2020: The Year in Translation from Japanese (updated)

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A round-up of reviews of works in translation from Japanese, including fiction and non-fiction, novels, story collections and children’s books.

Science and Technology

Lost in Evolution: Exploring Humanity’s Path in Asia, Kawabata Hiroto, Kaifu Yousuke (tech adv), Dana Lewis (trans) (Japan Library, March 2020)
Lost in Evolution: Exploring Humanity’s Path in Asia, Kawabata Hiroto, Kaifu Yousuke (tech adv), Dana Lewis (trans) (Japan Library, March 2020)

Lost in Evolution: Exploring Humanity’s Path in Asia by Kawabata Hiroto, translated by Dana Lewis

 

Asia has recently, and somewhat unexpectedly, been the source of some of the most exciting, and bemusing, discoveries in human evolution. In the context of the history of human evolution, or even the history of the study of human evolution, “recent” is a relative term; these developments date back to the first years of the new century when the discovery of Homo floresiensis, “Flores Man” aka “the hobbit”, put Asia back on the evolutionary front burner.

 

How Human Is Human? The View from Robotics Research, Ishiguro Hiroshi, Tony Gonzalez (trans) (Japan Library, March 2020)
How Human Is Human? The View from Robotics Research, Ishiguro Hiroshi, Tony Gonzalez (trans) (Japan Library, March 2020)

How Human Is Human? The View from Robotics Research by Ishiguro Hiroshi, translated by Tony Gonzalez

 

This curious little book by Japanese technologist Ishiguro Hiroshi, now available in a very readable English translation by Tony Gonzalez, nominally discusses what robotics research teaches us about what it means to be human. But one can’t help but be left with the impression that what it really shows is just how different Japan can at times be from other parts of the world.

Novels

Sachiko, Endō Shūsaku, Van C Gessel (trans) (Columbia University Press, August 2020)
Sachiko, Endō Shūsaku, Van C Gessel (trans) (Columbia University Press, August 2020)

Sachiko by Endō Shūsaku, translated by Van C Gessel

 

Endō Shūsaku has the rare distinction of having one of his novels, Silence, adapted for the silver screen by none other than Martin Scorsese. Those who aren’t familiar with his opus may be surprised to find that Endō wrote from the perspective of a Roman Catholic. Sachiko, originally published in 1982 and only just now appearing in English translation, fits squarely into this tradition.

 

There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job, Kikuko Tsumura, Polly Barton (trans) (Bloomsbury, November 2020)
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, Kikuko Tsumura, Polly Barton (trans) (Bloomsbury, November 2020)

There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura, translated by Polly Barton

 

The unnamed narrator in Tsumura Kikuko’s There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job quits a job she loves after developing “burnout syndrome”. Her first career (the reader won’t find out what it was until the novel’s final pages) has sucked up “every scrap of energy” she had. She asks a recruiter to find her an easy job—something along the lines of “sitting all day in a chair overseeing the extraction of collagen for use in skin care products”, she suggests.

 

The Hole, Hiroko Oyamada, David Boyd (trans) (New Directions (October 2020)
The Hole, Hiroko Oyamada, David Boyd (trans) (New Directions (October 2020)

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd

 

Readers of Hiroko Oyamada’s novel The Factory will find some of her narrative techniques familiar. Both novels are full of unanswered questions. Oyamada’s writing is again profoundly atmospheric, inviting in a kind of existential dread. The Hole magnifies the plight of some younger adults, particularly women. Work is banal. Childrearing is unappealing. And being a housewife is not, as one of Asa’s older neighbors describes it, “a summer vacation that never ends.” What, the novel asks, is left for a woman to do?

 

The Aosawa Murders, Riku Onda, Alison Watts (trans) (Bitter Lemon Press, February 2020)
The Aosawa Murders, Riku Onda, Alison Watts (trans) (Bitter Lemon Press, February 2020)

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda, translated by Alison Watts

 

Early in The Aosawa Murders, Riku Onda writes that “it’s impossible to ever really know the truth behind events,” setting the tone of the mystery surrounding a horrible mass murder in 1970s Japan in which seventeen people are poisoned by cyanide after drinking a toast with sake and soft drinks. What starts as a jovial birthday party for three generations of the Aosawa family ends in the family, their relatives, and friends dying in agony. The only survivor in the Aosawa family is Hisako, their blind teenage daughter.

 

Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami, Sam Bett (trans), David Boyd (trans) (Europe Editions, April 2020; Picador, August 2020)
Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami, Sam Bett (trans), David Boyd (trans) (Europe Editions, April 2020; Picador, August 2020)

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd

 

It is impossible not to read title of Mieko Kawakami’s new novel Breasts and Eggs, with its unabashedly female take, without also hearing the the salacious and near homonymous “breasts and legs”, invoking as it does the male gaze and its frequent targets. Kawakami’s work, composed of two “books” separated by 10 years, is an extended exploration of the inner life of women; the theme of breasts appear as one character pursues augmentation surgery, and eggs are a recurring motif both as a foodstuff and in relation to fertility and procreation.

