China Japan Korea Literature Translation

2013 shortlist: 10 Japanese female authors

Since the new year, I’ve been trying to read more books by Japanese women, with a view to eventually making other people read them as well.

So in no particular order, here’s my shortlist of ten Japanese female authors who need to be translated into English. Eight are living, two are dead; five have books which have been selected by the Nippon Foundation as recommended for translation; two are Zainichi, one is Chinese. All are excellent. This is based on my own, highly biased opinions, so if you think I’ve overlooked someone unfairly, please tell me about her in the comments.

1. Wataya Risa 綿矢りさ


(1984 – )

Since becoming the youngest-ever winner of the Bungei Prize in 2001 for Install (excerpt here) and the Akutagawa Prize in 2003 for Keritai senaka (‘The Back I Want to Kick‘ – excerpt here), Wataya has developed remarkably as a writer during a decade spent, mainly, working in a department store in Kyoto. Her novel Kawaisō da ne? (‘Oh, Poor Thing’) won the Kenzaburo Oe Prize in 2012, making it a likely candidate for translation. Describing the plot of one of her books makes her writing sound trivial, but it is her gorgeously textured writing and her observations of the workings of the human mind that make her a must-read.

Selected works:

  • インストール (Install). Kawade Shobo Shinsha Publishing Co., 2001. ISBN 4-309-01437-2. A teenage girl begins skipping school every day, developing an odd friendship with a younger neighbor through shared adventures into the seedier side of the Internet. Has been adapted into a film. Selected by the Nippon Foundation as one of its 50 books recommended for translation.
  • 蹴りたい背中 (Keritai senaka, “The Back I Want to Kick”). Kawade Shobo Shinsha Publishing Co., 2003. ISBN 4-309-01570-0. An isolated high school girl develops a strange attraction to a fellow outcast who is obsessed with a model she once met. Love and hate are so closely intertwined.
  • かわいそうだね? (Kawaisou da ne?, “Oh, Poor Thing”). Bungeishunju Ltd., 2010. ISBN 978-4-16-380950-2. When Jurie’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend has nowhere else to stay, their relationship becomes strained.

(Already translated into: French, German, Italian, and Korean.)

2. Yamazaki Nao-cola 山崎ナオコーラ


(1978 – )

Winner of the Bungei Prize in 2004 for her debut Hito no sekkusu wo warau na (‘Don’t Laugh at Someone’s Sex Life’ – has been adapted into a film), Yamazaki is popular among young women for her honest depictions of their lives, friendships and relationships. She has been repeatedly shortlisted for the Akutagawa Prize, but no win yet. I loved Kono yo wa futarigumi de wa dekiagaranai (‘This World Isn’t Made Two-by-Two’, roughly); it’s about the personal and professional struggles and triumphs of two friends floundering for a future in the post-Bubble world. Her short story collection Ronri to kansei wa sōhan shinai (‘Logic and Emotion are not Contradictory’) is also excellent. Yamazaki never prettifies or tries to make her characters more than they are. Attention, Lena Dunham: get one of her books into the background on ‘Girls’ now. (Just kidding! …maybe?)

Selected works:

  • 男と点と線 (Otoko to ten to sen, “Men and Points and Lines”). Shinchosha, 2009. ISBN 978-4-10-138371-2. Six short stories about Japanese expats living around the world and the connections they share with others and places. Selected by the Nippon Foundation as one of its 50 books recommended for translation.
  • 論理と感性は相反しない (Ronri to kansei wa sōhan shinai, “Logic and Emotion are not Contradictory”). Kodansha, 2008. ISBN 978-4062769136. Short story collection focusing on the everyday fraught nature of relationships.
  • この世は二人組ではできあがらない (Kono yo wa futarigumi de wa dekiagaranai, “This World Isn’t Made Two-by-Two”). Shinchosha, 2010. ISBN 978-4101383729. What room is there for love, music, and writing in the post-Bubble economy? What kind of relationships can we have with each other? What does it mean to be part of society?

(Already translated into: French.)

3. Aoyama Nanae 青山七恵


(1983 – )

The 2005 winner of the Bungei Prize, Aoyama won the Akutagawa Prize in 2006 for Hitori biyori (‘On My Own‘). I’ll admit this is all I’ve read by her but it’s an utterly charming depiction of a friendship between two women, aged 20 and 71, living in a disconnected world. In 2009, she became the youngest-ever winner of the Kawabata Prize for her short story ‘Kakera’ (‘Fragments’) and published her first novel Watashi no kareshi (‘My Boyfriend’) in 2011. Her descriptions and dialogue are finely crafted – crisp, wry and complex without seeming to try.

Selected works:

  • ひとり日和 (Hitori biyori, “On My Own”). Kawade Shobo Shinsha Publishing Co., 2007. ISBN 978-4-309-01808-9. An unlikely friendship forms between two women, aged 20 and 71.
  • かけら (Kakera, “Fragments”). Shinchosha, 2009. ISBN 978-4-10-138841-0. Short story collection.
  • お別れの音 (Owakare no oto, “The Sound of Separation”).  Bungeishunju Ltd., 2010. ISBN 978-4-163-29580-0. Short story collection.

