how women conquered the book world of Japan

Public domain

Public domain

Even at the end of the 19th century, literature was a male occupation, but today the works of Japanese writers are sold in millions of copies. “Now in Japan, a real renaissance of ‘female culture’, which has been in a depressed state for so long, is unfolding. Literature, as the most sensitive of the arts, was the first to reflect this trend, ”writes Boris Akunin

During the Meiji era (1868 – 1912), when there was an intensive westernization and modernization of the country, literary creation in Japan was considered a male occupation. Iconic writers and poetesses were Higuchi Ichiyo, Yosano Akiko, Nogami Yaeko. Later, in a different era, Uno Chiyo, Fumiko Hayashi, Miyamoto Yuriko, Nakazato Tsuneko began to publish. But their names were rather an exception to the established rule.

The situation began to change dramatically relatively recently. As the Japanese scholar Grigory Chkhartishvili (better known as Boris Akunin) wrote in the preface to the collection She: New Japanese Prose, published almost two decades ago: “Japanese writers only at the end of the 20th century really returned to literature, which for many centuries was considered an undivided fiefdom men “.

One of the peculiar indicators is the number of winners of the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in recent years. So, in the first quarter of a century of its existence, that is, in the period from 1935 to 1960. only three writers have been honored with this high award. But in the period from 2010 to 2015. – eight.

The success stories of many contemporary Japanese writers speak for themselves. At the end of the 1980s. unknown to anyone Yoshimoto Banana released the novel “Kitchen”, which in 1988 alone withstood 60 reprints. The book was followed by film and television adaptations. Her major books have been printed in Russia in thousands of copies. In our time, that decade is even called the era of Murakami and Yoshimoto.

Light green flow

Almost a similar story happened in 1987 with a young teacher Tavara Mati, who then published a collection of tanka (31-syllable five-line Japanese verse form – Forbes) “Salad Festival”. “In the first six months, more than 2 million copies were sold – a case unheard of in Japanese poetry, and probably unprecedented in other world literatures. Several million more were sold over the following years. Considering that the average circulation of author’s collections of tanka – even recognized masters of verse – in recent decades has never exceeded 2000-3000 copies (often staying within several hundred), Tavar Mati’s book in circulation alone more than outweighed all publications of the post-war period and opened a new one. era in the history of the genre. Soon “Salad Festival” was set to music, processed for a television series and even for a full-length feature film script, which is absolutely incredible for a tanka collection. The so-called “Tavara phenomenon” arose in culture, writes the famous Japanese scholar Alexander Dolin in his “History of New Japanese Poetry”.

A whole “light green current” emerged. Hundreds of young poetesses decided to unite around their idol. Thus, Tawara headed one of the strongest female poetic movements in Japan. Moreover, out of 1000 poems sent to her as a response to the collection, she compiled a separate book, a kind of “anthology of folk art.” Once upon a time, such collections were compiled only by decree of the emperor himself.

Already in the 1990s. such success was repeated by Ogawa Yoko, Yu Miri, Kawakami Hiromi, Tawada Yoko and many other Japanese writers. The latter, having moved in the 1980s. to Germany, won all major German literary awards (along with Japanese). And now she is one of the most likely contenders for the Nobel Prize in Literature from both Japan and the Federal Republic of Germany – a unique case. In fact, she has largely replicated the success of British nobelist Kazuo Ishiguro. But the latter had to abandon the language of his parents and write exclusively in English. Tavada Yoko feels good in two cultures at once, German and Japanese, and when asked by Forbes about the Nobel Prize, she replied: “If I become a laureate, it will not be as a Japanese writer, but as an Asian writer living in Europe”. In Russian, you can read her short story “The Dog’s Bride” and the collection “Suspicious Passengers of Your Night Trains.”

Books by Japanese authors are becoming bestsellers not only at home, but also abroad. Of the relatively recent examples, the most striking is the novel “Man-kombini” (there is another version of the translation of the name – “Minimarket”) by Murata Sayaka. This book won the aforementioned Akutagawa Award in 2016. At the same time, more than 650,000 copies of it were sold in Japan. The novel was almost instantly translated into European languages. Its licensed Russian version is about to be released. The book was taken up by the translator of Haruki Murakami Dmitry Kovalenin.

Ogawa Yoko’s science fiction novel “Memory Police” became a kind of literary breakthrough this year. It was published in Japanese back in 1994, and in English only in 2019. The book reached the shortlist of the prestigious International Booker Prize, and it has every chance of repeating the success of Korean Han Gan’s Vegetarian.

A similar situation occurred with the authors of “mass literature”. “Japanese Agatha Christie” has long been dubbed Kirino Natsuo, whose circulation in Japan and the world is comparable to the circulation of the aforementioned Yoshimoto Banana. By the way, despite the fact that the writer creates works mainly in the thriller genre, she also has quite serious literary awards. For example, the Tanizaki Prize.

How much do Japanese women writers make today?

Income is strongly influenced not only by book sales at home, but also by the rights to film adaptation and translation. So, Yoshimoto Banana recently complained in her blog that her book sales abroad have plummeted due to the pandemic. And given her popularity in Europe and the United States, the blow to the writer’s finances turned out to be very significant. Many of Yoshimoto’s colleagues found themselves in a similar situation. Before the crisis, authors who managed to make a name for themselves and have an army of fans not only in Japan but also abroad earned from 86 to 172 million yen per year (from 811,000 to $ 1.6 million per year). But these are writers of the same level as Yoshimoto Banana or Kawakami Hiromi.

Conditional “middle peasants” who do not release bestsellers every few years (especially those who do not buy the rights to film adaptation), earn more than modest by Japanese standards – their income does not exceed 10 million yen (more than $ 94,000). And it can be very difficult to get into the conditional “major league”.

And apparently, in the coming years, the renaissance of “female culture” in Japan will continue, despite the established patriarchy in many other spheres of the life of the island empire. Although the first cracks have already appeared there. And publishers and translators in Russia and the world should take a closer look at new female names appearing in Japan.

There is a chance that they will beat their own compatriot Murakami in popularity.


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