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  • Writer's pictureThe Publishing Post

Design Trends in Japanese Translated Fiction

By Laura Wallace, Megan Coote, Tessa Thejas Thomas and Juliette Tulloch

Japanese literature has become the UK’s top-selling category for translated fiction over the last year. This week, we spotlight some of their popular design trends, ranging from minimalism and vibrant pop art to the recurring inclusion of cats.

Harlequin Butterfly by Toh Enjoe, translated by David Boyd

Enjoe’s novella follows entrepreneur A.A. Abrams in his global pursuit of an elusive writer called Tomoyuki Tomoyuki. Able to write in dozens of local languages and travel all over the world without detection, Abrams creates an institute focused on finding this writer and discovering their secret. 

The cover of Harlequin Butterfly is an excellent example of the use of minimalist but striking pop art in Japanese-translated fiction. The growing depiction of the butterfly as it engulfs the cover illustrates the writer’s powerful nature to travel so effortlessly whilst growing their wings as they incorporate new languages as their own without difficulty. The design cleverly mirrors that of the real harlequin butterfly, also known as Paralaxita Orphna, which is difficult to locate and appears black when spotted in darkness, the colour of their wings revealed only if they land in sunlight. The striking colours allude to a crime or thriller-based novella, whilst the vague shadow of the butterfly keeps the reader guessing.

Butter by Asako Yuzuki, translated by Polly Barton

Butter is a captivating novel that blends true crime with an exploration of the relationship between food and identity, as well as misogyny and obsession. Yuzuki’s story is based on the real case of the Konkatsu Killer, a con woman convicted of murdering three men. The UK edition, published by 4th Estate, was designed by Emma Pidsley and is instantly intriguing. The design is contemporary and minimalist, emphasising a few select elements rather than overly cluttered. The cover’s dominant colour is unsurprisingly a warm buttery yellow, tying back to the novel’s name and inducing the indulgent and moreish feeling the book evokes with its detailed culinary descriptions.

The shortage of butter is central to the plot as the story is set in 2011, during a real butter shortage in Japan. The dairy cow image highlights the central role of butter throughout the narrative, the shortage partly being due to the poor conditions dairy cows were kept in, which impacted their milk production. The foiled red smears of blood across the cover bring the true crime element back to the forefront, symbolising the violence and crimes committed by Manako Kajji, who is based on the Konkatsu Killer. The visuals don’t naturally go together and only make sense when connected to the synopsis, demonstrating that Butter’s design stimulates the reader's curiosity, much like its contents.


What You Are Looking for is in the Library by Michiko Aoyama, translated by Alison Watts

Michiko Aoyama’s What You Are Looking for is in the Library follows Sayuri Komachi, who runs a community library. Various community members come to Sayuri for book recommendations, and these recommendations influence the direction of their lives. This translated Japanese fiction piece is a Sunday Times bestseller for this very reason: its’ spotlight on humanity, compassion and hope. Not only are such themes common in Japanese literature, but the cover also includes many staple design elements. 

A muted pastel colour palette is used in the cover for all elements, except the library windows and black cat. Cats are often featured in and on Japanese literature, which is especially fitting given the setting of Aoyama’s novel. The illustrations used on the cover include books, a plant and a cushion, and emphasise the comfortable feeling of being in a library. This cosy feeling is evident when reading the novel and following the intricate lives of multiple characters facing challenges in their lives and looking for hope in books. The vertical placement of the cover text ensures that the main focus is the library and the view out the window. Perhaps this is a nod to the title itself, and what we are looking for in our lives, outside our windows, is really in the library. 

More Days at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa, translated by Eric Ozawa

Yagisawa’s sequel to the bestselling tale of the Tokyo emporium will be released in July 2024 with much anticipation. Continuing the heartening tale of Satoru and Momoko’s family-run bookshop, their niece Takako is left in charge whilst they go on holiday. 

HarperCollins’ edition of the sequel, courtesy of illustrator Ilya Milstein, is a whimsical depiction of Japanese bookstores. The detailed graphic incorporates popular tropes found in Japanese book design, such as the friendly cats and the outside-looking window. The stacked chaos of the books mimics the first novel, but this time, the protagonists are drawn centre stage for us to see more clearly. Here, we can see Takako and Staoru, which invites us to look deeper at the going-ons of the bookshop and the stories it holds. Milstein drew inspiration from his own visit to the Tokyo bookshop district, Jimbōchō, for the design, adding to the authentic nature of the cover and its quaintness. 



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