind of contradictory way, translators sometimes have to move away from their original text to actually convey what the author intends.

Think about it.

Authors don’t write stilted, over-literal prose in the original language. Or at least they usually don’t. A word-for-word translation that comes across as stilted and overliteral isn’t a true translation either.
Juliet Winters Carpenter speaks beautifully about the process of translating a novel as something more intimate and collaborative. (She actually worked together with [Minae] Mizumura on some translations very collaboratively, but I think Carpenter is speaking about any author she translates.) This is how she describes her task as translator:

“You have to become the person that you’re writing about and not just translate their words, but their whole experience.”

And I think this is really profound—she describes making changes to the Japanese text of An I-Novel as making it more authentic in English:

“In the course of translating An I-Novel, as often happens in literary translation, a variety of changes to the text were made as, working closely with Mizumura, I tried to keep, paradoxically, to the truth of the original novel.”

I should note that translation has always been an art and has never been literal, but translators’ priorities have also changed over time. The truth they most want to preserve from the original today isn’t always the same as what they were expected to preserve, say, 70 years ago. An English-to-Japanese literary translator named Motoyuki Shibata describes it this way: 

“To exaggerate a little, translators used to decode what was written in the text. Now, younger translators listen to the Japanese prose and try to reproduce that sense of music in their translations.”

And with every translator, you’re going to get a slightly different take on what it means to be true to the source text. But most translators, at least most translators I’ve encountered, are committed to a degree of truth to the source text.

I’m approaching my 200th book read in translation from Japanese. And one of my greatest reading joys is getting to know not just authors but also translators.

I know David Boyd is going to keep as much of the original author’s style as possible. If you read his translations of Hiroko Oyamada, you, too, can be overwhelmed by Oyamada’s l-o-o-ng sentences rendered into eloquent English prose.

I know Emily Balistrieri is going to trust me, the reader, and localize as little as possible. I’ll talk about localization more in just a minute, but that means he never explains a thing he thinks a non-Japanese reader can figure out for themselves.

[8:52] For the next several minutes, I want to talk about the kinds of choices translators have to make when they take a Japanese-language book and translate it into English. Some of these choices are specific to the Japanese language. Others are choices virtually all translators have to face. Obviously I can’t cover all the choices relevant to books in translation, but I’ve chosen a few that are especially interesting or dear to my heart.

And—a quick caveat—that these choices aren’t always ultimately up to the translator. Translators have to answer to their editors, who sometimes have opinions of their own. And sometimes publishing houses have house styles about italics or footnotes or non-English words that limit the choices available to the translator.

[9:45] Let’s start with some specific issues faced by Japanese to English translators.Cathy Hirano has translated a huge body of Japanese middle grade and young adult fiction. She has described Japanese-to-English translation as “fairly strenuous cultural and mental gymnastics”. I like that. Let’s talk about why.

English is a language that does not like ambiguities. We don’t like incomplete sentences. Our sentences always go in the same order: subject + verb + then direct object if the sentence has one… (“Alison wrote the podcast.”)

There has to be a grammatical subject in a sentence: either a noun (Alison, Read Japanese Literature, the authors…) or a pronoun (she, it, they). Pronouns have to have antecedents—the words they refer back to.

None of that is as strictly true of Japanese.

Broadly speaking, Japanese is a language that is much happier with ambiguity. In fact, some authors play with that ambiguity on purpose. Some Japanese language speakers use that ambiguity as a way to preserve politeness. 

Translator Avery Fischer Udagawa says, “It’s not always clear what the subject of a sentence is, or who is speaking, and so much is left unsaid. The challenge is to preserve ambiguities where they’re crucial without leaving the reader at a loss, to elucidate [to make clear] without overexplaining.”

In rare cases, it isn’t even clear in a Japanese story what gender a character is. That’s very difficult in an English-language story. The very first time an author uses a pronoun it establishes a gender for a character. That’s especially true of anthropomorphic animals like the bear in “Kamisama”, which we discussed in a previous episode, or the cat in Sosuke Natsukawa’s The Cat Who Saved Books, translated by Louise Heal Kawai. If translators want to use pronouns for these characters, they have to guess if they’re a “he” or a “she” or an “it” or a “they”.

[12:11] “Gender” as a broad category causes a surprising amount of trouble translating Japanese. Manga translator Leo McDonagh has an excellent article about it on his blog—there’s a link on the episode page.

In Japanese, the way people speak can be more obviously gendered. For example, men tend to use different first person pronouns—different Is—than women. Men tend to speak more bluntly. When they speak in a more soft or traditionally “feminine” way, it’s usually for a reason. How is a translator supposed to convey all of that?

Then there’s, of course, also the issue of honorifics—the -san or -chan or -sensei that Japanese people place at the end of a person’s name out of respect. They convey important information… but is that information important enough to be necessary in English? Sometimes translators render -san as “Mr.” or “Ms.” That can get awkward and imply a degree of formality that isn’t intended. Sometimes translators leave -san—that can end up with an orientalist feeling, making the book feel a lot more foreign than it needs to.

Japanese also has words like obasan and obaasan—“auntie” and “grandma”. Except in very specific parts of the English-speaking world, we don’t classify unrelated adults by their age group—Japanese does. So translators are left with options like awkwardly writing “middle-aged woman” for every “obasan”… using “auntie”, which would strike some English readers as bizarre… leaving obasan, which could be either confusing, or, if done really wrong, orientalist… or coming up with some other alternative of their own.

[14:09] And then there’s the issue of the Japanese writing system.

We haven’t talked about the Japanese writing system since episode 2—our episode about The Tale of Genji. Japanese has one of the most complicated writing systems in the world with native and borrowed symbols. A Japanese person is expected to know:

  • Romaji, which is the Japanese name for the Roman alphabet (A, B, C… yada yada…)
  • Arabic numerals, which are the same 1-2-3 that English-speakers use
  • Then there are the 2 Japanese syllabaries native to Japan. Each kana makes 1 vowel or consonant-vowel sound.

You can write the entire Japanese language in hiragana, but virtually no adult does. It’s primarily used for grammar—things like conjugating the end of a verb or adding a part of speech to a sentence. It’s also used to spell out unfamiliar words.

I suppose you can write the entire Japanese language in katakana—I don’t know why you would. It’s mostly reserved for foreign words and onomatopoeia.

(Actually, side note: Japanese onomatopoeia are another aspect of the language that’s difficult to translate. The Kaori Ekuni novel Kira Kira comes into English as Twinkle Twinkle, but kira kira is more like the sound evoking something sparkling and glittering. It’s impossible to translate perfectly, although Twinkle Twinkle is a nice attempt. Especially because it evokes the song or poem “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” That one was translated by the way, by Emi Shimokawa.)

But, anyway,  the Japanese love kanji—a logographic system based on Chinese characters. Modern Japanese uses kanji for “content words”, especially nouns, adjectives, verbs.
What does all that have to do with translation?

Sometimes kanji have what are almost hidden meanings. And that’s impossible to translate. You can only see the hidden meanings when you can see the kanji on the page. 

Ted Gooseen provides an excellent example in an interview with translators David Boyd and David Karashima. Snow Country is probably Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s most famous novel—at least in English. (And yes, I’m overdue for something on Kawabata…) The protagonist is named “Shimamura”—and that’s written using the kanji for “island” and “village”. (There are different ways you could spell out the sounds for “Shimamura” using kanji.) His name foretells that he’s going to be an isolated character, but that nuance is almost impossible to relay without the kanji.

Just like in English, sometimes a character’s name is significant, but most of the time it’s more-or-less arbitrary. Why would a translator offer “Mr. Island-Village? any more than a translator of The Chronicles of Narnia [by C. S. Lewis] should offer foreign-language readers “Founder of the Church” Peter Pevensie and “Patron Saint of Light” Lucy Pevensie?

[17:30] Another issue for Japanese books is that publishing categories in Japan are well established. Publishing categories in the Anglo-American world are well established. And they don’t exactly overlap.
Just a warning that I have very strong feelings about this particular issue because, to me, changing a publishing category changes a book’s meaning.

Let me give you an example: In Japan, there’s a major division between what I usually call “literature” and light novels. The Japanese here is literally just “raito noberu”—it’s just a transliteration. 

Like English-language young adult fiction or YA, light novels are targeted at teens. They’re short—around 50,000 words. They’re often series published in 3-9 month intervals. Sometimes you can tell you’re looking at a light novel because the cover looks like a manga, but there’s prose inside.

The books are also usually published in what’s called a bunkobon format—smal, space-saving, A6-size for all non-Americans with their lovely standard-sized paper that the rest of us can only envy.

That distinction doesn’t exist in English. In English, we’ve got vaguer distinctions like “literary fiction” versus “genre fiction” and “young adult fiction”. And in English, there’s not a lot of fiction about kids and teens that isn’t middle-grade or young adult fiction.

What’s the big deal? Tomihiko Morimi, for example, ends up in a weird space in English-language publishing. We talked about Morimi and his work in the episode about magical realism. A lot of his work is about college students. His Penguin Highway [translated by Andrew Cunningham] is about a fourth grader. And a lot of English-speakers are excited about his work because they first encountered the stories in their incarnations as successful anime. So sometimes Morimi gets regarded as a light novelist by English-language readers, even though he decidedly isn’t perceived that way in Japan.

This may be my own personal hangup, by the way. But, yes, it does affect the translator and not just the publisher and bookseller. Translators like to have an audience in mind. Louise Heal Kawai talks about translating The Cat Who Saved Books:

“Picador (UK) and HarperVia (US) were clear that they didn’t want to package it as a YA book. Both large publishers have YA imprints and it wasn’t those who had bought the rights, so perhaps the reason was as simple as that?”

Kawai personally “felt because of its subject matter (teens, hikikomori, friendship, adventure ‘quests’) that it was very YA.”

In the end, she “didn’t aim [the] language at any particular readership.”

Maybe the moral of the story is simply, at least when it comes to translated fiction, we should read outside of our favorite publishing categories! There’s great translated fiction published as YA but written for adults. And there’s a lot of great middle grade fiction out there, too.

Check out anything translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa. Sachiko Kashiwaba’s The House of the Lost on the Cape is a piece of Fukushima fiction coming this fall. I finished it while I was recovering from the car accident. It’s stunning. Highly recommended.

[21:13] A more general question for all translators is how they deal with cultural content that is (probably) unfamiliar to the audience in their target language—things that are a part of Japanese life… or history… or art… that we don’t have in the English speaking world. Especially in the manga and anime worlds, the process of adapting a text to an audience in a new setting is referred to as “localization”. That’s really a process that applies in general.

Let’s start with a striking example I found in an interview David Boyd and David Karashima did with Lucy North. (These are all translators.) Lucy North translated, among many other excellent books, [Natsuko Imamura’s] The Woman in the Purple Skirt.

North talks about a “cream bun” a character eats in the novel’s opening pages. I want to summarize the amount of thought that went into her translation of this two-word noun. I highly recommend you go and read the interview for yourself—there’s a link on the episode page.

The word in Japanese is kuriimu (or “cream”) pan (“bread”, from the Portuguese), So it’s already a linguistically complicated word because it’s a borrowed word from 2 different languages imported into Japanese.

Let me read out a little of North’s thought process:

“If I used the Japanese word, should I italicize it? [In part 1, we talked about the complexities of italicization.] …Would kuriimu pan work? Some readers would not make the connection between ‘pan’ and ‘bread’ in a Japanese context. Then I realized that I didn’t know what a kuriimu pan was. I didn’t think I’d ever seen one of these… what were they? Rolls, buns, puffs? Pasties…?”

So North then did a lot of research about what kuriimu pan was—turns out it isn’t really a cream bun because it’s filled with cream before it’s baked.Technically the cream is cooked and therefore a custard.
And North found out that the publisher’s house style limited her choices. She had to italicize “foreign” words. She couldn’t use the special macrons over Japanese letter sounds—I don’t use them on my website either, but they’re lines over long vowel sounds to make it easier to pronounce Japanese correctly if you know how to read them. 

North goes on to explain, “in the end, bearing in mind the exigencies of house style,” she went for “cream bun” but with what she calls“residual anxiety”. And then she “added a stealth gloss to make sure that the reader would understand that the ‘cream’ in the ‘cream bun’ was not cream but custard.”

I’m going to explain what a “stealth gloss” is in just a minute. You might be able to guess right now. But I just want to emphasize that this process North just outlined isn’t unusual. Translators put a lot of thought into their work. Their personal “hang-ups” are all different, but a good translator is really doing their best to present the reader with a new version of the book that is both beautiful and “true”.

[24:50] So… what techniques are available to translators to deal with unfamiliar cultural content?
Some translators will simply choose a more familiar alternative. I say “simply”—it’s not that easy. It’s what Lucy North did with “cream bun”.

This technique isn’t bad or lazy. Often translators use this technique when they want their end result to be a text that creates the same experience for an English-language reader, even if they aren’t reading a literal translation of the words a Japanese reader would encounter. So they’re trying to give readers the most authentic experience of reading the book! Remember that the original reader presumably wouldn’t find anything foreign in the book at all!

Translators can do really creative things with “cultural equivalence”. Here’s one of my favorite examples of what I think of a “cultural equivalence done right”. It’s from a book called Rip It Up by Kou Machida. The protagonist sings a bizarre mash-up at a karaoke bar—and this is how translator Daniel Joseph renders it:

“It’s not unusual to hi-de hi-de-hi-di

You’re a chaste as ice, and baby we were born to nun,

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on Moon River

Any way the lunch grows doesn’t really matter.

