Popularity of Japanese novels soarsJo Sumi, the famed opera singer, once said during an interview that she enjoyed reading “Between Calm and Passion,” a romance novel by the Japanese writer Kaori Ekuni.
Ms. Jo is not the only person who fell in love with the book, which has been so popular it has been reprinted more than 30 times. Representative Jang Hyang-sook, singer Boa and actress Kim Ha-neul have also expressed their fondness for the book, first published in Korean in 2000.
The book has been on the top 10 best seller list for five years, according to Kyobo Bookstore.
The popularity of “Between Calm and Passion” marks an ongoing renaissance for Japanese literature, a surge observers say is due in large part to a slump in output from Korean authors. But why?
Japanese novels first gained traction in Korea in the 1960s with “Freezing Point,” a novel about a man who adopted the daughter of another man who killed his child (a common motif in other novels). In the 1970s, Sohachi Yamaoka’s novel, “Tokugawa Ieyasu,” sold over 4 million copies. Although the Korean government restricted the import of most Japanese music and movies, translations of Japanese novels were allowed.
The turning point for Japanese fiction came in 1989 when Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel, “Norwegian Wood,” was first printed in Korea under the title “Age of Loss.”
Suddenly, other Japanese novels that rarely made it on the best seller list in Korea started to dominate the scene from authors such as Ryu Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto and Ms. Ekuni.
About 30,000 copies of “Norwegian Wood” were sold in Korea the first year of publication, and about 30,000 copies sell annually. The book was still 28th on Kyobo Bookstore’s top seller list in the third week of June. For 16 years, the book has kept a top-selling spot on the fiction list.
“There are more Japanese novels than Korean novels in the top 50 best seller list for the first time in history this year,” a Kyobo Bookstore official explained.
The most noticeable trend is the increasing number of novels.
According to the Korea Publishing Research Center, the number of Japanese literary works for sale in bookstores increased from 219 in 1999 to 364 last year.
The fad surrounding Mr. Murakami’s novels has been termed “Harukism.” His use of mundane events to describe modern life has spurred “the Haruki style of writing.”
Some of his powerful lines include “When I heard of her death, I smoked my 6,922nd cigarette.” Classic lines from Mr. Murakami have a cool, cosmopolitan tone, and his fans rave over his unusual sentimentality.
Currently the most popular Japanese writer is Ms. Ekuni. As one can tell from her nickname ― “Female Haruki” ―her works are similar to Mr. Murakami’s. “Between Calm and Passion,” which takes place in Florence, Italy, is reminiscent of the start of a Haruki scene with the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” playing on a Boeing 747 that lands at Hamburg Airport in Germany.
Not only are readers passionate about Mr. Murakami, he has also influenced many Korean writers. One critic said, “There are signs of plagiarism in some writers’ works.”
Literary critic Jang Suk-joo said in the April issue of Munhak Sasang, a monthly literary magazine, “One can find the Haruki characteristics in the works of Jang Jung-il, Yoon Dae-nyung, Bae Soo-a, Jo Kyung-ran and Gu Hyo-seo.”
“In Korea, many publishing companies are willing to sign a contract with young Japanese authors who have just debuted,” said an official at a Korean publisher.
Recently, several publishing companies in Korea have contacted Mr. Murakami after rumors spread that an exclusive contract with his Korean publisher, Munhak Sangsa, had expired.
The number of Korean novels in Japan is very small. “Happy Sara,” a novel by Ma Guang-soo that was banned in Korea because of its sexual content, was the only Korean novel that ranked on the Japanese best seller list in the early 1990s.
Despite the support of the Korean Literature Translation Institute since 1970 and the Daesan Foundation, only 98 Korean literary works have been published in Japan.
The reason? Gong Ji-Young, a novelist, says, “People talk about style of writing, but romance novels are the ones that sell.”
This may be true. As many critics have pointed out, romance is what interests Japanese readers. Considering the fact that Korea’s main readers are females in their twenties, the popularity of Japanese novels is inevitable.
“The problem is that when Korean authors write romance novels, the books are not well received by the critics,” Ms. Gong says.
by Sohn Min-ho