Romancing Japan: Bonkbusters and the land of the rising sun

Japan, which has a long history of pioneering women writers spanning centuries, also has it share of racy bonkbuster titles; even if that isn’t how they are referred to or categorized in Japan. Photograph: Public Domain.
hen we hear the term bonkbuster we immediately think of the 1980s and books with titles like: Lace, The Bitch, Savages, The Stud, Hollywood Wives, and Once is Not Enough. We certainly don’t associate such titles with Japan. The so-called Queens of the genre are the American and British writers: Jilly Cooper, Shirley Conran, Jackie Collins, Danielle Steel and Jacqueline Susan.
Japanese edition of Shirley Conran’s bonkbuster, Lace, which was published in two volumes in Japan.

It was, however, in fact Sue Limb, a British writer and broadcaster who actually coined the term in 1989: a combination of two words blockbuster and bonk, a British expression meaning sexual intercourse.

Dictionaries define the word as “a type of popular novel characterized by frequent explicit sexual encounters between the characters” or “a novel characterized by graphic descriptions of the heroine’s frequent sexual encounters”.

Under these definitions Japan has it fair share of the genre and is experiencing a bonkbuster boom with bestselling books written by women for women frequently on the bestsellers lists: that include a lot of sex.

Perhaps, this shouldn’t be as surprising as it sounds. Japanese women have often been pioneers within literature and have used literature as a means to gain respect and independence; as well as to be subversive or comment on the ills of Japanese society. And sex has generally been an important part of the narrative.

his has been the case from the first golden age of female writers in Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185) when aristocratic ladies wrote for other noblewomen, often in chapter installments, which were handed out to the ladies at court. Stories like The Tale of Genji describe Genji’s latest promiscuous liaisons, lovers and troubles.

Going back even further to the creation stories of Japan, its early legends include strong female deities like its sun goddess (in contrast to the male equivalents in most other cultures such as Apollo or Helios).

In the Land of The Rising Sun, Amaterasu is the all-important goddess of the sun and the universe; as well as the ancestor of the Japanese Imperial family. Stories about her are not distant, sexless or prudish; they are on occasion racy and riotous. In one story after a row with her uncontrollable brother she hides in a cave in anger and the world is plunged into darkness. She is only coaxed out bringing sunlight and prosperity to the world by a wild striptease and the raucous laughter of the other gods and goddesses watching eagerly.
…a wild striptease and the raucous laughter of the other gods and goddesses watching eagerly.

The narratives of bonkbusters in the English-speaking world include very different types of ‘goddesses’. But the common thread is that they are usually determined women striving for independence; a little like the authors themselves who often researched and knew their markets well and wrote large numbers of titles designed to sell.

All the ‘Queens’ of the genre have been published at least once in translation in Japan. Jacqueline Susann’s novel, Once is Not Enough, which reached the number one spot in the New York Times bestsellers list and was made into a film with the same name starring Kirk Douglas, for instance, was published in 1988 by Shinchosha. But most of their titles are now out of print in Japan. Their plots are full of glamour, twists, skullduggery, sex, optimism and sometimes even happy endings.

Their plots are full of glamour, twists, skullduggery, sex, optimism and sometimes even happy endings.

There was a Japanese slogan: Risshin-Shusse  (success in life or advance yourself socially). This ‘American Dream’ type of sentiment is one that bonkbuster heroines and authors would certainly aspire to. It is said to have been triggered by Samuel Smiles’ book Self-Help (1859), becoming available in Japan in translation in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) when Japan was experiencing massive change as the Shogun-led Samurai structures were replaced and the country opened up to the world after more than two centuries of isolation.

One of the earliest editions of the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure Fanny Hill. Published in two installments in 1748 and 1749.
In contrast, the bonkbuster genre took off in the 1980s during the Reagan-Thatcher period of deregulation, globalization, and economic expansion after a decade of austerity. This followed on from the sexual liberalization of the swinging sixties when the repeal of restrictions restraining publication of ‘erotic’ fiction subsequently had a major impact on reading habits. The tipping point was the publication in 1965 of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (commonly known as Fanny Hill), John Cleland’s novel written in 1748 from prison.

