Transcript of Episode 27: Japanese Children’s Literature

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

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He did.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In part 1, we talked about how 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of that is as strictly true of Japanese.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on Moon River

Any way the lunch grows doesn’t really matter.

Down in the horse corral, gnawing on rice

Hail Hibari, blithe spirit!

Have you anything to say to me?

Do with less—so they’ll have enough!

Any way the boat rows doesn’t really matter

Chicago, Chicago, it’s a helluva

Paradise for the losers, power to the people

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

Like the remorse of the philosopher’s stone

I offer up my life,


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

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

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

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

Alternative choices:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other questions…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authors have different levels of engagement with their translators.

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

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

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

Now… this level of cooperation is highly unusual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Mizumura goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

A few months ago, she tweeted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why was this book published in English?

Why am I reading this book in translation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 (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, 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, 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, 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, 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, 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).

The Goddess Chronicle: A Woman’s Ambiguous Place in Japan’s Creation Myth

To appreciate The Goddess Chronicle, you need to be familiar with The Kojiki, the oldest recorded mythical origin story of Japan. (Kirino provides a good summary in part II, chapters 5-6.)

In The Kojiki, the first anthropomorphic gods are Izanami (She Who Beckoned) and Izanagi (He Who Beckoned). They quickly notice that their bodies have some key differences:

Now the mighty one [Izanagi] turned to the mighty one [Izanami] and questioned his sister, saying: “How is your body formed?”

She replied, saying: “My body is empty in one place.”

And so the mighty one [Izanagi] proclaimed: “My body sticks out in one place. I would like to thrust the part of my body that sticks out into the part of your body that is empty and fill it up to birth lands. How does birthing them in this way sound to you?”

The mighty one [Izanami] replied, saying: “That sounds good.” (The Kojiki)

Amaterasu, Goddess of the Sun

As the first anthropomorphized gods, Izanami and Izanagi are also Japan’s first sexed and gendered gods. Before they couple, they perform a simple ritual, passing around a pillar and greeting each other in turn. This ritual is presumably why these kami (gods, for lack of a succinct alternative) are He Who Beckoned and She Who Beckoned. When Izanami beckons first, all their offspring are malformed. When Izanagi beckons first, they begin to give birth to the Japanese archipelago and many of the kami behind its more significant natural phenomena.

Eventually, Izanami dies giving birth to the fire god. Izanagi kills his newborn son in rage and grief, then goes to Yomi, the land of the dead, to search for his wife. Sadly, it is too late for Izanami—she has already eaten food from the underworld. Izanagi breaks his promise not to look at her, only to discover that she has become a rotting corpse. He runs away and seals the entrance to Yomi: “as they stood there with the boulder between them, they declared themselves divorced” (The Kojiki).

Enraged, Izanami vows that she will now kill 1,000 people a day; Izanagi counters he will build 1,500 birthing huts every day to thwart her.

Izanagi then rushes to a river to purify himself. (Purification is an important facet of Japanese religion.) Washing the filth from his body begets new kami, including the sun goddess Ametarasu.

Let me note here that Ametarasu is a part of an elite group—the sun anthropomorphized as a female, rather than as a male. Most other mythologies with women as sun deities are what you might call “out of the mainstream” today: early Egyptian, Canaanite, Celtic, pre-Islamic Arabian… In the mythologies familiar to most Westerners, the sun deity is male, often paired with a female moon goddess. The sun as a goddess is just one of the moments in Japanese mythology where a female figure takes on a position of importance, or even supremacy.

Like many creation narratives, The Kojiki takes place long before its people had any means of writing The earliest events of The Kojiki ostensibly take place before or during the Jomon Period. Material evidence of Japan’s prehistorical Jomon culture dates as early as 40k BCE.

Over centuries, a belief system centered on the sun goddess Ametarasu spread from the centers of power. (A ruling family used its purported divine descent from Ametarasu to help consolidate power.) But around the same time, the movement of peoples and culture between Japan and the continent was introducing new ideas to the Japanese:

  • The Kojiki relates that a Chinese emperor sent a Confucian teacher and The Analects to Japan around 400 CE, although this account is often disputed.
  • Recent scholarship has placed the gradual importation of Daoist ideas into Japan between the fifth and eighth centuries (Richey).
  • In the mid-to-late sixth century, a delegation from the Korean Peninsula brought Buddhist priests to Japan.

Imported Patriarchy

In early East Asian histories, there are many accounts of women with political and/or religious power in Japan. In fact, “the earliest Japan of which we have any real historical relic is a time in the third century when the islands were ruled by a priestess and her household” (Ellwood). Notably, we learn about Himiko (also Pimiko or Shingi Wao) in the classical Chinese history Records of the Three Kingdoms. The writer describes her this way: 

[Himiko] occupied herself with magic and sorcery and bewitched the populace. Thereupon they placed her on the throne.

Japan in the Chinese Dynastic Histories, as qtd. in De Bary, et al.

This (presumably male) chronicler falls back on that favorite accusation of men threatened by a woman’s power—“she’s a witch.” But this kind of religiopolitical power seems to have been the norm in early Japan, where women held important shamanistic positions and were said to be actually possessed by kami. “Before the importation of Chinese culture,” Sallie B. King claims, “shamanistic miko were sometimes powerful women who served at the highest level of the state.”

Though there is always a difference between theology and institutional practice, King describes Shinto as a set of beliefs in which it is “not possible” to “divide the world into absolute categories of sacred and profane, soul and body, heaven and earth” (note the contradiction with the dualism of Daoism) or to “identify females with the inferior member of each pair.”

Robert Ellwood makes a case that Japan experienced a “patriarchal revolution” that coincided with the introduction of Daoist ideas (especially yin and yang, which I’ll come back to in a minute), Confucianism, and Buddhism. Confucianism, in particular, is a patriarchal tradition: a shared generative force passes down through the male line, giving pride of place to a family’s oldest male offspring. Many schools of Buddhist practice and teaching, moreover, give special emphasis to the role of male monks; even the historical Buddha long resisted creating an order of nuns.

By the time of The Kojiki’s promulgation in the 710s, society was “largely denatured of real female magic, mystery, or personality” (Ellwood, emphasis his). The sun goddess and empresses had become “figureheads in heavenly and earthy patriarchal orders, at best only sanctifying them with matriarchal tokens.”

So, The Kojiki presumably draws on an older tradition that predates Ellwood’s “patriarchal revolution.” The written, eighth century account, though, takes a native, shamanistic, female-(centered?) tradition and superimposes the religious philosophies gradually adopted into Japanese culture. This tension—between older and contemporary attitudes about women—comes across in Natsuo Kirino’s The Goddess Chronicle.

The Goddess Chronicle

On the timeless island of Umihibe in ancient Japan, life revolves around two female shamans. Kamikuu (“Child of the Gods”) takes the role of yang for the island—she is creative, pure, life-giving, fertile.

Kamikuu’s sister—her paired yin—is Namima (“Woman Amid the Waves”). Namima is her sister’s opposite: she watches over the dark and the dead and must remain perpetually a virgin.

