After K-Pop, K-Lit? Why young Korean writers are causing a stir in Japanese publishing

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After the explosive popularity of Korean television series and “K-pop” music, “K-lit” is the latest Korean export to experience a surge in popularity in Japan, as illustrated by a recent succession of novels and collections by ‘essays by Korean writers who have become bestsellers. We spoke with Kim Seungbok, representative director of Cuon, a leading Korean book publishers, about the background to the recent growth in interest and attractiveness of Korean writing to contemporary Japanese audiences.

K-Lit becomes mainstream

The Japanese publishing industry, like many others around the world, has struggled over the past decades with declining sales as competition from online competitors increases. A recent book that has reversed this trend is the Korean novel Kim Jiyoung, born in 1982, by Cho Nam-Joo, which has sold over 230,000 copies in Japan to date. A “feminist novel” depicting the deeply rooted chauvinism and misogyny in Korean society, Kim Jiyoung was released in Japanese translation in December 2018. The book’s release in Japan catapulted its author to overnight success. Bookseller Kim Seungbok compares the impact of the novel to that of Bae Yong-Joon, the actor and star of the television series. Winter sonata which helped launch the ‘Korean wave’ nearly 20 years ago, ushering in a new era of widespread popularity for the country’s cultural production.

Kim Jiyoung, born in 1982 was adapted into a film which was released in Japan in October 2020.

The success of Kim Jiyoung was followed by several other translated bestsellers from Korea including I decided to live like me, by Kim Soo Hyun, which has sold more than 550,000 copies since its release in 2019. This is just one of a series of remarkable success stories for Korean books in Japan in recent years.

Coincidentally, these two books received a promotional boost when members of Korean boy group BTS recommended them to fans. But Kim Seungbok says there’s more to the recent popularity of Korean books than just celebrity endorsement. Rather, she insists that the conditions for the breakthrough of Korean literature have slowly been established for some time.

Although too modest to admit, Kim was one of the people who laid this foundation, having worked tirelessly to promote literature from her home country since arriving in Japan as a student 30 years ago. years.

Kim Seungbok
Kim Seungbok

The elegant cover design by Yorifuji Bunpei and Suzuki Chikako for the Japanese translation of Han Kang's novel The Vegetarian.  The book's simple and modern design has helped make it popular with readers from a wide range of age groups.
The elegant cover design by Yorifuji Bunpei and Suzuki Chikako for the Japanese translation of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian. The book’s simple and modern design has helped make it popular with readers from a wide range of age groups.

“When I first arrived in Japan, I was shocked that it was almost impossible to find translations of Korean literature outside of university libraries,” Kim explains. “It was quite different from the situation in Korea, where bookstores were full of Japanese novels.” Kim took to translating the stories of some of her favorite writers herself and circulated her translations among her friends for discussions at an informal book club. In 2007, she founded Cuon, a publishing house specializing in translations of Korean writing. In 2011, the company launched the “New Korean Literature Series” to introduce Japanese readers to works written since 2000.

The company’s first outing was Kim’s personal choice to be the flagship of the new series, Han Kang’s shocking and groundbreaking novel. The Vegetarian.

Kim was determined from the start that everything in the new series embodies quality and sophistication, right down to the design and packaging. Han Kang’s book, which captures in evocative and powerful prose the lasting psychological trauma inflicted on its female protagonist, has received extensive review in major newspapers. In 2016, the book gained worldwide recognition when the English translation won the International Booker Award, the first time the award was given to a book translated from an Asian language. The book has continued to be one of Cuon’s best-selling titles since.

2015: a decisive year

The major turning point for Korean literature in Japan, Kim says, came in 2015, when the news Castella by Park Min-gyu won first prize for best translation. Obtaining this prestigious award, Kim says, has helped draw the attention of readers to Korean literature and opened many eyes to the groundbreaking and high-quality writings published in Korea today.

