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The Future of Southeast Asian Literature: Connecting Authors and Readers (Part 1)

Roundtable talk / Asian Literature Project "YOMU"

How has Southeast Asian literature been introduced to Japan?

FUKUTOMI Sho (hereinafter Fukutomi): Thank you for gathering here today. I will be today's moderator. First, let me touch briefly on the status quo and historical background of the publication situation of Southeast Asian literature in Japan.

I am also a member of the editorial board of the Southeast Asian Literature, a journal that features literature from Southeast Asia in Japanese. Various contributors translate the works of Southeast Asian authors into Japanese, and we make them freely available on our website.

At its core, the framework of Southeast Asia, within which the literature has developed, is political in nature. The United States began conducting research on Southeast Asia during the Cold War, leading to similar work beginning in Southeast Asian studies in Japan. Thereafter, literature and the literary arts began to attract interest, primarily in the 1970s after the Vietnam War. Emblematic of this early-stage era was the Asahi Asia Review, a magazine published by the Asahi Shimbun Company. It was not a literary magazine but a collection of expert commentaries on various aspects of the Southeast Asian situation at the time. The magazine ran from 1970 to 1978, with 36 issues published, and produced several special editions on literature in Southeast Asian countries, thus introducing local authors. However, the fact of the matter was that translations were commissioned not by literary experts but by individuals involved in research on Southeast Asia who knew the local languages.

A photo of Southeast Asian Literature
Southeast Asian Literature

An opportunity to widen the scope of this operation came from the "Know Our Neighbors" program launched by the Toyota Foundation. Simply put, this was a project that provided grants for the translation of literary works and books on humanities and social sciences from Southeast Asian languages into Japanese. Many publishing companies handling Asian literature at the time, such as Keiso Shobo and Dandansha, received grants for translating Southeast Asian literary works. This constitutes an overview of the situation from the late 1970s to 1980s.

"Know Our Neighbors" was indeed a groundbreaking program, which arguably ended up setting the course for the translation of Southeast Asian literature to come. In other words, it was in the presence of grants that plans for publication of these works were made at all. They were published for commercial distribution based on the funding received. However, they did not achieve a wide circulation, and many began and ended with the first edition.

Publishing funded by grants continued even after this. In the 1980s, the Daido Life Foundation launched its "Modern Literature of Asia" series. The books translated and published as part of this project were not sold in general bookstores but donated to libraries and schools. More recently, previously translated works are being digitized, and many can be read as e-books for free.

However, in all this time, the number of translators has not changed significantly. Southeast Asia specialists who had cut their teeth on the early days of area studies in Japan were also involved in literature, but only few others have been able to follow in their footsteps.

The Japan Foundation came on the scene in the 1990s, launching its "Takeshi Kaiko Memorial Asian Writers' Lecture" series in 1990. From the mid-1990s onward, Asian literature was also discussed in the "Lectures for Understanding Asia," an initiative that provided a multifaceted look at Asian society and culture. The early 2000s saw projects such as the "Japan–India Writers' Caravan" that brought together Japanese and Indian authors and researchers. However, since the mid-2000s, projects related to Asian literature seem to have become sparser and smaller in scale.

What does a lack of translators mean for Southeast Asian literature?

Fukutomi: To put it bluntly, I feel that a cycle is repeating itself where the loss of funding halts the introduction of Asian literature to Japan. As literature is not introduced, younger people have fewer chances to encounter Southeast Asian literature, leading to fewer people aspiring to work in the field of translation. Every year there is a certain number of university students majoring in Southeast Asian languages; however, of course, not all of them are interested in literature, and even gaining the proficiency needed for translation requires time and money. Few people are willing to take these risks, even though they may not even be able to earn a living.

The limited number of translators or advocates of Southeast Asian literature means that the perspectives involved in the selection of Asian works coming to Japan are also limited. A peculiarity of the Toyota Foundation project was that the selection of works to translate was entrusted to local authors in the original countries. However, this is certainly a unique pattern. Other projects, in the majority of cases, tend to select works based on the decision of an expert panel formed in Japan or on what a small number of translators believe to be "a good fit" at the time. Obviously, good works may very well be introduced in this way; however, their diversity will necessarily be limited.

From the 1990s onward, Southeast Asian literature came to be featured sporadically among Japan's so-called five major literary magazines, such as Shincho and Subaru. However, this also did not seem to lead to a continuous inflow of works. In the 2000s, the trend known as "world literature" arose in the academic world and the publishing industry. Arguments for the rediscovery of the pleasures of foreign literature and the introduction of more translated works beyond those from English-speaking countries also came to the fore in Japan. Amid these developments, gradually, works from various countries came to be translated, leading to the current situation.