Namima is the novel’s central character and narrator. She isn’t aware of her role as “Woman Amid the Waves” until the day she takes on that role. She has already broken the role’s central taboo and secretly become pregnant. She and her lover flee Umihibe in the night. After giving birth to their daughter, Namima wakes up to her lover strangling her to death. Eventually her spirit makes its way to Yomi, where she meets an Izanami who continues to nurse the grudge against Izanagi she has held since the beginning of the world. Namima spends the rest of the novel as Izanagi’s faithful attendant.

Yang and Yin Debasing a Goddess

Recall the importation of Chinese ideas into Japan. One of the most enduring is the Daoist notion of unity and duality often cribbed in the West as yin and yang. Very briefly, this dualism describes how forces that seem opposite or contrary are actually connected and interdependent. Yin is the receptive principle, associated with a host of natural phenomena, including disorder, dark, and water. Yang is the active principle, associated with order, light, fire… Particularly under Confucianism, the yang became associated with the male, and became the greater of the two. Yin and yang have often loaned a philosophical explanation for men’s superior position to women.

On Umihebi, “the dualities found in nature are embodied by women instead of men” (Lianying). Women are mothers or virgins. They deal with life or death. They are objects of worship or pity.

Lianying claims “women are all excluded from the decision-making process of the societies they inhabit,” but this isn’t precisely true on Umihebi. Even though Kamikuu is a woman, she is also yang—masculine and active. She may not choose her fate—which of the villagers of either sex does?—but she takes on an important leadership role on the island for the rest of her life. It is the men on Umihebi who are disposable, who are excluded, not the women.

The ancient Japanese may have recognized this dual, contradictory facet of woman’s nature, even in a woman’s biological functions: “There is some evidence… that in very early times, menstruation and childbirth may have been seen as either polluting or sacred, or both” (King). To Kirino’s Izanami, “there is a deep connection between death and birth.”

Kirino’s Izanami’s provides her own explanation why yin and yang, though equally valuable parts of a whole, are no longer equally respected:

I [Namima] recalled Izanami’s words: “Heaven and earth, man and woman, birth and death, day and night, light and dark, yin and yan. You may wonder why everything was paired in this way, but a single entity would have been insufficient. In the beginning, two became one, and from that union new life came. Whenever a single entity was paired with its opposite, the value of both became clear from the contrast—and the mutual association enriched the meaning of both.”

But once Izanami had died, the value of the pairing was lost and she became associated only with the dark half: earth, woman, death, night, dark, yin and, yes, pollution.

The Japanese are generally more tolerant of ambiguity than English-speakers. But Izanami’s position is also uniquely contradictory. She is a goddess; she has died. She was life; she’s now death. She loathes her position; she also chooses it.

(Lianying claims that being goddess of the underworld is “a role not of [Kirino’s Izanami’s] choice,” but it is. After Kirino’s Izanagi dies a mortal death, Izanami has an opportunity to let go of her anger. Yet despite continually claiming it has been her fate to become the goddess of the underworld, she finally declares, “It is my lot, my choice to accept all of the world’s defilement.”)

In a world divided between yin ang yang, Izanami doesn’t fit neatly into either category—does she bring life or death? Izanami’s tragedy, Kirino proposes, “lies in her inability to define who she wants to be” (Lianying). 

Who Tells Your Story?

At the novel’s end, Namima claims, “This, then, is Izanami’s story.” Why isn’t Izanami the narrator?

Namima is the narrator of Izanami’s story because her story is Izanami’s. On one level, “the identification with Okami [polite word for kami] is an experiential fulfillment of Shinto teachings on the identity of human nature (once sufficiently purified) with kami nature” (King). On another, the story Namima and Izanami share is the story of all women—their choices limited by the structures the patriarchy imposes. After all, as Izanami notes, “It’s always the woman who dies.”

Anesaki Masaharu. History of Japanese Religion, 2012.

De Bary, WM, et al. ed. Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600, 2nd ed., 2001.

Ellwood, Robert. “Patriarchal Revolution in Ancient Japan: Episodes from the ‘Nihonshoki’ Sujin Chronicle” in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 1986.

Hemmann, Kathryn. “Dangerous Women and Dangerous Stories: Gendered Narration in Kirino Natsuo’s Grotesque and Real World” in Rethinking Japanese Feminisms, 2019.

King, Sallie B. “Egalitarian Philosophies in Sexist Institutions: The Life of Satomi-San, Shinto Miko and Zen Buddhist Nun” in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 1988.

Lianying Shan. “Rewriting Women’s Oppression through Myth and Nature—Kirino Natsuo’s Tokyo Island and The Goddess Chronicle” in Japanese Language and Literature, 2018.

O No Yasumaro. The Kojiki: An Account of Ancient Matters, translated by Gustav Heldt, Columbia, 2014.

Pregadio, Fabrizio. “Religious Daosim” at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017.

Richey, Jefffrey L., ed. Daoism in Japan: Chinese Traditions and Their Influence on Japanese Religious Culture, 2018.

Toshio Kuroda. “Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion” in Japanese Language and Literature, trans. James C. Dobbins and Suzanne Gay, 1981.

Tucker, John. “Japanese Confucian Philosophy” at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, spring 2018 ed.

The Evaporated People in Contemporary Japanese Literature

Each year in Japan, thousands of people disappear. They haven’t been kidnapped. They haven’t been murdered. (Japan has one of the lowest murder rates in the world. An American is almost twenty-seven times more likely to become a homicide victim.)

“Spirit of the Heron Maiden” by Kyoko (c. 1920) via Wikimedia Commons

They are the evaporated—the johatsu.

First, let’s acknowledge that the evocative noun probably creates an exoticism that isn’t entirely deserved. According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, there were more than 56,000 Americans over the age of 18 with active missing persons records at the end of 2019. Nevertheless, Japanese privacy laws make the johatsu almost impossible to track down. The government relies on citizens to register in the cities where they live; if they don’t comply, there is no official record of where they are.

Catering to people who want to disappear has become a niche business in Japan. Movers help would-be johatsu vanish into neighborhoods where they can live anonymously—often hotbeds of activity by the Japanese mafia, or Yakuza.

According to Léna Mauger, a French journalist who brought the johatsu to the attention of the Western world with her book, The Vanished: The “Evaporated People” of Japan in Stories and Photographs, people who disappear do so most often because they are ashamed. A student fails an important exam. A woman falls in love with another man. A breadwinner loses his job.

The people left behind often never find out why their loved one has vanished.

Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami

Manazuru opens with the protagonist, Kei, taking an unplanned trip to Manazuru, a tiny coastal town in Kanagawa Prefecture of only eight or so thousand residents.

Her husband disappeared “without warning twelve years ago.”

The language Kawakami uses to describe Kei’s complex feelings is evocative and haunting:

After Rei’s disappearance, I had no place. I still didn’t know where to channel what I felt. When the path ahead is still unformed, we lose all sense of our location. The fear in me resembled the inability to tell upstream from downstream, to perceive the direction the water was going.


