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.


No reviews for 1996.







No reviews for 1997







119th Akutagawa Prize, first half of 1998; two winners

Buenosu Airesu gozen reiji (Midnight in Buenos Aires), by Fujisawa Shū

A well-turned story about a young man who has left Tokyo in frustration and returned to his hometown, where he now works at a resort hotel. The plot revolves around the visit to the hotel by a social-dance group, one of whose members is an old and largely senile woman who may have been a prostitute in Yokohama in her youth. The woman's memories of an Argentinean lover (the reader is left to decide on their degree of reality) strike a responsive chord in the young man, who himself at the end of the story recalls (or imagines) a visit he made to a foreign prostitute. The effect is to implicate the mismatched couple in a relationship with overtly sexual connotations (such as references to eggs, genitalia, sperm, and the old woman's breasts), leading to a final tango that neatly fuses past and present, reality and fantasy, Japanese and foreign.

The story came in for a measure of criticism by members of the selection committee because it was perceived to lack ambition, but except for the melodramatic touch that intrudes itself into the final scene, the author's skill is obvious.

Gerumaniamu no yoru (Germanium Nights), by Hanamura Mangetsu

The first-person account of a Japanese orphan brought up in a Jesuit monastery who in his early twenties returns to the monastery to escape punishment for a murder he has committed on the "outside." Once back, he cruelly and deliberately proceeds to demonstrate the corruption of all the supposedly devout inmates, including the foreign priest who has always treated him with the most understanding (he accomplishes this by causing the priest to lose faith in the redeeming value of kindness). Because of the prominent role of foreigners and the theme of Christianity in Japan, Hanamura appears to be courting the role of a sort of vengeful Endō Shūsaku.

Despite some powerful writing, however, the treatment finally comes across as trite and unconvincing. Certainly Western readers can be excused for having the feeling they've seen all this before. In addition, as one of the less favorably disposed members of the selection committee members pointed out, the story is flawed in that it presents through the mind of an immature character the unfiltered sensibility of a mature writer. The Akutagawa Prize committee, by deciding to give the award to two authors, may have tried to split the difference between the ambition of Hanamura and the craft of Fujisawa, but in my view there is no real contest.

120th Akutagawa Prize, second half of 1998

The winner of the 120th Akutagawa Prize was Hirano Keiichirō, for Nisshoku (Eclipse). No review is available.

121st Akutagawa Prize, first half of 1999

No award was made for the 121st Akutagawa Prize.

122nd Akutagawa Prize, second half of 1999; two winners

Kage no sumika (A Dwelling in the Shade), by Gen Getsu

"A Dwelling in the Shade" is the story of an elderly zainichi Korean resident of Osaka. The writing depicts the life and thoughts of this man (referred to in Japanese as Mun Soban), whose father is said to have been one of the founders of the ethnically Korean enclave in which he still lives and which, deserted by most of the descendants of the original inhabitants, has grown increasingly ramshackle.

Despite the potent realism of the portrayal, it is nonetheless true that, as Ishihara Shintarō remarked in his comments, the theme is unfocused and the reader is left wondering about the point of it all. This diffuseness is symbolized by the two major dramatic events of the story: the rape of the well-off middle-aged woman who visits Soban regularly as a volunteer worker, and the lynching of a group of Chinese immigrants who have swindled some compatriots of their savings. The first event gives clear expression to the hostility that obtains between zainichi Koreans and Japanese society at large while also highlighting the blatant power-mongering of the factory owner who acts as the enclave’s godfather; the second harkens back to a similar lynching that took place in Soban’s childhood (in which his own father played a part), and thus seems meant to implicate Soban himself in the atmosphere of guilt.

The problem is that these two events are not clearly related to each other, and so Soban’s final desperate act of resistance (he attacks a policeman who has come to investigate the factory owner) lacks sufficient motivation. Given that the Akutagawa Prize is awarded to upcoming writers with the aim of encouraging further development, the story appears to meet the necessary criteria for the award, although for Gen it should probably be regarded as marking a promising point of departure.

