On Guest-Editing Japan: Literatures of Remembering

By Wasafiri Editor on June 30, 2020 in Articles

We spoke to Elizabeth Chappell, Hiromitsu Koiso and Yasuhiko Ogawa – our three guest editors – about curating, compiling and commissioning Wasafiri 102, our special issue on Japan.

Wasafiri: Please tell us how you came to co-edit together.

Yasuhiko Ogawa: I started my career as an editor, and in 1979, I founded Goryu Shoin, which still publishes on literature and poetry. But more recently as Senior Director of JLPP Japanese Literature Publishing Project, I have also focused on working to disseminate new translations of Japanese literature into English, Russian, French and German, while also running a translation prize. (The deadline for this year’s translation prize is 31 July, so there is still time to enter.) When I was approached to co-edit Wasafiri issue 102, the theme of memory interested me. Many of the writers, past and present, who I have worked with, have focused on this theme.

In addition, JLPP has worked hard to publish new translations of works which have not yet been translated by well-known authors whose work is already part of the Japanese literary canon. These include Ryōnosuke Akutagawa, Toshio Shimao as well as Ichiyō Higuchi, Kyoko Hayashi and Sōseki Natsume. We also published a collection edited by Makoto Ooka. Ooka wrote Memory and the Present (Jpn. Kioku to genzai), a collection of poems, and his poetry column, Ori Ori no Uta was published every day for 28 years from 1979 in the Asahi Shimbun. One of his translators, Janine Beichman, is featured in the issue with new translations of the great and controversial poet Akiko Yosano.

Hiromitsu Koiso: I was invited to join the editorial team by Yasuhiko Ogawa in the summer of 2018 when he had already started to work with Elizabeth Chappell on the Japan issue. I was very enthusiastic about becoming a part of the team because I hoped to share new Japanese literature in the UK where I had studied for my MA in Literary Translation before starting to work as a literary translator.

Elizabeth Chappell: I approached the founder and then-editor of Wasafiri, Susheila Nasta, about the theme of Japan and remembering for 2020 and she was very keen. I had previously been published in the magazine and I was working with Yasuhiko Ogawa, Senior Director of the Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP), on their 2017 iteration of the JLPP translation prize. When I wrote to Yasuhiko Ogawa about it, he responded very warmly and we worked on a proposal together. The next task was to try to raise funds to translate new Japanese work into English. I approached the Great British Sasakawa Foundation who had funded some of my research and they gave us a favourable response. It was a wonderful moment when Hiromitsu Koiso joined us as third co-editor.

What inspired you to do this issue?

Hiromitsu Koiso: When I was informed of the theme, a number of Japanese writers came to mind, to be included in or referred to in the magazine. In response to the theme of memory, my first thoughts were to bring in Japanese writers and artists whose work had not gained much attention among both general readers and academics in Anglophone countries. Magazines or journals are always a good place for a literary piece to find a point of departure to appeal to new audiences. With this idea, I thought of manga artist Machiko Kyō and one of her remarkable works, cocoon, which depicts the experience of World War Two in Japan and the lives of young girls victimized by it. We introduce her manga to readers alongside that of manga artist Fumiyo Kōno in the thought-provoking article by translator Jocelyne Allen. I was also interested in how contemporary Japanese poets are received outside of Japan when they are translated into another language. It is great to see a range of voices on memory in the issue, and I am also really curious to know how people will read them, because translating a poem is also a reminder of ‘poetry is what gets lost in translation’. This is an opportunity to start a discussion about what translation can be and how a translator does their work. It is always exciting to read translated poems by someone else; particularly when they are works by my fellow translators and peers as in this issue.