Only the things we are still holding on to can vanish into the past. If we no longer have it, it can’t be lost that way. Can’t vanish anywhere. Nonexistent, it is nonetheless unable, moreover, to go.


I’ve heard that when you start to dream of what you’ve lost, it means the hurt is healing… I never dream of Rei, even now.

More than a decade in, she is no longer in real mourning. Like a Penelope who will never welcome Odysseus home, what she needs most is closure. Is her husband still alive? Why did he leave? “Did [her] husband want to die? Or did he disappear because he wanted to live?” Will she ever see him again? Maybe most importantly, has the time come to let go of her grief?

Sometimes, of late, I forget him. It’s strange, when his presence used to be so thick. When his sudden departure only made his presence thicker.

Perhaps what most holds Kei back is that she considers first her husband and now their teenaged daughter to be extensions of herself: “I had thought we were family, the borders between our bodies indistinct, Momo and Rei [her husband] and I, the three of us mingling, dissolving.” Kei is unaccountably unable to say Rei’s name even during their marriage, and Kawakami reinforces Kei’s loss of self by exploring Kei and Rei as mirrors of each other. 

Kei compares Rei at the beginning of their relationship to “the retreating tide.” “Try to stand your ground,” she says, “still it draws your body in.” With Rei, she “sensed [her]self blurring.” After they marry and have a child together, “even then” her body “blurs.” When he leaves, he destroys the part of her he has figuratively taken into himself. (There’s probably something Freudian to be said about the way Kei, a woman, feels that she has entered Rei, a man.) Later, when Kei reads Rei’s diary after he disappears, she finds it “sickening” because it forces her to acknowledge “he is separate from [her].”

After birth, Kei “did not regard [her daughter Momo] as her own person.” Admitting that Momo is a separate self is terrifying: “It was all right as long as I told myself I was nothing but my own body, but when I let my feelings shift toward Momo’s infant weight in my hands, I became terribly afraid.” Twelve years after her husband’s disappearance, she’s now losing another part of herself—her teenaged daughter is becoming an autonomous person.

Being the wife of a johatsu has inalterably shaped Kei, her expectations for her life, and her relationships with other people. Even twelve years later, it still calls her self into question.

A Man by Keiichiro Hirano

A Man takes up the johatsu from a different angle as an attorney tries to track down the true identity of a client’s dead husband. A Man is about the things that drive people to evaporate—and, on a philosophical level, what questions the life of a johatsu raises about the nature of identity.

Author Keiichiro Hirano claims his novel is inspired by a man he met in a bar—Kido-san, the namesake of the novel’s protagonist. The man introduces himself as one person, then eventually claims to be another. “Do you understand what it’s like to be honest through lies?” the man asks.

Daisuké Taniguchi is the novel’s most important character, though he dies just a few pages in. His mourning widow, Rié, invites his estranged brother to her home. He notices the picture of her late husband on the Buddhist altar: “That isn’t Daisuké,” he reveals.

Rié believes she must now uncover her husband’s true identity. She makes arrangements for a lawyer, Akira Kido, to investigate on her behalf.

Kido soon begins to take the case a little too seriously, to ask himself what it would be like to change identities. Pretending for one night to be someone else, he “feel[s] out the comfort of his new life as though trying on a garment or test-driving a car.” Maybe this will be his new hobby: “synchronizing himself with the life story of another so as to vicariously inhabit their inner world.”

Hirano also raises the role of larger societal problems that make disappearance so tempting to Kido—presumably to an entire group of Japanese. Kido suffers from “a kind of existential anxiety” that has more to do with “Japan’s dark prospects,” the narrator tells us, than they do with his own identity.

Eventually, Kido discovers that “Daisuké Taniguchi,” Rié’s husband, is actually Makoto Hara, the son of a notorious murderer running away from what he considers his tainted family—recall how many of the johatsu disappear because of feelings of shame. With the help of a forger, he has bought Taniguchi’s place on the Taniguchi family register so he could assume a different identity. (A family register is an important document in Japanese culture and government, keeping official track, for example, of births and deaths.)

One of the-character-formerly-known-as-Makoto’s old friends describes him with a notably moving metaphor:

Makoto was, let’s say… Well, you ever heard of gender identity disorder? You know where your body and mind just don’t match up? For Makoto it was something like that. Yup. Like someone’s stuffed you into this disgusting mascot suit and you’re stuck in there for your whole life.

By disappearing, Makoto Hara is able to discover his own identity.

Manazuru and, to a certain extent A Man, both end without a neat resolution. Perhaps that is because, by their very nature, the johatsu and the social conditions that create them are unresolved. We can make guesses about whys and hows, but, as Kido reflects, “It might very well be hubris to believe that you could understand a person’s true thoughts and feelings even when looking straight at them.”

Mauger, Léna. The Vanished: The “Evaporated People” of Japan in Stories and Photographs, 2016.

Simone, Alina. “Japan’s ‘Evaporated People’ Have Become an Obsession for This French Couple” at, 2017.

Sun Sheau Huei. “Vanishing without a Trace.” YouTube, 2019.

A Regressive Vision of Women’s Happiness: Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

“The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed. Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can do is ask them to do their best per head… although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines.”—Former Japanese Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa

Yanagisawa served under Shinzo Abe, who is currently (summer 2020) serving his fourth term as Prime Minister of Japan.

“Mother and Child with Puppies” by Kitagawa Utamaro via Wikimedia Commons

A 2009 study by Scott North found that, “The burden of family work in Japan falls disproportionately on wives, even those who work full time and have relatively high incomes… Couple’s actions continue to be oriented strongly to symbols of patriarchal prestige, such as husband’s birth order position and breadwinner status.”

In 2017, despite several half-hearted public policy attempts, Amnesty International’s East Asia Researcher Hiroka Shoji claimed that Japanese society “still sees household chores and childcare as the main responsibility of women, whether or not they are in paid employment.”

This sort of sexism—assuming a woman is in charge of the domestic sphere—is certainly not foreign to Westerners. But many observers note the special persistence of gender inequality in Japan. Predictably, gender inequality pops up in contemporary Japanese literature.

Published in Japanese just five years ago, Before the Coffee Gets Cold puts forward a regressive vision of happiness for women.

There are certainly any number of anti-feminist best sellers in the US. (Note that the Midnight Sun, an extension of Stephanie Meyer’s famously problematic Twilight universe, is currently an Amazon best seller more than a month before its August 2020 publication.) But I think Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a special kind of insidious. 

The premise of the novel is that, for unexplained reasons, one particular chair in a timeless, underground Tokyo café will transport you, once and only once, backwards or forwards in time. You can only travel to other moments within that same café. Nothing you do in the past actually changes the present. And you have to finish your visit before your coffee gets cold or be doomed to become a vengeful ghost.

Sure, the premise is a little camp, but I’ve enjoyed other sentimental Japanese best-sellers like If Cats Disappeared from the World and The Traveling Cat Chronicles. Maybe I just like cats. But the unexplained plot device in Before the Coffee Gets Cold seems to promise women happiness if only they’ll conform to traditional norms about Japanese women’s behavior.

