[Book Review] Alex Kerr – Finding The Heart Sutra



‘Powerful, mystical and concise, the Heart Sutra is believed to contain the condensed essence of all Buddhist wisdom. Only 56 lines long, this brief poem on emptiness has exerted immense influence throughout Asia since the seventh century and is woven into the fabric of daily life. Yet even though it rivals the teachings of Laozi and Confucius in importance, this ancient Buddhist scripture remains little known in the West.’

The inside flap blurb of Alex Kerr’s latest Japan-centric compendium sets up an interesting diametric. How to encapsulate depth in such face value brevity? Kerr, of course, will be familiar to many longtime Japan-watchers through works like Lost Japan, Dogs and Demons and Another Kyoto. Indeed, Lost Japan remains to this day one of the finest travelogues devoted to the country, managing the rare feat of not only setting the template for countless other accounts from those who have visited and lived in the country over the past two decades, but also remaining unrivalled in its sensitivity of observation and tone. Kerr’s style has always been an intoxicating blend of old-school philosophising mixed with equal measures chummy camaraderie and worldly-wiseness. He has seen things you could only dream of, or so his writing constantly suggests.

As such, he makes for the perfect interlocutor by which to approach an iconic component of Japanese spirituality. For those who have been to Japan and fallen prey to the notorious ‘temple fatigue’, Kerr’s book offers a refreshing tonic. The early portions of his account act as a powerful hook as he feels off a list of famed personas the Heart Sutra has inadvertently brought him into contact with, such as Kabuki actor Tamasaburo and French author Marguerite Yourcenar. There is much mention of his art collector mentor David Kidd and his ‘palace’, which – in an iconic scene – his circle of friends are asked to dismantle with mallets. Another fascinating anecdote recalls a meeting with Gore Vidal. At the time, Kerr always carried ink, brush and paper with him, and on hearing of his interest in the Heart Sutra, Vidal uses these to pen a pithy observation: ‘Nothing is no thing’. Kerr’s is a charmed life, but this, in a way, is central to the magic of what he is trying to do here:

‘On my part, I ended up weaving a piece of cloth in which the ideas of commentators over the centuries are the warp, the threads that run from top to bottom. My friends and our memories are the weft woven across it. I picked up a piece of string from here, a ribbon from there, and slipped them into the weave as I went along.’

There’s something wonderfully logical, almost scientific, to the way Kerr lays out his approach in the twenty page introduction. While he readily acknowledges that he is neither a Buddhist monk or scholar, the parameters of close reading by which he approaches the text feel like an exercise in a very classical form of deduction, teasing out multitudes of meaning from a mere fifty six lines. For the most part, the tone is a keenly witty intellectualism. But there are moments of remarkable poignancy too – most specifically when the book touches on aging and death. Kerr draws allusions between the sutra’s handling of these matters with Andrew Marvell’s famous lines ‘Had we but world enough and time’. What do we do with our lives, faced with the prospect of oncoming nothingness?

It would be tempting to view the bulk of this book as a kind of poetry, taking the line-by-line, character-by-character breakdown of the Heart Sutra as a kind of re-figured, re-mixed interpretation of the original. But in reality, the style ends up closer to Sebald, or perhaps Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, if we are to look for a more recent example. This is a literary form that revels in the utter pleasures of language, but at its heart remains instructional and informative in its purpose. Likewise, the brevity of each segment suggests a certain snackability to the contents – is this a little pocket guide you dip in and out of for instant shots of ancient wisdom? Some segments are eye-opening in their simple distillation of what lies right in front of our eyes. Noting how Kannon calls out twice to Shariputra in the text, we are reminded that the sutra is ‘not an essay written down on paper, but words spoken from one person to another’. Elsewhere, a parallel is drawn between the concept of impermanence and Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ famous statement: ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.’ These gentle nudges toward deeper understanding are part of the joy of working slowly and methodically through the text at this level of granularity.

Other parts, such as where Kerr tells us of a pianist with the power to stop rain, go out on such strange tangents that they almost command immediate re-reading, just to ensure you really ‘got the point’. Like the Heart Sutra itself, Kerr’s anecdotes inevitably open themselves up to a kind of close analysis all of their own, turning the text into an infinitely refracting mirror of interpretation. Is this a kind of translation studies workbook or academic close reading primer? It’s perhaps telling that it is only in the closing pages that the book addresses one of its most potentially challenging aspects: ‘treating the mantra as an engine of magical power’. Here, we’re presented with a neat way of rationalising its more mystical qualities with the realities of the modern world – it becomes less a ‘magic charm’ but more a ‘daily affirmation’. This term, so couched now in the language of self help guides, seems strangely apt.

Kerr’s writing has always felt like it has challenged the reader to bring their most intelligent self to bear, to push themselves just outside of their comfort zone and follow him along on a wild ride into the unknown – this book is no exception. The text is unapologetic about its inclusion of the original Japanese kanji (both in printed format and visually arresting calligraphy done by Kerr himself), and for those that can read both languages, these will no doubt provide a useful and fascinating resource to allow for comparison between the two. It could be argued that this, in itself, further identifies this as a ‘specialist’ text, going far beyond the broader entry level feel of Kerr’s earlier Lost Japan, but in many ways this makes it all the more admirable of Allen Lane as publisher for championing what to many will be a highly abstract field of discourse. 

That this release comes now speaks to two important points. First, that the current interest in attractively presented books covering the nuances of the Japanese heart, mind and spirit continues unabated. What sparked into being with Marie Kondo and Ikigai has blossomed into a self-contained publishing cache that, as the existence of Kerr’s book makes plain, still has plenty of scope to mine more deeply beneath the face-value concept of those of us in the global West looking to invest our lives with more meaning. Secondly, and perhaps most crucially, Kerr’s book comes as part of a small but growing oeuvre in books that help unpack some of the more confusing aspects of Japan’s religions to a non-specialist audience. The remarkable success of 2018’s Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright has shown that the demand for seriously researched yet approachable guides to this vast field is absolutely out there, and in that sense, it is exciting to see as entertaining and knowledgeable a voice as Kerr’s joining this steady stream of output.

Like many of my generation, initially wooed into an interest in all things Japanese through the country’s compelling pop cultural output, a fascination in the many faceted sides of Japanese religion was something that came later – a yearning to understand the deep, enigmatic resonance that underpinned many of Japan’s most compelling narratives and artworks. For those embarking on the same voyage of discovery, Kerr’s book on the Heart Sutra is without doubt a heartily recommended guidebook by which to navigate that journey.

[Book Review] Christopher Harding – The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives

“The greatest attention is paid… to exemplary lives: ideas and ideals not merely thrown around, but embodied and tested”.

For Christopher Harding, acclaimed author of 2019’s Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present, the story of Japan remains fundamentally bound up in its people; the sense that the very essence of ‘Japaneseness’ – if there is one – is to be found in the lives of some of its most remarkable icons. In his follow-up volume, The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives, he returns to the format of accessible, vignette-esque history that puts the top-level historical facts on equal footing with smaller scale, personable narratives. Those familiar with Harding’s voice on BBC Radio 3 and 4 – where he is a regular – will know he has a knack for clear, compelling stories, and for all the weightiness of this new tome, that same clarity of thought makes for an addictive page-turner.

Divided as it is between twenty individual character studies – each lasting around twenty pages – some chapters are inevitably stronger than others. The very first, focused on the legendary Shaman Queen Himiko (circa 170-248 AD) – perhaps due to the natural paucity of material dating from Japan’s deepest past – is more a broad introduction to early life in Japan than a revelatory expose of Himiko herself. Much remains shrouded in mystery – and yet, as is so often the case in this book, the focus is far more about evoking the ‘feel’ of the time, place and presence of the persona in question, as opposed to a concrete This-Is-Your-Life style playback.

Thus, in the chapter on iconic Heian-era author and courtier Murasaki Shikibu, we are swiftly immersed in rich evocations of the beauty of Japanese antiquity. It sounds like a cliche in relation to this kind of historical work, but Harding’s book really does go the extra mile in terms of making these long departed personas feel like real people. Without coming across as facile, these worlds are made ingeniously accessible – arcane or complex Japanese concepts are always explained with ease, and relatable parallels are smartly drawn. As the Sunday Times rather deftly puts it, there is always that ‘telling quote that makes these distant presences tangible’. In a memorable early example, we hear of how ancient Kyoto’s elite men spent their leisure time on kemari ‘a sort of communal keepy-uppy, played by a team of eight men using a deerskin ball’.

Later in the same chapter, we are presented a scene where statesman Fujiwara no Michinaga passes his judgement on Murasaki via a hastily scribbled poem;

“She is known for her tartness

So I am sure that no one seeing her

Could pass without a taste”

Building on the success of the Murasaki chapter, the lives of powerful women remain a dominant theme throughout Harding’s book. The other core theme weaving its way through the work is a palpable and energetic focus on religion’s significance to the Japanese populace throughout history. Harding has previously published a number of academic tomes on Japanese religion, a topic that is often hard to convey to a lay audience with any degree of clarity. To this date, for example, there remains a relative lack of easy-to-understand books in English dealing with Japan’s native religion Shinto. That Harding can write convincingly on the topic is testament both to the many stories that lie as yet untold to broader audiences regarding Japan’s interlocking religious spheres, but also in his skill in teasing out these narratives from the often bewildering lore that surrounds them. Harding’s useful analogy of drawing a comparison between 12th century Japanese monk Shinran and German priest Martin Luther is a particularly clear example of how clever framing can often ‘unlock’ ostensibly complex material.

