Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit was born in 1948 in Korntal, near Stuttgart. She studied Japanese studies, Sinology, Philosophy and Sociology in Hamburg, at Waseda University in Tokyo, and at the Ruhr University in Bochum. She completed her PhD at the latter and her dissertation on Yukio Mishima’s novel »Kyōko no ie«. was published in 1976. In 1980, she achieved her post-doctorate qualification in Japanese studies with a work in novel-form »Shishōsetsu«, a specifically Japanese genre that is characterized by a strong autobiographical naturalism. Following that, she was an acting professor in Bochum and taught as a professor at the state-run Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. From 1986 to 1991, she was a professor for contemporary Japanese studies at the University of Trier and, in 1991, was appointed at the Free University of Berlin where she teaches and carries out research as a Professor of Japanese Studies today. In addition to this, Hijiya-Kirschnereit was director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo (1996–2004) and President of the European Association for Japanese Studies (1994–1997). She has been the Director of the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies since 2010. She has been a visiting professor and has had research scholarships at the Universities of Vienna, Hawaii and Princeton (among others) as well as at various universities and academic institutes in Tokyo. In addition to her teaching work she sits on numerous committees and associations, among these the Academia Europaea and the Japanese PEN Centre. She is also a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of the Arts and Sciences.
Her research work focuses mainly on modern and contemporary Japanese literature with special consideration of the differences and language transfers between Japanese and European culture.
In a great many monographs and essays, she takes a look – far removed from Western clichés – at Japanese literature and its cultural resonance, among others, in the publications »Was heißt: Japanische Literatur verstehen?« (1990; tr. What does it mean to understand Japanese literature) and »Ausgekochtes Wunderland« (2008; tr. Crafty Wonderland) and, most recently, in the text collection »Was vom Japaner übrig blieb« (2013; tr. What remained of the Japanese man).
Beyond her academic work, she is also a critic, editor and respected literary translator. Hijiya-Kirschnereit initiated the »Japanese Library« at the publishing house, Insel Verlag and has translated into German prose and poetry by Akiyuki Nosaka, Ōba Minako, Hiromi Itō, Taeko Kōno, Ishimure Michiko, Enchi Fumiko, Saegusa Kazuko and others. She has received many awards for her achievements and engagement in the area of cultural exchange, for example, the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize (1992) from the DFG (German Research Society) and the Eugen and Ilsa Seibold Prize (2001). In 1995, she was given the German Cross of Merit while, in 2011, she received the Japanese »Order of the Rising Sun«.