Books

Red Circle Authors: Sending Japanese literature westward

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Red Circle Authors, a unique endeavor in the publishing world, aims to connect East and West through literature. As founders and directors Koji Chikatani and Richard Nathan explained in a recent interview with The Japan Times, Red Circle Authors is not strictly a publishing firm, nor is it an agency. Rather, they see it as a “home” for a group of established Japanese and Japan-based writers, helping to promote their work overseas while heightening overall awareness of the great depth and breadth of Japanese literature in the process.

“We think of ourselves as curators for the museum of contemporary Japanese literature,” explains Nathan. “We’ve gathered a select group of Japan-based authors, looking at a mixture of age, genre and gender. We built an English profile for each author, adding announcements and facts about each author to make them more accessible to Western readers and publishers.”

To house all the information, Chikatani and Nathan built an extensive website in English featuring an online magazine, The Circle, which offers news and views on Japan, articles on a wide range of Japanese literature, and a searchable “factbook,” an encyclopedic wellspring of knowledge on literary Japan. The website also showcases Red Circle’s debut six authors: Kazufumi Shiraishi, Randy Taguchi, Fuminori Nakamura, Mitsuyo Kakuta, Kanji Hanawa and Roger Pulvers.

With the Nov. 23 launch of “Red Circle Minis,” a short story series, where, so far, three of the authors have contributed an original story in English, the company hopes to create an evolving sphere of reference and influence for Japanese literature that will be distributed to a global audience. More information will be added weekly and over time, so will more authors.

Red Circle’s ethos is reflected in its name. “We deliberately moved past Red Circle Books or Red Circle Publishers because we wanted to take the author’s perspective, to understand our authors and to provide them with a home where they can be well represented in English for overseas readers,” says Nathan.

As Chikatani explains, differences in the traditional world of Japanese publishing sometimes prevent writers from having more than one book in English translation. “If you look at the Japanese authors published overseas, it’s quite fragmented,” he says. “What often happens is that an author wins a prize and part of the prize is funding the translation of the book. The book is then published overseas, but it will only be one title. It’s opportunity, not market, driven and often not sufficient to generate sustainable demand for an author’s works.

“For the overseas publisher, it’s not a huge risk for them to publish a Japanese prize-winning author if the translation is already paid for and everything is packaged for them by a Japanese publishing company,” continues Chikatani. “Yet to really grow an author’s career overseas and build a brand and identity around that author, you need to publish more than one book.”

Another challenge in the publishing world here is that authors typically do not work with agents, nor are they connected to one single publishing house, thus making it difficult for overseas publishers to get rights to the books.

As Nathan explains, “We wanted to find a way that was collaborative and open with the Japanese publishing world. A lot of people in the industry are doing really good things, but we thought, ‘Can we try a slightly different approach that may be better for some authors — more strategic and longterm?'”

Together, Chikatani and Nathan combine more than 50 years of experience in global publishing. Bringing together their own circles of influence is another reason the Red Circle name resonates. “Our company is founded around the concept of sharing and collaboration,” says Nathan. “We’ve known each other for 20 years, but we each have our own skill sets, our own networks. We both have other, full-time jobs, so we describe this as our passion project. Publishing success is all about passionate people, and we’re passionate about bringing quality Japanese authors to an English audience.”

Since working together briefly in the 1990s at the Tokyo office of Nature, the international journal of science, Chikatani has specialized in international rights management and translation through his work at Japan’s TranNet KK. Nathan moved into the business side of publishing, initially responsible for developing Nature’s international activities and then working as head of strategy and mergers and acquisitions for Macmillan (Nature’s owner), before starting his own consulting firm. The two men kept in touch, meeting at international book fairs around the world, and gradually their shared passion for Japanese literature led them to starting Red Circle Authors.

Nathan compares their concept to a radical Japanese abstract art movement known as the Gutai Art Association (1954-72), an artists’ collective founded by Jiro Yoshihara that is sometimes dubbed “the Jackson Pollocks of Japan.” “The idea of forming a group or circle of authors really resonates in Japan,” says Nathan. “The Gutai garnered worldwide attention and a lot of that was due to their status as a group.

Because of the dearth of information in English online about current Japanese literature, their website has already attracted global notice. “We’ve been getting publishers contacting us already, even a librarian from Berlin. Since English is the global language of publishing, our website is calling attention to what’s happening now in Japanese literature,” says Nathan.

With such an auspicious start, the two are cautiously optimistic. “We hope to continue growing our circles, adding new authors, expanding and increasing the profile of these authors and Japanese literature in general. It’s the idea of creating circles that come together and interact and grow together that keeps us excited,” concludes Nathan.

For more information about Red Circle Authors and its upcoming publications, visit www.redcircleauthors.com.

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