I first came across the bright blue cover of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata on Bookstagram. I saw it on the same community of bookish accounts on Instagram again, and several times after that. I stumbled upon it a few days later on my favourite Booktuber’s recommendations channel and the next day I saw it at an oft-visited bookstore in Delhi. The bright blue book (and the newly-launched pink and yellow covers) seemed to be everywhere – and I had to read it.
Convenience Store Woman (2016); Sayaka Murata
I remember finishing the whole book within one plane ride and describing it as ‘wildly entertaining’ on my Goodreads account. I also thought that the publishers must have been unhinged to have greenlit a plot like that. First published in 2016 and translated into English in 2018 by Ginny Tapley Takemori, the global popularity of this novel is said to have created a domino effect and spurred interest in books written by Japanese women authors all over the world. Of the 34 titles translated from Japanese in the past two years, 28 were by women. Publishers call it the Murata effect.
But how is it that a book about an oddball protagonist who has an unhealthy obsession with a convenience store would go on to capture so many people’s imagination the world over, including in India? One reason could be it captures the dichotomy of choices women (and particularly Asian women) are presented with, and completely destroys this normative idea with a simple narrative. This book’s protagonist, Keiko, is perhaps loved so much because of how she creates a new ‘normal’. Decisively content with neither being married nor having a conventionally lucrative career, she’s in love with being a convenience store worker – and that is exactly who she will be until the end of time. I read Keiko as someone who not only rejects the ‘hustle-culture’ of our generation, but also doesn’t think it necessary at all. This streak of wild imagination and fervent emotionality runs deep in the Japanese literary tradition.
Purely based on how many times I saw it on Indian Bookstagram, BookTube, and across Indian bookstores’ shelves and their social media pages, it was clear to me that this was not just another international translation. Convenience Store Woman blew up at the exact right time when it could easily find popularity in India. The East Asian powerhouse is geopolitically significant here — India shares a stage with Japan in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue grouping (or simply the ‘QUAD’) — and Japanese culture has always found takers. Manga fandoms abound in the country, in honour of the Japanese comic art form, where readers are eager to dress-up as their favourite characters during various Comic Con events. Interest in manga has even been widespread enough to inspire Hindi translations. A YouTube channel, Anixplain, is dedicated to explaining newly released manga in Hindi. Non-readers consume Japanese culture in the form of anime (TV shows adapted from manga) and popular animated films such as those from Studio Ghibli. The Bengali film Karmachakra, made in 2020, was billed as the first independent Indian production made in the same style as that of Japanese anime.
Karmachakra (2020); Studio Durga
But how much of this interest spreads to literary fiction as well? Resh Susan, a popular book blogger who runs The Book Satchel, is of the opinion that Japanese fiction was always popular with Indian readers. “Haruki Murakami has a large following in India. Among its Asian counterparts, Japanese fiction has been most popular among the reading masses, although I don’t know why; perhaps it is the style of writing or publicity or even word of mouth. As more books are being talked about on social media, more people are trying them out too. I remember Granta Books had a Japan Lit feature a few years ago where they showcased Japanese fiction. Mieko Kawakami’s interview with Murakami garnered a lot of attention and made readers discuss books from Japan and depiction of women in fiction.”
Another reason behind the uptick in diverse fiction choices may be the unexpected free time that cropped up for a majority of India’s English-reading audience due to the pandemic lockdowns of the last couple of years. A 2020 Nielsen survey showed that Indians’ reading time grew from 9 hours per week to about 16 hours. Sales of eBooks and audiobook subscriptions reached an all-time high, and this may have also led readers to discover more international fiction. Translated works are now more readily available in the country. According to Shruti Sharma, founder of Books on the Delhi Metro, “There is definitely an increase in (international) translated works getting published in India. Either that or we have started noticing them more because a lot of them have started getting recognition through literary prizes. People are now more open to reading books that are not from their native language mainly because it gives them a plethora of options to explore. It's not that the translations are new, but the space has really exploded now.”
People themselves are more open to reading translated works from East Asia today than they were some years ago. Susan also adds how important social media has become. “Social media platforms have a big role to play in diversifying bookshelves and promoting (international) translated literature. I have found many new books and authors through Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. The online reading community is very active and enthusiastic in promoting good books. The translations are of high quality too, which makes reading the books a very pleasurable experience.
