Bringing the World Books from Japan

Japanese Literature’s Big Chance? Interview with Motoyuki Shibata

Compared to the huge numbers of foreign books available in Japanese translation, only a very small number of Japanese works ever make the journey the other way. But there are signs that the situation is beginning to improve at last. Motoyuki Shibata, one of the editors-in-chief of Monkey Business International, and a member of the advisory board of the Tokyo International Literary Festival, discusses new opportunities for bringing the work of Japanese writers to readers overseas.


Creating a Wider Audience for Japanese Literature

INTERVIEWER What was the background to the English edition of Monkey Business?

Photo of The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories

MOTOYUKI SHIBATA In 1997, Oxford University Press put out a collection called the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories—an anthology stories that covers the entire modern period, from the late nineteenth century up to the early 1990s. The book has become a standard text, widely used in university courses in the United States and other countries. The editor of the book was Ted Goossen, a friend of mine who teaches at York University in Toronto. Ted was eager to put out a sequel volume containing more contemporary writers, to bring the story up to date, if you like. But from a publishing point of view, the problem with any anthology of “contemporary” writing is that it quickly goes out of date. Since I was editing the Japanese version of Monkey Business at the time, we came up with the idea of translating a selection from the Japanese Monkey Business and putting it out once a year as an English version. It struck us as the perfect way to produce an up-to-date anthology of some of the latest writing from Japan.

Ted’s idea gelled nicely with what I was doing at Monkey Business. So we talked it over and started to put together a team of translators from the people we know. We wanted to make sure that the translations would reach many people as possible. I happened to mention the project to the people at A Public Space, a Brooklyn-based literary journal I’d worked with before. Happily for us, they said they loved the idea and wanted to publish it. So now we had a team of professional editors on board as well.

So we had a concept and a publisher, and a team of translators and editors. All we needed now was funding. We looked around for financial backing, and were very fortunate to get a grant from the Nippon Foundation to cover the costs of publishing through A Public Space. The Foundation is doing a lot to support translation and publishing of contemporary Japanese literature overseas. And that’s how the international edition came about.

Monkey Business

The first issue of Monkey Business appeared in Japanese under the editorial direction of Motoyuki Shibata in April 2008. Published four times a year, the journal created an immediate stir with its original new take on Japanese writers as part of the wider context of global literature. Special issues were devoted to quirky subjects like “Sleep” and “The Meaning of Life.” Publication came to an end following the fifteenth issue, in October 2011. An English edition, Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan, was first published in April 2011 with the aim of introducing contemporary Japanese writing to readers overseas. The third issue appeared in February 2013. Together with Ted Goossen (York University, Toronto) Shibata chooses pieces from the Japanese editions. Issues to date have included translations of work by Hiromi Kawakami and Yoko Ogawa and an interview with Haruki Murakami.

Photo of Monkey Business

INTERVIEWER How has the response been overseas?

SHIBATA The reaction from readers has been very positive. People are thrilled to have this opportunity to read some of the latest new styles of storytelling from Japan. Readers have sent some very encouraging feedback over the web. We’ve heard from a number of editors and translators too, who are interested in finding out more about a particular writer. Keita Jin is one example of a writer who’s been attracting a lot of interest. He’s a young writer—he made his debut in the Japanese version of Monkey Business—but the translations we’ve published in the United States have made quite an impression. That’s one of the interesting things about a project like this. Monkey Business features writing by complete newcomers as well as writers who are already quite well established in Japan. But in translation, they are all in the same boat—they’re all starting from nothing. My hope is that this English-language edition will help people overseas to discover new writing and new authors from Japan.

We want to reach as many readers overseas as we can, so from the third issue we’re planning to make the international version available as an e-book as well. We’ve been busy promoting the English version. I took part in an international gathering of writers organized by the PEN American Center, along with Hiromi Kawakami and Hideo Furukawa, two of our regular authors. We’ve also organized a number of readings and other events in New York, and we’ve got several more lined up for May 2013. One I’m particularly excited about is a dialogue between Paul Auster and Gen’ichiro Takahashi that will be part of an event to celebrate our third issue.

INTERVIEWER What are the issues involved in bringing contemporary Japanese fiction to readers overseas?

SHIBATA Japanese is a relatively minor language in international terms, so it’s true that there are challenges involved in getting our writers recognized by the global publishing business. There are exceptions, of course—Haruki Murakami is the obvious example—but for the most part, getting contemporary Japanese writers published in translation is often not easy. But really, conditions are tough for everyone. I don’t think the situation is that different for writers in English. They say that trying to find funding takes up about a third of an editor’s time on any literary journal.

Haruki Murakami: The Hideo Nomo of the Literary World

INTERVIEWER Compared to the number of foreign works available in Japanese translation, it seems relatively few Japanese books are translated into other languages.

SHIBATA We certainly import more than we export as far as translation is concerned. I’m not sure I would go along with the idea that we need to increase the quantity of Japanese works being translated, come what may. But it does seem a shame that so much good writing is being done in Japan that people in other countries don’t know about. That’s the issue I’d like to address. I wouldn’t call it a “mission,” exactly—but we have a great network of people, and we’re lucky to have a source of funding. I honestly think it would be a real waste if we didn’t use this opportunity to introduce readers overseas to some of the great work being done in Japanese today.

In a sense, Haruki Murakami has opened a way into the global market for us—a bit like what Hideo Nomo did for Japanese baseball. The popularity of manga and the anime of Hayao Miyazaki have also helped. People are more receptive now to the idea that interesting things are happening in Japan. Twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable. To put it crudely, this is our big chance. Just as there was a surge of Japanese ball players who went to the majors after Nomo opened the door, the stage is now set for Japanese writers to make their mark internationally.

INTERVIEWER What is the significance of the Tokyo International Literary Festival (held March 1–3, 2013)?

SHIBATA For readers, a festival like this is a rare opportunity to see and hear an impressive line-up number of writers from Japan and around the world. Of course, reading their work is what is really important. But I think a festival like this can often open people’s eyes to new writers. They might attend a reading or a session and come away with books they would never have encountered otherwise. For the authors, the festival is a chance to meet  fellow writers and others in the publishing industry. In the past, Japanese writers have been a little cut off from that side of things. I think opening up channels of communication with writers, editors, and translators in other countries could lead to all kinds of new creative possibilities. I really hope this year’s festival is the first of many—not just because building connections like this is good business, but because it’s important for the long-term health and vitality of our literature.

(Translated from a January 31, 2013, interview in Japanese.)

Motoyuki Shibata

Portrait of Shibata Motoyuki

Born in Tokyo in 1954. Teaches American literature and literary translation at the University of Tokyo. Authors he has translated include Paul Auster, Rebecca Brown, Stuart Dybek, Steve Erickson, Steven Millhauser, Richard Powers, Thomas Pynchon, and Barry Yourgrau.