Bringing the World Books from Japan

Bringing Japan’s Books to Readers Around the World

Read Japan is designed to promote a deeper understanding of contemporary Japan by bringing books on Japan within reach of people in countries throughout the world. The project is built on a three-pronged strategy of book donations to overseas libraries, the translation and publication of outstanding Japanese literary works, and the training of young translators. In this article, we trace the events that led to the hosting of the Tokyo International Literary Festival in March 2013 and the other initiatives taken and achievements made under the project.


The Desire to Tell the World About Japan

About two decades ago, Japan came under criticism in some quarters as being a “showoff” on the world stage. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, the economic bubble was at its peak and Japanese money seemed omnipresent. That era is long gone, however. Beginning in the mid-1990s, economic growth stalled and interest in Japan declined—the country ceased to be the giant it was once perceived to be. The start of the twenty-first century did nothing to reverse this trend. Some began to worry that Japan was destined to be forgotten by the rest of the world. In response to this trend, the Nippon Foundation undertook a number of initiatives to make new information on Japan available to the rest of the world.

Photo of a booklet that compiles 100 titles for understanding contemporary Japan

The “Read Japan” project was one such undertaking; it started out as a book-donation scheme for which a committee of Japanese, American, and British experts selected 100 titles for understanding contemporary Japan, and works from the list were sent to libraries throughout the world. The committee chose books for the list in 2007, carefully screening existing English-language titles in five categories: politics and international relations, economics and business, society and culture, literature and arts, and history. From 2008 to 2012, a total of 54,071 volumes were sent to 857 libraries in 115 countries.

Read Japan was extremely well received. Today, requests for books continue to arrive from libraries around the world. But in the process of choosing the books one issue came to light: the majority of the titles were written by scholars outside Japan. As Tatsuya Tanami, an executive director at the Nippon Foundation, notes, “Of the 100 titles chosen, just three were English-language works by Japanese authors, and under a third were translations into English. We realized that in order to boost our ability to convey information to readers overseas, we first had to find a way to render more Japanese works into English. It was at this point that we decided to put our efforts behind translation.”

A Focus on Contemporary Literature

In 2009 a new project got underway to increase the opportunities for translations of Japanese works abroad. A list of 50 nonfiction and 50 fiction works recommended for translation was drawn up. A catalogue with the names of the works, a description of why they were chosen, and a profile of the authors was compiled and distributed at book fairs abroad, sent to publishers, and made available on the Internet.

As the project unfolded, however, yet another issue became apparent: the number of publishers that embarked on a translation after viewing the list was unexpectedly small. Getting Japanese works translated and published abroad was not just a matter of making information available; contacts had to be established with foreign publishers and others in order to get a project off the ground.

In the case of the United States, for example, translations account for less than 2%, of the book market, and translations of Japanese works are just a fraction of that miniscule amount. Editors in English-speaking countries are not willing to read and publish a Japanese title, so it does no good to wait around for this to happen. The results of market research revealed, however, that most of the decisions on translations were made by a handful of influential editors. This was especially true in the case of fiction.

In the light of this, the list of candidates for translation and publication was narrowed to fiction. Literary works portray the state of the world and the times, and it was felt they offer an accessible means of learning about Japan. The next step, it was decided, was finding a way to bring Japanese novelists and editors into the network of the British and American editors who made the decisions on contemporary fiction publications.

In October 2010 editors from Britain and the United States were invited to “Other Voices, Other Rooms, Other Worlds,” a symposium designed to lay the groundwork for such a network. Six editors and agents from eminent British and US literary publications, including The New Yorker and Granta, came together with Japanese editors and translators to discuss the possibilities for literary magazines and various other topics. The editors from Britain and the United States shared their views on the role played by translators and editors in bridging cultural differences and avoiding potential misunderstandings, and they spoke about writers whose works are easy or difficult to translate into English. The Japanese participants, meanwhile, underlined the significance of translating a Japanese title into English, the global lingua franca.

Searching for New Possibilities

In April 2011, an English-language offshoot of the Japanese literary journal Monkey Business was issued. Motoyuki Shibata, a Japanese translator of American literature, served as one of the chief editors of the publication, also called Monkey Business, while the US publishing company A Public Space oversaw editing and distribution and the Nippon Foundation took charge of translation and publication. Along with Japanese translations of overseas classics and new works, Monkey Business features trailblazers in Japanese literature today. The Japanese edition ceased publication in 2011, after the fifteenth issue, but the English version continues, with the third issue published this year.


Following this, in March 2012, one year after the Great East Japan Earthquake, Japanese and English editions of another literary anthology were simultaneously published, titled Soredemo sangatsu wa, mata in Japanese and March was made of Yarn in English. The anthology was a compilation of works related to the earthquake by Yoko Ogawa, Mitsuyo Kakuta and twelve other Japanese writers, and by Barry Yourgrau and two other overseas writers. The Nippon Foundation provided support for the translation and publishing of the English edition, which was released in Britain and the United States.

The collaboration fostered a close network of overseas editors, translators, and Japanese writers. The foundation has also supported the training of young translators through various programs. For example, starting in 2010, it has assisted a unique annual translation workshop that has been held at the University of London and at the University of East Anglia. Japanese writers such as Yoko Tawada have taken part in the workshops, where participants translate their works.

