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Before Han Kang: Three Korean Modernists you should know

Before K-pop or K-beauty, there was Korean literature. Before the vivid, strange writing in translation of contemporary South Korean writers (including Han Kang, Hwang Jungeun, and Bae Suah) and writers of the Korean-American diaspora (such as Min Jin Lee, Patty Park, and Alexander Chee), there was literature being produced in the the city of Keijō—or Gyeongseong—where Seoul now stands. Under the rule of Imperial Japan, Keijo/Gyeongseong developed into a capital. Urbanization and colonization shaped modern Korean writers until the end of the Second World War, when Japan retreated. Seoul’s painful history has been razed and the city does not readily divulge its previous incarnation.

With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, Japan launched a policy of territorial expansion that claimed Taiwan and Korea, among other countries. This policy indelibly marked the Korean peninsula, which was under Japanese rule from 1910–45. During this period, a generation of writers established successful careers. As in Taiwan, these Koreans were educated, spoke and wrote in Japanese, and had little or no memory of precolonial life. Later generations caught in the tumult of twentieth-century politics would judge them mercilessly. Many of the young men attended university in Tokyo, an epicenter of the arts, and returned to Keijo/Gyeongseong to contribute to the budding literary scene. They wrote under increasingly fraught political circumstances, which came to a head in 1940 when the Imperial State cracked down, banning the use of Korean entirely and even rounding up and torturing the creators of a Korean-language dictionary.

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The Book of Wonder

Tara Books travels to Japan for an exhibition that celebrates the exhilarating work of the Chennai-based indie publisher.

In the summer of 2013, when Gita Wolf was invited to the Itabashi Museum in Tokyo to run atelier workshops for Japanese illustrators and designers, the publisher conceived a programme that would tie together the interest of the Japanese in paper art and the unique book-making journey of her Chennai-based independent publishing house,  . The theme — forms of books — yielded a prodigious crop: three of the projects became published books, with one more underway, but it also spread the word about Tara’s exhilarating work in publishing. Over the course of the last two years, Kiyoko Matsuoka, one of the chief curators of the Itabashi Museum, and her team travelled to Chennai to meet up with Wolf and V Geetha, editorial director, to plan an exhibition on their work. On November 25, last year, “Beautiful Books Can Change the World: The Universe of Tara Books”, opened at the Itabashi museum, featuring over 300 original artwork created by tribal and folk artists for Tara’s diverse range of publications, short films on the making of noteworthy titles and first editions.

The second phase of the exhibition will open in April in the city of Nagoya and then travel to other parts of Japan later in the year. “(Matsuoka) conceived of this in the form of an exhibition that would trace our book-making journey, both our experiments with the handmade book and our publishing across genres, from children’s picture books to visual essays for adult readers, art activity books to books on contemporary social concerns that bother children,” says Geetha.

One of the stalwarts of indie publishing in India, Tara’s work in its 23 years-long journey has been remarkable for the way it combines India’s indigenous art forms to tell enduring stories to a young, primarily urban, readership. Titles such as Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni and Patua artist Moyna Chitrakar, A Village is a Busy Place by V Geetha and Rohima Chitrakar, or The London Jungle Book by Gond artist Bhajju Shyam experiment as much with the form and art of the book as with the plurality of narrative voices. “Geetha and I were part of a feminist group in Chennai, Snehidi, and amongst other things, we tried to build a small feminist library. In the course of conversations, we would end up talking about what is available for children to read, and … I wondered if we could not have a different sort of children’s book, which spoke to our context, and with characters that Indian children could identify with. This is how the idea for [Tara Books] emerged…,” says Wolf.

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Asia Reborn: A Continent Rises from the Ravages of Colonialism and War to a New Dynamism by Prasenjit K. Basu

By P.N. Balji

Asia Reborn

 

Title: Asia Reborn
Author: Prasenjit K. Basu
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: 708
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Asia reborn… but what next?

He is a keen watcher of Asia, having spent the last 25 years putting the economies of this wonder continent under his microscope. Economist Prasenjit K Basu is eminently qualified to write this weighty tome, which runs into 680 pages. His research is painstakingly done with the notes and references alone going into 41 pages.