In the first of four chapters, The Lovers, the beautiful and ambitious Fumiko wishes she had asked her long-term partner not to move to the US to pursue his dream job. It’s not that she particularly wants to marry him. It’s more that she is turning twenty-eight this year, “she [has] been interrogated on many occasions by her persistent parents,” and “after her little sister got married…she [has] started to think getting married might be OK if it was to Goro.” With a little help from the café, she meets Goro in the past, and he tells her he’ll be returning to Japan in three years. All this attractive, intelligent woman has to do is wait for him. She’s thrilled.

In Husband and Wife, the reader learns that two of the cafe’s regular patrons are actually married. Kohtake is a nurse. Her husband, Fusagi, is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease and has recently begun to forget his wife. Kohtake has resigned herself to the situation: “I will care for him as a nurse. I am a nurse, so I can do that.”

The husband she meets in the past isn’t a rom com hero. He is crotchety and easily annoyed. We find out that he once threw her birthday present away simply because she asks him for it and he hates being told “to do something that he had been meaning to do himself.” Even so, anything he says to Kohtake brings back “waves of nostalgia and happiness.” 

The Fusagi of “back then” gives Kohtake a letter to read in the future. He asks that she leave him “if life becomes too hard for [her] as [his] wife.” Yet he continues that, even if he loses his memory, he wants “to be together as husband and wife.” In other words, far from releasing her, he’s telling her that a professional relationship between a man and his nurse is not sufficient for him; she must also act like his wife. For the rest of the novel, Kohtake comes into the café each day, greets Fusagi as her husband, and waits to find out whether he will treat her civilly or not. The Notebook in reverse?

The Sisters focuses on another of the café’s regulars. Hirai is the anti-feminist strawman, a woman who is willing to break down in crocodile tears to manipulate a man “because tears are a woman’s weapon.” Flouting her parents’ wishes and expectations, she abandoned the family inn for big city life as the owner of a small hostess club. For years, she has been avoiding her younger sister, now heir-apparent to the family business because surely, Hirai thinks, her sister resents being left holding the inheritance bag.

Then her sister dies. Hirai travels back in time to speak with her one last time only to discover her sister has never been resentful—she just wants to run the inn together with Hirai. Hirai agrees, though it seems like she is only trying to appease a sister who is fated to die anyway.

Then Hirai’s friends on the café staff find out about her promise. They pressure her to keep it: “How unhappy would your sister be if she knew that your promise was only made for today?” So the free-spirited twenty four year old who left home to become her own person returns to take her place as conventional first born and successor to the inn. A few weeks later, her friends receive a photo:

In the photo, Hirai [is] standing in front of the inn. With her hair in a bun, she [is] wearing a pink kimono, indicating her status as the owner of Takakura… [She is] smiling like she [does]n’t have a care in the world.

Mother and Child is perhaps supposed to be the novel’s most touching episode. Café owner Nagare and his wife Kei are expecting. Even though Kei has a heart condition and may not survive the pregnancy, she is determined to carry the pregnancy to term.

The premise that Kei will die because of her pregnancy is almost implausible. Japan has one of the very lowest maternal mortality rates in the world—five deaths per 100,000 live births. (At fourteen per 100,000 live births, the US nearly triples Japan’s maternal mortality rate.) Nevertheless, before she faces death, Kei is determined to travel to the future to meet her child.

In the future, it soon becomes clear that Kei has not survived the pregnancy. She is overwhelmed not by sorrow or regret, but by a desire to apologize to her daughter that “giving birth to [her] is the only thing [Kei] will ever be able to do for [her].” As if that isn’t enough.

Kei never seems to even consider changing her mind about the pregnancy.

Kei’s choice is certainly a brave one. But in the context of Before the Coffee Gets Cold it is also a symbol of what Japanese society has traditionally asked of women—to put their husband, then their sons, then their daughters all ahead of themselves.

North, Scott. “Negotiating What’s ‘Natural’: Persistent Domestic Gender Role Inequality in Japan” in Social Science Japan Journal, 2009.

“A Tokyo Medical School Rigged Exam Results to Favour Men. But Japan’s Sexism Problem Runs Even Deeper” at Amnesty International, 2018.

“Toward a Society Where All Women Shine: An Intensive Program to Help Women Break through the Glass Ceiling” at

“Yanagisawa Calls Women Child-Bearing Machines” at The Japan Times, 2007.

Cannibalism in Two Contemporary Japanese Novels

Futakuchi-Onna from Ehon Hyaku Monogatari (絵本百物語, “Picture Book of a Hundred Stories”)

Like many other countries, Japan has its own body of folklore with cannibalistic monsters. For more than a thousand years, demonic female yamauba have roamed Japan’s mountains, assisting some travelers, eating others. The connotations of cannibalism in Japanese folklore are always negative.

Today, cannibalism is a quietly contentious political issue in Japan. In the early 90s, historian Toshiyuki Tanaka publicized documents that he claims “clearly show that this cannibalism was done by a whole group of Japanese soldiers [during World War II], and in some cases they were not even starving.” He claimed the motive was most often “to consolidate the group feeling of the troops”—what better way to unite troops than to break a strong taboo together?

Tanaka reported that he hadn’t been able to publish his work in Japan because it was deemed “too sensitive.” As recently as 2014, many in Japan were outraged by the depiction of Japanese cannibalism in the WWII biopic Unbroken—“there was absolutely no cannibalism,” one Shinto priest claimed, “That is not our custom.”

There’s also the notorious case of Issei Sagawa, the Japanese man who killed and cannibalized a Dutch woman. He has both horrified and fascinated the public for the last thirty years and developed a kind of cult following not unlike the unsettling hero worship of Ted Bundy in the United States. After a stint in prison of only two years, he’s made a career of his notoriety. His colorful resume includes soft-core porn star and sushi critic.

And don’t forget the internet rumor that Japan passed legislation in 2014 to allow for the consumption of human flesh. (It didn’t, of course.) According to the fake news, you could now eat part of another person for as little as $120.

In each of these cases, the Japanese response to cannibalism is more or less the same as the American response. Cannibalism is perhaps the ultimate taboo, the taboo Sigmund Freud describes, fairly accurately, as the only taboo “to be universally proscribed” and “completely surmounted.”

On the other hand, Elizabeth Kenney sees cannibalistic symbolism in the Shinto funeral—for example “all the eating that goes on during the funeral rites,” including simultaneously with the cremation of the corpse, and the custom of picking through the ashes with chopsticks for bone fragments.

Kenney also claims that, even though Shinto priests aren’t “sympathetic to this practice,” multiple Japanese have reported eating bone or drinking a tea made with ashes: “We drank Grandmother’s ashes in order to keep her with us, to be joined with her.”

In the West, cannibalism as communion isn’t completely unknown either. In a Christian context, for example, it might call to mind the Christian Eucharist, when Jesus instructs his disciples, “Take this bread and eat it, for it is my body.” (Pagan Romans used false accusations against Christians to justify persecution, making Christians into an Other, as I’ll discuss in a minute.)