Natsu no yakusoku (Summer Promise), by Fujino Chiya

Natsu no yakusoku basically concerns the agreement made by a homosexual couple and their now-female transsexual friend (along with two other female acquaintances) to go on a camping trip during the upcoming summer. That promise is ultimately broken when the transsexual, while walking up the street, is accidentally struck on the head by a heavy pan that comes flying out of a nearby window during a domestic spat.

The members of the selection committee who were attracted to this story appear to have been won over by the light touch with which Fujino treats a topic that could easily have slipped into melodrama (the portentous description of the final accident, in which the reader is momentarily encouraged to think that a deliberate attack has been made on the transsexual, indicates the direction that might have been taken). The "it's-all-right-to-be-different" point, however, is made so simplistically and the organization smacks so much of writing-by-the-numbers that it is hard to see it as much more than a wishful fairy tale of Japanese political correctness. Perhaps that is the real reason it was chosen.

123rd Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2000; two winners

Kiregire (Shreds), by Machida Kō

The story takes the form of an interior monologue by the no-account son of a widowed ceramics dealer, whose frustration and disgust with the world and himself produces a collage of wishful and self-denigrating fantasies based on such incidents as a failed marriage interview, his mother's sudden death, and an exhibition held by a former classmate who has recently achieved success as a painter. Structurally, the story begins and ends on the day of the exhibition, and is further unified by the implied contrast between the narrator and his wife (a former pub "hostess") and the painter and his wife (the daughter of a wealthy family who had once been considered a potential marriage partner for the narrator). The narrator rails against his former classmate and belittles his talent, but clearly envies him his success and even seems to recognize that he has only himself to blame for his indigence.

The members of the selection committee who supported Machida, a former punk-rock musician, praised his style, which impressed Ishihara Shintarō, for example, to the extent that he seems to regard Machida as the true representative of a new generation of writers and thus a worthy potential successor to himself (at least in the sense of breathing some fresh air into the literary world). It should be noted, however, that several on the committee, including Kōno Taeko, Murakami Ryū, and Miyamoto Teru, found nothing whatsoever to admire in Machida, considering his style to consist more or less of cheap wordplay, and making the (valid, it seems to me) point that separating the elements of fantasy in the story from the elements of reality is no easy task. The story reminded me somewhat of the 1972 movie Up the Sandbox, with Barbra Streisand, which depicts the fantasy life of a bored housewife. There is indeed a certain freshness to the story, aided largely by the disruptive technique, but finally one wonders whether anything very important is being said. Perhaps Furui Yoshikichi is right to see in the story a sort of ironic commentary on the Japanese I-novel tradition, marking Machida as a modern-day successor to Kasai Zenzō. But it is still too early to tell, and Machida (no doubt justifiably) seems to have won the award on the strength of the potential suggested by Kiregire.

Hana kutashi (A Spoiling Rain), by Matsuura Hisashi

The title comes from a classical term for the dreary rains of early summer (the fourth lunar month), which cause the flowers of the utsugi (deutzia) tree to rot. As the reference suggests, and as Kōno Taeko points out in her comments, this is a very self-consciously "literary" story. The narrator is a middle-aged man whose lover died two years previously and whose company is now facing bankruptcy after his closest friend and partner has apparently absconded with a large sum of money. Alienated from both society and desire, the narrator finds consolation in a seedy and desolate apartment building in Tokyo where he experiences a revelation of sorts after encountering a younger man who grows hallucinatory mushrooms there. Unsurprisingly for anyone over a certain age, the revelation comes after a dreamlike bout of drinking and sex in the apartment, and takes the form of the narrator's embracing the sort of seedy decadence he has discovered. Alienation, betrayal, sex, drugs, and the affirmation of decadence -- just the combination that one would expect from a (former?) bungaku seinen and professor of French literature at the University of Tokyo.

Considering that almost everyone on the selection committee found Hana kutashi to be less satisfactory than Matsuura's last story (also an Akutagawa Prize candidate), it is actually rather surprising that they agreed to give him the award at all. One major factor appears to have been the assured style of the Japanese, which shows a high degree of polish (even though it was also criticized for precisely the same reason). Despite the easy sense of familiarity it encourages, Matsuura’s style is a considerable accomplishment, and the story is well crafted. Still, the theme is a hackneyed one, and the relationship established between the narrator and the mushroom-growing young man not altogether convincing. There may be a certain nostalgia involved for anyone who spent a majority of his (probably not "her") adolescence in the 1960s, but the story seems oddly out of place at the tail end of the 20th century.

