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New Worlds and Fresh Perspectives: The Rise of Japanese Translated Fiction

By Imogen Bristow, Holly Butterfield, Brittany Holness, Gemma Mathers and Lucy O’Neill

 

Japanese fiction is the most popular form of translated literature in the UK, with the global best-seller Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata catalysing this trend in 2016. In 2024, major bookshops now have their own designated Japanese literature section for readers to browse and discover, with subject matter ranging from dystopian horror to reassuring bedtime reads which remind us of life’s joys. As is common amongst current book trends, BookTokers are responsible for the surge in these books after sharing their enjoyment online. Since then, their popularity has spread by word of mouth, and titles such as Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi have sold over 82,000 copies in 2023 alone, according to Nielsen Book Scan.

 

Japanese translated fiction, as previously mentioned, is a prevalent form of literature. This growth and increased enjoyment in the reading community is due to many factors. These novels act as representatives of several aspects of Japanese society, those that intrigue various demographics. For instance, gender politics is often represented in these books, with some emphasis placed on the realities of women living in Japan. Japanese literature also exposes other cultural aspects of their society, such as the high work drive and fast-paced environment. They also portray their opposing, slow-living approach, known as ‘ukino’. This means ‘to live in the moment and be far from common life matters’, a refreshing sentiment that can be considered in countries other than Japan, where many have unhealthy relationships with work-life balance. Being able to indulge in fiction that focuses on a specific country’s culture and history, which is not necessarily similar to their own, has appealed to the reader demographic in the UK.

 

The importance of the availability of translated literature cannot be stressed enough. It helps us learn about different places and cultures right from the heart. You can only gain a deeper understanding and a feel for the true essence of a place by reading its own literature. This way, you can experience writing that has not been influenced by our own opinions but instead written through the lens of minds entirely different to ours. Especially with events in the modern world today, such as the extremes in xenophobia found in the wake of Brexit, there must be greater access to differing worldviews. On a more personal level, translated literature allows the reader to travel without leaving the comfort of their own home. They can see a place through the words on the page, saving money and fitting these experiences around their everyday life.

 

For those looking for an easy yet impeccable first read in this genre, look no further than Days at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa. This novel follows the life of twenty-five-year-old Takako, who has never liked reading despite the Morisaki bookshop her family has owned for three generations. But when Takako’s boyfriend leaves her heartbroken to marry another woman, Takako reluctantly agrees to move above the shop. Without giving too much away, Days at the Morisaki Bookshop is a wholesome but important novel about the teachings of life, love and the power books hold over us. Takako finds solace and comfort in the pages of the books, and hopefully, this recommendation will bring you the same!

 

Another great option is Breast and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami. With a different tone from Yagisawa’s novel, Kawakami tackles the hardships of womanhood and adolescence and the importance of finding a voice in a world determined to silence you. Breast and Eggs unfolds in the backdrop of contemporary Japan and follows three women on their intimate journeys to finding peace and purpose. Kawakami’s wry humour and emotional complexity within her characters make this novel a must-read.

 

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa offers the option of an Orwellian-style dystopian if that’s more your style. In this world, objects begin disappearing, starting with more minor, largely forgettable items such as ribbons and roses before things begin to escalate. Words are removed from existence, whilst the Memory Police are tasked with eliminating any trace of such objects. This contemporary is a deep dive into language, as a novelist and her editor fear the losses surrounding them and cling to what they’ve lost through their writing as the only means of preserving the past. This one never explains the hows or the whys; it just looks at the role of state surveillance within this Japanese town.


Before now, translated literature typically remained on publishers' backlists, attracting a small readership and rarely reaching mainstream audiences. However, with sales of translated fiction growing and creeping up bestseller charts, whole worlds of international reading await the British public. This news is positive amongst independent publishers committed to producing translated books, such as North-based Comma Press and And Other Stories, who will surely benefit from this trend. It also points to a changing mindset amongst Brits, who, in the wake of Brexit, are clearly yearning for wider-reaching, non-Western perspectives that cut through the hegemony of English writing. 

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