(Already translated into: Italian.)

4. Miura Shion 三浦しをん


(1976 – )

A massively popular writer (three film and one TV adaptation), Miura won the Naoki Prize in 2006 for Mahoro ekimae tada benriken (‘The Handymen of Mahoro‘), a linked short story collection set on the outskirts of Tokyo, followed up with two more collections set there. For me, her 2011 novel Fune wo amu (‘Assemble the Boats’) is tremendous, a hugely charming tale of a lexicographer in love. It won the Booksellers Award in 2012, no small feat considering the competition included some of the biggest-selling entertainment authors in Japan. She lavishes attention on details, drawing the reader effortlessly into slightly strange mileaus. I predict she’ll make it into English sooner than most on this list.

Selected works:

  • まほろ駅前多田便利軒 (Mahoro ekimae tada benriken, “The Handymen of Mahoro”). Bungeishunju Ltd., 2006. ISBN 978-4163246703. Linked short story collection set in a fictional town on the outskirts of Tokyo, focusing on Tada, the titular handyman. Selected by the Nippon Foundation as one of its 50 books recommended for translation.
  • 船を編む (Fune wo amu, “Assemble the Boats”). Kobunsha, 2011. ISBN 978-4-334-92776-9. A lexicographer working on a new dictionary falls in love with an unexpected woman and doesn’t quite have the words to deal with it. Has been adapted into a film.

(Already translated into: Chinese, German, Korean.)

5. Kawakami Mieko 川上未映子


(1976 – )

Not just an author but also a singer and actress, Kawakami won the 2008 Akutagawa Prize for Chichi to ran (‘Breasts and Eggs‘ – excerpt here), an odd tale of three women in a family, how they relate to each other and to their own bodies – really, please do read the excerpt. In 2010, Kawakami won the MEXT Award for New Artists and the Murasaki Shikibu Literary Prize for Hebun (Heaven), a novel focusing on the relationship between two students who are brutally bullied at school. Her most recent novel, Subete mayonaka no koibito-tachi (‘All the Lovers in the Dead of Night’) is about a socially awkward proofreader in her mid-thirties and the few relationships she manages to develop, poking again at what it means to be a woman. Her characters and situations are all too real. There are few authors writing in any language that write as honestly about women’s subjective experiences. Please, let’s get her published.

Selected works:

  • 乳と乱 (Chichi to ran, “Breasts and Eggs”). Bungeishunju Ltd., 2008. ISBN 978-4-16-327010-4. Makiko and her daughter, Midoriko, come from Osaka to stay with her sister in Tokyo.  Makiko, a club hostess, wants breast implants; her relationships with her daughter and sister are troubled, not to mention the one with Midoriko’s father.
  • ヘヴン (Hevun, “Heaven”). Kodansha, 2009. ISBN 978-4-06-277246-4. A relationship develops between two students who are brutally bullied at school. Selected by the Nippon Foundation as one of its 50 books recommended for translation.
  • すべて真夜中の恋人たち (Subete mayonaka no koibito-tachi, “All the Lovers in the Dead of Night”). Kodansha, 2012. ISBN 978-4-06-217286-8. A socially awkward proofreader in her mid-thirties develops a relationship with a man twenty years older than her, but it would be hard to call this a romance.
  • 愛の夢とか (Ai no yume to ka, “Dreams of Love, Etc.”). Kodansha, 2013. ISBN 978-4-06-217799-3. Short story collection. The title story has been translated in Monkey Business Issue 3.

(Already translated into: Chinese, French, German, Korean.)

6. Yang Yi 楊逸


(1964 – )

Winner of the 2008 Akutagawa Prize for Toki ga nijimu asa (‘A Morning When Time Bleeds‘), Yang Yi is the first winner of the prestigious award who is a non-native speaker of Japanese. Born in Harbin, China, Yang moved to Japan in 1987, working at a newspaper for Chinese expats and teaching Chinese. She made her debut as a writer in 2007 with Wan-chan, a story about a Chinese woman who comes to Japan through an arranged marriage with a Japanese man, for which she won the Bungakukai Prize for New Writers and received an Akutagawa Prize nomination. Her writing often uses Chinese poetry and incorporates Chinese idioms, making her writing fresh and unusual.

Selected works:

  • 時が滲む朝 (Toki ga nijimu asa“A Morning When Time Bleeds”). Bungeishunju Ltd., 2008. ISBN 978-4163273600. Love and friendships formed in the 1989 Chinese student movement followed by regrets and reminisces in Tokyo as middle age approaches.

(Has not yet been translated as far as I know.)

