Akutagawa Prize stories
The Akutagawa Prize is Japan's most prestigious literary award for promising writers. It was established in 1935 by Kikuchi Kan, the editor of Bungei Shunjū magazine, in memory of his friend the novelist Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892-1927). The prize is awarded semiannually in January and July by the Association for the Promotion of Japanese Literature (Nihon Bungaku Shinkō Kai).
The following menu links to reviews of stories that have received this award, in groups of five years.
Konbini ningen (Convenience-Store Lifer) by Murata Sayaka
The story of a single 36-year-old woman named Furukura Keiko who has worked part-time at the same convenience store for 18 years, finding in the unvarying routine the kind of social acceptance that has eluded her in her personal life. Disruption comes in the form of a new part-timer, a similarly alienated man of about the same age who, unlike Furukura, has become embittered and cynical. This man, named Shiraha, is fired from the convenience store, but lurks nearby with the intention of stalking a female customer in whom he has taken an interest. Furukura notices him and warns him about his behavior, which leads to a conversation about the pressure of social conventions and an odd-couple type of arrangement: Furukura will allow the semi-homeless Shiraha to stay in her apartment -- avoiding contact with his family and the world at large -- and in return she will be able to announce to her friends and family that she has found a man, thereby parrying their increasingly intrusive inquiries into in her deliberately nonconformist lifestyle.
This deal appears to work for a while, with Furukura treating Shiraha much like a pet. The attentions of Furukura's friends and family duly shift toward such conventional concerns as her boyfriend finding steady employment and the "couple" having children. Shiraha (after he unwittingly gives away his location through a smartphone app) is also able to give his family the impression that he is not yet irredeemably lost. But then the convenience-store manager and Furukura's co-workers also find out about the relationship, and they start taking an interest in her not simply as another cogwheel in capitalist society but as a woman who is being rescued from the potential disaster of spinsterhood. This unwelcome personal attention eventually prompts Furukura to quit (ironically, her colleagues view her decision as an occasion for congratulations). Shiraha then attempts to find a regular job for Furukura so that he himself can remain in hiding, but on the day of a scheduled interview, Furukura belatedly follows Shiraha into a convenience store to use the toilet and -- hearing the "voice" (or voices) of the store -- impulsively begins rearranging the merchandise and giving the staff advice. Shiraha drags her out of the store, but Furukura realizes that she can only truly function as a "convenience-store person" (the literal meaning of the title) and watches Shiraha walk back alone toward the subway station from which they had emerged.
The selection committee swiftly reached agreement about the merits of awarding the prize to this story, with its well-grounded narrative (Murata herself, a 36-year-old who has worked in convenience stores for 18 years, obviously served as the model for Furukura) and humor being cited by several members. In fact, only two of the nine committee members (Shimada Masahiko and Takagi Nobuko) appear to have remained opposed to Murata. I confess to finding neither the humor nor the plot especially original or convincing on its own terms, despite the story's readability, and I tend to agree with Shimada that Murata would have done better to dig a little deeper into the "cheerful dystopia" (nōtenki na disutopia) she has so effectively evoked but from which she offers no escape. The white noise of convenience-store activity (the "voices" Furukura hears) calls to mind the hum of the refrigerator in Yoshimoto Banana's Kitchen, with which this story seems to have an affinity. But by now one would have hoped for just a little more serious engagement with the implications of this sort of social alienation.
Shinsekai (New World) by Yamashita Norito
An autobiographically derived story about the first year the narrator (who shares the author’s name and age) spends at a training retreat in Hokkaido for aspiring actors and screenwriters. The retreat has been established by a famous screenwriter referred to throughout simply as Sensei but who is obviously Kuramoto Sō, a screenwriter whose Furano Juku served as a self-sustaining private school for small cohorts of participants from 1984 to 2010. Yamashita the author was a member of the second cohort, and spent the prescribed two years at the retreat beginning when he was 19 years old. From the vantage point of the present, Yamashita the narrator recounts his own first year at the retreat, presumably in order to take stock of the experience.
The basic narrative framework balances the arrival of the second-cohort students at the beginning of the story against the departure of the first-cohort students at the end, exactly one year later. Yamashita (the narrator) is not given to introspection, however, so much of the story is a relatively objective account of personal relationships, school activities, and community tasks the students undertake to support the school. An occasional disruption arises in the form of a recurring hallucination of an unknown man in black who seems to be looking for Yamashita, and a dream sequence in which the narrator envisions himself (rather in the manner of Natsume Sōseki’s Sanshirō) uncertain about how to respond to the romantic overtures of one of the female students.
