Nearly two years have passed now since my shortlist of ten female Japanese writers who need to be translated, and I’ve been surprised and delighted by the amount of attention it’s received from editors, critics, and other translators. With great initiatives such as Read Women and the Women in Translation Month project bringing more attention to the disparity in who gets translated, it feels like the right time to add a few more names to the conversation.
Last year’s list was ten, but this year’s is five because I’m a little short on time. You see, I got to translate one of the women on the 2013 list – Naocola Yamazaki, and I’m trying my damnedest to get her published. How lucky can I be? I hope this list pushes another deserving author into a little bit of the limelight.
So in no particular order, here’s my shortlist of five living, amazing Japanese female authors who need to be translated into English.
1. Tomoka Shibasaki 柴崎友香
(1973 – )
When I originally began writing this, Shibasaki had just won the Akutagawa Prize for The Spring Garden (春の庭 – Haru no niwa). Her books tend to focus on the lives of young women in cities, with a “unique ability to capture situations with the sharpness and accuracy of a high-spec camera” (J’Lit). Born in Osaka, she was shortlisted for the Bungei Prize in 1998 while still working in an office. Her 2006 novel Today, in that City (その街の今は – Sono machi no ima wa) won the MEXT Award for New Artists (a Japanese government award), the Oda Sakunosuke Award (celebrating new authors from the Kansai region), and also earned Shibasaki her first nomination for the Akutagawa Prize. Her 2010 book Night and Day (寝ても覚めても – Nete mo samete mo) won the Noma Prize for New Writers.
- 春の庭 (Haru no niwa, “The Spring Garden”). Bungeishunju Ltd., 2014. ISBN 978-4-16-390101-5. Tarō, recently divorced, has just moved to an apartment building in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, which is slated for demolition. When he spies a woman who lives in the same building trying to enter the premises of the house next door, the woman gives him a most surprising reason…
- その街の今は (Sono machi no ima wa, “Today, in that City”). Shinchobunko, 2009 (paperback – hardback published in 2009). ISBN 978-4-10-137641-7. When Kasumi’s company goes bankrupt, she starts working part-time at a cafe. On the way home from an awful first experience at a group blind date, she comes across Ryōtarō. They start meeting up, looking at old photos of Osaka. A tale of the changing face of Osaka, days gone by, and the daily lives of young people there today, told with warmth and vision.
- ドリーマーズ (Doriimaazu, “Dreamers”). Kodansha, 2012. ISBN 978-4-06-277341-6. A collection of linked short stories. On a visit to their hometown for the first anniversary of their father’s death, “I” stays with their sister and falls fast asleep, dreaming that their father does not realize he’s dead… In these stories, Shibasaki depicts how lacking in preciousness the world we see is, being neither fully dream nor reality.
2. Aoko Matsuda 松田青子
(1979 – )
Born in Hyogo, before becoming an author, she participated in a theatre group and studied to be an English translator. Her writings on her blog were noticed by author Shin Fukunaga, and in 2008 her short story “Shampoo and Rinse” was published as a guest contribution in a zine called Irkutsk 2, run by authors including Tomoka Shibasaki and Yū Nagashima. In 2010, she debuted for real with Nothing But Waterproof Lies!, a play, which was published in Waseda Bungaku magazine, Japan’s oldest literary magazine. Her first book, Stackable/s (スタッキング可能 – Sutakkingu kanō), came out in 2013, gaining her nominations for both the Mishima Yukio Prize and the Noma Prize for New Writers. Her second collection of novellas and short stories, Eiko’s Forest (英子の森 – Eiko no mori), was published earlier this year. She has translated Karen Russell into Japanese and participated as an author at the British Centre for Literary Translation’s summer school. Waseda Bungaku describes her writing by saying, “Her keen mixture of rhythmical spoken language and bookish sensibility suggests fresh possibilities for Japanese literature,” and I couldn’t agree more. Her works are, for the most part, possibly untranslatable, but aren’t those the best?
Works in English:
- “Planting”, translated by Angus Turvill. Appeared in Waseda Bungaku’s Japan Earthquake Charity Literature project. Available free online (PDF).
- “Smartening Up”, translated by Polly Barton. Appeared on Granta’s New Writing blog. Available free online.
- スタッキング可能 (Sutakkingu kanō, “Stackable/s”). Kawade Shobo Shinsha Publishing Co., 2013. ISBN 978-4-309-02150-8. Life in an office, floor after floor of people, where everyone plays a certain role. There’s the young woman battling sexist attitudes, the dreamer who thinks he’s like a comic book hero, the team leader who… well, better read the excerpt. Formally innovative and told from as many perspectives as there are cubicles in HR, it’s at once hilarious, moving and awe-inspiring.
