Factbook

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    In 1935 Tatsuzo Ishikawa won the inaugural Akutagawa Literary Prize[UPDATED: 9-13-2022]

    Tatsuzo Ishikawa (1905-1985) won the inaugural Akutagawa Prize, one of Japan’s most prestigious literary awards, in 1935 for his novel Sobo  (蒼氓), a story about a group of Japanese farmers who plan to emigrate to Brazil and their experience at an immigration office in the port city of Kobe.

    Japan’s two most prestigious literary prizes among over 500 that are awarded each year are probably the Akutagawa and the Naoki prizes. Both were set up in 1935 by Kan Kikuchi (1888-1948) when he was editor of Bungeishunju, one of Japan’s leading literary magazines, which he founded in 1923.

    After Ishikawa won the Akutagawa Prize, the editors of Chuo Koron, another Japanese magazine, sent the independent-minded young prize-winning author to China in early 1938.

    He arrived in Nanjing, China’s capital at the time, just after the city was captured by the Japanese Imperial Army. This led to a serialised novel entitled Soldiers Alive (生きている兵隊 ). The novel that was banned by the Japanese authorities and led to Ishikawa’s conviction on charges of ‘disturbing peace and order’.

    Ishikawa, like many other Japanese prize-winning authors, including Haruki Murakami, Kazufumi Shiraishi and Mitsuyo Kakuta, studied literature at Waseda University. However, unlike them, Ishikawa didn’t complete his studies at this private Tokyo-based university. He left for Brazil, before graduating, where he worked on a farm; an experience he drew on for his Akutagawa-winning novel.

    The Akutagawa prize is awarded for literary fiction published by new up-and-coming writers in a magazine or newspaper. It is awarded twice a year with prize money of 1 million yen and a pocket watch.

    The Naoki Prize, also awarded twice a year is for ‘the best work of popular literature in any format by a new, rising, or (reasonably young) established author’.  Both prizes have nine judges who select the winning titles from a shortlist put together by editors at the monthly magazine, Bungeishunju. 

    The prizes are named after Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) and Sanjugo Naoki (1891-1934) two highly regarded Japanese authors. The two awards were announced and launched at the same time in 1935, but the Akutagawa Prize was awarded first.

    In 1935 Tatsuzo Ishikawa won the inaugural Akutagawa Literary Prize 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: 9-20-2021]

    Miyuki Miyabe’s short story Warera no rinjin wa 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, 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: 8-9-2021]

    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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    Japan’s first ‘detective story’ was published in 1889[UPDATED: 5-4-2021]

    Ruiko Kuroiwa (1862-1913), who founded a newspaper and edited several others, is widely thought and cited as having written Japan’s first ‘detective story’, a classic whodunit style short story titled Muzan (In Cold Blood), nine years after the first modern Japanese short story, Dancing Girl, by Ogai Mori, was published in 1890. 

    That said, Japan actually has a much longer and very rich history of crime fiction, the broader genre that the sub-genre detective fiction falls within, which was defined only after highly influential Western-style detective fiction started spreading in Japan in translation.

    So much so that early Western visitors to Japan sometimes pontificated on its extent and corrupting influences as well as the fact that many of these Japanese books were “coarsely” illustrated. 

    Nonetheless, some academics also cite others works by Japanese authors published at a similar time to Kuroiwa’s short story as the first authentically Japanese ‘detective story’.

    Detective stories were known then and up until World War II in Japan as tantei shosetsu (detective books) after which they were renamed suiri shosetsu (reasoning books). 

    Kuroiwa was part of the new literary class that emerged in Japan’s Meiji Era (1868-1912), a period of rapid modernisation and change when Japan was opening up to Western influence after the resignation of the Shogun and more than two hundred years of self-imposed isolation.  

    Kuroiwa initially joined others in translating European books, such as Jules Verne’s (1828-1905) Le Voyage dans la lune, before penning Japan’s first detective story. He also translated The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells (1866-1946). He reportedly translated around 100 novels from French and English into Japanese.

    However, it was Taro Hirai (1894-1965), writing under the pen name Edogawa Rampo, who established the modern genre in Japan and popularized it by combing scientific method with Japanese sentiment, as well as the suspense-type narratives that had been popular in Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868) the period that preceded the Meiji Era.

    Several years after graduating from Wasada University, where subsequently many famous authors studied, Hirai published his debut work: The Two-Sen Copper Coin (二銭銅貨 Nisen doka) in 1923.

    Somewhat like Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) many years later after the Second World War, Hirai had the rare ability to bridge and blend the new rapidly urbanising Japan with the old Japan, helping readers of his generation deal with transitioning society through fiction.

    He was and is still highly influential and a prize (The Edogawa Rampo Prize) named after him has been awarded every year since 1955.
    Japan’s first ‘detective story’ was published in 1889 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Kobo Abe is said to be ‘The Kafka of Japan’[UPDATED: 4-27-2021]

    Kobo Abe (1924-1992) is said to be ‘The Kafka of Japan’. He is best known for: The Road Sign at the End of the Street (1948), The Woman in the Dunes (1962), as well as being avant-garde, being expelled from the Japanese Communist Party, and collecting insects.

    His novella, The Wall, won the Akutagawa Prize and established his reputation. His best friend was Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) and he was also a friend of Harold Pinter (1930-2008).

    He didn’t give many interviews, but an interesting conversation with him is reported in the New York Times under the headline: Japan’s Kafka Goes on the Road, where his experimental theatre group is discussed. 

    He and his book The Woman in the Dunes in particular are still popular today amongst some of Japan’s most talented and creative individuals such as the up-and-coming film director Yuka Eda, director and screenwriter of the 2018 crowd-funded film Shojo Kaiko, Girls’ Encounter, and the 2019 TV drama 21st Century Girl.

    Eda cites Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes as one of the books that has had the most influence on her and one she returns to when she is looking for inspiration. She says she admires the novel’s kafkaesque tone and narrative style.

    Abe is also sometimes compared to Albert Camus (1913-1960) and Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) for the absurdist frameworks he deploys to observe and critique the individual and society in Japan and beyond.
    Kobo Abe is said to be ‘The Kafka of Japan’ Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japanese literature and novels littered with cats[UPDATED: 9-18-2020]

    There is a long tradition of cats within Japanese literature, folk stories and art. Many ‘cat books’ feature amongst the ranks of Japan’s bestselling titles.

    Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) wrote a highly regarded satirical account of the Meiji Era in Japan titled: I am a Cat, for example, in 1905. Junichiro Tanazaki (1886-1965) who is held in similar regard wrote the novella A Cat, A Man and Two Women in 1936 when he was in the process of adapting The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese.

    Another example is the highly successful series initially published in 1978 Calico Cat Holmes Series by the mystery writer Jiro Akagawa, which now consists of more than 30 novels and 14 collections of short stories.

    The first winner of the Agatha Christie Award, The Black Cat Takes a Stroll by Akimaro Mori, yet another example, very successfully uses the feline form to describe its professor protagonist. 

    The publication of books about cats or with cats as a narrative motif is a continuing trend. Analysis shows that the number of books with the word cat in their title has been steadily increasing in Japan since the 1990s and the rate of publication continues to rise.
    Japanese literature and novels littered with cats 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