It’s this second idea, that cannibalism accommodates the joining of two or more people, that I want to explore.

Cannibalism as the Communion

In an influential book on the subject, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, anthropologist William Arens calls into question whether there has ever been firm, substantiable evidence of cultures that accepted the practice of cannibalism. Claims about cannibalism are an almost universal way of marking the Other, dividing the Them who eat people and the Us who do not. Arens’s claim is especially relevant in a post-colonial context because cannibalism historically “acts as a mythic justification for the dominance of colonizer over colonized.”

In ME and Earthlings, cannibalism is inverted. Instead of marking difference, it accommodates the creation of community.

ME by Tomoyuki Hishino

Japanese uses several first-person pronouns (e.g. I, me, or we). Ore, the I used in the original Japanese title of Tomoyuki Hoshino’s ME, is a gruff and almost exclusively male pronoun. The title, Ore Ore, refers to a scam young men pulled on older people, calling them to say, “It’s me,” and ask for urgently-needed money. The Japan Times estimates that, at its height, the “Ore Ore” cost Japan’s elderly $450 million a year.

The “Ore Ore” is really only a launching point for a much broader narrative. After successfully pulling the scam, Hitoshi Nagano discovers that his victim’s mother thinks he really is her son, Daiki Hiyana. Later, Hitoshi’s own mother doesn’t recognize him, and he quickly and inevitably takes on Daiki’s name and family. Thus begins the exploration of the novel’s central themes: “individualism, masculinity and nationalism” (Kidd).

Hitoshi/Daiki now meets two nearly-identical strangers, both also named Hitoshi Nagano. The trio initially form a closely-bonded group. Hitoshi/Daiki thinks, “we couldn’t help believing in ourselves, even though in our heart of hearts, each of us was distrustful of himself.” This distrust of self will become both pathological and deadly later in the novel.

In spite of this friendship, these first three MEs are fundamentally lonely. Only one of them has a girlfriend, and he breaks up with her shortly after meeting the two other MEs. Hitoshi/Daiki assures himself, “We don’t need marital partners. Our mutual understanding far exceeds any that we might have with a girlfriend or wife.” Even though they later discover female MEs, the protagonist never seriously considers a romantic relationship. We are again faced with a protagonist who, like Breasts and Egg’s Natsuko and Convenience Store Woman’s Mizuki, isn’t strongly motivated by sex or relationships.

The bond between the young men continues until their world quickly fills with ever more other MEs. One of the trio feels driven to murder his two companions, a compulsion all the MEs begin to share. The MEs start using the euphemism “to delete” in place of “to murder,” a turn of phrase that dehumanizes and calls to mind something artificial.

The situation soon turns apocalyptic, and Hitoshi/Daiki tries fleeing to the mountains outside of Tokyo. Of course, all of the other MEs have the same thought. The mountains are soon full of MEs, all deathly afraid of each other and competing for very limited sources of food. In a few months, they’re driven to cannibalism to survive.

In the chapter “Transmigration” (reincarnation), the protagonist dies an uncountable number of times. But no matter how often Hitoshi/Daiki is killed by other MEs, he is always rebirthed in the land of the living. The theology here is strongly Buddhist. Like an interminable Groundhog’s Day or some kind of purgatory, he is stuck living the same circumstances over and over again until he reaches enlightenment.

Ultimately, it is cannibalism that leads to Hitoshi/Daiki’s epiphany about the other MEs. On the brink of starvation, he tries to reach a compromise with another ME over a dead ME’s body: 

Share? Why not? Why had I not thought of that before? Why had I convinced myself of the necessity of bringing the other down? Share? Was that not a splendid idea?

It seems like pure habit when he goes back on his word not to harm the other ME—and just retribution when the other ME kills him.

This time, he finds his consciousness reborn into his dead corpse. While he is being eaten (painlessly, thank goodness), he finally comes to a realization: every time he has “deleted” and eaten another ME, he has betrayed himself. Now, though dead and voiceless, he offers himself freely to his companions:

Go ahead and eat me… every bit of me. Give my bones to the beasts anon. See to it that there is not a trace of me remaining. And if my carcass has any nutritional value, I should be grateful. Eat me. Live long and prosper. It is enough if I can contribute to your welfare.

He also realizes that, for the first time in his life, he is useful to someone.

After Hitoshi/Daiki’s consciousness moves into the body of the living ME, he has a plan. He will reconcile with the other MEs, end the “deletions,” start a communal farming project…

But he is now the only ME left on the mountain. Like “an undulating assault [comes] the absolute realization that [he is] the only one left.” The others have all deleted each other. His dreams of entering into a community with all the MEs, to reintegrate his self, cannot be realized.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

I am grateful to Grove Press for their digital review copy of Earthlings. The novel will be released in October 2020. Please note that this analysis does include spoilers.

Fans of Sayaka Murata’s other work in English will find themselves on familiar ground in Earthlings. A first person, female narrator doesn’t quite get society. Keiko (Convenience Store Woman) and Mizuki (“A Clean Marriage”) would likely sympathize with Yuki’s description of her town as “a factory for the production of human babies.” Like Murata’s other women, Yuki finds herself on the periphery of society—not so much by choice as by her failure to understand why she should follow the dictates of her culture. Again like Keiko and Mizuki, she voluntarily enters a non-sexual marriage to get representatives of “the factory” off her back.

But Earthlings is a good deal darker than Murata’s other work in English. Toward the end of the novel, Yuki, her husband, and her cousin retreat from the city for Yuki’s grandfather’s tumble-down estate. None of them are Earthlings, they decide. Instead, they are from the planet Popinpobopia, a fantasy world Yuki’s cousin shared with her when they were children. Over the course of several months, they intentionally shed their humanity. Time loses its meaning as the narrative moves into stream-of-consciousness.

Eventually, Yuki experiences sexual desire for the first time. Ever since a teacher molested her as a child, she hasn’t felt a sense of autonomy over her body and loses her sex drive; she had thought “[her] sexual urge was broken and that [she] would never in [her] life experience it again.” Now, as the boundaries between her self and her companions’ selves begin to dissolve, she begins “to feel a sexual urge forming.” Their relationship remains chaste—at least for the time being.

Then winter arrives. Unable to forage for food, they eventually turn to cannibalism to survive. Yuki realizes that this act is a final act of departure from the human community: if they do this, they will “lose any chance of ever being accepted into the Earthling fold again.”

Although cannibalism begins as a necessity, it becomes a generous act of sharing. Each of the three Popinpobopians volunteers in turn to die to nourish the others. In the end, they decide to cut away small pieces of their bodies so they can taste each other. Their cannibalism becomes a unifying force through a grotesque orgy of consuming and being consumed. It is unclear whether or not there is actual sexual contact, but it’s not actually that important. Through the act of cannibalism, they are literally joining their flesh.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Murata’s cannibalism is that it is generative. When Earthlings finally discover the three, Yuki’s husband and cousin have massively swollen bellies. They claim to be pregnant, and promise they will continue to multiply.