- 英子の森 (Eiko no mori, “Eiko’s Forest”). Kawade Shobo Shinsha Publishing Co., 2014. ISBN 978-4-309-02256-7. Eiko, a recent graduate, struggles to find meaningful work using her painstakingly-learned English. Everyone told her English was the magic key to a new world, but the key’s looking a bit tarnished and the door’s nowhere to be seen. Her mother has retreated from the reality of her stunted life into a magical world of her own… Can Eiko find the way out? (And other stories.)
3. Sayaka Murata 村田沙耶香
Sayaka Murata (1979–) began writing in elementary school, but she officially debuted in 2003 with Junyu (Breast-Feeding), which received a Gunzo Prize for New Writers merit award. She won the 2009 Noma Prize for New Writers for Gin iro no uta (Silver Song), and in 2013, she was awarded the Mishima Yukio Prize for Shiro-iro no machi no, sono hone no taion no (Of Bones, of Body Heat, of a White City). Her writing has the “ability to penetrate disturbingly far into the recesses of contemporary female psychology” (J’Lit), especially focusing on the intensity and bewilderment of puberty and early sexual experimentation.
- しろいろの街の、その骨の体温の (Shiro-iro no machi no, sono hone no taion no, “Of Bones, of Body Heat, of a White City”). Asahi Shinbun, 2012. ISBN 978-4022510112. Yuka, a ten year old girl, lives in a “new town”, growing as rapidly as she is. As the countryside is devoured by white concrete, Yuka develops a tentative relationship with a boy called Yuta. Four years later, development has stalled, for both Yuka and the town. Her adolescent sense of awkwardness with her new body leads Yuka to act out sexually, and rumors spread about her, transforming her into a monster in the eyes of her classmates…
4. Mariko Asabuki 朝吹真理子
Mariko Asabuki (1984–) has had an extraordinary start. Her first work, Ryuseki (Traces of Flow), won the 2010 Bunkamura Deux Magots Literary Prize. Her second work, Kikotowa, won the Akutagawa Prize. Her rich vocabulary and thematic focus on time and memory, as well as her childhood surrounded by two generations of French scholars, have led to some comparisons to Proust.
- きことわ (Kikotowa). Shinchosha, 2011. ISBN 978-4103284628. Two women, Kiko and Towako, who used to play together during summer holidays until 1984, are reunited when Kiko’s family villa is about to be demolished. Now in their forties, sorting through the things left behind in the villa, the story increasingly attempts to sort out whose memories belong to whom. An ambitious and elegant story of friendship, time and memory.
5. Tahi Saihate 最果タヒ
Tahi Saihate (1986–) would be a rare find in any country. Young, intensely devoted to her craft, and taking full advantage of the Internet as a medium for her poetry, her 2014 collection Shinde shimau kei no bokura ni (For Us, the Dying Kind) gained mainstream attention and became a popular success. Shinde shimau, largely dealing with the death of a loved one, is immediate, reflective, and unashamedly personal in a way that becomes universal. Most of her poems appear first on Twitter (where she posts gifs of her composing the poem) or on Tumblr. She has won the Gendai Shi Techo Award (2006) and the Nakahara Chuya Award (2008). Saihate also writes prose, bringing a real poet’s playfulness to language, structure, and world-building. My favorite author, Gen’ichiro Takahashi, said of her: “Most poets stare into space or the future or themselves or their bookshelves and write poems. That’s fine. But Tahi Saihate stares at us and at the world we all live in and writes poems. And then she kindly sends them out to all of us.”
Since she hasn’t been translated yet, I’ll give you my favorite line of hers, the very beginning of a poem called “Perfume Poem”:
I wish music or anything that speaks for girls’ feelings, all of it, would die.
- 死んでしまう系のぼくらに (Shinde shimau kei no bokura ni, “For Us, the Dying Kind”). Littlemore, 2014. ISBN 978-4898153895. Poetry collection dealing with love, youth, the death of a loved one.
- 星か獣になる季節 (Hoshi ka kemono ni naru kisetsu, “The Season of Becoming a Star or a Beast”). Chikuma Shobo, 2015. ISBN 978-4480804570. The story of a friendship that begins when the pop-star they’re both fans of is arrested on suspicion of murder.
- かわいいだけじゃない私たちの、かわいいだけの平凡。(Kawaii dake ja nai watashi-tachi no, kawaii dake no heibon, “We’re Not Just Cute, Just Our Cuteness is Common”). Kodansha, 2015. ISBN 978-4062192842. The story of a girl with magical powers who is transformed by the power of the Internet.
Have I mentioned someone who’s got your attention? Or worse, have I missed someone? Let me know.