To those well versed in Japan, many of the stories here will be familiar. That said, for these famed figures, much of the power represented by their remarkable life stories is in the charm of accumulated re-telling, and Harding’s writing carries itself with enough style to ensure these tales don’t overstay their welcome, even to those who’ve heard them many times before. Many of the most successful chapters – such as that on Oda Nobunaga – are rich with anecdote and popular sayings. About Japan’s three great unifiers, we are told:

“‘What to do… with a cuckoo that refuses to sing?’ Hideyoshi, clever and charismatic, would find some way to persuade it. Ieyasu, canny and wise, would watch and wait while it found its voice. And what of Nobunaga? The bird, naturally, would have to die.”

As we move into modern times, with the full later half of the book taking in the 1800s onward, we are greeted with an increasingly diverse cast of characters. The details on the life of MSG inventor Ikeda Kikunae and how he inadvertently stumbled upon the concept of umami – the so called ‘tasty taste’ – are symbolic of the kinds of innovation that were going on in Japan at the dawn of the 20th century. The chapter, like many of the others, is wide-ranging in its scope, simultaneously touching on developments in film and popular music, but centering this around Kikunae’s work in taste as prime examples of ‘the power of commerce and culture to influence people’s preferences in this era’.

One of the most powerfully emotive segments is the chapter on singer Misora Hibari. A child at the time of the Second World War, she would quickly become swept up in Japan’s subsequent rejuvenation efforts and aims to ‘go forwards with culture’. Caught in a moment between youth and adulthood, her precociousness and energy would in many ways mark a kind of end of innocence for the nation. Her characterisation in the chapter’s title – as ‘starlet / harlot’ – prods not only at the immense cultural changes ushered into being in post-War Japan, but perhaps more importantly, how its brightest stars would invariably be packaged up as commodities to be offered ready-made to the populace at large.

Part of the joy of Harding’s earlier book Japan Story was how utterly readable it was as a history of the nation. While prior histories of Japan are ten-a-penny in academia, Harding’s take felt like something you could eagerly press into the hands of anyone with even the vaguest interest in the country. If anything, his latest effort is even more accessible – the segmented format, devoting one chapter to each persona, is a masterstroke, and allows each one to be consumed as a bite-sized confection whilst simultaneously forming part of a broader narrative.

Harding’s choice to conclude the book with a chapter on current Empress Masako is an immensely exciting one, though to those aware of the long-running tensions encapsulating her difficult transition from a high-flying diplomatic career and ‘sassy’ business suits to intense scrutiny under the media lens, it is also an obvious one. For those addicted to Netflix’s The Crown, this final chapter lays out a powerful case that the drama existing just below the surface of Japan’s royal family is every bit as fascinating as our own here in the UK. Indeed, for the Oxford, Harvard and Tokyo University educated Masako, the role of Empress is characterised as a double-edged sword, giving as much as it takes. Yet, for all the inherent sadness captured in Harding’s telling of her tale, there is optimism too – and indeed, as he notes, it is still far too early to fully envision what the future may hold for this most internationally-minded of Empresses.

Ultimately, the title of Harding’s history proves to be the telling factor – as useful as this book is as a history of Japan, it is first and foremost a story of a select number of its people. And perhaps, in giving it this direction and focus, it really does get closer to that enigmatic ‘Japaneseness’. While some may disagree with the choice of individuals featured here (a task that without a doubt would never please everyone) the collage of lives presented speaks to a broader message: that the past continues, maybe now more than ever, to have ramifications in the present day and on into the future. It is down to us to learn how to make best use of it.

My obsession with Hayakawa Publishing. Trends in Japanese translations of foreign books.

Anyone who knows me will know I love reading. I regularly work my way through over 100 books a year these days. With that in mind, I’m constantly on the look out for ways to improve the ‘consistency’ of my reading experience, or in other ways, ensuring that I actually get my money’s worth in terms of enjoying the books I end up buying. When you read as widely as I do, you are in many ways cursed by the freedom of choice – your next reading bent could head down any of countless potential routes. Much as others have found with all-you-can-eat streaming services like Spotify and Netflix, you actually need some kind of recommendation system in place to keep you on track when faced by infinite choice.

Recently, I feel I’ve found a way to do that – a perfect fit for my own particular tastes. It comes via what is perhaps a rather strange selection methodology: Reading the English versions of books that have been translated into Japanese. Let me explain…

For a while now, as part of my wider interest in what is popular media-wise in Japan, I have been following the kinds of books readers in Japan post to their Instagram accounts (the so-called ‘Bookstagram’ community is a sizeable sub-section of Instagram as a whole). I quickly came to find that every few months or so, a certain book or other would come to dominate the pictures I was seeing on my feed. These were often translations of books that had been available in English for years, and could be obtained cheaply on Kindle or second-hand. I tried a few, and lo-and-behold, found the hit rate – in terms of my tastes – was remarkable. I wanted to learn more – where were all these translations coming from? I soon found out.

Hayakawa Publishing

In Japan, Hayakawa Publishing (早川書房) is renowned as the largest science fiction publisher in Japan. As well as releasing numerous contemporary Japanese SF works, the publisher also has a major line in translations, typically focusing on foreign sci-fi, crime thrillers (mystery), non-fiction (business / self-help etc.) and a smattering of highbrow literary works. As I sought out more and more of the original versions of the books Hayakawa was translating, I was amazed at how much I was enjoying them – perhaps eight times out of ten, these were bonafide 5/5 star reads for me.

What impressed me even more than this was, despite the variety in genre and subject matter of what I was reading, the ‘tone’ across the board felt remarkably of a piece. Whether fiction or non-fiction, thriller or sci-fi, I felt like what I was consuming spoke with a surprisingly consistent ‘voice’, even in English, quite apart from where the author originated from. If I had to sum it up, it would be a breezy, easy-to-read feel – rarely overtly literary, yet never dumbed down; a kind of ‘clean intelligence’, if you will. If I had to give a slogan to the style, it’d be ‘The thinking man’s key to unlocking how the world works’.

These reads became a kind of literary ASMR – massaging the senses with a kind of low-obstacle relaxatory form of reading. Many of the books are short, and can be consumed in a day, if not a single sitting – they will typically range from around 200-400 pages in English, reflecting the preference for shorter, slimmer volumes in Japan (that can be easily carried in a pocket and read on the hellish commutes into Tokyo). Longer books will be divided into two volumes, marked by the Kanji for upper (上) and lower (下). Sometimes, literary novels will break from this model and be released as a single, super-expensive hardback volume. Anyone fancy a copy of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks for 5390 Yen (£38) or Marlon James’ Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings for 6600 Yen (£47)? The flip side is something like Patrick Rothfuss’ 672-page fantasy epic The Name of the Wind split into five separate books for its Japanese translation.

So what kind of books do well for Hayakawa in Japan? Quite apart from my own enjoyment in tracking down and consuming what they were releasing, I became curious about the trends that determined which of their releases performed best on the Japanese version of Amazon. It’s worth saying at this point that if you compare the number of Japanese books translated into English vs. English books translated into Japanese per year, Japan is definitely getting the better end of the bargain. The publisher’s website meticulously details their releases by month, going back the last five years, and they regularly average over 20 a month (of course, not all of these are translations, but the ratio is usually 50/50). I have summarised some of the broad categories in trends below.

Incidentally, for further reading, I heartily recommend this comprehensive Japanese website that details all of Hayakawa’s releases going back to the very beginning.

Agatha Christie

If there’s one author that Haykawa Publishing loves more than all others, it is Agatha Christie. Growing up in the UK in the 90s and the early 00s, I always found it strange that Agatha Christie never formed part of the official British school curriculum. Perhaps she was too ‘old-fashioned’, too populist, to form part of what we now see as the English literature cannon, appropriate to teach to British youngsters? In my mind, Agatha Christie was something that belonged to my Grandparents’ generation; consigned to dusty old tomes and ITV evening dramas. But much like that other famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, Poirot is adored in Japan, and Hayakawa continues to pump out new iterations of Christie’s novels. This includes many ‘kid-friendly’ abridged editions that form part of Hayakawa’s Junior Mystery range, including the eye-popping rendition of And Then There Were None (そして誰もいなくなった) shown below that sees the thriller boldly emblazoned with anime/manga-style artwork and promises of a ‘DEATH GAME’.

(Ps. this is all nicely in time for the new Kenneth Branagh-starring big screen adaptation of Death on the Nile – the trailer was released this week and, perhaps with a nod to the trailer for Wonder Woman 1984’s masterful use of Blue Monday, sees the Egyptian mystery backed by the refrains of Depeche Mode’s Policy of Truth. Fantastic. Can you tell I love 80s synthpop almost as much as I do books?)

Chinese sci-fi

The current trend right now in Japan is without a doubt Chinese science-fiction, chiefly propelled by the monumentally successful Japanese translation of Cixin Liu’s Three Body series. The titular first volume of the epic space-opera was first translated into English all the way back in 2015, but only hit Japanese shelves last year. Such was the success of this first volume (553 star ratings on Japanese Amazon and counting) that the publication schedule for the rest of the series was apparently sped up and the second volume (The Dark Forest) has proved to be an incredibly popular pick during the ongoing pandemic lock-down. A rising tide raises all ships, and other Chinese sci-fi has also proven successful in Japanese translation, including Ken Liu’s anthologies Invisible Planets and Broken Stars as well as Ted Chiang’s Exhalation and Stories of Your Life and Others (aka. the source material for the movie Arrival).

