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New Writers Explore the Dark Side of Japanese Literature

By Kay Ohara

Book sales are generally down in Japan, and for that matter, they've been down for more than a decade. Sure, you've heard of the rise of keitai shosetsu, novels written and read on the ubiquitous cell phones, but it's no Kindle and no one's getting royalties there. Excuse the pun, but it's something you just thumb through. Yet year after year, new and talented writers take up the challenge in this tough market and some of them manage to get noticed.

One of the industry's few bright spots have been the recipients of the annual Hon'ya Taisho award, given to the book booksellers want to hand-sell the most. Since its inception five years ago, the bookstore clerks have never failed to choose a sure-fire winner, a "feel-good" book for the masses. Think The Kite Runner, The Lovely Bones, The Time Traveler's Wife

Even the title chosen in the inaugural year, Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper And The Professor (which is available in English from US Picador/UK Harvill Secker) is a rare departure from Ogawa's other short stories in a sense that it lacks the author's usual "eek" factor; instead it's a heartwarming story of a friendship between a mathematics professor and a single mother who comes to take care of him.

This year, however, the story is completely different. Kanae Minato's KOKUHAKU (Confessions), is a dark, thought-provoking narrative of a tragic incident at a junior high school, where a little girl's lifeless body is discovered in the pool. Her mother, a dedicated teacher, leaves the school accusing two of her students of the murder and revealing the cruel revenge the teacher wrought in the first chapter (which won a new writer's award as a short mystery story). In the completed book, five more chapters/confessions follow, each darker and more macabre than the last, exposing school bullying, juvenile crime, monster parents, AIDS, and a Heathers-style school bombing plot that will send a chill down the spines of those who turn the pages of this book.

And if you thought the desperate housewives chopping up dead bodies in the bathroom as a side business in Natsuo Kirino's OUT was an aberration, there are hordes of young female writers like Kazuki Sakuraba, Mieko Kawakami, and Minato to horrify and entertain without vampires or zombies running around.

Sakuraba writes about patricide, incest and child abuse while Kawakami confronts her ego in Osaka dialect when she's not singing it with tragicomic lyrics. Could it be that the young women in Japan, whether they are writing melodramatic quasi-memoirs on cell phones or producing provocative literary works on paper, are the ones most sensitive to the dark undercurrent that permeates Japanese society, ravaged by a long economic slump? Does it explain why so many of them remain single and have stopped giving birth but write scary stories instead? Girls are losing hope for the future. Maybe we can reinstate it by listening to their voices.


Growing up in the U.S. and Japan, Kay Ohara enjoys reading both vertically and horizontally. Her taste for both cultures is evident in the jars of umeboshi and peanut butter that sit side by side in her tiny fridge in Manhattan. She has been scouting titles for Random House Kodansha and the now peddles foreign rights on behalf of Kodansha's Japanese authors.

Published May 19, 2009   Copyright 2009 Kay Ohara

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