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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SF! A Booklist of Japanese Science Fiction in Translation

Support RJL. Check out our Bookshop.org page.


Kobo Abe

Ken Asamatsu

  • Queen of K’n-yan (translated by Kathleen Taji)

Yoshio Aramaki

Toh Enjoe

Taiyo Fujii

  • Gene Mapper (translated by Jim Hubbert)
  • Orbital Cloud (translated by Timothy Silver)
  • Featured in The Apex Book of World SF 5
  • Featured in Everyone: Worlds without Walls
  • Featured in The Rosetta Archive: Notable Speculative Fiction in Translation

Kaori Fujino

Ryo Hanmura

Jyouji Hayashi

Tobi Hirotaka

Akira Hori

Shinichi Hoshi

  • The God of Fortune (translated by Robert Matthew)
  • The Spiteful Planet and Other Stories (translated by Bernard Susser and Tomoyoshi Genkawa)
  • A Well-Kept Life (translated by Marina Hoshi Whyte and Kim Hines)
  • Voice Net (translated by Marina Hoshi Whyte and Kim Hines)
  • Featured in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories
  • Featured in We, Robots

Takuji Ichikawa

Rokuro Inui

Takashi Ishikawa

Chohei Kambayashi

Shigeru Kayama

Hirai Kazumasa

Morio Kita

Yusaku Kitano

Erika Kobayashi

Sakyo Komatsu

  • Japan Sinks: A Novel about Earthquakes (translated by Michael Gallagher)
  • Virus: The Day of Resurrection (translated by Daniel Huddleston)
  • Featured in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories

Tensei Kono

  • Featured in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories

Kaoru Kurimoto

Gengen Kusano

Osamu Makino

Taku Mayumura

  • Administrator (translated by Daniel Jackson)
  • Featured in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories

Miyuki Miyabe

  • The Book of Heroes (translated by Alexander O. Smith) and The Gate of Sorrows (translated by Jim Hubbert)
  • Brave Story (translated by Alexander O. Smith)
  • Crossfire (translated by Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi and Anna Husson Isozaki)
  • The Devil’s Whisper (translated by Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi)
  • Ico: Castle in the Mist (translated by Alexander O. Smith)
  • Puppet Master (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
  • Shadow Family (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter)
  • Featured in Phantasm Japan
  • Much of Miyabe’s other writing might qualify as SF.

Yusuke Miyauchi

Ryu Mitsuse

Tomihiko Morimi

Haruki Murakami

Ryu Murakami

  • Coin Locker Babies (translated by Stephen Snyder)
  • Some of Murakami’s other writing might qualify as SF.

Norio Nakai

Asa Nonami

  • Body (translated by Takami Nieda)

Issui Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa

Mariko Ohara

Shunro Oshikawa

Hiroko Oyamada

Project Ito

  • Genocidal Organ (translated by Edwin Hawkes)
  • Harmony (translated by Alexander O. Smith)
  • Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriots (translated by Nathan Collins)
  • Featured in The Future Is Japanese
  • Featured in Phantasm Japan

Hiroshi Sakurazaka

  • All You Need Is Kill (translated by Alexander O. Smith)
  • Featured in Hanzai Japan

Yuya Sato

Hideaki Sena

  • Parasite Eve (translated by Tyran Grillo)

Soji Shimada

Kazufumi Shiraishi

Hiroe Suga

Izumi Suzuki

Koji Suzuki

  • Dark Water (translated by Glynne Walley)
  • Death and the Flower (translated by Maya Robinson and Camellia Nieh)
  • Edge (translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies and Camellia Nieh)
  • Paradise (translated by Tyran Grillo)
  • Promenade of the Gods (translated by Takami Nieda)
  • Ring series:
    • Ring (translated by Robert Rohmer and Glynne Walley)
    • Spiral (translated by Glynne Walley)
    • Loop (translated by Glynne Walley)
    • Birthday (translated by Glynne Walley)
    • S (translated by Greg Gencarello)
  • The Shining Sea (translated by Brian Bergstrom)

Seia Tanabe

Koshu Tani

Yoko Tawada

  • The Emissary (translated by Margaret Mitsutani)
    • Also published as The Last Children of Tokyo
  • Scattered All Over the Earth (translated by Margaret Mitsutani)
  • Some of Tawada’s other writing might qualify as SF.

Dempow Torishima

Aritsune Toyota

Yasutaka Tsutsui

Sayuri Ueda

Juza Unno

  • Fast Forward Japan (translated by J. D. Wisgo)
    • also published as Science: Hopes and Fears (translated by J. D. Wisgo)

Masaki Yamada

Hiroshi Yamamoto

Tetsu Yano

  • Featured in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories
  • Featured in The Penguin World Omnibus of Science Fiction
  • Featured in Requiem: New Collected Works by Robert A. Heinlein and Tributes to the Grand Master
  • Featured in Tales from the Planet Earth: A Novel with Nineteen Authors

Baku Yumemakura

  • The Psyche Diver Trilogy (translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies):
    • Desires of the Flesh
    • The Darkness
    • The Demon’s Cry

Transcript of Episode 23: Writing from Okinawa

Find out more about Episode 22 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. You can find out more at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.

You may have noticed that I’m fairly late putting out this episode.  I apologize. I’ve needed a little extra time to think.

Talking about literature in translation is… complicated. Actually, it’s becoming increasingly clear I want to do at least one episode on translation itself. What texts get translated and why? What are the pros of translation? What gets lost? Why might an author prefer not to have their work translated?

Prepping this episode really highlighted some of the complications of talking about literature in translation. There isn’t that much literature from Okinawa available in English. In fact, the 1st full-length, stand-alone novel from Okinawa wasn’t published in English until 2017. That’s Shun Medoruma’s In the Woods of Memory, translated by Takuma Sminkey.

As you might expect, there also isn’t as much English-language scholarship about literature from Okinawa. My bibliography for this episode is a lot shorter than normal. And the story I’m able to tell about the history of Okinawa’s literature relies pretty heavily than normal on the work of just a few scholars. I’m very grateful for those scholars: Davinder Bhowmik, Michael Molasky, and Steve Rabson. They’re generally very highly regarded.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I know the way English-speakers think about other cultures and their literatures are filtered through our own historical and cultural biases. At least for me, it was more obvious than normal when I was prepping an episode on Okinawan literature. And I had a harder time looking at multiple stories and sources for a more nuanced perspective.

I’ve done my very best anyway. And it would have been wrong to continue to leave Okinawa out of the story of Japanese literature just because it was hard. But I wanted to be straightforward about why this episode was challenging in the name of intellectual honesty.

A quick content warning: This episode will include some discussion of the Battle of Okinawa. It is a truly horrific moment in history, so we’ll be discussing suicide, rape, and murder.

I’m going to give you a head’s up before we discuss the history itself, so you can skip that content if necessary. But it’s also important history. And it’s going to be relevant to Shun Medoruma’s story “Droplets” at the end of today’s episode.

[3:21] Since it isn’t a place a lot of English-speakers know much about, I want to give you just a little bit more information about Okinawa before we get started.

First of all, the term “Okinawa” gets used to mean a lot of different things. Many (maybe most) non-Japanese people use “Okinawa” when what they mean are the Ryukyu Islands.

Remember that Japan itself is an archipelago. The four “main islands” are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. [Honshu] is the largest island. It’s where Tokyo and most of Japan’s main cities are. It’s also the site of Tohōku, which we discussed in the last episode.

The Ryukyu Islands are a chain of islands that stretch from Japan’s southernmost “main island” (Kyushu) all the way to Taiwan. The official Japanese name for this island chain is Nansei-Shoto.) Okinawa itself is the largest island in the Ryukyu Island chain.

The term “Okinawa” can also refer to Okinawa Prefecture. A Prefecture is roughly the equivalent of an American state or Canadian province—Japan is divided into 47 prefectures.

Two-thirds of the Ryukyu Islands are part of Okinawa Prefecture. The northern third of the Ryukyu Islands are part of Kagoshima Prefecture. In Japanese, these islands are called “Satsunan-shotō” or “the Satsunan Islands”.

Almost 1.5 million people call Okinawa Prefecture home. Okinawa Prefecture is one of Japan’s smallest prefectures [by population]. 

Okinawa Prefecture is about 880 square miles—that’s 2280 square kilometers. And as I mentioned, Okinawa is its largest island. Okinawa is also the site of the capital city of the prefecture, Naha.

[5:38] I’m going to start today with a deeper dive into the history of the Ryukyu Islands/Okinawa. I haven’t done a history section this deep since season one. If you haven’t been with us since the beginning, season one is a broad overview of the history of Japanese literature. 

I think the deep dive is important today because I, unfortunately left Okinawa’s history mostly out of season one. I think that’s a mistake I made—sorry about that—and its history is vitally important to its literature.

We’ll move on to the way literature has developed in Okinawa. We’ll start with some of its oldest recorded texts…some of its Meiji- and pre-war writing… but we’ll really focus on Okinawan literature after the war. The vast majority of Okinawan literature translated into English dates from after 1950.

We’ll end with the life and work of writer/activist Shun Medoruma—especially his Akutagawa-winning story “Droplets”.

[6:47] Over the next few minutes, I hope I can give you the broad outlines of Okinawan history—at least enough to help make sense of the story of Okinawan literature. If you want a more thorough history of Okinawa or the Ryukyu Islands, I highly recommend the History of Japan Podcast by Isaac Meyer. He has a two part series [parts one and two] about Japan and Okinawa—as well as several other episodes. I’ll put links on the episode page.

Formal Japanese interaction with the Ryukyus didn’t begin until the 15th century. But we have lots of information about what the islands looked like before that. Some of the people living in the Ryukyus immigrated from East and Northeast Asia, just like many of the people living in Japan. But others came from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. These migrants would have brought with them special skills in farming and fishing.