Pandemic books / topical reads

One of the most fascinating things about looking at trends in publishing is the speed at which they adapt to popular discourse and current-affairs topics. We saw a taste of this closer to home earlier this year with the incredible surge in popularity of material relating to the Black Lives Matter movement. In Japan right now, what we might reasonably term ‘pandemic’ literature has been a dominant theme throughout 2020, with a number of timely re-releases of old books cashing in on the demand for all things ‘virus-related’. Obi-strips, which can typically be switched out easily by the publishers and booksellers, aid this (as opposed to the publisher having to do a wholesale reprint with completely new cover art). The undisputed winner here is Richard Preston’s terrifying The Hot Zone – originally released back in 1994 and dealing with the Ebola outbreaks of the time. Following the massive success of this, Hayakawa quickly rushed out a version of Ed Regis’ 1998 effort Virus Ground Zero (retitled ‘Virus Hunters’ in Japanese). Perhaps the strangest of all the virus-related material to trend is the quirky, highly controversial memoir ‘Dancing Naked in the Mind Field’ by the late Nobel-winner Kary Mullis (the guy who discovered the PCR test, now famously in the news for its use in detecting coronavirus infection).

Popular science / self help / behavioural economics

Another of the most intriguing sections of Hayakawa’s translated output is their non-fiction releases, which more than any other part of their remit, seems responsive to particular trends in taste. Right now, a dominant theme is Behavioural Economics, and landmark releases like Michael Sandel’s Justice and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational have all been major sellers. Lifestyle reads such as Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism as well as Bill Burnett & Dave Evans’ Designing Your Life are also popular right now.

To sum all these up into one big bundle, you might characterise the emphasis as being on learning what is the ‘right thing to do’. To design and systemise your life, job and everything else to deliver the maximum happiness and degree of success, whilst simultaneously ensuring a fair, moral society. There is a focus on a logical ‘stripping-down’ of received truths or ways of seeing the world, to reveal the habits or assumptions that have taken over our daily practises.

Sometimes, weird and wonderful older titles (that are often long forgotten or out of print on our own shores) have a sudden resurgence – a recent example is Stephen Jay Gould’s book on the Burgess Shale.

‘Cheap thrillers’

We all love a good ‘airport’ novel, those always-reliable crime thrillers that keep us burning the midnight oil, flipping the pages till we’re safe in the knowledge of whodunnit. Japan is no exception, and Haykawa even has its own dedicated line of specially pocket-sized mystery thrillers. This sector often sees some of the fastest turnarounds between English releases and their Japanese translations; current big hits including Adrian McKinty’s The Chain and Alex Michaelides’ The Silent Patient are also already out in Japan. Military thrillers are often especially popular, and a golden oldie that has recently proved popular is C S Forester’s The Good Shepherd – the film adaptation starring Tom Hanks is due soon.

‘Kindle sci-fi’

While Hayakawa does good business in putting out big ticket sci-fi releases such as Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, and continues its project of translating pretty much everything out there by Philip K. Dick, they also regularly dip into what I like to call ‘Kindle sci-fi’. Namely, this is populist sci-fi from newer authors who have attracted large numbers of star ratings on the English version of Amazon, often through heavy discounts and multi-part series which tempt the reader to plump for the entire digital ‘box set’. Dennis E Taylor and Nick Webb are two recent examples of this, and you can see the typically flashy cover art style used for the Japanese versions of these below.

‘Something for the ladies’

Based on some of the cover art shown so far, it’d be easy to make the old-fashioned assumption that Hayakawa’s core audience is predominantly blokes – but just as the British publishing industry often continues to heavily market its output along the lines of gender (just check out any supermarket or WH Smith bestsellers’ selection to see what I’m talking about) so too does Hayakawa, with a number of releases each year that seem keenly aimed at a female audience. Some of the most successful recently have been Delia Owens’ Where The Crawdads Sing (which has been massive in the UK too) and Laetitia Colombani’s The Braid (which sadly hasn’t).

Super-expensive literary pick of the month

As detailed above, a few times a year, Hayakawa will typically splash out on a super-luxe hardback edition of a literary read and release it as a single, un-broken volume as opposed to two halves. The kind of novels selected for these kinds of release are typically big, literary prize winners (eg. the Booker, or the Pulitzer), because nothing says quality like a big line of Kanji and olive-branches on the obi-strip saying ‘prize-winner’.

Japan related books- forthcoming late 2020-2021

When I wrote my previous post about forthcoming Japan-related books in April, who knew that the pandemic – which at that point was still very much in its ‘peak period’ here in Europe – would end up dragging on in a state of ‘will it never end?’ for the majority of the year’s remaining months? Now, here we are in August, and most of the books I highlighted in my previous list have been released, and I find my eyes turning to Amazon again to locate what’s scheduled for this winter, and the start of 2021. While the pandemic caused a certain degree of disruption to publication schedules, and arguably dampened the success of a number of books that could not benefit from ‘normal’ volumes of shoppers hitting bookstores or marketing plans, it has at least felt good to have a lot of time readily available for reading.

Trends in publication – What continues to surprise me about ‘Japan related books’ is that the most popular among them remain dominated by texts not originally written in Japanese. This broad range of output includes fantastical ‘Japan-inspired’ Young Adult series such as those by Annette Marie and Julie Kagawa, female-orientated ‘Japan as exotic backdrop’ titles like Ana Johns’ The Woman in the White Kimono and Julie Caplin’s The Little Teashop in Tokyo as well as more serious material dealing with wartime memory, such as George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy and a stream of comfort-women related titles like Mary Lynn Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum, Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s Grass and Jing Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared.

It is worth noting that by far one of the most popular books written about Japan in the last five years is Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (which at the time of writing has nearly 200,000 ratings on Goodreads) and has recently been released in Japanese translation.

Films – In my previous post I lamented the gradual, yet sadly inevitable decline in physical DVD & Blu-Ray releases of Japanese cinema here in the UK. Sadly, the pandemic and the effect this has had on the cinema industry seems to have only amplified this. At the time of writing, I could find pretty much nothing on release schedules for UK distributors over the coming months, with the most notable release of late being a release of Teruo Ishii’s 1969 film Inferno Of Torture from Arrow (who very much seem the last bastion of Japanese movie releases in the UK these days).

Of course, anime distributors continue to pump out a number of titles (and within that field, showpiece films like Weathering With You and popular Shonen series like My Hero Academia, Fairy Tail and One Piece remain the big sellers) but even there, the volume and variety of titles is a fraction of what it was a decade ago. Likewise, it is hard to remain optimistic about opportunities to view quality Japanese cinema in the UK right now – especially with the damage the pandemic has wrought on the cinema circuit. Until a Netflix style streaming service is able to pick up the slack for indie (and hopefully, more populist material too) Japanese cinema, we’ll have to hold on fast to our nostalgic memories of working our way through Third Window Film’s incredible back-catalogue of quirky Japanese output, and dream of the day when this kind of championship of the country’s cinematic works might achieve the same degree of commercial viability abroad again.

(I have included a number of books that also featured in my previous list that, while previously not having cover artwork available, now do.) Anyway, let’s get started with the books…

Christopher Harding – The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives (5th November 2020 – Penguin)

Harding’s previous release from Penguin – Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present – was an important contribution to the ouvre of more populist, accessible histories on Japan. With the involvement of a major publisher like Penguin, it’s vital for books like this to complement the steady stream of more overtly academic histories, and his next book looks set to do more of the same.

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The Power Wish: Japan’s Leading Astrologer Reveals the Moon’s Secrets for Finding Success, Happiness, and the Favor of the Universe (12th November 2020 – Ebury Digital)

“Keiko’s method can help people to make their dreams a reality.” says no less a figure than Marie Kondo herself. A million-selling sensation in Japan, Keiko’s book looks to do for Astrology what Kondo did for cleaning, decluttering and tidying up. I’ve long been fascinated with Japan’s obsession with fortune-telling, urban shamanism and the transactional qualities present in it. In Japan, books like this remain big-sellers, and feature in prominent displays even in mainstream bookstores. While the UK has always had a market for self-help guides, I do wonder if the recent trend for Japanese ‘lifestyle’ books is part of a marked shift toward the kind of lifestyle ‘add-ons’ the Japanese publishing industry does so well. In a modern world where we struggle to find meaning in our lives and are increasingly looking for any kind of direction possible, who is to say that a Japanese spin on Astrology might not be the next big thing here too?

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David Watts Barton – Japan from Anime to Zen: Quick Takes on Culture, Art, History, Food . . . and More (19th January 2021 – Stone Bridge Press)

Stone Bridge can always be relied on for quality books that blend strong research with an easy accessibility for more general audiences, and this new release looks set to be a strong introductory reader for those looking for another angle on many of the country’s cultural touchstones. It promises ‘demystifications of more than 75 aspects of ancient and modern Japan’, but at 288 pages long, is still substantial enough to offer a good bit of substance to those looking to do more than just dip in and out for quick definitions.

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Kotaro Isaka – Bullet Train (11th March 2021 – Harvill Secker)

Coming from Harvill Secker/Vintage this looks set to be a big release, befitting the original’s popular status in Japan (a film adaptation is set for 2021). It’s refreshing to see the publisher championing new talent, fresh from their recent success with Yoko Ogawa’s Memory Police. As a crime writer, Isaka has won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award and been nominated for the Naoki prize back in Japan, so we can be hopeful that this release may make up for the lack of any new Hideo Yokoyama translations… (2019’s Prefecture D still only has 6 Amazon star ratings to date, a far cry from the success of 2016’s breakthrough Six Four which is sitting pretty on 331 star ratings).

