After K-pop, K-lit? Why young Korean authors are a hit in Japan

Some Korean works popular in Japan, and even translated into French

As is the case around the world, publishing in Japan has seen a lot of setbacks for several decades, with declining sales due to competition from the Internet. Nevertheless, one of the recent works to reverse this trend is the Korean novel. Kim Jiyoung, born in 1982, by Cho Nam-joo (French translation by Pierre Bisiou and Kyungran Choi, editions 10/18) which has already sold more than 230,000 copies in Japan. The Japanese translation of this “feminist novel” which describes the chauvinism and misogyny firmly entrenched in Korean culture appeared in December 2018, and catapulted its author to instant success.

Bookseller Kim Seung-bok finds impact of novel similar to success of TV show star idol Bae Yong-joon Winter sonata which launched the “Korean wave” almost 20 years ago, and marked the beginning of the success of Korean cultural products in the Japanese archipelago.

The novel Kim Jiyoung, born in 1982 (here the Japanese edition: 82 nen umare, Kim Jiyoung) has been theatrically adapted for release in Japan in October 2020.

Several other bestsellers translated from Korean followed the success of Kim Jiyoung, born in 1982. Let us quote in particular “I decided to be myself” (Watashi wa watashi no mama from ikiru koto ni shita, not translated into French) by Kim Soo-hyun, which has sold more than 550,000 copies since its publication in 2019. This work is just one example of the successes of Korean books in Japan in recent years.

It was a bit of a coincidence that these two books got a boost, when Korean boy band BTS recommended them to fans while touring Japan. However, Kim Seung-bok believes that is not just the case with the influence of a star group. For her, in fact, the ideal conditions for a breakthrough in Korean literature were already slowly being put in place for a while …

And precisely, Kim is one of the people who put these conditions in place – although she is too modest to admit it – due to the fact that she has been striving to promote Korean literature since arriving in Japan in as a student, 30 years ago.

Kim Seungbok
Kim Seung-bok

The elegant design by Yorifuji Bunpei and Suzuki Chikako of the cover of the Japanese version of La Végétarienne, (French translation by Jeong Eun-Jin, Jacques Batilliot, editions of the Serpent à Plumes 2015). The book's simple and modern design has contributed to its success among readers of all ages.
The elegant design by Yorifuji Bunpei and Suzuki Chikako of the cover of the Japanese version of The Vegetarian (Japanese title: Saishokushugisha). The book’s simple and modern design has contributed to its success among readers of all ages.

“When I arrived in Japan, translations of Korean literature could only be found in university libraries… It shocked me,” Kim says. “It was quite the opposite of South Korea where bookstores were full of Japanese novels. “

Kim set out to translate short stories from her favorite authors herself and circulate the translations among her friends for discussion in informal reading groups. In 2007, she founded Cuon, a publishing house specializing in translations from Korean. Four years later, the company launched the “New Korean Literature” collection, in order to familiarize the Japanese with works written after 2000.

The first appearance in this new series at Cuon was a personal choice of Kim, the shocking and groundbreaking novel by Han Kang, The Vegetarian (French translation by Jeong Eun-jin and Jacques Bailliot, editions du Serpent à plumes, 2015).

From the start, Kim wanted this new series to symbolize quality and sophistication, including in the design of the covers and packaging. Reviews of Han Kang’s book, whose evocative and powerful style expresses the lasting psychological trauma inflicted on its female protagonist, have been rave by the press. The book achieved worldwide notoriety in 2016 as it became the very first work translated from an Asian language to win the prestigious International Booker Prize. The book remains one of Cuon’s bestsellers.

2015: a decisive year

According to Kim, the decisive year for Korean literature in Japan was 2015, when Park Min-gyu’s short story, Castella (not translated into French) won the first Translation Prize in Japan. Kim explains that this prestigious award revealed the innovative side of contemporary Korean literature.

Until the establishment of a democratic regime in 1987, Korean novels were often heavy works linked to Japanese colonization and the military dictatorship, and imbued with an ethno-nationalist ideology. Things started to change in the 1990s with the release of more entertaining mainstream books written by young authors. Their stories had a lightness that had been absent from the writings of previous generations, and cast a more personal look at the setbacks of everyday life. Topics were equally topical in Japan, such as discrimination against women and growing economic disparities. According to Kim, this new way of writing, along with more accessible subjects for everyone to understand, made it easier for the Japanese to identify with Korean novels.

The birth of a Korean bookstore in Tokyo

2015 is also the year Kim opened Chekccori, a Korean café / bookstore in Jimbôchô, in the heart of Tokyo’s book district. The establishment specializes in Korean literature, with approximately 4,000 volumes in stock, including translations published by Cuon and works directly from publishers in Korea. The store quickly attracted lovers of Korean literature to the capital.

The shelves are well stocked with novels, anthologies, essays, illustrated books, comics, language books and magazines
The shelves are well stocked with novels, anthologies, essays, illustrated books, comics, language books and magazines.

Kim did not skimp on innovative ideas to bring the Japanese closer to Korean works, such as translation courses and organized trips to visit places that served as the setting for successful novels. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the bookstore also held meetings with authors, editors and translators, setting up around 100 such events per year, including lectures, readings and concerts.

The secret of success: consolidating a community of fans

Kim always wants to be more creative. She then tells us about her future goal: “I would like to create a new community of Korean literature lovers in Japan, able to share its charm and qualities with as many people as possible. “

Another initiative is the literary festival organized by K-Book, a foundation of which she is deputy director. The 2020 edition of the festival, which took place online, featured a series of events including readings and interviews with authors, roundtable discussions by translators, a dialogue between Japanese and Korean model makers, and presentations from 26 houses. publishing which made discover their favorite works among those published. Kim believes such events create a stronger bond between the writers, the publishers who produce the books, and the readers who support them.

The foundation is also running a translation competition to reveal talented translators, who may help reach an even wider audience. Clearly, we can say that the synergy created by these events has contributed to the popularity of Korean works in Japan today.

K-lit towards a promising future

Striking evidence of the new k-lit craze can be seen in the number of publishers seeking to publish translations of Korean books. According to the K-Book Foundation, between 2020 and 2021, more than ten publishing houses published collections of Korean essays translated into Japanese. And the total number of translations of Korean books in all fields has almost tripled.

“Science fiction works by writers in their 30s do particularly well,” Kim says.

Kim believes Korean literature has great potential in the future. “I have no doubts that she will attract more and more audiences to Japan in the years to come. She adds, “In South Korea, it’s quite common for people to cite Japanese authors such as Murakami Haruki and Higashino Keigo as their favorite authors. I think it will be the same in Japan soon. For example, people will call themselves Han Kang fans and look forward to the release of the latest works by their favorite authors. “

Banner photo: Kim Seung-bok at her Chekccori bookstore in Tokyo’s Jimbôchô district. Photos: Kodera Kei)

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After K-pop, K-lit? Why young Korean authors are a hit in Japan