Yasuhiko Ogawa: People like to put things into themes and categories—such as post-war or atomic bomb literature or Japanese literature, but I am more interested in good literature as good literature and pairing the writer with the translator. I wanted to represent both the new generation of writers’ work on memory as well as previous generations. I am glad we included a lesser-known piece by the author Minako Ōba, whose work does not fit into any neat categories. In the short extract Once She (Mukashi Onna Ga Ita) which is part of a poetic novella – translated in this issue by Asa Yoneda – we see her versatility in prose and verse as she reinvents a Japanese classic for modern times. We also chose Hideo Furukawa an award-winning author hailed by many in Japan’s literary world as a prodigy worthy of following in the footsteps of Haruki Murakami. Born in Fukushima, Furukawa is best known for his alternative histories of the Tōhoku region, the area most devastated by the 2011 disasters. In 2011, he published Horses, Horses, In the End the Light Remains Pure, a poetic journey through his disaster-stricken homeland, which also mines the Japanese literary past in quest of memory. It was considered one of the first works of ‘post-3.11’ literature. Warriors’ Dreams (Tsuwamono Domo Ga) published in a new translation by Morgan Giles here, was originally published in the May 2013 issue of Shinchō magazine.

Elizabeth Chappell: We only have to look at the current intense debate around the absence of teaching and writing on the history of slavery in the West to see how nations with a history of colonialism have a tendency towards selective memory and amnesia. There is often an assumption that Japan (as a nation) is not interested in teaching her own past for various reasons. But this is to ignore the incredible cultural creative energy which poured out in Japan in the post-war years, with key thinkers such as Masao Maruyama (1914-1996) and Yuriko Miyamoto (1899-1951) and others discussing how to take forward the ‘democratic revolution’ which had to all intents and purposes been imposed on Japan by the US. Critics such as J. Victor Koschmann in Revolution and Subjectivity in Post-war Japan (Chicago: 1996), and more recently, Justin Jesty in Art and Engagement in Early Post-War Japan (Ithaca and London: 2018) have written about this in great detail. This radical shift in culture towards privileging the lived reality of artists and groups – who had experienced years of state brutality and militarism – was not often reflected in high-brow cultural exports. This real change in focus would not have been possible without an intense internal debate about how to remember and reimagine Japanese identity for future generations.

It has also been argued that public speech and memory has a different inflection in Japan, with a higher premium on self-censorship or what has been described by some as selective ‘muteness’. But, leading post-war so-called ‘third generation’ (daisan no shinjin) writers from Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburō Ōe onward have continued to engage in dialogue with minority writers and writers from all over the world in what can only be described as a form of fierce open soul-searching about what constitutes ‘Japaneseness’. Ōe and his successors on the literary and arts scene, which is more international than ever, have also helped propel diverse Japanese voices – including ethnic Korean, Okinawan, Ainu, Chinese, buraku-, hibaku-, 3.11, and more and more women – into the limelight. The renaissance of Japanese literature in translation we are seeing now is one result of such engagement.

I wanted ‘Japan: Literatures of Remembering’  to reflect more of these voices, showing that dynamism. I was also very inspired by the work of the internationally renowned photographer Miyako Ishiuchi. We were fortunate she allowed us to reproduce her photographs, taken in Hiroshima, of young girls’ dresses preserved from after the bomb. The re-colouration of what would normally be faded, black-and-white images of relics dating from the so-called ‘dark tunnel’ (kurai tanima) of Japan’s past opens up new possibilities. As Kumiko Kakehashi describes in her article ‘Women, Air-Raids and Atomic Bombs’, published in translation in Wasafiri 102, when we consciously change the angle or viewpoint a new dialogue around memory and the meaning of ‘times past’ can emerge.

What was the selection process like?

Yasuhiko Ogawa: Putting a spotlight on the theme of memory and war was of interest to me especially from different perspectives. Kumiko Kakehashi is probably the most well-known non-fiction writer about the war in Japan. Her tireless work interviewing the generation who knew war has been so popular alongside her biographies of Tamiki Hara and Miho Shimao. We were lucky to be able to translate an article based on her book Women’s Experiences of War in the Summer of 1945. But there were too many great authors to choose from. JLPP has helped other famous and less well-known authors into translation whose work reflects the theme of war and memory from different perspectives. These include Osamu Dazai, Nobuo Kojima, Yūko Tsushima, Hisashi Inoue, Ryū Murakami, Hideo Levy, Shun Medoruma and Yūichi Serai among others. Unfortunately, we could not reflect everyone in this one issue of the magazine, but I am very glad to see so many of the translators with whom we have worked including one former winner of the JLPP translation prize – Polly Barton – represented here.

