Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    In 1964, the year of the first Tokyo Olympics, three important Japanese novels were published, one of which helped lead to a Nobel Prize, and a very exciting new author was born[UPDATED: 7-23-2021]

    In 1964, Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), Japan’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (he won in 1968), published Beauty and Sadness and four years later went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

    Beauty and Sadness is an elegiac and provocative novel that cleverly blends tradition and modernity, as well as age and youth, in its subtle narrative.

    The same year, Japan’s first Olympic year, Kenzaburo Oe published A Personal Matter, which was cited by the Nobel prize committee in 1994 when he became the second Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

    In 1964, four Japanese authors were amongst the 76 candidates nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature; Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), Kawabata, Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) and Junzaburo Nishiwaki (1894-1982).

    None of them won. But in the media frenzy leading up to the official announcement by the Nobel Committee the French news agency L’Agence-France-Presse (AFP) announced in error that Junichiro Tanizaki had won.

    Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was the actual winner and sadly Tanizaki died the following year in July, a few months before the 1965 prize-winner was announced.

    Other notable publishing highlights in 1964, a year with many, included the publication of a third important Japanese novel, The Face of Another, by Kobo Abe (1924-1993), which quickly became a classic.

    The Face of Another describes modern Japan and the danger of unregulated technology, but is mostly a narrative about identity and relationships.

    The novel is about a plastics scientist who loses his face in an accident and makes a new one for himself. This act besides changing his own perspective, also affects his relationships with others – including his wife, who he manages to seduce. 

    Banana Yoshimoto, who is probably now Japan’s best-known female writer internationally was born in 1964, making Japan’s first Olympic year a rather special milestone year for Japanese creative writing, literature and publishing; not to mention sport.

    Yoshimoto’s first book, Kitchen, also considered a modern classic, was published 24 years after the Tokyo Olympics in 1988. It is a mesmerizing and elegantly written novel about an orphan who is taken in by her friend and her transgender mother. 

    Kitchen is now sometimes cited as a pioneering example of LGBT related publishing in Japan.

    In 1964, the year of the first Tokyo Olympics, three important Japanese novels were published, one of which helped lead to a Nobel Prize, and a very exciting new author was born Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The Nobel Prize committee cited Rudyard Kipling’s writing on the manners and customs of the Japanese when they awarded him his Nobel prize in 1907[UPDATED: 6-2-2021]

    Carl David af Wirsén (1842-1912), the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy that awards the Nobel Prize in literature, cited Rudyard Kipling’s (1865-1936) writings on the manners and customs of the Japanese as an example of Kipling’s distinctive, original and sometimes ironic style of writing when he presented Kipling with his Nobel prize in December 1907.

    Kipling, an English journalist and author of books including The Jungle Book, visited Japan in 1889 and 1892. No other leading English literary figure of his day is thought to have spent so long in Japan or to have written so fully about the country. Thomas Cook, the travel agency, helped Kipling plan his first trip to Japan and onwards to the United States. 

    Oscar Wilde wrote in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying that ‘the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people… The Japanese people are… simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art,’ which triggered the following response from Kipling, who was just 23 and still unknown, on his arrival in Nagasaki in 1889, ‘Mister Oscar Wilde of The Nineteenth Century is a long toothed liar!’

    Sir Hugh Cortazzi (1924-2018), the former British Ambassador to Japan and George Webb published an edited collection of Kipling’s writings in 1988 including letters, newspaper articles, and verse on Japan, a country that Kipling seems to have been fascinated by, entitled Kipling’s Japan.

    A good example of his Japan related prose is a verse quoted in the book’s introduction: ‘Rangoon shall strew her rubies at your feet, New skies shall show uncharted constellations, And gentle earthquakes in Japan shall meet Your rage for observations’.

    The Nobel Prize committee cited Rudyard Kipling’s writing on the manners and customs of the Japanese when they awarded him his Nobel prize in 1907 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Only one author, Yoriko Shono, has won Japan’s Triple Crown of literary prizes to date[UPDATED: 4-17-2019]

    The so-called Triple Crown of Japanese literary prizes for new authors consists of the Akutagawa Prize, the Yukio Mishima Prize and the Noma Prize.

