Japan is home to what many consider the world’s first novel, ‘The Tale of Genji,’ written in the 11th century by noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu. Its modern fiction has been defined mostly by long-established male writers such as past Nobel laureates Kenzaburo Oe and Yasunari Kawabata. And for decades it has been dominated by Haruki Murakami, whose surreal blend of magical realism and pop culture has made him an international bestseller, AP reported.
But Japanese literature is beginning to look different as new voices, including young writers, women and the elderly, receive domestic and international recognition.
On Friday, two women, Natsuko Imamura and Masumi Oshima, are being presented with the Akutagawa and Naoki prizes. Since 1935 the Akutagawa and Naoki have recognized serious and popular fiction, respectively, and provided their winners with a commemorative watch and 1 million yen (a little under $10,000). Even more valuable is the prestige its winners receive from media attention and, increasingly, a clear path to wider audiences through translation.
Consider, for instance, the 2016 rise of ‘Convenience Store Woman.’ Writer Sayaka Murata’s novel inspired by her own jobs has sold more than 600,000 copies in Japan since it won the Akutagawa Prize that year. Murata, then 36, and still working part-time at a convenience store, shared the stage with actress Naomi Watanabe, as one of Vogue Japan’s “Women of the Year.” Two years later, the English translation of Murata’s novel was an editor’s best-of-the-year choice by the New Yorker, the magazine that helped catapult Murakami to stardom.
Publishers in the United States and Britain are seeing a growing audience for novels in translation, experts say. Translations of half a dozen prize-winning works by female authors from Japan were published last year in the United States, with Yoko Tawada’s ‘The Emissary’ taking a 2018 National Book Award for translated work.
David Karashima, a professor at Waseda University who has translated Akutagawa-winning fiction said there are still not as many women published in Japan as men, but this may be changing, in part because there are more women on selection committees for literary prizes. He added that translated Japanese fiction is itself going through a “mini-boom.”
“Outside of Japan, over the last five years or so, there seems to be a great thirst for fiction by Japanese women writers,” Karashima said.
And there’s evidence of a demand in Japan for stories that look different from those mostly produced by men in the past. The latest Akutagawa and Naoki winners are bestsellers this summer. A recent issue of ‘Bungei’ literary magazine on “South Korea, Feminism and Japan” required two reprints, a first in more than 80 years.