Thursday, May 31, 2018

Me and my Monkey: my story behind Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan

via GLLI

Editor’s note: Forget the old saw that English language readers won’t read literature in translation. For the last seven years, Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan has been publishing an annual journal of what it calls “the best of contemporary Japanese literature” in English. The paperback editions of the first three issues were completely sold out. This year, though, for reasons the editors call “both professional and personal,” it will not be releasing a new edition. Monkey Business will return with issue no. 8 in 2019 but the digital and most paperback editions of issues 1-7 are available for purchase at its online store. I asked Roland Kelts, who has been involved with the journal since its founding, to tell us about Monkey Business and his connection to Japanese literature in translation.  


Eight years ago I had the good fortune of being asked to do a favor. Professors Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goossen, esteemed literary translators, invited me to dinner in Tokyo and asked if I could help find a North American partner for their venture: an annual English-language journal of Japanese literature.

Back in New York City, my home in America, I called Brigid Hughes, founding editor of A Public Space. (Brigid had commissioned me and Shibata to assemble a portfolio on Japanese fiction for her first issue.) We had lunch in Soho, Brigid said yes, and off we went.

Our partnership has since produced seven issues of Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan (MBI). They contain stories, poems, photo essays and manga by talents internationally renowned (Yoko Ogawa, Haruki Murakami), fast rising (Hideo Furukawa, Mieko Kawakami), and those we’ll be seeing more of (Tomoka Shibasaki, Aoko Matsuda). Each issue is unpredictable and spiked with gems – what author Junot Diaz calls “an astonishment.”

In my role as MBI advisor, contributing editor and occasional road manager, the experience has been equal parts astonishment and education.


When I first read literature in translation (Dostoevsky, Kafka), the alchemy was transparent to me. I’m embarrassed to admit that as a teenager, I didn’t even know the prose had been translated, or at least I didn’t care. I just knew that the writers’ names sounded strange and cool. It felt like they were writing directly to me.

At Oberlin, poet and translator David Young taught me to think about the sound and shape of language beyond its content, which in turn made me think of its origin – not only in thought, but also in culture, place, and time. I remember learning that Ezra Pound claimed he could understand Chinese ideograms without formal study and thinking … wha?

Context is everything, and also, like a Zen koan, nothing.

After I moved to Japan and met Haruki Murakami, I asked him several questions about translation. He likened the process to living inside an author’s mind. Of J.D. Salinger’s mind, he once said while translating The Catcher in The Rye: “It’s very dark in there. That novel (Catcher) is a battle between the open world and the closed. That’s the tension. And in the end, its author chose the closed world.”

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Is manga dying in Japan?

Will digital piracy ruin the future of manga?

Chigusa Ogino (photo: Toru Takeda)

Author and manga translator Frederik L. Schodt once pointed out to me that many of Japan’s cultural products are embraced abroad just as they are declining at home. Ukiyo-e prints became the rage in Europe in the late 19th century, nearly 100 years after they’d peaked in Edo and Kyoto. Sake sales have been climbing steadily in overseas markets, with the value of exports doubling over the past five years and hitting a record in 2017, as they continue a decades-long slide in Japan. And now: manga?

According to a survey by the Research Institute for Publications, domestic manga sales were flat last year, but the big reveal in the numbers was that digital outsold physical for the first time, rising 17.2 percent while print slipped 14.4 percent. Weekly manga magazines saw the steepest drop in sales, to below a third of what they were in 1995. A lot of digital manga content is cheap or costs nothing at all, with some of the larger, more-established apps, like messaging service Line, offering free titles to entice readers to make in-app purchases.

The North American market for manga peaked in the mid-2000s, when it breached the $200 million threshold (one-fifth of the $1 billion global market), according to Chigusa Ogino, director at Tuttle-Mori Agency, Inc., Japan’s largest and oldest literary agency. But in 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (known in Japan as “Lehman shock”) and the resulting financial crisis, followed a few years later by the bankruptcy of the American bookstore chain, Borders, dealt severe blows to the industry.

“A lot of publishers left the market,” Ogino says. “We saw the bottom.”

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

Keynote gig, Los Angeles, July 2018


Writer, scholar, editor and cultural critic Roland Kelts is the author of the critically acclaimed and bestselling book, JAPANAMERICA: HOW JAPANESE POP CULTURE HAS INVADED THE U.S. His writing is published in the US, Europe and Japan in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, The Japan Times and many others.

He contributes commentary on Japan to CNN, the BBC, NPR and Japan’s NHK, and gives talks at venues worldwide, including The World Economic Forum, TED Talks, Harvard University, the University of California, the University of Tokyo, the Singapore Writers Festival and several anime conventions across the United States. He has interviewed several notable Japanese artists, including Hayao Miyazaki and Haruki Murakami, and is considered an authority on Japanese culture and media.

Kelts has won a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Award in Writing at Columbia University and a Nieman Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard. He is currently a visiting lecturer at Waseda University and is finishing two books, a novel and a new version of JAPANAMERICA.
He divides his time between Tokyo and New York City.