Have Japanese novelists lost touch with readers?

by Janet Ashby

The fading interest in reading among younger Japanese first caused alarm several years ago in Japan, but I was recently startled to see a full page devoted to the topic in The New York Times’ Book Review section (Dec. 10).

In the article “The Rising Sun Sets on Japanese Publishing,” Howard French details the decline of Japanese publishing through its golden age in the 1950s and 1960s, the manga boom of the 1970s and 1980s, the loss of general interest in serious literature, and, most importantly, the rise of consumer electronics. People are reading less each year and increasingly more commuters spend their time on the train with electronic games or cell phones rather than a book or magazine. He cites a publishing executive who says that the only thing really selling in Japan now is sensationalism or sentimental tales of triumph over adversity.

Certainly the Japanese book scene in 2000 — as seen both in overall sales and in the year’s best sellers — is a depressing one. As reported in Shuppan News (third issue in December), combined book and magazine sales were down for the fourth consecutive year: minus 0.7 percent in 1997, 2.3 percent in 1998, 2.3 percent in 1999 and 3.1 percent in 2000 (as of October). Not surprisingly, publishers and retailers are groping for new partnerships and ways of doing business, as seen in several new ventures for bookselling via the Internet, including Amazon.com Japan. In addition, eight publishers have established a Web site to sell electronic versions of out-of-print bunko titles.

In other publishing news, numerous titles commemorated the 30th anniversary of the death of Mishima Yukio, many new bunko series were established, the discount used-book chain Book-Off grew, and the industry took an anticensorship stance amid efforts to crack down on juvenile crime.

The best sellers of the year were dominated by inspirational memoirs like “Dakara, Anata mo Ikinuite” by Ohira Mitsuyo (1.91 million copies sold), in which the author describes her childhood struggles to overcome ijime and her efforts to leave behind life as a yakuza wife and become a lawyer, and “Gotai Fumanzoku” by wheelchair-bound Ototake Hirotada (4.94 million); self-help and relationship books like “Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps” by Allan and Barbara Pease (1.1 million, a best seller in 21 countries!), ” ‘Suteru’ Gijutsu” by Tatsumi Nagisa (1.1 million) and “Children Learn What They Live” by Dorothy Law Nolte (950,000); video-game guides; and new-religion related titles. Two recent confessional best sellers are “Inochi,” in which novelist Yu Miri tells how she became a single mother while caring for a dying former lover, and “Platonic Sex” by former porno actress Ijima Ai.

The only fiction in the top 20 sellers is “Harry Potter,” the first two volumes of which have sold over 2 million copies in Japan. Two literary best sellers during the year were “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink and “Kami no Kodomotachi wa Mina Odoru,” a collection of short stories by Murakami Haruki.

Judging by the retrospective surveys of the year in literature in the three major newspapers (Asahi, Mainichi and Yomiuri), there was no particularly outstanding trend or literary title. Several commentators expressed dissatisfaction with the movement toward social commentary by Murakami Haruki and Murakami Ryu, dismissing the latter’s “Kibo no Kuni no Exodus” (in which junior-high school students rebel and form a semi-autonomous state) as interesting in its ideas but a failure as a novel.

In a conversation between literary critic Fukuda Kazuya and mystery writer Kasai Kiyoshi in DaVinci (Jan. 2001), Kasai remarks that Murakami Ryu has consistently rebelled against the complacent status quo but this has lost its effectiveness in a time when the status quo itself is falling apart.

As for the younger generation of novelists, Kasai feels that on the whole the level is higher among mystery writers than literary novelists. He finds the works of Kyogoku Natsuhiko, a favorite of DaVinci readers, to be of world-class quality although his historical mysteries — written in a baroque and pedantic style somewhat similar to Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” — do not lend themselves to translation.

Fukuda notes that literary novelists are protected by an insular world of literary-prize committees and magazines. He thinks they have to make more of an effort to reach the average reader, to consider whether their works are really contemporary and speaking to people today.

In a discussion of the future of Japanese literature in Dokushojin (Dec. 22), Suga Hidemi expresses similar sentiments, wondering if most literary novelists today aren’t writers who are insignificant to the majority of Japanese. At least in terms of readership, Murakami’s “Exodus” and Yu Miri’s “Inochi” have some relevance to readers, even if they aren’t superior literary works.

The most extensive list of recommended books for the year is a Litteraire bessatsu, “Ichiosi Guide 2001.” The latest edition of “Kono Mystery ga Sugoi” is also available now, and the annual selection by Shukan Bunshun of the year’s best mysteries can be found in the Dec. 28 issue. The January issue of DaVinci has a more eclectic and trendy selection of the year’s best by its readers, as well as such oddities as responses to queries on the best-looking authors, authors most suited to cross-dressing and authors who seem like they’d be good at karaoke.