J-Lit Giants: 8 – Yōko Ogawa

We’re back with January in Japan for 2014, and what better way to kick off the second instalment of our event than with the next induction into our pantheon of Japanese writers?  That’s right, it’s time for the arrival of another J-Lit Giant – and the first one for 2014 is also our first giantess…

Yōko Ogawa is probably one of the best-known modern female Japanese writers (ignoring those who are named after fruits…).  While relatively few of her works have been translated into English, many more of her books are available in other languages.  In fact, according to her French Wikipedia page, you’ll be able to enjoy more than twenty of her works if you are able to read in that language.

She was born in Okayama in 1962, and after studying at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo, she began a writing career.  Like many Japanese writers, she made her name when she won the Akutagawa Prize in 1991 (for her novella Pregnancy Diary).  In addition, she has taken out other important prizes, such as the Tanizaki Prize and the Yomiuri Prize, awarded by Japan’s biggest newspaper.

Her influences include traditional Japanese writers like Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, as well as the ubiquitous Haruki Murakami, but she is also influenced by American writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver.  She has become a hugely successful writer in Japan, and some of her work has made it into film, such as her novel The Housekeeper and the Professor.

As is the case with Murakami, Ogawa’s writing is clear and direct, unlike the ambiguous style of older Japanese writers, something which perhaps explains her success so far in English.  While her biggest success, The Housekeeper and the Professor, is a warm, romantic tale, her other work can be more challenging.  Hotel Iris, for example, is a far darker novel, one which might surprise those with memories of the gentle relationship of the earlier book.

With four books so far in English, but dozens in the original Japanese, there are a lot more Ogawa stories waiting to be read.  We just have to hope that someone is going to translate them into English – and, of course, get them published…

So, where to start with Ogawa’s work?  Well, there are only four to choose from…

1) The Diving Pool – This was the first Ogawa work to appear in English and would be the perfect introduction to her world.  It’s a collection of three novellas, one of which is her Akutagawa-winning effort, Pregnancy Diary.  It’s also the book I’ve chosen for the first readalong (16th of January), giving you even more reason to try it 🙂

2) The Housekeeper and the Professor – I liked this, even though it was a little too sweet for my tastes, but most readers have loved it.  The intriguing story of the blossoming relationship between a housekeeper and a mathematician is complicated by two things.  One is the housekeeper’s young son; the other is the fact that the professor’s memory only goes back ninety minutes – after that, it’s all gone…

3) Hotel Iris – Anyone for Japanese rope bondage?  Step this way…  Leave your preconceptions and your shyness at the door – after checking in at this hotel, you’ll never see Ogawa (and J-Lit) in quite the same way 😉

4) Revenge – A series of eleven interlinked tales, this collection is said to be another dark one.  I haven’t got around to this yet, but I’m very keen to give it a go 🙂

There you are – our first female inductee.  Have you read anything by Ogawa?  Do you agree with my views?  Has anyone read anything else (in Japanese, or perhaps French)?  Please leave a comment, and let us all know 🙂


About Tony

Championing the wonders of fiction in translation... ...but quietly (the kids are asleep...).
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11 Responses to J-Lit Giants: 8 – Yōko Ogawa

  1. What a great introduction, Tony. I heard about Yoko Ogawa because of The Housekeeper and the Professor and The Diving Pool. I've ordered them recently and I'm waiting for those books to arrive. I got Revenge the other week and I hope to read it soon. I'm really looking forward to reading “The Diving Pool” with all you guys 🙂 Happy New Year!


  2. Bellezza Mjs says:

    I always marvel how such a pretty face can write of such darkness (Revenge). I loved The Housekeeper and The Professor, was intrigued with Hotel Iris and sufficiently discomfited by Revenge to put it down unfinished. It interests me that Ogawa was influenced by Raymond Carver as was Haruki Murakami. I wonder if he's “required reading” in Japan? 😉


  3. Tony Malone says:

    5eyedbookworm – Thanks 🙂 I'm sure you'll enjoy 'The Diving Pool' – it's certainly got me wanting to try 'Revenge' now !


  4. Tony Malone says:

    Bellezza – I think that Murakami's influence extends to persuading others to try the works he likes (which is itself a very long tradition in Japan) – and don't forget that Murakami is also a translator of many American works…


  5. matttodd says:

    … to the extent that his name is often bigger than that of the original author in published translations of his.


  6. kamo says:

    Revenge is the only Ogawa I've read, and it was an enjoyable but totally not experience: very good book, but not an easy read, that's for sure. Looking forward to having a go at another of hers in a couple of weeks 🙂


  7. Bellezza Mjs says:

    Just read my first book in 2014, which also applies to our challenges. I made note in my post of books Murakami listed in his novel. A future goal for me to read.


  8. I really liked The Housekeeper and the Professor – I thought its gentleness was refreshing and the way he mathematical concepts explained clever of itself.

    I have started reading The Diving Pool – very different indeed, dark and sinister…

    I like how straight forward her prose (or at least the translation of it) is also.


  9. Tony Malone says:

    Matt – Ah, the Japanese Franzen 😉

    Bellezza – You could definitely do worse than read his suggestions…


  10. Tony Malone says:

    Kamo – She's not an author who writes fluffy stuff – well, except for 'The Housekeeper and the Professor', of course…


  11. Tony Malone says:

    Jo – It's nice, but… nice is overrated 😉 Her others in English are all much better in my opinion.


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