May GLLI Blog Series: Japan in Translation, No. 2
Editor’s note: Even in 2018, many conversations about Japan begin by mentioning the nation’s homogeneity before going on to discuss a group or individual who appears to be an exception. Japan is filled with such “exceptions,” however, and even the tiny percentage of Japanese fiction published in English translation reveals a wide range of identities. The stories of people occupying marginalized positions can serve as doors opening onto a rich and varied landscape of human experience, and Japanese writers and artists are exploring new territory in their narrative representations of what it means to be an outsider even in a new global age of rapidly shifting cultural boundaries. Prolific blogger and George Mason Professor Kathryn Hemmann describes five such works.
Fujisan, by Randy Taguchi, translated by Raj Mahtani
Fujisan is a collection of four stories about people who live on the margins of Japanese society. “Jamila” follows a social worker tasked with cleaning up the residence of an elderly woman who has become a hoarder after being estranged from her family, but the difficulties he encounters have less to do with the trash monster “Jamila” and more to do with the fact that he’s carrying around an excess of psychological baggage himself. Meanwhile, “The Blue Summit” is told from the perspective of a young convenience store manager who finds peace in the fluorescent-lit order of well-stocked shelves after his best friend died in the grips of a religious cult. Mount Fuji looms over all of the characters in this collection, symbolizing the vast and inhuman but ultimately comforting absurdity of the universe in Randy Taguchi’s gritty yet compassionate short fiction.
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, by Kabi Nagata, translated by Jocelyne Allen
This autobiographical graphic novel, which was originally posted in segments on the amateur artistic social networking site Pixiv, is not as dark as its title would suggest. The author, convinced that she needs to have a sexual experience with another person in order to become an adult, makes a reservation with a lesbian escort service. The initial encounter and its follow-up session are portrayed in a gentle and sex-positive manner, but the real drama lies in Nagata’s psychological introspection, which is occasionally painful but ultimately leads her to take control of her life. Although this manga is not shy about addressing issues of depression and sexuality, the artist’s cute and expressive style and light humorous touch ensure that her gradual journey of self-actualization remains hopeful and relatable even when it’s at its most personal and honest.
Real World, by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Phillip Gabriel
During the height of the international media’s obsession with high school girls, Natsuo Kirino staged an intervention by writing about the “real world” of young women at the turn of the century. A student at an elite all-male high school kills his mother in a fit of rage and steals the bike of his next-door neighbor, a girl his age named Toshi. Toshi hesitates to report him to the police; and, by remaining silent, she becomes caught up in the boy’s flight from Tokyo as her small circle of friends collaborate to aid him. This novel is narrated from the alternating perspectives of Toshi, her three friends, and the boy himself, each of whom is barely shouldering the weight of an inner burden. One of the girls is involved in “compensated dating,” for instance, while another secretly visits lesbian bars in Shinjuku in an attempt to come to terms with her queer identity. What starts as something resembling a game quickly grows more serious as the pressure puts strain on the psychological fault lines of each character and causes them to crack.
In Clothes Called Fat, by Moyoco Anno
In this deeply disturbing graphic novel, Moyoco Anno tackles the issues of mental illness and eating disorders with incredible rhetorical violence. The book’s antihero, Noko Hanazawa, is an office worker who is bullied by her boss and her coworkers, who treat her as if she’s sloppy and lazy because she’s a bit overweight. Although she has a kind and generous personality, Noko eventually reaches a crisis point and begins dieting, which in turn leads her to adopt an increasingly unhealthy attitude toward eating. When she finally begins to lose weight, at great expense to her finances and her mental health, she is treated even more severely because she is perceived as vain and emotionally imbalanced. Dumped by her boyfriend and alienated by a hostile work environment, Noko’s life and eating disorder spiral out of control. In a world where young professional women are judged according to how pleasant and presentable they are, Noko’s story describes the pain of the scapegoat in visceral and lurid detail. Although Noko eventually finds another job, her story does not have a happy ending, which reflects the unfortunate truth that, for many women, issues with body image can never be “cured” in a misogynistic and openly judgmental society.
Dendera, by Yuya Sato, translated by Nathan A. Collins and Edwin Hawkes
Dendera is a historical fantasy that is neither precisely historical nor a fantasy. In an age that is vaguely premodern and a place that is an unspecified poverty-stricken village in rural Japan, old people are carried up the slope of the Mountain, where they are then left to ascend the rest of the way to Paradise on their own. Seventy-year-old Kayu Saitoh is ready to finally rest and be at peace, but then she is rescued by a group of women who had been abandoned in years past and have created their own community in the wilderness, which they call Dendera. Far from living in a utopia, however, the women of Dendera are threatened by internal conflict, a severe lack of resources, and an angry mother bear whose territory they have invaded. Whereas numerous works of Japanese fiction in translation are narrated from the perspectives of people who live fairly comfortably in Tokyo, Dendera emphasizes the experience of being on the social, economic, and geographic margins of Japanese society. Sizable portions of this lengthy novel are related from the point of view of the marauding bear, thus demonstrating that it’s not just humans who are threatened by cultural practices and public policies that deny the full humanity of those who do not have any demonstrated “use” to mainstream society.
Tomorrow, come back for veteran translator Deborah Iwabuchi on some of the most memorable translations of her career.
Kathryn Hemmann is an assistant professor of Japanese in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at George Mason University, where she teaches classes on literature and popular culture. Her research examines transnational fan communities and the ways in which women interpret texts that are usually understood as being targeted at a male audience. She also manages a blog called Contemporary Japanese Literature (japaneselit.net), which features reviews of fiction in translation and occasional essays on animation, comics, and video games.
David Jacobson organized this series on Japanese literature in translation. He is the author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, a 2017 NCTE notable poetry book. A longtime journalist, David has written news articles and TV scripts that have appeared in the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times and on CNN and Japan’s NHK. Since 2008, he has worked with Seattle book publisher Chin Music Press. An experienced Japanese translator, he is on the board of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.
And in case you missed it…
May 1: Roger Pulvers on Ishikawa Takuboku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 1)