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In publishing, the modern girls have it

by Janet Ashby

World Cup fever may have taken over the Japanese media, but the bookstores are full of books on language and education. The sales of books for learning English are perhaps connected to spring and its association in Japan with the beginning of the academic year and the hiring of new employees by the corporate world. A fun-to-read grammar book, “Big Fat Cat no sekai ichi kantan na eigo no hon” (Big Fat Cat’s World’s Easiest English Book) has sold over 1.5 million copies, while a book on keeping a diary in English and a colloquial phrase book from Pia, “Bera Bera Book,” have also become best sellers.

The recent celebrity of Takashi Saito, an associate professor of education at Meiji University, and the popularity of his books on Japanese, however, would seem to be part of the wider concern in Japan now with the proper education of children, as seen in the history-textbook controversy last year, debate over university education and protests over the introduction of “yutori kyoiku” (“education with latitude”) in the public schools this spring. Such education-related titles include “Todaisei wa baka ni natta ka” (Have Todai Students Become Dumber?), “Diagaku kaikaku” (University Reform), “Kyoiku kaikaku no genso” (The Fantasy of Education Reform), “Yutori kyoiku ga kuni o horobosu” (“Yutori” Education Will Ruin the Country), and “Gakuryoku ga abunai” (Academic Ability at Risk).

Saito’s collection of short reading passages from Japanese classics, “Koe ni dashite yomitai nihongo” (Japanese You’ll Want to Read Aloud), has become a million-seller; after its success he published his own Japanese-language textbook, “Riso no kokugo kyokasho” (Ideal Textbook of Japanese), and a book detailing the reading method he teaches in his own juku, “Sanshoku ball pen de yomu nihongo” (Reading Japanese With a Three-Color Ball-point Pen). The latter involves students reading passages and underlining very important sentences in red, fairly important ones in blue, and interesting ones in green.

I must admit that after all the respectful media coverage of Saito’s call for a return to the classics, to memorization, and to breathing exercises and other physical training, it was a relief to come across a contrarian view in Shukan Asahi (May 31). The anonymous author notes that if, as Saito asserts, the keys to the revival of Japan are old-fashioned language skills and the physical education of its children, then we should be emulating North Korea where children march in the streets reciting praise of the state. He feels the real problem is not any collapse of Japanese education or decline in academic ability, but rather true believers who are absolutely convinced that they, and they alone, have the correct answer.

He concludes that while it is inevitable that certain literary classics will no longer strike a chord with modern readers, there is no lack of lively Japanese around us now, citing children he has heard on the way home from school doing a Japanese reggae song from memory.

Another critic who can be relied on for an intriguingly alternative view of things is Minako Saito. In her latest book, “Bunsho Dokuhon-san e” (To Mr. Bunsho Dokuhon), she analyzes the authoritarian and hierarchical assumptions underlying the teaching of writing skills in Japan, both in the “bunsho dokuhon” (samples for studying writing style) of famous authors and in the teaching of composition in schools from the Meiji Era.

Saito is also featured in what will be the final issue of the literary magazine Hata Yo, as it is ceasing publication with the May issue. Here she describes, in contrast to the sad state of Japanese literature in general, a flourishing genre of women’s fiction that she calls L-Bungaku, for “lady,” “love” and “lib” (as in the women’s liberation movement). Representative authors are Kaori Ekuni, whose novels are reliable mid-level best sellers; Hiromi Kawakami, winner of many literary prizes and author of the well-regarded “Sensei no kaban” (Teacher’s Briefcase) last year; and Naoki Prize winners Setsuko Shinoda, Fumio Yamamoto and Kei Yuikawa.

Saito sees the genre as the older sister of the girls’ books (“shojo shosetsu”) of the postwar period; translated works such as “Little Women” and the Anne of Green Gable books emphasizing female friendship and autonomy and then, from the late 1970s, commercial girl’s books produced in Japan, such as the Cobalt “bunko” books from Shueisha. Despite the huge readership of the Cobalt books and similar series from other publishers, and their financial contribution to the bottom line, such books have been ignored by male literary critics (although some have read “shojo manga,” or girls’ comics) and by the writers of Japan’s publishing history.

After winning the Naoki Prize earlier this year, Yuikawa looked back at her apprenticeship writing four Cobalt novels a year, 26 in all, noting the value of immediate feedback in letters from fans and having to write with readers firmly in mind — in the fiercely competitive world of shojo shosetsu authors soon fell by the wayside if their books weren’t interesting and readable. And an editor at bunko publishing house Kadokawa’s Beans points out the special nature of the shojo shosetsu world, which has to be slightly fanatical with highly original plot twists while still recognizably the real world of the reader (Aera, Feb. 4).

Thus male critics, unfamiliar with such girls’ books, hailed the unconventional use of language and odd touches like the father who decides to dress and act like a mother in Banana Yoshimoto’s debut work, “Kitchen.” Female readers, on the other hand, found such elements familiar.

In Hata Yo, Saito also provides a chronological table of “modern girl” literature, 1980-2001, and three-book reading hits for such themes as OL life, the year of decision at around 24 years of age, man vs. career, lively coeds, truth and lies of love, broken families, sisters, female lovers and grandmothers. In addition, special sections look at the development of the women’s market in TV dramas, manga and popular music in the 1980s and 1990s.