It’s also worth noting that Kodansha International released a translation of Isaka’s Remote Control back in 2011 (translated than none other than the Memory Police’s Stephen Snyder) – now long out of print.

Winifred Bird – Eating Wild Japan: Tracking the Culture of Foraged Foods, with a Guide to Plants and Recipes (9th March 2021 – Stone Bridge Press)

Every year brings with it a smattering of new Japanese cookbooks, but Eating Wild Japan offers something a little different – taking us through foods such as ‘butterbur and “princess” bamboo’; getting back to nature with edible delights that are foraged as opposed to grown. With tasteful illustrations from Paul Poynter, this looks sets to be an interesting and novel approach to a lesser-known area of Japan’s gustatory culture.

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Toshihiko Yahagi – The Wrong Goodbye (18th March 2021 – MacLehose Press)

With an apt nod to Raymond Chandler, this old-school thriller sees a Japanese homicide detective pitted against ‘a shady Chinese business empire and US military intelligence’. Translator Alfred Birnbaum will of course be familiar to many as the ‘original’ translator of Murakami (before Jay Rubin and others took over). The weirdly retro-looking cover (which feels like something off a cheap macho airport-thriller from fifteen years ago) only adds to its charm.

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Stephanie Scott – What’s Left of Me is Yours (18th March 2021 – W&N)

Already released earlier this year in hardcover, Singaporean/British writer Stephanie Scott’s work has garnered an impressive spread of reviews from the British newspapers, and this eye-catching cover art really catches the eye. Injecting anthropological work (for which Scott was awarded a British Association of Japanese Studies Toshiba Studentship) into a modern day Tokyo-based mystery thriller, this release should find new audiences on its release as a paper-back in 2021.

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Hector Garcia – The Magic of Japan: Life-Changing Experiences and Secret Places: My Fifteen Years as a Geek in Japan (6th April 2021 – Tuttle)

Hector Garcia continues to churn out releases taking in turn various aspects of Japanese culture, including his bestselling efforts A Geek In Japan and the Ikigai book which, to this day, remains the most successful of the many assorted Japanese lifestyle efforts. This release – ‘The Magic of Japan’ looks to be a more general overview of the country, charting fifteen years spent in the country and backed with an ample spread of photography.

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Keiichiro Hirano – At the End of the Matinee (11th May 2021 – Amazon)

Alongside Kotaro Isaka’s Bullet Train, this is another big, important literary release for 2021. Hirano’s At the End of the Matinee has been a massive hit in Japan, complete with glossy film adaptation. Hirano has also benefitted recently from an interesting release strategy, whereby his title A Man was put out as part of Amazon’s Kindle-based ‘First Reads’ initiative for a mere 99p,and has subsequently racked up a strong review-base on Goodreads. As one of the youngest ever winners of Japanese prestigious literary Akutagawa prize (at just 23 years of age), Hirano is a real one to watch. The translation of his ‘Transparent Labyrinth’ as part of the Keshiki collection of chapbooks is well worth checking out too.

Ps. Personally I would have preferred the Japanese title (マチネの終わりに) to have been rendered as ‘After the Matinee’, but I’m sure there’s a reason for why they went for what they did. British readers may also inadvertently recall a certain hit single from Franz Ferdinand…

Yukio Mishima – Five Modern Noh Plays (3rd June 2021 – Europa Editions)

Mishima remains perpetually popular in translation, so it is interesting to see Europa Editions dipping their toe in the water with this attractive re-release (previous English versions have been published by Vintage and Tuttle). Translated by the late, legendary Donald Keene, if you don’t have a copy of this already, this is the perfect opportunity to grab more Mishima for your collection.

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Beth Kempton – Kokoro: Japanese Wisdom for a Life Well-lived (1st July 2021 – Piatkus)

The trend for Japanese lifestyle books seems to finally be winding down a little (perhaps the failure of Marie Kondo’s ‘The Joy of Work’ to ignite bestseller charts just as the world was descending into lockdown-enforced homeworking plays a part in that…) but there remain a number heading our way over the next twelve months. Personally I wasn’t a fan of Beth Kempton’s previous volume on Wabi Sabi (I felt it was too much a generic self-help title dressed up with a garnish of Japaneseness) but it sold well, so in terms of spreading the word about interesting aspects of Japanese culture to as broad an audience as possible, these releases – which as admittedly beautifully bound and produced – are to be celebrated. I’ve even seen them being sold in branches of Paperchase.

Yoko Tawada – Three Streets (12th July 2021 – W. W. Norton & Company)

While Memoirs of a Polar Bear remains my favourite Tawada work, it was impressive to see the success that greeted The Emissary (‘The Last Children of Tokyo’ in the English publication) on its surprise nomination for the National Book Award for Translated Literature (2018). Much like Yoko Ogawa’s Memory Police (translated into English some 20 years after its original Japanese release), the content of the tale chimed with contemporary audiences and spoke to a new resonance for audiences around the world. It’s always good to have more material out there from Tawada, so this release of 3 Streets – translated by Margaret Mitsutani – should go over well with those that fell in love with the creepy, curious world of The Emissary.

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How the English language Manga market completely transformed in the space of three years

Recently, I was looking back at a piece I wrote in May 2017 about the current state of the English language manga market and how it was characterised by an increasing trend toward luxury, ‘graphic novel’ style releases. Three years on, we are in the midst of the current ongoing Coronavirus pandemic which has, on one hand, disrupted distribution schedules for all kinds of popular media, but also given time to many to while away the housebound hours reading.

What kinds of manga are we reading right now? Have the trends I observed back in 2017 changed? Have the most popular series’ changed?

What struck me first is how much the most popularity of the top series in 2017 have faded away. Back then, Tokyo Ghoul was striking in its sheer dominance, with series like My Hero Academia and Attack on Titan following hotly on its heels. Now, the picture is very different. Tokyo Ghoul’s follow-up ‘Tokyo Ghoul re.’ finished up in Japan in July 2018, while its anime adaptation was met with a highly mixed response from fans. Attack on Titan looks set to meet a similar conclusion too, in both its manga and anime incarnations.

Looking to Goodreads as an indicator of current popularity, the undoubted number one right now is The Promised Neverland. Even back in 2017, this series looked set from the start to be destined for success, and following its anime adaptation, it has gone from strength to strength – compelled by some of the most intelligent writing and pacing Shonen Jump has seen in a long time.

What is more interesting is the runaway success of Kimetsu No Yaiba (Demon Blade). It is easy to forget now, but this is a series that was initially passed over by the English version of Shonen Jump – the English release of the first volume did not come until two entire years after the Japanese original. It was the series’ anime that really transformed the fates of this series, seeing many of its previous volumes flooding the Japanese bestseller charts as fans looked to ‘catch up’ on the story. This happened to such a degree that in terms of annual total volume sales, the series actually eclipsed perennial bestseller One Piece for a time.

The fate of this series is in fact highly indicative of a number of key market trends that have emerged over the past three years.

Only time for the ‘very best’ – or ‘The best… and the rest’

With the current format of volume-centric manga releasing having existed in the English speaking world for around 20 years now, the sheer volume of manga ‘out there’ is bewildering. As with anime and the amount offered on streaming services, we are simply spoiled for choice. We are so flooded with content, that it becomes hard to choose what we actually want to consume. Booksellers have to become more curatorial with precious shelf space, and by extension, so too do readers. We are all strapped for time, so why waste it on anything less than the ‘best’ series? We want satisfaction guaranteed, before we even know what we want to read.

And thus, as seen with Kimetsu No Yaiba, we see an interesting trend emerging, where readers hang back, of sorts, and then splurge on a series and ‘catch up’ once it becomes popular. This equivalent of Netflix bingeing means that whereas in the past Goodreads would see a rapid switch-up in the most popular manga volumes at any given time, now the Top 40 there remains relatively static, occupied mainly by the comprising volumes of the given ‘most popular’ series at the time (right now, it’s The Promised Neverland).

When it comes to Goodreads, it is amusing to see how lately, many of the top spots in the current most popular manga list are actually occupied by a non-manga – Avatar: The Last Airbender; furthering a debate about *what* we define as manga and anime that has been rumbling on for years now. It is easy to forget that manga, as popular as it is these days, is still very much a niche. Volume 1 of a popular series like The Promised Neverland might attract around 14,000 ratings, but for middling series, it will be far more like 2000 ratings. Even popular series will see rapidly diminishing returns – eg. volume 11 of Shonen Jump title Dr. Stone has only around 200 ratings. If you compare this to say, the latest Stephen King bestseller on 100,000 ratings in under a year since its release, you see the scale of difference at play here.

In some ways, all this creates an illusion of tedium – an unmoving market dominated by ‘old’ content that remains popular simply through virtue of being exactly that ‘popular’. The feedback cycle ensures that readers looking for a recommendation of whats hot, by extension, maintain that very same series at the top spot through their purchasing. The Top 40 music charts saw a similar trend when streaming was first introduced. But, also like music, this top end ‘slowness’ actually masks an incredible and increasing sense of variety below. For the hardcore, there has never been a better time to be a manga fan – with more choice and more attention to detail than ever before…

The trend toward ‘graphic-novelisation’ continues at pace

Looking to Amazon’s most preordered upcoming manga titles, many ‘deluxe’ editions that fulfil this remit occupy the list, including JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Blade of the Immortal, Junji Ito, Gantz and Fullmetal Alchemist. These ‘serious’ titles offer a premium experience to fans – the kind willing to fork over nearly £40 for Blade of Immortal in lush hardcover. Old material, done up in a fancy new dressing – it’s a no brainer for distributors.

