Bringing the World Books from Japan

Monkey Business: Opening A Window on Contemporary Japanese Literature

A series of readings and discussions was organized in New York in early May 2014 to mark the release of the fourth volume (2014 edition) of Monkey Business, an anthology of contemporary Japanese literature. Published as part of the Nippon Foundation’s Read Japan project, Monkey Business is an English-language journal created with the vision of introducing Japanese literary works to readers outside Japan. We talked to the journal’s coeditor, Motoyuki Shibata, to find out more about the events in New York and the reaction of American readers to the volume.


The Name Value of “Japan”

Photo of Monkey BusinessEdited by Motoyuki Shibata, a translator and former University of Tokyo professor, and Ted Goossen, a professor at York University in Canada, Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan uses English translations to introduce contemporary Japanese literature to non-Japanese readers. The anthology has been published annually by A Public Space in New York through the Nippon Foundation’s Read Japan program, which seeks to foster a better understanding of Japan through books.

Monkey Business started out as a Japanese quarterly under the direction of Shibata. The journal, published from 2008 until 2011, attracted attention for its treatment of Japanese literature as one aspect of world literature. Although the original Japanese quarterly has been discontinued, the English version continues to be published, with the fourth volume appearing this year.

Shibata took part in the readings and discussions held from May 3 to 5 at bookshops, a college campus, and other venues in New York to mark the publication of the latest volume, and he offers his enthusiastic impression of what took place.

“This was our fourth event in the United States and the best so far. The American writers Matthew Sharpe and Laird Hunt gave excellent readings of the works of Toh EnJoe and Hideo Furukawa, who have had novels as well as short stories translated into English and flew in from Japan to attend the event. The discussion did not follow the typical line of focusing on what Japan might learn from the United States or on the ‘exotic’ aspects of Japanese culture; rather, it was a dialogue among authors as equals. This was even truer this year than in previous years, and something I personally found very gratifying.”

PhotoToh EnJoe’s novel Self-Reference ENGINE, released in Japan under the same title, received the special citation of the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award, which is presented annually to outstanding works of science fiction published in the United States in paperback editions. Hideo Furukawa, meanwhile, has won overseas acclaim for his novel Belka, Why Don’t You Bark? 

Shibata has long hoped that the success of Haruki Murakami would pave the way for other Japanese writers to gain a global readership, just as the triumphs of the pitcher Hideo Nomo opened up opportunities for other Japanese baseball players to enter Major League Baseball. The event in New York to commemorate the latest issue of Monkey Business has brought Shibata’s dream one step closer to reality, as he explains:

“We have seen EnJoe compete with US-based writers for the Philip K. Dick Award, for example, and Furukawa receive rave reviews overseas for his book Belka. These writers are earning that recognition on the basis of their own merits, similar to the way Japan’s ace pitcher Masahiro Tanaka has won over New York Yankees fans through his stellar pitching for the team. It is no longer rare for Japanese authors to be judged overseas on the basis of their own individual merits as writers, rather than as representatives of Japan. Now that Japanese literature has come to be appreciated within the context of world literature, the label ‘Japan’ has gained name value in a positive sense.”

Self-Reference ENGINE, while Furukawa (right) holds up the English edition of Belka, Why Don’t You Bark?." alt="Photograph">

Monkey Business as a College Text

PhotoMonkey Business is now carried by major bookstores and has a well-established reputation. A PEN World Voices Festival discussion at the Asia Society served as the launch event for the latest volume of the journal, followed by events at Kinokuniya’s main New York store, BookCourt and other bookstores, and at Baruch College of the City University of New York. Every venue was filled to capacity with eager audience members.

Shibata describes the changes that have taken place on the production side of the journal. “This is the fourth volume we’ve issued, so we’ve acquired a great deal of translating and editing experience. Our staff is very talented, and the quality of this volume is quite high. The translation team for the latest volume was impeccable. In my view, one of the factors behind our success has been those four years of experience and the consistent support received from the Nippon Foundation. The volunteers and interns this year worked very hard, too. All were individuals who contacted us and offered their help after reading Monkey Business. We’ve also been getting an increasing number of inquiries from people interested in translating. As a result, our network has been growing quickly, something about which I’m very pleased.”

Photo The most noteworthy recent development has been Monkey Business’s adoption as course material at the university level. Ted Goossen, the translator and editor of The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, a collection of works by both classic literary figures including Mori Ōgai and Natsume Sōseki and contemporary authors like Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, and is now a standard item on reading lists for Japanese literature courses at American and British universities, says that when he first encountered the Japanese edition of Monkey Business, he realized that an annual English translation could help to make new Japanese writing accessible to non-Japanese readers. Monkey Business has lately come to be included as Japanese literature course material along with The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories.

Shibata has high hopes for the future of the publication. “Monkey Business is being used as course material, which means that literature students are exposed to new works of Japanese literature, even if they aren’t studying Japanese. This will be instrumental in bringing both Japanese literature and Monkey Business into the public eye. Given the high quality of our publication, I feel the next step will be to enhance our PR activities. We’ve had a request to organize a similar event on the West Coast, and we’re planning to hold that event this fall. I’m looking forward to seeing the direction that Monkey Business will take in the future.”

Photographs by Lisa Kato