A Note from Japan

Context N°16

by Minae Mizumura

One of the projects we have going at Dalkey Archive is the creation of a network of writers, critics, publishers, and teachers throughout the world who can keep us informed about the best writing in other countries and will at times be contributing to our critical publications, CONTEXT and the Review of Contemporary Fiction.

Most of the people we’ve contacted have been enthusiastic about the network and about increasing the attention paid to their country/region’s literature in the U.S. Recently, though, I received a reply from Japanese writer/scholar Minae Mizumura who was somewhat discouraged (and hurried—she’d just returned to Japan from a year at Princeton). I wrote back to ask her to elaborate on her response, and received a reply that strikes me as honest, perhaps a bit too familiar for comfort, but worth sharing with CONTEXT’s readers. It’s a small world, after all.

—Martin Riker

Minae Mizumura writes:

Here’s a quick response to your question. The shelf life of books in the U.S., I know, is getting shorter and shorter—as well as the number of years a book is in print. The situation is worse in Japan where the mass culture is even more prevalent and the market reacts even more quickly to what is newly available; that is, according to what teenagers and people in their early twenties buy. Japan now publishes 70,000 new titles a year (including anime and paperback versions of old titles). That means 200 new titles a day. If you are a novelist, you must write simple books in order to please the young and write fast enough in order to keep a book of yours on the shelf, thus maintaining your name brand and whatever media celebrity-hood you wish to uphold. The vicious cycle perpetuates, for the people who decide to become writers under the present situation are increasingly those who only read those “bookoids.” That such writers like Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, whom some would not hesitate to call sophomoric, have established their reputation abroad does not help the situation. From Soseki up to Tanizaki, that is, from Meiji Restoration up till the end of WWII, the novelists represented the best and the brightest (and the most well-read) of the country. That is no longer the case.

I’m sorry for such a short answer to your question, but I hope you get the basic picture.

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