Down in the horse corral, gnawing on rice

Hail Hibari, blithe spirit!

Have you anything to say to me?

Do with less—so they’ll have enough!

Any way the boat rows doesn’t really matter

Chicago, Chicago, it’s a helluva

Paradise for the losers, power to the people

Give it up, music, tonight only, there is no remorse

Like the remorse of the philosopher’s stone

I offer up my life,


I was blown away. I had a chance to ask Joseph about his translation choices. How like the Japanese original was this? Surely you recognized some of the references. I can see “You’re as cold as ice” and “Baby, we were born to run” and Creedence Clearwater Revival and Frank Sinatra…

Joseph explained he “did [his] best to capture the spirit, as well as the general outline of the sources.” He said, “Most of what comes out as a recognizable pop song in English was a snippet of an enka song in the [Japanese]…” Modern enka is like a sentimental ballad.

Joseph goes on to switch Japanese wartime food propaganda for American. (That’s where we get the “Do with less so they’ll have enough.”) He switches a shogi quote for a chess quote, a reference to a Chinese longevity potion to a reference to the philosopher’s stone…

Ultimately, Joseph says, “Basically none of the content is literal, it’s just all cultural equivalence”—at least to the extent that’s possible.

Alternative choices:

A few translated books use footnotes or endnotes, but that’s pretty unusual outside of academic publishing houses. The general consensus is that “normal” readers don’t like notes. And a lot of translators don’t like to rely on them anyway.

The same goes for translators’ explanatory prefaces and afterwards. They are still pretty rare. In some ways, that goes hand-in-hand with a long-running truism of English publishing in translation: English-language publishers almost hid the fact books were translations. That’s starting to change. The #namethetranslator movement to put translators’ names on covers is an effort to make translation a lot more visible.

Like Lucy North mentioned, one alternative choice is what’s called a “stealth gloss”. When a translator uses a stealth gloss, they provide the necessary context clues for a reader to figure out what a word or idea means without the reader having to look it up.

Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll start recognizing stealth glosses in translated fiction all the time. I already mentioned Sachiko Kashiwaba’s The House of the Lost on the Cape, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa. Udagawa left a huge number of Japanese words and cultural references and explained them with stealth glosses. The glosses in that book are a little less stealthy than they would be in an adult novel, but this is middle grade fiction. The technique provides a huge amount of information about Japan in general and life in the Tohoku region in particular and about Japanese folklore—it’s part of what I liked best about the book.

Other translators choose to supply actual glossaries. That’s another technique that Daniel Joseph used in Machida’s Rip It Up. A glossary is an unobtrusive way to give readers access to the information, but to leave it out of the reading experience for people who don’t want it.

Some translators explain as little as possible. I’ve already mentioned Emily Balistrieri, who translated The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl—which we discussed at length in an earlier episode. As I mentioned, his philosophy is to trust the reader. In one interview he talks about how he’d like to explain even less—he feels like readers “don’t usually need to be babied as much as we think they do.” And I think that technique works really well for Tomihiko Morimi, whom Balistrieri translates often.

[30:55] Translators face other questions, too—we don’t have time to take them all up today. But I’ll give you a couple of examples. 

Japanese has levels of formality—You don’t talk to your boss or professor the same way you talk to your Japanese friends. How do translator[s] convey those?

What to do about dialect? This is becoming an increasingly important question today as more and more Japanese authors write in, for example, Osaka-ben, the dialect of Osaka, instead of “standard,” Tokyo Japanese. Let me just mention that Louise Heal Kawai made a fascinating translation of bits from Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs into her native Mancunian (or Manchester) dialect—after all, both cities are the third largest cities in their island countries, both cities were central to their countries’ industrial revolutions, and both are still major industrial centers. There’s a cultural equivalence.

So listen to this: “Makiko’s my older sister and Midoriko’s her kid so that makes Midoriko my niece and me her unmarried auntie, and because it’s been nearly 10 years since Makiko broke up with Midoriko’s dad she doesn’t remember living with him, and I haven’t heard anything about her mum having them meet so she knows sod all about the bloke—but that’s by the by—and we all go by the same name now”. You can read the whole delightful thing on Words without Borders. It’s free, and there’s a link on the episode page.

We’ve also mentioned the issues about translating Okinawan dialects in a previous episode.

Other questions…

What variation of English is the target language? It’s usually assumed to be American. Polly Barton lives in the UK and writes unabashedly British translations. Some readers find that annoying. I imagine there were even some British readers who thought it was odd to have a Japanese character swear using the word “bloody” and to “skive off” work in There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura.
But if the presumed reader is almost always either American or British. And some translators are starting to question the assumed Anglo-American audience. After all, people read English all over the world. And we’ll talk about that a little bit more at the end of the episode.

[33:25] Now, there is the subjective question of whether a translator has gone “too far” making changes to an author’s original. I want to take a quick look at the way Haruki Murakami has been translated into English. I’m sure Murakami is not the only Japanese author we need to ask this question about. But translator David Karashima wrote a fascinating book called Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami that makes the answer a little more accessible. If you aren’t up to reading the whole 300-page book, novelist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has an excellent review/summary in The Atlantic called “Who You’re Reading When You Read Haruki Murakami”.

Karashima tells the story of how Murakami’s [A] Wild Sheep Chase came to be published in the US in 1989. The novel, more literally “An Adventure Surrounding Sheep”, was published in Japan in 1982.
The Japanese publishing house Kodansha wanted to break into the American market. Remember that this is right before it was obvious the Japanese bubble had burst. Japanese clout overseas was at an alltime high. A move into English-language publishing was probably overdue. 

But, according to Karashima, the editor and translator Alfred Birnbaum had American—and especially New York American—readers in mind. And so they dropped references to the book’s original setting in the 1970s, especially because they were very markedly Japanese. They even added a nod to a speech made by President Ronald Reagan, who was, obviously, president during the 1980s.  And they changed the title because, as Birbaum reportedly said, “Don’t you think it’s a much better title than the original?”
(It’s often difficult to render titles literally. Sometimes the literally rendered titles really don’t sound very good. And it’s not that uncommon to change a title.)

Murakami’s work continued to receive heavy revisions in translation. The English translation of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World [also translated by Alfred Birnbaum] is 100 pages shorter than the Japanese. Ostensibly, this was to make it more concise and approachable. But Professor Hosea Hirata at Tufts University thinks the cuts intentionally omit a sexually aggressive woman. If that’s true, the editors have actively played a role in shaping the way Americans think about Japanese women.

(This isn’t to say Murakami hasn’t done his own share of writing passive Japanese women—he does. Mieko Kawakami has taken him to task about it in Japanese. But English-language readers also aren’t getting the full picture of what Murakami has written, either.)

And then when Jay Rubin translated The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he cut 25,000 words.
The men who have worked on Murakami’s English-language translations have been sure that they’ve done it on Murakami’s behalf. Murakami genuinely wanted to reach American audiences. People probably aren’t wrong when they say you can tell from the way Murakami writes, from the references he’s added, that he’s writing with translation in mind as a goal. Japanese editors are more hands-off than Anglo-American editors. It’s not wrong that English-readers might find Murakami’s looser, less-edited prose tedious.

For his part, Murakami describes Alfred Birnbaum, for example, as “more of an introducer than a meticulous translator”. And Murakami hopes that someday his early works will appear in English unabridged.

For sure, Murakami understands that translation doesn’t involve word-for-word fidelity to the original. Murakami himself has worked as an English-to-Japanese translator. About translation, he says, “I have always felt that translation is fundamentally an act of kindness. It is not enough to find words that match: if images in the translated text are unclear, then the thoughts and feelings of the author are lost.”

[37:55] By the way, at this point you might be asking yourself, where is the author in all this translation business?

Authors have different levels of engagement with their translators.

Juliet Winters Carpenter worked so closely with Minae Mizumura that the two women are almost co-translators on Mizumura’s English language work. Carpenter describes it as a translation they did together.

Juliet Winters Carpenter was kind enough to have an email conversation with me about working with Mizumura.  She described Mizumura as flexible and explained that “all decisions were ultimately left” to Carpenter. But their level of collaboration, though, was truly extraordinary.

Carpenter talks about making a draft translation on her own, translating every day from 9pm to 3am. She’s retired now, but Carpenter was still teaching when she translated The Fall of Language in the Age of English and An I-Novel. Once she finished, Carpenter and Mizumura reviewed the draft separately. Then they got together to talk, question, research, reshape… She describes the process of rewriting as “focusing on the author’s main point (or the character’s emotion) and ensuring it’s conveyed as originally intended”.

Now… this level of cooperation is highly unusual.

For one, it’s rare that an author speaks and writes in the target language as well as Mizumura speaks and writes in English. We talked in part 1 about Mizumura’s biography. She spent her teenage years in the US and she has a graduate degree from Yale University.

The relationship that Avery Fischer Udagawa describes with author Sachiko Kashiwaba is a lot more typical. This is talking about the novel Temple Alley Summer, another enjoyable middle grade read:
“Besides green-lighting the translation and encouraging my efforts, she kindly read an annotated version of the Japanese that I prepared, to show her where I had taken some liberties to convey the story in English. She was open to this and has also been great about promoting the translation despite COVID, for example, by recording a video with me for Translators Aloud.”

Even Juliet Winters Carpenter doesn’t normally interact so closely with her authors. She’s translated three books by Shion Miura, but she only met that author once before the translations were finished—during a public talk at the university where Carpenter taught. Carpenter and her editor occasionally communicated with Miura’s agent.

And, of course, there are times when a translator is working with an author who is already dead. They aren’t available for questions at all.

[41:09] No translation will ever capture the full meaning and import of the original. If that’s what you want, you’ll need to learn the original language. Even then, there’s some question in my mind whether you’ll have “the real experience” of reading in the original language without growing up in “the original culture”. Sometimes I wonder if I’m even getting “the real experience” if I read an American novel written by an author who grew up in and sets a novel in New England. For that matter, we could think of all reading as some form of translation—one person’s attempt to make their thoughts and experiences real to someone else. Part of Read Japanese Literature’s project is to add context to books in translation to make the experience of reading them richer because of these kinds of cultural disconnects.

And so translators occasionally pass around the philosophical quandary: Is translation possible? And, on some very literal level, the answer is actually, “Not really. No.”

This is how Carpenter explains what she calls “the impossibility of translation”:

“I had always thought that it was possible, but you really hit some walls. There are things that you cannot do… you just have to accept that your translation is not going to ever be the same, that the reader will not get the same effect from reading your translation as the original.”

It’s important to think about what it is you hold in your hand when you read a translation.

  • What can a translation capture?
  • What can’t a translation capture?
  • And why is a book worth reading even though something actually is, in fact, lost in translation?

[43:16] There’s one question that I can’t ignore, even if the technical aspects are a little outside of my wheelhouse: Why not just put the whole book through Google Translate or Chat GPT?

I hope I’ve made an adequate case that translation is an art and not a science. It’s a difficult endeavor and, at the moment, a very human one. Right now, there isn’t any artificial intelligence software remotely capable of the work translators are doing.

(I, for one, wonder why we even want AI to do creative, human work. AI can fill out my tax forms—I want people writing my books and doing my translations. But that’s really neither here nor there.)

I do want to mention the looming threat of a really unethical situation. It’s possible translators are going to end up in a situation where they are paid even less to clean up machine-produced first drafts they could have done a better job translating on a first pass.

So if the opportunity presents itself to buy a machine translation, I strongly encourage you to consider (a) what you’ll be getting for your money and (b) whether that’s a precedent you really want to help set.

While we’re on the topic of ethics, I want to talk about 2 sets of ideas that English readers don’t always have in mind when we approach translation.

The first set comes from Minae Mizumura herself. Remember that An I-Novel is an exploration of the global power of the English language… and, according to Mizumura, it’s a global power that grows at the expense of every other language. Mizumura explored these ideas more formally in a book translated as The Fall of Language in the Age of English. That book was translated not by Juliet Winters Carpenter by also by Mari Yoshihara.

Mizumura published The Fall of Language in the Age of English in Japan in 2008. Surprisingly for an intellectual book about philosophy and linguistics, it became a national best-seller. 

Let me just say that The Fall of English isn’t a perfect book. Mizumura is pretty dismissive of contemporary Japanese fiction. That’s a stance I always object to. You may have been able to tell in earlier episodes that I get pretty annoyed with Kenzaburo Oe and the way he talks about Banana Yoshimoto, for example. And it’s clear that her academic background in Western languages is based in French and not English. (I have a master’s in medieval English literature.) Mizumura makes a common but very incorrect claim that English-language literature begins with Geoffrey Chaucer. It’s a huge medievalist pet peeve because that claim is off by several centuries.

But the points Mizumura makes are important. Mizumura wants all writers—writers in English and writers in other languages—to think about the asymmetry of a world dominated by the English language. She quotes from speech she gave to a group of French people:

“Those of us who know we are living in this asymmetry are the only ones condemned to perpetually reflect upon language, the only ones forced to know that the English language cannot dictate ‘truths’ and that there are other ‘truths’ in this world that cannot be perceived through the English language.”

That “forced to” is important—English writers may reflect on language. (We English readers are reflecting on language today. We just don’t have to.)

And Mizumura goes on:

“The works that are usually translated into English are those that are both thematically and linguistically the easiest to translate, that often only reinforce the worldview constructed by the English language, and preferably entertain readers with just the right kind of exoticism”.

