Harry Potter


"Japanese publisher weaves magic of Harry Potter"

by Isabel Reynolds (Reuters, April 10, 2001)

TOKYO - Yuko Matsuoka is an enterprising woman, but even she would admit her phenomenal success owes more than a little to the supernatural.

Just two and a half years ago she was a conference interpreter -- highly accomplished, but hardly a household name.

Now she is celebrated as the translator and publisher of some of the best-selling children's books Japan has ever known.

The key to her transformation was Harry Potter, the boy wizard whose magical adventures told in a series of best-selling books have captured the imagination of children -- and adults -- around the world.

"I was so moved I was actually shaking," she said of the evening in 1998 when she started reading a friend's copy of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." The book is also known as "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" in some countries.

"It was such a mysterious book. I am over 50 now, but I had never read anything like it."

Matsuoka read through the night, then got straight on the telephone to the British publishers, determined to secure the rights to translate and publish the book for the Japanese market.

Recently widowed, she had only just taken over the reins of her late husband's publishing company, Say-Zan-Sha Publications, but her total lack of experience did not hold her back.

"I didn't think of publishing as a way of making a profit. My husband's company was always in the red," she said, smiling.

By sheer tenacity, she managed to beat off competition from larger companies and cut a deal.

"Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling had seen her own work turned down by large publishing houses before being picked up by Bloomsbury, so she apparently had no qualms about entrusting the series to what was then virtually a one-woman enterprise.

When the two met in 1999, Rowling told Matsuoka she had picked her as translator because of her overwhelming enthusiasm.

"She told me nothing in life is as important as enthusiasm," Matsuoka remembered.


Matsuoka's greatest concern was that she should do justice to the book in translation, so she pulled together a task force of 10 friends and fellow-translators to help check her work and offer suggestions.

So thorough was her research, she even took the trouble of ordering a knickerbocker glory -- a multi-flavoured icecream -- in an English hotel to find out what it looked like.

As publisher, she also had to find time to make the rounds of booksellers and wholesalers, trying to persuade them to stock up on Harry Potter. They were sceptical at first, partly because Japan's book market is often resistant to
foreign bestsellers.

"After all the effort I made, I thought if it doesn't go down well with Japanese readers, it's their own fault," she joked.

In the event, the books flew off the shelves as if by magic.

"In the children's book market in Japan, sales of more than 10,000 copies are considered good. But the first (Harry Potter) book sold more than 200,000 copies in the first month after publication," she said.

The second sold faster still -- 600,000 copies in the first month and a million not long afterwards.

The third book of Rowling's four so far is being translated.

The fact that Japanese people loved the books -- despite their thoroughly English atmosphere -- came as little surprise to the publisher.

"Children are not stupid. They are really clever, and more flexible than adults when it comes to cultural differences," Matsuoka said.

The books made such an impact that Matsuoka was awarded the annual Shimpu prize this year, given by a national association of booksellers for a work that adds life to the bookselling industry.

"The fact that she accomplished this on her own is revolutionary," said Akira Tanabe, consultant to the award panel. Most bestsellers in Japan are produced and distributed somewhat mechanically by large publishing houses, he said.

She also beat sportswomen and popstars to be voted "Woman of the Year" by Nikkei Woman magazine, which described her as "the most dynamic working woman in the year 2000."


After Harry Potter, life has changed dramatically for Matsuoka.

For a start, she has been able to move her publishing company out of her apartment and into a proper office. She has taken on a small staff to handle the thousands of cards, letters and gifts she receives from readers.

But she says the constant media attention makes it difficult to progress with the translation of the later books in the series.

Despite her jam-packed schedule, she has not abandoned interpreting completely.

Matsuoka's husband was secretary of the Japan ALS Society, set up to help people suffering from Amylotrophic Lateral Schlerosis (ALS), of which British physicist Stephen Hawking is one of the most famous sufferers.

He had become involved after publishing the diary of a another sufferer and subsequently dedicated much of his time to the group.

Matsuoka has continued her husband's work and is looking forward to interpreting at the 2005 international conference of ALS sufferers, due to be held in Japan.