7. Yu Miri 柳美里


(1968 – )

The 1997 winner of the Akutagawa Prize for Kazoku shinema (‘Family Cinema’), Yu Miri has become the preeminent modern Zainichi novelist for her sweeping, autobiographical tales of her family history, particularly in Hachigatsu no hate (‘The End of August’), which focuses on her grandfather and his younger brother, and through them, the story of modern Korean history, from the Japanese occupation and ‘comfort women’ to the Korean War and beyond. Her novel Gold Rush, a disturbing psychological novel about a sociopathic youth, was published in English in 2003 by Welcome Rain. As well, Yu’s memoir series became massive bestsellers and were eventually turned into a film.

Selected works:

  • 8月の果て (Hachigatsu no hate, “The End of August”). Shinchosha, 2004. ISBN 978-4101229317. U-Cheol and U-Geun, both well-known long-distance runners, find themselves tossed about and eventually divided by history. Trying to connect to her grandfather, Yu begins running marathons and delving into long-forgotten family history.

(Already translated into: Chinese, English [one novel], French, Italian, Korean, Russian, Swedish, Thai.)

8. Lee Yang-ji 李良枝


(1955 – 1992)

Lee was the first Zainichi woman to win the Akutagawa Prize in 1989 for Yuhi, the story of a Zainichi student who leaves Japan for Seoul only to find she’s just as much of an outsider in Korea as she is in Japan. Lee’s writing employs rhythm and short sentences, frequently using transliterated Korean words, to “clarify the similarities rather than the differences between the Korean and Japanese languages” (Schierbeck). An excerpt from Yuhi was published in New Japanese Voices: The Best Contemporary Fiction from Japan, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991, translated by Constance Prener.

Selected works:

  • 由煕 (Yuhi). Kodansha, 1989. ISBN 9784062043038. A Zainichi student leaves Japan for Seoul only to find she’s just as much of an outsider in Korea as she is in Japan.

(Already translated into: German, Korean.)

9. Kurahashi Yumiko 倉橋由美子


(1935 – 2005)

Influenced heavily by the French literature she read at college, Kurahashi made her debut in 1960 with Parutai (‘The Party’), a timely, surreal satire of the Japanese leftist student movement. After controversy over her 1961 novel Kurai tabi (‘Grim Journey’), she largely disappeared from the literary world until 1969’s Sumiyakisuto Q no bouken (‘The Adventures of Sumiyakista Q‘), another fantastic, abstract satire on left-wing politics. Her 1984 short story collection Otona no tame no zankoku dōwa (‘Cruel Fairy Tales for Adults’), her most popular work, is a riotous set of twisted tales. And the novel Amanon koku okan ki (‘A Record of Travel to the Land of Amanon‘), a dystopian tale of a female-dominated society, won the Izumi Kyoka Prize in 1989.

Selected works:

  • 大人のための残酷童話 (Otona no tame no zankoku dōwa, “Cruel Fairy Tales for Adults”). Shinchosha, 1984. ISBN 978-4-10-111316-6. Retellings of Western and Japanese fairy tales, showing the reliance on retributive justice, eroticism, and overly didactic morality in these tales through dark humor.

(Already translated into: German, English [one novel].)

10. Shono Yoriko 笙野頼子


(1956 – )

Paranoiac, ‘avant-pop’ feminist postmodernism reigns in the writing of Shōno, the 1991 winner of the Noma Literary Prize for New Writers for Nani mo Shitenai (‘Not Doing Anything’) and the 1994 winner of both the Yukio Mishima Prize for Nihyakkaiki (‘The 200th Death Anniversary’) and the Akutagawa Prize for Taimu surippu konbinaato (‘The Time Slip Industrial Complex’). She is, in fact, the only author to have won all three prestigious prizes for new authors. Perhaps her best-known work is Konpira, winner of the Ito Sei Prize, a story in which a writer battles gender discrimination and bad reviews, eventually realizing she is a Hindu/Buddhist god. Her contemporary Takahashi Gen’ichiro praised the story, saying: “To be Konpira is to believe. It is to offer ultrapersonal prayers. Prayer is not an illusion. It needs no interpretation or metaphor.” Which could easily apply to all of Shōno’s work. Her writing is vitally creative and unique, global and yet ultra-personal. Much like Konpira, the world needs her more than she needs the world.

Selected works:

  • 金毘羅 (Konpira). Shueisha, 2004. ISBN 9784087747201. A writer struggles against gender discrimination and doubts to realize that she is Kumbhira, a Hindu crocodile god of the Ganges now adopted into Japanese Buddhist tradition.  Selected by the Nippon Foundation as one of its 50 books recommended for translation.
  • タイムスリップ・コンビナ-ト (Taimu surippu konbinaato, ‘The Time Slip Industrial Complex’). Bungeishunju Ltd., 1994. ISBN: 9784167592011. A meditation on the past, present, dreams and reality of post-Bubble Japan.
  • ふるえるふるさと (Furueru furusato, “My Trembling Hometown”). Shinchosha, 1994. Contains the Mishima Prize winning Nihyakkaiki (‘The 200th Death Anniversary’), a ‘slapstick fantasy’ tale of a woman visiting her estranged family for a ‘traditional’ event in which ancestors come back from the dead and time blurs.

(Has not yet been translated as far as I know.)