Before democratization in 1987, many Korean novels were rather heavyweight cases that touched on dark topics like colonial rule and military dictatorship. Many were marked by a strong ethno-nationalist ideology. A change began to occur from the 1990s, as young novelists began to publish more entertainment-oriented books written for mass readership. Their stories were marked by a light touch that was lacking in the writing of previous generations, and approached the struggles and anxieties of everyday life from a more personal point of view. Many of these novels dealt with topics that are serious social problems in Japan and Korea, including discrimination against women and growing economic disparities. This new style of writing and more accessible subject matter made it easier for Japanese readers to identify with Korean writing, Kim says.

A Korean bookstore in Tokyo

Coincidentally, it was also in 2015 that Kim opened Chekccori, a bookstore and cafe in Tokyo’s Jinbōchō, Tokyo’s bookstore district. The store specializes in Korean writing, stocking around 4,000 volumes, including translations published by Cuon and other companies and books obtained directly from Korean publishers. The store quickly became a magnet for lovers of Korean literature in the capital.

Every inch of available shelf space is taken up by novels, anthologies, essays, illustrated books, comics, language books and magazines.
Every inch of available shelf space is taken up by novels, anthologies, essays, illustrated books, comics, language books and magazines.

Kim has come up with a number of innovative ways to introduce the appeal of Korean writing to more readers in Japan, such as translation courses and tours that take loyal customers to Korean cities that have served as a framework for popular books. Until the pandemic struck, the store regularly hosted writers, editors and translators, and hosted around 100 events a year, including lectures, readings and concerts.

Build a community of fans

Of course, there are limits to what even the most creative and ambitious person can do to popularize Korean literature on their own. Kim admits that one of her goals is to educate a new generation of enthusiasts in Japan, who she hopes will work with her to help Korean writing reach an even wider audience. “I want to form a community of people and share the joy of working together to bring this writing to as many people as possible,” she says.

An example of these efforts is a literary festival organized by K-Book, a foundation for which Kim is the representative director. Held online in 2020, the festival hosted a series of events, including presentations by editors from 26 publishing houses who showcased their favorite works from among the Korean books their companies had published, as well as readings and talks. interviews with authors, a round table of translators and a dialogue between Japanese and Korean book designers. These events have helped forge stronger bonds between the writers and publishers who produce the books and the readers who support them, Kim says.

The foundation is also holding a translation competition as part of its efforts to find talented translators who can help bring outside attention to Korean writing. It’s fair to say that the synergy created by these events helped set the stage for the popularity Korean writing enjoys in Japan today.

K-Lit goes from strength to strength

One striking aspect of K-lit’s new popularity is the number of new companies looking to get involved in publishing Korean books in translation. According to the K-Book Foundation, more than 10 publishers have been involved in translations of Korean essay collections between 2020 and 2021, and the number of Korean books published in translation, including essays and other genres, has almost triple.

“One area that has been particularly successful is science fiction written by young writers in their thirties,” Kim says. Books like Chung Serang’s Koe o agemasu (I’ll give you my voice) and Kim Choyeop’s Watashi-tachi ga hikari no hayasa from susumenai nara (If We Can’t Go at the Speed ​​of Light) offer an efficient and refreshing combination of serious subjects with an appealing lightness of touch, often representing a vision of the near future. Compared to the work of writers of previous generations, Kim says, many of these recent books “have an accessibility and a warmth to them and carry a strong sense of the present moment.”

As for the future of Korean literature itself, Kim says it is likely to grow stronger. “I think books like these will continue to find a wider audience in Japan for years to come,” she says. “In Korea, it’s only natural for people to name Japanese authors like Murakami Haruki and Higashino Keigo among their favorite writers. I think we will soon have a similar situation in Japan. People will identify themselves as Han Kang fans, for example, and will be eager to read the latest book from their favorite authors.

There is no doubt that the growing popularity of K-Lit is one that fans of good writing will want to keep an eye out for in the years to come.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Kim Seungbok in her Chekccori bookstore. Photos by Kodera Kei.)


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