These disruptions are clearly intended to represent Yamashita’s search for identity (his own self-abnegating goal in joining the retreat was to actually “become Bruce Lee”); but his inability to arrive at any definite conclusion results in an anticlimactic ending where Yamashita simply states, “I spent another year in the valley before leaving it.” Indeed, Yamashita’s indecisiveness itself is likely the whole thematic point, since the girl (nicknamed “Ten”) he talks to just before leaving for Hokkaido and who writes postcards to him at the retreat eventually informs him that she is planning to get married, strongly implying that she had hoped he would take the lead with her. Instead, the hapless (if distraught) Yamashita merely allows events to take their course. One can accept this as a convincing portrayal of a naïve young man of 19 (and admire the skillfully understated way in which these disruptions intrude upon everyday reality) while at the same time harboring lingering doubts along the lines of “Is that all there is to it?.”
Of the selection committee members, the one who appeared to be most deeply impressed by this sense of the narrator's failing to connect (karaburi-kan, karaburi being used in baseball to describe a swing and a miss) was the newest member, Yoshida Shūichi (as of the 2016 awards, the committee has 10 members: Ogawa Yō, Okuizumi Hikaru, Kawakami Hiromi, Shimada Masahiko, Takagi Nobuko, Horie Toshiyuki, Miyamoto Teru, Murakami Ryū, Yamada Eimi, and Yoshida Shūichi). He was joined on the positive side by Ogawa, Okuizumi (somewhat reluctantly), Yamada, Horie, and Kawakami. Murakami Ryū judged the story to be simply boring (tsumaranai); Takagi likewise mentioned the blandness once the roman à clef aspect was set aside; Miyamoto added the thought that using hiragana rather than kanji to write the title was an unearned affectation; and Shimada wondered why -- despite the successful evocation of a sense of meaninglessness -- a story as dry as this should merit any recognition. This no doubt counts as a close call, with Kawakami’s comment that the very precision of its ordinariness may have tilted the balance in the story’s favor appearing to be the best overall characterization of the outcome.
Eiri (Inner Shadows) by Numata Shinsuke
The story of a gay narrator unable to contact an estranged friend in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake but who is not willing to completely give up the idea that somehow that friend may have survived.
The story is told in three parts, framed by and threaded with descriptions of freshwater fishing in the Oide River near Morioka in Iwate Prefecture. The thirty-ish narrator, Imano Shūichi, starts out with a description of an August fishing outing with his friend and one-time colleague, Hiasa Norihiro, about two years after being transferred to the local subsidiary of a pharmaceutical company. Hiasa stops when they arrive at a fallen Mongolian oak, and as he carefully examines the tree, Imano notes that this behavior is in keeping with what Imano thinks is an obsessive infatuation with large-scale destruction. Hiasa had quite his job the previous February and gone to work as a "funeral manager" for a mutual-assistance society without notifying Imano, who had discovered this new fishing spot on his own in May. Hiasa reestablishes contact with Imano in June, when he "just happened to be in the neighborhood" of Imano's apartment.
This descriptive first section is followed by a section -- dated to the following September -- in which the reader learns more about Imano's life prior to his transfer, including his relationships with his sister and a transexual partner named Fukushima Kazuya, both of whom happen to send emails to Imano on the same day that he is supposed to meet Hiasa for a private outdoor party at the river, ostensibly so that the latter can thank Imano for having signed a contract for funeral insurance to help Hiasa fulfill his monthly quota (Hiasa had made the request just 10 days after their August outing). The two friends bicker and the party ends badly, even though they are joined by a friendly older man who was Hiasa's first client. Back at home, Imano phones Fukushima, somewhat surprised by the feminine voice until he recalls that Fukushima had planned to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. This lengthy phone conversation brings the section to an end.