It’s possible Murata may be trying to normalize the practice of cannibalism—at least voluntary cannibalism. Maybe it does, as the Popinbopians claim, make logical sense. But it’s difficult to get past what Tony Milligan calls “the yuck factor.” Could Murata really expect her readers to react differently than the humans do at the end of the novel?: that is, with violent vomiting and cries that “[ring] out to the far corners of the planet, setting the forests trembling.”

So here is the claim of both novels: In an isolating society that increasingly rejects sex and personal relationships, cannibalism is the only way to have meaningful communion.

A grim apocalypse indeed.

Aoyama, Tomoko. “Cannibalism in Modern Japanese Literature” in Reading Food in Modern Japanese Literature, 2008.

Arens, William. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthrophagy, 1980.

Kenney, Elizabeth. “Shinto Mortuary Rites in Contemporary Japan” in Cashiers d’Extrême-Asie, 1996.

Kidd, James. “A Mind-Bending Exploration of Identity and the Problems of Contemporary Japan” at Post Magazine, 2017.

Mickkelson, David. “Did Tokyo Open the First Human Meat Restaurant?” at, 2017.

Milligan, 2019. “Tokyo Ghoul and the Trouble with Cannibalism” in The Metaphor of the Monster: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Understanding the Monstrous Other in Literature, 2020.

Schmitt, Bill. Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, 2018.

Spencer, Geogg. “Japan Hears of World War II Cannibalism a Half-Century Later” at, 1992.

On Female Bonding and Bathing Culture in Contemporary Japanese Women’s Writing

“The Europeans are compelled to take [a] bath in order to clean off the filth… on the contrary, bathing of the Japanese is far beyond the simple object of cleaning their body.”—T Fujimoto, 1914

“Bathhouse Women” by Torii Kiyonaga

Where the Wild Ladies Are is a loosely-connected series of short stories taking their inspiration from traditional Japanese ghost stories.

“Smartening Up” opens with an unnamed narrator giving herself a pep talk during a laser hair removal treatment. We find out later that she has been cheated on and dumped, and her coping mechanism is a mini-makeover. Specifically, she is fixated on her hair—the day her boyfriend dumped her, she had forgotten to shave.

Of course, the narrator will never look the way she dreams. She’s fantasizing about an Anglo-American standard of beauty: that she will be blond in her next life and marry “a gorgeous man with blond hair to match” and that they will “fall in love, and talk in English.”

That evening, her aunt comes calling. The visit is especially unexpected—the aunt died a year before. She is back from the grave to forcefully chastise the narrator for “deliberately weakening the power of [her] hair.” Her hair, the ghost aunt tells her, “is the only wild thing left—the one precious crop of wildness remaining to you.”

Together aunt and niece watch Take This Waltz, a 2011 romantic comedy starring Michelle Williams. The film includes a notable shower scene when six women of different ages and ethnicities bathe together. The New York Times noted that they nudity here reminds us that “young flesh will age; old flesh was once young; time wins in the end.” The film introduces bathing as a moment of female bonding, a theme the narrator returns to as the story progresses.

The aunt’s visit ends with a cryptic promise: “Let’s become monsters together.” Then, mysteriously, the narrator’s bath breaks, and she is forced to visit the neighborhood sento.

Sento as Homosocial Spaces

The Japanese have enjoyed their island nation’s hot springs for more than a thousand years. Bathing gradually became a part of most people’s daily lives, and by 1700 or so, most neighborhoods in Tokyo (Edo) had their own sento, or public bath.

As a general rule, Japanese culture has accepted nudity much more nonchalantly than Western culture. Tokugawa-era sento were most often shared between men and women. Some of the first Westerners to enter Japan were scandalized. (The Anglican Bishop of what’s now Hong Kong described sento as “one shameless throng of bathers without signs of modesty or of any apparent sense of moral decorum” and the Japanese as “one of the most licentious races in the world.”) Old Japanese bathing customs gave way to Western norms, and the Meiji government began to crack down on co-ed bathing.

As sentos became more exclusively divided by sex, they took on the role of homosocial spaces.

“Homosociality” describes relationships between people of the same sex that aren’t romantic or sexual. (There’s some argument about whether the term is appropriate for relationships between women, but I think “female bonding” isn’t really equivalent.)

A homosocial space is a physical place that limits or prohibits members of the opposite sex from entering. (We could alternatively use the term “feminotopia,” coined by American critical theorist Mary Louise Pratt for “idealized worlds of female autonomy, empowerment and pleasure.”) Historically, homosocial, women-centered spaces, provided a place of freedom from highly patriarchal contemporary Japanese culture.

Today, the Japanese recognize the importance of sento as homosocial spaces, even if they don’t identify sento that way. The Japanese speak of hadaka no tsukai, or “naked friendship.” It is, in the words of anthropologist Scott Clark, “a belief that sharing the bath and being naked together creates a situation where intimate communication can take place.

For women, nudity in homosocial spaces is particularly important. Cultural critic Emma Woolf notes, “Our visual culture is full of female nudity, but none of it is genuine”; the sento is one of the few spaces left where “real” women routinely see other “real” women, flaws and all.

An ambassador for the Tokyo Sento Association observes that, “Sento are not the Instagram world, but real life. [They’re] the reminder we all need when we’re constantly being crushed with the perfection of the [social media] world.” 

Sento As Japanese Spaces

The sento is also marked as a culture-specific space for most Japanese.

Especially since World War II, the Japanese government has supported sento as a part of Japanese cultural heritage. They’re serious about sento—government subsidies keep admission prices are fixed at less than five dollars a visit to keep bathing affordable. Clark writes about the bath in modern Japan as “a reflective discourse on being Japanese.”

There are only about 530 traditional sento in operation in Tokyo today, serving a population of thirteen million. But the idea that public bathing is disappearing is a little disingenuous; health centers, hybrids of Western-style gyms and sento, almost make up the difference.

Nevertheless, Clark notes that, “To many Japanese, the decline of the sentō represents the vanishing of a more public, communal, traditionally Japanese way of life.”

The Sento in “Smartening Up”

The sento as a homosocial space and Japanese space plays a central symbolic role in “Smartening Up.”

At the sento, the narrator remembers the truth of her aunt’s words:

I realized I didn’t think about it as “just hair” after all. Hair was a problem that I carried around with me constantly. However much I shaved or plucked, it would always grow back again… And it wasn’t just me, either—all women were prisoners of their hair.

And then, without explanation, her reverie ends with a dramatic transformation. She becomes the “monster” her aunt promised.

Every inch of her is now covered in glossy black hair.

Her response? Rapture. She has been “this amazing thing” all along.

That this powerful moment of catharsis takes place in a sento, under the gaze of other women, is important. Take This Walz has already provided the narrator with one opportunity to direct her gaze toward unadorned female nudity. As a site for female bonding, the sento has now again granted the narrator a sight of “real” women’s bodies. Away from the glare of air brushed advertisements, she can see again that there is beauty in what her culture would tell her is imperfection.