For example, the South Korean literature handled by CUON, Ms. Kim's publishing house, has been a huge success, gaining a very large readership. Nevertheless, the continued introduction of South Korean literature to Japan requires various resources. We require translators, people to select the works to be translated, authors to produce works, and the conditions to correctly evaluate these works on the ground. I am looking forward to hearing how these aspects are intertwined and how they relate to the introduction of South Korean literature in Japan later on. However, the situation of Southeast Asian literature is much different. While Ms. Oikawa and I have both have translated books by Southeast Asian authors, sadly, I doubt that the torch has been passed on or that even a trend has emerged. What has let to this situation, and what can we do going forward? First, Ms. Oikawa, would you briefly discuss Southeast Asian Sinophone literature and its reception in Japan?

Sinophone Malaysian literature

OIKAWA Akane (hereinafter Oikawa): I feel that there are two obstacles to the reception of literature from Chinese-speaking countries in Japan. The first is the position of Southeast Asian literature within this literature, Sinophone literature as it is called. The second is that of Chinese-language literature within Malaysian literature. From these two perspectives, I believe that even the existence of Chinese-language literature in Malaysia is not well known in Japan. Indeed, the image of Chinese-language literature is that of works hailing from China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. Conversely, the image of Malaysian literature is that of works in Malay.

Given these circumstances, how is Chinese-language literature from Malaysia translated? I first became involved in literary research on this topic with the Tropical Literature in Taiwan series published by Jimbun Shoin (2010, 2011). Although the title refers to Taiwan, this is actually an anthology of Malaysian authors. Taiwan is mentioned in the title because the publication was funded by the Taiwanese Council for Cultural Affairs (now the Ministry of Culture, an organization comparable to the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan). The translations were entrusted not to researchers of Malaysia but to Chinese-language literature experts. The featured authors were from Malaysia; although many worked as writers in Taiwan, some were based in Malaysia and had no connection to Taiwan at all. I was not involved with the selection of the works; thus, I cannot speak about that directly, but I imagine that the series focused mainly on works selected by Malaysian authors and researchers active in Taiwan. In contrast, an earlier collection entitled Malaysian Anti-Japanese Literature (1994), sponsored by the Toyota Foundation and published by Professor HARA Fujio through Keiso Shobo's Southeast Asian Books, included Malay-language works besides Chinese-language ones. The featured works were most likely selected by Professor Hara himself.

In short, Chinese-language Malaysian literature is sometimes introduced to Japan with funding from Taiwan, and this results in the involvement of Taiwan-based researchers at the selection stage. Some Malaysian authors have also published books in China. When these works are successful, the Chinese publishers may attempt to sell their rights in Japan.

Fukutomi: There are probably more people who study Chinese and are interested in Chinese-language literature than their equivalents in Southeast Asian-language literature. There are also surely more researchers and translators. In this context, how many people—like you, Ms. Oikawa—choose not to stop at literature from mainland China or Taiwan but also focus on Sinophone literature from Southeast Asian countries? I would also like to hear how you became interested in Southeast Asian authors yourself.

Oikawa: There are many translators with expertise in Chinese-language literature; however, I think the only one who specializes in Malaysia is Professor MASUTANI Satoshi. The others generally handle literature from mainland China or Taiwan and translate Malaysian Sinophone literature on the side when the opportunity comes along.

I began my study with Cantonese; I used to look for Cantonese radio stations and listen to them online as audio learning material. Among these, there was a Malaysian broadcasting station. Listening to Malaysian tourist information and traffic jam conditions, the country began to feel familiar to me. Realizing how many people in Malaysia speak Cantonese, I actually had a chance to go there as a tourist after attending a special screening of a work by the late Malaysian film director Yasmin Ahmad. Malaysian culture is now being addressed in the world of cinema, but what about literature? With so many Chinese speakers, I wondered if there were authors who wrote in Chinese about the world depicted in Yasmin Ahmad's films. That was how I first came to read Malaysian Sinophone literature. Later on, while doing research in Taiwan, I had the opportunity to speak to Taiwan-based Malaysian researchers and authors, and gradually, through direct exchange with the authors and translation of their works, I grew increasingly attached to Southeast Asian Sinophone literature.

Fukutomi: Whether from Malaysia or Singapore, is it rare for these works to be published by Taiwanese or mainland Chinese publishers rather than domestic ones?

