Revving up the metabolism of culture with the pulse of new artistic voices, a good literary journal doesn’t usually have much to do with profit — it’s all about circulation. Japanese literary journals enjoy a healthy transmission here, thanks to the financial backing of big publishing firms. How do English literary journals fare?
One newcomer to the world of literary journals in Japan is an old hand at literature, and straddles both financial spheres, running a Japanese journal as a commercial enterprise with the English version supported by sponsorship. Motoyuki Shibata, a former University of Tokyo professor, has been translating for over 25 years. His first foray into literary journalism produced Monkey Business, a Japanese journal started in 2007.
In 2010, Shibata teamed up with Ted Goossen, a professor at York University, to create an English version featuring the best bits of the Japanese Monkey Business.
“There are lots of those kinds of annual anthologies in the United States, the best of short stories, so Ted and I translated our favorite stories from Monkey Business and created an issue, and then went to look for a publisher.” Shibata explains.
They found one — and generous support — through The Nippon Foundation, a philanthropic organization that promotes “social innovation.” True to Shibata’s vision, the English Monkey Business shares the best in contemporary literature from established and emerging writers. It continues to thrive, with a spring launch in New York every year and an autumn tour overseas, though the original Japanese version folded in 2011, succeeded by a new magazine simply titled Monkey.
“Since we don’t have to worry financially with Monkey Business,” Shibata adds, “it’s more a mission of spreading good news on Japanese literature to English-speaking countries. We take two to three Japanese writers to North America in the spring and autumn and invite a couple American writers as well, so most events take place in the form of dialogues between American and Japanese authors.”
Other established English journals in Japan have seen sponsorships or university support ebb in recent years. Thanks to digital technology, however, they’re alive and kicking. The longest-running English-language literary magazine in Japan, Poetry Kanto, traces its origins back to the 1960s, with the founding of the Kanto Poetry Center as part of Kanto Gakuin University. Conceived as a cross-cultural, bilingual bridge of poetry, Poetry Kanto started annual publication in 1984, and celebrates its 30th issue later this fall, though it became a digital publication in 2013 after the closing of the poetry center at Kanto Gakuin. The 2014 edition, with a lineup of 16 poets, spans several countries and includes two Japanese poets in translation and two writing in English.
Another Japan mainstay, the nonprofit quarterly Kyoto Journal, is also adjusting to changing times. It was started in 1986 by editor and designer John Einarsen, and went digital in 2010.
“Our goal is to create a true interactive magazine formatted so that it can be available from the big distributors, and we are right in the middle of this evolution,” says Einarsen. “It’s exciting, but it is a real struggle, as we are all volunteers juggling work and our passion for doing this.”
The award-winning Kyoto Journal, celebrated for its distinctive aesthetic and wide range of literary and artistic content, was honored last year with the Commissioner’s Award by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs.
“I think one reason we’ve been successful is that we’ve been able to attract sustained good content over the years,” comments Einarsen, “and that content attracts other writers and more readers.”
Einarsen also credits “good chemistry” between the editors, and the experience they’ve gained from the Kyoto Journal has led to a publishing branch, Heian-kyo Media. With the aim of publishing at least one book a year to help finance the Kyoto Journal, it has already published three with a fourth in the works.
Another acclaimed journal, Asia Literary Review, is also moving into digital after years of sponsorship. Director and editor-in-chief Martin Alexander explains: “The print copy is important, but it is a broken model and the maths do not add up. Print is now just another version of our content. We can have the web platform, we can have print on demand, we can have the digital version — and all these are just different ways of sharing our content.”
ALR started as the journal of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival in 2004, and was generously supported by the philanthropist Ilyas Khan until two years ago, when Alexander and Phillip Kim, ALR’s finance director, bought the journal for “a nominal sum.” Alexander and Kim hope to create a true “platform” for creative interaction.
“ALR is about identity and recognition so that people will recognize an authentic voice, true to their own experiences in Asia,” says Alexander.
ALR features a wide range of literature, from nonfiction to poetry, extending across Asia. It will team up with acclaimed Australian literary journal Griffith Review for an August 2015 New Asia issue, further spreading Asian literary culture.
The popularity of contemporary Japanese literature obviously beats on, as British literary journal great Granta published a special Japan edition in spring — and it became one of Granta’s best-sellers in recent history. Shibata sums it up best: “We wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t fun — interacting with authors and spreading contemporary Japanese literature into the world context of literature.”