Building a Networking of Translators and Publishers

The year 2012 was a tough one for the Japanese government’s translation and publishing program. Administered since 2002 to bring contemporary Japanese works to foreign audiences, the Japanese Literature Publishing Program was closed down as a result of budget reallocation.

Under the program, a committee of researchers and writers selected works, subsidies were provided for translators, and purchases were made of the published books. Over a 10-year period, 222 titles were selected from the Meiji period (1868–1912) onward, and 119 were translated into English, German, French, Russian, and other languages.

The Japan Foundation, a public organization devoted to international cultural exchange, has also made grants available to cover the translation fees for foreign publishers, beginning in 1972. Over a thousand titles have been published to date under its program, but this budget has also been sharply reduced.

David Karashima, who heads the Read Japan project at the Nippon Foundation, offers the following comments:

“Even if government support weakens, we must maintain the human network of translators and publishers that has been built up over the years. In Europe, governments provide grants to promote their country’s literature abroad. Recently South Korea and Turkey are also actively seeking to make their national literature known to foreign readers. All of these efforts are built on a public-private partnership and a reservoir of knowledge and networks. If the project relies on government support alone, it doesn’t work as a business; so an effective partnership is essential to sustainability. The Nippon Foundation serves as a hub connecting the public and private partners in such endeavors.

“Japanese contemporary novels are more accessible to Europeans and North Americans than many Japanese think. In order to introduce more people not only to manga but also to the greatness of Japanese novels, it is important to strengthen our human networks. Even if a major program comes to an end, another chance can come along if the network remains in place.”

Japan’s First International Literary Festival

A poster of Tokyo International Literary Festival to be held from March 1 to 3

Tokyo International Literary Festival organized by the Nippon Foundation, to be held this year from March 1 to 3, can be seen as the fruit of the network that has been built to date. Past international literary festivals have been held in 80 cities, in 30 countries, but this is the first such event in Japan. The aim was to make Tokyo a global literary center, comparable to New York, London, or Paris. Rather than a formal symposium, the event consists of discussions, readings, and workshops held in cafes and clubs, college campuses—and even a city train. The event features renowned authors from around the world, such as Nobel prize winner J.M. Coetzee and Pulitzer prize winner Junot Díaz, as well as many of today’s leading Japanese writers, such as Natsuki Ikezawa, Keiichiro Hirano, Mieko Kawakami, and Risa Wataya.

Photo Photo of Roger Pulvers, a writer, translator, and professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology

Roger Pulvers, a writer, translator, and professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology, explains the approach needed to introduce Japanese literature abroad:

“Quality is more important than quantity. Top-notch translators like Donald Keene and Edward G. Seidensticker contributed greatly to the impact that works of post–World War II masters like Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, and Osamu Dazai had on the world. For Japanese literature to be truly understood by readers overseas, it takes more than just captivating literary works: there also needs to be a structure in place made up of outstanding translators, open-minded editors, and perceptive critics. Recently, except for popular authors like Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, Japanese literature has not received much attention. A lot of people may think that what I call MASK (manga, anime, sushi, karaoke) is Japanese culture, but that is certainly not everything. With over 500 literary awards and many writers, Japan is one of the most literary countries in the world. My hope is that the Tokyo International Literary Festival will help foster the next generation of connoisseurs in Japanese literature.”

The festival will certainly deepen connections among Japanese and foreign writers, translators, and other individuals involved in the publishing industry. The Read Japan project is serving as a hub to link these various players, thereby making it easier for contemporary Japanese writers to make a full-blown debut on the global stage and perhaps paving the way for the next Haruki Murakami.

Read Japan Project Timeline

Book Donation Program

2007 Selection of titles and compilation of the catalogue 100 Books for Understanding Contemporary Japan
2008 First books are donated; during the year, 58 libraries in 4 countries receive books
2009 Donations to 294 libraries in 46 countries
2010 Donations made to 179 libraries in 57 countries
2011 Donations made to 180 libraries in 67 countries
2012 Donations made to 146 libraries in 57 countries

Translation and Publication Program

2009 Selection of works and compilation of the 100 Recommended Books for Translation catalogue
2010 (October) “Other Voices, Other Rooms, Other Worlds” Symposium
2011 (April) Inaugural English-language issue of Monkey Business is published
Dispatch of the novelist Ikezawa Natsuki and translator Alfred Birnbaum to the Norwich Worlds Literary Festival in Britain
2012 (March) Simultaneous publication in Britain, Japan, and the United States of Soredemo sangatsu wa, mata / March was made of Yarn
(April) Publication of the second issue of the English-language Monkey Business
Dispatch of the writer Yoko Tawada and translator Jeffrey Angles to the Norwich Worlds Literary Festival
2013 (March) Tokyo International Literary Festival
Publication of the third issue of the English-language Monkey Business

Translator Training Project

2010 (July) Yoko Tawada and Margaret Mitsutani conduct a workshop at the University of East Anglia
2011 (July) Mieko Kawakami and Michael Emmerich conduct a workshop at the University of East Anglia
2012 (July) Hideo Furukawa and Michael Emmerich conduct a workshop at the University of East Anglia
(July and August) Workshop Participants Contribute to Part 1 and Part 2 of the Japan issue of the online literary magazine Words Without Borders