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…?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.