Japan’s Writers in the Spotlight

Japanese Literature in France


Japan was the center of attention at this year’s Paris Book Fair, held March 16–19, 2012. Sekiguchi Ryōko, who was part of the Japanese delegation of specially invited authors, looks back on the event and her surprise at the level of interest in Japanese culture among people in France today.

Sekiguchi Ryōko
Poet, essayist and translator. Born in Tokyo in 1970. Won the Handbook of Contemporary Poetry Newcomer Award at 17 years of age. Based in Paris since 1997. Since her first collection of poems in French, called Calque [Tracings], was published in 2001 by the French publishing house P.O.L. Editeur, she has continued to write in both French and Japanese. Ce n’est pas un hasard [It’s no accident] (P.O.L. Editeur), which chronicled the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, attracted widespread attention when it appeared in the fall of 2011. Has translated works by Jean Echenoz and Atiq Rahimi into Japanese and works by Tawada Yōko, Yang Sok-il and Yoshimasu Gōzō into French. Has also translated numerous manga into French, including Terumae romae [Thermae Romae] and Futatsu makura [Two Pillows]. In 2012 Sekiguchi was made Chevalier dans L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Japan the Guest of Honor at the Book Fair

Every year, the Paris Book Fair selects one country’s literature to be highlighted as the guest of honor. In 2012, it was Japan’s turn. The increased media attention for the chosen country continues long after the fair itself is over and often leads to increased opportunities for translation. All this gives the event a wider significance than a typical book fair.

The Japan Pavilion at the Paris Book Fair 2012.

This was Japan’s second time in the spotlight, after a previous appearance in 1997. Fifteen years is a comparatively short time between invitations. No doubt part of the reason for the decision to invite Japan again so soon was a desire on the part of the French organizers to do what they could to help after the terrible disasters of 2011. But there was more to it than that. With Japanese literature enjoying a boom of popularity in France at the moment, it must also have occurred to the organizers that they could boost the profile of the event as a whole by focusing on Japan.

It is safe to say that this year’s book fair was a resounding success on both these counts. Book sales in the Japan Pavilion broke new records and visitor numbers were up 5% from last year. The book fair happened to coincide almost exactly with the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami disaster, and many French publications, from literary journals to general-interest magazines, daily newspapers, and even religious journals, ran special features on Japan to commemorate the event.

The impressive sales performance of Japanese books was no surprise. Japanese manga in particular have enjoyed a surge of popularity in France over the past 10 years or so, and although the number of new titles has started to slow somewhat, Japanese pop culture remains an unignorable presence in French publishing. Many young people attended the fair to take part in a cosplay event, at which manga and anime fans dress up as their favorite characters.

More than anything, I was struck by how comfortable and familiar people in France have become with Japanese culture. Japanese culture has become an ordinary part of everyday life for people here in more ways than I had imagined.

The Ōe Kenzaburō Phenomenon

Nobel laureate Ōe Kenzaburō used the occasion to make an impassioned speech against nuclear power that attracted a lot of attention.

Novelist Furukawa Hideo chats with a reader.

Perhaps my most vivid memory of the book fair is of the long lines of people waiting to have their books signed by Ōe Kenzaburō. Day after day, people of all ages waited patiently for an opportunity to meet the Nobel Prize–winning author, forming long lines that snaked right around the venue.

I couldn’t help wondering how many people would turn up to a book signing—by Ōe or a Nobel winner from overseas—if it were held in Japan. Certainly it was hard to imagine that there would be anything like this level of interest for a similar event in Japan.

Reports in the Japanese media tended to focus on the antinuclear statements Ōe made while in France. This was certainly an important part of his talk, and one that attracted plenty of attention in the French media too. But in the background to this was the fact that Ōe is an author with a substantial readership in France—a following of people who not only read his books avidly but are dedicated enough to wait in line for an autograph. Surely this is something that deserves to be better known in Japan.

Ōe was not the only writer to draw a big crowd. For the family groups who attended on the Sunday, it was perhaps popular children’s authors like Gomi Tarō or Komagata Katsumi who were the main draw. Illustrator and author Gomi is familiar to children in France as the name on the covers of their favorite picture books.

Of course, small children have little interest in whether the person who writes their books comes from Japan or France. All they are interested in is whether the books are fun to read. On that score, Gomi is obviously doing something right. Once again, I was struck by how far Japanese creative content has come in making itself a part of everyday life in France.