Oikawa: It seems to be very common. Authors who publish with Taiwanese publishing companies are particularly evident. On a different note, there are publishing activities that connect Malaysia, Singapore, and other countries to Taiwan. The Taiwanese publisher Monsoon opened a bookstore in Taipei in 2018 and has recently also set up a store in Kuala Lumpur. Monsoon, which is run by physician and author Lim Wooi Tee, a Malaysian now living in Singapore, handles the import and sales of Malaysian and Singaporean books as well as the publication of books on the region. It introduces Southeast Asian works to Taiwan, handling everything from planning to printing to sales. The books are printed and published in Taiwan, bypassing regional restrictions on sales.

In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen recently launched the "New Southbound Policy," making significant progress with the investment of resources in Southeast Asia. Elsewhere, in mainland China, translations of Southeast Asian literature have made great strides because of the Belt and Road initiative. In these circumstances, my reading of the situation is that publishing in mainland China and Taiwan has become easier and that there are opportunities to do.

Fukutomi: I hear that, in Taiwan, students are required to learn a Southeast Asian language at the compulsory education level, with many learning resources at their disposal. In the case of Malaysian and Singaporean authors, there may simply be issues of freedom of expression. In all likelihood, it is possible that in Taiwan, they can publish works with content that would be difficult to express in their native countries.

Moving on from Sinophone literature, let us discuss South Korean literature. With apologies for the very broad question, Ms. Kim, could you briefly tell us about the reception of South Korean literature in Japan?

How did South Korean literature gain such a large readership in Japan?

KIM Seungbok (hereinafter Kim): We started publishing South Korean books in Japan back in 2011. Of course, South Korean literature had been introduced to Japan well before that. In the 1980s, author NAKAGAMI Kenji spent a long time in South Korea and introduced the works of the South Korean authors that he had encountered there to Japan; poet IBARAGI Noriko taught herself Korean and translated South Korean poems and introduced them to Japan. This process has been going on for a long time. Japan is also home to Zainichi Koreans, who have introduced many works addressing the themes of nationalism and issues of ideology.

After 2000, young South Korean authors and readers began to turn their attention to novels based on personal themes. This genre had never been introduced to Japan before; thus, we started a publishing company to bring it here ourselves. Today, Japan is experiencing a South Korean literature boom. After the launch of the "New South Korean Literature" series in the early 2010s, the number of Japanese translations of South Korean works has increased from about 20 titles a year to 100 titles as of 2020. Among the many factors leading to this, one is certainly the rise of Korean popular culture. South Korean cinema, dramas, and K-pop have become wildly popular, and people do not stop at simply consuming these media; they learn Korean, and after learning the language they want to try and translate the language used by Koreans; therefore, they go out and buy books. This creates a mechanism that sells books. Moreover, because supply follows demand, if a book sells, the next one gets published.

Another factor is translators. In the case of other languages, university professors often work on translation in addition to research. In the case of South Korean literature, however, people studying Korean for fun have begun to involve themselves in translation. This has created an environment wherein the works of a generation of authors are translated by people of the same generation, which many say has resulted in a clear, easily readable style. I feel that this is one of the reasons why South Korean literature has gained such a large readership.

Fukutomi: For example, some authors have gained success in Japan after being recognized in English-speaking countries, such as Han Kang, who won the Booker Prize for The Vegetarian (CUON, 2011); then there are works such as Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 (Chikuma Shobo, 2018) that became successful in Japan after reaching the best-seller status in South Korea. Has the South Korean literature boom in Japan simply adopted the appraisals prevalent in South Korea? Or—although some may take issue with this wording—was South Korean literature "discovered" by someone and translated into English, leading to its success on the international stage, and only then imported to Japan? Or something else entirely? What exactly has been going on here?

Kim: That's a very important question. South Korea provides huge support to cinema, K-pop, and the cultural sector in general as a means to present its own culture to the world. The same goes for literature. A national institution called the Literature Translation Institute of Korea has been established to support translators and publishing companies in various languages. The subsidies provided make it easier for companies that publish in many different languages to publish translations from Korean. This is the system that has been set up. You mentioned grants in Japan for the translation of Southeast Asian literature; the same is true for literary fiction and belles-lettres in South Korea. Because there are grants, people apply and get works published. This helps to lower the barriers to publishing translations.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is clearly an example of a work published abroad after making a big splash on the Korean market. It became a social phenomenon in South Korea and sold over 200,000 copies in Japan. Sometimes a literary work or essay will sell because a K-pop idol happened to read that particular book. When they read a book, that in itself in enough for fans to go and buy the same book—this is an interesting phenomenon we are seeing these days.