By 1300, three kingdoms ruled the Ryukyus:

  • Nanzan in the south
  • Chūzan in the center
  • And Hokuzan in the north

Chūzan was the most powerful—it eventually took control of the entire Ryukyus.

In 1372, Chūzan asked China to establish a formal tributary relationship. They paid money to China and more-or-less deferred to what China wanted. In return, they got political favors and favorable trade conditions. It was a lucrative deal for a country that thrived on trade.

In the early 1400s, a man named King Shō Hashi united the Ryukyu Islands to create the Ryukyu Kingdom.

This tributary system remained the status quo in the Ryukyu Kingdom for about  two centuries. And that period is sometimes referred to as “The Golden Age of the Ryukyu Kingdom”.

[8:23] But in 1609 the Japanese invaded.

The extremely powerful Shimazu Clan forced the Ryukyu Kingdom to accept a suzerain-vassal relationship. The Ryukyuans had less control now over their own government than they had before—but they still had a great deal of autonomy for another two centuries.

So the Ryukyuan Kingdom actually managed to be both a vassal state of Japan and a tributary state of China at the same time. This was a great system for China and Japan. You might remember the term sakoku—Japan’s “closed country” policy. Sakoku was at its height in the 17th and 18th centur[ies]. It lasted from 1603 to 1868. The Ryukyuan Kingdom made it possible for China and Japan to trade with each other, and the trading partners could kind of pretend… they weren’t.

As for the Ryukyuan Kingdom, they benefited in some ways, but it was consistent with a long-standing pattern. The Ryukyuans… the Okinawans… tend to get stuck in the middle between larger, more powerful countries on either side.

[9:39] That compromise system—vassal to Japan, tributary to China—ended in 1872.

The Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867. The Meiji Regime took its place in 1868. Four years after the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom.

The Japanese government created Okinawa Prefecture in 1872. Okinawan men gained the right to vote for representatives in 1912, more than twenty years after the National Diet was established.

The Meiji Government applied its “Civilization and Enlightenment” policies to Okinawa with special zeal. These Meji policies weren’t always met with resistance. Okinawans were sometimes the motivating force behind policies like the use of Tokyo dialect in schools.

Nevertheless, Okinawans often faced the same kinds of prejudices as Koreans, Chinese, or other marginalized groups in Japan. Okinawa Prefecture received less government investment than other prefectures. They paid higher taxes.

It also happened to Okinawans as individuals, especially if they tried to move to the mainland. For example, many businesses put out signs that said Okinawans shouldn’t bother looking there for housing or employment.

[11:07] And then the Pacific War began. 

World War II was absolutely brutal—especially for Okinawa. (Here, I’m talking specifically about the Island of Okinawa rather than the whole Ryukyu chain or the prefecture.) The Battle of Okinawa left more than a fourth—maybe as many as half—of Okinawan residents dead.

I might not go into more detail, but the Battle of Okinawa is extremely relevant for Okinawan literature. It’s also a moment in history worth remembering. Some of the details will come up again. If you want to be spared an historical account, you probably want to skip ahead about four minutes.

[The US Army and US Marine Corps invaded Okinawa Island on April 1, 1945. That invasion was the beginning of an 82-day battle. It cost the lives of about 13,000 American troops and over 110,000 Japanese troops. That number includes 30,000 Okinawan civilians conscripted into the Japanese army for the battle. And, of those, several thousand were schoolboys between fourteen and seventeen years old mobilized in the Tekkestu Kinnōtai or “Iron and Blood Imperial Corp”.

Legally, the boys were “volunteers”. In reality, most of them didn’t have much choice. The main character in “Droplets” was 1 of these “soldiers”.

Hundreds of schoolgirls were forced to join the Himeyuri or “Lily Corp” as nurses. Their position as non-combatants didn’t save them from brutal conditions or death. There’s another character in “Droplets” whom we aren’t going to discuss today who was a member of the Himeyuri.

All told, the battle probably cost over 230,000 lives, most of them Okinawan civilians. 

This is where I’m afraid I have to get very upsetting—I need to explain the reason the civilian casualties were so high. And to do that, I’m going to have to talk about suicide and a number of other gruesome topics.

The Japanese government went out of its way to convince Okinawan civilians they would be raped and tortured if they were captured by the American military. Many Okinawans took their own lives to make sure that didn’t happen. And the Japanese imperial army often provided them with the means to do it.

Many members of the Himeyuri—the schoolgirl nurse corp—jumped off cliffs or shared a single hand grenade to accomplish the task.

Okinawans shared the responsibility of killing family members, sometimes while they were already sheltering in family tombs. 

Japanese soldiers intentionally killed Okinawans. Sometimes simply by driving them out of places where they were sheltering. Sometimes by killing people they thought put them in danger. Small children who might cry. Okinawans speaking in dialect. (Japanese soldiers claimed to think they might be spies.)

Japanese soldiers killed Okinawans caught stealing limited food supplies that had been co-opted by the military.

Some of this history is controversial, as we’ll discuss in a few minutes. But hundreds of thousands of Okinawans have protested even in the last decade to make sure these historical accounts remain in Japanese textbooks.

American soldiers were guilty of atrocities during the Battle of Okinawa, too. But overall, Okinawans were shocked by how relatively well they were treated by American GIs. Compared to the Japanese military, the 1945 American military was considered downright humane. They also provided scant—but desperately needed, food, clothing, and medical treatment. Many Okinawans still feel betrayed by the Japanese government for how badly they were lied to about the way the Americans would treat them.]

[15:12] The Battle of Okinawa ended on June 23. Even today, many Okinawans regard June 23 as the final day of World War II. But it wasn’t until August 15, 1945, that the Emperor of Japan made his 1st ever radio broadcast to announce Japan’s unconditional surrender.

It’s easy to walk away from the story of the Battle of Okinawa with a sense that Okinawans were purely victims. But many Okinawans—especially Okinawan writers—have asserted that Okinawa also needs to confront the role Okinawa played in Japan’s wartime imperialism. 

In April of 1945, the US issued the Nimitz Proclamation. The Nimitz Proclamation declared that “the Islands of Nansei Shoto [aka the Ryukyus] and Adjacent Waters” were now under the “final administrative authority” of the US Navy. “All powers of the Government of the Japanese Empire,” it went on, “[Were] hereby suspended”.

American control of the Ryukyus continued after the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco re-established peaceful relations between Japan and the Allied Powers. After the US ended its occupation of the rest of Japan in 1952. In fact, the American occupation of the Ryukyus lasted for 27 years—until May 15, 1972.

During the 1950s, the US military rapidly expanded its facilities in Okinawa. In the 1950s and 60s, the US even moved nuclear weapons through its Okinawan bases. 

To be clear, the US wasn’t the only motivating force behind this military buildup. Under Japan’s 1945 Constitution—which occupying American authorities wrote—Japan can only maintain a defensive military. Japan did—still does—depend on its alliance with the US as a part of its national security policy. And so many people in Japan want the US military in Japan—just not in their backyards.

The Okinawan response to American GIs after the Battle of Okinawa may have been positive, but Okinawans weren’t excited about a prolonged American occupation. A lot of Okinawans opposed the American presence. More than 70% of the Okinawan electorate supported reunification with Japan. (And that was the most commonly fought for solution. Not Okinawan independence, but reversion—the term for returning Okinawa to its prefectural status.)

[17:58] In 1969, Japanese Prime Minister Satō and US President Nixon agreed to return Okinawa’s status as a Japanese prefecture. In the end, reversion took place in May of 1972.

Even though reversion is something Okinawans fought for very hard, it has been something of a mixed blessing. On the plus side, Okinawans have Japanese passports. They can travel to and from Japan as Japanese citizens.

On the other hand, mainland Japanese companies came to Okinawa and quickly overwhelmed a lot of Okinawan businesses.

And, reversion didn’t have the effects a lot of Okinawans had hoped for. Many Okinawans dreamed of social and economic opportunities that didn’t really appear.

And even today, the Japanese government still allows Okinawa Prefecture to bear the brunt of the American military presence.

Okinawa Prefecture makes up just three-fifths of a percent of Japan’s landmass. As of 2006, 75% of all US bases were based in Okinawa. And bases took up 18% of the land on the main island. 

The Japanese government has promised, and promised, and promised to find new sites for the bases. But no one else in Japan wants the bases in their prefectures either.

Again, the American military is important to Japan’s national security plans—one poll found that 76% of Japanese people wanted the US military present in Japan. But that doesn’t make the US presence benign. For example, in 1995 three US servicemen based in Okinawa raped a twelve-year-old Okinawan girl. The incident was only the tip of the iceberg of criminal complaints against American GIs—but this one in particular kicked off huge protests.

Most of the complaints are more mundane—though no less valid: noise, pollution, the risks of accidents…

Another poll found that 43 percent of Okinawans want the US bases in Okinawa closed completely. And again, let me add that Okinawans aren’t just angry at the US. They’re also angry at a national government that doesn’t seem to be listening to them.
[20:32] US bases aside, by most measures, Okinawa is still behind the rest of Japan economically. For example, in 2018, Okinawa Prefecture had the second lowest per-capita income of all 47 Japanese prefectures—3.1 million yen or $29,000 US.

[20:58] Scholars Michael Molasky and Steve Rabson edited one of the most important English-language anthologies of Okinawan literature. I’m relying heavily on the background on Okinawan literature in their introduction to the anthology Southern Exposure.

Okinawa literature has usually been more “regional” than literature from mainland Japan—and that’s sometimes been something of a choice.

We’ve talked a lot about how insular and cliquey Japan’s literary establishment can be. Remember the bundan? The bundan rarely stretched itself to accommodate people outside of Tokyo. Little surprise it didn’t stretch all the way to accommodate people from Okinawa.

