Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Joys of Reading Japanese Fiction

While I was working my way up to seriously writing fiction, I spent some time as a Japanese language translator and interpreter. 

I held other jobs, too, that made use of my Japanese language skills. For about twenty years, I was employed by several Japanese companies—including Toyota—in various capacities. 

I loved the intellectual challenge of translation and interpreting. The corporate politics of purchasing and sales, much less so.

I’ve made many a trip to Japan. During my first trip, in 1992, I sang a sake-fueled karaoke duet with a geisha before a crowd of chuckling Japanese salarymen. It was great fun. 

I’ll likely never do anything like that again. My days of globetrotting are over. I’m quite content to stay in Ohio.

But I do still enjoy reading Japanese, especially Japanese fiction. 

If you only read English, then you’re basically limited to Haruki Murakami on the contemporary scene, Natsume Soseki among the classical Japanese authors. 

Murakami and Soseki are worthwhile, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg. If you can’t read Japanese, then you’ll miss out on the mystery novels of Keigo Higashino, and the literary novels of Banana Yoshimoto, among others.

You’ve no doubt heard of Japanese manga; and you probably think these comics are limited to pokemon-esque fantasy characters for kids. Au contraire: In Japan, business manga are among the most popular series. These contain sophisticated, realistic stories about work and conflict in Japan’s corporations. 

My favorite example of this genre is Kenshi Hirokane’s Kachō Kōsaku Shima. This series was launched in 1983, when the eponymous lead character, Shima-san, was promoted to kachō—or section chief—at Hatsushiba Electric, a fictional Japanese electronics conglomerate. 

The series is still running, and Shima-san has been promoted to president, or shachō, of Hatsushiba. The series has sold more than 40 million copies in Japan, not including the copies I have purchased over the years.  

And then there are the Japanese ghost stories. Japanese readers love subtle, spooky tales. If you’ve seen J-horror films like The Ring, The Grudge, and Dark Water, you’ll have an idea of what the Japanese horror scene is like. 

So yes, you should learn Japanese so you can have an easier time when you travel to Tokyo. The Japanese language—if you master it—will also bolster your resume.

But most of all, you should learn Japanese so you can read Japanese fiction. Because if you can’t read Japanese fiction in the original text, you’re missing out on a lot of great stories.