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Translation as a Mission: Japanese Children’s Books Today with JBBY President Yumiko Sakuma

November 11, 2017

Post by Mari Boyle

Yumiko Sakuma, editor, translator, writer, professor of children’s literature, and president of JBBY (Japanese Board on Books for Young People), recently joined SCBWI members and others to talk about the work of JBBY and the children’s book industry in Japan.

Yumiko Sakuma presenting her work and mission with JBBY, having personally translated a dizzying amount of books.

Of note was the fact that in 1954 children’s books were the most popular published genre. Whilst this is no longer the case, Japan still publishes around 5,000 titles per year. Sakuma was quick to point out, however, that many of the books are re-issues, and children’s books currently make up around 8% of the total number of books published each year in Japan.

Of those children’s books, 14.7% are translated works. Sakuma was concerned about this figure, believing it might reflect an inward-looking Japan, in addition to highlighting the difficulty of obtaining translation rights. However, the figure is significantly higher than the 2% of translated books in the US and European markets.

Sakuma-san with Avery Udagawa, SCBWI Japan Translator Coordinator, and Mariko Nagai, SCBWI Co-Regional Advisor

Her interest in translation is not simply because Sakuma herself has translated over 200 children’s titles, but it is an essential part of JBBY’s mission. Under the umbrella of IBBY, (International Board on Books for Young people), JBBY’s goal is to introduce global titles to Japanese children and to present Japanese children’s books to an international audience. JBBY also aims to create a peaceful future for all children through quality books.

To that end a five-member selection panel sort through each year’s new books to create a catalogue of recommended titles. The categories include picture books, nonfiction, chapter books, YA, wordless books, and books about peace.  Additionally, the panel nominates writers and illustrators for the prestigious biennial Hans Christian Andersen Awards (sometimes known as the Nobel Prize for children’s literature). Since its inception, four Japanese writers and illustrators have gone on to win the coveted award, reflecting the high standard of children’s literature and illustration in Japan.

Sakuma and her fellow committee members have already chosen their recommendations for 2018. Unfortunately, as the final list has yet to be published we’re not allowed to give you any specifics. However, at the event, Sakuma described some of her favorites on the list and in the Q and A that followed she noted some of the trends in Japanese children’s books. She pointed out that in the past Japanese children’s books tended to deal with more internal issues and personal emotions, how to be a good, learning to fit in etc. The 2018 books are moving forward with bigger social issues, exploring identity, mental health issues, divorce, blended families and even death.

Questions and answers with our inspiring SCBWI guest.

Asked about trends in illustration, Sakuma noted the impact of computer software. Whilst this has enabled some amazing new techniques and inspiring detail, she warned that illustrations alone do not make a good picture book. The story is critically important, and the role of an illustrator is not to reflect the story, but to expand it. 

Asked about her criteria for choosing which books to translate, Sakuma told us she essentially picked the books she loved, ones she could engage with. She commented that she saw translation as a window for readers to see into diversity and broader social issues. It is a wonderful analogy, that opening a book is akin to opening a window and seeing into other worlds. Hopefully, through JBBY’s work not only will Japanese children open windows on other cultures, but children from around the world will have the opportunity to open windows into Japan.