As well as being recognised by International Booker Prize judges year after year, fiction from Japan and Korea is booming among English-speaking audiences, for a variety of reasons

Written by Sarah Shaffi

Publication date and time: Published

In Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold, translated from the Japanese by Geoffrey Trousselot, a quiet cafe offers its customers an unusual menu item: the chance to go back to a moment in time, where they might right wrongs, find comfort or see a loved one for the last time.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a gently moving book about grief, love and time. It’s so gentle, in fact, that very little about it screams ‘bestseller’, but that’s exactly what it is, both in Japan and overseas. In the UK it has been – according to Nielsen BookScan, which measures sales of print books – the top-selling work of translated fiction for the last two years (2022 and 2023).

The novel is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to translated fiction from Japan and Korea; books in these languages now regularly make the bestseller lists and, in 2022, again according to Nielsen BookScan, books translated from Japanese were more popular in the UK than any other original language. 

‘In Japanese fiction, readers are finding comforting stories about ordinary lives transformed by small adjustments of attitude, suggesting positive change is something we can all reach, if we are open to it,’ says Jane Lawson, deputy publisher at Doubleday, summing up what readers are finding in Japanese literature that they perhaps aren’t in fiction originally written in English.

While Japanese literature in translation has been quietly rising in popularity for some time, the appetite for Korean literature in translation has risen rapidly over a shorter period. It’s part of the wider Hallyu wave, the name given to the global popularity of Korean drama, music and other cultural offerings, which began in the late 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s (remember Psy’s inescapable Gangnam Style in 2012?). 

Jieun Kiaer, Young Bin Min-KF Professor of Korean Linguistics in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford, says she thinks there’s a ‘genuine interest in Korean culture [that] I think is a very important to factor in’ when it comes to the popularity of Korean books in English-language countries.

This year’s International Booker Prize shortlist includes Hwang Sok-yong’s Mater 2-10, translated from the original Korean by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae. It’s the third year in a row a Korean title has been shortlisted, after Cheon Myeong-kwan’s Whale in 2023 and Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny in 2022. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, was the first winner of the International Booker when the prize adopted its current format in 2016.

Hwang Sok-yong

Fiction from Japan and Korea, while different from each other, have ‘come to be embraced under the label “East Asian”,’ says Lawson, who is the UK publisher for books including What You Are Looking For is in the Library by Michiko Toyama, translated from Japanese by Alison Watts, and the forthcoming Korean title One Thousand Bluesby Chen Seon-ran.

‘In Japanese, there is introspection and interest in emotional landscapes, there is the ordinary made mythical and fantastical, pioneered partly by Haruki Murakami; the slice-of-life genre, and the sub-genre celebrating Japanese cats,’ continues Lawson.

Translator Ginny Tapley Takemori says in Japanese fiction things are ’not as black and white as they are in Western fiction’ when it comes to questions of good and evil. ‘Characters are a bit more nuanced, which strikes me as closer to reality,’ she adds.

Themes of isolation are also found across Japanese fiction, with a ’protagonist who might be at odds with his or her surroundings. I think that has quite a historical background,’ adds Tapley Takemori. Before Japan’s Meiji era, which dates from 1868 to 1912, ‘Japanese literature was very stylised and there were specific types of literary language’. 

During Meiji, however, ’There was a growing interest in Western literature, along with a movement to create writing in the vernacular and to experiment with new forms such as the modern novel,’ continues Tapley Takemori. ’Russian novels in particular were popular, and there’s a lot of alienation in them. Japan was also coming out of the Edo period when the country was largely closed to the rest of the world. It was rapidly industrialising and a lot of people felt quite anxious about the way society was going. And I think that is often reflected in themes of alienation in Meiji period literature.’

History also plays a big part in the evolution of Korean literature. ‘Korea is very uniquely positioned in that it used to be the poorest country in the world,’ says translator Anton Hur, who was longlisted and shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2022 for his translations of two different South Korean titles. ‘Now it’s one of the richest, and it did that in the space of essentially a generation. And so for us, the memories of poverty, war, strife, being refugees, is very, very fresh.

‘And yet we now have the means to confront and to consecrate these experiences in various forms of media like K-drama; even K-pop references historical strife.’

Dr Grace Koh, lecturer in Korean literature at SOAS, says: ‘Since liberation from the Japanese colonial period, then the Korean War, followed by decades of military authoritarianism, there was a successive period throughout the 20th century where censorship of some form was always in place.

‘Many authors who are alive, but who come from the generation who experienced, even as a child, the Korean War, who lived through military authoritarian rule and such, will tell you that there was a huge sense of responsibility as writers to be able to tell stories of Korea’s social realities. But of course, they would have to do so under the radar of censorship in one way or another.’

Mieko Kawakami, author of Heaven

The vast array of subjects and historical detail present in Korean and Japanese literature in translation is not always foregrounded. And while certain authors, such as International Booker Prize shortlistees Mieko Kawakami and Yoko Ogawa have achieved cut-through internationally, much of the mainstream discussion has focused on more whimsical narratives. But even these are deeply tied to the Japanese and Korean context – historical and contemporary – in which they are written, and of which the majority of English-language readers are only just becoming aware.