I previously lamented this trend – I felt it shifted manga – as a form – toward something it wasn’t necessarily in its cheap, easy-to-access original Japanese format. And while I do still agree with this to a degree, I think the ‘democratisation’ of the cheap end of the market via the freedom of choice offered by digital services (see Shonen Jump below) has somewhat addressed this. Thus, we now have a situation where fans can essentially have their cake and eat it – or rather, all sectors of the market are far more adequately catered to. As we have seen in the wider book world, reading as a whole managed to re-bound from the threat of cheap Kindle editions precisely because it placed a value premium on the physical object itself. Just as the publishing world has worked double time on churning out countless deluxe hardcover editions of the classics, so too has the world of manga.

Light novels fundamentally in the mix

One of the most interesting trends over the past five years or so is the way Light Novels in translation have become fundamentally absorbed into the wider manga-releasing sphere of distribution. For a long time, standout releases (such as the Haruhi or Monogatari series) made their name as carefully curated products – released because of the pre-established cultural cache they had with fans – but now, all sorts of Light Novels are making waves. In the top 40 most pre-ordered upcoming manga titles on Amazon, at least six are actually light novels.

Shonen Jump continues to dominate

One of the most fundamental changes to the manga industry was Shonen Jump’s announcement in December 2018 that they would be offering the latest chapters of their series’ day-and-date with the Japanese versions. This dealt an impressive blow to the long-running spectre of fan-scanlations, whilst also opening up the Shonen Jump brand to a wider global audience. There was now no barrier to entry for fans looking to keep up to date with their favourite current series.

This has helped ensure Shonen Jump’s continuing dominance of the English-language manga market; their titles continue to dominate Amazon’s most preordered upcoming manga titles. One Punch Man continues to be a hot title, while Dr. Stone, The Promised Neverland and Kimetsu No Yaiba all makes as-expected strong showings.

As a side note, it is interesting to see once dominant titles like One Piece and Blue Exorcist dropping down the rankings. Many saw Shonen Jump’s policy over the last five years or so of cutting and burning through new series in a trail-by-error style fundamentally risky – could this strategy really ‘materialise’ the next mega success ala. Bleach or Naruto? Many new series have of course been cut before their time – a process made refreshingly open to English readers through the Jump Start initiative – but the success of the likes of Kimetsu No Yaiba and The Promised Neverland prove there has been merit in the apparent madness.

Whether fans choose to follow the latest chapters at pace with Japan, or wait for the physical volumes, Shonen Jump remains the definitive brand name when it comes to popular manga series.

Final thoughts

Manga remains phenomenally popular – I was very pleased to read this morning that as a direct result of last year’s extensive Manga exhibition, the British Museum had scored the acclaim of becoming the UK’s top tourist attraction, with the 7% increase in visitors fuelled by ‘the museum’s youngest and most diverse audience for a temporary exhibition ever’. This is exactly what museums should be doing – remaining true to their modus operandi as prestiged cultural institutions, but also ensuring that they remain accessible (and desireable) destinations for young audiences (who will, it follows, be their future benefactors and curators).

My initial opinion of the manga exhibition last year had been mixed – I felt it was too shallow on a number of key areas (eg. shojo manga) and had privileged certain ‘academically’ important series at the expense of others that would have been more popular with general audiences. But ultimately, having visited it a second time, heard more from the curators directly through a number of excellent accompanying talk programmes, my view began to soften. The realities necessary to stage an exhibition of this scale at the British museum would mean some degree of compromise would always be inherent – and in addition, my status as a ‘hardcore’ manga fan meant that I would inherently be harder to please. Ultimately, the numbers bear out the exhibition’s success – and in comparison with other recent Japan-centric exhibitions such as the V&As kimono showcase, I actually feel the British Museum nailed the atmosphere and ‘experiential’ side of things in a far more effective manner.

It is too easy to be swayed by nostalgia for the ways of old. Thinking back to the days of rabidly consuming volumes of my favourite Shonen Jump series in softcover paperbacks purchased at WH Smith, I can’t help but conjure up warm memories and feelings. But time moves on – the accessibility which digital distribution has afforded the medium of manga has opened the floodgates to a new means of consumption which has fundamentally altered the medium forever. But just as the book and music industry have seen a resurgence of old, ‘physical’ media amongst audiences longing for the feel of ‘touch’, perhaps manga will see the same. The developments to the industry (and its fandom) both in Japan and more widely may not always seem immediately desirable, but they are always interesting. The only constant, of course, is change.

(PS. my hope/prediction for an anime adaptation of Platinum End in 2018 never did materialise in the end…)

Japan-related books to look forward to in 2020

It’s that time of year again. My Amazon wish-list is practically bulging at the seams, full of books about Japan. Like most of the UK, I’ve found an inadvertent side-effect of the Coronavirus quarantine is that I’ve finally been able to make a sizeable dent in my to-read list, leaving my bookshelves (comparatively) more ready than usual to receive a well-timed influx of new reading material.

Much like I did in previous years, this itchiness toward the ‘new’ has ultimately culminated in me spending way too may hours trawling through Amazon looking for everything Japan-related on publishing schedules for the rest of 2020. As before, my criteria is generally to focus on affordable, mainstream releases, but I’ve also been rather generous in my categorisation and let slip a few personal accommodations to my own tastes (this also accounts for a number of releases from earlier in the year which I feel have slipped under the radar of many readers).

Consider this guide an extension to the one recently published by The Japan Times’ Iain Maloney. It’s worth mentioning that his own ‘The Only Gaijin In The Village‘ is a surprisingly sensitive treatment of his time adapting to life in rural Japan, and easily trumps many similar ‘my time in Japan’ books, of which there continues to be a surprising profusion of (Pico Iyer’s recent A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations being one of the better ones). While other books in this ouvre – I’m thinking chiefly of For Fukui’s Sake here – often feel like manifestos for wild gap year antics, Iain’s book puts the theme of family front and centre, touching on themes such as aging and community spirit that feel more relevant than ever during these current, uncertain times.

Are there any wider trends we can observe in the spread of books to be found below? One thing that surprised me is the comparative lack of translated Japanese fiction compared to previous years. This is something that would certainly run in tandem with rumours that the Japan Foundation’s always excellent annual Japan Now series of literary events may have wrapped up for the time being. If there are very few new translated releases set for 2020 / early 2021, it’s hard to see how Japanese authors could easily come over to the UK to promote and talk about them.

My sense is that the UK market for Japanese fiction has become afflicted with a sense of ‘one-hit-wonderism’ – something I’ve previously discussed in relation to Hiromi Kawakami and Hideo Yokoyama, who both scored massive hits with their first releases from major UK publishers. However, subsequent titles scored rapidly diminishing returns, and it remains to be seen if the same will happen to the most recent of Japanese breakout hits – Sayaka Murata – whose Convenience Store Woman remains one of the biggest success stories of recent years. Increasingly, the UK market is becoming reliant on US publishers to offer the first release, with a UK release to follow months down the line (see the case of Mieko Kawakami below). In an age of digital synchronicity where music and – increasingly – movie releases have become broadly globalised in terms of release date, this feels weirdly archaic).

I’ve long talked about the need for a Japanese publisher to re-invest in the global market and a more international identity for their works. I’m thinking of something similar to the now sadly retired Kodansha International imprint, which for many years fronted up excellent translations of now iconic authors such as Ryu Murakami. Japanese publishers have a clear hand in the international release of manga, through the likes of Vertical, Viz Media and Kodansha’s own English language imprint – why not in literature too? Likewise, in the sphere of newsprint, Nikkei have made waves through canny investment in magazines like Monocle and the Financial Times, helping bankroll them to bigger and better things. Monocle’s recently released compendium about Japan is well worth a look, on that note.

Films – Before I start, I’d also like to give an honourable mention to the unfortunately very scant selection of physical releases in the realm of Japanese cinema. While Third Window Films continue to fight the good cause with their always comprehensive mail-shots, frequent sales, presence at events like Hyper Japan, beyond a few upcoming releases (their multi-part Pink Films volume), there is little else to enthuse about in the wider sphere of UK distribution of Japanese titles. Despite the recent success of Koreeda with Shoplifters in the world cinema space, this hasn’t translated into a wider push for the Japanese film industry – which is too often dismissed as full of pulpy, cheap media that feel more like TV movies than cinematic ‘art’. These films are immensely popular with Japanese audiences but the received wisdom is that they would be unmarketable to UK audiences – and while digital distribution via services like Netflix would suggest an alternative to the haemorrhaging DVD / Blu-Ray market, this too is unlikely to be financially viable. Thus, we remain stuck in an unfortunate limbo where – outside of the ongoing anime market – there are very few UK releases of Japanese film and TV.

That said, the BFI is putting out a collection of Takeshi Kitano’s early films, something I’ve personally long been waiting for, as Violent Cop is for my money one of his most unashamedly entertaining works. There is also a release of Ozu’s The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice. Fans of classic Japanese horror also have a deluxe edition of Kwaidan to look forward to from Eureka.

Anyway, let’s get started with the books…

Riku Onda – The Aosawa Murders (16th January 2020 – Bitter Lemon Press)

Winner of the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel, this translation of Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders by Alison Watts (who did such a fantastic job with the recent release of Naoki Matayoshi’s Spark) seems to have quite a quiet release at the start of the year. Originally released in Japan back in 2005, we like how the cover art of Bitter Lemon Press’ edition very much casts this thriller as a kind of Japanese spin on Leila Slimani’s Lullaby. What is it about light pastel blue that can be so chilling…?