Instead of fighting for a place in the bundan, the Okinawan literary community has fostered what Molasky and Rabson describe as “an unabashedly ‘regional’ literature capable of appealing well beyond its narrow borders”.

But let me go back a bit…

[21:57] The oldest written Okinawan literature dates to the “Golden Age of the Ryukyu Kingdom” that we discussed a few minutes ago. That period of peace as a Chinese tributary before the Shimazu Clan invaded. But even though the Ryukyus were a tributary for China, they also traded with Japan, Korea, and the rest of Southeast Asia.

People in the Ryukyu Kingdom adopted not Chinese characters as their writing system but the Japanese syllabary—kana. (This is actually a much more appropriate writing system for languages like Japanese, as we discussed in our very first episode.)

The adoption of a writing system allowed the people of the Ryukyus to record much older legends and songs that had been passed down orally. It’s the same kind of process that allowed the people of Japan to collect texts like The Kojiki and other early Japanese anthologies. [Learn more about The Kojiki with RJL.]

In the Ryukyus, the earliest collection is the Omoro Soshi—Okinawa’s most important work of classical literature.

Even though it was collected between around 1530-1630, some of the selections go all the way back to the 1100s. There is something like an English-language translation of the Omoro Soshi: Mitsugu Sakihara published A Brief History of Early Okinawa Based on the Omoro Sōshi in 1987.

Unfortunately, there is almost no other pre-Meiji writing accessible to English-language readers.

[23:26] Japan’s annexation of the Ryukyu Islands shaped Okinawan writing. There’s a little more available to English-language readers that was written between 1872 and World War II. Some of it’s anthologized in Southern Exposure. Molasky and Rabson describe “the struggle over Okinawa’s cultural identity” as “the predominant issue in prewar literature”.

We aren’t going to cover any of those writers in depth today, but I hope to come back to some of their writing in the future. That includes writ[ers] like Baku Yamanokuchi, who is also one of Okinawa’s best-beloved poets—although he also wrote prose. And Fusako Kushi, who is 1 of a very small number of prominent women writers in Okinawa before the 1980s.

[24:13] What Molasky and Rabson call the “1st dynamic period in post-war Okinawan literature” began in the mid-1950s.

Now… when I talk about “literature”, I usually talk about fiction. That’s mainly to narrow my scope—and I think it usually makes sense.

Kyle Ikeda at the University of Vermont reminds us that we should also think about non-fiction as literature, too—especially in the context of Okinawan literary history.

For one thing, Europeans and Americans considered non-fiction “literature” for most of our cultural history. For another, Japan’s literary traditions—like the I-novel—make the line between fiction and non-fiction kinda blurry. (We discussed that in an episode last season about Osamu Dazai.)

Kyle Ikeda makes the point that non-fiction accounts are particularly important for Okinawan literature. This is especially true of accounts of the Battle of Okinawa. He quotes Okinawan literature scholar Masanori Nahahodo, who calls this kind of narrative nonfiction Okinawa no senki bungaku or “Documentary War Literature of Okinawa”.

“Documentary War Literature of Okinawa” is hugely impactful.

Mainland Japanese accounts of the Battle of Okinawa tend to celebrate the camaraderie and sacrifice of Japanese and Okinawan soldiers… And they tend to downplay or completely omit the terrible atrocities Japanese soldiers carried out against Okinawan civilians.

These are the accounts Japan’s Ministry of Education is most likely to approve for use in school textbooks. The stories that go in school textbooks tend to become the histories everyone “knows” about their own country.

In 2007, for example, the Japanese Ministry of Education recommended removing references to the Japanese military encouraging group suicides in Okinawa. That incident incited a protest of over 110,000 Okinawans.

And so the “Documentary War Literature of Okinawa” has helped preserve memories of what life looked like during the Battle of Okinawa for Okinawan [civilians].

[26:25] A lot of post-war Okinawan fiction has also dealt with the Battle of Okinawa or its long aftermath… especially the American occupation or war memory. 

Scholars Davinder Bhowmik and Steve Rabson identify Ryohaku Ota’s 1946 story “Black Diamonds” as “the first work of postwar Okinawan fiction”. 

But that post-war fertile period Molasky and Rabson mentioned was really kicked off by a student magazine out of the University of the Ryukyus called Ryudai Bungaku. Remember that the fertile period began in the 1950s—decades before reversion. American censors hated Ryūdai Bungaku because its editors never hesitated to criticize the American military.

Two Ryūdai Bungaku editors went on to become prominent Okinawan journalists—Akira Arakawa and Shinichi Kawamitsu.

They also founded a second literary journal in 1966 called Shin Okinawa Bungaku or “New Okinawan Literature”. That journal was the most important journal in Okinawan publishing for decades, until iit shuttered in 1993.

According to Molasky and Rabson, “most critics agree that modern Okinawan literature” really “c[a]me into its own” in the 1960s, especially with the publication of Tatsuhiro Ōshiro’s story “Cocktail Party”. “Cocktail Party” won Oshiro the 1967 Akutagawa Prize.  (The Akutagawa Prize is probably Japan’s most celebrated literary award. If you want to learn more about the Akutagawa,  check out our episode 20 about the Akutagawa Prize and Kobo Abe.)

Keep in mind that the Akutagawa Prize was founded in 1935. Tatsuhiro Oshiro was the very 1st Okinawan to win… and it wasn’t until 1967. Very few other Okinawan writers have won the prize.

In 1996, Eiki Mataoyshi won the Akutagawa in 1996 with his novella Pig’s Revenge. Pig’s Revenge is different than a lot of contemporary Okinawan writing. It isn’t about the war or the occupation. Politics is almost entirely absent. It’s simply a story that takes place in Okinawa that features Okinawan people. 

Even though Matayoshi already had an impressive career, critics were pretty cynical about his win. Maybe he won because the competition was weak. Maybe he’d won because Okinawa had been in the news because of protests against the American military bases. Maybe he won because the prize had been going to “minority writers” like Zainichi Koreans… Imagine 2010s and 20s American critics complaining the award had gone “woke”.

Shun Medoruma got something of a different—a more positive reaction—after he won in 1997 for his story “Droplets”.

[29:43] Shun Medoruma was born in a village on the northernmost part of the island of Okinawa—in 1960. For context, Yoko Tawada was born in 1960; Yoko Ogawa was born in 1962…

1960 is also memorable in Japan for the Summer of Rage. “The Summer of Rage” was a coming together of 2 events into a major turning point in modern Japanese history: the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty and the Mitsui Corporation’s Miike Coal Mine Strike. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets over the course of several months—and protests grew so violent that President Dwight Eisenhower had to cancel a planned visit.

I should note that “Shun Medoruma” is a pen name. The author is a famously private man. He insists that critics and the media not reveal his personal name.

Medoruma has been a relatively well-known writer in Okinawa for most of his adult life. He started winning Okinawan literary awards when he was still in college at the University of the Ryukyus. 

But he became a prominent voice in mainland Japanese literature when he won the 1997 Akutagawa Prize for his story “Suiteki” or “Droplets”.  Very few Okinawan writers support themselves solely through writing. When Medoruma won the Akutagawa, he was working as a high-school teacher. 

[31:08] These days, Medoruma publishes essentially no fiction. In early 2023, Dr. Lisa  Hofmann-Kuroda translated several of Medoruma’s essays for The Baffler. And they were published under the title “From the Deep Forests and Seas of Yambaru: Against the U.S. Military Presence in Japan”. Her introduction explains that Medoruma has turned “all of his time and attention toward protesting the presence of the American military in Okinawa” since 2009. Medoruma also keeps a prominent political blog.

The essays in “From the Deep Forests…” give us a nice snapshot of the sorts of things Medoruma has been doing with his time instead of writing fiction.

“The Sea of Henoko, Midsummer” dates to 2017. Medoruma describes spending every other day canoeing in Henoko Bay to protest the US Marine Corps’ construction of a military base there. Construction began in 2014. On top of political objections, protestors also have very legitimate concerns about environmental damage.

They’re especially worried about the Okinawan dugong.  It’s a marine mammal related to the manatee that’s also an important part of Okinawan mythology and culture. The population has fallen to critically endangered status during the bases’s construction—there are now believed to be fewer than ten (that’s two digits: 1-0) ten remaining Okinawan dugongs left in the wild.

In Medoruma’s words, translated by Hofmann-Kuroda, “We go out in groups of ten boats, leaving around eight in the morning and returning at four in the afternoon… If you go out in two three-hour shifts—morning and afternoon—that’s six hours in a canoe. If you go out every other day, that’s ninety hours a month, 1,080 hours a year.” He thinks that’s about average for his group.

They end at four, wash their canoes and tools. Medoruma heads home around six to shower, do laundry, do a little strength training. He organizes photos and videos, and blogs. By then it’s around midnight—Medoruma’s in bed by one or two am and back up the next morning about six.

“I have almost no time to read books, let alone write on this schedule,” he says. “I’ve often thought to myself that I should stop protesting, or at least significantly cut down on the amount of time I spend protesting, to focus on writing my novels. But I could never bring myself to do it.”
[33:47] In case you’re wondering, the Henoko Base controversy is ongoing. The base is way over schedule and way over budget, but neither the Japanese government nor the US military is willing to admit defeat. Protesters aren’t giving up. The Okinawan Prefectural government isn’t giving up. In December of 2022, the Okinawan Prefectural government lost a Japanese Supreme Court case about the base on a technicality—it was the prefecture’s fifth such legal attempt to halt base construction.

[34:22] Before we begin our discussion of “Droplets,” I want to provide just three ideas to give us context.

First, I want to say something about translator Michael Molasky’s use of dialect in his translation.

The use of dialogue is a thorny issue for Okinawan writers. If a writer uses dialect, they make their work less accessible to mainland readers. A less accessible work reaches far fewer readers… and makes far less money. On the other hand, Okinawan writers who don’t use dialect risk isolating themselves from their culture. This has become less true over time—most younger Okinawans are fluent in “standard” Japanese. 