Again, I think Mizumura might be unduly pessimistic—or maybe the selection of books in translation has just improved a good deal in the fifteen years since she wrote The Fall of Language.

Nevertheless, that attention to the asymmetry of language between English and other languages remains an important consideration. I also talked a lot in the first episode about what an important theme that asymmetry is in An I-Novel. It’s not just an important theme in the plot of the book, but also in the way the book is written. So if you haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, keep that in mind as you read. It will really make your experience of reading the book richer.

[48:27] The second set of ideas that English readers don’t always have in mind when we approach translation but should came to my attention through Dr. Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda. 

Hofmann-Kuroda is one of my favorite voices on translation. I had the honor of taking a course with her on contemporary Japanese writers last winter. She’s also a co-translator on a new translation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Kappa.

A few months ago, she tweeted:

“Translation is not inherently good or altruistic. Some people don’t want their work translated. No one has a ‘right’ to translate anything… Sometimes translation is extractive. Predatory. Greedy.”

She brought up a 2022 Tilted Axis Press anthology called Violent Phenomena. Unfortunately, it isn’t available outside of the UK, but you can buy it directly from the publisher—link on the episode page. The anthology introduces a huge number of questions about translation. I’m going to bring up 2.

Korean-to-English translator Anton Hur’s essay, “The Mythical English Reader”, asks why translators must assume their readers are Anglo-American—white and male.Especially since men make up a minority of fiction readers in English. (I should point out that men make up a higher percentage of translated fiction readers in the UK than they do of non-translated fiction readers, but it’s still a minority.) Shouldn’t translators have the freedom to select their texts and address their translations to a much broader audience?

Poet and scholar Mona Kareem translates Arabic poetry into English. Her essay, “Western Poets Kidnap Your Poems and Call Them Translations: On the Colonial Phenomenon of Rendition as Translation”, is maybe more of a call to action for translators than to readers of translated fiction. But it’s also a pretty compelling invitation to reconsider the way we think about translation: She warns us to rethink our approach to translation as some sort of charity project to people who don’t speak English:

“Thinking of translation as a service for the Third World poet, as an ‘easing’ into the colonial language, as a championing, a celebration, or an unearthing, should simply not be tolerated.”

In a talk she later gave to support this essay, she encouraged translators to think about who their translations are supposed to serve. Whether their translations are being invasive to another culture. Whether their translations might cause harm. I suspect we readers should be asking ourselves these questions about the books we read and the way we talk about them, too.

[51:37] For my closing today, I’m going to pose some questions to think about when we read books in translation.

Why was this book published in English?

Why am I reading this book in translation?

What am I missing because I’m reading it in translation

What do my experiences add because I’m reading it in translation? I do think that reading in translation isn’t an impoverished experience—it’s different, but not less.

And who translated this book? (Is their name on the cover?) Is there something about this translator’s work that makes it special?

Our “focus text” for this series has been An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. But I also recommend the work of any translator I mentioned. You can find lists of their work on the episode page. And also the anthology Violent Phenomena

Buy your books through our link to Bookshop.org to support the podcast. Several listeners a month are supporting us that way—we really appreciate it. You’re helping us offset the cost of buying books!
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We’d love to hear from you about the podcast. There are so many ways to stay in touch.

A special thank you to Juliet Winters Carpenter for answering questions by email.

Thank you to Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda for bringing so many issues in translation to my attention.

Thank you to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Japan for providing amazing translator interviews on their website and in general to all the translators who have spent time and effort explaining what their lives and work are like.

And thank you as always to Producer Khaim for today’s music, @khaimmusic and khaimmusic.com.

31 Days of Japanese Women in Translation

Just in time for August and Women in Translation Month, here’s a freshly-edited set of 31 resources about Japanese women writers for listening and watching. (It’s edited from the 2022 list—to keep things fresh but also manageable! Revisit 2022 for even more content.)

The texts mentioned on this list are in more-or-less chronological order by publication. Descriptions are adapted from episode descriptions.

Support Read Japanese Literature by buying your #witmonth books through our Bookshop.org bookstore.

For some context…

1. Start with RJL’s episode on translating Japanese women, with a special focus on Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman.

2. The Japan Station Podcast talks to Allison Markin Powell about translating Japanese literature: challenges, fighting for credit, Strange Weather in Tokyo, and Lady Joker.

And now in roughly historical order…

3. Historian Isaac Meyer talks about Ono no Komachi, a mysterious poet from the 800s whose poems were used to construct a fictional persona entirely separate from who she actually was.

4. Historian Isaac Meyer talks about Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji. Why do we know so little about who she was? What inspired her to write Genji? Why does he dislike her work so viscerally? And how did it become so famous?

5. Historian Isaac Meyer covers the fascinating tale of Sei Shonagon and the Makura no Soushi, or Pillow Book. Why is a collection of anecdotes considered to be one of Japan’s greatest literary classics?

6. Historian Isaac Meyer covers the life and career of Tokugawa-era poet Kaga no Chiyo, a shopkeeper’s daughter-turned-nun-turned-haiku master.

7. On the New Books East Asia Podcast host Jingyi Li interviews G. G. Rowley about Mariko Omachi. Omachi’s memoir of samurai Yoshiyasu Yanagisawa is regarded as “the most significant work of literature by a woman of Japan’s early modern era”.

8. On the New Books East Asia Podcast host Jingyi Li talks with Bettina Gramlich-Oka and Anne Walthall about Women and Networks in Nineteenth-Century Japan. This collection of academic essays uses women’s writing like letters and diaries to uncovers the way these sometimes-invisible figures lived.

9. On the Books on Asia podcast Dr. Judith Pascoe discusses the popularity of Emily Brontë in Japan.

10. RJL talks about women as they take up a prominent position in the story of Japanese literature for the first time in almost 1000 years. Special focus on Ichiyō Higuchi and her best-beloved story “Takekurabe”.

11. Meiji at 150 hosts Dr. Rebecca Copeland discussing “unruly women”: the goddess Izanami, popular activists and female writers in the Meiji and Taisho Periods, and contemporary writer Kirino Natsuo.

12. RJL talks about Japan’s legendary mountain witch, the yama-uba and her place in Japanese literature, including Minako Oba and her “Smile of the Mountain Witch”.

13. New Books East Asia’s Amanda Kennell interviews manga historian Ryan Holmberg. Holmberg translated Murasaki Yamada’s 1980s “feminist examination of the fraying of Japan’s suburban middle-class dreams”, Talk to My Back.

14. RJL looks at the SF genre, as well as the life and career of one of the mothers of Japanese speculative fiction, Izumi Suzuki.

15. RJL talks about Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s and the work of Banana Yoshimoto. Runaway consumer spending. Everything kawaii. A Nobel laureate’s contempt. And a young author whose career challenged the publishing powers that be.

16. The Japan-America Foundation of Tennessee hosts an online book club discussion of Dead-End Memories by Banana Yoshimoto. Yurina Yoshikawa hosts. (video)

17. In a sobering episode, RJL talks about the March 11 Triple Disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that devastated Japan’s Tohoku region and the life and work of Hiromi Kawakami. Kawakami rewrote her famous “Kamisama” in response to the disaster.

18. The Japan-America Foundation of Tennessee hosts an online book club discussion of The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. Yurina Yoshikawa hosts. (video)

19. The hosts of One Bright Book Podcast discuss Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel.

20. RJL takes up socially-conscious Japanese literature and writer Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station. (By the way, Miri’s The End of August is finally available in English translation by Morgan Giles. Pick up a copy!)

21. The Japan Foundation of New York’s Literary Series hosts author Yu Miri and translator Morgan Giles discussing the novel Tokyo Ueno Station, which won the 2020 National Book Award for Translated Literature. (video)

22. RJL explores protagonists who don’t like sex, women who want to have babies anyway, and the work of Mieko Kawakami. This episode is marked mature.

23. The Japan Foundation of New York’s Literary Series hosts author Yoko Ogawa and translator Stephen Snyder discussing the novel The Memory Police. (video)

24. The Japan Foundation New York’s Literary Series hosts author Hiroko Oyamada and translator David Boyd discussing the novel The Hole. (video)

25. The Japan-America Foundation of Tennessee hosts an online book club discussion of Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda. The collection features Japanese folk stories retold as feminist fables Yurina Yoshikawa hosts. (video)

26. The Japan Foundation of New York’s Literary Series hosts author Sayaka Murata and translator Ginny Tapley Takemori discussing the novel Earthlings. (video)

27. The Japan Foundation of New York’s Literary Series hosts author Kyoko Nakajima and translators Ian McDonald and Ginny Tapley Takemori discussing the short story collection Things Remembered and Things Forgotten. (video)

28. Books and Bao reviews some of 2022 and 2023’s newly-translated books by Japanese women (videos):

29. Translator Jeffrey Angles talks with host Amy Chavez about translating Hiromi Ito’s The Thorn Puller on the Books on Asia podcast.

30. The Japan-America Foundation of Tennessee hosts an online book club discussion of Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada. Yurina Yoshikawa hosts. (video)

31. Books on Asia’s Amy Chavez meets up with Juliet Winters Carpenter to talk about her 70 or so translated works of Japanese literature including Shion Miura’s The Great Passage and Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel.

Special thank you to people and organizations that work so hard to make these resources available.

Episodes 25 and 26: Translating Japanese to English, Parts 1 and 2

This episode page includes resources and bibliography for Translating Japanese to English Part 1 and Part 2. Listen to part 1. Listen to part 2.

Part 1 transcript available. Part 2 transcript available.

How does a book make it from the mind of a Japanese author into the hands of an English-language reader?

In this two-part episode, we’ll tackle the entire process—from book acquisition by a publisher, to pairing a book with a translator, to the actual process of translation. We’ll also talk about some of the ethical issues translation involves, all through the lens of Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel, translated into English by Juliet Winters Carpenter.

Please note that part one mistakenly claims author Astrid Lindgren and her Pippi Longstocking series are Norwegian. They are Swedish.

Support this podcast by buying from Bookshop.org.

More Writing by Minae Mizumura:

Part 1 also mentions:

Part 2 also mentions:

Find Out More

Author Minae Mizumura’s English-language website.

My review of An I-Novel in Asian Review of Books (2021).

One Bright Book discusses An I-Novel. June 2023 podcast episode, because great minds think alike.

“Does Literature Have to Be Monolingual? Ellen Jones on Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel and Multilingualism in Translation” at the CUP Blog (2021). This blog post includes a 13-page PDF preview of Carpenter’s translation.

Juliet Winters Carpenter talks about her career as a literary translator (2021). Video.

The official website of the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies.

Khairani Barokka’s “The Case Against Italicizing ‘Foreign’ Words at Catapult (2020).

The Japanese Literature Publishing Project.

Generation TF: Who Is Really Reading Translated Fiction in the UK at The Booker Prizes (2022).

“Which Japanese books Get Left Out of Translation” by Eric Margolis at Unseen Japan (2023). Publishers Weekly’s incomplete statistics lead Margolis to some false conclusions, but this is still a fascinating and informative article. (My apologies to Margolis. In the episode, I believe I have mispronounced his name and put the emphasis on the wrong syllable.)

Korean-to-English translator Anton Hur’s “Pitch Guide for Translators” (2023).

Spanish-to-English translator Sophie Hugh’s “Five Great Tips for Getting Started as a Literary Translator” at the National Centre for Writing (2020).

The PEN American Translation Committee issued a “Manifesto on Literary Translation” (2023).

Leo McDonagh on “Translating Gender from Japanese to English” on his blog, 2021.

Lucy North talks about kuriimu pan at Waseda, 2022.

Translator Michael Emmerich on the art of translating at Words without Borders, 2009.

The Translation Chat Podcast, hosted by Jennifer O’Donnell

J-En Translations.com (Jennifer O’Donnell)

Juliet Winters Carpenter talks about collaborating with Minae Mizumura at Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators (2014).

Juliet Winters Carpenter talks about collaborating with Minae Mizumura at The Conversation (2015).

Seven translators present their versions of the same passage from Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel at SCWBI Japan.

Lisa Hoffman-Kuroda’s Twitter thread about translation issues (2023).

Anton Hur on “How I Learned the Truth about Young, Open-Minded Readers of Translated Fiction” at The Booker Prizes, 2023.

Translator Interviews—Emily Balistrieri

Emily Balistrieri at J-En Translations (2019)

Emily Balistrieri and Andrew Cunningham at The Millions (2019)

Emily Balistrieri at NonNative Creative (2019)

Emily Balistrieri at SCWBI Japan (2021)

Emily Balistrieri at Where There’s Ink There’s Paper (2021)

Balistrieri’s Translations

Daniel Joseph’s Translations

Translator Interviews—Louise Heal Kawai

Louise Heal Kawai at Savvy Tokyo (2019)

Louise Heal Kawai at Books and Bao (2022)

Louise Heal Kawai at SCWBI Japan (2022)

Kawai’s Translations:

Translator Interviews—Avery Fischer Udagawa

Avery Fischer Udagawa at Borderless (2021)

Avery Fischer Udagawa at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (2021)

Avery Fischer Udagawa speaks about “The Hidden Art of Literary Translation” at The Hong Kong International Literary Festival (with Mary King Bradley and Jacqueline Leung, 2023)

Udagawa’s Translations:

More Translator Interviews of Interest

Polly Barton at Waseda (2022)

Polly Barton, Daniel Hahn, and Aaron Robertson at The Booker Prizes (2023)

Sam Bett and David Boyd at Asymptote (2020)

Sam Bett and David Boyd at Harvard Review (2021)

Michael Emmerich at Waseda (2022)

Morgan Giles at Books and Bao (2022)

Ted Goossen at Waseda (2021)

Cathy Hirano at BookBlast (2017)

Allison Markin Powell and Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda at Oxford Political Review (2023)

Margaret Mitsutani at Waseda (2021)

Lucy North at Waseda (2022)

Andrew Wong at SCWBI Japan (2020)

Hitomi Yoshio at Waseda (2021)

Japanese Literature at Facebook

Japanese Literature at Goodreads

Other RJL Episodes of Interest:


Allen, Esther and Susan Bernofsky, eds. In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means. CUP, 2013.

