One of the most memorable characters in modern Japanese literature is not Japanese. Sugihara, the 17-year-old narrator of “Go,” by Kazuki Kaneshiro, is a third-generation Zainichi Korean in his last year of high school. Son of a North Korean ex-boxer and shrewdly adept at silencing bullies, Sugihara has “betrayed” his ancestry to enter a Japanese high school after following North Korean education at a Chongryon- (association for Zainichi in Japan) affiliated junior high.
Written with poignant authenticity — the author, Kaneshiro, is an ethnic Korean, born and raised in Saitama Prefecture — Sugihara’s melded worldview on his family, his friendships, his brush with tragedy and his love for a Japanese girl became a runaway best-seller, won the 2000 Naoki Prize and was quickly adapted into an award-winning film in 2001.
On Feb. 1, “Go” was published in English by AmazonCrossing, and translator Takami Nieda is excited to introduce Sugihara to audiences outside of Asia. As Nieda explains, “Sugihara is so complex — he’s not a victim, although he faces a lot of adversity and discrimination, yet he always seems to meet prejudice head-on. It was a kind of narrative that I really wished had existed for me when I was growing up in New Jersey as a Japanese-American.”
In today’s globalized world, Sugihara’s brash strength and ironic humor against a clash of cultures is arguably what earned him so many fans in Japan, particularly in a society that doesn’t usually celebrate the nail that sticks out. “The overwhelming narratives (in Japan) seem to be about enduring and the Japanese notion of ‘gaman‘ is a prevalent theme in Japanese-American fiction.” Nieda explains, “But those narratives didn’t really speak to me when I was younger: I really wanted to find a teen whom I could relate to, one who tackled prejudices openly, like Sugihara does.”
Nieda’s first challenge was to emulate Sugihara’s voice on paper, a fast-paced teenage interior monologue written in the first-person. Nieda was surprised to find the translation came easily.
“Sugihara is at turns angry, rebellious and sarcastic, but all those attributes weren’t so hard to capture because it’s very similar to my own voice. I could probably translate in that voice all day long,” she laughs. “His vocabulary, his syntax, it just came out very naturally.”
Once she started work, Nieda appealed directly to Kaneshiro, connecting with him on Twitter to seek translation rights. “I think I convinced him by how much I personally connected to the novel and to Sugihara,” she admits.
In 2015, Nieda won a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to complete the project and, in the seven years it took her to find a publisher, she had ample time to perfect Sugihara’s voice: “He’s a fighter and a tough guy, yet he’s a bookworm that connects to his friends and love interest through classical jazz or classics of literature. He loves old films, rakugo, (the Japanese art of comedic storytelling), Bruce Lee and Bruce Springsteen … I found it deeply touching that he drew strength and wisdom from so many diverse sources outside of his own background. It seems to encapsulate the world he is trying to imagine for himself, a world that is inclusive, that can find inspiration beyond the boundaries of Japanese or Korean culture.”
She admits the challenges were in the subtext, in “capturing the underlying vulnerability hidden beneath all of his intelligence and sarcasm. There’s a hint of tears in his narrative voice, of pain that will float to the surface despite all his braggadocio.”
Nieda credits Kaneshiro who “trusted (her) to capture Sugihara’s voice” and AmazonCrossing, who has opened up a new path for literary translators by offering an open submission portal: “AmazonCrossing seems driven by a sense of personal literary taste that is rare unless you go to a boutique publisher.”
Nieda is not worried that the passage of time has diminished Sugihara’s power to connect. The cross-cultural themes are universal and, with heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the current emphasis on boundaries and otherness, it is a perfect time to meet the hotheaded yet vulnerable young Korean who took Japan by storm.
“I think English audiences will be drawn to the novel’s exploration of identity and discrimination where a young man is just trying to find his place in the world.” Nieda says, “When we put Sugihara’s struggles against the backdrop of what’s currently happening, it does add a relevant and important layer to the storytelling.”