Sayaka Murata, Yojo Ogawa
When asked what resonates with them when it comes to Japanese literature, everyone had a different answer. For Sharma, the books that show the raw emotions, the culture, and the people of Japan, are the ones she enjoys the most. For Susan, all authors have their own unique styles. “I enjoy the surreal quietness of Haruki Murakami. Hiromi Kawakami made me fall in love with her dream-like narration and loneliness. Yoko Ogawa’s writing, translated by Stephen Snyder, makes me feel unsettled (Revenge) or fall in love with the characters (The Housekeeper and the Professor). The frank protagonist of Convenience Store Woman captivated me while Murata’s Earthlings was stranger than my wildest dreams. As we read books by different authors and get exposed to different styles of writing, we are able to experience the country and its many facets in different forms.”
Nirica Srinivasan, bookseller at Champaca Bangalore, says, “There is interest, specifically, in East and Southeast Asian literature, in translation. That is something that people come and seek out from us. There is a lot more sustained interest in authors beyond established ones like Murakami. Sayaka Murata, Yoko Ogawa and Banana Yoshimoto have been quite popular with us.”
Housekeeper and the Professor (2003); Yoko Ogawa
When asked to list some of their favourite books, Sharma said, “Just like everyone else, I was introduced to Japanese literature through Murakami's books. Eventually, I discovered lesser-known gems. Some of my favourites are Sayaka Murata's Convenience Store Woman, Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor, and Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa.” Susan’s list included Yokomizo and Shimada. “I loved the cosy mystery The Inugami Curse by Seishi Yokomizo, translated by Yumiko Yamazaki. Set in the 1940s, it follows an aristocratic family and its murdered patriarch. There are unusual wills, family secrets, and so much drama to indulge in. One Love Chigusa by Soji Shimada, translated by David Warren, follows a man who meets with a motorcycle accident in the year 2091 AD. His life is saved by patchwork surgeries but the world looks different after he is made ‘new’. I also enjoyed the very bizarre and dark Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, and Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd – it was a thought provoking read on feminism, desires, and societal expectations.”
The Inugami Curse (1972); Seishi Yokomizo
One Love Chigusa (2020); Soji Shimada
Earthlings (2018); Sayaka Murata
Breast and Eggs (2008); Mieko Kawakami
Perhaps the book that comes very close to capturing the same emotion as Convenience Store Woman is There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura (translated by Polly Barton). The back cover blurb of Tsumura’s book reads: “A young woman walks into an employment agency and requests a job that has the following traits: it is close to her home, and it requires no reading, no writing – and ideally, very little thinking.” After the excruciating tiredness brought upon by the pandemic, who wouldn’t want that? I can definitely relate.
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job (2015); Kikuko Tsumura
A sub-genre of Japanese literature that has found a lot of takers is of anthropomorphic animals, particularly cats. Cats are revered in Japan and the maneki-neko or beckoning cat (a small statue, seen often in shops and restaurants, of a cat sitting upright and beckoning with its paw) is the most widely seen example. I picked up If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura (translated by Eric Selland) for the very interesting premise. The narrator lives a solitary life with only his cat for company. He is given a terminal diagnosis. The Devil appears with a deal: the narrator can have one extra day of life in exchange for making one thing in the world disappear. You can fathom what happens next from the title. Other notable mentions include The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa (translated by Philip Gabriel), which is again a personal favourite.
Maneki Neko; @juraiwanr
If Cats Disappeared from the World (2012); Genki Kawamura
Yet another tool employed eminently well by Japanese authors is that of magical realism – the idea that the real world has undercurrents of magic. Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura, translated by Philip Gabriel, is a book of spooky, avant-garde magical realism, and I was so, so intrigued by it. Seven students escape into a mysterious castle each day to avoid going to school. This adventure comes with several caveats and everyday becomes a puzzle for all of them to solve. Three Days of Happiness by Sugaru Miaki asks fundamental questions about what greatness and happiness mean and whether life can truly be appreciated only in the presence of impending death. This one heavily resonates if you are a former gifted-child who was told that they were destined for greatness but are now struggling with the reality of a rather mediocre life. The Forest of Wool and Steel by Natsu Miyashita (translated by Philip Gabriel) is an exquisite book about finding one’s ‘calling’, and even if such a thing truly exists. This book made me want to find all the music out there in the world.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror (2017); Mizuki Tsujimura
Three Days of Happiness (2013); Sugaru Miaki
Oddball streaks, character-driven plotlines, magical realism, and animal protagonists are recurrent themes in some of the most popular works of Japanese literature in the international online reading community. The fact that this popularity is led mostly by women-authored books is just the icing on top.