Elizabeth Chappell: I would say there is still a problem of representation of Japanese culture in translation mainly due to its scarcity outside the tech or academic spheres. I wanted to commission writers (many of whom are also translators) who open up new perspectives. Davinder L. Bhowmik here draws comparisons between the works of Okinawan and ethnic Korean writers, Shun Medoruma and Miri Yū, as expressive of the culture of ‘sacrifice’ brought about through the post-war peace deal. I’m also glad that we could also bring in diverse perspectives from scholars such as Susan Southard from the US, who here reflects on her award-winning work on hibakusha from Nagasaki; Rayna Denison on Studio Ghibli and the cross-cultural streams of creative inspiration in the work of anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki; as well as from Fukuko Kobayashi who writes with local insight into the ecological disaster novel The Last Children of Tokyo by Japanese writer Yōko Tawada. Stephen Dodd’s critical review essay offers a précis of how it is that different notions of Japan have been translated at different times and why it is so important to dig beneath the surface. We also review many other new translations.

What is the significance of this issue being published now?

Hiromitsu Koiso: I hope readers of Wasafiri 102 will discover the diverse faces of Japanese literature reflected on its pages. I also hope the issue works for the contributors as a form of on-the-page symposium about Japanese literature where they can meet and be informed about one another’s work.

Yasuhiko Ogawa: I think it was my good fortune to be able to follow the different cross-cultural currents via which interest in Japanese literature has been growing overseas. I am very glad my interest has contributed to the success of this issue.

Elizabeth Chappell: There has always been a danger of trying to pin down Japanese identity in a distorting way. Mieko Kawakami puts this very well in her interview with her translator Hitomi Yoshio. She talks about how Japanese literature is still thought of as something exotic and inscrutable, as ‘Orientalism 1.0’. But now there is unprecedented attention being paid to a younger generation. They are writing powerful poetry, fiction and non-fiction which upturns concepts traditionally associated with Japanese literature such as ‘beauty’ and ‘femininity’, in a post-industrial age. The way these writers deal with experience goes against accepted notions of ‘Japaneseness’ in ways that jolt the reader. It was claimed by the novelist Etō Jun in The Closed Space of Language: Occupation Army Censorship and Post-war Japan (Tokyo: 1989), that, due to the legacy of censorship, Japanese readers were alienated from their own past. We can see from the pages of Wasafiri 102 that a younger generation are feeling frustrated with cultural amnesia and are confronting it in their writing. This is a uniquely exciting moment which is comparable with the ways in which others are facing their received histories.


Yasuhiko Ogawa founded the small literary publisher, Goryu Shoin, in 1979. He published poetry and fiction as well as art-related works and criticism. Since 2009, he has been the Director of the Secretariat of the JLPP Japanese Literature Publishing Project which has published new translations into English, Russian, French and German and also runs a translation prize

Hiromitsu Koiso is a Japanese literary translator. He has an MA in Literary Translation from the University of East Anglia. He has translated works by Anne Carson, Teju Cole and Grayson Perry into Japanese. He is currently doing an MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of East Anglia. 

Elizabeth Chappell has published fiction and non-fiction in, among others, Wasafiri, Japan Society Review, Japan Times, Contemporary Review, The Conversation and Auto/biography (The British Sociological Journal). Her anthology of writing on Japan, Japan: Through Writers’ Eyes, was published by Eland in 2015. She is completing a PhD based on her original interviews with hibakusha of Hiroshima at the Open University.

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