Oba Yozo, the central character and anti-hero of Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku, is as familiar to Japanese readers as Holden Caulfield is to English readers. The Catcher in the Rye still sells a million copies per year, in dozens of languages, while in Japanese only a few novels, notably Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro, routinely outsell Ningen Shikkaku. Catcher, however, pales beside Ningen as a literary achievement.
If you go into most bookshops in the States for example, there’s a cottage industry of books on the US and China, the US and the Middle East, you go to the UK, there’s a sort of similar cottage industry of books on the UK and France, and France and Germany. But there’s very little on Japan and China, and this is a highly consequential relationship—the world’s second and third biggest economies, Asia’s two superpowers, and with a really difficult, emotional, scarred history …
Most of us in our 20s or above remember where we were on 1 January 2000, when the planet welcomed the new year, decade, century and millennium. (Pedants however never tire of pointing out that the correct date should have been one year later.) Lijia Zhang’s Lotus begins with the title character facing a rather grim start to the year—on that January day, Lotus is arrested for suspicion of prostitution as she’s sitting shore side in Shenzhen, contemplating the turns of her 23 years of life.
Back in the 1980s, books about Japan became bestsellers worldwide, with the ascent of Japan from the ignominy and abject destruction of 1945 to the position of the #2 economy on the planet, with the #1 spot not far off in the breathless predictions of some at the time.
Jack Ma once described online shopping as a dessert in the United States, but the main course in China. That’s one of a set of key differences between developed-economy e-commerce and that of China, differences that escorted eBay out the Chinese door and kept Amazon as a minor player here, while the Alibaba Group has become the world’s largest retailer, the company with the largest IPO ever (US$25 billion in September 2014, though NTT DoCoMo’s 1998 IPO of $18.1 billion is about the same in current US dollar terms) and the nexus of around two-thirds of all parcels delivered in China. Writing for Harvard’s Working Knowledge in May 2014, Professors William Kirby and F Warren McFarlan assert that Alibaba “has done more for China’s small- and medium-sized enterprises than any government policy, ministry, or bank.”