Along with running a publishing company called CUON and a bookstore specializing in South Korean literature called CHEKCCORI, I also work as an agent, introducing South Korean works to Japanese publishing companies. I've been at this for 10 years, but in the past year, inquiries have gone through the roof. I have even been contacted by publishing companies that I'd never worked with before. The funny thing is that they all come to me and say, "Tell us what BTS are reading." That is their criterion [laughs]. Everyone is after those books, so in that sense, it is a very competitive time.

A photo of CHEKCCORI
CHEKCCORI, Jimbo-Cho, Tokyo

Fukutomi: Literature has also been considered as a part of the soft power strategies implemented nationally since the 2000s, achieving complex effects. Even BTS originally came to the international market as part of a soft power strategy. But of course, their power has grown within the country as well, so that when they recommend a book, it sells both in and out of South Korea. I suppose this would be difficult to realize in Japan, but I see what you mean.

The South Korean literature translated and sold in Japan today includes quite a few works grappling with social themes, especially feminism and gender issues. Some of these works have been well received in Japan due to their convergence with the women's rights movements that have formed around Japanese social media. Conversely, more and more people have become interested in South Korea through pop culture, such as idols, and then they decide to try reading the books as well.

Mr. Chikatani, when you go to book fairs in various countries for your project, the "Read Asia" Asian Literature Series, and so on, do you see many works by authors from Southeast Asia or with roots in Asia? What is publishing translations like today?

Southeast Asian literature as seen from the global market

CHIKATANI Koji (hereinafter Chikatani): Since about 2002, I've been to international book fairs in several countries. The largest ones are the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is held every year in the fall, and the London Book Fair, which is held in March or April. My translation company, TranNet, started by bringing publications from English-speaking countries to Japan, introducing them to Japan publishers. In that context, we also started an agency to sell Japanese works abroad. However, I get the impression that the publishing field in North America and Europe has changed significantly over the last 10 years.

As of today, the biggest publishing market in the world is the United States, followed by China, Germany, and Japan. The United States was once known for publishing no translations at all, to the point where some joked that the only countries without translations were the United States and North Korea. This has long been known as the "three percent problem" in the United States, self-deprecatingly implying that translations are less than 3% of all publications. The same goes for movies. In the past, many Americans disliked watching movies with subtitles, but that has recently changed. There are now publishing companies that view dealing with translated works as an opportunity.

One of these companies is Amazon. Amazon established its in-house publishing company in 2009, within which is a label called Amazon Crossing that specifically handles translation. In their early days, they often came to us for advice on Japanese works. They are now translating books from all over the world. These include quite a few works from Southeast Asia as well. Perhaps owing to Amazon's influence, mainstream New York and London publishing companies, both major and indie, have started handling translations since the last 10 years. For example, Soho Crime is a New York publisher specializing in mystery and crime fiction. A publication from this publisher that I found interesting was a noir novel from the Philippines.

When I was at the Singapore Writers Festival with author NAKAMURA Fuminori, the editor of Soho Crime, which publishes Nakamura's books in English, recommended to me a noir novel by contemporary Philippine author F. H. Batacan. I thought it should definitely get published in Japan as well. However, that was difficult to accomplish. In the end, I even tried crowdfunding, but that also failed. Dejected, I thought that maybe there were still no Japanese publishers interested in Southeast Asian works. Just when I was about to give up, I wrote a lengthy, bitter column in an e-newsletter, and a certain publisher came to me and said that they would do it. Just as I was starting to feel relieved, that publisher's financial condition took a turn for the worse, and the book was never materialized. I now have a complete translated manuscript, and I really wish I could publish it somewhere.

In this way, Southeast Asian works that have won acclaim in the United States, United Kingdom, or Europe may still be unknown in Japan despite receiving global recognition. Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and so on are home to various organizations that offer grants, with lists of the sponsored works online, which may provide a useful reference for future publications.

In English-speaking countries, new literary magazines focusing on Southeast Asia have emerged. One example is Mekong Review, a literary magazine published both in print and online. The magazine was founded in 1978 by Minh Bui Jones, who crossed the ocean from Vietnam to Australia as one of the "boat people." I find it authentic and innovative for its effort to present English translation of the latest novels, poems, essays, critiques, and more from Asian countries, including Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia.

Fukutomi: I supported your crowdfunding for the Philippine noir novel, you know? I just remembered now, listening to you.

Chikatani: Wow, really? Thank you for your support [laughs].