As you might expect, the use of dialect is also complicated for translators. In the introduction to Southern Exposure, Molasky and Rabson identify several ways they might deal with it. Ignore it. Transliterate the words—that means write them with the Roman alphabet—and then define what they’ve transliterated with footnotes. Transliterate the words and then not define it with footnotes. Or translate the words into a different, English-language dialect.

Molasky used this approach for “Droplets”. But he also made the decision with Medoruma on how to translate the dialect into English. The two of them wanted to preserve a marked difference in social class between the main character and his wife, Ushi. So Ushi talks something like someone from Appalachia would talk because she has much less education than her husband.

[35:50] Second, “Droplets” is a work of magical realism. Earlier this season, Read Japanese Literature did an entire episode on magical realism. I talked about why I continue to use the term “magical realism” even though it’s controversial in some circles. More than almost anywhere else in Japan, Okinawa has the kind of colonial history that many people associate with magical realist fiction.

The short definition of magical realism is that it is a way of telling a story that is mostly realistic—except that there are elements of “irreducible magic” that are fundamental parts of the tale.

[36:30] The third thing I want to talk about before we bring up “Droplets” is the “gourd melon”. 

The Japanese term is tōgan. The northern Okinawan dialect term is subui. It is a watermelon-ish melon. In Okinawa, it’s usually boiled and eaten as a vegetable.

Medoruma doesn’t usually comment on his own stories, but he does remind his readers that a large number of gourd melons appeared after the Battle of Okinawa. And the anecdotal explanation is that they were nourished by the hundreds of thousands of corpses produced by the battle.

[36:06] “Droplets” begins this way.

It was during a dry spell in mid-June, the rainy season, when Tokushō’s leg suddenly swelled up.”

Tokushō wakes up from a nap to find that his lower leg and foot have swollen to enormous proportions, bigger than his thigh. He can’t move or speak. And his leg and foot are still swelling. He watches as his leg and foot swell to the size of “an average gourd melon” and turn a pale green.

His wife, Ushi, comes to wake him up. (Ushi, by the way, is the Japanese word for “cow”.) Her first response to his illness is… anger? She needs his help on the farm. If he didn’t spend his nights drinking, playing cards, and sleeping around, this wouldn’t have happened.

She slaps his swollen leg, his big toe splits open, and something starts dripping out of his big toe. So she sticks a jug under his foot to catch the liquid. She tastes it… like you do… and it has “the mild sweetness of the juice from an unripe hechima gourd”. Then… she goes to call the doctor. Eventually, she decides she’ll cure Tokushō herself, or at least with the help of traditional medicine. But Tokushō lays paralyzed and speechless for weeks.

One night, the sleeping Tokushō wakes up to find his room full of injured men in tattered army uniforms. One by one, they bend over and lick the water that’s dripped from his toe to his heel.

Tokushō is horrified… and also ticklish. But mostly he has no idea what is going on.

After that, soldiers show up every night. The third night, Tokushō recognizes one of them as his friend Ishimine. The boys served together in the Blood and Iron Imperial Service Corp during the Battle of Okinawa. Tokushō was only sixteen years old at the time.

Tokushō can’t talk anymore. But when he could talk, he hated talking about his time in the Blood and Iron Imperial Service Corp. In the last few years, he had been pressured into it for the village’s oral history project. He has spoken at nearby schools. He got a small honorarium for his efforts—a little cash payment as a thank you. And he has started embroidering the truth—changing his story to match “what his audience wanted to hear”. In other words, he told the nicer version of events—the kind of mainland version of events. Okinawan soldiers bravely fought until they couldn’t fight anymore, and then sacrificed themselves in the name of Japan.

Ushi wasn’t happy when she found out what he was doing: “You start fibbin’ and makin’ up sorry tales to profit off the war and you’ll get your fair punishment in the end.” Maybe the whole experience—the swelling, the paralysis—is the punishment Ushi was afraid of.

About two-thirds of the way through the story, we finally get Tokushō’s memory of what really happened to Tokushō and Ishmine. It’s a heartbreaking memory: Tokushō failed to bring back water to injured and dying men. As Tokushō sees it, he betrayed and abandoned his companions. Then again, many of them were little more than children—including Tokushō. And it’s clear these events of just a few days changed the courts of his entire life.

Tokushō thinks that having his toe sucked, “relieving the soldiers’ thirst” is “the only way to atone for his sins”. But what are his sins, exactly? No one haunted him for decades. Maybe it’s that Tokushō, like many Okinawans, had let his memories fade. He had finally given into stories about the war that were much easier to live with. He tried to make himself forget. And he was profiting off telling a version of events that other people wanted to hear.

It isn’t until the night he forces himself to remember that the spirits tell him, “Thank you. At last the thirst is gone”. The next morning he wakes up, and he is healed.

[41:48] So why read Okinawan literature?

It’s easy for an English reader to focus on the “biggest names” in translated literature from Japan. Contemporary writers like Haruki Murakami or Mieko Kawakami. And earlier twentieth century writers like Yukio Mishima or Osamu Dazai.

We’re readers in translation. The picture we get of “Japanese literature” is always a little blurred. It’s painted by what publishers choose to give us access to in English translation.

(Just in case it isn’t clear, I’m extremely grateful for that access—both to publishers and translators who make it possible to read work from Japan at all.) But we can also sharpen the edges of that by looking to voices outside the mainstream.

There has been notably little work by writers from Okinawa prefecture translated into English. The anthologies Southern Exposure and Islands of Protest are steps in the right direction. Many of the stories in these anthologies are excellent works of fiction well worth reading for their own sake.

And there’s a lot more to “Droplets”, too. I didn’t even touch on several subplots. Tokushō’s good-for-nothing cousin tries to sell the liquid oozing coming from his foot. And there’s a 3rd companion who knows what happened to Tokushō and Ishimine during the Battle of Okinawa. She was serving as a member of the Himeyuri or “Lily Corp” as a nurse. I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Southern Exposure to read the story for yourself.

I’ve been reading from Shun Medoruma’s “Droplets”, translated [by] Michael Molasky. It’s available in the anthology Southern Exposure: Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa. That anthology is edited by Michael Molasky and Steve Rabson. 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.

If you’re using Read Japanese Literature as a classroom resource, be sure to let us know. We’re grateful to the professors and lecturers who have been in touch.

The very best way to support Read Japanese Literature is through Patreon for as little as $3 a month. Remember that subscribers get early access and bonus content with every episode. Thank you so much to 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:

Thank you to Dr. Kristen Luck with the Okinawa Collection and Japan Resource Center at the George Washington University Library.

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.

Episode 23: Writing from Okinawa

Check out Episode 23 of the Read Literature podcast.

Transcript available.

In this episode, we’re talking about writing from Okinawa.

The history of the Ryukyu Islands, especially the Battle of Okinawa. The evolution of writing from Okinawa. And the life and work of author and activist Shun Medoruma, especially his Akutagawa-winning story “Droplets”.

CW: forced suicide (historical), violence (historical and fictional), historical rape

Correction: This episode claims Hokkaido is Japan’s largest island. I know better and misspoke. My apologies. Honshu is Japan’s largest island. Thank you to Dory Rand for bringing the mistake to my attention.

Become an RJL supporter for ten minutes of bonus content.

Support this podcast by buying from Bookshop.org.

More Writing from Okinawa:

More Writing by Shun Medoruma:

Find Out More

Isaac Meyer’s History of Japan Podcast on Japan and Okinawa, parts one (20 minutes) and two (twenty minutes). Episode two in particular is pretty grim because it digs into the history of the Battle of Okinawa.

Meyer covers Okinawa in several other episodes you might find useful:

  • “All in the Family” parts one (26 minutes), two (31 minutes), and three (27 minutes). The Satsuma Clan invaded the Ryukyu Islands during Japan’s Warring States Period.
  • “The American Outpost” (part one; 36 minutes) and “The American Interlude” (part two; 38 minutes)
  • “Fist of Legend”, parts one (26 minutes), two (29 minutes), three (28 minutes), and four (29 minutes). As Meyer discusses in this series, karate originates in the Ryukyu Islands.

The Ryukyu-Okinawa History and Culture Website. This site includes a document archive of useful primary sources like the Nimiz Proclamation that declared Okinawa under American control in the aftermath of WWII and the 1955 Melvin Price Report to the US Congress.

“Shattering Jewels: 110,000 Okinawans Protest Japanese State Censorship of Compulsory Group Suicides” by Kamata Satoshi in The Asia-Pacific Journal, 2008.

“Compulsory Mass Suicide, the Battle of Okinawa, and Japan’s Textbook Controversy” by Aniya Masaaki in The Asia-Pacific Journal, 2008.

A Ryukyu Shimpo obituary for Tatsuhio Oshiro, Okinawa’s first Akutagawa Prize winning author, 2020.

“We Cannot Allow Governor Nakaima to Falsify the History of the Battle of Okinawa” by Medoruma Shun in The Asia-Pacific Journal, 2012. Translated by Rumi Sakamoto and Matthew Allen.

An introduction to Medoruma’s novel In the Woods of Memory, including the first chapter, translated by Takuma Sminkey via The Asia-Pacific Journal.

Medoruma talks about his activism in “From the Deep Forests and Seas of Yambaru” at The Baffler. Translated by Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda.

Science on the US military base and the Okinawa dugong.

Japan’s Asahi Shimbun on Okinawa’s loss before Japan’s Supreme Court in December 2022.

Japanese Literature at Facebook

Japanese Literature at Goodreads

Other RJL Episodes of Interest:


Bhowmik, Davinder L. and Steve Rabson. “Introduction” in Islands of Protest: Japanese Literature from Okinawa. U of HI, 2016.

