Japan Writers Conference and revival of Monkey magazine make for a literary October

Nagoya: Translations of Japanese literature and English-language writing on Japan have arguably never been more popular.
In the American publishing industry, literature in translation sells better per book than non-translated works. Translations of Japanese literature have increased tenfold since 1980, and a relentless U.S. and U.K. publisher hunt for the “next Haruki Murakami” has resulted in abundant and well-selling contemporary translations of authors such as Mieko Kawakami, Yoko Ogawa and Sayaka Murata.

On the writing side, the largest international population in Japan’s history alongside the country’s remarkable tourist boom of the 2010s has contributed to an thriving market and a vast online repository of writing about Japan: everything from memoirs, to creative cultural and historical nonfiction, to an ever-growing plethora of travel websites and blogs.
With the upcoming Japan Writers Conference and the launch of Monkey, a literary magazine, both sides of the coin will be on display this weekend.

“The international appetite for Japanese literature is very, very good right now,” says Motoyuki Shibata, translator of American authors such as Paul Auster and Steven Millhauser into Japanese and founder of Monkey. “We want to let the world know what’s going on in Japanese literature.”
Monkey features translations of writings from many of Japan’s most acclaimed contemporary authors, including Hideo Furakawa, Hiroko Oyamada, Yoko Ogawa, Aoko Matsuda and Hiromi Ito, as well as translations of modern classics and some original English-language works from Jeffrey Angles and Steven Millhauser.

Monkey is the English-language offspring of the prestigious Japanese literary magazine of the same name, also founded by Shibata. Shibata ran the magazine Monkey Business with Ted Goossen, a translator of Haruki Murakami, as the accompanying English-language edition for seven years before needing to find a new sponsor. After gaining support from Tadashi Yanai, the founder of Uniqlo, Shibata and Goossen were able to resurrect the magazine.

Japanese authors, from Haruki Murakami to Hiromi Kawakami and many of the authors featured in the first edition of Monkey, have captivated the world with their innovative blending of fantasy and reality.
“American fiction is very occupied with reality,” says Shibata, “but I don’t think that’s always a very effective way of capturing so-called reality … Japanese literature has always been attuned to fantastic elements of storytelling.”

Shibata adds that the contemporary generation of Japanese writers is very attuned to music and rhythm. “But I think (English-language) readers are also more attuned to the voice and rhythm of prose, even in translation,” he says. “Young translators of Japanese fiction are definitely attuned to the music of the language.”

Well-established and rising star translators alike, including Michael Emmerich, Polly Barton (for Aoko Matsuda) and David Boyd (for Mieko Kawakami) worked on the issue.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the Japanese literary scene can be split between serious literary fiction — the type that goes up for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize — and popular literature — the type that goes up for the Naoki Prize. Shibata says that Monkey falls somewhere in the middle.
“We appeal to readers who are looking for something less serious and still literary,” says Shibata. “Ultimately, the only excuse we can offer to readers for our selections is that we love this writing.”

“A lot of professors and teachers tell me that Monkey is perfect for their students — funny, colorful and quirky, without all the heaviness of anthologies, which tend to skew conservative and canonical,” says Roland Kelts, a Japan Times columnist and one of the magazine’s editors. “We’ve been publishing Monkey for 10 years now and have a dedicated readership without being fussy or even trying to be representative. Female voices have come to dominate our pages, and they are the voices of Japan’s literary future.”
Monkey magazine is now available for pre-order. The new edition launches with a Zoom webinar at 10 a.m. on Oct. 10 at 10 a.m., featuring a roundtable discussion and readings from authors, translators and editors.
And for those who fancy themselves more of a writer than a reader? The Japan Writers Conference, now in its 13th year, will be held as a Zoom conference on Oct. 10 and 11. The packed schedule features talks and panels for writers of every inclination, from discussions on creating mystery sleuths and 3D villains, to poetry workshops, to a panel of editors from Japan-based magazines and publications.

Organizer John Gribble describes the Japan Writers Conference as a community — a “tribe.”
“We simply have a desire to have a gathering of the clan, so to speak — mostly native English-speaking writers living in Japan, people with either a personal or professional interest in writing,” Gribble says. “We get together and share what we know.”
With more non-Japanese residents living in Japan than ever before, there are pockets of English-language writers, which include Japanese participants, everywhere from Sapporo to Okinawa — and the Japan Writers Conference targets all of them: fiction writers, journalists, textbook writers, poets, essayists and casual, non-professional writers. Typically, the conference travels from city to city to encourage participation, but will be held online this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event has a huge schedule of more than 30 events. Despite a shoestring budget — “Every other year I walk around with a can and shake it to gather enough to pay for the website hosting,” says Gribble — the event has attracted notable talents over the years, including bestselling thriller writers and well-published non-fiction writers and poets this year, such as Barry Eisler, Charles Kowalski, Melinda T. Falgoust, Suzanne Kamata, Todd Leonard and Jane Joritz-Nakagawa. Talks on pursuing a Master of Fine Arts, self-publishing, and marketing and promotion fill out a creative lineup with practical advice for aspiring, rising and experienced writers alike.

“COVID has shown me what a loyal bunch of people this conference has attracted,” says Gribble. “We have a fast set of volunteers. It’s been a very egalitarian event — our purpose is to have a big working party every year.” While an online conference has put some holes in the party aspect of the event, Gribble says that they are making a special effort to add breakout rooms and a “happy hour” after the end of each day’s session for fun conversation.