Japanese Edition of Please Look After Mom

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Vol.13 Autumn 2011
  • byShin Kyung-sook

1. Please Look After Mom
Shin Kyung-sook, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2008, 299pp., ISBN 9788936433673
2. Please Look After Mom (U.S. Edition)
Shin Kyung-sook, Knopf, 2011
3. Please Look After Mother (British Edition)
Shin Kyung-sook, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2011
4. 離れ部屋
Shin Kyung-sook, Shueisha, 2005

I once read something penned by Kawakami Hiromi (川上弘美), the writer. She said she was surprised, while reading a Korean novel, by the close resemblance between the way a Korean woman and the way a Japanese woman broiled a fish. The recent popularity of Korean soap operas in Japan may be based on such resemblance between the two countries. The two countries have grown remarkably closer through the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup and the Korean Wave. Shigemu Toshimitsu (重村智計), a former journalist and a professor at Waseda University, says in his recent publication that, “Out of all the peoples in the world, the Japanese relate the most to the South and North Koreans.” I agree. A Japanese person who has any interest in Korea at all will probably nod in agreement.

How are things looking in the field of literature, then? Now and then, my eyes pop wide open while I skim through bestseller lists and I exclaim, “Wow, a book by a Korean author!” but most of the books are on diets and so forth, so it seems that there’s still a long way to go. I feel quite pressured, trying to publish a Korean novel in Japan that has “sold two million copies in Korea! 100,000 first editions published in the U.S.! 20,000 in France! Into the third printing in Spain!” The book in question is Please Look After Mom, a novel by Shin Kyung-sook.

An Isolated Room, another novel by Shin, and A House with Mountains, a House with a Well, a book of correspondence between Shin and the Japanese writer, Tsushima Yuko (津島佑子), were released by the publishing company for which I work, so I’ve had the opportunity to get to know her. The first time I met Shin was at the 6th Korean Literature Symposium held in Wonju in 2002.

Translating the title An Isolated Room into Japanese (離れ部屋) was a difficult task. Traditional Japanese houses do come with a “separate building (離れ),” but the “isolated room” in the novel refers to a room in an apartment, and is different from a “separate building.” The translation of a work begins with the translation of the title, and Please Look After Mom was no exception.

In the Japanese language there exists what’s called “ruby characters,” which indicate how Chinese characters should be read. We were agonizing over how the title, Please Look After Mom, should be translated into Japanese. We pondered over several possibilities, and in the end decided on “母をお願い,” then affixed the ruby, “オムマ,” meaning “mom” in a large, conspicuous font above the Chinese character, “母.” It was out of a desire that Japanese readers may read and understand the title as Please Look After Mom. The word “mother,” too, has become quite familiar with the Japanese people, through Professor Kang Sangjung’s bestselling novel, Mother (母 オモニ). This time, we wanted people to become familiar with the word, “mom.”

There is a clear difference between the words “mother (母さん)” and “mom (母ちゃん)” in the Japanese language, too. Seeing how the word “mom” was used instead of “mother” in the English title, and “maman” instead of “mere” in the French, I felt convinced that the nuance of the word “mom” should be emphasized in the Japanese title as well.

Let’s stop here for a moment! The consonant “ㅁ” in the Korean word “엄마 (mom)” sounds like “M” in English or French. Did you know that in all the Romantic languages, the word “mother” comes with an M? It’s amazing—in nearly all the languages in the world, the word “mother” comes with an M. It’s the same in the Slavic, German, and Tibetan languages. In the Japanese language, the Chinese character 母 is read as “haha,” but can also be pronounced as “mo.” Since 母 is a character that comes from China, it’s probably connected closely to the Chinese language. The foreign rights of Please Look After Mom has been sold to 25 countries around the world. It was interesting to think about how many of those countries will come up with a title with an M in it.

Now, to go on to the main issue, I’d like to talk briefly about the plot of Please Look After Mom, for those who are unfamiliar with it, since this magazine targets readers of the English-speaking world. “It’s been one week since Mom went missing,” the novel begins, and goes on to say, “It’s been nine months since Mom went missing” in the last chapter. When the mother suddenly goes missing one day, the children go searching for her in a flurry.

The children have left their home and aged parents to live their own lives in the city. They invite their parents to Seoul for a birthday celebration, but none of the four siblings are able to meet them at Seoul Station. When the father, who is about to get on the subway, turns around, he discovers that his wife, who should have been right behind him, is gone. Upon hearing the news, the children go desperately in search of their mother, distributing fliers and inquiring here and there. Their mother has actually been suffering from Alzheimer’s. Some reports come in, saying that someone presumed to be their mother has been spotted, but nothing substantial is learned that actually leads to their mother.

Only then do the children realize how they had taken their mother for granted when she had given them such great love, and regret how indifferent they had been to their mother, preoccupied with their own lives. They long desperately for their mother. Seeing her in a different way now, each from a different point of view, they realize that their mother is a person, and a woman, before she is their mom. The weight of her existence is felt only through her absence—how paradoxical. Where in the world could she be?

The West is showing great enthusiasm for the book, with 100,000 copies of the first edition published in the United States, 20,000 copies in France, and reprints in Spain. How many copies will sell in Japan? I hear that in the U.S., a veteran editor at Knopf who was in charge of Memoirs of a Geisha, handed out copies to the persons concerned at three different times, which puts me under even greater pressure. I’m doing the best I can, asking Kakuda Mitsuyo (角田光代), the writer, to write a word of recommendation that will be printed on the book jacket. In the end, it all depends on the book itself.


* Iwamoto Nobuto graduated from Waseda University. He joined Shueisha in 1977 and was in charge of editing two girls’ comic magazines for over 20 years. Since his transfer to the foreign literature editorial department in 1999, he has been in charge of editing mostly novels in English and French, as well as nonfiction books. A visit to Korea stirred up his interest in Korean literature and culture in general, and today he also works with Korean novels, novel versions of Korean films, reviews on Korean films, and even beginner’s books on learning Hangul.