Bouterey, Susan. “Okinawa’s Fictional Landscapes: A Reading of Medoruma Shun’s ‘Suiteki’ (Droplets)” presented at Overseas Symposium 2016 in Otago, 2016. (free)

Faris, Wendy B. “The Question of Other: Cultural Critiques of Magical Realism” in Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative. Vanderbilt UP, 2004.

–. “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction” in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris, Duke UP, 1995.

Ikeda, Kyle. “Writing and Remembering the Battle of Okinawa: War Memory and Literature” in Routledge Handbook of Modern Japanese Literature, ed. Rachael Hutchinson and Leith Morton, 2016. 

“Japan’s Population Drops in Every Prefecture Except Okinawa” at Nippon.com, 2022. (free)

Kamerer, Tamara. “Fantastic Realities: Magical Realism in Contemporary Okinawan Fiction” in Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies, 2014.

Medoruma Shun. “Even Cats Are Disgusted by the Media’s Support-the-Emperor Broadcasts, Refusing to Be Moved by Its Brainwashing Propaganda”. Translated by Steve Rabson. Appears in the article “Reflections on the Remaking of the Imperial Image in the Reiwa Era and Japanese Democracy” in The Asia-Pacific Journal, 2019. (free) 

–. “From the Deep Forest and Seas of Yambaru” Against the US Military Presence in Japan”. Translated by Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda at The Baffler, 2023. (free)

–. “We Cannot Allow Governor Nakaima to Falsify the History of the Battle of Okinawa”. Translated by Rumi Sakamoto and Matthew Allen at The Asia-Pacific Journal, 2012. (free)

Molasky, Michael and Steve Rabson. “Introduction” in Southern Exposure: Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa. U of HI, 2000.

Muñoz, Jordi Serrano. “Droplets, by Medoruma Shun: Personal Guilt as Collective Responsibility” in Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs, 2015. (free) 

Wang, Xiaoyu. “Constructing of the Image of Okinawa in Literature” (graduate paper posted by PhD candidate) at Academia.edu. (free)

Episode 22: Fukushima Fiction

Check out Episode 22 of the Read Literature podcast.

Transcript available.

On March 11, 2011, at 2:46pm, one tectonic plate forced its way on top of another 45 miles (or 72 km) off the Eastern coast of Japan. It caused a 9.0 magnitude megathrust earthquake that lasted about six minutes.

The Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a tsunami—a great wave—that may have reached heights up to 133 feet (more than 40 meters). 

The earthquake and tsunami also disabled the reactor cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing several reactors to meltdown.

The government of Tokyo released official death numbers around the tenth anniversary of 3/11 in 2021. It reported 19,759 deaths. 6,242 injuries. And 2,553 missing. Most of the missing are presumed dead.

Hundreds of thousands of people who evacuated the area still haven’t returned home—many never will.

In this episode:

  • Tohoku and its place in Japan’s history and culture
  • The response by Japanese writers to the 3/11 disaster
  • Hiromi Kawakami’s life and work—especially her stories “God Bless You” and “God Bless You, 2011”

Donate to support Tohoku:

Become an RJL supporter for ten minutes of bonus content.

Support this podcast by buying from Bookshop.org.

More by Hiromi Kawakami:

  • “The Dragon Palace” (translated by Ted Goossen) in Monkey Business, vol. 3
  • “God Bless You” and “God Bless You, 2011” in (translated by Ted Goossen and Motoyuki Shibata) in March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown
  • “Hazuki and Me”(translated by Ted Goossen) in Monkey Business, vol. 5
  • “I Won’t Let You Go” (translated by Allison Markin Powell; read for free at Granta)
  • “Mogera Wogura” (translated by Michael Emmerich) in The Paris Review
  • “Mysterious Deaths, the Formula, Electricians, Prohibitions” (translated by Ted Goossen) in Monkey, vol. 3
  • “Seahorse” (translated by Ted Goossen) in Monkey, vol. 2
  • “Simone + Reminiscing” (translated by Ted Goossen) in Monkey, vol. 1
  • “The Hut on the Roof” (translated by Lucy Fraser) in The Book of the City of Tokyo
  • “Mogera Wogura” in (translated by Michael Emmerich) New Penguin Parallel Text: Short Stories in Japanese
  • “Kamisama” (translated for Japanese language learners by Michael Emmerich) in Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers

This episode also mentions:

*These books come up for discussion in the bonus content available to Patreon supporters.

More Fukushima Fiction:

Find a list of Fukushima fiction available in English at Bookshop.org.

Find Out More

“Quake Moves Japan Closer to U.S. and Alter’s Earth’s Spin” in The New York Times” (March 13, 2011).

“Tsunami, Earthquake, Nuclear Crisis—Now Japan Faces Power Cuts” in The Guardian (March 13, 2011).

“Japan Damage Could Reach $235 Billion, World Bank Estimates” in The LA Times (March 21, 2011).

Tokyo Weekender’s list of books from every prefecture in Japan. Six of Japan’s 47 prefectures fall in the Tōhoku region: Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata.

A video of Shinzo Abe’s appearance at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“A Wave of Imagination Followed Japan’s Meltdown” by Susan Wyndham in The Sydney Herald.

Poetry by Ryoichi Wago available at Poetry Northwest. Translated by Ayoko Takahasi and Judy Halebsky.

“Speaking as an Unrealistic Dreamer”. Haruki Murakami’s International Catalunya Acceptance Speech in July 2011.

Tokyo Ueno Station author Yu Miri talks with translator Morgan Giles in 2021. Their conversation includes Miri’s reflections on Tōhoku, where she has lived since 2015.

“Fukushima During Coronavirus: Life in Double Isolation” by Yu Miri (translated by Morgan Giles).

RJL on the Fukushima novel Sacred Cesium Ground.

The Books and Boba podcast on Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. 1 hour, 17 minutes.

My review of Erika Kobayashi’s Trinity, Trinity, Trinity in Asian Review of Books.

Tokyo Ueno Station author Yu Miri talks with translator Morgan Giles in 2021. Their conversation includes Miri’s reflections on Tōhoku, where she has lived since 2015.

“Fukushima During Coronavirus: Life in Double Isolation” by Yu Miri (translated by Morgan Giles).

RJL on the Fukushima novel Sacred Cesium Ground.

The Books and Boba podcast on Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. 1 hour, 17 minutes.

My review of Erika Kobayashi’s Trinity, Trinity, Trinity in Asian Review of Books.

Anne Meadows interviews Hiromi Kawakami for Granta Magazine. 15 minutes. Kawakami discusses her response to 3/11 beginning around the 9-minute mark.

“Worldwide Responses to the 20 Millisievert Controversy” in The Asia-Pacific Journal” (2012). As discussed in the episode, Japan raised the recommended limit on exposure to radiation from 1 to 20 mSv in April 2011. This page links a number of responses from various media organizations and NGOs inside and outside of Japan.

“Strong Women, Soft Power.” Both Lucy North and Allison Markin Powell have translated Kawakami’s work.

Japanese Literature at Facebook

Japanese Literature at Goodreads

Other RJL Episodes of Interest:


Ardou, Deibito. “Japan Needs Less Ganbatte, More Genuine Action” at The Japan Times, 2011.

DiNitto, Rachel. Fukushima Fiction: The Literary Landscape of Japan’s Triple Disaster. U of HI, 2019.

Fincher, Alison. “‘Trinity, Trinity, Trinity’ by Erika Kobayashi” at Asian Review of Books, 2022. (free)

Gebhart, Lisette. “Post-3/11 Literature: The Localisation of Pain—Internal Negotiations and Global Consciousness” in Literature and Art after ‘Fukushima’: Four Approaches. Ed. Lisette Gebhart and Yuki Masami, Eb-Verlag, 2014.

Gebhart, Lisette and Yuki Masami, eds. Literature and Art after ‘Fukushima’: Four Approaches. Eb-Verlag, 2014.

Hopson, Nathan. Ennobling Japan’s Savage Northeast: Tōhoku as Japanese Postwar Thought, 1945-2011. Harvard U Asia Center, 2017. 

–. “Systems of Irresponsibility and Japan’s Internal Colony” in The Asia Pacific Journal, 2013. (free).

Ichikawa Makoto. “The Mire and a Shovel” (translated by Christopher Lowy) in Shinsai to fikushon no ‘kyori’: Ruptured Fiction(s) of the Earthquake. Edited by Yoshikawa Yasuhisa, Waseda, 2012.

Kimoto Takeshi. “Post-3/11 Literature: Two Writers from Fukushima” in World Literature Today, 2012.

Luke, Elmer and David Karashima, eds. March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown. Vintage, 2012.

Mihic, Tamaki. Re-Imagining Japan after Fukushima. Australian National University Press, 2020. (free via Australian National University)

Miyazawa Kaoru. “Becoming an Insider and an Outsider in Post-Disaster Fukushima” in Harvard Educational Review, 2018. (free)

Murakami Haruki. “Speaking as an Unrealistic Dreamer” (translated by Emanuel Pastreich) at The Asia-Pacific Journal, 2011. (free)

Norimatsu Satoko. “Worldwide Responses to the 20 Millisievert Controversy” in The Asia-Pacific Journal (2012). (free)

Pepi, Ronalds. “The Ruptures of Rhetoric: Cool Japan, Tokyo 2020 and Post 3.11 Tohoku” in New Voices in Japanese Studies, 2019. (free via Japan Foundation)

Pilling, David. Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival. Penguin, 2015.

USA Today. “U.S. Donations Not Rushing to Japan” at 11 Alive Atlanta, 2011. (via Archive.Today)

Yoshikawa Yasuhisa, ed. Shinsai to fikushon no ‘kyori’: Ruptured Fiction(s) of the Earthquake. Waseda, 2012.

Transcript of Episode 22: Fukushima Fiction

Find out more about Episode 22 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. You can find out more at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.

