Books

The books and translations about Japan to watch out for in 2020

by Iain Maloney

Contributing Writer

The new decade starts in a minor key for the publishing of Japanese literature in translation as Haikasoru — publisher of Hideo Furukawa and Taiyo Fujii among many others — goes on hiatus. A great champion of science fiction, fantasy and horror, the hole it leaves behind will not easily be filled. Let’s hope the hiatus is brief.

Despite this sad news, 2020 promises to be another spectacular year for translations and books about Japan with some familiar names and some newcomers gracing the stage in the 12 months ahead.

Following on from the international success of “Convenience Store Woman,” Granta is bringing Sayaka Murata’s “Earthlings” to English for the first time. Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, it tells the story of two children who believe themselves to be from another planet. When they are separated by their parents, their will to be reunited leads to, in Granta’s words, “spectacular and violent consequences.” This is one that should be on everyone’s wish list.

New Directions Publishing is also striking while Hiroko Oyamada’s iron is hot. October 2019 saw the publication in English of the much-acclaimed “The Factory,” and hot on its heels comes her Akutagawa Prize-winning story “The Hole,” translated by David Boyd. A 30-year-old woman quits her job and moves to the countryside, where she meets some strange people and falls into a hole. It wouldn’t be a year in Japanese literature without a dose of weirdness, and reviews of the Japanese original mention magical realism, esotericism and Kafka, words which tick a lot of the right boxes.

2020 may be the year of Seishi Yokomizo, who has two novels in translation out from Pushkin Vertigo within a few months of each other. “The Honjin Murders” (translated by Louise Heal Kawai) and “The Inugami Curse” (translated by Yumiko Yamazaki) are murder mysteries solved (presumably) by detective Kosuke Kindaichi. Both set in the late 1930s/early 1940s, they promise to be atmospheric, exciting and knotty whodunits. The covers alone are enough to get any fan of the genre salivating.

Another title from Pushkin Press in 2020 is Naoki Matayoshi’s “Spark,” translated by Alison Watts. Aspiring comedian Tokunaga teams up with mentor Kamiya for a hilarious drunken romp around the world of manzai comedy. The original has already been adapted into the hit series “Hibana: Spark” by Netflix Japan.

Moving away from translation, the prolific Suzanne Kamata returns with “Pop Flies, Robo-Pets and Other Disasters” (One Elm Books). It is aimed at younger readers and explores the experiences of a returnee from America to a Japanese junior high school through the highs and lows of a baseball team.

Rebecca Otowa’s “The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper and Other Short Stories From Japan” (Tuttle Publishing) promises tales of Japanese experiences from both Japanese and foreign perspectives, and the enticing title suggests these don’t dwell too much on the everyday.

Speaking of short stories, Red Circle Authors continues its series of minis with “The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro” by Kanji Hanawa (translated by Meredith McKinney) and “The Refugees’ Daughter” by Takuji Ichikawa (translated by Emily Balistrieri). Red Circle has quickly filled a niche few recognized existed with these one-story shorts, and hopefully the series will continue its run through this year and on.

When Can We Go Back to America?” by Susan H. Kamei and Barry Denenberg (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) delves into the internment of Japanese in the U.S. during World War II. The press release describes it as a “novel that narrates the oral history of Japanese incarceration during the war, from the perspective of the young people affected.” The parallels between internment and the contemporary detention of immigrants in the U.S. hardly need to be spelled out, making this a timely and relevant publication.

Also of the moment is Michael Booth’s “Three Tigers, One Mountain” (Jonathan Cape). Based on the Chinese proverb that two tigers cannot share one mountain, Booth explores the history of Chinese-Japanese-Korean relations through anthropology, history, politics and travel, visiting all three countries before ending his journey in Taiwan.

Winding the geopolitical clock back a century or so, the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) marked the first time a modern Asian nation had defeated a European one, and ushered in an era of conflict. It also marked the end of the golden age of combat correspondence, according to Michael S. Sweeney and Natascha Toft Roelsgaard. Their new book, “Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War,” (Lexington Books) argues that the template for relations between the press and the military were laid down in this war and are still adhered to today.

And finally, “The Only Gaijin in the Village: A Year Living in Rural Japan” (Polygon) by, well, me, is out in March. A memoir about living in rural Japan, it is “intelligent, warm-hearted, down-to-earth and often very funny” according to poet and novelist Alan Spence. Do, please, check that out as well.

As always, this is only a small sample of the translations and books about Japan hitting the shelves in 2020. Why not tell us what you’re looking forward to on our social media streams?