Fukutomi: Speaking with Thai authors and editors, I also sense that Southeast Asian literature and Asian literature in general are starting to be introduced at foreign book fairs and in Europe and North America. Agencies have even been established for the express purpose of promoting their country's literature abroad in English and other languages. For example, among the works that I have translated, several books by author Prabda Yoon have been published by Tilted Axis Press in the United Kingdom, and a novel by author Uthis Haemamool is set to be published by Penguin Random House SEA. Both of these examples involve publishers who handle mainly Asian literature, but they indicate that supply and demand are beginning to converge. The Mekong Review has also introduced a series of articles and poems from Myanmar after the coup d'état there; what I find most compelling is the pace of these developments. Literary websites such as Words Without Borders are working to translate a growing number of works from over 100 countries into English, not limited to Asia alone.

Trending topics common around the globe

Fukutomi: Ms. Oikawa, what kind of topics are popular among Malaysian Sinophone authors these days?

Oikawa: I think a number of authors are seeking to shed light on the untold history of Malaysia. In terms of ethnic composition, Malay people are the majority in Malaysia. Therefore, some of the history presented by the state leaves out the historical perspective of the ethnic Chinese. Our interpretation of historical events can vary depending on our ethnicity or on where we were at the time, right? Some authors are trying to depict the history of the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, which has been a blank space until today.

Additionally, anthologies of queer literature or LGBT literature, also known as "comrade literature" in Chinese-speaking countries, are being published one after another. Many of the authors are men. This may be seen as an overall trend in Chinese-speaking countries that also extends to Malaysia, and there is also mutual influence from their direct connection with Taiwan. Censorship was mentioned earlier; there have been cases where authors writing serialized stories online in Malaysia had their works published by Taiwanese publishers specializing in gay literature.

Fukutomi: I feel that the motif of telling small, private histories in response to the big, official history can be found in the performing arts of Singapore and Malaysia. Ms. Oikawa, if memory serves, I believe you translated a story about a visit to a South Korean temple for Southeast Asian Literature.

Oikawa: Yes, it was "Buddha's Call to the Deep Mountain" by Tan Chee-hon (Southeast Asian Literature, Vol.18).

Fukutomi: Right, I think that would qualify as "comrade" literature. It is such a great story. It goes like this: (**spoiler alert**) A man with doubts about his sexuality, although this is never stated explicitly, travels with his mother to a Buddhist temple in South Korea. There, he coincidentally meets a man who seems to be going through the same conflicted feelings about his sexuality. As the man is walking beside a beautiful woman, their eyes meet as they realize their shared "sin."

The author is Malaysian and writes in Chinese, but the story is set in South Korea. Although this may appear somewhat chaotic, the theme of the work is absolutely universal. I felt that the work would gain a large readership beyond its specific context of Malaysia, where coming out as gay is extremely difficult.

So we have literature that explores history and LGBTQ stories—I imagine that these trends are not limited to Malaysia. How are things in South Korea?

Kim: LGBTQ literature is certainly very popular in South Korea. In South Korea, we have two male authors, Park Sang-young and Kim Bong-gon, who wrote novels after coming out as gay. They are both in their 30s, and the protagonists of their works are all also gay. They are highly acclaimed, having won prizes, and one book by Park Sang-young has even been translated into Japanese. It is Love in the Big City (2020), published by Aki Shobo. Then there is science fiction. Quite a few works have already been translated, and I think their success will continue to grow in Japan.

Webnovels are also very popular in South Korea right now. Webnovel authors sell way more than traditional novelists, and a growing number of them have achieved fame and fortune for their writing, although some may write traditional novels as well. So the literary market is quickly expanding in South Korea. Korean webnovels have also been published in Japan, with translations circulating on the mobile app Piccoma.

Fukutomi: Right, perhaps these broad trends are the same everywhere, to some extent. Recently, as Thailand continues to be ruled by a military regime, more literary works with political motifs have been appearing. These works are complex and difficult to interpret in terms of how to subvert the capital-H History constructed by the Thai regime. But there are also other trends, such as publishing companies like P. S. Publishing, which has gained popularity by publishing several works by young women authors.

The works they publish strike an exquisite balance, including, for example, a book about a Chinese-Thai woman in her 30s who got breast implants and is barely making a living as a makeup review blogger; she falls into despair when repeatedly pressured to get married by female relatives at a Qingming Festival gathering. Then there is the novel depicting a breakup between a man and a woman who first slept together on the night of the military coup. It seems that there is both a trend where writers directly confront big political issues and one where they tell personal stories expertly connected to society at large.

Continued in Part 2: The Future of Southeast Asian Literature: Connecting Authors and Readers (Part 2)