Books

'My Brother's Husband': Young adult literature from Japan attracts a new global audience

by Louise George Kittaka

Contributing Writer

Young adult (YA) literature bridges the divide between books for adults and books for kids. While ostensibly aimed at those in the 12 to 18 age group, recent statistics suggest that more than half of YA readers will never see their teens again, as reflected in the astounding success of series such as J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter,” Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” and Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials.”

My Brother’s Husband, Vol. 1&2, by Gengoroh Tagame, Translated by Anne Ishii.
352 pages
PANTHEON, Young Adult.

Recently, Japanese works aimed at young adults have garnered attention on the international literary scene. In 2018, Eiko Kadono, writer of the beloved “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” won the biennial Hans Christian Andersen Award, the most prominent prize for international children’s literature.

Moreover, in January this year, a Japanese work won the inaugural Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI) Translated YA Book Prize, a competition open to titles published within the past three years. GLLI is a nonprofit organization working with translators, publishing firms, libraries and educators to raise the profile of international literature.

The winner was “My Brother’s Husband,” a two-volume manga written by Gengoroh Tagame and translated by Anne Ishii. The story centers around dynamics between a single father, Yaichi, his young daughter Kana, and Mike, the Canadian husband of Yaichi’s deceased twin brother. The manga originally ran as a series in Monthly Action and was made into an NHK live-action drama last year.

“It was refreshing to see a book that dealt with homophobia without getting into religion,” says GLLI committee member Annette Goldsmith. “One of the things we want teens to get from our shortlist titles, and certainly from our winner, is some insight — not stereotypes — into another country and culture.”

The winning writer and translator team are delighted with this international recognition of their work.

“I wanted ‘My Brother’s Husband’ to be read and then read again, by a wide age range from kids to adults,” says Tagame. “Most content in Japan that approaches gay themes are represented in (the) boys’ love (genre) or otherwise adult-oriented sexual or romantic plots. However, I didn’t want that. I wanted to write a gay-themed story meant for every age group, because gay issues are clearly not limited to adults; they affect everyone in society.”

These sentiments are echoed by Ishii, the translator. “I’m always extremely excited when works from Japanese books are translated into a global forum, and even more so with works made expressly for access to younger readers and underserved topics — the gay family, coming to terms with identity, loss and new definitions of family,” she says.

While bestselling Japanese titles are often snapped up for immediate translation, there is often a lag of years or even decades with some books. This offers opportunity to bring older works to an entirely new generation of readers, as was the case with “The Secret of the Blue Glass” (Pushkin Children’s Books), the second Japanese title to make the shortlist for the GLLI award. Considered a children’s classic in Japan, the fantasy novel by the late Tomiko Inui was originally published in 1959, but Ginny Tapley Takemori’s English translation only came out in 2015.

The story takes place before and during World War II. “History books only teach you the facts, while fiction takes you into the lives of people with whom you can empathize and thus see the world through their eyes,” Takemori says. “I think it’s important for children to read books about war and learn about the terrible impact it has on people’s lives.”

David Jacobson, an editor and translator focusing on Japan and a board member of GLLI, says, “I think there is continuing worldwide interest in Japan and Japanese culture that doesn’t seem to fade even when the Japanese economy wanes.”

Jacobson points to results from a 2017 study by Literature Across Frontiers that gives statistics on translated literature published in the U.K. and Ireland.

“Japanese is the only non-European language among the top 10 translated,” he says. “While that does reflect the relative interest English-language publishers have in Japan, it doesn’t change the fact that the absolute number of translations is abysmally low.” He adds that less than 10 percent of the works translated are aimed at the YA audience.

Rachel Hildebrandt Reynolds, coordinator and cofounder of GLLI, believes the creation of the new award can help to address this imbalance. “The topic of diversity extends far beyond national borders and, if we wish to help teens transition smoothly and empathetically into our globalized world, we must provide them with the richly varied perspectives that only books drawn from around the globe can provide,” she says.

According to Laura Simeon, young adult editor for Kirkus Reviews, while there have been improvements in the breadth and number of books with diverse content from the U.S., still relatively few translated YA titles cross her desk. “I hope the award will draw attention to some of the great translated literature with strong teen appeal that is out there, help readers and librarians locate these works more easily, and encourage publishers to add to their number,” she says.