Her transformation in the sento also marks a return to Japanese-ness, both literally and symbolically. At the sento, the narrator is cursed/blessed, not with the blond hair she dreams of, but with coarser, black hair more typical of the Japanese.

Sento in Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs

Incidentally, the sisters in Breasts and Eggs visit a sento in the first part of the novel. The description is evocative:

A mom patted her baby dry at a changing table set up in the corner. Little kids darted around. Talking heads were nodding comprehendingly on a brand-new flatscreen, behind a chorus of hairdryers. The manager said hello from her perch between the changing rooms. Grandmas with stooped backs shared a couple of laughs. Women with towels wrapped around their heads sat naked on rattan chairs and chatted—the room was full of women.

The protagonist’s sister Makiko has come to visit Tokyo specifically to consult with a plastic surgeon about breast augmentation surgery. Her goal makes the two sisters hyperaware of their own and other women’s bodies.

For Natsuko, her sister’s naked body is shocking. Now unclothed, Natsuko can “see between [Makiko’s] thighs where they should have been pressed together” and that “her vertebrae and ribs, and the section of her pelvis just above her hips poked out through her skin.”

At the beginning of the novel, Natsuko mused that thinness reflects poverty. (Incidentally, that characterization is no more true of Japan than it is of the US, where low incomes correlate with higher BMI…) To Natsuko, her sister’s reedy frame demonstrates that she isn’t making ends meet with her job as (more-or-less) a cocktail waitress. One wonders whether Makiko’s desire for breast augmentation surgery stems also from a desire to appear more prosperous (fleshy) than she really is.

Regardless, the homosocial space of the sento has given Natsuko a chance to know her sister in a more intimate way.

Makiko also approaches the sento as a way to confirm her own Japanese-ness, although in this instance she doesn’t like her characteristically Japanese features. For example, she notes the pink color of another woman’s nipples and claims it’s “a miracle” for an Asian woman. Makiko has already tried to achieve this Western beauty expectation by bleaching her nipples—“first you use Tretinoin, to peel off the skin…”

The reader also sees the sisters’ hunger for the sight of other “real” women’s bodies—“without the slightest hesitation” Makiko scans the bodies of the other women at the sento “as if devouring them.”

I am grateful for the review copy of Where the Wild Ladies Are provided by the publisher. You can also read my review of Where the Wild Ladies Are at Asian Review of Books.

Clark, Scott. Japan: A View from the Bath, 1994.

–. “The Japanese Bath: Extraordinarily Ordinary” in Re-Made Japan: Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a Changing Society, ed. Joseph J. Tobin, 1994.

Cornyetz, Nina. “Matrix and Metramorphosis” in Dangerous Women, Deadly Words: Phallic Fantasy and Modernity in Three Japanese Writers, 1999.

Crossley-Baxter, Lily. “Japan’s Naked Art of Body Positivity” at, 2020.

Curry, Andrew. “Springs Eternal” in Smithsonian Magazine, 2008.

Pasin, Burkay. “Femaleness, Femininity and Feminotopia: The Female Hamam as a Homosocial Space” in Women 2000, 2013.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2007.

Woolf, Emma. The Ministry of Thin: How the Pursuit of Perfection Got Out of Control, 2014.

Wynn, Leslie. “Self-Reflection in the Tub: Japanese Bathing Culture, Identity, and Cultural Nationalism,” 2014.

Spring Garden as Photorealistic Writing

“Tokyo Station” by Onchi Koshiro via Wikimedia Commons

Recently divorced, Taro lives in a small apartment complex in a Tokyo neighborhood on the cusp of redevelopment. The complex is doomed, fated to be torn down as soon as the current residents’ leases run their course.

To the extent Tomoka Shibasaki’s Spring Garden (trans. Polly Barton) has a central narrative, that narrative revolves around Taro’s budding friendship with a fellow resident who is preoccupied with a house their complex overlooks. Decades before, the home was the setting of a book of beautiful photography.

Pushkin Press describes Spring Garden as “photorealistic.” You can feel Shibasaki’s love of place as she describes Taro’s neighborhood in painstaking detail. (In a conversation with scholar Kendall Heitzman, Shibasaki described how one of her favorite activities “is to conjecture about streets and buildings.”) According to Heitzman, Shibasaki’s work is “nearly always hyperdetailed.”

The way Shibasaki approaches her narrative worlds is very different than, say, Murakami or Morimi. Murakami and Morimi are interested in using narrative to construct meaning; Shibasaki is not. Taro tries and fails to make a cohesive story out of the abandoned buildings in his neighborhood:

The people who constructed these buildings must have had some kind of mission they wished the buildings to fulfil, some form of hope for them, but looking at the area in general, it was hard to see any kind of communality or purpose at all. It seemed more like the place was the result of everyone’s individual ideas and contingent circumstances commingling, all their little details then driving them further from one another over time.

As it is for the narrator of Shibasaki’s short story “Right Here, Right Now,” Taro’s “way forward” is “not in the ability to create a unified narrative, but in the act of remembering and practicing empathy in multiple times and multiple places at once” (Heitzman).

Heitzman, Kendall. “Shibasaki Tomoka’s Literature of Location,” in U.S.—Japan Women’s Journal, 2017.

God’s Plot Conveniences: The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl

“Shiei Flying on a Carp” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
via Wikimedia Commons

The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is an essentially simple story. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy chases girl. Girl is oblivious.

Simple. Until you add in the triple-decker train, a tengu demon, and the God of Used Book Fairs. As in Morimi’s other novel published in English, Penguin Highway, the real in The Night Is Short… is fundamentally magical.

The Night Is Short… is a wonderful novel. It has two strengths I’d like to focus on.

First, The Night Is Short… takes up some of the same themes as Japanese novels more widely recognized as “literary.” In particular, it shares with Harumi Murakami’s Killing Commendatore reflections about the narratives we make of our own lives. As Rebecca Suter writes of Murakami, “the characters are invested with the task of rearranging fragments of reality into narrative form.”

Unlike the unnamed narrator of Killing Commendatore, Morimi’s unnamed hero isn’t tasked with making meaning out of another reality. He must make sense of four separate and interrelated incidents in the course of a college student’s academic year.

In the novel’s opening words, the hero tells us, “This isn’t my story, but hers.” It’s the story of the black-haired maiden with whom he has fallen in love. 

We soon learn that the hero isn’t satisfied staying outside of the heroine’s story. He wants to become more than “a pebble by the wayside”—a minor, almost invisible prop in someone else’s tale. He concocts convoluted scheme after scheme to bring himself closer to the woman of his dreams. To him, the events of the novel, particularly at the beginning, are merely random occurrences that get in his way.

Compare the hero with our heroine. While the hero continually tries to “seize [his] happy ending,” the heroine allows events to unfold in front of her. Through her openness to experience, “some wind of fate” has “placed her in a major role.”

You could perhaps call The Night Is Short… a lighthearted romp through Buddhist principles of interdependence, impermanence, and interconnectedness. (Japanese-American author and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki takes up these same themes in her work, including her extraordinary A Tale for the Time Being.) Each event that takes place, each character our romantic leads encounter, brings them together in improbable, fantastical ways.