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Naomi Ishiguro – Escape Routes (6th February 2020 – Tinder Press)

How does one get away from the fact that you’re Nobel Prize-winning legend Kazuo Ishiguro’s daughter? Naomi Ishiguro has played things tactfully for her debut, releasing Escape Routes on cool literary imprint Tinder Press, and keeping the overt links to Ishiguro relatively quiet. Unfortunately, the book’s launch and subsequent promotional plan seems to have been rather hamstrung by the Coronavirus lockdown, which hit just as the book hit shelves. But we very much hope that across the rest of the year this release gets the attention it deserves. Interestingly, like her father, Naomi studied at University of East Anglia. It must run in the family, they would say.

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Tim Anderson – Vegan JapanEasy (5th March 2020 – Hardie Grant)

The classic line about Vegetarians or Vegans looking to visit Japan is that they’ll struggle to find something they can eat. Those with some knowledge of Japan will often counter: ‘Oh, but what about shōjin-ryōri (traditional Buddhist cuisine)?’ – Thus, it was only a matter of time before the Japanese cookbook world cottoned onto this too, and while Anderson’s release is certainly not the first to touch on the theme, it’s certainly one of the better presented. ‘This book won’t teach you how to make joyless ‘vegan versions’ of Japanese meat and fish dishes, because that wouldn’t be good, and there’s no need to! Instead this book taps into Japan’s rich culture of cookery that’s already vegan or very nearly vegan, so there are no sad substitutes and no shortcomings of flavour!’ claims the book, and we’d wholeheartedly agree with that.

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The Complete Story of Sadako Sasaki: and the Thousand Paper Cranes (13th March 2020 – Tuttle)

An eye-catching release that retells the famous story of Sadako Sasaki (the girl who aimed to fold a thousand paper cranes) for middle-schoolers. It’s interesting to see how the gentle, pastel-toned cover art quite closely resembles that of similarly Hiroshima-themed In This Corner of The World.

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Rebecca Otowa – The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper and Other Short Stories (24th March 2020 – Tuttle)

It is interesting to see Tuttle – more generally known for their non-fiction output on Japan – branching out into contemporary literature, and Rebecca Otowa’s collection of short stories is clearly being positioned within the vein of current female-centric Japanese literature output, with a blurb quote from the translator of Convenience Store Woman, and cover art that heavily recalls Hiromi Kawakami’s Nakano Thrift Shop. An interesting case study in ‘packaging’ literature.

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William O. Gardner – The Metabolist Imagination (14th April 2020 – University of Minnesota Press)

I aimed to generally avoid academic publications in this list – but this one was too intriguing to pass on. With both an eye-grabbing cover image of Tokyo’s iconic Nakagin capsule tower and the pretext to offer ‘Visions of the City in Postwar Japanese Architecture and Science Fiction’ – this is immediately on my to-read list. I still have fond memories of the Barbican’s Japanese House exhibition from a few years back; a masterclass in creating an ‘experiential’ exhibition space – so the more new material on Japanese exhibition the better.

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Hideaki Fujiki & Alastair Phillips (eds.) – The Japanese Cinema Book (16th April 2020 – BFI)

This looks set to be a fantastic addition to the BFI’s on-going stellar work on offering comprehensive guides aimed at a breezy middle-point between general public interest, film buff-dom, and full in academia. Jonathan Clements’ Anime: A History has been my go-to bible for years now, since its release in 2013, and The Japanese Cinema Book looks set to slot in very nicely alongside it on my bookshelf. I’ve long talked about how recent years have seen an unfortunate ‘slowing’ of decent writing on the contemporary Japanese cinema scene, instead preferring to look back to ‘overlooked’ masters in the hope of re-discovering or re-appraising what we understand as the ‘canon’ of Japanese cinema. While there is definite value in that, it also tends to devalue what is happening ‘now’ in Japanese cinema, as well as what Japanese audiences actually watch. As such, the cover image – taken from an iconic scene in Koreeda’s My Little Sister – feels like the perfect choice here; that film pairing as it did, Japan’s biggest name in contemporary film with current It-girl-of-the-moment Hirose Suzu.

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The Power Wish: Japan’s Leading Astrologer Reveals the Moon’s Secrets for Finding Success, Happiness, and the Favor of the Universe (9th June 2020 – Penguin)

“Keiko’s method can help people to make their dreams a reality.” says no less a figure than Marie Kondo herself. A million-selling sensation in Japan, Keiko’s book looks to do for Astrology what Kondo did for cleaning, decluttering and tidying up. I’ve long been fascinated with Japan’s obsession with fortune-telling, urban shamanism and the transactional qualities present in it. In Japan, books like this remain big-sellers, and feature in prominent displays even in mainstream bookstores. While the UK has always had a market for self-help guides, I do wonder if the recent trend for Japanese ‘lifestyle’ books is part of a marked shift toward the kind of lifestyle ‘add-ons’ the Japanese publishing industry does so well. In a modern world where we struggle to find meaning in our lives and are increasingly looking for any kind of direction possible, who is to say that a Japanese spin on Astrology might not be the next big thing here too?

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Matt Alt – Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World (23rd June 2020 – Constable)

Matt Alt will be familiar to many longtime Japan-watchers through his entertaining, memorable book Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, as well as his slot on NHK World’s longrunning Japanology Plus. This new guide to Japanese pop culture comes with many accolades from some of the biggest names in Japanese Studies, and as a useful bridge between the realms of academia (where this field has been covered comprehensively) and a more generalist, populist field, this should prove a useful reader for those looking for interesting new takes on some of Japan’s most popular cultural outputs.

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Hector Garcia & Francesc Miralles – The Ikigai Journey: A Practical Guide to Finding Happiness and Purpose the Japanese Way (23rd June 2020 – Tuttle)

What’s better than one mega-selling book about Ikigai? How about two? Following on from their breakout success with Ikigai: the Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Garcia and Miralles now present The Ikigai Journey: A Practical Guide to Finding Happiness and Purpose the Japanese Way. While we’d certainly advocate a more practical approach to Ikigai, we can’t help but chuckle a little at the way ‘Ikigai’ as a concept has snowballed into one of the biggest trends in self-help / lifestyle publishing in recent years. People literally Cannot Get Enough Of It.

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Gail Tsukiyama – The Color of Air (7th July 2020 – Harpervia)

Born in San Francisco to a Chinese mother from Hong Kong and a Japanese father from Hawaii, Gail Tsukiyama has released seven previous novels, but The Color of Air marks an important new step for the author, not least because the striking cover art pops out when set against the rather more muted colours of her previous releases. Coming from Harpervia – an important new imprint from Harper Collins – this release is part of a line-up that also includes the English translation of South Korean author Won-Pyung Sohn’s Almond (which incidentally, has been popular in its Japanese translation).

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Erin Niimi Longhurst – Omoiyari: The Japanese Art of Compassion (9th July 2020 – HarperCollins)

Of all the current spread of Japanese ‘lifestyle’ books (it really is a bonafide publishing trend here in the UK right now – and shows no sign of letting up steam anytime soon…), Erin Niimi Longhurst’s Japonisme was without a doubt one of the best – boasting a cultural sensitivity and awareness that so many similar books lacked. Whereas other books (like the infamous Ikigai book that set this whole trend off) often came lamentably short due to shallow descriptions and a sense that they were just self-help guides dressed up in the ‘guise’ of Japan, Longhurst’s work consistently feels like it hits closer to the true heart of the matter. ‘Omoiyari is a form of selfless compassion – putting yourself in the shoes of others, and from their perspective anticipating their needs, acting in a way that might make them at ease, happy or comfortable.’ – the blurb claims, and that feels like something we could all do with more of right now.

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Misa Sugiura – This Time Will Be Different (9th July 2020 – HarperTeen)

Very heavily marketed as a Young Adult-specific work, this follow-up to the Asian Pacific American Award-winning It’s Not Like It’s a Secret, this looks like a fun summertime read for teens (although it is not without its darker subthemes, touching on Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during WWII). An important work within the wider contemporary realm of Asian American literature, which is increasingly becoming a very sizeable niche within the Young Adult market in particular, it’s only a matter of time before we have a Japanese spin on the Crazy Rich Asians ‘moment’ – could this be it?

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Tuttle Japanese Language learning resources (July – October 2020)

Tuttle continue to pump out a remarkable number of Japan-related works (too many to list here), but I’ve always found it interesting to look at their language learning resources – something they seem to be putting more focus into in recent years. While many Japanese learners will have their tried and tested textbook favourites (Minna No Nihongo, Genki, Japanese for Busy People etc.), I think Tuttle’s approach – glossy, photo-heavy, accessible guides – is an important nod toward the need for some of this material to appeal to more general audiences, outside a specific classroom setting.

Noriko Morishita – The Wisdom of Tea: Life Lessons from the Japanese Tea Ceremony (6th August 2020 – Allen & Unwin)

While the raft of Ikigai-esque Japanese lifestyle books have invariably covered the tea ceremony at some point or other, this guide looks set to offer a more specific focus. Coming from a 25+ year practitioner of tea, one would hope this guide offers an accurate, sensitively delivered guide to some of the ceremony’s more arcane features. Already a best-seller in Japan, we’d like to imagine that if it resonates with Japanese audiences themselves, it contains some of the same magic that saw the Marie Kondo sensation transition to the West.