In translation in English, much Japanese and Korean literature (and indeed literature from other languages) is published under the wide-ranging and arguably misleading label of ‘literary fiction’ rather than a specific genre to which they more naturally belong. Especially, as Hur notes, in Korea fiction genres have traditionally been very separated.

‘Boundaries between genre are actually stronger in Korea and more heavily policed in Korean literature than it is in English literature,’ says Hur, translator of Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny, which was published originally in Korean in 2017.

Bora Chung was always considered a science fiction writer; it’s a very lively genre in Korea, but it’s not a huge genre by any means, to the point where in 2022, after she was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, a reporter described her as an unknown writer despite her being the president of the Science Fiction Writers Union of Korea.

‘But once she was nominated for the International Booker Prize, she magically transformed from being this cult marginal science fiction author to a mainstream literary fiction writer. And you could find Cursed Bunny in every bookstore in Korea displayed with mainstream literary fiction and not shunted off to the genre side.’

Japanese literature also has distinct genres, some of which we rarely see translated into English translation. One genre popular in Japan is jidaigeki, or period drama, which usually feature samurai culture, explains Tapley Takemori. These can be set at any time before Meiji, but many are often set in the Edo period, when Japan’s society was strictly stratified into samurai, merchants, artisans and farmers, under the strict rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, and closed off to the rest of the world. As popular as Japanese fiction has become among English-speaking audiences, we are only seeing part of the picture.

But what is it that makes them so popular? It’s not just the stories that are attractive to English-language audiences, but the way in which they are told. And that, at its core, is about the differences in language. 

The Japanese language, says Tapley Takemori, ‘allows for a lot more [natural] ambiguity. For example, it’s easy for Japanese to obscure gender,’ she explains.

In addition, layers of meaning can be added to a text because the Japanese writing system uses ‘two different phonetic scripts in combination with thousands of kanji characters.

‘Given that English only has an alphabet of 26 letters, capturing all of these nuances is a challenge.’

Korean, meanwhile, is a language with inbuilt suspense, says Hur.

‘The verb in Korean comes at the very end of the sentence and the verb is the most important part, so you kind of have to wait until the end to find out what the sentence is about,’ he explains. ‘And that makes for a very suspenseful reading, even though it might just be a description of a very mundane thing, for example.’

The ways in which the Japanese and Korean languages have become more familiar to people as they consume a variety of cultural mediums is also helping the popularity of translated fiction.

‘Even 10 years ago we had to translate everything in a way to accommodate a more traditional English speaker’s knowledge,’ says Jieun Kiaer. ‘But nowadays we all transliterate things. So in a 1970s Japanese novel or Korean novel, you had to limit the number of the transliterated items, otherwise the reader could be lost. 

‘In the last 10 years in Korean literature, you’re able to transliterate, particularly if it’s to do with something that readers are already exposed through drama. The two main areas for this are food, and address terms. If you watch Korean drama, you’ll know everybody uses address terms and they don’t call each other names at all.’

Yoko Ogawa, 2013

Developments in translation have also had a big impact, with Hur arguing that translations of books now are much better than they were even a decade ago because ‘there are so many more excellent Korean translators who can operate at the level that Korean literature requires’, where previously translations were mostly done by academics.

‘Everyone that I came up with and especially everyone who’s coming after me, like the younger translators and the emerging translators, they are so excellent and they are operating on a level that we have never seen before,’ says Hur. He singles out Deborah Smith (translator of Han Kong’s The Vegetarian, among others) for special credit, as someone who ‘really emphasises translation as an art form, not as an academic exercise’.

So where does the future of Korean and Japanese literature lie? Hur says that Korea are ‘beginning to see the post-war generation exiting the stage’, meaning, among other things, that new types of stories about the Korean War are being told.

‘The Korean War is to this day very controversial in Korea and it’s becoming more controversial now, thanks to books by, for example, Han Kang,’ says Hur. ‘Her forthcoming book, We Do Not Part, is about the Four Three massacre in Jeju. One of my authors, Kyung-Sook Shin, wrote a book called I Went to See my Father, and this is about a father figure who lives through both World War II and the Korean War, and Korea’s industrialisation and democratisationperiod.

‘What these two books and what writers now more than ever are becoming more forward about is South Korea’s role in the Korean War and atrocities perpetuated by South Korea. So there are certain historical themes like that that are finding their time.’

The appetite for Japanese and Korean literature in translation is set to continue, whatever stories are being told. Of the future of Japanese literature, Doubleday’s Jane Lawson says: ‘Publishers are leaning into audiences and booksellers and there is an appetite among younger readers, who are active online, for this kind of fiction, containing vivid characters, emotional landscapes and understated simplicity, and with contemporary themes around emotional health and societal pressure.’

Deborah Smith and Han Kang