    Yoriko Shono, author of Time Slip Kombinat, who describes her style of writing as ‘avant-pop’, is the only author to-date to have achieved the Triple Crown by being awarded all three prizes. 

    A common theme of her work is ‘cyborg-identity’ a narrative that alongside more traditional robot fiction has a long history in Japan and has been used in cyborg feminists novels, and subversive fiction to, for example, ridicule and question society.
    Only one author, Yoriko Shono, has won Japan’s Triple Crown of literary prizes to date Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Winning the 1987 Japan Mystery Writers Association Prize put Miyuki Miyabe on the literary map triggering a boom in female crime writing in Japan[UPDATED: 3-5-2018]

    Miyuki Miyabe’s short story Warera no rinjin was hannin (Our Neighbour is a Criminal) won the 1987 Japan Mystery Writers Association Prize, announcing her arrival as a writer in Japan. 

    Her success, especially her 1992 novel Kasha (All She Was Worth) about loan sharks, debt and the risks of a cashless society, as well as the success of similar books written by non-Japanese female authors published in translation in Japan encouraged a new generation of Japanese women to try their hand at the genre. 

    Some went on to enjoy major success and something of a publishing boom developed in Miyabe’s wake. Such authors as Natsuo Karino and Kaoru Takamura whose profiles are now growing outside Japan. 

    Karino’s prize-winning 1997 novel Out (アウト) has been described as a “dark, feminist, horror and probably not like anything you’ve read”. The book is about a group of women working together at a factory who find themselves coming together to cover up a murder, but not everyone “handles the guilt well”. Other notable and successful Japanese female crime fiction authors include: Asa Nonami and Yoshiki Shibata. 

    Interestingly, crime fiction written in the 90s by women in the US and the UK also saw a similar surge in popularity. 

    Though there have always been female writers of whodunits finding success in translation; Agatha Christie (1890-1976) being perhaps the best known, Japanese media has tended to play up the authors’ gender to promote the books by using titles like the crime fiction “Queen”, or “Princess”, or some such moniker. 

    As the trend evolved and gained momentum, names of strong female characters started appearing in the narratives themselves and not just on the covers of the books. Books like Out would feature female detectives and criminals, as well as dark, grisly stories whose narratives included violence done by and to women. 

    As their writing careers have progressed some of these Japanese authors have followed Miyabe’s example by branching out into other genres including science fiction and historical fiction. 

    The phenomena, like other Japanese popular culture trends, has even created an opportunity for academic study with the publication of such papers as Woman uncovered: pornography and power in the detective fiction of Kirino Natsuo; and monographs such as Bodies of Evidence: Women Society, and Detective Fiction in 1990s Japan.
    Winning the 1987 Japan Mystery Writers Association Prize put Miyuki Miyabe on the literary map triggering a boom in female crime writing in Japan Posted by Richard Nathan
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    In 1964 after Junichiro Tanizaki was nominated and shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, AFP announced in error that he had won[UPDATED: 2-28-2018]

    In 1964 four Japanese authors were amongst the 76 candidates nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature; Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) and Junzaburo Nishiwaki (1894-1982). 

    That year there were 19 new candidates for the prize including two nominated for the first time who went on to win in subsequent years: the Guatemalan author Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974) and the Spanish writer Camilla José Cela (1916-2002). They won in 1967 and 1987 respectively. 

    Junichiro Tanizaki was one of six candidates that the Nobel Committee for Literature “considered most relevant” to win in 1964, including the winner that year – the French author Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980).

    In the media frenzy leading up to the official announcement by the Nobel Committee the French news agency L’Agence-France-Presse (AFP) announced in error that Junichiro Tanizaki had won. 

    The Japanese media flocked to Tanizaki’s house to document and report his reaction. It was all, in fact a mistake; he never actually won the prize, and tragically died in July the following year. The prize, which is generally announced in October, is only awarded to living authors. Sartre, however, having won famously refused to accept the prize saying that the Writer should “refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution”. 