 

The Honjin Murders, Seishi Yokomizo, Louise Heal Kawai (trans) (Pushkin Press, December 2019)
The Honjin Murders, Seishi Yokomizo, Louise Heal Kawai (trans) (Pushkin Press, December 2019)

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo, translated by Louise Heal Kawai

 

Seishi Yokomizo’s The Honjin Murders, published in Japan in 1946 and now available in English for the first time, employs the plot tricks of early European and American mystery writers to tell the story of a rapidly changing Japanese society around the time of the Second World War.

Stories

People From My Neighbourhood, Hiromi Kawakami, Ted Goossen (trans) (Granta, August 2020)
People From My Neighbourhood, Hiromi Kawakami, Ted Goossen (trans) (Granta, August 2020)

People From My Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Ted Goossen

 

People from My Neighborhood is a book about relationships. Kawakami Hiromi’s collection of micro-fiction, itself only 120-pages long, is about the members of the close-knit community in an exurban Tokyo town. For a volume of short stories, the relationships between characters are remarkably strong. Two and three pages at a time, the reader begins to see the tangled network of ties that bind the people from the neighborhood together.

 

Where the Wild Ladies Are, Aoko Matsuda, Polly Barton (trans) (Tilted Axis, February, 2020; Soft Skull, October 2020)
Where the Wild Ladies Are, Aoko Matsuda, Polly Barton (trans) (Tilted Axis, February, 2020; Soft Skull, October 2020)

Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, translated by Polly Barton

 

Angry women hold a special place in Japanese folklore. Many of Japan’s best-known tales are about “vengeful ghosts”, almost always women, who wreak havoc on the living for some perceived wrong. Where the Wild Ladies Are recasts such classic ghost stories for a contemporary audience. Matsuda Aoko reinvents these women, highlighting the strength of will that drives them to become ghosts in the first place. As ghosts, they are no longer victims of fate. By becoming monstrous, they gain power.

Children’s books

Kiki’s Delivery Service, Eiko Kadono, Emily Balistrieri (trans) (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, July 2020)
Kiki’s Delivery Service, Eiko Kadono, Emily Balistrieri (trans) (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, July 2020)

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, translated by Emily Balistrieri

 

Kiki, a thirteen-year-old witch in training, leaves her rural village for a bustling seaside town. With her, she takes only a bento lunchbox, a radio, and her black cat Jiji. She travels by broom, of course. Broom flight is the only magic Kiki has. Western audiences may know Kiki from the massively popular, heavily-lauded 1989 Studio Ghibli film. Hayao Miyazaki, as always, builds his own world out of his source material. There is still a great deal for readers to discover in author Kadono Eiko’s original, recently released in a charming English translation by Emily Balistrieri.

 

Every Color of Light, Hiroshi Osada, Ryōji Arai (illus), David Boyd (trans) ( Enchanted Lion Books, August 2020)
Every Color of Light, Hiroshi Osada, Ryōji Arai (illus), David Boyd (trans) ( Enchanted Lion Books, August 2020)

Every Color of Light, by Hiroshi Osada, illustrated Ryōji Arai, translated by David Boyd

 

Written by Hiroshi Osada in a translation by David Boyd and with illustrations by Ryōji Arai, Every Color of Light is a gentle book that tells the story of a day through nature. There is a quietness to the book that makes the words and the images all the more powerful. Each page is a work of art—there is richness in colors, but also the movement of the rain, the wind and the lightning, followed by the calm after the storm.  There are landscapes of a forest in the golden light, and close-ups of individual raindrops “sparkling like crystals”.

 

Chirri & Chirra Under the Sea, Kaya Doi, David Boyd (trans) (Enchanted Lion Books, May 2020)
Chirri & Chirra Under the Sea, Kaya Doi, David Boyd (trans) (Enchanted Lion Books, May 2020)

Chirri & Chirra Under the Sea by Kaya Doi, translated by David Boyd

 

If the aim is to help children see the beauty and the mystery in the natural world, Doi has more than succeeded. First published in 2004, Chirri & Chirra Under the Sea is long overdue to find its way to English-speaking audiences, and thankfully this charming installment and the other books in the series now have an English home.

Biography

The Wisdom of Tea: Life Lessons from the Japanese Tea Ceremony, Noriko Morishita, Eleanor Goldsmith (trans) (Allen & Unwin, August 2020)
The Wisdom of Tea: Life Lessons from the Japanese Tea Ceremony, Noriko Morishita, Eleanor Goldsmith (trans) (Allen & Unwin, August 2020)

The Wisdom of Tea: Life Lessons from the Japanese Tea Ceremony by Noriko Morishita,  translated by Eleanor Goldsmith

 

The Japanese tea ceremony is a traditional art in which actual consumption takes a backseat to process and presentation. It’s also an activity for the privileged, one in which people can enjoy only if they have spare time to devote to classes. But Noriko Morishita has shown how a modern woman can embrace a fading art and the calmness it can bring. Morishita’s The Wisdom of Tea: Life Lessons from the Japanese Tea Ceremony was so successful in Japan that it was adapted into a 2018 film. Now translated into English by Eleanor Goldsmith, the book is more a memoir of her path to a slower lifestyle and self-acceptance than a treatise on the tea ceremony.