Novel experience

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2008, 12:00am

In the past few months, a seemingly obscure Japanese historical novel has risen to the top of best-seller lists on the mainland, riding a wave of new interest in Japanese titles.

Some attribute the appeal among Chinese readers to improved Sino-Japanese relations in the wake of President Hu Jintao's recent trip to Tokyo. Others say readers hope to move beyond hard feelings the better to understand their powerful neighbour as the two nations step up economic links and cultural exchanges.

At first glance, Tokugawa Ieyasu hardly seems a likely candidate for spurring strong interest among mainland readers. The 13-volume set is about a Japanese historical figure's decades-long struggle to become the founder of the Tokugawa regime. The serialised tale about the period from 1603 to 1867 took author Yamaoka Sohachi 18 years to write and its esoteric subject matter has little to do with China.

When Nanhai Publishing House put out the first two volumes late last year, however, the novel quickly climbed to the top 10 of various best-seller lists, including those of joyo.com and dangdang.com, two of the biggest online booksellers on the mainland. With eight volumes published, various parts of the publication often occupy several spots on the same lists.

Recently, at the Wangfujing Bookstore, one of Beijing's largest, Tokugawa was prominently featured as a book to watch out for: in one corner five shelves held 250 copies.

'I've just finished reading volumes one and two and I'm back for more,' says Zhang Liang, 21, a student at Beijing Normal University, as he heads for the cashier with two more instalments.

Tokugawa is not the first serialised Japanese novel to be translated into Chinese. Miyamoto Musashi and Oda Nobunaga, both about political figures in Japanese history and also written by Sohachi, were published by Chongqing Press in 2006 and 2007 respectively. While they did not garner as much attention as Tokugawa, sales were steady, especially among those in their 20s, according to Chen Qiankun, an editor at the Chongqing Publishing Group in Beijing.

'When we planned the two titles, we saw an opportunity,' Chen says - in part, he adds, because mainlanders born after 1980 grew up on a diet of Japanese animation, comic books and video games. Doraemon, Astro Boy, Tetsuwan Atom and Chibi Maruko are all popular among young Chinese and have been joined more recently by Taiko Risshiden, a video game that requires its players to take different roles in warring 16th-century Japan.

'I grew up playing Taiko Risshiden and I'm very familiar with many of the historical and political Japanese figures,' says Chen, who was born in 1980.

Politics and rivalry have also generated interest. On the cover of Tokugawa, the late Taiwanese historian Bo Yang is quoted as saying the Japanese novel rivals the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Former American ambassador to Japan, Edwin Reischauer, adds: 'There's a Tokugawa in every Japanese; and if you want to understand Japan and supersede the Japanese, you must first understand Tokugawa.'

Some also see a practical motivation behind growing reader interest. As rivalry has intensified in the mainland's increasingly open economy, growing numbers of people have begun looking for tips on beating the competition. 'Sure we had a difficult history with Japan,' Chen says, 'but we also want to know why the Japanese were able to rise from the rubble of the war to become an economic superpower in just 20 years - something we weren't able to do.'

During his trip to Tokyo in May, Hu called on the two countries to view each other as partners rather than competitors locked in a zero-sum game. The president also called for more people-to-people contact to ease misunderstandings and boost friendship.

Chen Mingjun, chief editor of Thinkingdom Media Group, a partner of Nanhai Publishing that has bought the rights to Tokugawa, says more Chinese are interested in going beyond the stereotypes and emotional historical issues to obtain an objective look at Japan.

'Highly publicised visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by right-wing Japanese aren't representative of the Japanese mainstream,' he says, adding that his decision to publish Tokugawa is motivated partly by a desire to expose growing numbers of readers to Japanese culture.

'Novels about history are rich in cultural background, but until recently China had very few such books about Japan,' he says. 'Japan has a pluralistic culture and deserves better understanding.'

Historical novels are not the only books stirring interest on the mainland. A children's book about an ideal school titled Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window, by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, has topped children's best-sellers lists regularly since 2004 and sold more than 1.1 million copies.

Mainland readers are also becoming increasingly interested in Japanese fiction in translation. Hitori Biyori, by Nanae Aoyama, the 25-year-old winner of the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for fiction by a new writer, has sold more than 100,000 copies on the mainland since it was published towards the end of 2007. The book is about a young part-time worker who lives with an elderly relative while struggling to achieve her own independence.

Publishers have also noticed a rise in the sales of Japanese-language books and lifestyle volumes. 'Now that Hu Jintao has made his visit to Japan the ice has finally been broken,' says Yu Shoubin, a Beijing books editor. 'This will pave the way for an even wider variety of Japanese books, fiction or otherwise, to be published in China.'