Japan’s Writers in the Spotlight

Japan’s Women Writers in France


Three popular Japanese authors talk to a packed audience in Paris, revealing their true feelings on what it means to be a female writer. French translator of Japanese literature Myriam Dartois Akō reports on the discussion.

Ekuni Kaori
Born in Tokyo in 1964. Started out as a writer of children’s stories, publishing her first book in 1987. Wrote her first full-length novel for adults in 1989, and received the Murasaki Shikibu Prize for Literature in 1992 for the novel Kirakira hikaru (trans. Twinkle Twinkle), which was made into a film. Since then, she has been active across a wide variety of genre, including novels, essays, picture books, and poetry. In 2004, she received the Naoki Prize for Gōkyū suru junbi wa dekiteita (Getting Ready To Cry My Heart Out). In April 2012, she received the Kawabata Yasunari Prize for Literature for Inu to hāmonika (The Dog and the Harmonica), which was released last year. She has translated almost 60 children’s books into Japanese.

Kakuta Mitsuyo
Born in Yokohama in 1967. Debuted in 1988 as a writer of fiction for younger readers. Published her first book for adults 1990, winning the ninth Kaien Prize for New Writers for Kōfuku na yūgi (A Happy Game). Has published a steady stream of novels ever since, winning the Noma Literary Prize for New Writers in 1996 for Madoromu yoru no UFO (UFO On a Sleepy Night), and the Naoki Prize in 2005 for Taigan no kanojo (trans. Woman on the Other Shore). In January 2012, she wrote a contemporary adaptation of Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s play Sonezaki Shinjū (trans. The Love Suicides at Sonezaki).

Wataya Risa
Born in Kyoto in 1984. Wrote her first novel, Insutōru (Install) in 2001 while still in high school. In 2004 she won the Akutagawa Prize for the novel Keritai senaka (The Back You Want to Kick), making her the youngest ever winner at the age of just 19. It has since sold over 1.2 million copies. In 2008, she was invited to take part in the Forum of Young Global Leaders at the Davos World Economic Forum. In April 2012, she received the Ōe Kenzaburō Prize for Kawaisō da ne? (Isn’t It a Pity?).

Originally from France, I have been based in Japan since 1995, translating Japanese literature into French. In March this year, I returned to France for work, to attend the Paris Book Fair. Of (*1) invited to the fair, eight were women. On March 16, the first day of the fair, three women novelists—Ekuni Kaori, Kakuta Mitsuyo, and Wataya Risa—took part in a discussion on the topic: “What Do Japanese Women Think?” This is a subject of considerable interest for audiences in France, where there are still few opportunities to hear from Japanese women. Around 100 people packed into the venue, which was filled to standing room only.

Reservations about Categorizing Authors by Gender

If I were to tell you that bookstores in Japan categorize books by genre, you might think I was merely stating the obvious. But in French, the word genre also means “gender.” And in Japan, it is common for bookstore displays to arrange their books according to the gender of the author.

Indeed, as Kakuta Mitsuyo reminded the audience, until the early 2000s, it was normal for the fiction section in a bookstore to be divided into two sections: “novelists” and “female novelists.” For many years, writing by female authors was often treated as a separate genre altogether, referred to as joryū bungaku (women’s literature). Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no equivalent term for writing by men, which was referred to simply as “literature” tout court.

The same phenomenon is common in criticism, according to Ekuni Kaori. Even today, she said, “reviewers will often dwell on the so-called ‘feminine’ atmosphere or style of a piece of writing.” For some reason, female writers of non-fiction are rarely discussed in the same terms.

In French, on the other hand, it would be quite unusual to refer to a “masculine” or “feminine” style. Personally, I have translated novels by both men (Otsuichi’s Kurai tokoro de machiawase [A Dark Meeting Place]) and women (Majutsu wa sasayaku [trans. The Devil’s Whisper] by Miyabe Miyuki). Miyabe’s work, for example, certainly did not strike me as being particularly “feminine” in style or content. In fact, it never really occurred to me that “gender” might be an important consideration in talking about literature.

With regard to the works of the three panelists, I have read French translations of Wataya Risa’s Insutōru (Install) and Keritai senaka (The Back You Want to Kick) and Kakuta’s Taigan no kanojo (translated into Engilsh as Woman on the Other Shore). It is true that Taigan no kanojo did strike me as vaguely “feminine” when I read it—though I suspect that this had more to do with the characters in the book than with the gender of the author.

Novels are a product of the imagination. How much validity is there in the idea of distinguishing between them on the basis of whether the imagination that produced them belonged to a man or a woman? 

Writing Male and Female Characters

One thing all three writers have in common is that their books tend to feature more women characters than men.

Wataya Risa has only written one book with a male protagonist. She said her decision to write mainly about female characters was due to “technical reasons.”

“I don’t think I have the same sense for the way men think. I’ve tried to come up with male characters several times in the past, but I find it difficult to breathe life into them and make them convincing.”

This is not simply a question of gender, however. Wataya admitted that she also finds it difficult to imagine her way into the mind of a character—male or female—who is significantly older than herself.