Barokka, Khairani. “The Case against Italicizing ‘Foreign’ Words” at Catapult, 2020. (free)

Bhanot, Kavita and Jeremy Tiang. “Introduction” in Violent Phenomena: 21 Essays on Translation. Edited by Kavita Bhanot and Jeremy Tiang, Tilted Axis Press, 2022.

The Booker Prizes. “Generation TF: Who Is Really Reading Translated Fiction in the UK” at The Booker Prizes, 2023. (free)

Buchanan, Rowan Hisayo. “Who You’re Reading When You Read Haruki Murakami” in The Atlantic, 2020. (free)

Carpenter, Juliet Winters. “Absorbed in Translation: The Art—and Fun—of Literary Translation” at TheConversation.com, 2015. (free)

Carpenter, Juliet Winter and Mari Yoshihara. “Introduction” in The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Columbia, 2015.

Cunningham, Andrew and Emily Balistrieri. “Readers Don’t Need to Be Babied: A Conversation on Translating Japanese Literature” at TheMillions.com, 2019. (free)

Fowler, Edward. The Rhetoric of Confession: Shishōsetsu in Early Twentieth-Century Japanese Fiction, U of CA, 1992. 

“I Can’t Translate This! Remarks from Twelve Translators” in Monkey: New Writing from Japan, vol. 2, 2021.

Hur, Anton. “The Mythical English Reader” in Violent Phenomena: 21 Essays on Translation. Edited by Kavita Bhanot and Jeremy Tiang, Tilted Axis Press, 2022.

Iwabachi, Deborah. “The Easy Life in Kamusai and Kamusari Tales Told at Night: A Conversation with Translator Juliet Winters Carpenter” at SCWBI Japan Translation Group, 2022. (free)

Karashima, David. Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami. Soft Skull, 2020.

Kareem, Mona. “Western Poets Kidnap Your Poems and Call Them Translations: On the Colonial Phenomenon of Rendition as Translation” in Violent Phenomena: 21 Essays on Translation. Edited by Kavita Bhanot and Jeremy Tiang, Tilted Axis Press, 2022.

Keene, Donald. “The I-Novel” in Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era—Fiction, 4th ed., 1999.

Margolis, Eric. “How the English Language Failed Banana Yoshimoto” at Metropolis, 2021. (free)

–. “Which Japanese Books Get Left Out of Translation” at UnseenJapan.com, 2023. (free)

Minghdoll, Jackie Friedman. “Jackie Friedman Mighdoll Talks with Translator Emily Balistrieri about Soul Lanterns” at SCBWI Japan, 2021. (free)

Mizumura Minae. The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Columbia, 2015.

Ortabasi, Melek. “Bridge Essay: Literary Translation in the Modern World” in A Companion to World Literature, ed. Ken Seigneurie, John Wiley & Sons, 2019.

Powell, Allison Markin. “Translating Women in Essential: Allison Markin Powell on Translating Kaoru Takamura’s Groundbreaking Japanese Crime Epic” at Soho.com, 2022. (free)

Udagawa, Avery Fischer and Mitali Chakravarty. “Translating Japanese: In Conversation with Avery Fischer Udagawa” at Borderless, 2021. (free)

Udagawa, Avery Fischer and Nanette McGuiness. “#Worldkitlit Weekend: A Coversation with Avery Fischer Udagawa, Translator of Award-Winning Japanese Children’s Author Sachiko Kashiwaba” at GlobalLiteratureinLibrariesInitiative.com, 2021. (free)

Zielinska-Elliott, Anna and Lynne E. Riggs. “True Collaboration on A True Novel.” Interview with Juliet Winters Carpenter at SWET: Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators, 2014. (free).

Transcript of Episode 25: Translating Japanese to English

Find out more about Episode 25 of the Read Literature podcast on the episode page.

  • Link to listen
  • Notes and sources
  • Ways to support the podcast

Please note that this episode mistakenly claims author Astrid Lindgren and her Pippi Longstocking series are Norwegian. They are Swedish. The mistake is corrected below.

This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher. Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works.

All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want. And you can find out more at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.

Thanks for your patience! And hello from my temporary recording space.

When I floated the idea of an episode about translation, I had no idea how excited listeners would be. The response was so positive, I decided to get started right away even though this episode would require a lot of prep and my family was in the middle of a move and then a summer vacation.

But here it is at last, Read Japanese Literature’s story on what it takes to get a Japanese language book from a Japanese original into the hands of an English-language reader.

Today, we’re going to approach things a little bit differently. I’m going to tell you the story of a book. Not a story from a book, but the story of a book.

Not only that, but, thanks to some really supportive readers on a Twitter poll, I’m going to be breaking down today’s story up into Read Japanese Literature’s first-ever two part episode.

In the next two episodes, we’re going to look at how that book made its way from the mind of Japanese author Minae Mizumura onto the bookshelf of English-language readers through the work of translator Juliet Winters Carpenter. Along the way, we’re going to talk about a lot of the issues involved in translation.

Today, our big question will be, “Why do some Japanese books get translated into English?” How do publishers decide what gets translated? How do they decide what doesn’t get translated?”

In part two, we’ll look at, “How does a Japanese book get translated into English?”

To answer these questions, I’ll be bringing in the work of a lot of other translators, too. Many translators are very generous about sharing interviews regarding their work. I’m going to try to credit the interviewers in-episode. As always, I’ll link my sources on the website. I’ll also link to the work of the creative artists who bring us English-language readers Japanese work in translation.

If you’re a long-time listener, this episode might seem “backward”. I’m going to start out by telling you about the life of today’s author, Minae Mizumura, and her work, An I-Novel.

Minae Mizumura was born in Tokyo in 1951. When she was 12 years old, her family moved to Long Island, New York in the United States. In case you don’t know much about Long Island, it’s almost a suburb of New York City. (I might be offending locals here. Maybe it’s safer to say that New York City is easily accessible from Long Island.) Compared to the rest of the United States, Long Island is also very affluent and very highly educated.

Mizumura never felt like she fit in the United States. In fact, that’s what much of An I-Novel is about—we’ll talk more about her sense of disconnection and how it has played into her life’s work in a few minutes. But just to summarize, she spent a lot of her time in the US reading and rereading a 63-volume collection of modern Japanese literature that her parents brought along with them when they moved. The collection was published in 1926. It helped define the cannon of modern Japanese literature. It probably deserves an episode of its own.

Mizumura studied studio art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and then French at the Sorbonne and Yale. She eventually completed a M.Ph. in French literature on the French literary critic Paul de Man. In case you didn’t notice, that means we have an author who produces literary Japanese who did an English-language M.Ph. on a French author. So when Mizumura talks about language, this is an author who isn’t just trilingual, but who has done very serious work in 3 different languages.

Mizumura always promised herself she would return to Japan and become a Japanese author—as in, an author who wrote literary fiction in Japanese. And she did. She finished her M.Ph. in 1984 and returned to Japan. She published her debut novel, Light and Dark, continued in 1990. It was a bold move. She took it upon herself to finish the last novel of Natsume Soseki, the man widely as the greatest novelist of Meiji Japan. (We talked about him at length in an episode in season 1.) In 1995, Mizumura published Shishōsetsu from left to right or, as titled in English, An I-Novel.

Mizamura’s An I-Novel is a conscious imitation of the Japanese watakushi shōsetsu or shishōsetsu. For much of the 20th century, the watakushi shōsetsu or “I-Novel” was the highest form of literature in Japan, the genre par excellence. The great American scholar of Japanese literature Donald Keene describes the I-Novel as “perhaps the most striking feature of modern Japanese literature.” 

Roughly speaking, I novel is an autobiographical or semi-autobiographical, confessional work. Historically, the majority of Japanese critics have treated the I novel as something like nonfiction. The earliest readers and writers of I novels hoped the genre would be a genre for the direct communication of lived experience.

Of course, since the 1960s, most readers are more familiar with the Structuralist idea that “the narrator is not the author”. Many of us who have been born and educated since then don’t realize that’s actually a modern idea. it’s probably better to read I novels as heavily autobiographical fiction.

For some of you this might be more of a refresher: we spent an entire episode on the I-Novel in season 1.

Mizumura’s An I-Novel takes place over the course of a single day in Mizamura’s life—the day she decides to take her graduate school oral exams. During the day on which the novel takes place, she reflects back on her life in the US, her place in the US as an Asian “Other”, her relationship with an emotionally needy sister, and a fairly-recent break-up.

Mizumura has described An I-Novel as “not just a how-I-became-a-writer story” but also as a “how-I-became-a-Japanese-writer story”. It’s also a fascinating story about growing up between cultures as a Japanese immigrant to the US. 

(Mizumura doesn’t really regard herself as an immigrant. She was very stubbornly insistent, starting at 12, that she was not going to settle in the US. She didn’t really want to engage in the English language. She picked French because it wasn’t English. But nevertheless, it is kind of an immigrant story.)

And the novel’s most important question is whether this girl, Mizumura—a girl who moved from Japan to the US when she was just 12, a girl who has never written so much as a journal in Japanese—can ever become a Japanese writer. Because becoming a Japanese novelist is what the narrator wants more than anything else in the whole world.

An I-Novel also includes some important reflections about race. For example, Mizumura the narrator finds herself paired off with a Korean student on a group date because they’re both “Asian”. And if you know anything about race relations in Japan and the relationship between Japanese people and Korean people, this idea of racial connection is not the way things would be perceived within Japan.

The narrator claims she’s from “a country where the notion of race was as abstract as the notion of winter for people living near the equator”. I really can’t say Japanese history or current events support that particular conclusion.

But she points out that in the United States, she is living as one of many people “who had been assigned a negative racial value”. “All men are created equal,” she says. “Perhaps.But all lives did not have equal value. This was true in all societies; everywhere… Yet here is America where people gathered (or had been made to gather) from around the world, race, in its most loosely defined form, was a mark that superseded all others.”

We’ll come back to An I-Novel as we continue talking—especially because it is central to Mizumura’s entire career project, to a lot of things Mizumura wants to say about language. And it’s going to be a part of our whole story about translation.

But let’s turn now to  why and how English-speaking readers can access An I-Novel.

An I-Novel was translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Her career stretches across several decades. She’s one of the most prolific translators working between Japanese and English today.

Carpenter is from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She studied Japanese in high school. Her high school offered 10 foreign languages. (This is remarkable to me. I’m from South Metro Atlanta. My high school offered 2 foreign languages. The French class didn’t even have enough students who wanted to take French in 2003 to make up a class. Anyway…) Carpenter fell in love with translation when she was writing a senior-year term paper.

She studied Japanese literature at the University of Michigan and the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies outside of Tokyo in Yokohama Japan. The Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies is better known as the IUC. It’s 1 of the most highly-regarded Japanese-language programs in the world. A large number of translators have some affiliation with the IUC. It’s certainly not a prerequisite. Students take 1 or more 10-month courses. For example, Juliet Winters Carpenter was there for 2 and a half years. There are also 2-month summer intensives.

After Carpenter finished her graduate work, she returned to Japan and lived there for many years.

You could say Carpenter was thrown into the deep end as a translator. At the beginning of her career, the publishing company Knopf invited Carpenter and several translators to apply to translate Kobo Abe’s Mikkai, Secret Rendezvous. (There are lots of ways for translators to get paired with texts to translate—we’ll talk about those in just a minute.)

In addition to her translating work, she’s also a licensed teacher of two traditional Japanese instruments—the koto and the shamisen. She also taught at Doshiba Women’s College in Kyoto from 1986 until 2019.

Her other author credits include Fumiko Enchi, Miyuki Miyabe… She’s translated several Akutagawa Prize winners And I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing several of her translations in the Asian Review of Books, including Masatsugu Ono’s At the Edge of the Woods.

By the way, you might be wondering how other people become translators.

First, just to be clear, literary translators make up a tiny percentage of all translators. There are a huge number of people translating technical writing and professional writing. There are a large number of people working as interpreters. These are different skills. Quite frankly, they’re often better-paid skills. 

Historically speaking, there was a good bit of overlap between the professions of writing and literary translating. That’s still true in some cases, more so for writers who translate English into other languages than for people who translate other languages into English. For example, Haruki Murakami has translated work by J. D. Salinger into Japanese.

Mizumura pointed out something I’d never noticed: a large number of the first generation of Japanese-to-English translators learned Japanese as part of the war effort in the 1940s. For example, Edward Seidensticker and Donald Keene worked for the US Navy. Edwin McCellan was a half-Japanese Scotsman working for the Allied intelligence in Washington, DC.

There are also academics—university professors—who work as translators. Michael Emmerich, for example, is one of my favorite translators. I believe he’s still a professor at UCLA—the University of California in Los Angeles.