Famous Chef’s Ties with Japan

The delegation of invited authors was kept busy throughout the event. With her fluent French, Sekiguchi Ryōko was in especially high demand, attending more than 10 events over the course of the fair.

At one of the events, I had an opportunity to talk to celebrity chef Pierre Gagnaire, who has a restaurant in Japan. I learned that literature is not the only area in which France and Japan are moving closer together. My meeting with Gagnaire made me aware of the increasingly close relationship between French and Japanese cuisines, which now goes far beyond superficial influences. Gagnaire explains:

“Simply adding a few Japanese ingredients to standard recipes or imitating Japanese cooking methods doesn’t interest me. For me, these things are of no consequence. What interests me are the things I share with Japanese chefs in terms of our attitudes to cuisine and the way we approach our work: an insistence on precision and an emphasis on the importance of simple everyday gestures and procedures.

“The most important ingredient for me is water. At the moment, water is more precious than the most expensive ingredients. It is something that exists in all the food we eat and is constantly flowing through our bodies.”

Gagnaire’s relationship with Japan goes back many years; he says he has lost count of how many times he has visited Japan. Listening to his remarks gave me an insight into the deep connection that exists between the traditions of Japanese food and Gagnaire’s personal philosophy of cuisine.

Sharing the Pain of the Disaster

For me personally, one of the highlights of the fair was a book-signing event where I had an opportunity to interact with readers and sign copies of my latest book in French, which came out in autumn 2011. I was surprised by how many of the readers who came to talk to me had some kind of personal connection to Japan. My book was a chronicle of the events of last March and the aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake disaster. As I worked on the book, I found I was constantly questioning what I was doing. What meaning could there be in writing about these tragic events from so far away?

An exhibition of photographs of the Great East Japan Earthquake inside the Japan Pavilion, with piles of Japan-related books on display in the foreground.

But having the chance to meet readers face-to-face at the fair made me realize that many French people had a deep personal affection for Japan, and had felt the pain of the disaster keenly on a personal level. People had spent time working in Japan, or had family or friends there, and although they were a long way away in terms of distance, they were still personally touched by the tragedy. As well as being amazed by all the unexpected ways in which a book finds its readership, I also felt a real sense of the close connections that exist between France and Japan on a personal level.

The question of how Japan will recover from the disaster is one in which the French public continues to show a real and genuine concern. In this sense, the disaster may have brought the French people closer to Japan than ever before. Right across the media, from books to radio and television documentaries, there is a keen interest in the impact of the disaster on Japanese society. What are people in Japan thinking? How are they living their lives in the aftermath of the disaster? Questions like these have been prominently discussed in the French mainstream media. One example was L’archipel des séismes [The Earthquake Archipelago], an anthology of essays, poems and other writings by Japanese authors, sociologists, and historians that has been extremely well received in French translation.

For many years, the appeal of Japanese literature for readers in France lay mostly in its exoticism. Japan was a mysterious, faraway land. Seeing how comfortable and familiar with Japanese culture people have become brought home to me the fact that we are on the point of a major shift in the way Japanese culture is received in France and other countries. For anyone with an interest in seeing Japanese culture appreciated around the world, this is heartening news indeed.

French President François Hollande (presidential candidate at the time) was among those who visited the Japan Pavilion, where he spoke with Komatsu Ichirō, the Japanese ambassador to France, and his wife. On the right is Hollande’s partner, the journalist Valérie Trierweiler.

(Originally written in Japanese. Photographs by Hino Hato.)

Hollande at the book fair when he was still a candidate for the French presidency.
Hollande at the book fair when he was still a candidate for the French presidency.

Valérie Trierweiler with the Japanese ambassador’s wife.
Valérie Trierweiler with the Japanese ambassador’s wife.

Footballer Lilian Thuram, a former French international, signs autographs.
Footballer Lilian Thuram, a former French international, signs autographs.

Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, former news presenter and popular author.
Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, former news presenter and popular author.

Actor Philippe Sfez, whose first novel “Je vous dis merde” was published in autumn 2011.
Actor Philippe Sfez, whose first novel “Je vous dis merde” was published in autumn 2011.

Ophélie Texier, author of the popular “Crocolou” series of picture books.
Ophélie Texier, author of the popular “Crocolou” series of picture books.

Great East Japan Earthquake literature nuclear Paris book fair publishing Ōe Kenzaburō Gomi Taro Komagata Katsumi Sekiguchi Ryoko Pierre Gagnaire