The final section momentarily diverts the reader's attention to one of Imano's apartment-building neighbors, an elderly former schoolteacher whose initial politeness is contradicted by a streak of self-interest (exposing the discrepancy between surface and inner motivations is the reason for the story's title). A newspaper article written by the daughter of the schoolteacher's former pupil is the method Numata uses to bring the story up to the narrative present, just after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011. One day after the Golden Week break, as Imano prepares to drive home from returns to work, he is waylaid by a part-timer who tells Imano that Hiasa may have been killed in the disaster. It turns out that this part-timer, a woman named Suzumura, had been approached by Hiasa to take out an insurance policy not just for herself but also for her husband, and then a coming-of-age policy for her daughter. Not only that, Hiasa had borrowed a fairly substantial sum of cash from her, promising to repay it in the autumn of 2011 after he received his first bonus. The tsunami had destroyed the house of one of Suzumura's relatives and that family had come to live with her in Morioka, so Suzumura had tried unsuccessfully to call Hiasa at work and ask for early repayment. The mutual-aid office had informed her that Hiasa was in the coastal city of Kamaishi on the day of the earthquake -- ostensibly scouting potential clients on his day off, but also announcing that he would be bringing back some fish -- and hadn't been heard from since. As Imano drives home after speaking to Suzumura, he imagines Hiasa as he might have been on the day of the earthquake, looking out at the ocean as the tsunami approached and waiting for the force of the water to overwhelm him.
Imano later follows up by going to see Hiasa's father, who informs him that he disowned his son after learning that Hiasa had milked him of support money while ostensibly studying at a college in Tokyo. The father discovered Hiasa's deceit when he was blackmailed by the man who forged the diploma Hiasa used to get his job. Hiasa's father then states his conviction that his son isn't dead, that he is probably just using the earthquake and tsunami as a means to gain financial advantage from the disaster. As Imano is leaving, Hiasa's father tells him that his son's name is sure to appear in the newspaper in connection with some crime, and (rather inexplicably but with obvious thematic relevance) he shows Imano the yellowed notice of acceptance Hiasa received from the university and that Hiasa's father carries in his pants pocket. The notification, Hiasa's father assures Imano, is genuine. The story ends much as it began -- and in the same season -- with Imano going once again to his favorite fishing spot, this time alone. He remembers reading a newspaper article shortly after the earthquake about a man who was arrested while trying to break into an ATM at a deserted bank, and he imagines that Hiasa may well have been the man's accomplice. Imano then catches a rainbow trout, unusual for such a northern location, and resolves to search online for the reason rainbow trout might be swimming in the Oide River.
As this extended summary makes clear, Numata expends a great deal of effort establishing a detailed chronology and structuring it through narrative interludes in a way to gradually draw out social and personal motifs. The writing is confident, even masterly, and the open-ended conclusion hearkens to a kind of suggestiveness that once was considered quintessentially Japanese, despite the contrivance involved. Indeed, it was this deliberate air of suggestiveness -- which includes a significant amount of hedging about the nature of the relationship between Imano and Hiasa -- that caused some members of the selection committee to hesitate recommending the story for the award. Miyamoto Teru, for example, while admiring Numata's talent, complained that he hadn't really treated the tragedy of the earthquake at all, that he had simply managed to drape it in a sort of camouflage. Okuizumi Hikaru felt that the story was undeveloped and left too much about Hiasa unexplored. Murakami Ryū (who ignored all of the other candidates in his comments, apparently unimpressed), expressed dissatisfaction with the way he was too easily able to discern the author's message -- that a successful author inspires the reader to make an imaginative effort that leads to a surprising discovery rather than to a thoroughly predictable conclusion.
Aside from these three exceptions, Numata received positive votes from Yamada Eimi, Yoshida Shūichi (who qualified his support by advising Numata in the future to focus on a Hiasa-type character rather than on an Imano-type narrator), Takagi Nobuko, Ogawa Yōko, Horie Toshiyuki (for whom the story was a second choice), Kawakami Hiromi (who also expressed a preference for a different story), and Shimada Masahiko (Murakami Ryū did not take part in the selection process this time). It is a strong showing, even if the story, despite its timeliness, incorporates what might be called a reassuringly traditional style that does give the impression of a deliberately evoked suggestiveness.
