In Britain, Japanese novels in English translation are experiencing a boom in popularity among a new generation, with word-of-mouth on social media driving book sales.

Trends on social media platforms such as TikTok -- where members of the "BookTok" community recommend and theorize about their favorite books, genres and authors -- have inspired young Britons to seek out more works translated from other languages.

Yet among these, novels reflecting elements of Japanese society and culture in particular have become hits with this younger demographic.

For British-based publishers like Pushkin Press, this online word-of-mouth is extremely important for book sales, according to publisher and managing director Adam Freudenheim.

Photo taken on Dec. 22, 2023 shows English translations of Japanese novels in a London bookstore. (Kyodo)

"The books becoming popular on TikTok are people being genuinely excited about them, not publishers," Freudenheim said in a recent interview. "If we try to push a book, that's not what works. It is readers responding to them. It is genuine."

In short videos, many with classical, uplifting, or at times melancholic music playing in the background, TikTokers introduce books by authors such as Banana Yoshimoto, Mieko Kawakami and others.

They rate the works, giving five stars for books they particularly enjoyed, and present their thoughts while becoming emotional at times when speaking about the books' themes on motherhood, loss, bullying and bonds of friendship.

"In this story (Mieko) Kawakami explores the powerlessness and callousness of youth with such intensity," said one TikToker who gave the novel "Heaven" four stars.

"Heaven," published in English in 2021 and shortlisted a year later for the International Booker Prize, is about two 14-year-olds -- a boy and girl -- who form a friendship based on the shared experience and trauma of being relentlessly bullied at school.

Photo taken in September 2023 shows Adam Freudenheim, publisher and managing director of Pushkin Press, in an interview in London. (Kyodo)

The story pulls at the heartstrings for many, as readers are left grappling with what it means to have a close friendship formed because of the torment and despair experienced by two adolescents rather than a companionship born out of joy.

"I totally understand the hype about 'Heaven' and this was moving and poignant but it was also very difficult to read because of the intense and vivid bullying descriptions," the TikToker said.

Other users post the covers of works by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Emi Yagi and other authors as Japanese literature recommendations.

A large number of such videos, including those viewed more than 100,000 times, are posted on TikTok with the hashtag "#Japanesebooks" or other subcategories. On YouTube, there are many long videos that explain the contents of novels in detail.

Last year, British newspaper The Guardian reported that while translated novels sold a total of some 2 million copies in Britain the same year, Japanese works accounted for one-quarter, or the largest portion, of those sold.

Freudenheim, who joined Pushkin in 2012 and has published translations from 27 languages, predicts the readership of English-translated Japanese novels will only continue to grow.

While Japanese fiction has "always enjoyed a certain amount of popularity," the success of Sayaka Murata's "Convenience Store Woman" (published in English in 2018) marked the start of the current popularity boom, he says.

Among the Japanese works published in English by Pushkin, short novellas by Murata's contemporaries like (Mieko) Kawakami's "Ms Ice Sandwich" (2020) tend to sell well; another constant seller is Ryu Murakami's 1980 novel "Coin Locker Babies," published in 2013.

Freudenheim believes the appeal of these shorter novellas is not just that they are less time-consuming to read but lies in the eye-catching "foreignness or strangeness" of titles translated from Japanese.

And for Pushkin's best-selling Japanese writer, Seishi Yokomizo (1902-1981), his "Japanese twist" on traditional British crime fiction by the likes of Agatha Christie is a key selling point, which Freudenheim says makes it "both familiar and different at the same time" for Britons.

Originally published in 1947, Pushkin released the first installment of Yokomizo's mystery series featuring Detective Kosuke Kindaichi, "The Honjin Murders," in 2019, and has since sold around 200,000 copies of his books.

Photo taken on Dec. 22, 2023, shows English translations of Japanese novels stacked on a floor space of a London bookstore. (Kyodo)

This is in no small part due to the visual appeal of these books on social media, with Pushkin Press even creating a Japanese version of its logo as part of the series' marketing, Freudenheim says.

"We're living in an Instagram world," he said. "With (Yokomizo), our packaging makes the books look intentionally Japanese, and I think there's also a kind of retro appeal to it."

"We've had an incredible response. People love the striking look of those books; they rave about how they look. So the social media side of it is very important," Freudenheim added.

With Pushkin recently acquiring the rights for translations of other Japanese crime writers (and contemporaries of Yokomizo), Freudenheim is confident that the market for Japanese crime fiction will be there for the foreseeable future.

"I think the interest here is the aspect of seeing your world through another perspective -- it's totally familiar when you read it, but completely different at the same time. There's a mix of modernity with tradition," Freudenheim said.

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