At first flush, Asia Reborn is intimidating. The title doesn’t seem to tell anything new and the voluminous nature of the book might put off many potential readers who want information on the go. Still, those interested in a deeper perspective of Asia and why some countries succeeded and others failed will find it worthwhile to plumb through its pages.

The author’s style is engaging; he makes sure that his research findings don’t interfere with his prose. He adds spice to his narrative with anecdotes that will keep the subject matter alive. For example, he brings to life one about Lee Kuan Yew. The former PM was among other students at Raffles College when they heard an explosion at the Causeway. The Allied forces had blown a hole in the Causeway to stop the Japanese army from moving into Singapore during the Second World War in 1942. The principal asked the students what the explosion was about. LKY’s reply: ‘That is the end of the British Empire.’

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Why a 19th Century American Slave Memoir is Becoming a Bestseller in Japan’s Bookstores

No one imagined that the Japanese translation of the book, Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs (1861), would become a long-selling hit in Japan when it was first published in 2013. It is the life story of a slave girl in the United States in the 1800s, and not something one would expect to strike interest in Japan, which while struggling with its own issues of race, has a 98% ethnically Japanese population.

And the woman who would push for the book to be translated and published in Japanese, Yuki Horikoshi, had no background in literature or translation, and at first found it difficult to find a willing publisher. “I didn’t meet the profile for what an author should be and it was hard to explain why this book was so compelling.”

The book is now on its eighth edition in hardback and was published in paperback this summer. In its first month in paperback, it sold 25,000 copies, a remarkable feat for a book of its genre. It’s what in Japan is called “a quiet bestseller.”

The book that fascinated Horikoshi has been compared to The Diary Of Anne Frank. It is considered a remarkable work in how it sheds light on the female experience of slavery, including the never-ending threat of sexual exploitation. It was thought to be a work of fiction but many believe the authenticity was definitively established in 1981.

Horikoshi remembers when she first read the book. It was the summer of 2011, the same year that Japan experienced the Great Eastern earthquake which resulted in nearly 16,000 deaths and a nuclear meltdown. Horikoshi, who works for a large consulting firm, was riding the bullet train on a business trip, looking for something inspirational to read. On her iPhone she downloaded a copy of the book, began reading, and was enthralled.

“I had gone to school in the United States and yet I had never heard of this book, nor really understood slavery. It was an eye-opening experience.”

In the protagonist’s resolution to fight against inequality and make herself a place in the world, Horikoshi saw inspiration for young Japanese people, especially women.

Japan is currently ranked 114 out of 144 countries in gender equality; women here face an uphill battle establishing themselves in the business world or in politics. The Japan Timesin a 2016 editorial, lamented how that even 30 years after laws mandating equal employment opportunities for men and women were introduced, women still struggle to get a fair shake in corporate Japan.

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Kenny Fries: From memoir to mortality and impermanence

When asked about his affection for Pikachu, American author Kenny Fries breaks into laughter. No, he says in an interview via Skype, the iconic Pokemon character had nothing to do with his decision to come to Japan. He came initially because, after applying for various fellowships, he was awarded the prestigious Creative Arts Fellowship from the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2002 to research and write about disability in Japan.

Fries has a disability himself. He was born without fibulae, a condition that has no scientific name, and subsequently underwent multiple surgical operations. In addition to having published three books of poetry and an anthology, Fries has written two highly acclaimed hybrid memoirs. In his first, “Body, Remember: A Memoir,” he writes about the history of his physical and psychic scars and his sexual awakening as a young gay man. His second, equally innovative memoir, “The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory,” blends biological research with his own experience of adaptation. This volume was awarded the 2007 Myers Outstanding Book Award.

At the beginning of his latest autobiographical book, “In the Province of the Gods,” Fries has just arrived in Japan. Having separated from his long-term partner, he is single for the first time in 18 years. Although nervous about being alone in a foreign country, and wondering if he will ever find another partner, he is rarely lonely. Thanks to the support offered by the fellowship, he is quickly introduced to a number of influential individuals including Masumi Muramatsu, the founder of Simul International, Japan’s “best-known school for interpreters”; Satoshi Fukushima, “a deaf-blind Tokyo University professor who runs Todai’s Barrier-Free Project”; and Mika Kimula, a singer who later puts Fries’ poems to music.


