Monkeying Around with Japanese Literature

In his 1956 rock ‘n’ roll tune “Too Much Monkey Business,” Chuck Berry laments the Groundhog Day-ness of everyday life.


“Monkey Business” the song is much like Monkey Business the literary magazine: Straightforward and no-nonsense. Impressed by the song’s frankness of attitude, essayist Motoyuki Shibata and his cohorts decided to name their journal of writing from Japan (and other places) after it.

Five years ago A Public Space, a literary journal in Brooklyn, published a portfolio of Japanese literature that included an interview with Shibata, who is considered one of the foremost translators of American literature into Japanese. A year and a half ago, Shibata approached A Public Space with the idea of producing an English-language version of the Japanese Monkey Business. Brigid Hughes, editor of A Public Space, says, “You don’t go into the lit mag business if you have any common sense.” So, of course, they did it. Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan launched in the U.S. on May 1 at BookCourt, a cozy Brooklyn space where people fall in love with books and, it’s been written, with each other.

But I digress. I was fortunate to attend the launch and to hear editors Shibata and Ted Goossen, managing editor Anne McPeak, and contributing editor Roland Kelts discuss the project and the five dynamic authors who read from their works.

Anne McPeak, managing editor of Monkey Business

McPeake points out that ” . . . this magazine is a truly unique project in that it’s an active contemporary magazine in Japan, and we are now introducing these contemporary pieces to an English-speaking audience.”

As the author of Japanamerica and a contributor to various publications, Kelts has his finger on the pulse of Japanese pop culture and why Americans are drawn to it. As contributing editor of Monkey Business, Kelts calls himself “a little bridge in the middle of this project.”

Listing all of Shibata’s accomplishments in literature would be a long blog entry of its own. I’ll simply give you a taste of this University of Tokyo professor’s genius: 1992 Kodansha Essay Award recipient for The Half-Hearted Scholar, the 2005 Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities for American Narcissus, and the 2010 Japan Translation Cultural Prize for Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon.

Professor of Japanese Literature and Culture at York University in Toronto, Goossen is also the editor of the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories. The volume encompasses the end of the 19th century to the present day and features talented women writers as well.

Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica

Hiromi Kawakami won the 1996 Akutagawa Prize for Tread on a Snake, the 1999 Ito Sei Prize for Oboreru (To Drown), and the Tanizaki Jun’ichiro Prize for The Teacher’s Briefcase in 2001. Her first novel to be translated into English is Manazuru. At the launch she read “The School Principal,” a vignette featured in her collection “People from My Neighborhood,” which was translated by Goossen and appears in Monkey Business.

Before reading her piece, Kawakami says, “Motoyuki said the translation from Ted is more wonderful than the original. I think maybe it’s a joke.”

Although his work does not appear in this issue of Monkey Business, Steve Erickson has appeared in the Japanese edition of the literary magazine twice. An author of eight novels, a film critic for Los Angeles Magazine, editor of literary journal Black Clock, and a teacher in the MFA Writing Program at California Institute of the Arts, Erickson is influential in Japan for his apocalyptic writing. “As somebody who is an editor of a literary journal, I know how hard it is to put it out in one language, but putting it out in two is sort of unfathomable,” Erickson says of Monkey Business. He read from The Sea Came in at Midnight, which is set in Japan.

Shibata described Minoru Ozawa as a leading haiku poet whose works are “accessible to uninitiated readers, especially his haiku about drinking.” Ozawa is the editor of the haiku journal Sawa and won the Yomiuri Prize for Literature in 2005 for his collection The Moment. He read five of his unconventional haiku, one of which, “Monkey Haiku,” appears in Monkey Business. After Ozawa read each haiku in Japanese, Goossen translated, then Ozawa explained which word represented the seasonal theme fundamental to the Japanese verse.

Rebecca Brown’s work doesn’t appear in this edition of Monkey Business, but Shibata has translated her books into Japanese. She credits Shibata with “introducing my work to my own country.” She teamed with Shibata in a line-by-line translation of her work “There,” which is from her book The End of Youth.

When introducing Hideo Furukawa, Shibata says of the 2005 Mishima Yukio Prize winner for Love, “Whatever he does is very, very exciting.” Furukawa seemed more subdued than exciting when he first approached the podium and told us he was born in Fukushima, the Japanese prefecture hard-hit by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. “Needless to say, I have a lot on my mind since March 11.” Then he and Shibata launched into a gripping reading of “Monsters,” a work that ended the book launch but is the first work in Monkey Business. The intensity of the author combined with the translator’s read built up to an energetic, frenetic, heart-racing, overlapping delivery of an apocalyptic tale of a Tokyo inhabited by monsters who awaken from hibernation looking for human nourishment.

Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goossen

Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan introduces English-speaking readers to a world of excellent literature, and twenty-five percent of all sales will benefit the Nippon Foundation/CANPAN Northeastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund. So order your copy here, fall in love with new authors, and give to Japan.

Shibata claims Monkey Business isn’t serious business, but when it comes to Japanese literature, the folks at A Public Space aren’t monkeying around.