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Carey Smith – Japanese Cooking for the Soul: Healthy. Mindful. Delicious. (6th August 2020 – Ebury Press)

An affordable paperback addition to the ever-growing spread of well-designed Japanese cookbooks, this one comes with an interesting approach: ‘The energy of this cookbook is inspired by the performance of Itadakimasu, an essential part of Japanese culture which allows us to express gratitude before a meal.’ An interesting intersection between Japanese food and the broader ‘lifestyle / mindfulness’ books we’ve seen elsewhere – backed up by the sleek, minimalist design and gentle, cream cover background.

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Chika Sagawa – The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa (11th August 2020 – Bantam Dell Publishing Group)

Winner of the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. We’re in a ripe time for translation of Japanese poetry, with the recent re-release of Hiromi Ito’s classic Killing Kanoko. Touted as ‘Japan’s first female Modernist poet’, Sagawa (1911-1936) died young at the age of 25, but this compendium looks set to be an important contribution to the field and a fascinating insight into Japanese writing from this era.

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Clarissa Goenawan – The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida: A novel of modern Japan (13th August 2020 – Scribe)

The Indonesian-born Singaporean writer’s previous effort Rainbirds proved to be highly popular amongst the YA-loving audiences that frequent online book hubs like Goodreads, and her latest looks to offer more of the same. Touted as ‘a bewitching novel set in contemporary Japan about the mysterious suicide of a young woman,’ the book looks as if it will appeal strongly to those who loved the likes of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being.

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Japan: The Passenger (13th August 2020)

Originally launched in Italy in recent years and now translated into English and forthcoming from Europa Editions, The Passenger ‘collects the best long-form essays, investigative journalism, literary reportage, and visual narratives in order to tell the story of a country or city and to portray its shifting culture and identity, its public debates, the sensibilities of its people, its burning issues, conflicts, and open wounds. Taken together, these fragments form a novel, complex picture.’ With some big name contributors (Ryu Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto) – this intriguing publishing experiment comes with the benefit of luxe presentation and a stylish demeanour that falls somewhere between the magazine / book market.

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Mieko Kawakami – Breasts and Eggs (20th August 2020 – Picador)

This is the biggie. Already released in the US, the English translation of Breasts and Eggs is actually a combinatory affair, bringing together the titular Akutagawa-prize winning story with its sequel, ‘Natsumonogatari’ (which was published in Japan recently). I was already a fan of Kawakami after enjoying the Puskin release of Miss Ice Sandwich, but it has been fascinating seeing the gearing up of the press reaction to her full English debut. Kawakami is proclaimed as a ‘literary star’ by EW and the New York Times while the Observer invites us to ‘fall for’ her. Heated discussion of an interview between Kawakami and Haruki Murakami has followed on Twitter. Kawakami herself is highly active on social media (and began her career as a singer-songwriter), reacting to this press coverage in English. In combination with Kawakami’s stylish image, it is interesting to consider the role of author as bonafide ‘star’ – something Japan has ample familiarity with; even parodied in the character of Fuka-Eri in Murakami’s 1Q84. The clamour around Kawakami recalls similar reactions to the likes of Sally Rooney in the British media and asks the question, is the author as all-round ‘star persona’ a natural symptom of 21st century media culture and public appetites? We very much hope the UK sales of Breasts and Eggs matches the media hype – she deserves it.

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Eiyû Murakoshi – Now and Zen: Notes from a Buddhist Monastery: with Illustrations (27th August 2020 – Penguin)

Very much following in the vein of Penguin’s previous A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind (which has proved weirdly popular – with over 200 reviews on Amazon). These pocket-sized, illustrated guides continue to illustrate to just what degree there is an appetite for Japanese-style mindfulness compendiums right now.

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Yukito Ayatsuji – The Decagon House Murders (24th September 2020 – Pushkin Vertigo)

First published in Japanese in 1987, and then offered in English translation in 2015 by Locked Room International, The Decagon House Murders becomes the latest vintage crime release salvaged from obscurity by Pushkin Vertigo. I really like how the publisher has built up a sizeable little catalogue of ‘old-school’ Japanese detective/crime fiction now, and while my tastes in the releases has personally varied (for my money, The Honjin Murders remains the best of the bunch), it’s impressive to see the dogged determination with which the publisher has stuck to this strand of releases.

Sayaka Murata – Earthlings (1st October 2020 – Granta)

It’s important to re-iterate just what a success the English translation of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman was. It currently has over 46,000 ratings on Goodreads, almost double the 26,000 Haruki Murakami’s latest tome Killing Commendatore has. Can her follow-up, Earthlings, break the cycle of recent ‘one-hit-wonderism’ discussed in the intro to this article, and establish Murata as a genuine here-to-stay talent in the West? It’s interesting to see how Granta have decided to stick with the more pop-art-esque ‘neutral’ design style evidenced in their ‘sushi fish’ cover for the mass market re-release of Convenience Store Woman, as opposed to what many saw as the heavily female-oriented ‘Chic Lit’ cover of the original English release. It remains to be seen which marketing strategy pays the most dividends – but we eagerly await this translation, which looks set to return to the more ‘weird’ style evidenced in the likes of Murata’s A Clean Marriage – which was the intro point for many readers to the author when it first appeared in Granta magazine’s Japan special edition.

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Alan Booth – The Roads to Sata: A 2000 mile walk through Japan (29th October 2020 – Penguin)

A timely re-release for Alan Booth’s classic piece of travel writing, chronicling his 2000 mile walk through Japan from Hokkaido to Sata. Penguin’s previous releases in this vein have seen the likes of Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan become some of the most seminal reading on Japan, so it’s good to see them expanding this range of non-fiction releases.

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Kobo Abe – Secret Rendezvous / The Ruined Map / The Box Man / The Ark Sakura (29th October / 5th November 2020 – Penguin)

Penguin Modern classics have been on a roll recently with some of the most exquisite cover art in publishing right now; particularly if you’re a fan of their stripped down, minimalist/modernist style. These Abe translations may be old (and have been available in pricey US editions for a while now) but it is fantastic to see such an iconic Japanese author getting the increased shelf-presence these re-releases will no doubt bring.

Christopher Harding – The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives (20th November 2020 – Penguin)

Harding’s previous release from Penguin – Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present – was an important contribution to the ouvre of more populist, accessible histories on Japan. With the involvement of a major publisher like Penguin, it’s vital for books like this to complement the steady stream of more overtly academic histories, and his next book looks set to do more of the same.

[Book Review] Mari Fujimoto – Ikigai & other Japanese words to live by

The past year or so has seen an intense proliferation of what I like to call ‘Japanese lifestyle’ books. Certain bafflingly popular but – in my opinion – poorly written volumes on Ikigai and Wabi-sabi have taken UK bookshops by storm, but have arguably failed to really come close to what the concepts truly reflect. So I was interested to receive a copy of a new book on ‘Ikigai & other Japanese words to live by’ that takes a somewhat different approach to its subject matter.

Rather than lecture the reader through lengthy description in an effort at ‘understanding’, this book is refreshingly minimal in tone – using photos and poetry to allow the reader to ‘experience’ its concepts instead. Lending itself to a slow, contemplative reading experience, the black & white photography by Michael Kenna tastefully illustrates a series of terms ranging from the expected (wabi-sabi and ichigo ichie) to more surprising inclusions like fukinsei (poignancy in imbalance) and isagiyosa (egolessness). Paired to each section are also a selection of haiku poems as well as ‘expressive essay’ pieces from David Buchler, which – like the photos – go a long way in getting to the true heart of ‘feeling’ these concepts. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and this book certainly lives by that adage.

Much like Erin Niimi Longhurst’s surprisingly good Japonisme, through virtue of the author actually being Japanese, there is a cultural sensitivity to the topic that inevitably helps the contents feel far reflective and considered in tone. As a linguistics scholar, author Mari Fujimoto clearly has the intellectual clout to properly back up the descriptions too, and I think this comes through in the selection of the concepts, and how many of them emphasise routine and the ingraining of practices. It reminds me of why many people like reading decluttering expert Marie Kondo’s books so much, and how it is not even so much the actual act of cleaning they enjoy, but how she writes about cleaning. After all, lifestyle is arguably only lifestyle if it actually becomes a ‘style’ of living (and not simply a series of check-box-ticking ‘tips’).

One of the things I often struggle with in regard to these ‘Japanese lifestyle’ books is the idea of Japanese-ness (or at least a list-like series of Japanese concepts) as something codified – the essence of a nation distilled down to keywords to be ‘cracked’ and understood. In the intro, the author writes about how she often discusses how ‘the Japanese culture perceives ideas differently from the Western mindset’, and I think in a way this lies at the heart of why so many of these books fall short of their task. If we see mindset as a result of upbringing and environment, pieced together through landscapes, tastes, sounds and all the other myriad things we take for granted through our upbringing in a country – can that mindset, or the conditions that produce it, exist beyond the confines of that country? Is a ‘wabi-sabi’ experience outside of Japan the same kind of ‘wabi-sabi’ experienced in Japan, or is it even ‘wabi-sabi’ in the first place?

For what it’s worth though, I think this book – by focusing on the ‘experience’ of its concepts as opposed to lengthy ‘understanding through description’ – offers a far better effort than many of the existing books on the market. With a hardback binding and lovely, glossy pages to really help make the best of its photographs, and by eschewing Insta-ready ‘prettiness’ and self-help aphorisms, the book highlights how a simple yet quality-driven approach can often beat out face-value attractiveness.

Upcoming Japanese fiction in English translation #TheHighlights

Back in June, I wrote a post picking out some of the biggest upcoming books from / about Japan. The reason? Now, more than ever, it seems like Japan-related fiction and ‘lifestyle’ books are dominating in bookstores – with Foyles even creating a temporary Japan section in its main foyer, as well as recent months seeing their Top 10 bestsellers section full of as many as three or four Japanese authors at any one time.