    Four years later in 1968 Yasunari Kawabata won, becoming the first Japanese author to win the prize and the first Asian author to win it since Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) in 1913, who was the first Non-European to win the prize.
    In 1964 after Junichiro Tanizaki was nominated and shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, AFP announced in error that he had won Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan has around 500 different literary prizes[UPDATED: 2-27-2018]

    Japan has around 500 different literary prizes. Some literary prizes target new writers, others specific genres such as the Seiun Award for the best science fiction, awarded by the Federation of Science Fiction Fan Groups of Japan (FSFFGJ). Two of the most coveted awards are the Akutagawa and the Naoki prizes.
    Japan has around 500 different literary prizes Posted by Richard Nathan
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    At least one Japanese literary prize rewards its judging panel and prize-winners equally[UPDATED: 2-27-2018]

    The Akutagawa Prize, one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes founded in 1935 in honour of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), reportedly pays each of its nine judges an annual retainer of 1 million yen to select the winner twice a year. In contrast, the prize awarded twice a year (for the best published literary fiction by a new or rising author) is worth the same amount – 1 million yen, about US$10,000. Winners of the prize also receive a high-end pocket watch. 

    Judges have no fixed term. Some of the longest serving judges have remained as judges for decades. The haiku poet Kosaku Takii (1894-1984), for example was an Akutagawa Prize judge for 47 years, between 1935 and 1982. The judges select from a shortlist of 5-7 nominees presented to them by Bungeishinju editors, whose founder set up the prize. 

    In contrast, the Man Booker Prize, a prestigious British literary prize sponsored by a hedge fund, has 5 judges who read more than a hundred novels each from which they select the longlist of 12-13 novels, from these they select a shortlist generally 6, announced about 3 months after the longest, and then finally the winner.

    The judges are generally appointed to only judge the prize once by the prize’s advisory committee and are paid about half that of the Akutagawa Prize judges. Occasionally a judge may be on the panel for two years, but that is the exception not the rule. The Man Booker Prize is awarded once a year, not twice like the Akutagawa, in October after the shortlist is announced normally a month before. The Prize is worth more than 15 times the amount its judges are paid.
    At least one Japanese literary prize rewards its judging panel and prize-winners equally Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The Akutagawa Prize has had some major controversies[UPDATED: 2-27-2018]

    The Akutagawa Prize founded in 1935 may be one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, but it hasn’t escaped serious criticism or indeed controversy. It and its prize-winners have been accused of many things over the years including anti-Semitism, plagiarism and collusion. 

    An expose of it and other Japanese literary prizes was published in 2004, under the title Bungakusho Mettagiri. It criticized amongst other things the selection process and its transparency. One award winner from the 1970s was accused of plagiarism; this being Akio Miyahara’s Derek ga sawatta, Someone touched it, the winner in 1972. 

    A decade later in 1987, Shusaku Endo (1923-1996), one of Japan’s most famous authors, and a member of the judging panel for the prize, felt obliged to write to the New York Times after Passover, by Fumiko Kometani, a book deemed by critics to be anti-Semitic, won the prize in 1986. 

    Endo wrote stating that there was no head of the judging panel and that he had not in fact voted for the prize-winning novel, which was a story about an unhappy Jewish-Japanese marriage. Endo wrote in his letter to the newspaper: “There is no head among the jury of the Akutagawa Prize. As one member of the selection committee, I objected to selecting ”Passover.” That I did not place a high value on this novel is clear from my comments on selection”. 

    The Akutagawa Prize was set-up in the 1930s by Kan Kikuchi (1888-1948), while he was editor of Bungeishinju, one of Japan’s leading literary magazines in honor of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). The prize is awarded twice a year (for the best published literary fiction by a new or rising author) and is worth – 1 million yen, about US$10,000. 

    Kikuchi has had a major impact on the Japanese literary scene. Not only did he found Bungeishinju in 1923, he also founded the Naoki Prize in 1935. The Akutagawa and Naoki prizes are sponsored by the publisher of Bungeishinju, which also organizes the Kikuchi Prize, named after Kan Kikuchi, the Matsumoto Seicho Prize and the Oya Soichi Non-Fiction Prize.
    The Akutagawa Prize has had some major controversies Posted by Richard Nathan