Quick content warning: The events of 3/11 were terrible. We’re covering them in detail today.

[0:40] On March 11, 2011, at 2:46pm, one tectonic plate forced its way on top of another 45 miles (or 72 km) off the Eastern coast of Japan. It caused a 9.0 magnitude megathrust earthquake that lasted about six minutes. That’s the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan—the 4th most-powerful earthquake recorded since scientists started keeping records in 1900.

To give you a sense of the earthquake’s intensity:

This earthquake is now known as “Higashi nihon daishinsai” or “The Great East Japan Earthquake”.

[1:52] The Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a tsunami—a great wave—that may have reached heights up to 133 feet (more than 40 meters). It rushed as far as 6 miles (or 10 kilometers) inland at speeds up to 435 miles per hour. (That’s about 700 kilometers an hour, the speed of a passenger jet at cruising altitude.) And it caused massive destruction along more than 250 miles of Japan’s eastern coast. (That’s about 400 kilometers.) Some of Japan’s coastal cities were wiped away in minutes.

We think about the tidal wave just in terms of Japan. But an object in motion stays in motion… And the tidal wave reached Antarctica hours later, it broke off chunks of ice the size of Manhattan Island in New York City.

A few weeks after the disaster, the World Bank issued a report estimating that the financial damage from the earthquake and tsunami alone could reach $235 billion (American). That makes The Great East Japan Earthquake the most expensive natural disaster in history. But the disaster wasn’t over yet.

[3:07] The earthquake and tsunami also disabled the reactor cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The afternoon of March 12, one of those reactors exploded—creating problems with two others. Another exploded the following Monday. The next day, a third explosion released radiation at 10,000 times normal levels.

By April 9, the Tokyo-based company that ran the plant admitted contaminated water had probably leaked into nearby soil and water. A week later, Japanese authorities created a 12-mile “no-go” evacuation zone around the plant. (That’s about 20 kilometers). More than 300,000 people were eventually evacuated because of the meltdowns.

Three months later, the company finally reported leaks might have spread into the Pacific Ocean.

Collectively, people inside and outside of Japan refer to this series of disasters as “san ten ichi-ichi” or “3-11”

The government of Tokyo released official death numbers around the 10th anniversary of 3/11 in 2021. It reported 19,759 deaths.

6,242 injuries.

And 2,553 missing. Most of the missing are presumed dead.

Hundreds of thousands of people who evacuated the area still haven’t returned home—many never will.

[4:45] We’re going to back up a little bit to look at the bigger picture of the affected region—Tohoku—and its place in Japan’s history and culture. It’s a region that has a complicated place in Japan’s politics and imagination.

Then we’ll move on to Japan’s response to the 3/11 disaster—with a special focus on the way Japan’s writers responded.

By the way, I’m using the term “Fukushima Fiction” today. That term comes from Rachel DiNitto’s book Fukushima Fiction: The Literary Landscape of Japan’s Triple Disaster. Dr. DiNitto is a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Oregon.

In English, “Fukushima” has become a kind of stand-in for the entire disaster. Fukushima is the site of the nuclear meltdown, but much of northeastern Japan was devastated by the triple disaster.

In Japan, some people have used the term shinsai bungaku or “earthquake literature” to describe the same set of stories—obviously “earthquake literature” doesn’t really express the full extent of the disaster either.

Today’s episode will end with the life and work of Hiromi Kawakami. Her story “Kamisama” has been translated into English as “God Bless You”. She revisited and rewrote the work “God Bless You” in response to 3/11. It was one of the first literary responses to the Triple Disaster.

[6:16] The word “Tohoku” is written with the characters for “east” and “north”. So it is literally the northeast of the Honshu, the largest island of the Japanese archipelago. Six of Japan’s 47 prefectures fall in the Tohoku region: Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata.

The Tohoku region is an area of almost 26,000 square miles. (67,000 square kilometers). That’s about 30% the total landmass of Honshu—a space larger than the entire nation of Denmark.

It was once populated by the Emishi people. The Emishi were hunter-gatherers. They were also skilled horse-people. 

The centralized Japanese government based in Nara made its first attempt to conquer the region in the eighth century. The Japanese government had a hard time doing this. 

By the beginning of the 9th century, the central Japanese government did control most of what is now Tohoku. Most of the Emishi that remained became a part of broader Japanese society. Some of them immigrated north to the northern island of Hokkaido. There’s some debate about whether the Emishi and the Ainu people native to Hokkaido are related.

[7:36] Over the course of centuries, Tohoku became the bread-basket of Japan—or at least the “rice-basket”. 

Most of the region isn’t especially suited, though, for wet-rice agriculture. That’s the way people in Japan tend to grow rice. That means Tohoku was also susceptible to famine when the weather ruined crops. But Tohoku was important to central Honshu and the wealthier, more prestigious centers of power.

The wealthier, more prestigious centers of power needed Tohoku to sustain its way of life—needed the resources to thrive. And Tohoku became dependent on the income it got from selling resources to the centers of power. That dynamic has led some scholars to call the Tohoku region Japan’s first colony or an “internal” colony.

[8:34] The Meiji Restoration in 1868 reinforced Tohoku’s position. The Meiji Government’s policy of “Civilization and Enlightenment” would need to “civilize and enlighten” Tohoku as well… at least in the ways that would benefit the Meiji Government—the people who were in power.

[8:53] Throughout the 20th century, for example, the Tohoku region also provided day laborers for projects in Tokyo. During the economic miracle—the high growth period of the 1960s—a lot of laborers came to Tokyo to find jobs. These laborers were known as “golden eggs”. They were like gold for their employers—cheap, young, almost interchangeable—and there seemed to be an unlimited supply.

Today, many people still think of Tohoku as a region continually exploited by Tokyo—and for some good reasons. The GDP per capita in Tohoku is below the average GDP per capita for the whole of Japan—and it’s less than half the average GDP per capita in Tokyo. We’ll come back to perceived disconnect between Tohoku and the rest of Japan in just a minute.

[9:48] The flip side of this kind of constant Othering, is that Tohoku also has a unique place in Japan’s culture.

Matsuo Basho is almost certainly Japan’s most famous haiku poet—at least outside of Japan. His The Narrow Road to the Deep North is about his travels through Tohoku. That book, by the way, is also translated as The Narrow Road to the Interior.

Incidentally, my favorite Bashō haiku takes place in Miyagi Prefecture. It’s about a place called Matsushima—it’s a group of islands. It doesn’t even require translation!

Matsushima ya

Aa matsushima ya


[10:36] After WWII, Tohoku was presented to the Japanese as an alternative to the militarized Japan of the 1930s and 40s. It became a kind of symbol of what Japan could be. In the words of historian Tomio Takahashi, the region represented “a Japan that [the Japanese] could be proud of”.

A decade later, during the high growth era, Tohoku came to represent a kind of “storehouse” for everything that was supposed to be quintessentially Japanese—for “old Japan”.

In 1970, Japan National Railways launched an advertising campaign called “Discover Japan”—and it was written… in English. They were trying to encourage Japanese people to travel domestically and explore their own country. Several of the destinations promoted in this campaign were in Tohoku, including places like Tono and Osorezan.

The campaign presented travel within Japan as cool—especially for young women. But it also made these destinations look so different, so exotic, so Other, that the average Japanese person would need to visit them the way they’d visit a foreign country. The message was something like, “Why bother to travel abroad? There are places in your own country that would be beautifully old fashioned and backward! How quaint!”

[12:06] Let me pause here to talk about a couple of Japanese ideas that get thrown around a lot when people talk about 3/11. I’m borrowing here from the work of Dr. Tamaki Mihic at the University of Sydney. She wrote an important and phenomenal book on Re-Imagining Japan after Fukushima. You should know that her book is free via a Creative Commons license. Check for a link on the episode page.

I like the way Dr. Mihic emphasizes these particular ideas. I think each illuminates problems with the relationship between Tohoku and the rest of Japan.

[12:43] The first idea that Dr. Mihic brings up is “kizuna” or a kind of “bond between people”. It’s really more relevant to personal or family relationships. But during the 3/11 disaster and the aftermath, it became almost synonymous with how “group-oriented” and “community-first” the Japanese are supposed to be.

If you’re American or British, you might remember how heavily the news relied on Japanese stereotypes in their media coverage. The Japanese aren’t even looting! There are noble elderly people volunteering to decontaminate radioactive sites! Yes, these are worthwhile observations. And I don’t mean to downplay anyone’s actions. What I’m trying to say is that the Western media coverage focused on these stories because they reinforced ideas that Westerners hold about what the Japanese are supposed to be like.

Japanese viewers could watch foreign news with real-time translation. And these kinds of stories reinforced the idea that unity and cooperation are uniquely Japanese values. In fact, kizuna was such a prominent word in 2011, that it was voted the kanji of the year over the kanji for “disaster” and “quake”. 

[14:05] The second idea that Dr. Mihic raises is “gaman”. Gaman comes from the verb ganbaru—“to persist” or “to hold on” or “to do your best”. If you’ve ever watched Japanese anime, you’ve almost certainly heard one character tell another, “Ganbatte!” It was a popular favorite in the international media’s coverage of 3/11.

One March 17 USA Today article cites a (non-Japanese) senior director at the Japan Society in New York City: “Suffering and persevering is a type of virtue in Japan… among the most commonly heard expressions there are gaman… gambaru… and shoganai (‘it cannot be helped’)”.

After the disaster, “Ganbatte Japan!” and “Ganbatte Tohoku!” were popular refrains. 

[15:05] Now—why did I bring up these ideas? It’s clear from the rhetoric that has come from leaders in Tokyo that any kind of kizuna bonds between Tohoku and Tokyo are fairly weak. For one thing, there have been some extremely public and notable gaffes.

