Exophonic and Multilingual Literature as a Challenge to the Notion of 'Japanese Literature'

Introduction to Topic

In the course of progressing globalization, international migration is contributing to the emergence of new identities. Encounters with new, 'foreign' cultures and languages often inspire people to write – not only in the language of their country of origin, but also in that of the new environment. This project focuses on literary works by writers of so-called ekkyō bungaku 越境文学 ("border-crossing literature") with a migration background who write in another language than their native tongue.


  • Literary texts (novels, short stories, essays)
  • from the 1990s to present
  • by the following exophonic writers:
Arthur BinardLevy HideoShirin Nezammafi
Tawada YōkoYi YangDavid Zopetti

Theoretical Concepts

  • Exophony
  • Multilingualism
  • Transculturality
  • Discourse theory

Research Questions

  • (How) Is language made a topic in these texts?
  • What connections are drawn between language and the identity of the protagonists?
  • (How) Is the act of writing reflected upon?
  • Are migration and the adoption of a new language experienced as a (painful) rupture by the characters? Or do they become – despite of, or perhaps because of this – the starting point for a (longed for, liberating) new beginning?
  • How do the texts relate to the experience of migration and language change stylistically (e.g.: do the authors experiment with fragmentation, non-linearity of time, space and narrative perspectives, and multilingualism)?
  • How are these texts received and discussed in Japan – in the broader public and in academia? In how far do the literary activities of these authors affect the concept of ‘Japanese literature’?


  • Close reading of literary texts
  • Discourse analysis

Example I: Levy Hideo

“It is true that I received strong messages, saying: “You should not be able to read that! You should not be able to understand that!” The more messages I received, the stronger grew my feeling of resistance, the feeling that they were wrong.”

Levy Hideo (1996): Shinjuku no Manyōshū, p. 10.

Levy Hideo is the first US-American writing literature in Japanese and has become a highly appraised author in Japan. At the same time, however, with his works he questions and subverts the common notion of a Japanese ‘national literature’ with its assumption that only Japanese nationals are able to write in Japanese and that they do so for a Japanese audience. Levy is one of the prominent ekkyō writers having stimulated a discourse in Japanese academia about the question of how the current tendencies of border-crossing in Japanese language literature (nihongo bungaku 日本語文学) can be seized.

Example II:Tawada Yōko

© Heike Steinweg

Die 逃走des月s
我歌 auf der 厠
da 来 der 月 herange転t
裸 auf einem 自転車
彼 hatte den 道 mitten 通 den 暗喩公園 ge選
um 我 zu 会
戸外 die 道 entlang
散歩e 歯磨end eine 美女
auf der 長椅子 im 公園
飲 ein 男 in 妊婦服 林檎汁
Am 末 eines 世紀s ist die 健康 eben 適
Im 天穿 ein 穴
Die 月的不安 Der 月的苦悩 sind 去
全「的」飛翔 活発
um das 穴 herum
Die 皺 des 深淵s 平
Auf der 光滑en 表面 der 苦悩
登場 die 詩人auf 氷靴 an
月 我的 neben 我

Tawada Yōko (2010): Abenteuer der deutschen Grammatik, p. 41.

Tawada Yōko is a highly acclaimed writer of fiction, poetry, essays, and theater plays. She lives in Berlin and writes in German and Japanese. Tawada often chooses Asian women living in Western countries as protagonists. They experience isolation, alienation, and the loss of language. At the same time, however, not only the new environment is represented as something foreign and alien, but what used to belong to the well-known realm of the ‚self‘ becomes strange as well. Tawada’s literary enterprise thus aims at destabilizing the dichotomy between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, between Eastand West. Language and identity are at the core of her writings. Tawada often refers to language as topic in her literary texts on the one hand, while, on the other, she also experiments with language as stylistic means: by employing (literal) translation, using word-plays, provoking (productive) misreadings, or mixing different languages. She thus invites “heraudience [to] experience non-understanding and foreignness" (Matsunaga 2002:543).