Why doesn’t fantasy sell in Japan?
“What? Doesn’t it?”
Nope. Not unless you count “historical” novels purporting to portray the Edo era, in which case, maybe, but that’s a different blog. We’re talking about real fantasy. Heroes, heroines, swords and horses, castles, kingdoms in jeopardy, magic magic magic. Portal fantasies grandfathered in.
“But, but fantasy is huge in Japan. What about Harry Potter?(1) Uh, Hayao Miyazaki?(2) The Lord of the Rings?(3) A Game of Thrones?(4) Haruki Murakami!(5)”
Let’s do a quick comparison, courtesy of Wikipedia. Fantasy dominates the ranks of the worldwide bestsellers of all time. But the equivalent Japanese list? Excluding Harry Potter, we’re left to decide whether The Very Hungry Caterpillar is fantasy or not. If it isn’t, we’re down to one entry: The Little Prince. The rest of this list is heavy on self-help, spiced with a couple of romances. The brilliant Japan Sinks squeaks in at No. 31. That’s science fiction, though; we hope and pray.
It’s bizarre. In a country this maddened, obsessed, saturated by the fantastic, where are the fantasy novels? Perhaps the question is its own answer, but this sheds some light on the situation. It’s a top 10 list of “Fantasy Novels Worth Rereading,” as picked by the Nikkei Keizai Shimbun, which is about as mainstream as it gets. The lede is worth translating:
Fantasy novels give you the feeling of having travelled to a faraway world. We asked experts to recommend works that not only children but even grown-ups will want to reread.
Fantasy novels generally describe worlds where characters use magic, possess superhuman powers, or experience other phenomena that could never occur in real life.
Among works from around the world, our list includes two Japanese series and one Japanese standalone novel …
I’d like to bring out a few points here. First, the editors find it necessary to explain what fantasy novels are. Second, the assumption is that fantasy novels are for children. And third—perhaps most importantly—seven out of ten novels on the list are by non-Japanese authors.
Here’s the full list, by the way, in descending order of excellence according to the Nikkei Keizai Shimbun:
1. Guardian series, Nahoko Uehashi
2. Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce
3. Krabat, Otfried Preussler
4. Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
5. The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
6. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
7. Momo, Michael Ende
8. The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
9. The Jade Trilogy, Noriko Ogiwara
10. Nifunkan no Bouken [Two-Minute Adventure], Jun Ogata
Now, the sole and lasting rationale for publishing top ten lists of anything is so that people can grumble about them. I’m sure the Nikkei Keizai Shimbun’s editors (and their taste-challenged ‘experts’) know this. So we’ll just skip the part where I question the objectivity of anyone who doesn’t start their top ten list of fantasy novels with LOTR, even though I quite enjoyed Philippa Pearce’s books as a preteen, but the best one was definitely A Dog So Small, and, and, who on earth picks Momo over The Neverending Story, and, er, OK. Moving right along.
Let’s get back to that statistic: seven out of ten novels on this list are by foreign authors. And six out of ten are translated from English.
This actually stands to reason if you think about it. The Anglosphere is virtually self-sufficient in literature. Most of us reading this blog would probably populate our entire top ten lists with novels written in English, and be justified in so doing (though vulnerable to charges of a want of sophistication). Lesser languages necessarily rely to some extent on imports.
Japanese is the ninth most-spoken language out of all the world’s thousands. I love this statistic—no Japanese person I drop it on ever believes it until they get on Wikipedia and confirm it for themselves. But there just aren’t ever going to be as many great novels written in languages with fewer writers and readers to begin with.(6)
So the Japanese LOTR, the Japanese Chronicles of Narnia, the Japanese ASOIAF haven’t been written. And probably never will be: one of the crushingly sad things about globalization is that if you import wheels, people are disincentivized to reinvent the wheel for themselves—creativity stifled by sufficiency, originality smothered by second-hand ideas. Are there any really original Japanese fantasy novels within the genre framework imported from the West? That’s a subject for another day. But the odds were against it, given that fantasy novels translated into Japanese, EFHP(7), as we have seen, don’t sell. Something there just isn’t striking a chord with Japanese readers outside a small and incredibly worthy fandom.
The reason probably lurks in translation issues. Good translation is hard, no matter what the language. English and Japanese are about as far apart as it’s possible to get. I’m a translator as well as a writer, and I’ve struggled with this cross for years: no matter how good you are, no matter how good the source matter is, the original sense is never going to get through. The best solution is to accept that the translated work will be its own new thing, and write it well, in a style suited to the soul of the original. But few and far between are the translators good enough at their own language to do this, and equally few are the editors prepared to let them. So many if not most novels translated from English into Japanese appear to readers to be fairly crap, because the translators are, or because they weren’t given a free hand and enough time to do their work well.
No wonder they don’t sell, eh?
There’s more to it than this, of course. There’s the light novel problem—look for a future blog on this—and the “fantasy is for kids” problem. But beyond that, Japanese unresponsiveness to the epic fantasy paradigm may be rooted in the recentness of Japanese medieval history. The equivalent age of heroes, heroines, swords, horses, castles, victories and defeats and bitter, bitter betrayals, fairies and magic and partisan gods—it wasn’t a thousand years ago. It was as few as three hundred years ago. The Japanese haven’t yet forgotten what it was really like.
1. Sui generis.
2. That’s anime.
3. No one had read it before the movies came out, and few have now.
4. Not selling. But! Japanese premium broadcaster Star Channel started showing the HBO series in January 2013. Fingers crossed.
5. Ha ha, Haruki Murakami doesn’t write fantasy, silly.
6. You explain the Russians. My explanation is Act of God.
7. We need a new internet abbreviation—EFHP, Except For Harry Potter—to save us typing it out every time.