I’ve cited a lot of work by Rebecca Copeland as well as her translation of “The Smile of a Mountain Witch” in an earlier episode. She’s a professor of Japanese literature at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. 

Unfortunately, universities don’t tend to make translation easy for scholars. It’s not a great way for most academics to pursue the job security and financial stability of tenure. So more and more translators aren’t affiliated with universities.

Most translators today work freelance. They often have degrees in either the original language they want to translate (Japanese, in our case today) or the target language (English)—or both. For example, both Louise Heal Kawai and Avery Fischer Udagawa have a masters degrees in Advanced Japanese Studies from Sheffield University in the United Kingdom. (I bring up Udagawa and Kawai specifically because they’ve been very generous granting interviews. I’ll talk a lot about their experiences in the next episode.)

There are specialized programs in translation—mostly graduate programs—but not all that many.

Being a freelance translator isn’t easy. It can be lonely. Work can be sporadic. When there is work, translators are generally underpaid. A lot of translators mention the business side of their jobs—pitching translations, tracking down payment, promoting their own translations—as the worst or most difficult parts of their career[s].

Advice for aspiring translators is outside of the scope of this episode, but a lot of translators offer advice freely online. I’ve linked some resources on this episode page.

On to our big question for today: how does a book get chosen for translation? Mizumura’s first work to land in English was her later novel, A True Novel.

The Japanese Literature Publishing Project asked Carpenter to translate A True Novel in April 2010. The JLPP’s website describes A True Novel as “an epic-length novel immediately acclaimed as a consummate classic”. It’s a reimagining of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in a Japanese context.

The Japanese Literature Publishing Project is a government-sponsored effort to “promote awareness and appreciation of contemporary Japanese literature”. It’s not active in translation today the way it was a decade ago.

I should mention that the Japanese government has been very active in the exportation of its own cultural content. Starting in the 1980s, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs started to increase its nation branding efforts by releasing a Japanese television drama series called Oshin in 46 different countries, free of cost. And this is the 1st example of the Japanese government exporting its cultural content as a form of soft power.

(Soft power is a foreign policy technique of indirectly influencing the way people in another country see your country. And the idea is to, kind of, raise the country, and maybe, hopefully influence the way people in other countries want to treat your country—to pursue a more favorable view of your country overseas.)

By the year 2002, a scholar named Douglas McGray was writing about Japan’s “Gross National Cool” as an extremely important cultural resource for Japan. Japan has promoted translation and its literature as a part of its “Gross National Cool”. I think you’d be hard pressed to say that the growth of Japanese literature in translation is unrelated to the efforts of the Japanese government to fund and push the promotion of Japanese literature. On the other hand, it would be cynical to say that the growth of Japanese literature in translation is only due to the efforts of the Japanese government. There are many very devoted translators and publishers and readers in the English language and in other countries besides English-speaking countries very engaged in Japanese literature. It is a wonderful literature that many of us love and want to have greater access to. Anyway…

A True Novel was Carpenter’s 1st experience working with Mizumura. She has since collaborated with Mizumura on The Fall of Language in the Age of English. So Carpenter was also a natural choice for An I-Novel… even though An I-Novel wasn’t really a natural choice for translation at all.

As I mentioned a few minutes ago, Minae Mizumura is really interested in language, and particularly what she calls the “asymmetry” of global languages. Not just that English has become, in her words, a “universal language”—but also the ways that shifts balances of power in the worlds of ideas… art… politics… finance…

(“Universal” here doesn’t mean most widely spoken as a first language, by the way. It’s more important that English is the most widely known second language. More people speak Mandarin as a 1st language, for example. But there aren’t nearly as many people outside of China learning Mandarin as there are people outside of English-speaking countries learning English.)

Mizumura is clear that the English language isn’t superior in any way. In fact, English is rather harder to learn and has a less consistent grammar and spelling system than a large number of other languages. But anyway… Its status is the result of a convergence of historical events. But as its prevalence has grown, so has its dominance—a kind of snowball effect. An I-Novel is, among other things, a reflection on this asymmetry of languages. 

Now… what does all of that have to do with it being difficult to translate?

The Japanese title of An I-Novel is Shishōsetsu from left to right. As in, the actual cover of the book says “Shishōsetsu”—which means “I-Novel”—in Japanese and then the words “from Left to Right” written in English. And that describes what’s in the book.

That formatting is noteworthy because Japanese novels are almost always formatted with the print in vertical columns, right to left. An English-language reader would say the book is “backwards”, you start with the back cover. But Shishōsetsu from left to right starts the way that would seem frontwards to an English-language reader. You open the left cover and read from left to right.

Mizumura’s novel isn’t “left to right” arbitrarily. The novel moves into and out of English at will, the way a fluent bilingual speaker like Mizumura might. The novel has to be printed left to right to accommodate English script. And the book was marketed as Japan’s 1st “multilingual novel”.

I’m going to read a long passage from The Fall of Language in the Age of English where Mizumura explains not only what she’s doing with An I-Novel, but why she thought it couldn’t be translated. (That book was translated together by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter.)

Any writer writing in English, even if she herself knew some Japanese, could not possibly expect her readers to understand Japanese phrases and sentences scattered in her novel. In contrast, any writer writing in a language other than English can reasonably expect her readers to understand some, if not most, of the English words she might happen to throw in.  It would therefore be possible to replicate the bilingual form of Shishōsetsu from left to right in any language in the world… by translating the Japanese and leaving the English parts as they are. The only language in which this wouldn’t work would be English. If we leave the English sentences as they are, how are we to replicate the bilingual form in translation? Yet into what language are we to translate the English words and sentences? Indeed, the very impossibility of maintaining the bilingual form while translating the work into English, and the singularity of that impossibility, are clear testimony to the linguistic asymmetry we now face in this world.

So… given all of these challenges, you might ask why in the world would someone even attempt to translate An I-Novel.

I have a couple guesses why. (A) it’s a good book. (B) it’s an important book about language and race. (C) And this is important, it’s a book that Columbia University Press thought they could sell a reasonable number of copies of. Minae Mizumura’s work had previously sold well enough in English. And An I-Novel is the kind of book a certain group of English-language readers were highly likely to buy. We’ll talk more about that question—“Is a book likely to sell?”—in just a minute.

In the end, Carpenter, Mizumura, and the editors decided to use a bold typeface for English words that appeared in English in the Japanese original. They didn’t bold the words that had appeared in Japanese and had been translated into English in the translation.

You might have expected the English words to be italicized.  Traditionally, publishers have italicized “foreign” words readers might not be familiar with. As Carpenter pointed out, “neither language is foreign here”.

By the way, italicization is a contested issue for translators. Indonesian writer Khairani Barokka wrote an important article on the subject in 2020 called “The Case against Italicizing ‘Foreign’ Words”. She points out that many people who speak English aren’t American or British or Canadian or Australian. Why should they (we—I’m American) be used as the standard for what words are foreign? We don’t italicize “sushi” (a Japanese word) but we do italicize “nasi goreng” (an Indonesian food) even though about a third of Indonesians have some proficiency in English. Barokka thinks this is a problem. I think Barokka may have a point.

In part two, we’ll talk more about the process of translating An I-Novel. Carpenter and Mizumura have an unusually collaborative approach that I’m really excited to talk to you about!
But most books aren’t sponsored by an organization like the Japanese Literature Publishing Project. How do those books get chosen for publication?

First, you might not realize just how lucky we readers of Japanese fiction are. 

Contemporary fiction translated from Japan is way more popular in English than fiction translated from any other language. (Keep that in mind in a minute when I tell just how few Japanese books are translated into English.)

According to the people who run the Booker Prize for fiction translated into English for UK and Irish readers, 14 of the 30 best-selling translated titles in 2022 were from Japanese. And that’s not including manga. So almost half of best-selling translated fiction was translated from Japanese.

Second, you might not realize just how much Japanese fiction doesn’t get translated. Unseen Japan recently published a highly informative article called “Which Japanese Books Get Left Out of Translation” by translator Eric Margolis. [My apologies to Margolis. I believe I have mispronounced his name and put the emphasis on the wrong syllable.] Margolis points out that there were 71,000 books published in Japan in 2019.

How many of those got translated into English?

Probably more manga and light novels get translated from Japanese than any other genre—maybe in the 10 or 100s of titles each year, but I had a hard time tracking down numbers.

How many other kinds of books were translated from Japanese in 2019?

Fewer than 30. That’s less than .04[%] of all Japanese books.

To be clear, there was almost no Japanese fiction in translation two decades ago. But .04%—fewer than 30 books—is still pretty low.

So what does get translated? How does a fiction title make it into the vaunted .04%? The short answer is… it’s complicated.

If I look at my list of fiction translated in the last two years, I notice two overwhelming trends—literary fiction gets translated (sometimes) and mystery novels get translated (sometimes). Most of the books Japanese people read every day get left behind.

There are a lot of ways a book gets selected for translation. They mostly boil down to whose idea it is to translate a book—the author’s, the original language publisher’s, the new language publisher’s, or a translator’s.

Sometimes an author doesn’t want a translation. But very often an author does.Translation is lucrative. If your book makes it into English, it has the potential to make a lot more money. Some critics claim certain Japanese authors, like Haruki Murakami or maybe Mieko Kawakami or even Yukio Mishima, write for an “international audience”. They keep in mind that their work will be translated as they write. Now, just to be clear, very few writers are in a position to take the kind of initiative involved in promoting the translation of their work. We’re talking about real literary celebrities—usually writers who have already had big successes in translation.

Sometimes an original language publisher wants a translation. If they’re a big enough publisher, they probably already have connections or even imprints that work in other languages. If not, they auction off the rights to the book. For example, it was big news to a tiny subset of the world when publishers bought the rights to Mieko Kawakami’s latest novel, Sisters in Yellow. A translation is already set for release in 2025—fingers crossed. By the way, different publishers bought the rights for UK and the Commonwealth versus the US. That happens a lot—it’s part of why we end up with different release dates for the same book on different sides of the Atlantic. As someone with online Japanese literature friends all over the world, I personally find that extremely frustrating—but maybe that’s just me.

When rights are auctioned off, the publisher sometimes makes it known they’ll need a translator. And translators make it known they’re available by sending in a pitch—a lot like a resume and cover letter that includes a sample translation. Remember that’s how Carpenter was selected for her first translation, Secret Rendezvous.

Sometimes translations are the translator’s idea. It’s almost like approaching a translator with a newly-written book. A translator has to find a publisher they think will be receptive to their work to send in a pitch. This time the pitch doesn’t just have to convince a publisher that the translator will do a good job—it also has to convince that the book is worth translating.

What exactly happens in the book? And I mean a complete summary with all the spoilers—but in a page or less.

Did it win any awards? Was it a best-seller? Has it been translated into other languages? Did it sell in other translations? And, (most importantly to a publisher) will it sell in English and why? We’ll talk more about that question in just a minute.
Sometimes translators are involved in pitching a book to a publisher, but don’t actually get to do the full translation themselves. These can be heartbreaking for translators who get really emotionally involved in a book. Louise Heal Kawai, who is a well-known Japanese to-English translator, describes her bad luck being asked to translate after doing a sample before she translated The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa.

“Will a non-English book sell in English translation?” is a sticky question. There are several dangers here.

Maybe the biggest one is that publishers create a self-reinforcing idea of what a country’s literature “is”. People who like Japanese literature will talk about its “ethereal qualities” or how “Japanese books are always ambiguous” or “All Japanese books have this special melancholy”. I’ve seen people claim that “No Japanese books have happy endings”.

I don’t think it’s wrong to find patterns in what we read—but we also have to keep in mind that publishers sometimes choose books that fit those patterns because they know consumers will are looking for. There are endless debates about what makes a book “Japanese literature”.

Is it anything written by a Japanese person?

Is it anything written in Japanese?

Is it anything written by someone living in Japan?

I don’t want to stake a claim in an answer here, but I do want to say that we can’t gatekeep what is or isn’t Japanese literature based on whether it fits our ideas about what Japanese literature is and isn’t supposed to be like. I’d also suggest keeping an open mind when you pick up your titles in translation. Sometimes buying and reading books that defy your expectations of Japanese literature can lead to a new favorite or open your mind to what Japan or literature can be like.

Translators are working very hard to get publishers to reconsider what will sell.  This year, the PEN American Translation Committee issued a “Manifesto on Literary Translation”. It is a fascinating and important read, but I was intrigued by the point the manifesto makes about what books they want publishers to consider.

For many years, publishers have claimed that English-language readers aren’t interested in translation. Many publishers refuse to acknowledge translators on covers because they want to hide the fact that a book is a translation at all. For example, Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lingren is a childhood classic for many English-language readers. Most of us didn’t realize growing up that it is a [Swedish] book written in [Swedish] by a [Swedish] author. Very few of us have any idea who translated it. The Puffin Classics edition, by the way, was translated by Florence Lamborn.

The Manifesto on Literary Translation calls on publishers to “radically reimagine who the actual readership of translated literature is and could be, accounting for a diverse and engaged audience”:

“We push back against the notion that US readers are hostile to unfamiliar or difficult material”.

Korean-to-English translator Anton Hur has also taken up in the last couple of years. Last year, he published an essay in a Tilted Axis Press anthology called Violent Phenomena. We’ll come back to Violent Phenomena again in part 2. Hur’s essay is “The Mythical English Reader” and asks why translators must assume their readers are Anglo-American, white and, male. Hur observes that men make up a minority of fiction readers in English. (Although I should point out that men make up a higher percentage of translated fiction readers in the UK than they do of non-translated fiction readers.) But shouldn’t translators have the freedom to select their texts and address their translations to a much broader audience? An audience that includes younger people? That includes English language readers who aren’t American or British? That includes women? People of color? People who aren’t cis or straight?

