I clearly remember the vivid colors of the two books—one red, the other green—that a high school classmate of mine was reading between periods. It was 1987 or 1988, and my new school was in a provincial city in Oita, Japan. This quiet, introspective classmate was one of the first handful of students from the city to be kind enough to talk to me. I was from a small fishing village that didn’t even have a bookstore, and having come from a junior high school with fewer than forty students, I was intimidated by how he already had clear taste in music and literature. I can’t remember if he mentioned—in his always nearly inaudible voice—the title of the two-volume novel or the author’s name. What I do remember is that he seemed engrossed in the book, and that less than a year later, his life was taken: his mother’s partner killed her before turning to the boy.
The next time I encountered those books was after I moved to Tokyo for university. I came across a large stack of them right by the entrance of one of the city’s largest bookstores. They were the two parts of Haruki Murakami’s novel Noruwei no mori (Norwegian Wood). I was already familiar with him as a master of short essays. My landlady had the bad (or good?) habit of reading books in the bathroom, and Murakami’s essays were among her favorites. One day, she handed me a collection she had finished. In these essays, he writes about literature and music and even cooking in such a natural way that it feels as though he’s addressing the reader personally. Something delightful and friendly in his style fascinated me (it’s a shame that those early essays of his haven’t been published in English). I couldn’t say how exactly, but I immediately felt that his style was different from other contemporary Japanese writers I had read. Probably because one of my professors (who was from Belgium) had translated it into French, A Wild Sheep Chase was the first of Murakami’s novels I read. And I soon found myself reading through them all.
In 1978, Murakami went to Jingu Baseball Stadium, located near the jazz bar he ran, to watch the opening game of the season. The moment the lead-off hitter slammed the first pitch cleanly into left field, a thought struck him: I think I can write a novel. Murakami describes this experience as follows in Novelist as a Vocation, the passage here translated by Ted Goossen for the foreword to Wind/Pinball:
I can still recall the exact sensation. It felt as if something had come fluttering down from the sky, and I had caught it cleanly in my hands. I had no idea why it had chanced to fall into my grasp. I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. Whatever the reason, it had taken place. It was like a revelation. Or maybe “epiphany” is a better word.
Murakami describes this event—even in Japanese—using the English word epiphany. Late that night, he sat down at the kitchen table and began to write. Several months later, he finished a first draft. But it disappointed him. Murakami placed his Olivetti typewriter on the table and began to write again, this time in English.
The resulting English prose was, unsurprisingly, simple and unadorned. However, as he wrote, Murakami felt a distinctive rhythm begin to take shape:
Since I was born and raised in Japan, the vocabulary and patterns of the Japanese language had filled the system that was me to bursting, like a barn crammed with livestock. When I sought to put my thoughts and feelings into words, those animals began to mill about, and the system crashed. Writing in a foreign language, with all the limitations that entailed, removed this obstacle.
It may seem paradoxical that his mother tongue prevented him from writing. But writing in a foreign language liberated him, and he finished the beginning of his novel in English before translating it into Japanese:
What I was seeking by writing first in English and then “translating” into Japanese was no less than the creation of an unadorned “neutral” style that would allow me freer movement. My interest was not in creating a watered-down form of Japanese. I wanted to deploy a type of Japanese as far removed as possible from so-called literary language in order to write in my own natural voice.
The style Murakami describes as “neutral” was deemed by some critics “translationese.” When Murakami became a success in the global literary market, Kojin Karatani—one of the most influential Japanese critics—attributed this success to the “non-Japaneseness” of Murakami’s style.
I wonder why I felt that Murakami’s writing was so natural and atmospheric when I first read his work. The writing did not feel like translationese to me at all. Rather, I had a strong feeling that his Japanese was our Japanese, one that I also lived and breathed. I was struck by the fact that one could write a novel in that kind of language. When reading Murakami, I never experienced the difficulty or resistance I felt each time I read Kenzaburo Oe’s later novels, which were written in a highly elaborate style that I considered “literary.”
Like Oe, though, when I began writing my first novel, it felt like a natural choice to set the story in my hometown. On a clear day from the town where I was raised, you can see Shikoku island, where Oe’s hometown is located. I’ve always been encouraged and inspired by the fact that Oe has continued throughout his career to write stories set in his hometown. And I’m strongly drawn to the original and imaginative way in which he develops local myths and small histories (in both senses of the French word histoire: history and story).
I’ve heard that Oe didn’t much appreciate Murakami’s early books, but when Oe made his debut in the late fifties, his writing style was also considered translationese. In an interview with Oe, Karatani said: “Your early works were among the first contemporary Japanese novels I read. Your writing was very new to me. It felt very close to the Japanese used in translation; for example, the Japanese translations of Pierre Gascar or Norman Mailer.” Oe’s early works were so spontaneous and vivid that he quickly gained a huge audience, especially among young people. But the sensual nature of his first few books was gradually replaced by an intellectually elaborated style, one that also has been described by critics as translationese.
So while Murakami’s translationese makes him clearer and more natural, Oe’s translationese makes him more difficult and more artificial. However, according to Karatani, Oe’s clearer and more natural early work was already translationese, too.