Ora ora de hitori igu mo (Where I Go, I Go Alone) by Wakatake Chisako
A multi-voiced meditation by a 74-year-old widow named Hidaka Momoko about the solitude, loneliness, and freedom of her own final years. The narration is a mixture of Tohoku dialect and standard Japanese, reflecting Momoko's dual consciousness of a life lived partly in Tohoku and partly in the Kanto region (she ran away from home at the age of 24, and for the past 40 years she has been living in a "New Town" suburb outside of Tokyo). The reader is given access to Momoko's internal dialogues and recollections over the course of a year, becoming acquainted with her deepening awareness that the (relatively) early death of her husband not only plunged her into sadness but made possible a joyous independence -- made it possible, that is, for her to discover herself. If her initial escape to Tokyo represented a youthful assertion of independence based on rejection and (apparent) denial, her return to the language and memories of her youth toward the end of her life represents a different sort of declaration of independence, one based on affirmation and acceptance. This affirmation does not occur without ambivalence, and precisely for that reason the story gains strength as a fully authentic portrayal of a particular end-of-days vision of life. The title, itself in Tohoku dialect, references a line in Miyazawa Kenji's poem Ketsubetsu no asa (The Morning of Our Final Parting).
The selection committee was almost universally impressed by this late-bloomer's debut story (Wakatake, at 63, is the second-oldest author ever to have won the Akutagawa Prize), noting, for example, the stylistic verve (Yamada Eimi) and the effective evocation of a joined past, present, and future resulting from the story's multifaceted narrative technique (Miyamoto Teru). Only Ogawa Yōko voiced a certain dissatisfaction with the rather mundane level of Momoko's final stage of awareness, although Ogawa also took pains to comment on Wakatake's talent. There is no question of that talent, even if one must point out that a certain redundancy sets in in the last two sections of the five-section story, and that the ending (Motoko's granddaughter pays an unexpected visit) does seem tritely redemptive. The award is certainly deserved; one wonders what direction Wakatake will take in the future.
Hyakunen-doro (One Hundred Years of Mud) by Ishii Yūka
The narrator is a Japanese woman, divorced multiple times, who out of financial necessity has come to Chennai, India, to teach Japanese to Indians at a local IT company. Several months into her stay, the river floods, briefly confining her to her apartment. When she ventures out to work again, she crosses a bridge over the river, and items mysteriously originating from Japan are picked out of the mud and used to connect the narrator's past and present, India and Japan. First, a whiskey bottle occasions thoughts of the narrator's past marriages and her reason for coming to India in the first place. Next, a glass-encased mummified "mermaid" from a hometown temple occasions memories of the narrator's childhood and her relationship with her mother. Finally, a coin medallion from the Osaka Expo of 1970 associates themes of tourism and expatriation with the narrator's present relationships with her Indian colleagues and students, expanding the story into a kind of meditation on Indian culture.
As will be clear from the above outline, Ishii uses magical realism to create an imaginative space in which two cultures and multiple periods of time can intermingle (the title clearly echoes Gabriel García Márquez). Having wealthier Indians fly to work on artificial sets of wings which are then set out on banana palms to air adds an extra touch of cross-cultural whimsy. The mingling of fancy and reality is skillfully accomplished, although there is also a slightly discomforting sense of exoticism (the narrator, unlike the author, is more or less fresh off the boat and has not really earned her cultural insights, even if it is true that first impressions can be important in their own way). This exotic aspect does tend to give one pause, even if one can acknowledge a certain amount of personal complicity when writing in English about a Japanese story about life in India. The story is enjoyable enough to read, but finally more of a treat than a filling meal.
Although generally not as positive toward Ishii as they were toward Wakatake, the members of the selection committee did recognize the imaginative power of Ishii's technique (Ogawa Yōko noted that the story received the nod during the committee's second vote). Yamada Eimi praised the "collage" of cultural elements, Miyamoto Teru declared magical realism to be appropriate to a depiction of life in India, and Kawakami Hiromi was won over by the story's playful absurdity. Yoshida Shūichi thought that Wakatake's story contained a warmth lacking in Ishii; Takagi Nobuko took exception to the "informational" content of what was supposed to be a depiction of an Indian's thought processes; Okuizumi Hikaru said that although he was predisposed against the story, he found himself persuaded by the positive arguments of other members; Shimada Masahiko thought that a clearer line between reportage and fiction might be advisable (Shimada here seems to comes close to expressing my own doubts); and Horie Toshiyuki sensed that the plot was a little too neatly organized. Despite these minor reservations, the other members were quite willing to have Ishii share the prize with Wakatake.