I want to close by correcting a misunderstanding about what’s being translated that I corrected about a year ago in my episode about “Translating Japanese Women”. I’ve stood on this soap box before, but I’ve got almost twice as many listeners now as I did then. (By the way, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate each and every one of you.) This point is very relevant today, so I’m going to make it again.

As I’ve said before, it’s amazing the myths that persist about what happens when you actively promote the work of a marginalized group—in this case women.

There are a lot of people who read contemporary Japanese fiction and think there is a bias in favor of translating Japanese women’s writing. In that Unseen Japan article I mentioned, “Which Japanese Books Get Left Out of Translation?”, Eric Margolis accidentally misrepresented the situation based on bad information from The Publishers Weekly Translation Database. The author claims 28 Japanese books were published in English translation into English—19 of them by women. Actually, my (possibly imperfect) count puts it at 35 literary books —and only if we don’t include self-published translations. 17 of those were by women. (The article’s number includes a children’s book and a cookbook.)

2022 was, I believe, by gender, the most balanced year ever for Japanese translation by gender ever for Japanese translation—about half and half. That’s after more than five years of advocacy by translators and groups cultural movements like Women in Translation Month. In 2016, translator Allison Markin Powell noted that there was 1 novel in translation by a Japanese woman for every 10 novels in translation for a Japanese man. I’m tracking 40 or so books for 2023. 15 are by women.

The fact is that the number of translated books by women is absolutely not a misrepresentation of the publishing industry in Japan. And it does not represent at skewed situation in favor of women. 

And let me note that there are groups in Japan that are much, much more dispropoortionarly underrepresented women—just to scratch the surface, Okinawans, Zainichi Koreans, and people who are LGBTQ+.

There are some translators actively working to correct these imbalances. I’m 100% certain I’m leaving translators out, but I can cite a couple of examples. Morgan Giles has translated the work of the Zainichi author Yu Miri, including Tokyo Ueno Station and The End of August, which comes out later this year. We talked about Miri in an episode earlier this season. Giles spoke in an interview with Books and Bao about “the pressure” she feels (I believe this is a positive pressure) “to represent people and stories that don’t fit Japan’s representations of itself”.

Last year, Arthur Reiji Morris translated Li Kotomi’s Solo Dance. Li Kotomi is a lesbian and was born in Taiwan. Solo Dance stars a lesbian protagonist. And Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda has recently published work by Okinawan writer Shun Medoruma. We also talked about Medoruma in an earlier episode. 

I’ve only gotten halfway through my story of An I-Novel and translation today.

In our next episode, we’ll move from why a book gets translated to how. How Mizumura and Carpenter worked together—it’s pretty unusual. And a lot about the difficult choices translators make. Why translators call it a “specialized form of writing” and not something more mechanical Why, for that matter, machine translation can’t manage literary translation well. And we’ll end our discussion with some ethical questions that Minae Mizumura’s work raise, as well as some questions that have been raised by other translators.

You can already find all of the resources for both parts of our translation series up on the website at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.

Please check out all of the material I’ve been able to find. Many translators are extremely generous with their time and advice. I’m happy to be able to link to their work.

Our “focus text” today has beenn Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Don’t forget to buy your books through our link to Bookshop.org to support the podcast. Several listeners a month are supporting us that way. We really appreciate it. You’re helping us offset the cost of buying books!

You can also support the podcast in other ways. Leave a review on your podcast app of choice. You can also become a supporter through Patreon for as little as $3 a month.

Thank you so much to our new, first-ever VIP supporters—Graham A. and Mary-Grace M. Even during my long, between-move hiatus, they’ve been receiving a Japanese book recommendation every month—you can, too! Find out how you can join our Patreon supporters at patreon.com/readjapaneseliterature.

We’d love to hear from you about the podcast. There are so many ways to stay in touch.

A special thank you to Lisa Hoffman-Kuroda for bringing so many issues in translation to my attention, including the anthology Violent Phenomena.

Thank you to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Japan for providing so many amazing translator interviews on their website.

I’ll be making use of both resources more in the next episode.

Thank you to the Japanese Literature group on Goodreads and the Japanese literature Twitter community. Thanks especially to Twitter followers for encouraging me to be brave and use all my content on translation for a two-part episode.

And thank you as always to Producer Khaim for today’s music, @khaimmusic and khaimmusic.com.

Episode 24: SF! Japanese Science Fiction

Check out Episode 24 of the Read Literature podcast.

Transcript available.

In this episode, we’re talking about Japanese science fiction.

The history of the genre. SF in Japan. Breakthrough feminist sci-fi writer Izumi Suzuki.

Plus loads of SF stories, including Suzuki’s “Night Picnic”.

CW: suicide

Become an RJL supporter for ten minutes of bonus content.

Support this podcast by buying from Bookshop.org.

More Writing by Izumi Suzuki:

SF! An RJL Booklist of Japanese Science Fiction in Translation

This episode also mentions:

*These stories are only mentioned in the extended version of the episode available to Patreon subscribers.

Find Out More

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction online. “A comprehensive, scholarly, and critical guide to science fiction in all its forms.”

TV Tropes on “Japan Takes Over the World”.

The story of Urashima Taro.

The official English website of Shinichi Hoshi. Hoshi is one of Japan’s most influential SF writers.

Gajinpot’s “Discovery: 5 Japanese Science Fiction Authors” (2018).

Book Riot’s list of “Speculative Fiction in Translation: Japan” (2017).

Book Scrolling’s list of “The Best Japanese Science Fiction & Fantasy Books” (2018). The list is cross-referenced with other online lists of Japanese science fiction, linked at the bottom of the page.

The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association’s list of “Top Ten Japan All Time Best SF Novels” (2011).

Red Circle on “Japan’s Early Science Fiction” (2017).

Sci-fi translator and critic Omori Nozomi on why Sakyo Komatsu’s work became more popular during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic (2020).

Read an excerpt from Taiyo Fujii’s novel Orbital Cloud via The Verge.

My review of Suzuki’s Terminal Boredom at Asian Review of Books (2021).

Tokyo Weekender’s “Izumi Suzuki: A Legendary Sci-Fi Writer Rediscovered” (2023).

ArtReview’s “How Izumi Suzuki Broke Science Fiction’s Boys’ Club” (2021). (This is one of my favorite articles.)

LitHub’s “A Writer from the Future: Who Was Sci Fi Iconoclast Izumi Suzuki” (2021).

Japanese Literature at Facebook

Japanese Literature at Goodreads

Other RJL Episodes of Interest:


Abe Kobo. “Two Essays on Science Fiction.” Translated by Christopher Bolton and Thomas Schnellbächer in Science Fiction Studies, 2002.

Bolton, Christopher. “Editorial Introduction: The Borders of Japanese Science Fiction” in Science Fiction Studies, 2002.

–. “Introduction to ‘Two Essays on Science Fiction’ by Abe Kobo” in Science Fiction Studies, 2002.

Bolton, Christopher, et al. “Introduction” in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime. Edited by Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicery-Ronay, Jr., and Takayuki Tatsumi. U of MI, 2007.

Cheng, John. “Asians and Asian Americans in Early Science Fiction” at The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Research, 2019. (free)

Fincher, Alison. “‘Terminal Boredom’ by Izumi Suzuki” at Asian Review of Books, 2021. (free)

Gunn, James. “Science Fiction around the World” in World Literature Today, 2010.

Keene, Donald. “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” in Monumenta Nipponica, 1956.

Harada, Kazue. Japanese Women’s Science Fiction: Posthuman Bodies and the Representation of Gender. PhD Dissertation, 2015. (free)

Harrison, Genie. “Izumi Suzuki: A Legendary Sci-Fi Writer Rediscovered” in Tokyo Weekender, 2023. (free)

Joseph, Daniel. “How Izumi Suzuki Broke Science Fiction’s Boys’ Club” at ArtReview, 2021. (free)

Nagasawa Tadashi. “The Reception of American Science Fiction in Japan” at Oxford Encyclopedias, Literature, 2016. (free)

Nathan, Richard. “Ahead of Time: Japan’s Early Science Fiction” at RedCircleAuthors.com, 2017. (free)

Oziewicz, Marek. “Speculative Fiction” at The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Research, 2017. (free)

Ridker, Andrew. “A Writer from the the Future: Who Was Sci Fi Iconoclast Izumi Suzuki?” at LitHub, 2021. (free)

Suvin, Darko. “Preliminary Note to ‘Japanese SF, Its Originality and Orientation’ by Koichi Yamano (1969).” Translated by Kazuko Behrens. Edited by Darko Suvin and Takayuki Tatsumi in Science Fiction Studies, 1994.

Takayuki Tatsumi. “Generations and Controversies: An Overview of Japanese Science Fiction, 1957-1997” in Science Fiction Studies, 2000.

Yamano Koichi. “Japanese SF, Its Originality and Orientation (1969).” Translated by Kazuko Behrens. Edited by Darko Suvin and Takayuki Tatsumi in Science Fiction Studies, 1994.

Transcript of Episode 24: SF! Japanese Science Fiction

Find out more about Episode 24 of the Read Literature podcast on the episode page.

  • Link to listen
  • Notes and sources
  • Ways to support the podcast

Hi. This is Alison Fincher. 

Before we get started, I want to remind you that one of the best ways you can support Read Japanese Literature is by joining us as a Patreon supporter.

You can visit patreon.com/readjapaneseliterature right now and get bonus content for this episode. That includes  thoughts on pulp sci-fi covers in Japanese bookstores after World War II and the coincidence of sharing a birth year with Haruki Murakami. Plus you’ll hear about even more science fiction stories. Supporters also get early access to each new episode.

So please think about joining us.

Not just the podcast, but our website, transcripts and booklists are all supported by Patreon. Our work is helping readers, students, and teachers in places all over the world. You can help, too: patreon.com/readjapaneseliterature

[1:07] This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher. Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want. You can find out more at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.

Quick content warning: This episode includes a brief mention of an author’s suicide.

[1:35] Once upon a time, there was an old man who made his living by cutting bamboo. One day, he notices a light at the root of a bamboo stalk. Inside the stalk, he finds a little girl only three inches tall. He says to her, “I have found you because you are here, in this bamboo which I look at every morning and evening. It must be that you are meant to be my child.”

He takes her into his hands and carries her home to his wife. They couple raise her as their own little girl.

From that day forward, the bamboo cutter sometimes finds stalks of bamboo filled with gold. Gradually, the small family becomes very rich. When the girl was grown, the old man and old woman ask a diviner to name her. The diviner calls her “Mayotake no Kaguya-hime”—“the Shining-Princess of the Young Bamboo”.

Her adoptive father believes she must be “a divinity in human form”. But, he advises her, “It is the custom in this world for men and women to marry and in that way for their families to flourish”.

Kaguya-hime is truly beautiful. Men from all over the land came to seek her hand, but she is skeptical of all of them. She sets them impossible tasks to prove their love.

Eventually, she attracts the eye and heart of the emperor himself. But she can’t be with him. She tells him her body wasn’t “born on earth”.

Late in the story, she is finally able to articulate her origins. In tears, this is what she tells her parents: 

I am not a creature of this world. I come from the Palace of the Moon. I visited this world because of an obligation from the past. Now the time has come for me to return… People from my old country will come for me.

Her adoptive father can’t do anything to prevent it. Neither can the emperor, who still longs to be with Kaguya-hime.

One not long after, the house Kaguya-hime lives in is “suddenly illuminated by a light brighter than noon, as bright as ten full moons, so bright that one could see the pores of a man’s skin”.

“Then, down from the heavens [come] men riding on clouds” who come to a stop five feet above the ground and hover there. The men have brought with them “a flying chariot covered by a parasol of gauzy silk”. Their leader orders Kaguya-hime to board the chariot for her journey home.

Kaguya-hime is grief stricken to leave her adoptive family, but she can’t stay. She dons a robe of feathers—and it makes her forget her sorrow and pity for her family: “Those who wear this robe know no griefs.” She drinks the elixir of immortality. And the flying chariot returns her to the moon.

Donald Keene is one of the most highly-regarded English-language scholars of Japanese literature. He translated this version of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” in 1956. It is considered to be one of the oldest surviving works of fiction in the Japanese language.

It’s pretty ubiquitous in Japanese popular culture even today. There was a Studio Ghibli film made in the early 2010s. My daughter hates this movie. She says it has ruined all cinema for her because the movie is so sad. Kaguya-hime is also involved in the origin story of Sailor Moon.

But “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” also involves beings visiting earth on a flying vehicle. And so it is also regarded as one of the world’s first works of science fiction.

[5:02] Today, we’re going to talk about Japanese science fiction… And most of it is going to be a lot more modern than “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”.

I’m going to start out with a description of science fiction as a genre.

I’ll move on to a history of science fiction specifically in Japan. It will include a lot of Japanese science fiction authors. Almost all the authors I mention in this episode are available in English translation. There’s an even more comprehensive list of what’s available in English translation on the episode page.

We’ll move on to the colorful biography of sci-fi writer Izumi Suzuki—one of my favorites—and her story “Night Picnic”.

[5:57] If you’re a regular listener, you’ve heard my spiel about genre studies before: genre studies is both endlessly fascinating and painfully tedious.

