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Killing Kodansha International makes no sense.

March 8, 2011

When Kodansha International bought William Scott Wilson’s first book, a translation of the classical samurai guide Hagakure, he was warned it would not sell. Instead, it became one of his Japanese publisher’s biggest backlist titles. “I thought this would go on forever,” Wilson says.

Today Wilson is still trying to make peace with Friday’s shocking announcing that Kodansha Ltd. is closing down Kodansha International, the English language subsidiary that has been one of the world’s great ambassadors of Japanese culture since 1963.

Wilson, a Miami-based writer, has been producing excellent translations of Japanese samurai and wisdom literature for 35 years. More recently, he has translated new versions of Chinese classics like the Tao te Ching. All of his translations remain in print, lead by Hagakure, which Jim Jarmusch featured in his 1999 indie Mafia revenge move, Ghostdog: The Way of the Samurai.

Kodansha has been my bread and butter for 35 years,” Wilson says. “I hope I can find a publisher for new translations. I’m not sanguine, but I don’t think I’m finished, either.”

Yesterday when I spoke with Wilson he was unsure about how many of his titles Kodansha Ltd. might keep in print. In addition to Hagakure, Wilson’s backlist includes such medieval classics as The Unencumbered Spirit, The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts, Yokojun and The Book of Five Rings, as well as The Lone Samurai, his biography of Miyamoto Musashi, perhaps Japan’s greatest swordsman and warrior.

By today, however, Wilson had learned that most of his titles will remain in print, as least as long as they continue to sell. If Kodansha elects to drop any of his books then the rights will revert to Wilson and he will be free to seek another publisher for them.

“My books are safe, at least for now,” Wilson says.

Wilson will be paid a “damage limitation” fee for his current project, Drinking Tea with the Patriarchs, a translation of 150 “tea scrolls,” calligraphic maxims that hung from banners in tea houses. The sayings originated in China, but were translated into Japanese and widely adopted during the classical era.

“My wife is proofreading and editing the last 20 pages, getting it ready for publication,” Wilson says. “Which means getting it ready for nothing, since Kodansha will not be bringing it out.”

The manuscript is being shown around other publishing houses by Wilson’s editors at Kodansha Inernational in Tokyo. If no one buys it, Wilson says he will try to find a publisher on his own.

Wilson, of course, is not the only one shocked by the sudden closing of Kodansha International, now scheduled to cease operation by the end of April. Sources in Tokyo tell me that women in their 30s and 40s frequently break down in tears, while everyone is left shaking their heads.

The move comes from Yoshinobu Noma, a 42-year-old senior vice president, who replaces his mother, Sawako Noma, as corporate president in mid-April. By closing Kodansha International while keeping a newer subsidiary, Kodansha USA, the company will apparently pursue a strategy of printing its English-language books in North American rather than Japan.

But it also means the end of a distinguished imprint that introduced America and the world to a wide array of Japanese literature and culture — from novels to pulp fiction to classical translations to books on architecture, tea ceremony, drama, gardening, philosophy, pop culture, manga and more. Here’s a link to Kodansha International’s catalogue.

Evidently the company is no longer content with the prestige of Kodansha International — everything is expected to earn profit. “We’re not just going to introduce great Japanese books and comics, but we’re going to sell them,” Nobuyuki Suzuki, head of PR, told the Japan Times. “To do so, it was decided that we base our operations in North America.”

Sources inside the company, however, say “there were half a dozen ways to restructure the company without dissolving it, so the decision made no sense to us.” Kodansha International has recently launched several new lines of contemporary and pop
titles in response to interests from younger overseas readers, as well as upgraded its classic lines, and trimmed back the outdated ones.  “And we were doing e-books and exploring possibilities for apps.”

One employee, who asked not to be named, said: “What puzzled most people is that this is not the usual Japanese way.  Many of
us have families to support, and authors to look after. It is a particularly hard blow in these hard economic times.  Many Japanese employees here have used the word ‘unfeeling.’ ”

Meanwhile in Miami, Wilson says he will continue to translate Japanese books one way or the other.

“It’s what I do,” he says “For better or worse, it’s how I’ve defined myself for the last 35 years. I hesitate to say that, because as a student of Zen Buddhism I’m not supposed to define myself.  So I will work on translations, but I’ll be darned lucky if i can find a publisher that will produce the quality of books of Kodansha.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2011 2:26 pm

    Oh man! That sucks! The Hagakure is my favorite book of all time. If they’re moving their operations to North America, wouldn’t Mr. Wilson be able to have his works published by Kodansha North America? I’m confused.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 9, 2011 8:51 pm

      Only the ones already in print. His new book, only days from delivery, has been canceled, as has the one after that, which he’s already started work on. With any luck, he’ll find a publisher for these and other future projects, but, as he says above, it is unlikely they will be published as beautifully has Kodansha has done.

  2. March 10, 2011 1:24 am

    I confirm the shock and outrage that we who write for KI have felt at this very poor decision.
    I am (WAS) the writer of their new manga line of books, which have now been cut short in their prime, just when we were building up steam. WSW’s version of Hagakure was the basis for one of these, ‘Hagakure:the manga edition’. And we were working on two more, from his translations of ‘Book of Five Rings’ and ‘Demon’s Sermon’, both of which looked like being great books.

    Lets hope they, along with Bill’s Drinking Tea with the Patriarchs find other homes.

    Sean Micheal Wilson

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 12, 2011 11:50 am

      My condolences, Sean. I hope you too find other work soon.

  3. Tom Levidiotis permalink
    March 20, 2011 8:17 am

    I am saddened at this news. Particularly at the loss of jobs and for the difficulties that Bill and his family must endure. On the other hand I have limitless faith in Bill’s ability to triumph from difficulty and am confident in his continued success. Fiducia.

  4. Dean permalink
    June 5, 2011 7:59 pm

    This is very sad news. My condolences go to the families in both Japan and America.

    Thank you William Scott Wilson and everyone at Kodansha for printing these historical works in English. They continue to be an inspiration in my life and the lives of others.

  5. May 18, 2015 6:58 pm

    I had two books published by Kodansha, OBLAGON and SENTINEL II. The experience was elegantly efficient and it is a sad comment on corporate politics that pushes decisions like this one through the ‘do it’ portal.

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