In the 1980s regimes were collapsing, creating a sense of opportunity for all. Women won equal pay rights and had more authority and control in the workplace. New technology including video recorders, cassettes and mobile phones had arrived on the scene, along with the first personal computers, changing how media was consumed along with popular tastes. This was the age of MTV; thrusting ambition; and conspicuous spending. Large bonkbusters written for the mass-market were very much part of the 80s phenomenon; and helped ‘educate’ a generation of young women and girls.

uring Japan’s Meiji Era, the new printing technologies and universal education for women were a catalyst for change. Literacy rates doubled to nearly 80 percent – higher than most countries – and virtually all children remained in the education system up to the upper secondary level. Unlike in the past when noble-women wrote for other aristocrats it provided exceptional and opportunistic Japanese women with a creative outlet and an accessible emerging mass market of voracious readers.

It was a time when women’s magazines and periodicals were being founded, books translated, and new approaches tried. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eye was published in translation during this period in 1896 in a magazine in serial format. The serialization was cancelled after four issues. Apparently, Japanese readers weren’t ready of an “indomitable heroine”. By the 1930s, the market had matured with some of the women’s publications reaching circulations of hundreds of thousands.

Like a fictional heroine, Ichiyo Higuchi (1872-1896) had seen a classmate Kaho Miyake, author of The Warbler in the Grove,  getting published in a literary magazine, and decided to follow in her footsteps and become a novelist to help support her family, who had hit very hard times after the death of her father from tuberculosis.  At one stage she lived in Yoshiwara, Tokyo’s red-light district, an experience that fed into her stories as her writing career developed.

Her novel, Troubled Waters, for example, is the story of a popular tavern and its star ‘geisha’, whose name Oriki, is written using letters meaning Powerful One. It describes life on the margins, struggles and relationships including a tragic one with a futon salesman. Higuchi died when she was only twenty-four, having written twenty-one short stories, novella and other works, but in her short life she had a major impact and is considered to be a pioneer and the first important female Japanese writer of modern Japan.

Modern girls (modan garu) wearing “Beach Pajama Style” walking down Ginza, Tokyo, in 1928. Photograph: Wikipedia.
Many women followed her example. Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951), for instance, who moved to Tokyo with her lover before she had turned twenty wrote The Diary of Vagabond, which sold in the hundreds of thousands in installments. She wrote mostly about spirited independent women and difficult relationships.

Another was Chiyo Uno (1897-1996) who having found success as a writer and winning a prize for short stories, left her first husband to follow her dream of living life as an independent modern woman in charge of her own destiny. She published books including Confessions of Love, started her own fashion magazine, Style, and also worked as a kimono designer.  

They and others including the commercially successful romance writer, Nobuko Yoshiya (1896-1973), who lived openly as a lesbian and wrote a novel titled Two Virgins in the Attic in 1919 – all followed in the wake of Ichiyo Higuchi. Interestingly, since 2004 Ichiyo Higuchi has featured on Japan’s five thousand yen banknote. It’s hard to image Jackie Collins, or any other bonkbuster author replacing Winston Churchill and joining Queen Elizabeth on Britain’s five pound notes.
oreign literature continues to have a major impact on Japanese writers and readers. According to industry experts and academics, the three most important books in Japanese publishing history written by non-Japanese women are: Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte; Anne of Green Gables, by LM Montgomery and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

After the false start in the Meiji Period with Jane Eyre, by Emily’s sister Charlotte, all the works by the Bronte sisters including Wuthering Heights were published in translation in the 1930s in Japan; and Anne of Green Gables, as Anne of Red Hair, was published in Japanese after the second world war. Anne’s literary ambitions, strong willed personality, and optimism struck a chord; as did the fact that, like many in post-war Japan, she was an orphan. These books have led to Japanese spin-offs, adaptations, manga and anime. And as has been the case outside Japan, have inspired new generations of authors and creative writers. For example, Takeo Kono (1926-2015), who won almost all of Japan’s major literature prizes; and Yuko Tsushima (1947-2016), author of Pregnant with a Fox, were both influenced by Emily and her sisters.

The Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood is a fan of Anne of Green Gables and wrote on the hundredth anniversary of its publication about the importance of the book, its impact on Japan and how the bestselling manga Sailor Moon is its descendant. It is, however, still far too early to known how JK Rowling and Hermione Granger and her friends will inspire the next generation of female writers in Japan.

Nevertheless, some critics dismiss the Bronte Sisters as up-market romantic pulp fiction, like Mills & Boon. This is a debate for critics, academics and so-called experts, but the Brontes and Mills & Boon, founded in 1908, do have one important thing in common. They are all big, or more accurately huge, in Japan. Mills & Boon established its presence in Japan in 1988 under the name Harlequin; just as the bonkbuster revolution was taking place in the English-speaking world.

The Japanese office takes its name from the North American Canadian distributor that bought the British publisher in 1971 and was subsequently bought itself by News Corp’s HarperCollins division in 2014. Japan is now one of Harlequin’s largest overseas markets.

An example of a ‘Sheik book’, Undercover Sultan, adapted and translated for local Japanese tastes by Harlequin Japan K.K.

It has been truly innovative with the way it localizes content, promotes its books and designs its covers. Harlequin Japan has published and sold adapted international titles as manga; published for cell phones; and championed e-books, subscriptions; and direct purchasing. Its major relationship (product) categories in Japan are: Arranged Marriages, Offices and Sheiks. Arranged marriages in Japan, which are more like formal introductions, are on the increase and account for about 40% of marriages today; surveys show that 20% of Japanese infidelity occurs at work; and Sheik titles such as: The Sheik’s Innocent Bride, and The Desert Sheik’s Captive Bride are popular in all Harlequin markets and Japan.

Kazuki Sakuraba’s novel My Man, about a forbidden romance between a father and daughter, was released as a film in 2014. Photograph: Orange Sky
Light novels (raito noberu), which generally target high-school students with short attention spans, are the latest trend in women’s fiction, creating new outlets and formats for Japan’s growing number of highly creative writers to exploit.

Kazuki Sakuraba, for example, started her career writing light novels and has now gone on to publishing award-winning novels. She won the Naoki Prize in 2009 for her book My Man, which has been made into a film – described as Lolita-style love in a post-disaster landscape by The Japan Times – directed by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri. There are already more than twenty different light novel imprints in Japan targeting young women with this format with names like: ArianRose, Angelica, Fairy Kiss, and Juliet Bunko.

But there is much more to women’s fiction in Japan than romantic teenage fantasies. There is an important wave of award-winning female authors writing bestsellers with enough bonking for them to be technically classified as bonkbusters. They are, however, extremely well written, often less optimistic, with more marginalized and deviant characters that are also striving for independence – as well as discovering their sexuality – but often in a very Japanese and unusual manner. And unlike Harlequin romances, happy ends are rare. Muse by Mari Akasaka, Snakes and Earrings, by Hitomi Kanehara, Bedtime Eyes, by Amy Yamada, and Proposal, Not Flowers, by Mariko Hayashi are a few examples.

An image of the Japanese Sun Goddess Amaterasu emerging from a cave. Signed: ’Shunsai Toshimasa’ from the Origin of Music and Dance at the Rock Door (1887). Image: Wikipedia.An image of the Japanese Sun Goddess Amaterasu emerging from a cave. Signed: ’Shunsai Toshimasa’ from the Origin of Music and Dance at the Rock Door (1887). Image: Wikipedia.