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This time, I want to keep my focus a little tighter and stick just to fiction – primarily as it seems like – for the time being at least – the lifestyle books have quietened down a little (following the release of a rather disappointing Wabi Sabi book, and the well-presented but perhaps a little too luxe ‘How To Live Japanese’). Plus, with the behemoth-sized swell created when a new Murakami novel hits now out of the way, it’s interesting to note that a wide spread of Japanese novels – both old and new – are ready and waiting in the wings.

But first, a quick look at how some of the books from my last post seemed to end up faring once they hit shelves…

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories – This beautiful compendium was a mainstay in Foyles and Waterstones over the summer, but despite that – and the incredibly cheap Kindle price – seemed to struggle to shift copies. Perhaps the selection of material was too eclectic – or perhaps the way it was sorted (thematically, instead of chronologically) even more so. A paperback edition is coming, so it may achieve a new lease of life – but my suspicions is that this will become more of a resource for students of Japanese literature than anything else. The material was of excellent quality – but seemed to suffer a little from the curse of ‘curator’s favourites’.

Alex Kerr’s Another Kyoto seems to be another that struggled – although this time more through lack of placement. It was only in the very biggest branches of Waterstones that I saw this displayed – and even then, not prominently. While it remained enjoyable through Kerr’s classic style, it holds no candle to his classic Lost Japan, and again – feels like its destined more as an academic resource.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata proved to be a masterclass in marketing – its lurid yellow & pink cover still occupying the Foyles Top 10 to date. The overt ‘women’s literature’ spin the publisher seems to have taken with it (including equally eye-catching adverts on the London tube) has worked wonders, and the novel has become one of the most populist, bestselling works by a Japanese author since Hiromi Kawakami (not including Murakami of course).

Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared From The World was another interesting release – highly populist in tone, yet also feeling like a far more literary work than last year’s incredibly successful The Travelling Cat Chronicles. The fad for translations of Japanese cat novels seems to show no sign of dying down, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if we see another this time next year…

And now for the up-coming releases…

Dandelions – Yasunari Kawabata (4th April 2019)

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It’s been a while since we got an edition of Kawabata from Penguin, but at 128 pages, this slim tome (his final novel) will fit in nicely with their previous Modern Classics releases of his work. For many, Snow Country remains *the* entry point into classic Japanese literature, so this will be a welcome addition to the line-up.

The Frolic of the Beasts – Yukio Mishima (4th April 2019)

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Walk into most decent bookshops and right above Murakami, you’ll see a hefty wedge of bright-red spines: the Vintage Classics editions of Mishima. But recently, Penguin Modern Classics have been getting in on the Mishima game too, following up last year’s reprint of Confessions of a Mask with this first-time English translation of his 1961 work.

Prefecture D – Hideo Yokoyama (21st March 2019)

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The general sense is that Seventeen (aka Climber’s High) was a disappointing follow-up to the remarkable success of Six Four. From the mystifying name-change of the novel (presumably to make its title more similar to Six Four) to the different translator, Seventeen is currently languishing with 25 Amazon reviews to Six Four’s 154. Even a recent paperback release seems to have limited impact. So in that sense, Prefecture D marks new territory – being a collection of short stories, and having a non-number title. Hopefully this English translation will return Yokoyama to the levels of mainstream crossover appeal that made Six Four such an exciting new entry to the world of Japanese crime/thriller literature.

The Little House – Kyoko Nakajima (31st January 2019)

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A winner of Japan’s prestigious Naoki Prize, this is the latest effort from translator Ginny Tapley Takemori – currently riding high on the success of her translation of Convenience Store Woman. It’s quite a change in setting here – early Showa era instead of contemporary Japan, but considering Takemori’s recent translation of Akiyuki Nosaka’s The Cake Tree in the Ruins for Pushkin Press was also impressive, I have high hopes for this one.

Newcomer – Keigo Higashino (20th November 2018)

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Little Brown are clearly counting on a real return to the big time for Keigo Higashino with this one – the second of a series which began with Malice (their translation was published all the way back in 2014). Journey Under a Midnight Sun and Midsummer’s Equation met with mixed success, despite the former arguably being the writer’s masterwork, so it will be interesting to see how Newcomer – complete with a new style of cover-art design for the author – will fare.

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (8th August 2019)

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You’ll have to wait all the way until next August for this one – quite some time, especially considering it’s been over 8 years now since Vintage’s last release of Ogawa’s work (Revenge). They’re sticking with the same cover design though, despite – at 352 pages – this being by far the longest of the author’s works they’ve brought over here to date.

Erin Niimi Longhurst – Japonisme [Book Review]

I’ve been reading a lot of the current Japan-related hardback lifestyle books on offer recently, and I think I may have just found my new favourite – and best of the bunch – in Erin Niimi Longhurst’s Japonisme.

While so many of these lifestyle books fill their pages with lengthy anecdotal or pseudo-science ‘evidence’ supposedly backing up why what they’re preaching is so convincing, Japonisme relies far more on relatable, personal stories. If an author is telling us about how great a certain lifestyle is, I kind of want to know that they can ‘walk the walk’ so to speak – and thankfully, as a half British, half Japanese lifestyle blogger and social media consultant, Longhurst is in a better position than most to write with the eloquence, first-hand ‘lived’ experience and cultural sensitivity needed for a book like this.

With many of the ‘hot topic’ Japan-trends like Ikigai, wabi-sabi and forest bathing recently being treated to books in their own right, at nearly 300 pages and only £9.99, Japonisme feels like a wonderfully affordable way to get to grips with everything in one bite-sized dose. While all the sections are enjoyable – with the parts on calligraphy and flower arranging feeling particularly enlightening – I think what stuck with me most were the author’s reflections on how themes like Ikigai and habit-forming came into play in relation to her own life. As touched on above, while step-by-step how-to-guides have a place in this sector of publishing, I’ve always found it far more convincing when a writer can simply ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ how that attitude and set of life values breathes its essence into how they conduct themselves in their day to day lives.

If there were any criticisms that I had, it’s that at times, it almost feels like the book is trying to do *too* much. Particularly in the section on food and cooking (tabemono) – full as it is with delicious sounding recipes and ingredient lists – I almost felt like this, and many of the other sections, could be broken out into an entire book in their own right. That said, the food section does contain one of the clearest, most refreshingly un-judgemental summaries I’ve found on correct sushi-eating etiquette I’ve seen, so points gained on that front.

Japonisme feels in many ways like the kind of book every blogger should have the ambition to produce at some points in their life and career – a kind of modus operandi and mission statement of who they are and what they care about. Reading as it does like an extended series of blog posts, and accompanied by some immaculate photography, illustration and design work (as well as a wonderfully tactile hardback cover), Japonisme has shot right to the top of my list in terms of accessible, enlightening books I’d recommend to the lay reader looking to dip their toes into the fascinating world of Japanese culture for the first time.

Dr Qing Li – Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing [Book Review]

Reading this lovingly designed hard-back tome from Penguin’s lifestyle imprint, I was reminded of something many people commented on when referring to the Marie Kondo decluttering phenomenon. Namely, that it wasn’t just enacting the principles laid out in her books that brought them mental satisfaction, but that the act of reading her books themselves – carefully, logically explaining how to follow her method – that gave them the strongest sense of gentle, blissful mindfulness.

Content wise, I remain relatively half-hearted on what this book has to say about Shinrin-Yoku. I am in no doubt of the benefits of spending time amidst nature, drinking in the natural beauty of our surroundings – but the book’s method of slinging what feels like a hundred skin-deep scientific studies at us to convince us feels a bit like preaching to the converted. Surprise surprise – all the evidence presented here supports the conclusion that, yes, forest bathing is a very good thing indeed!

While the modus-operandi feels a lot more genuine and well-meaning than many of the ‘smart-thinking’ style lifestyle books out there right now, the results can still feel a little repetitive at times. That said, whereas books like the little blue-covered Ikigai one that *everyone* seems to be reading right now felt like a prime example of ‘A few zippy case studies and vaguely related anecdotes to get CEOs fired up about this hip new trend’, at least this one seems to be coming from a place of good-intentions and care for people’s well-being.

For me, consuming this book was less about the actual information contained within it, and more about the *experience* itself. I’ve been watching a lot of ASMR videos on YouTube recently – a phenomenon where whispered voices, crinkling, rippling noises and so on set off a kind of almost sensuous tingle down your nervous system – and reading this book offered a similar kind of feel in many ways. Making your way through the pages and the lavish photography, you’re forced to slow down and contemplate, wallow in a sensory, meditative experience.

My favourite part comes roughly halfway through, where the book spends ample time describing the particular scents of various Japanese trees. To someone who enjoys wine and whiskey, this section resonated deeply with me – touching my taste for sensory experiences conveyed in literary form, and I enjoyed the opportunity to drink in the descriptions of aromatherapy, essential oils and their links to forest bathing. For the record, this book smells absolutely amazing too.

So, ultimately – I ended up coming away from this book seeing it very much as a coffee table piece. Something to be dipped into and returned to, for the photographic content more than anything. It is very much ‘reading-as-experience’ as opposed to reading for meaning. It’s a strong effort on many fronts – and certainly better than some of the similar ‘lifestyle’ tomes on the market right now. Perhaps most of all though, in the hectic world of city living, even the one day of relaxed, contemplative study it gave me felt like something to be pretty thankful for.