Compared with the influx of translated foreign books into Japan, the amount of Japanese books translated for overseas readers is a mere trickle, with the ratio standing at 20-to-1.
This imbalance reflects the strong appetite the Japanese have for overseas culture, which contrasts with the generally tepid interest in Japan overseas, according to publishing industry officials.
“Japan has always been keen on importing culture from all kinds of countries, but apart from its economy, the rest of the world isn’t that interested in Japan,” said Junichi Yoshii, executive director of digital operations at the publisher Kodansha Ltd.
Other factors that have kept the outflow of Japanese works low are the language barrier, cultural differences, and the lack of promotion overseas of Japanese writers by the Japanese publishing industry as a whole, Yoshii and other industry officials said.
Another factor is the lack of translators, according to Keiko Hirose, executive director of the Japan Association of Cultural Exchange.
“Most of the Japanese books translated so far have been classic literature such as the ‘Genji’ tale undertaken by a handful of scholars such as Donald Keene and usually published by a university press,” Hirose said.
“It’s only recently that a new generation of people studying Japanese have cropped up who have the potential to translate a wider range of literature for commercial publication.”
According to the Japan Foundation, which promotes Japanese literature abroad, the number of people studying Japanese worldwide has increased to 2 million from 600,000 over the last 20 years — yet only a small percentage become translators.
Recent moves suggest that Japanese books will reach a wider foreign audience, as publishers, faced with declining domestic book sales, are turning their attention toward overseas markets.
The current trend is to introduce contemporary texts, rather than classics symbolized by great writers such as Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima and Junichiro Tanizaki, according to publishing industry officials.
They noted that publishers are encouraged by the growing global popularity of Japanese “manga” comics.
“The manga boom could well pave the way for Japanese literature to become better known abroad,” said Masahiro Takano, president of TranNet KK, a Tokyo publishing and translation service.
Publishers Shogakukan Inc. and Shueisha Inc. have already moved to meet the demand for manga, setting up a joint venture in the United States to publish an English version of the comic magazine Shonen Jump.
Meanwhile, trading company Itochu Corp. plans to invest $600,000 this year in the operations of U.S. publishing firm Vertical Inc., which will translate and publish 12 works by Japanese writers.
Among the titles are “Ring,” a thriller by Koji Suzuki that inspired a U.S. hit movie, and “Buddha,” by manga artist Osamu Tezuka, known for his “Astro Boy” series.
Kodansha, which signed a tieup with U.S. publisher Random House Inc. in January, hopes to sell translated Japanese books through Random House’s overseas networks.
Kodansha’s Yoshii said the firm will be marketing works that are more entertainment-oriented than the English language books that subsidiary Kodansha International Ltd. currently sells, mainly through Oxford University Press.
Seeking to act as an agent between foreign and Japanese publishers, TranNet has started sending out an online newsletter on contemporary Japanese writers and their works to around 1,800 overseas publishing houses in 15 countries.
Takano said it is important to provide information and to let foreign publishers decide for themselves what they think will sell.
“Japanese publishers have not always succeeded in their selection of books for overseas markets. There’s a better chance of success if we keep sending out wide-ranging data so that the right book will come to the attention of the right publisher,” he said.
Koji Chikatani, sales manager at TranNet, said some foreign publishers still think of books on Japan in terms of Zen and martial arts, and it is hoped the newsletter will change that mentality.
Publishing industry officials noted that for Japanese literature to sell, foreign readers must be able to relate easily to the content.
“Works by people like Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami are well received because they don’t require a particular understanding of Japanese culture,” Yoshii said. “The stories are unique and yet have a universal appeal, so the reader isn’t conscious that the writer is Japanese.”
The public sector is also taking steps to encourage readership of Japanese literature abroad.
Last year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government sent 5,500 books, including manga, to 25 universities overseas, including works by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who is also a writer.
And at Ishihara’s behest, the Cultural Affairs Agency set aside 290 million yen in fiscal 2001 and 300 million yen in fiscal 2002 to subsidize the publishing of around 30 Japanese works in English, French, Russian and other languages.
The agency shoulders the translation fees and buys 2,000 copies of each title from the publisher for distribution to overseas libraries and cultural establishments.
Elsewhere, the Shizuoka Prefectural Government will hold its fourth international translation competition this year. The contest sees classic works and literary criticism translated into several languages, with the top prize winner given a yearlong scholarship to study at a Japanese university.
The experience of staying in Japan and getting to know the country is invaluable for translators, said Nobutaka Saiki, director of the Japan Foundation’s publishing division.
“It’s difficult to translate everyday details such as ‘oshiruko’ (sweet bean soup) if you’ve never seen it,” he said. “It’s equally important that publishers come and see for themselves what the country is like, and actually talk to Japanese writers and publishers.”
In the last 30 years, the Japan Foundation has extended around 900 million yen in aid, mainly to foreign firms, to publish around 900 books in roughly 20 languages.
Saiki said he credits the foundation for doing its part to shrink Japan’s book trade deficit with other countries from a ratio of 36-to-1 in 1982 to 20-to-1 in 2002, but said he cannot be complacent.
“We need to spend more money, send out more data and have more face to face communication with overseas publishers,” he said. “Only then will the ratio come to 1-to-1 and we will be able to say we are sufficiently exporting our culture.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.