Books

Mark the new year with a commitment to books on Japan

by Iain Maloney

Contributing Writer

It’s the time to be thinking about new year resolutions: Lose a few pounds, finish that DIY project, finally get down to studying for the JLPT. Whatever it might be, some resolutions are easier to make than keep. If you want to see out the next 12 months without breaking your resolve, it’s best to pick something fun and attainable. I suggest reading more books about Japan and Japanese authors in translation. Here’s a selection of what’s coming our way in 2019.

January is a busy month for Japan-related publishing. While the rest of us are recovering from New Year’s eve, Harvill Secker is celebrating Haruki Murakami’s 70th birthday with its paperback and e-book reissue of a short story, coincidentally titled “Birthday Girl.” This year should also see two Nobel literature laureates announced, after the postponement of the award in 2018, so expect heavy speculation on a Murakami win.

At the same time, Japan Times’ alumnus and scholar Jeff Kingston has penned a new “compact and lively book” looking at Japan in the 21st century. “Japan” will be released by Polity and promises to be a must-read for anyone concerned about the future of this country. No fan of the Abe administration, expect Kingston to offer salient criticism in clear prose.

Fans of fiction in translation can while away the winter nights with “Murder in the Crooked House” by Soji Shimada, newly translated by Louise Heal Kawai (Pushkin Press), a classic murder mystery complete with a remote mansion, a murdered party guest and a clever detective.

“The Little House” by Kyoko Nakajima (Darf Publishers), translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, rounds off the month. Set at the beginning of the Showa Era (1926-89) before militarism has taken control, this Naoki Prize-winning novel promises a powerful evocation of the period with a startling ending.

In February, Morgan Giles’ translation of Yu Miri’s, “Tokyo Ueno Station” (Tilted Axis Press) is guaranteed to help us through the most depressing month of the year. Epic in scope, spanning much of the 20th century, it tells the story of Kazu, a man whose has known little but hardship. As a boy fisherman in Fukushima Prefecture, a laborer for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a homeless squatter in Ueno Park and finally a victim of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake his life maps the harsh flipside of Japan’s economic miracle and subsequent slump.

Spring brings a new Hideo Yokoyama, “Prefecture D” (Riverrun). “Seventeen” was one of my favorite books of 2018, so this is high on my list. It is a collection of four novellas set in the same world as “Six Four,” and sure to be another success.

Continuing one of the most productive relationships in translation, Juliet Winters Carpenter’s latest from Minae Mizumura’s oeuvre, “Inheritance from Mother,” is out in paperback from Other Press in April. A moving and complex story, it explores the roles of women in Japan through a difficult mother-daughter dynamic.

April also sees a new Yukio Mishima translation. “Star” (New Directions, trans. Sam Bett) is a novella that riffs on a number of classic Mishima themes — celebrity, masks and public appearances — this time from the perspective of a movie star.

Suzanne Kamata’s new novel “Indigo Girl” (GemmaMedia, May) is the story of 15- year-old cerebral palsy-sufferer Aiko, raised in the U.S. by her American mother, who goes to meet her estranged biological father in rural Japan. A tale of culture-clash, family secrets and identity, this promises to be a sensitive and complex novel.

In June, Ezra F. Vogel’s study of the Sino-Japanese relations down the centuries, “China and Japan: Facing History” (Belknap Press), delves into a relationship that has been key to security in the Asia-Pacific sphere and could also be defining for the 21st century. Vogel argues that the two nations need to overcome past differences and learn how to become better neighbors.

Another year, another Yoko Ogawa. A firm fixture of the J-lit calendar, this time Harvill Secker is bringing out Stephen Snyder’s translation of “The Memory Police,” a heated thriller for the hottest month.

July also brings us a welcome addition to Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 music book series, with “Cornelius’s Fantasma.” “Fantasma,” the 1997 album by Flipper’s Guitar founder Keigo Oyamada has gone on to be hugely influential. Martin Roberts tells the story of the Tokyo music scene of the ’90s and how Oyamada, as Cornelius, took the sound international.

Disappointingly, I can find no hint of new translations of Hideo Furukawa, Fuminori Nakamura or, surprisingly, either Hiromi or Mieko Kawakami, regular features of the recent publishing schedule. Hopefully books are in the works and will be dropped as early Christmas presents in the latter half of 2019. If not: Hint, hint commissioning editors, there are hungry readers keen to keep their new year resolutions.