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8 Great Japanese Books in Translation That Aren’t by Haruki Murakami

We love Murakami, and all the cats, jazz, whiskey bars, mysterious women, and glimpses at modern Japanese life that populate his books. But there’s a world of magnificent novels out there by Japanese authors who don’t receive as much U.S. press for their work. If you’ve already devoured Murakami’s story collections (like Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman) and his acclaimed novels (including Kafka on the ShoreThe Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and IQ84), it’s time to add these contemporary Japanese books to your end-of-summer reading list. There’s something for everyone: mysteries and thrillers, teen horror, relationship dramas, and twisted, yakuza-related crime stories, all taking place in locales that may be unfamiliar to American readers. Each will get your imagination churning and your passport begging for stamps. Here’s a sample of our favorite modern books from the land of the rising sun.

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‘The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia’: A look at Okinawa’s distant past

By Iain Maloney

On May 15, Japan will mark the 45th anniversary of the return of Okinawa.

For 27 years prior, the U.S. administered the islands, a continuous period of occupation that began after the Battle of Okinawa in June 1945. This makes the new translation of Mamoru Akamine’s “The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia” both welcome and timely. Many Okinawans today still feel like the put-upon runt of Japan’s prefectural litter.

Okinawa enjoys very little investment, its people have relatively low employment prospects and the prefecture shoulders the burden of hosting and supporting 50,000 U.S. armed forces personnel. For many Okinawan people, this has meant putting up with noise, threats of air crashes (such as happened in 2016), and a string of crimes committed by U.S. servicemen.

It is worth remembering amid all this that the island chain was once an independent kingdom, and according to Akamine, something of an important power broker in the region. In fact, he goes so far as to call it, in his subtitle, a “cornerstone of East Asia.” Read more

Source: Japan Times


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‘Target Tokyo: The Story of the Sorge Spy Ring’: Uncovering a little-known chapter in history

By Kris Kosaka

Even some dedicated Japanophiles are unaware of an important international espionage ring that operated in Tokyo before and during World War II.

“Target Tokyo: The Story of the Sorge Spy Ring” by Gordon W. Prange is an exciting introduction to this complicated chapter in Asia’s history. Richard Sorge, a half-Russian German national, led the international ring to protect Communism from the growing power of Imperial Japan. Sorge and his ring meticulously collected information and conveyed analysis to Moscow in the years leading up to the war, and later advised Stalin during crucial battles. Read more

Source: The Japan Times


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‘Fireworks’: Short stories and fables from Angela Carter’s two years in Japan

By J.J.O’Donoghue

“Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces” brings together a beguiling mix of first-person narratives from English novelist Angela Carter’s two-year hiatus in Japan at the tail end of the 1960s, and they are as brilliant as they are bizarre.

It’s a slim volume — the longest story is shy of 30 pages — and taken together the book is a strange mix of reality and magic realism. Carter, who died in 1992, opens with “A Souvenir of Japan,” in which she recounts going to a fireworks festival an hour’s ride from Shinjuku: “Above our heads, the fireworks hung dissolving earrings on the night.” Carter is with her unnamed lover — “a connoisseur of boredom,” whose presence and long absences, playing pachinko and going out on the town, torment her. Read more

Source: The Japan Times


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‘Pachinko’ author Min Jin Lee on how Japan’s ethnic Koreans keep beating the odds

By Nicolas Gatting

“I got lost all the time,” says writer Min Jin Lee with a charming laugh, sitting in a hotel lobby in San Francisco’s Japantown.

Before a promotional appearance at a bookstore, she spoke to The Japan Times about writing her new novel “Pachinko,” a historical saga tracing four generations of a Korean family in Japan.

Despite the acclaim of her fiction debut “Free Food for Millionaires” in 2007, which was a best-seller in the U.S., Lee suffered existential self-doubt when producing her follow-up: the first English-language novel about the experience of Japan’s ethnic Koreans.

“I thought, ‘Nobody wants this book and I’m an idiot for having worked on it so hard,’ ” says Lee, who admires writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens. “But to succeed in writing, you must be willing to look stupid for a long time. ‘Pachinko’ took so long because I got it wrong so many times.” Read more

Source: Japan Times