Okuribi (Rite of Fire) by Takahashi Hiroki
Ayumu has started his last year of middle school as a transfer student in the Tsugaru region of northern Japan, where the population is dwindling. The school is scheduled to be merged with another school next year, and Ayumu is one of only six male students in the final graduating class. He prides himself on his ability to navigate the often troublesome waters of middle-school social life, and soon appears to have fit in with the others, including the class leader -- a bully named Akira -- and Akira's regular victim, Minoru. Ayumu nevertheless stands out: his father is a salaried worker on his last assignment before a permanent management post in Tokyo; Ayumu himself plans to go to a high school in the Tokyo metropolitan area rather than a local vocational-oriented school; and he lacks the sort of moral fiber that might enable him to stand up to the sort of bullying and petty violence exhibited by Akira, who plays vicious tricks on the losers of a card game in which he is always the dealer and manipulates the cards.
Summer vacation starts, and Ayumu thinks that the remainder of the school year will probably play out much as the spring term did. But on the day in August the community is scheduled to perform its okuribi ceremony -- setting fire to giant straw figures as a means to guide ancestral spirits back to the other world after their brief sojourn on earth during the Bon Festival -- former graduates of the middle school gather the classmates together to perform their own traditional hazing ritual, a "circus" stunt in which one of the boys must try to maintain his balance on a medium-sized Day-Glow ball. The victim is chosen by playing the usual card game, and (although Ayumu is said to be unable to determine whether Akira cheats) Minoru loses, eventually getting beat to a bloody mess before rebelling violently and stabbing the OB ringleader with a knife, then attacking Ayumu with one of the sharp-edged farm implements that have brought for the hazing. Ayumu at first supposes that Minoru has mistaken him for Akira, but Minoru shouts that it is Ayumu he has always resented. The seriously injured Ayumu manages to run off, finally fainting next to the river, where he regains consciousness in the evening just as the first of the three straw ceremonial figures is being set alight.
With the repeated emphasis on Ayumu's ability to "get along" with his classmates (the "kyōchōsei" for which he is commended on his school report card), the reader is obviously being set up for the reversal of expectations that occurs in the final section. The fact that Ayumu, Akira, and Monoru are the three classmates forced to take part in the card game to decide who is to be subject to the hazing "game" -- along with Ayumu's mistaken impression of the reason for Minoru's attack -- suggests that this three-cornered relationship holds the key to interpretation. The final image of the burning "sacrifice," too, makes it clear enough that the three have been implicated in some sort of primal coming-of-age rite. What is not clear is what, if anything, is being sacrificed or exorcised. Is this some sort of masochistic and nihilistic form of revenge taken on a mainstream stance toward graduation as a means to achieving one's "dreams" while in fact offering only the promise of brutish, lifelong drudgery on the land? That is about as good a moral as any to be found. But the story ends in freeze-frame fashion, and there is no follow-up, no epilogue of any kind. It's powerful stuff, but it's also mostly just a kick to the head.
Okuribi was chosen as the winning story on the first ballot, with Takahashi garnering near-universal praise from the selection committee for his sheer talent as a writer. The style is assured and the insinuation of extreme violence into the everyday life of a rural community is handled with extraordinary skill. The only real point of contention was the significance (or lack of it) of the violence in the final section. Kawakami Hiromi (who actually favored another work over Okuribi) gave voice to the ambivalence of the ending by saying that she would like Takahashi to have the violence lead somewhere, but that she respected the right of a writer not to satisfy the demands of his or her readers. Ogawa Yōko, Yamada Eimi, and Horie Toshiyuki were unequivocal supporters; Shimada Masahiko was lavish with his praise; Miyamoto Teru found the ending puzzling but admired the "dense texture" of the story's details; Yoshida Shūichi offered congratulations while hedging in the same manner as Kawakami; Okuizumi Hikaru supported another story but was willing to go along with the majority. Takagi Nobuko remained opposed to Takahashi to the end. Murakami Ryū announced on July 6 that the previous award (the 158th) marked the end of his participation as a member of the selection committee. The precise reason for Murakami's decision is unclear -- and it is worth noting that he was absent from the previous selection-committee meeting -- but reports noted that he had made his intentions clear earlier and that his decision had nothing to do with a charge of plagiarism that had been leveled against one of the award candidates in June.