Ekuni said the turning point for her came when she entered her thirties, with her novel Kakutasu hoteru (Hotel Cactus, 2001). “That’s when I realized that gender in novels is different from gender in real life,” she said. “From that point on, I’ve introduced more and more male characters into my writing.”

Kakuta said the predominance of female characters in her books was the result of a deliberate decision: women’s lives, she said, are simply more interesting than men’s, as a result of the many difficult choices that Japanese society forces women to make over the course of their lives, such as the decision whether to continue a career after getting married or having children.

“Women face more problems than men and therefore have to ask themselves more questions. That makes their psychology much more interesting from a novelist’s point of view,” Kakuta said. 

Appealing to a Wide Readership

Although these authors may write mainly about women, there is no obvious feminist “message” in their novels, and none of the three was conscious of deliberately writing for women readers in particular. All three want their stories to reach as wide an audience as possible, regardless of age group or sex.

Kakuta said that people often regarded her as a women’s writer—“probably because my books often portray female characters stuck in difficult circumstances.” In fact, however, it is far from true that all her readers are women. “This is something that I know for a fact from book signings. Men and women come in roughly equal numbers, from all different age groups.”

(Photographs by Hino Hato.)

Ekuni acknowledged that most of her readers are women. But that does not mean that she writes exclusively or even particularly for women, she said. In fact, she started out as a writer of children’s books, and still regards children as ideal readers. “Children approach a book from a serious and unforgiving perspective,” she said. “They won’t read something unless it grabs them and holds their interest. A child doesn’t care who the author is. They’re not interested in whether they’ve read other books by the same writer, or how famous the author is.” Even now, Ekuni said, she still thinks of her readers in the same terms: as harsh but fair critics of her work. Whether the reader is a man or a woman is unimportant.

For Wataya, the most important thing is that she herself enjoys the creative process. Although her writing in the early years of her career was marked by a “neutral” perspective, Wataya said she felt her writing had tended to move in the direction of more feminine themes over the years. Although sometimes slightly surprised to find that men are reading her too, Wataya said she is nevertheless delighted to that her books are read by a diverse range of readers. 

Literature After the Disaster

One subject that inevitably came up at the various Japan-related events at the book fair was the impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake on literary expression. It was a topic of great interest for the audience and one that all the authors on the panel had been forced to confront personally in their own work.

(Photographs by Hino Hato.)

“Beyond the shock and sadness,” Katsuta said, “the disaster turned out to be an opportunity that spurred a lot of people to reassess the whole way they look at life.” For writers, too, the events of March 2011 raised some difficult questions. How can such dramatic changes be captured in words? What is the role of a writer in a time of national crisis? Kakuta said she wrestled with these questions more times than she cares to remember.

Kakuta said was repeatedly approached to write about the tragedy in the weeks and months following the earthquake. At first, she was unsure how to respond. Was this really something she wanted to write about? Was it her duty as a writer to respond to events in some way? “Eventually, I decided that as a writer, it wasn’t a subject I wanted to deal with right now. I accepted a few magazine assignments—including one that involved recommending books to provide solace during a time of disaster. That felt like the best contribution I could make at this stage.”  

Ekuni was also pressured to make the same kinds of choices—an experience she said had brought home to her the difference between a novelist and a journalist. “Journalists need to react immediately to events, but that is not necessarily the case for novelists. I think for a novelist, the most important thing is to have time to reflect on experiences and find the point that will serve as the basis for what you write next.”

Wataya agreed, and said if she were ever to work the catastrophe into her books, it would probably be “indirectly, through a filter.” But this was not always the case. “Immediately after the disaster, I felt that I had to write something. I was in total shock. More than anything, I wanted to share something with my readers.”

Sharing—beyond differences of gender and language and the devastation of last year’s triple disaster. Perhaps no word better encapsulates the impressions I brought away with me from this fascination panel discussion.

(Originally written in French by Myriam Dartois Akō)

Ekuni Kaori (Novelist, poet, essayist, picture book author, translator)
Furukawa Hideo (Novelist)
Gomi Tarō (Picture book author)
Hagio Moto (Manga artist)
Hirano Keiichirō (Novelist)
Horie Toshiyuki (Novelist, translator of French literature)
Kakuta Mitsuyo (Novelist, essayist, translator)
Kamata Satoshi (Reportage writer, journalist, nonfiction author)
Katō Kunio (Animation artist)
Komagata Katsumi (Picture book author, graphic designer)
Mayuzumi Madoka (Haiku poet)
Jean-Paul Nishi (Manga artist, illustrator)
Ōe Kenzaburō (Novelist)
Sekiguchi Ryōko (Poet, essayist, translator)
Shimada Masahiko (Novelist, essayist)
Tawada Yōko (Novelist)
Tsuji Hitonari (Novelist, musician, film director)
Wataya Risa (Novelist)
Yamazaki Mari (Manga artist)
Yoshimasu Gōzō (Poet)

(*1) ^

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