Cool Japan: Hot Authors and Trends Making Headlines

In Feature Articles by Kay Ohara

Cool Japan

Kate Ohara offers an overview of hot titles, authors and literary trends in Japan aimed at overseas agents and scouts on the prowl for book rights.

By Kate Ohara

Kanako Nishi

Kanako Nishi

Japan has given us novels by Haruki Murakami and a wide range of manga. What else has it got up its kimono sleeves?

In literary fiction, it’s fair to say there isn’t another writer like Haruki Murakami, who has captivated readers worldwide, but there are other up-and-coming literary stars worth watching out for. Count among them Kanako Nishi, who just won the Naoki Award earlier this year. Born in Tehran and raised in Cairo and Osaka, her novels are filled with quirky and lovable characters who speak the lively Osaka dialect. A few more worth mentioning are Keiichiro Hirano, whose musings on digital-age existentialism always intrigue, and Hideo Furukawa, whose explosive prose never disappoints.

Unfortunately, under the slogan Cool Japan, government-sponsored cultural foundations seem to have shifted their focus from literary fiction to manga and non-fiction titles in recent years. Abe administration is offering Asian history/philosophy/business books written by Japanese scholars to university presses and libraries overseas. Another piece of regrettable news for literary fiction is, at the Nobel laureate’s request, Kodansha has stopped sponsoring the annual Oe Kenzaburo Prize, which had helped authors like Fuminori Nakamura debut in the US market.

Naoki Matayoshi

Naoki Matayoshi

Recent bestsellers in literary fiction include The Spark by Naoki Matayoshi, a stand-up comedian whose (seriously literary) debut novel with two million copies in print since he won the Akutagawa Prize last month (more on him in PP soon).

Ebooks and SF

Ebooks are steadily gaining acceptance thanks to Kindle, iBooks and Kobo, despite some resistance by the establishment media and printed book wholesalers. Manga, bound with lesser quality paper and sheer bulk of the format, seems especially suited for digital reading. After mega-monster worldwide hits such as One Piece, Naruto, Death Note and Bleach, Kodansha’s Attack on Titan is lagging in sales volume outside Japan but with the live action movie set to be released this month, things may change. In Asia, kids classic Doraemon series is doing well, but not in English markets.

The emergence of ebooks and related services nurtured indie authors who have been given a chance to reach a sizable audience without a publisher. Take Taiyo Fujii, whose self-published science fiction Gene Mapper sold more than 10,000 copies and gained enthusiastic word-of-mouth endorsements online until the genre’s stronghold Hayakawa came calling with an offer for the printed edition.

Fujii’s second effort, Orbital Cloud, won Japan SF Grand Prize and the English edition has just been published by VIZ Media under Haikasoru imprint. From Shin’ichi Hoshi to Yasutaka Tsutsui, Japan has a strong tradition in science fiction genre that has been largely unavailable in translation. Look to veterans Toh EnJoe and Miyuki Miyabe to break that barrier.


From the non-fiction front, British novelist David Mitchell translated Naoki Higashida’s Q&A essay, The Reason I Jump into a multi-national must-read. The English edition of the poignant self-reflections by a 13-year old autistic young man was published by Little Random, then picked up in a handful of European languages, becoming a best-selling title in Scandinavian territories.

Even before author and actress Jamie Lee Curtis nominated organizing guru Marie Kondo as her choice for TIME magazine’s Most Influential list last year, her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has been a runaway longseller in her native country since 2010. Now that many households across the globe have been “sparkling joy” thanks to her toss’em-’til-you’re-bare philosophy, it should leave plenty of bookshelf room fore more books.

You can expect more helpful self-help books in organizing, homemade crafts, healthy eating and more from publishers such as Vertical and Stone Bridge Press. On the internet, kyara-ben is all the rage as the Japanese parents become ever more creative with their lunch box food.

MIA: YA, Memoir

A couple of popular genres are missing from the bestseller list in Japan: there is no YA/juvenile as an established category. Some suggest Ranobe (light novel) is the equivalent of YA, but the core fans of this genre tend to be male readers in their 20s and 30s and not necessarily written with preteen girls in mind.

Another missing element is memoir. They exist, under categories such as biography or shishosetsu (private novels) but while biography of someone known tend to be flattering hagiography while shishosetsu tends to bend/embellish the facts out of privacy concerns.

Tokyo International Book Fair, held every July, will take cue from Book Expo America by inviting general public to the floor for the entire schedule beginning next fall, leaving less room and panels for trade people. Those who are interested in rights negotiation should look to Beijing or Seoul as their destination.

Meanwhile, Tokyo International Literary Festival, on hiatus since last year, will renew the program and hold another event come next March. Scheduled guests include: Orhan Pamuk, Yiyun Li, with more Japanese authors to participate.

Kay Ohara is a translation rights agent based in Tokyo, Japan. After working as a title scout for Random House and Kodansha, she’s been consulting Japanese publishers in efforts to bring their author’s works to markets overseas.

About the Author

Kay Ohara


Growing up in the U.S. and Japan, Kay Ohara enjoys reading both vertically and horizontally. Her taste for both cultures is evident in the jars of umeboshi and peanut butter that sit side by side in her tiny fridge in Manhattan. She scouted titles for Random House Kodansha and sold foreign rights on behalf of Kodansha's Japanese authors. Now, she runs the Lingual Literary Agency.