Nahoko Uehashi revolutionized the fantasy genre in Japan with her naturalistic works of fiction, using her background as a cultural anthropologist to craft realistic imaginary worlds that garnered her legions of fans across genders and ages.
First published in 1989 with “The Sacred Tree” while still a graduate student, Uehashi continued her work as a full-time professor of cultural anthropology for decades as she tirelessly produced stories, from the multiaward-winning 12-volume “Moribito” series and 2003’s “Beyond the Fox Whistle,” which won the Noma Children’s Literature Award, to her most recent work, “The Deer King” (2014), winner of both the Japan’s Booksellers’ Award for its popularity and the Japan Medical Fiction Award for its scientific accuracy.
The “Moribito” series alone inspired a radio play and an animated and live action television series, giving Uehashi a pop cultural status that transcends the realm of a typical children’s writer. Uehashi was also recognized internationally with the Hans Christian Andersen Award for contributions to children’s literature in 2014. As she acknowledged during her acceptance speech, she was honored there because her works “depict complex worlds and peoples with diverse value systems and environments, because they convey love and respect for nature and humankind.” Readers can find two volumes of the “Moribito” series, as well as the first book in the “The Beast Player” series, from Scholastic and Pushkin Press, respectively, all translated into English by Cathy Hirano.
Talking to The Japan Times by e-mail, Uehashi further explains the universal appeal of her work: “For my path in life, I chose to explore the meaning of multicultural coexistence and I want to write not just high fantasy, but ethnographies of other worlds. Through the power of the imagination, stories let us become others and live their lives.”
Bedridden as a child, Uehashi credits her grandmother’s oral-storytelling skills for her early foundations as a writer, but her success in Japanese academia with years of field study among the Australian aborigines as well as her impressively prolific output in fiction make her the most successful Japanese woman writer you’ve probably never read. It’s time you did.
As Uehashi concludes, “Just as conducting fieldwork in foreign cultures shatters the assumptions of anthropologists, I want my readers to step beyond ‘here and now’ so that they can taste the thrill of discovering a new world — one they never even knew existed — along with its peoples and creatures, and experience what life is like there.”
This is the 10th installment of the series “Works by Japanese Women,” which explores notable female writers of Japan. Read more at jtimes.jp/womenwriters.