If the novel has a moral, it is this: life is the chaos that ensues when what’s in our control crashes into what isn’t. To find meaning in life is to find meaning in this chaos. The task of human life is, in the hero’s closing words, “Do all you can and then wait for providence.”


(Of course, in a fictional world, there are no real coincidences, only what Morimi playfully calls “plot conveniences.” The author himself is the “god” Mr. Higuchi describes who is “orchestrating all these mysteries.”)

(And why, we might ask, do all of the novel’s magical elements revolve around a mysterious Mr. Rihaku, who shares his name with one of China’s most celebrated poets?)

A second strength, at least to a Western reader, is the novel’s profuse Japaneseness. I’m hard pressed to think of other Japanese novel so tightly tied to its particular time and place. The Night Is Short… is full of more and less obscure (to a Westerner) references to facts of life unique to Japan and Japanese culture. It’s a novel that demands a certain investment in Japan.

Readers will encounter such features of Japanese life as…

  • 404 Recognized Diseases—A Buddhist idea. The 404 diseases break down into four groups: untreatable diseases resulting from a person’s karma, diseases caused by evil spirits, diseases resulting from childhood experiences, and superficial diseases. As our hero notes, lovesickness isn’t a recognized disease.
  • Asada Ame—A popular Japanese cough drop brand.
  • Benkei Musashibo—A late Heian Era warrior monk who withstood an onslaught of hundreds of arrows before dying on his feet (i.e., falling over dead).
  • Benzaiten—The Japanese goddess of everything that flows. Examples include water, music, and eloquence. She is also associated with femininity and love.
  • Daruma doll—One of the novel’s most important recurring images, a daruma doll is modeled after the founder of Zen Buddhism. It is a symbol of perseverance and good luck, both of which the hero needs to enter a relationship with the girl he loves. Note the resemblance between the doll and an apple, another important motif.
  • Duralumin—An alloy of aluminum and copper.
  • Glass Mask—A highly popular shojo manga about the metaphorical masks actors wear to express emotions that are not their own.
  • Goemon Ishikawa—A semi-legendary outlaw hero portrayed in many classic kabuki plays.
  • Hibonsha World Encyclopedia—Now entirely online, this encyclopedia was first published in 1988. It is supposedly the world’s most complete, up-to-date encyclopedia in Japanese.
  • “I intended to take them with me as a souvenir”—An old samurai saying equivalent to, “If I die, I’m taking you with me.” Side note: souvenirs are an important part of Japanese culture. Vacationers are expected to return home with small tokens for family, friends, and co-workers.
  • Junpairo—I can find no evidence such a medicine has ever existed.
  • Kabuki—Popular Japanese theater perfected in the late 17th and mid-18th centuries. It has special ties to Kyoto, Japan’s former capital and the setting of The Night Is Short…
  • Kamen Rider V3—A 1974, one-season Japanese TV show about a motorcycle-riding cyborg.
  • Kami—Not explicitly mentioned in the book, but implicit throughout. A kami is a sort of divine presence that infuses everything. Rivers. Lakes. Forces of nature. Used book fairs
  • The King of Demons—I’m guessing the Japanese word here is mao. It’s a word Japan’s first “Great Unifier” Odo Nobunaga used to describe himself. It is also the word used for Satan in Japanese translations of the Bible.
  • Koi—Basically big goldfish. Koi are closely associated with Japanese culture as symbols of prosperity and good fortune. They are not normally sucked up by tornados, which do, believe it or not, strike Japan on occasion.
  • Lucky cats (maneki-neko)—The little cat statues that beckon you into Japanese restaurants. In modern Japanese superstition, these waving cats are talismans of good fortune. Maneki neko are also popular with many Chinese merchants, leading to the misnomer “Chinese lucky cat.”
  • Namahage—Demon-like beings who visit children at the New Year to encourage good behavior. The best cultural equivalent is probably the threat of coal in a Westerner’s Christmas stocking. Or the Krampus. Creepy as hell.
  • Namu-namu—As far as I can tell, a pseudo-religious invocation unique to The Night Is Short… reminiscent of the Nichiren Buddhist prayer “Namu myoho renge kyo” (“devotion to the mystic law of the Lotus Sutra”). Namu-namu also calls to mind Pure Land Buddhism; adherents chant the name (in Japanese) of Amitabha Buddha as a form of meditation. Japanese religious practice is syncretic in the extreme, but Pure Land is considered the most widely practiced tradition by the 70% of Japanese who self-identify as Buddhist.
  • Netsuke—One of the only “Japanisms” Morimi describes in context: “a small sculpture.” The netsuke was invented in the 17th century to serve the same function as a man-purse.
  • Obon or Bon Festival—One of Japan’s most important holidays, a kind of Buddhist-Confucian reunion with family, both living and dead.
  • Ozaki Yutaka—A Japanese pop sensation active in the 80s. He “represented the angst of adolescence” for Japan’s young people until his mysterious death in 1992.
  • Pocari Sweat—A Japanese sports drink never marketed in the US, perhaps because the name sounds nauseating in English.
  • Rihaku—The Japanese name for the Classical Chinese poet Li Bai, who lived from 701-762. Many of the novel’s magical elements revolve around the mysterious, bigger-than-life Rihaku. (Incidentally, Rihaku is also an absolutely delicious Junmai ginjo sake sold in the US as Wandering Poet.)
  • Shayokan—A museum dedicated to the life of Osamu Dazai, one of Japan’s most celebrated modern writers. Like many of Japan’s celebrated writers, Dazai committed suicide at a relatively young age.
  • Shochu—A Japanese distilled beverage less potent than vodka, but more potent than wine or sake. It’s typically distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, or brown sugar.
  • Shunga—Naughty pictures. Proto-porn. Magazines sold behind the counter. Definitely NSFW.
  • Tatami—Straw mat flooring in Japanese-style rooms. Tatami come in standard sizes, twice as long as they are wide. It’s normal to give square-footage of Japanese rooms by the number of tatami a room would fit.
  • Tengu (“heavenly sentinel”)—A yokai, or supernatural monster. In most accounts, the tengu has the power to stir up great winds.
  • Ukiyo-e—“Pictures from the floating world” or maybe “Japanese-style painting.” Subjects include kabuki actors, geisha, landscapes, and shunga (see above).
  • Yukata—A thin cotton, kimono-like garment worn in the summer. When in Japan, a relatively inexpensive souvenir. 
  • Yuzu Bath—A traditional treat for the Winter Solstice. Yuzu is an Asian citrus fruit resembling a small grapefruit. Bathing with yuzu is supposed to bring good fortune and ward off evil.

Sutter, Rebecca. “The Artist as a Medium and the Artwork as Metaphor in Murakami Haruki’s Fiction” in Japan Forum, 2020.

Ty, Eleanor. “‘A Universe of Many Worlds’: An Interview with Ruth Ozeki” in Melus, 2013.

More by Tomihiko Morimi: Penguin Highway