Right after the disaster, then-governor of Tokyo Ishihara Shintaro called the earthquake “divine retribution”. According to Shintaro, Japan could “use the tsunami to wash away egoism, to wash away the many years of crud built up on the hearts of the Japanese”.

(You might remember from earlier episodes just how much I dislike Tokyo’s ultranationalist, Akutagawa-winning governor—this is the same misogynist who described Mieko Kawakami’s Chichi to Ran as “egocentric, self-absorbed rambling” as well as “unpleasant and intolerable”.)


One of the problems with Ishihara’s remarks is that the worst of the “divine retribution” was visited on Tohoku—not Japan at large and certainly not on Tokyo. The reaction against Ishihara’s remarks was so heated he actually (gasp) retracted them! That was almost unheard of.

And then in August 2016, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared at the closing ceremony for the Rio Summer Olympics. He popped out of a giant green pipe wearing Super Mario’s signature red hat to celebrate what Japanese politicians were promoting as “the Reconstruction Olympics”.

Maybe not a gaffe per se? But even a year after Abe’s appearance, more than half of the evacuees from Tohoku—that’s almost 120,000 people—still didn’t have permanent housing.

In April 2017, Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura commented that the earthquake “was okay because it happened over there in Tohoku”. He later clarified, “Even in Tohoku, that terrible damage of 25 trillion yen was incurred. If it hit places near the Tokyo area, it would have been an unimaginable disaster”. He was actually forced to resign several days later.

[17:31] In the mind of many people in Japan, Tohoku is once again being treated as a kind of “national sacrifice zone”. Reminders to “Ganbatte Japan!” after 3/11 rang hollow. It seemed like Tohoku was the only place people were really being asked to endure. And how fair is it, really, to tell people to “keep doing their best”, when circumstances are so far out of their control?

Keep in mind that Tepco—the Tokyo Electric Power Company—is the one that owns the Fukushima Daiichi plant. It provided power to people living in Tokyo—not Fukushima or anywhere in Tohoku. And it’s pretty clear that TEPCO—the Tokyo Electric Power Company— bears most of the blame for the accident.

[18:23] And the 2020 “Reconstruction” Olympics? The process of labor[ers] leaving Tohoku for Tokyo repeated itself. In the 2010s, economic circumstances forced those laborers to leave behind unfinished rebuilding projects from 3/11. And construction costs in Japan rose for the 1st time in decades—by as much as 30%.

[19:00] In 2012, the Japan Science and Technology Agency released a fascinating study about press coverage of 3/11. Japanese people who watched TV four or more hours a day in March and April 2011 were at a significantly elevated risk of PTSD. Footage of the disaster was just so horrifying that watching coverage was traumatizing. 

Many accounts of the disaster called it soteigai—“beyond imagination”. But imagining something is exactly what fiction is for.

[19:35] For the next few minutes, we’re going to talk about how Fukushima fiction has played a role in helping Japan come to terms with 3/11 and its aftermath.

In April 2011, the Japanese government established the “Reconstruction Design Council”. According to reports, the committee’s goals included inspiring “sufficient motivation” to the Japanese people to help them face reconstruction. Another was to “convince foreign nations of the outstanding quality of Japanese knowledge”.

One of the items the committee took up was the official representation of the disaster. It’s known, for example, that the government suggested journalists and writers take advantage of words like fukko (“reconstruction”) and kibo (“hope”). They should also use soteigai—the word for “unimaginable” or “unforeseeable” that we mentioned just a minute ago.

They shouldn’t use words like muryoku (“powerlessness”). Zetsubo (“despair”). Merutodaun (“meltdown”).

[20:44] A member named Genyū Sōkyū was both a priest and an Akutagawa-winning writer. In an essay, he claims the government wanted to keep radioactive contamination off the committee’s agenda entirely—it was “too great a problem”. Many of the committee members weren’t pleased. And this is part of the reason I prefer the term “Fukushima fiction”. Just because it reinforces the way writers in Japan really stood up for the inclusion of radioactive contamination in the response to 3/11.

In late April 2011, a literary critic named Minako Saitō called on authors to “express their 3/11 experiences through literature”—and, it was effectively in the face of the official government position.

[21:33] Just a quick side note: I’m not sure where to put poet Ryoichi Wago in our story today. He’s a poet. I don’t normally cover poetry. Japanese poetry is not something I know much about. But Wago and his work are an important part of this story—so let me mention him here.

As early as March 16, 2011, he was publishing poetry about the disaster on Twitter. Wago teaches Japanese language and literature in Fukushima Prefecture. And a lot of his poetry highlights the way Tohoku is left out by the rest of Japan, as we discussed earlier in his episode.

This is an excerpt from one of his poems:

Those who drive us out from our native place, cruel people who drive out us Japanese.

They are “we Japanese”.

I have now discovered that our nation is like this.

A new volume of his poetry in English translation came out in February 2023. Since Fukushima was translated by Ayako Takahashi and Judy Halebsky.

[22:40] To me, what’s especially noteworthy about writers and 3/11 is that writers felt like they had a special role to play, something only that only they could do.

Haruki Murakami, for example, spoke about the work authors could do when he accepted the Catalunya Prize in Barcelona that June. I’m going to read you a long quote from that speech:

The work of repairing damaged roads and rebuilding houses is the dominion of the appropriate experts. But when it comes to rebuilding damaged morals and ethical standards, the responsibility falls on all our shoulders… 

And he’s talking there to everyone, all of us.

In this great collective effort, there should be a space where those of us who specialize in words, professional writers, can be positively involved. We should weave together with words new morals and new ethical standards. We should plant vibrant new stories and make them sprout and flourish. These stories will become our shared story.

[23:48] There were also authors who were also motivated by a desire to help victims materially. Many writers collaborated on collections to help raise funds and/or awareness. I can think of 3 prominent ones that are available in English:

2:46—Aftershocks—Stories from the Japan Earthquake is a “Twitter-sourced charity book about how the Japanese earthquake at 2:46 on March 11, 2011 affected us all”. It came out in English and includes work by Yoko Ono, William Gibson, Barry Eisler, and Jake Adelstein. And it was out within four weeks of the disaster.

March Was Made of Yarn is an anthology of seventeen works by Japanese and non-Japanese authors. It was edited by David Karashima and Elmer Luke. And it was published on January 1, 2012 simultaneously in Japan, the UK, and the US. 

The third collection I can think of is called Shinsai to fikushon no ‘kyori’: Ruptured Fiction(s) of the Earthquake. The effort was coordinated by Makoto Ichikawa of Waseda Bungaku and published in 2012. All the stories were written in Japanese. It was published as a dual-language collection in Japanese and English with work by some pretty big-name English-language translators. It also includes two stories translated into both Chinese and Korean. (FYI, I had to buy my edition from a Japanese bookstore and have it shipped from Japan.

[25:25] Before we move on to Hiromi Kawakami [see 30:00], I want to mention a few examples of Fukushima fiction that are available in English—and from North American and European bookstores. I’ve picked these titles because they’re important, and they represent important themes in Fukushima fiction.You can find a more complete list of what has been translated on the episode page. Note that only a tiny portion of Fukushima fiction has been translated into English.

2011’s Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure might be one of the most important and direct literary responses to 3/11. In English, it has the subtitle “A Tale That Begins with Fukushima”.

Horses, Horses is an example of the most direct kind of Fukushima fiction. It takes place in Tohoku. The characters and events are deeply embedded in the region. And the action is a direct, explicit response to 3/11. It was written by Hideo Furukawa, who is a Tohoku native. It was translated into English by Doug Slaymaker, with the help of Akiko Tanenaka.

In Horses, Horses, a semi-autobiographical narrator travels to his childhood home near Fukushima after the disaster. It’s a stream-of-consciousness book—it follows the thoughts of the narrator as they jump from one idea to another, almost at random. It’s also a magical realist book. Most notably, the protagonist of Furukawa’s most famous novel, The Holy Family, shows up in the back of Furukawa’s rental car.

[27:02] Other examples of Fukushima Fiction are more indirect. I think Yoko Tawada’s 2014 The Emissary is almost certainly a work of Fukushima Fiction. (The Emissary was also translated as The Last Children of Tokyo.) It’s the same translation under both titles by Margaret Mitsutani.

In The Emissary, Japan has been devastated by some kind of man-made catastrophe. As a result, the “aged-elderly” seem almost immortal. The children of Japan are feeble and disabled. It’s heavily implied they’ve all been poisoned by radiation.

We’ll take a look in just a minute at Hiromi Kawakami’s “God Bless You, 2011”. It’s another story where some vague event caused a terrible nuclear disaster. Because Kawakami wrote the story in March 2011, the connection is more obvious—even if it’s not any more explicit.

[27:58] Fukushima Fiction also transcends the Japanese language. Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is one of my very favorite books. Ruth Ozeki is a Japanese-American-Canadian Zen Buddhist priest. Her novel is a brilliant, quantum-magical-realist story. It connects a fictional version of Ozeki with a teenager who may or may not have been killed on 3/11. So it’s Fukushima fiction… but it’s also part metafiction, part coming-of-age story, part return narrative, part sci-fi, part disaster narrative, part Zen meditation, part exploration of the meaning of life…  I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

[28:43] Today, in 2023, I think we should maybe even be talking about post-Fukushima fiction—fiction that incorporates the events of 3/11 into the way the world is now.

Trinity, Trinity, Trinity by Erika Kobayashi was first published in 2019 in Japan. It was published in English translation by Brian Bergstrom in 2022. While the book takes up 3/11, it also connects Fukushima to Marie Curie, the Nazis, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Los Alamos… When I reviewed it for the Asian Review of Books, I described it as “something like a next-step in Japanese atomic literature… A chronicle of radioactivity, beginning with the discovery of [pitchblende]… in Saint Joachim’s Valley during the 15th century”.