In Novelist as a Vocation, Murakami says he developed his own original writing style, little by little, specifically by reading foreign novels—either in translation or in the original. He has also said that, having read very few Japanese novels, he didn’t have a firm idea about what a Japanese novel was when he first tried writing one himself.
Oe, on the other hand, said he was largely influenced by Japanese writers in the postwar era, but over time, he became less interested in Japanese fiction and began to read foreign books in their original languages. Generally, Oe is considered in Japan to be influenced by the French. In Oe’s early works, there are resonances of his reading of French existentialism. But Oe’s English influences are also clear: his close reading of English poets like William Blake, William Butler Yeats, Edgar Allan Poe, and T. S. Eliot occupy an essential role in his influential autobiographical novels.
I don’t think anyone would object if I said Oe and Murakami are the two novelists that represent contemporary Japanese literature from the end of the war through the present. Is it surprising that reading foreign literature in the original played a crucial role in their literary development? They are always writing through the experience of the “foreign.” As Proust said: “les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de langeue étrangère (beautiful books are written in a kind of foreign language).” Even if Oe and Murakami seem to be writing in Japanese, they might truly be writing in some kind of foreign language.
Historically, the modern Japanese novel has its origins in encounters with Western novels, with foreignness. And for more than thirty years, Murakami—who has translated novels and short stories by American writers throughout his career—has been the cornerstone of Japanese literature. Thus, the Japanese literary field at this moment is heavily influenced by American literature—as if in direct proportion to Murakami’s dominance.
Despite this reality, very few contemporary Japanese novelists read foreign novels—even American or British fiction—in the original. I get the sense that they perhaps don’t feel it’s necessary, since they are able to read a wide range of foreign novels in Japanese translation (translators of literary fiction are relatively well respected in Japan and are considered connoisseurs whose opinions and tastes matter). It is notable, though, that two of Japan’s most exceptional contemporary writers do operate between languages: One is Yoko Tawada, whose The Emissary, translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani, won the National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2018. Tawada writes in German as well as in Japanese. The other is Minae Mizumura. When she was twelve, Mizumura moved with her family from Tokyo to Long Island, New York. After studying fine art in Boston and then living in Paris, she went on to study French literature at Yale. Interestingly, she defines herself as a modern Japanese novelist and writes in Japanese.
It’s hard to say exactly how and to what extent Murakami’s style has influenced contemporary Japanese writing. I also cannot say with any certainty how and to what extent Oe’s reading of foreign poems in their original language has influenced the creation of his literary style. But it is clear that their experiences with foreignness have been vital to their own work. Notably, Oe developed the cosmology of his homeland in the forest on Shikoku island, far from Tokyo, where he lives. He creates a symbolic opposition between his homeland, a small, local culture with a rich oral and popular tradition, and Tokyo, the center of modern Japanese national culture that has tamed and dominated its diverse peripheral cultures. This fact reminds me of how Cahier du retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land), one of the most important books in French Caribbean literature about “home,” was written when Aimé Césaire saw a small island on the Adriatic Sea from a shore in Croatia, thousands of miles away from his home on Martinique. Or that Murakami wrote Norwegian Wood when he was living in Greece and Italy, and that he first began writing his chef d’oeuvre The Wind-up Bird Chronicle in Princeton, New Jersey.
When I was writing my own novel, Echo on the Bay—recently translated into English by Angus Turvill—I was living in Orléans, France. My landlord was the French poet and critic Claude Mouchard, and from the window of my second-floor flat I had a view of his expansive garden featuring every kind of tree—cedar, walnut, linden, cherry, apple, peach, pear, apricot. The summer garden filled with green leaves reminded me of the sea of my hometown. In that garden, a year before, Claude and I had finished a French translation of a long poem by the Japanese poet Yoshimasu Gozo, who also writes in, and across, multiple languages.
It was there, in Orléans, that I began to translate into Japanese Foucault, Glissant, Naipaul, and Marie NDiaye. I feel now that without this effect of distance—geographical distance from my hometown and linguistic distance made possible by it, as well as the in-between space opened up by the act of translation—I couldn’t have written my novel. This distance made it possible for me to see the place and people of my native land in such a vivid way that wouldn’t have been possible if I had been in Tokyo. I am convinced that, like in Murakami and Oe’s work, the in-between space of translation and complete detachment from Japanese helped me to be more sensitive to the language than when I was surrounded by it—or perhaps it allowed me to find my own kind of foreign language.
Masatsugu Ono is the author of numerous novels, including Mizu ni umoreru haka (The Water-Covered Grave), which won the Asahi Award for New Writers, and the Mishima Prize–winning Nigiyakana wan ni seowareta fune, which was published in Angus Turvill’s English translation as Echo on the Bay earlier this month. A prolific translator from the French—including works by Èdouard Glissant and Marie NDiaye—Ono received the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s highest literary honor, in 2015. He lives in Tokyo.
Essay written in English by the author and revised by David Karashima and CJ Evans.