Genre is a broad term for a category of art—in this case, a work of fiction. Genre theory is the study of how we categorize stories—comedy, tragedy, romance… 

Genre is important because we can learn useful things about comparing stories that share common traits.

But when we sit down to define what a genre really is—that’s when things get complicated. 

Now, depending on who you ask, science fiction… or sci-fi… is either a youngish and narrow genre… or an old and super broad genre. There are endless ways to subdivide science fiction:

How serious is the science?: It can be hard sci-fi, mundane sci-fi, or soft sci-fi.

What are its major themes? End of the world? That’s apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic.

Biotechnology and genetic engineering? Maybe you’re looking at biopunk.

Climate change? Could be cli-fi.

How is the story told? Romantic adventure in exotic settings, usually with space ships? Probably a space opera. Some of pop culture’s most famous sci-fi is space opera—like the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises.

There’s feminist sci-fi. LGBTQ+ sci-fi. Christian sci-fi. Libertarian sci-fi. And there are sci-fi mash-ups with other genres like alternate history sci-fi. Sci-fi erotica. “Tech-noir” like [the] films Blade Runner and Minority Report. Sci-fi Westerns like the TV show Firefly

And then some people like to use the “term speculative fiction” as an umbrella category for all genres that deliberately depart from “consensus reality”—the kind of “real” that we look around and see every day that people more or less agree exists. Sci-fi belongs under the umbrella. But so do fantasy and horror… stories about superheroes, utopias, the supernatural…

Japanese science fiction to be a broader category more like “speculative fiction” that still incorporates other genres like fantasy and horror.

[8:27] The advocates of an older and broader genre definition for science fiction sometimes date the origins of sci-fi all the way back to the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. (The earliest written versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh are more than 4000 years old.) If sci-fi is indeed at least as old as written story-telling, then it includes some of the world’s oldest and best-loved stories.

  • The Ancient Hindu epic Ramayana from the 5th or 4th century BCE. In it, a character flies a Vimana—a palace or chariot that can travel into space or even under water.
  • One Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights dates to the 8th or 9th century CE. Several of the stories include sci-fi elements. In “The Adventures of Bulukiya,” for example, the protagonist travels across space to different worlds.
  • Even in Geoffrey Chaucer’sThe Canterbury Tales in the 1300s, “The Squire’s Tale” includes a metal horse that looks a lot like what we would now consider a robot.

On the other hand, advocates of a youngish and narrower genre definition look no earlier than the Enlightenment… sometimes no earlier than the 19th century. One of the most popular titles to get thrown around as the “first sci-fi novel” is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The Japanese novelist Kōbō Abe regarded Edgar Allen Poe as one of the fathers of sci-fi. (We’ll discuss Abe more in a few minutes.) But many of Poe’s stories continued sci-fi elements. For example, 1835’s “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” describes a trip to the moon in a hot air balloon.

Englishman H. G. Wells and Frenchman Jules Verne are sometimes identified as authors of “scientific romance”. Less scrupulous critics might not separate scientific romance from sci-fi. The two men wrote hugely popular, science-oriented stories.

[10:30] The stickliest of sticklers have a very precise date in mind for the origin of science fiction as a genre: in 1926, Luxembourgish-American Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories magazine to publish only “scientifiction” stories. (Obviously the term “scientifiction” has evolved into the somewhat less awkward “science fiction”.)

In contexts like Amazing Stories, early sci-fi stories were “pulp”. There are exceptions, but as a rule they weren’t really intended to make the reader think in the way sci-fi often is today. The stories were fast-paced. The characters were painted in strong colors. Good guys were good guys; bad guys were bad guys. And this was a very successful formula. By the late 1930s, Amazing Stories and its competitors were selling more than 1.5 million copies a month.

By the 1940s and 50s, sci-fi evolved into something different. Instead of Amazing Stories, the magazine at the center of the genre had become Astounding Science Fiction. Its editor was a man named John W. Campbell, Jr. He promoted stories that were “extrapolations of possible technologies and their social and human impacts” and “idea fictions rooted in recognizable science”. And so, partially under Campbell’s leadership, the focus shifted to “hard science fiction”. In other words, the “science” of the sci-fi was more sound—or at least presented as though it were more sound.

The counterculture movements of the 1960s caused another shift in the sci-fi genre. This time the change originated in the UK rather than the US. From the 1960s on, a lot of sci-fi became more experimental and avant-garde. Sci-fi had challenged the cultural status quo for decades, but I think it’s safe to say that the challenge became more urgent in the 1960s when there were so many challenges to the status quo in play in the culture at large. This whole movement is called the “new wave”—and it’s very important to the way Izumi Suzuki approached science fiction.

Just to be clear, these changes have built on each other. That pulp past, the tradition of hard sci-fi, new wave… these aren’t movements that get used and discarded. Each is very much a part of new sci-fi written today—either actively in use or conspicuous in its absence.

One of the last great innovations in sci-fi is the introduction of “cyberpunk” in the 1980s. “Cyberpunk” is something of a hybrid: computer-generated reality plus the plot and/or style of a hardboiled novel. Think Blade Runner, for example.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that sci-fi has slowly become incorporated into more mainstream fiction. For example Margaret Atwood is a highly regarded literary writer. Books like The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake definitely qualify as sci-fi, too. Nevertheless, both are regarded as high literature.

It’s also worth mentioning that sci-fi as a genre and as a community has become more inclusive. If you Google “important sci-fi authors” or “best sci-fi authors” you’re still likely to get lists that are almost entirely white men—almost all of them American. But work by women and people of color is gaining more and more (very much deserved) attention.

[14:20 min.] Before I move on, I think it’s necessary to mention that Anglo-American sci-fi has a complicated relationship with Asia and Asian people.

Remember how Amazing Stories premiered in 1926? The US Federal government passed a massive immigration overhaul in 1924. The Immigration Act of 1924 wasn’t the first immigration law to exclude immigrants from Asia—but it was the most comprehensive. Starting in 1924, no one from Asia could legally immigrate to the United States.

The Immigration Act of 1924 was a triumph of Yellow Peril thinking. The racist Yellow Peril motif was a 19th and 20th century fear of East and Southeast Asians that pervaded Europe and North America. Unfortunately, early sci-fi is rife with Yellow Peril imagery.

I could talk for far too long about Yellow Peril imagery in sci-fi, but that would take us way off topic. Suffice it to say that early sci-fi writers used the genre to explore and exploit anxieties about Asia—Orientalist at best, maliciously racist at worst.

I do think it’s important to include this imagery at this moment in our story today because this particular kind of racism affected Asian and Asian-American readers of sci-fi.

John Cheng at Binghamton University cites a letter to the editor of Amazing Stories sent in by a Chinese American reader named Howard Lowe: “I am most interested in your stories containing Chinamen as the villains. Please don’t always pick on them. I am sure others would do.”

Orientalism came up again in the 1980s in the form of the “Japan takes over the world” trope. Think about Alien, the company that sends Sigourney Weaver into space in Weyland-Yutani. (Yutani is a markedly Japanese name.) In Back to the Future, Part II, 2015 Marty works for a Japanese company. In Blade Runner, noodle shops are ubiquitous and geisha advertise Coca-Cola. The people who wrote these stories and produced these films were expressing anxiety about Japan’s financial success in the 80s.

Today’s sci-fi still features Asian motifs. Asians aren’t usually presented as a threat, but they’re still Orientalist. Writers and directors are still using Asian culture to mark an alien culture as Other, even as Other in a positive way. For example, there are significant overlaps between Asian and Vulcan culture[s] as depicted in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

[17:10] As I move on to Japanese science fiction, let me just clarify a little bit about vocabulary.

In 1962, Kōbō Abe published one of the first essays about the science fiction genre in Japanese. (We’ll talk more about Abe and his essays in a minute.) But he opened the essay, “They say that the sf novel is enjoying a quiet surge in popularity lately.”

I’ve seen SF marked as a typo or corrected in some articles about Japanese science fiction. It’s not an error—it’s a correct term. Abe goes on to explain that Japanese “SF” stands for the English term “science fiction”. It is, he says, “what would be called “kuiso kagaku shosetsu” or “fantastic science novels”. That particular term is now pretty out-of-date in 2023.

So for the rest of today, I’ll be using “science fiction”, “sci-fi”, and “SF” pretty interchangeably because they are all correct ways of talking about the same genre of Japanese fiction in English translation.

If we’re taking the loosest possible definition of science fiction, Japan has some old supernatural classics. We opened with The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. As I mentioned, some people consider it Japan’s earliest work of science fiction.

There’s an even older folktale called Urashima Taro. (The oldest reference to the story is in a text written in 720 CE.) 

In the first season, we covered Japanese setsuwa—anecdotal stories often tied to medieval Buddhism. You might remember the spurned woman who turned into a giant snake? A liberal definition of sci-fi might include some setsuwa.

We also had an episode about kaidan, Edo-period Japanese ghost stories. The most famous names in kaidan are probably the author Ueda Akinari and the anthologist Lafcadio Hearn. You could group the work of both under early SF, too.

But aside from these early classics, my plan today is to give you a broad overview of the story of 20th and 21st century Japanese science fiction.

Japanese people have been reading science fiction—or perhaps proto-science fiction, depending on who you ask—since the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Sci-fi authors like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells appealed to Japanese people interested in “civilization and enlightenment”.\\

Let me also mention Ryunosuke Akutagawa. He doesn’t show up in most accounts of early Japanese science fiction, but I’m not sure I can leave him out. He was writing fiction that wasn’t like what anyone else was writing in Japan in the 1910s and 20s. You might remember our discussions of “The Nose” or “Hell Screen” from season one. Both stories are based on old Japanese setsuwa that were centuries old. But they’ve also been dramatically updated.

Akutagawa was many things. I’m tempted to say that among those, he was something like a bridge between traditional Japanese story-telling and science fiction. In stories like “The Nose” or “Hell Screen” he almost remade traditional stories into science fiction. 

By the way, his novella Kappa is listed in some databases of sci-fi titles. A kappa is a Japanese yokai that lives near water and sometimes drags the unwary to their watery deaths. Akutagawa’s novella is about a patient in an insane asylum who claims to have once visited the realm of the kappa. We’re going to be treated to a new translation this summer by Allison Markin Powell and Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda.

[20:43] Scholar Takayuki Tatsumi teaches at Japan’s Keio University. He has written some of the best English-language articles on Japanese SF. And he divides the history into “generations”. I’m going to follow his organizational structure. As I follow it, I’m going to give you a little more information about one or two authors from each generation, especially writers that are better-known or more widely available in English. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, I’ve got a more extensive—but by no means comprehensive—list of Japanese SF authors available in English up on the episode page. Don’t forget to buy your books from our Bookshop to support the podcast.

There are several figures you might consider the “Founding Figures” of SF in pre-war Japan.

Shunro Oshikawa published The Undersea Warship in 1900. Some scholars think that novel anticipated the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

Juza Unno was a fond reader of early American sci-fi stories. He wrote “space-operas” along the same lines. Stories like “The Flying Island” and “Mars Corps” were well loved by Japan’s youth in the 1930s and early 40s, including Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe.

Finally, some critics locate the origins of Japanese SF in 1930s detective fiction. This isn’t as counter-intuitive as it might seem—after all, America’s Edgar Allan Poe is sometimes credited as both an originator of the detective novel and an originator of the SF genre. Very few readers or writers in Japan actually saw the genres as distinct until the 1960s.

In some ways, the massive growth of sci-fi in Japan is an accident of history. American GIs brought sci-fi magazines and novels with them when they occupied Japan. (Actually, they were sometimes issued sci-fi materials as Armed Services editions.) When the GIs were done, they left these materials behind. They made their way into used bookstores in Japan.

In the 1950s, Japanese SF was dominated by American authors in translation—writers like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clark. As a result, the first generation Japanese SF writers of the 1960s wrote material that was pretty imitative. Let me give you a couple of examples of authors

One is Osamu Tezuka. He has been described as “the godfather of manga”. He’s responsible for the creation of the best-loved series Astro Boy.

They also include Yasutaka Tsutsui. Tsutsui is maybe more widely-read in English than some of these other authors. Most notably, he wrote The Girl Who Leapt through Time, Paprika, and Salmonella Men on Planet Porno.

Kobo Abe also belongs in this first generation, and he deserves a discussion of his own. Read Japanese Literature spent a lot of time on Abe’s career and work earlier this season. But I want to talk a little bit more about his role in Japanese SF.

Abe was one of the dominant voices of the first generation of Japanese SF. His Inter Age 4, written in 1958, is considered Japan’s first modern work of science fiction. It was one of the first Japanese novels to make “hard science” central to the story.

Other Abe titles that fit the SF label pretty handily include 1979’s Secret Rendezvous and 1984’s The Ark Sakura.

The 1960 first issue of Japan’s SF Magazine included a statement by Abe:

The science fiction novel represents a discovery on the order of Columbus, in that it combines an extremely rational hypothesis with the irrational passion of fantasy…

The poetry produced by the collision between this intellectual tension and the invitation to adventure is not only contemporary; it is also connected with the original spirit of literature.

In fact, Abe is sometimes credited with establishing prose science fiction as a viable genre in Japan. And that’s even though he didn’t really want sci-fi to be its own genre.

What Abe actually advocated for was a branch of literature that elicits in its readers “the feeling of surprise that accompanies discovery”. The “science” of sci-fi isn’t “hard science” but the scientific method. The best SF presents readers with an intriguing hypothesis and follows its hypothesis to an ending. It’s a literature of deduction.

