Sunday, March 6, 2011

Vertically Challenged: What's Going On With the J-Lit Scene in America

About a week and a half ago on February 24th, I saw through my Twitter feed that Vertical Inc., one of the only publishing houses devoted to Japanese literature and non-fiction was being bought out by Kodansha and Dai Nippon Printing. (You can see the original article at Publisher's Weekly). Then, a few days ago, the Japan Times reported that Kodansha International (unfortunately, the other publishing house for J-lit) was shutting down entirely.

Needless to say I was shocked and flummoxed. My initial thought was, Shit, that's bad news. But also really dumb - why would Kodansha acquire someone if they knew they were going under? Of course, that's what you get for not reading the words carefully: Kodansha International, a subsidiary of Kodansha was shutting down, not the parent company itself.

Also part of this deal is that Kodansha is starting a new manga line called Kodansha Comics, which will reacquire the rights to the titles put out by Del Rey, including, I imagine, critical (and personal) favorites Genshiken and Nodame Cantabile. Will we be seeing new reissues of these manga? Dunno. But it might be cool if they did with some deluxe packaging or new odds-and-ends. Vertical will continue to put out their classic and cult manga like their Tezuka properties which is nice, because their art design is pretty damn spiffy.

Honestly, the news that Vertical has been bought out actually brings me some sense of relief. Don't get me wrong; it sucks that Kodansha International is no more. They were the first to publish Haruki Murakami as well as more contemporary fare like Kotaro Isaka's Remote Control - which I suppose is now officially the last piece of fiction they're publishing before shutting their doors.

BUT, Vertical has been struggling for a long time. And for a while, Vertical was the tops. Obviously, I am a little biased towards them - they put out Sayonara, Gangsters for God's sake. Do I have to tell you again how it is one of my favorite books ever, or that Genichiro Takahashi is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors? But even beyond that, they've put out novels by other important and popular contemporary writers like Kaori Ekuni, Koji Suzuki, Randy Taguchi, etc. etc. etc. In fact, if you look at the numbers, according to the Translation Database upheld by Open Letter Books, in 2008 Vertical put out 10 of the 23 Japanese language fiction books, and only 1(!!!) of 15 in 2010. Big drop. For a little bit, Vertical was looking to be a very important player in the J-lit scene.

But that was years ago now. Lately, all they put out is manga, and even before then, they focused a little more on genre fiction than straight-up literature. So, even if Vertical will still be in charge of the artsy manga while Kodansha Comics puts out the popular stuff, there's a very good chance that Kodansha International's death will be Vertical Inc.'s rebirth, at least from a literary fiction stand-point. I sure hope that's the case. We can't being losing both of the only two Japanese-centric presses...right?

The other issue with J-lit right now is what's going on with the Japanese Literature Publishing Project (note that a lot of that info is out of date now), who yes, are holding a translation contest at this moment, but whose online presence has grown to almost nil (the translation contest is literally the ONLY info you can get on the JLPP website right now). Read Japan, which sounds basically like the JLPP in function and scope, might help bring more J-lit in English translation, but they have yet to announce any projects. The JLPP is an integral part to getting more Japanese literature on US shelves, but have been steadily declining in titles over the years, according to the research by David Jacobson at Chin Music Press (a great article that you should look at and that I've used for a lot of the research in this here article).

Anyway, it doesn't look great, but hopefully things will be turning around, and Vertical will keep on keepin' on (particularly with more non-genre literature please).

(P.S. - It might be a little unfair to call Vertical and Kodansha International the only Japanese centric presses. Stone Bridge Press is also pretty Japan-centric, and have a number of titles I'm interested in reading, including In the Pool. Tuttle and Chin Music Press also have vested interests in Japan, and then, of course, there are the big presses and the (few) big names. Basically, I think all publishers should show a larger interest in Japanese literature, but obviously my opinions are totally biased. It also made me realize how all of these presses have to sell non-fiction/manga/miscellany/classics to support their forays into contemporary literary fiction, which is too bad, but that's the business.)

UPDATE: I just checked the JLPP website and they seem to be up and running full speed ahead again - they even have a list of their work up! List looks great too... some really interesting stuff that I hope publishers will pick up.)


  1. This news is a mixture of good and bad, it does feel like an end of an era with Kodansha International coming to an end, but with a re-vamped Vertical things look interesting. I know it's the way in the book trade to publish in hardback first, but I'd love to see some new titles released in Japanese size paperbacks, as the hardback editions,(I like hardbacks don't get me wrong),seem to be a little pricey,that's wishful thinking tho.

  2. Yeah I agree. It would be nicer in general if more general fiction would be published in pocket editions since they are so cheap, but I guess publishers are reluctant to lose the money they get from hardcovers.