Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
If you would like to contribute to this compendium please submit your ideas here.
All will be considered for publication by our expert panel.
  • Share
    • Prizes

    Japan’s first detective story was published in 1889[UPDATED: 3-17-2018]

    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 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. 

    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).

    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). 

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

    Somewhat like Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) after the Second World War, Hirai had the rare ability to bridge and blend the new rapidly urbanising Meiji 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
  • Share
    • Prizes

    The translation of the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1923 led to a robot literature boom in Japan[UPDATED: 3-5-2018]

    The play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek (1890–1938), written in 1920 and first performed in Prague in 1921, had a major impact in Japan in the 1920s and 30s after its arrival in translation. 

    The play not only popularised the word robot worldwide, but also triggered a flurry of robot stories in Japan; sometimes described by academics as “Early Showa Robot Literature”. Jinzo Ningen (Artificial Human) by Hatsunosuke Hirabayashi (1892-1932) is often cited as a classic example of this genre. 

    The Robot and the Weight of The Bed by Sunjugo Naoki (1891-1934), who the Naoki Literary Prize – one of Japan’s most important literary awards – is named after, is another example. This story written in 1931 is about a dying man’s plan to leave a robot to look after his wife after he has departed this world. It is set in the future when Japan has electrically controlled cars (not dissimilar to the electronic and autonomous cars being developed today) that automatically avoid accidents. The story is about a robot designed to make sure a wife remains faithful to her husband after his death. Other stories from this period feature enhanced or modified humans as well as robots and dolls. 

    The rapid industrialization Japan was experiencing at the time and the arrival of new developing technologies generated creative angst as well as concerns amongst the general population. 

    Robots were not considered by these authors as merely tools to serve humans; they were also seen as potential threats to human and biological life. Japanese authors developed narratives reflecting the growing concerns about mechanization; similar to the fears often articulated in the media today, about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the current generation of robots (actual not imagined), and the prospect of so-called technological singularity, artificial super-intelligence that leads to runaway technological growth, changing our society beyond recognition, perhaps in an uncontrollable unforeseen way.
    The translation of the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1923 led to a robot literature boom in Japan Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share
    • Prizes

    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
  • Share
    • Prizes

    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
  • Share
    • Prizes

    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
  • Share
    • Prizes

    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
  • Share
    • Prizes

    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
  • Share
    • Prizes

    Mishima, who was “openly gay”, married at the age of 33 after considering a number of prominent women as ‘marriage candidates’[UPDATED: 2-26-2018]

    Despite living “openly” as a homosexual the brilliant Japanese author Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) had a “conventional marriage” to Yoko Sugiyama and had two children, a boy and a girl. 

    They married in June 1958 at a ceremony at International House in Roppongi, Tokyo. A central location, with a traditional Japanese garden where the Meiji Emperor and Empress attended Kabuki plays. it is still used for weddings today. 

    The Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) formally introduced Mishima to his future wife Yoko, after Kawabata’s adopted daughter had been briefly considered by Mishima for the role. According to Mishima’s biographers, he also considered a partnership with Michiko, currently wife of Emperor Akihito. 

    Mishima had a series of important conditions that any future bride had to meet: she had to be shorter than him (his height was 152 cms), she would need to respect his privacy, allow him to continue bodybuilding and be attractive (something he is on record saying he thought she was). 

    In 1958, according to John Nathan’s biography of Mishima, the year when both Mishima and the Crown Prince were married “a weekly magazine polled the nation’s young womenhood” with the question, “If the Crown Prince and Yukio Mishima were the only two men remaining on earth, which would you prefer to marry?” According to Nathan, “more than half of those who responded said they would prefer to commit suicide!” 

    Editors and publishers in New York and London who worked with Mishima were impressed by: his manners and politeness; his English; as well as his openness about being gay and visiting gay meeting spots. In 1960s London, for example, it was socially very hard to be so open and relaxed about one’s sexuality, as homosexuality was still illegal. Homosexual acts conducted in private between two men were only decriminalized in 1967 in the United Kingdom, when The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was passed into law. Both men had to be 21 or older for homosexual acts to be legal.

    In his book The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima Henry Scott Stoke describes their first meeting at a dinner at The Foreign Correspondences’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) in Tokyo in 1966 when he was working as the Tokyo correspondent for The Times. Mishima, attended the event at the Club with his wife. He writes that: “ Mishima spoke fluent English. Yoko was a complete contrast. Also small, she was ten years younger than her husband and looked it. Petite, with a round face, she kept her counsel and spoke little – she had by that time two very young children”. 

    Despite playing a role in the background and Mishima telling the cluster of foreign correspondents gathered at the FCCJ (a recording of which can be heard here) in 1966 that “ Yoko has no imagination”, she had a sharp mind; often accompanied him publicly (which was unusual for spouses in Japan then); helped Mishima professionally when he was alive; and worked hard after his death to manage his literary legacy.
    Mishima, who was “openly gay”, married at the age of 33 after considering a number of prominent women as ‘marriage candidates’ Posted by Richard Nathan