Japan's Unlikely Love Affair With 'One Hundred Years Of Solitude'

In spite of the thousands of miles and cultural distances between Colombia and Japan, Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece has become a national treasure among Japanese readers and artists.

Gabriel García Márquez in Osaka, Japan
Gabriel García Márquez in Osaka, Japan
Gonzalo Robledo

BOGOTÁ — For any self-respecting Japanese drinker, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the name of an exclusive and costly malt liquor made to a century-long recipe. Call it retail opportunism, even sacrilege, but the constant recurrence of this title across the world's third economy is evidence of Japanese respect for the eponymous novel's author, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the first Colombian writer to win the Nobel prize in literature.

The Japanese edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, translated by Tadashi Tsuzumi, was first published by Shinchosha in 1972. The publishers initially printed 4,000 copies, followed by 96 successive editions, with 275,000 copies printed by 2006. A spokesman for the publisher described the output as "outstanding," considering Japanese readers' general lack of enthusiasm for foreign literature.

After García Márquez won the Nobel prize in 1982, the book became required reading in Spanish faculties and it can be found today in any public library in Japan. It is usually placed with the classics, far from the latest literary trends.

It is easy to discern the influence of One Hundred Years of Solitude on contemporary Japanese culture. Playwrights, film producers and writers have enthusiastically described their encounter with Garcia Márquez's main work, which some have described as an epiphany.

Among the immortals.

The celebrated author Kobo Abe (1924-1993) said his literary life could be divided into "before and after" reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. He said in a speech in 1983 that García Márquez was not strictly Latin American, and his literary universe was better described in terms of time rather than geography. He cited his own, peculiar remedy for his countrymen's "excessive" seriousness, which was to stimulate the right side of his brain by eating spicy food. To properly enjoy One Hundred Years of Solitude, he said, the Japanese should eat sushi; the spiciness of the wasabi would perfectly complement the work of the Colombian author.

Years after his death, Abe's widow said that after reading the book, her husband entered into a period of depression and writers' block that lasted until 1982. He recovered only after García Márquez won the Nobel prize, since he considered the Colombian author was now "among the immortals' and ceased to be Abe's direct competition.

Another reputed Japanese writer, Natsuki Ikezawa, says that without García Márquez, he would never have paid attention to Latin American literature, and that without One Hundred Years of Solitude, he would not have written his own novel, The Navidad Incident: The Downfall of Matias Guili​. The novel is set in a fictional Pacific island called Navidad, which, like the town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude, is a universe unto itself, with allegories that try to explain modern Japan.

Ikezawa considers himself to be a promoter of Latin American literature in Japan, and when Japanese publishers ask him to select works for world literature collections, García Márquez tops his list of Spanish-language writers.

The most ambiguous and problematic relationship between a Japanese author and Macondo was undoubtedly that of the poet, filmmaker and theater director Shuji Terayama (1935-1983). The experimental writer, who touched on a range of genres, adapted One Hundred Years of Solitude for the big screen. But his version failed to convince García Márquez, who did not allow him to use the book's title for the film's commercial release.

The movie was re-edited and screened at the Cannes Festival in 1985 as a posthumous work of Terayama, with the title Saraba no Hakobune, or Farewell to the Ark. Like Ikezawa's universe, Terayama's Macondo is infused with Japanese folk culture as it depicts García-Márquez-ian situations: the disappearance of all the town's clocks, notes stuck on objects to identify them, or a woman punished with a chastity belt shaped like a crab.

Without One Hundred Years of Solitude, he would not have written his own novel.

García Márquez visited Japan in October 1990 as a guest of the Japan Foundation to open the Latin American Film Festival. On the eve of his arrival in Tokyo, I received a phone call from Spanish television to tell me he was going to meet with the Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa to finalize details of a film based on his novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch. The meeting took place at Tokyo's Okura hotel, but when García Márquez came out, my team and I noted that he was both too excited from drinking sake for an on-camera interview, and annoyed by the ambiguous response of the Japanese director, who at 80, said he was too old to film in Colombia but reluctant to set the story in Japan.

We Spanish speakers who attended the festival still treasure the memory of the ever-pertinent words of García Márquez's inaugural speech.

He said, "Many years ago, when I was young and handsome, I visited Paris. I saw a Japanese man for the first time in my life. He seemed so remote and inscrutable that I asked a Chilean friend who accompanied me, "What the devil is this man doing so far from home?" "The same as us," my friend said. "Paris is as far from Tokyo as it is from Buenos Aires." I learned that day that the longest and most difficult distances are not geographical, but cultural."

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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