Sakyo Komatsu is another hugely important first generation SF writer. His works have had unexpected staying power because of disasters in Japan. There was revived interest in his 1973 Japan Sinks: A Novel about Earthquakes after the 1995 earthquake and 2011 triple disaster. And his 1964 Virus: The Day of Resurrection saw new sales after the outbreak of COVID-19.

I want to mention one more person writing SF in Japan in the 1960s, though he was by no means a strictly SF author—Yukio Mishima. In one essay, Mishima claimed that “science fiction might overcome the conventions of modern literature and its humanism”.

Mishima was apparently fascinated by UFOs. He was also a member of the Japan Flying Saucer Research Association, founded in 1955. In 1962, he published a novel called Beautiful Star. It was translated into English in 2022 [by Stephen Dodd]. I cannot believe it isn’t for sale in North America yet. (We should all demand that Penguin get on it.) But you can also easily buy a copy from the UK and have it shipped elsewhere.

The premise is that a family of four all decide that they are actually aliens from other planets in the solar system. They are supposed to help humans not destroy themselves with nuclear weapons. It’s really a beautiful book. It’s not like anything else published by Mishima—stylistically or philosophically. Highly recommended.

[27:03] Takayuki Tatsumi describes the second generation (writers of the 1970s) as writers who “so positively imbibed the New Wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s as not to imitate US models but to depict instead their own reality”.

So these are writers influenced by the countercultural “New Wave”—writers who pushed just how much SF can challenge the way we think society has to work and what it means to be human.

Writers from this generation do include author and mangaka Masaki Yamada, who is responsible for Ghost in the Shell. Most importantly for our purposes today, these writers include Izumi Suzuki. Until 2021, Suzuki was virtually unknown in English. Now her second volume of short stories has been published in English just this month, April 2023. And we’ll talk about her more in a few minutes.

Tatsumi’s third generation in the 1980s was “in a position to exploit the varied cultural milieus and generic heritage of sf”.

Writers from this generation include Mariko Ohara. Her Hybrid Child is one of the very first books I ever read in translation from Japanese. Listen to this! Ohara’s protagonist is a male robot who ingests the body of a young girl. He becomes she—and so the novel becomes an elusive meditation on gender and feminism. And the whole story is situated in a world where a malfunctioning maternal AI threatens to destroy what is left of the human race. Again—highly recommended.

Tatsumi’s fourth generation is essentially the generation of the lost decade—the end of the Showa in the late 80s and then the 1990s. Tatsumi describes them as writers who “take for granted the postmodern modes of cyberpunk, cyborg feminism, and ‘Yaoi poetics’”.

Just a note on that term “Yaoi poetics’. Shojo comics and anime (these are comics and anime for young girls) originated yaoi. Yaoi is probably [better] known in English by “boys’ love” or “BL”. Boys’ love probably deserves an entire episode of its own. But long story short, comics for girls started depicting relationships between beautiful, androgynous men in the late 70s and early 80s. Yaoi is an important motif in fourth generation Japanese SF.

The American equivalent would be “slash fiction”—not “slasher fiction” but “slash fiction”—romantic or sexual relationships between characters of the same sex. You might have heard of the English “Kirk/Spock”.

We get to a few big names in the fourth generation of Japanese SF that English-language readers might recognize. Osamu Makino originated the Resident Evil stories. Miyuki Miyabe has been widely translated into English. I think she’s best known in English for her novel Brave Story—it’s generally marketed in English as a young adult fantasy. And Koji Suzuki has haunted the imaginations of all Millennials by creating the Ring saga, on which the American film series is based.

If there is a fifth or even a sixth generation of Japanese sci-fi, I think you could say that it is characterized by how widely accepted the genre has become. I often go back to the Akutagawa Prize as a reference point, and I think it’s relevant here. I may have missed someone, but I believe Kōbō Abe is the only Akutagawa Prize winner before 1990 to seriously engage with science fiction.

But since 1990, there has been an embarrassment of riches. Remember that Hiromi Kawakami started her career as the editor of a sci-fi journal.

Some of the winners in the last thirty years have written acclaimed titles that could be considered sci-fi. Yoko Ogawa with the The Memory Police. Yoko Tawada with The Emissary. (That was also published as The Last Children of Tokyo.) Hiroko Oyamada with The Factory.

Hakeo Takayama won for A Horse for Shuri in 2020. I’m pretty sure that A Horse for Shuri isn’t SF—it hasn’t been translated—but most of her work is.

Other authors have won the award for actual works of sci-fi. Yoriko Shono won for Time Warp Complex in 1995. And Toh EnJoe for Harlequin’s Butterfly in 2011.

[31:57] Izumi Suzuki was born in July 1949. That means she was born almost four years after the end of World War II… A little less than four years into the American occupation. The situation on the ground in Japan had begun to turn around. Starvation was less rampant, although it would be several years before Japan was well on the road to recovery. It also means that Suzuki was not quite 11 during the Summer of Rage—months of protests that rocked Japan in 1960. Translator Daniel Joseph summarizes Suzuki’s 1960s as “an era of drugs, rock and roll, and nationwide protests in Japan as it was elsewhere”. 

Like a lot of the authors we’ve discussed, Suzuki has a colorful resume. She worked briefly as a keypunch operator at the city hall in Ito, today about a two-hour train ride southwest from central Tokyo. She worked as a bar hostess. As a model, she worked with the controversial photographer Nouyoshi Araki. As an actress, she worked with directors Shuji Terayama and Koji Wakamatsu. Some of the films she starred in were “pink films”—what Andrew Ridker describes as an “arty subgenre of sexploitation cinema”.

In 1973, Suzuki married a jazz saxophonist named Kaoru Abe. In 1975 (while she was pregnant with her only child), she published “Trial Witch” in SF Magazine. It turned out to be her breakout story. (By the way, it has finally been translated into English by Sam Bett and is available in the collection Hit Parade of Tears—out this month, April 2023.)

In “Trial Witch”, a 26-year-old housewife is tired of dealing with her lout of a husband. A man in spectacles appears in her house claiming to be from “the League of Witches” to offer her an apprenticeship. The housewife is skeptical… until she accidentally turns her husband into a  woman… and then some kind of ape. Like a lot of Suzuki’s stories, it is a darkly comic tale that ends with a slightly ironic twist.

Now, here’s “the thing” about Suzuki as an SF writer. She started writing SF as early as 1972—but she never just wrote SF. She happened to publish her breakout story in that issue of SF Magazine. It was a special “women’s issue”, so she was published alongside international luminaries like Ursula K. Le Guin. Suzuki wrote realistic fiction, too.

It’s more the case that Suzuki’s breakout happened to be an SF story in an SF magazine. So Suzuki’s work as an SF writer is as much as accident of history as any kind of design.

Suzuki and Abe’s fraught marriage ended in divorce in 1977—even though they continued to live together. And when I say fraught, I mean it. She apparently once cut off her toe in front of her husband. Abe accidentally overdosed on the sedative Bromisoval and died in 1978.

For several years, Suzuki continued to support herself and her daughter through her writing. Later, her health declined and she started receiving public assistance. In 1986, Suzuki hanged herself in her home. She was 36 years old.

[35:16] To me, the very best science fiction is serious cultural critique—and that’s part of the reason I love Suzuki. 

Suzuki’s cultural critique is still incredibly relevant. When I first read the Suzuki collection Terminal Boredom, I was struck by how of-the-moment her work seemed in 2021—even though she died in the 1980s. Yes, her pop cultural references are all to the 1960s and 70s.

But thematically, you can easily read her work alongside women who won the Akutagawa Prize (for early-career writers) in the 2010s—authors like Sayaka Murata or Hiroko Oyamada. Suzuki takes on identity, agency, and gender in ways that were way ahead of her time. In ways that are still kind of ahead of the time in 2023.

She’s also preoccupied with a Japan—with a world—in decline, even though she was writing in a period of huge financial success for Japan. She wrote the story “Terminal Boredom” years before the economic bubble burst.

But it’s about a Japan where “old folks” have so much energy and stamina they can “go to work every day, and somehow still find it in them to have love affairs.”

Young people don’t even have enough energy to work at all. Some of them get so bored they forget to eat and starve to death. They don’t want to have children; they just want to “slip quietly into oblivion” all by themselves.” Sounds prescient to me.

And let me talk a little bit more about gender in Suzuki’s fiction.

Her own life gave her a lot of reasons to think about gender and feminism. I already mentioned her marriage. Sexism also had a major impact on her career. In one article, translator Daniel Joseph relates an anecdote about a 1977 interview with Suzuki and Taku Mayumura. (Mayumura was a seminal name in that first generation of Japanese SF writers. He hasn’t been widely translated into English, although Daniel Joseph has translated his work.) Izumi Suzuki asked Mayumura if she could join Japan’s SF Writers Club.

She was half joking. It was a long shot. None of the thirty-something members were women. Mayumura laughed her off.

“Women and Women” is probably the most sustained feminist effort among her translated stories. The premise is that late 20th-century pollution caused the number of men born each year to decline radically. Women pushed men out of power… out of society entirely… and into exclusion zones.

But Suzuki’s feminism is never unambiguous “man-hating”. The protagonist questions whether the new way of living really makes sense. Most women are in lesbian relationships and still impose gender roles on themselves. More “masculine” women go to work, and more “feminine” women stay home and keep house.

The protagonist finds a hidden male who’s not supposed to be hanging around her neighborhood. She strikes up an illicit friendship with him.  makes an illicit male friend. Despite her hopes, he treats her exactly the way her society has taught her to fear a male might. She is (justifiably!) horrified. She doesn’t excuse the boy. She just wonders whether a society segregated by sex is wrong nevertheless.

Some of Suzuki’s stories go beyond feminism to criticize gender itself. There are androgynous characters—characters who aren’t clearly male or female. There are characters who change gender. One character reflects, “I am no man and I’m no woman. Who needs gender anyway?”

[39:12] To end today I’m going to tell you about my very favorite Izumi Suzuki story. It’s called “Night Picnic”.

“Night Picnic” is about four family members: Dad, Mom, Junior, and Sis. It’s all kind of vague, but they think they’re the last humans left on a colony on a planet in space.

The story opens with Dad coming into Junior’s room, chewing on a cigarette.

“Hey, aren’t you supposed to light those things?” Junior has to prompt him.

“Oh, right. I just keep forgetting,” says Dad.

The story works because the four are so set on being human. Dad constantly reminds them, “As Earthlings, it’s our responsibility, regardless of the time or place, to carry on our way of life. To be the very model of a family. Especially since we’re so far away from Earth, out here on our own.”

They take their lessons about being human from books and videos. They recognize that a lot of the books are lies. They hope that the videos, at least, are true.

But when pop culture is all you have to go on, your version of humanity is pretty distorted.

In my favorite moment from the story, Mom complains that Sis has locked herself in the closet for six hours.

“It’s those awful books,” she complains to Dad and Junior. “Now she’s started reading about how daughters hate their moms and love their dads.”

Her brother has to intervene.

“Go away!” Sis shouts. “I’m being rebellious… I’m an adolescent.”

She’s seen characters on TV dramas get upset with their parents. So her brother has to explain that she’s missed some nuance of the Electra Complex that he’s read about… in a book.

In another funny moment, Mom has to take a long time to get dressed for the picnic because “when women go out, it takes them a long time to get ready”. “A long time” turns out to be two and a half days.

I chose to talk about “Night Picnic” not just because I love the story, but also because it includes some of Suzuki’s most compelling themes.

Time is “bogus,” Junior tells Sis. “After 3pm today, for all we know it’ll be 7am four days ago.”

Consumer culture is ridiculous. The family has a replicator that can produce almost anything. Sis has to tell it which of a dozen brands of pomade to make for Junior.

Gender is fluid and maybe even arbitrary. Sis was a boy until “Dad decided that having one boy and one girl would make for more variety.” Now that she’s a girl, Mom is “adamant that a child with a girlish body should be raised to be a woman.” Sis’s only complaint is that “the hairstyle and clothes are totally different,” which is “a pain.”

The whole Japanese family structure is problematic. According to the story, “Families depend on every member acting out their roles.” But these four characters are most definitely acting roles—there is nothing at all inherent about these characters or their relationships with each other that demands any of the behaviors they display.

And finally, the way these characters are trying to act out being human calls into question the nature of humanity itself.

The net result is that the characters’ bumbling attempts to act like ‘Earthlings’ provide a damning commentary of Suzuki’s contemporary culture. It continues to land in 2023. And it lands in virtually any late-stage capitalist country.

Like many good sci-fi stories, “Night Picnic” ends with a twist ending that I’m not going to give away here. I’ll just say (again) that “Night Picnic” is one of my very favorite stories. I hope you have a chance to pick up a copy.

[43:10] So why read Japanese SF?

First of all, it’s just good sci-fi. Anyone who likes sci-fi should read Japanese SF.

Second of all, because a lot of Japanese SF includes the motif I find most compelling in a lot of Japanese literature—the way modern culture is just tired. It’s something on a lot of our minds today. And maybe that’s why Izumi Suzuki is such a favorite of mine. She takes up that tiredness, as well as meditations on feminism and gender, with a special zeal.

I’ve been reading from Sam Bett’s translation of “Night Picnic”. It appears in the collection of Suzuki’s work called Terminal Boredom. Buy your books from our Bookshop.org page to support the podcast.

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