And finally, it’s worth noting that some authors believe all fiction after 3/11 is post-Fukushima fiction. Keiichiro Hirano writes thrillers. He has spoken publicly about how the disaster inspires all of his fiction—even though he never explores 3/11 in any of his books.

[30:00] Hiromi Kawakami was born in 1958. (Let me just clarify here, that she is not related to Mieko Kawakami.)

1958 is the year that Kenzaburo Ōe won the Akutagawa Prize for “Prize Stock”. Hiromi Kawakami is nine years younger than Haruki Murakami—and eight years older than Banana Yoshimoto.

Kawakami was born and raised in Tokyo. She graduated from Ochanomizu Women’s College, also in Tokyo, in 1980. She’s a scientist by training. Her university thesis was about the reproductive cycle of sea urchins.

After graduation, she started writing and editing for a Japanese science fiction magazine. Then she taught middle and high school science. When her husband needed to move for work, Kawakami started to stay home. But she continued to write.

Kawakami began writing literary fiction—that high literature—in the early 90s. In 1996, she won the Akutagawa Prize for her short story “A Snake Stepped On”. That story has been published in English translation in the collection Record of a Night Too Brief, translated by Lucy North.

In 2001, she won the Tanizaki Prize for Sensei no kaban or “Teacher’s Briefcase”. We haven’t really talked about the Tanizaki Prize. It’s an annual award for a full-length work of fiction or drama “of the highest literary merit” by a professional writer. Sensei no Kaban is better known in English as Strange Weather in Tokyo, translated by Allison Markin Powell. It is a beloved story of many readers of Japanese fiction in translation.

[31:00] Hiromi Kawakami wrote Kamisama in 1993. As a matter of fact, Kamisama was her 1st published literary work. Kamisama has been translated into English as God Bless You, but the title literally just means “God”.

Kawakami’s 1993 “God Bless You” opens in medias res—in the middle of the action with no explanation—“The bear invited me to go for a walk to the river, about 20 minutes away.”

This is a real, full-grown, male bear. And he has moved into apartment 305, three doors down the hall from the narrator. This is magical realism—the kind we talked about a few episodes ago. Magic that coexists along with the every-day. No explanation whatsoever.

The bear has also made the old-fashioned gesture of presenting the narrator with “moving-in noodles” and packets of postcards. 

“He sure wants people to like him,” the narrator thinks to themselves, “But then you probably have to do that if you’re a bear.” (Most people assume the narrator is a woman—the story never specifies. I’m going to use female pronouns from now on just to make things easy.)

It turns out they may have a vague connection through the narrator’s uncle. The bear calls it a “karmic bond” or the bonds of fate—further evidence that this is an old-fashioned bear.

By the time they get to the river, the narrator and the bear are both hot. They meet a boy and his dad who have been swimming in the river. Neither of them treat the bear like a person:

“Daddy, it’s a bear!”

“Right you are”

“A real bear!”

“A bear for sure.”

“A bear! A bear!”

They never look the bear in the eye. But the boy yanks the bear’s fur and kicks his legs. Finally, he shouts “Punch!” and kicks the bear in the stomach before running off.

The bear is surprisingly good natured about this: 

Good grief. But young people don’t mean any harm, you know. I mean, human beings are of all sorts, but children have no real malice.

The bear turns to the river and begins to fish. He does it very well. He is a bear, after all. He guts the fish, cleans it, salts it, cooks it… and gives it to the narrator: “A memento of our day together.”

It turns out that the bear has prepared for everything. Not just the cooking supplies, but out of his bag, he pulls a towel for the narrator to take a nap on. 

He offers to sing her a lullaby. He’s disappointed when she refuses. But when she wakes back up, he’s sleeping beside her.

They return to her apartment. “What a fine outing!” he says.

Before he goes, he awkwardly asks, “Would you mind if we hugged? Where I come from, that’s what we do when we say goodbye to someone we feel close to. If you don’t like the idea, of course, then we don’t have to.”

The narrator accepts the hug. Who could resist?

And the bear expresses his hopes that the bear god might bestow his blessing on her.

Some readers are puzzled by this charming and mostly-happy story. Perhaps the boy and his father represent the way Japanese society—all societies, really—mistreat people who are different?

Dr. Mihic at the University of Sydney offers this explanation: 

The fact that the bear’s traditionally Japanese actions appear odd and old-fashioned shows how much Japanese society has changed and how little kizuna there remains in Japanese society.

So we’re back to that kizuna bond again. The one that seems broken between the people of Tohoku and the people of the rest of Japan.

[35:42] The editors of March Was Made of Yarn describe “God Bless You, 2011” as “the 1st literary piece to emerge in Japan from the stunned silence after March 11”. Hiromi Kawakami revisited her famous 1993 story just weeks after 3/11. The story was published in the literary journal Gunzō that June.

The characters and broad outline of the plot of “God Bless You” are the same—but the tragedy is in the differences.

By the way, March Was Made of Yarn includes both versions of “God Bless You” as well as a “postscript” from Kawakami. But “God Bless You, 2011” is printed first. I would strongly suggest you flip ahead and start with the original 1993 story. “God Bless You, 2011” is available for free online, but it’s worth buying the book to read the original 1993 version first. It’s also worth buying the book because all of the other stories are magnificent.)

Again we open in medias res—“The bear invited me to go for a walk to the river, about 20 minutes away.” But this time the narrator clarifies that she hasn’t gone out yet without her protective clothing. It’s hot—and now she’s going to try.

The narrator has been wearing protective clothing since “the incident”, the narrator will be “clad in normal clothes that expos[e] the skin”. The Japanese phrase here for “the incident” is “ano koto” or literally “that thing”.

The bear is her neighbor again, but now there are only three people still living in their building. The shared connection has changed too. Maybe the narrator is friends of a friend of a friend the bear met at an evacuation center.

By the time they get to the river, they both know they’re contaminated by radiation. The narrator has taken care earlier in the year. She can still “afford some exposure”. The bear says he’s bigger, so his maximum dose is higher.

And this time, there aren’t any children to cause trouble here—malicious or not. In fact, there are “no children left anywhere in the area”. Presumably, their parents have evacuated all of them.

The impersonal strangers this time are adult men.

“It’s a bear, isn’t it.”

“I envy bears.”

“Bears can handle strontium. Plutonium, too.”

“What do you expect? They’re bears.”

“So that’s why? They’re bears.”

“Yeah, because they’re bears.”

When they leave, the bear assures the narrator that he isn’t, in fact, resistant to strontium and plutonium”. As the reader probably already knows, that is a ridiculous claim to make about a fellow mammal.

After the nap, that super-prepared bear now pulls from his bag a Geiger counter to scan the narrator and then himself. And the narrator finds the beeping of the Geiger counter “familiar”.

The radiation complicates that hug. The narrator tells us, “The fact that bears don’t take baths mean[s] there [will] probably be more radiation on his body”.

But she continues, “it [has] been my decision from the start to remain in this part of the country, so I [can hardly be squeamish”.

At the very end of the story, the narrator takes a shower and records the estimate of radiation she has received that day. It’s .03 millisieverts on the surface of her body and .19 millisieverts of internally received radiation. That puts her annual totals at 29 and 17.8, respectively.

According to critic Yōichi Koromi, many contemporary Japanese readers would immediately realize that the narrator had exceeded her annual limit. The narrator doesn’t seem alarmed; perhaps her government has deemed this normal? That doesn’t seem like an unlikely explanation.

In April 2011—not long after Kawakami finished writing the story… actually before the story was published—the Japanese government raised “acceptable” annual exposure from one millisievert to twenty millisieverts. It returned “acceptable” to pre-disaster levels in August 2012.

[39:57] Earlier in the episode, we talked about Japanese writers’ reactions to 3/11. This is how Hiromi Kawakami described hers in the postscript to “God Bless You, 2011”:

My reaction to all that I saw and heard in the aftermath of the earthquake was, “Why have I kept myself in the dark all these years, never attempting to find out what I should have known?”

[40:25] So why read Hiromi Kawakami?

Hiromi Kawakami is part of an important generation of Japanese women writers who have defined and shaped 21st-century Japanese fiction. She and her contemporaries—writers like Yoko Ogawa and Yoko Tawada—have been hugely influential on the last thirty years of Japanese writing.

She’s one of the writers picked up by the group of translators, Strong Women, Soft Powerthree translators we talked about in an earlier episode. These women have pushed hard to make Japanese women’s writing available to an English-speaking audience.

Hiromi Kawakami is also one of my very favorite Japanese authors.

Her work in English is incredibly diverse.

You can find a list of work by Hiromi Kawakami, including several things you can read for free, on the episode page.

As always, buy your books through our Bookshop.org page to support the podcast. I’ve also posted a list of “Fukushima Fiction” titles like Horses, Horses…, The Emissary, and A Tale for the Time Being on the episode page.

Today, I’ve been reading from Ted Goossen and Motoyuki Shibata’s translation of “God Bless You” and their translation of “God Bless You, 2011”. Those were both published in March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown

You can also read “God Bless You, 2011” for free on Granta magazine’s website. Links to both on the episode page.

If you want to support Read Japanese Literature, please consider. Leaving a review on your podcast app of choice.

You can also become a supporter through Patreon for as little as $3 a month. Remember that subscribers get early access and bonus content with every episode.  Thank you so much to our new supporters! Find out how you can join them at patreon.com/readjapaneseliterature.

I tried to find ways to support people in Tohoku still recovering from the events of 3/11. I found several organizations doing good work. Unfortunately, their websites are in Japanese. I’ve put their link on the episode page anyway in case donating is an option for you.

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

Thank you to Sharon Dormier at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for her continued and invaluable help with sources. Thank you to the Japanese Literature group on Goodreads and the Japanese Literature group on Facebook. Thank you [to] the Japanese literature Twitter community.

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

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