124th Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2000; two winners

Seisui (Holy Water), by Seirai Yūichi

The plot centers on a young man in Nagasaki whose dying father has chosen to spend his last few weeks in the house where he lived as a boy. Before the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the house formed part of a small enclave of residents descended from "secret Christians" who had lived on the spot for over 200 years. During the early Meiji period, when the government was trying to suppress Christianity, one of the enclave's residents, a man named Yamamura Unosuke, had gained notoriety for first apostatizing and then torturing other Christians from the same area by means of a cruel rope-binding technique subsequently termed Unosuke-bari. The narrator and the other main characters are all descended from this famous traitor, who at the time of his death had begged to be forgiven and allowed to die as a Catholic. The title of the story comes from the mineral water marketed by the father's charismatic childhood friend, Sagari Keiichi, the properties of which are believed by a number of Sagari's Christian "followers" to be nothing short of miraculous, and which is used by Sagari as a means of both revitalizing the tradition of the secret Christians and -- not incidentally -- acquiring influence over their lives.

The narrator holds his almost fanatical relatives in contempt, and suspects Sagari of a level of megalomaniac cruelty not unlike Unosuke's (he even believes he sees rope burns on his girlfriend's groin and supposes that they were inflicted by Sagari). He is forced to confront this attitude directly when his father makes the unexpected request that an oratio (a Japanese-Christian prayer) be chanted at the time of his death. In the event (brought on by a fit of rage at the thwarting of the father's attempts to have his son take over his business), the oratio helps make the father's death a peaceful one.

The story is an impressive exploration of the meaning of Christianity in Japan and the possibility of religious faith anywhere (in this respect, the fact that the oratio itself is sometimes incomprehensible is used to telling effect). The chief defect mentioned by members of the (generally favorably disposed) selection committee was that of a certain dryness of touch that at times seems to sacrifice depth of character for stylistic polish (Kuroi Senji made this point directly; Furui Yoshikichi ascribed the fault more concretely to a failure of narrative technique). It does seem true that the portrayal of Sagari lacks a depth that would account more convincingly for his thematic importance, and that the narrator's own present situation should probably have been more clearly defined. Still, a deserving choice, even if one finds it slightly puzzling that a frequently published writer 42 years old is still considered "up-and-coming."

Kuma no shikiishi (The Bear and the Paving Stone), by Horie Toshiyuki

The story is, on its surface, the almost casual account by the Japanese narrator of a brief visit with an erstwhile French friend who has become increasingly preoccupied with his Jewish heritage. It acquires thematic depth as a modern-day exploration of the implications of a fable by La Fontaine about a slow-witted bear and an old man who, to assuage their mutual loneliness, have formed a friendship. The bear is assigned the task of chasing away flies as his human companion sleeps, and one day the bear unthinkingly throws a paving stone at a fly hovering about the man's face, splitting the man's head open. The moral of the story is, of course, that a stupid friend can be more dangerous than a cunning enemy. Horie applies this moral, not without a certain degree of subtlety, to the relationship between the two modern friends from different cultures, thereby putting into question the possibility of such friendship. The ending is marred somewhat by the introduction of a great deal of superfluous biographical information about lexicographer Paul-Emile Littré (whose background the Japanese man has been assigned to study as the possible subject of a translation into Japanese) and by an overly pat reversal of roles regarding the question of which of the two friends should be regarded as assuming the bear's role in the fable.

Several members of the selection committee objected strongly to the story as being more like an essay than a novel (including Ishihara Shintarō, who brusquely dismissed all such efforts as antithetical to the true spirit of fiction, and Kōno Taeko, who criticized the author's lack of artistic imagination). Others commended Horie's attempt to deal seriously with the modern European experience at a time when Japan sometimes appears to believe it has nothing more to learn from the West. It is true that the author adopts the rather dry viewpoint of an intellectual, and that the style is primarily expository. But the (too-)obvious modeling on La Fontaine's fable also shows a clear shaping impulse at work. In the final analysis, a flawed but readable story.