Bringing the World Books from Japan

Pursuing Mutual Understanding across Asia through Literature

From February 28 to March 9, 2014, a variety of workshops, readings, and other events were held around Tokyo as part of the second Tokyo International Literary Festival, sponsored by the Nippon Foundation. This year’s festival featured a symposium on Asian Literature at the International House of Japan that brought together writers from Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea, and Japan to discuss the current state of Asian literature.


The 2014 Tokyo International Literary Festival featured roughly 20 writers invited from overseas countries. Unlike the event in 2013, when the majority of the participants hailed from Europe or North America, this year saw a strong presence of Asian writers, reflecting the festival’s new emphasis on Asian literature.

On March 6, as part of the festival, a symposium, jointly organized by the Nippon Foundation and the Japan Foundation was held at the International House of Japan. The event, titled “Writing from Asia,” featured five renowned authors from Asia—Tash Aw (Malaysia), Uthis Haemamool (Thailand), Kim Yeonsu (South Korea), and Keiichiro Hirano and Kyoko Nakajima (Japan).

The Vital Influence of World Literature

Prior to opening the discussion on Asian literature, the symposium’s moderator, Keiichiro Hirano, asked participants to touch on how world literature has influenced their own work.

PhotoHirano noted how his own interest in nineteenth century French literature was sparked by reading Yukio Mishima. He also recounted how surprised he was when he was asked by a Haitian writer, who had read one of his books based in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphisis, whether Kafka was famous. This made him realize that not all writers know who Kafka is, and that his own literary background has a strong Western influence.

When asked which authors had a formative influence on their own careers, Haemamool mentioned Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Yasunari Kawabata, and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, while Aw pointed to Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck and said that he embarked on a writing career after getting hooked on the works of Yukio Mishima. 

PhotoNakajima told the audience that her first encounter with literature was through children’s books, and that she read Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland “without realizing they were foreign literature.”

Kim, meanwhile, recalled his fascination with esoteric postmodern literature from Britain and the United States, and said that after reading and rereading such works to unravel their meaning he began to write novels himself. He added that he was a fan of Kawabata’s novel Snow Country. All five writers share a profound interest in Western literature, which led them to embark on their own paths to becoming writers.

Lost Opportunities for Asian Literature 

World literature seems to be an influential force everywhere in Asia. Haemamool pointed out that in Thailand, classic Western literary works are well known and read in translation, whereas literary works from neighboring Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia remain virtually unknown. 

PhotoKim remarked that in South Korea as well, Western literature comprises the bulk of translations, while works from most Asian countries are unavailable because they are not commercially viable. He said that well-known works of Western literature can sell tens of thousands of copies, something quite inconceivable in the case of his own novels. Kim called this situation a “tragedy” for Asian literature.

PhotoSimilarly, Aw noted that few if any Malaysians read South Korean literature, even though they are crazy about TV dramas and pop music from that country. “Maybe Malaysians will cultivate a wider interest in culture when the country becomes more affluent,” he said, “but that day seems a long way off.”

Photo of a scene from the symposium “Writing from Asia”

For the Future of Asian Literature

The final part of the discussion centered on what can be done to change the status quo for Asian literature. Haemamool argued that the first step is for authors to read more works of Asian literature, as he explained:

Photo“This symposium gave me the chance to get to know other Asian writers and come into contact with their works. Through this, I have learned something of the cultural background of the writers’ countries, which so strongly marks their work. I came away with the impression that there are many powerful works in Asia. As authors, we are in a position to convey the beauty of Asian literature, and readers are likely to pick up on our impressions. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations promotes economic cooperation, but our cultural connections remain weak. Reading the literary works of Asian countries is, I believe, an excellent starting point for expanding our cultural links.”

Kim explained that the South Korean government provides financial support to the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, which renders works of South Korean literature into other languages. “If other Asian governments instituted similar programs,” he said “there would be more opportunities for readers to encounter works of Asian literature.” He added that a translation grant program was underway in Japan with the support of the Nippon Foundation and the Japan Foundation, but no such grant-making organizations existed in Thailand and Malaysia.

Connecting Writers in Asia

Photo of a scene of authors exchanging ideas at the symposium “Writing from Asia” Hirano expressed his hope that even after the symposium the participating writers would stay in contact. “What’s important is for this venue to be an opportunity for Asian authors to become devoted readers of each other’s works,” he explained. “Unlike authors from English-speaking countries, who can easily meet and access each other’s works, Asian writers are not able to do that so easily because of a lack of translations. Instead of relying on print publications, which tend to be expensive, we can make better use of electronic media, including electronic books for translations. And once we have more outstanding translations available, it will be easier for Asian writers to gain a better understanding of each other and engage in more lively interaction.”  

Tatsuya Tanami, executive director of the Nippon Foundation underscored what he sees as the significance of inviting Asian writers to this year’s festival:

“Until now, a number of foundations in Japan—including the Toyota Foundation, the Daido Life Foundation, and Mekong Publishing—have sought to introduce contemporary works of Asian literature to Japanese readers, but the number of translated works resulting from those efforts is still limited. My hope is that this literary festival will help in some way to foster interaction between writers in Japan and the rest of Asia. I would also like to see more Asian novels translated into Japanese and Japanese novels translated into other Asian languages, making it easier for readers to acquaint themselves with these works.”

Photographs by Seiya Kawamoto