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 through 2020.


125th Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2001

Chūin no hana (Flowers in Limbo), by Gen'yū Sōkyū

A story by a narrator who, like the author himself, is a Rinzai Zen priest. The priest has lived for the past six years in a small village in northern Japan, and the plot turns on the way in which the priest accommodates his Zen principles to the syncretist folk beliefs and practices of ordinary Japanese. The story gains thematic depth through the priest's acknowledgment of the value of such beliefs as reflected in his relationships with two other characters: a local shaman (ogamiya) who dies on a day she has foretold; and the priest's own wife, who has previously suffered a miscarriage and sought advice and consolation from the shaman.

Neither relationship is free of ambiguity. The shaman, for instance, fails to die on the first date she predicts for her death, and it is a source of concern to the priest that she might be leading one of his parishioners astray. On the other hand, the priest frequented the house of just such a shaman as a boy, and from personal experience he knows that folk belief is a powerfully effective spiritual force. As for the priest's wife, she has spent the four years since her miscarriage neurotically twisting shreds of wrapping paper into long strings, and once the shaman dies, she begins joining the strings into nets. The wife believes that the spirits of both the shaman and her unborn child will linger in a sort of limbo (the chūin of the title, a state likened to that of steam rising from hot water before it dissipates) until a proper memorial service is held. At the end of the story, the colorful nets (the "flowers" of the title) are mysteriously set into motion when the priest recites the memorial service his wife has asked for, and she remarks that it is a sign that someone's spirit has been set free by the service, even if she is not sure whose spirit it might be. Nevertheless, she seems to feel genuine relief, and the incident causes her husband to realize that he has been neglecting her since her miscarriage, which works to bring the two closer together.

On the whole, the selection committee -- which ultimately voted unanimously for Chūin no hana -- regarded the style and organization to be quite accomplished, although some members worried about thematic limitations and expressed dissatisfaction with the handling of the symbolism of the nets in the final scene (they thought the visionary aspect wasn't sufficiently emphasized, although in my view the problem is the obviousness). This certainly seems to be the most thematically ambitious of any prize-winning story from the past few years, and certain aspects are quite fascinating to the layman (the priest's attempt to reconcile Buddhist beliefs and science by locating the seat of consciousness in neutrons, for instance). I personally feel let down by the ending, but otherwise find the story an absorbing and impressive effort by an "upcoming" (Gen'yū is 46 years old) writer.

126th Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2001

Mō-supiido de haha wa (Mom, Pedal to the Metal), by Nagashima Yū

A relatively short piece narrated by an elementary-school boy being raised by a divorced mother in Hokkaido in the early 1990s. The period of time covered is about a year, and during that time the mother has an unsuccessful engagement, her own mother dies, and her father falls ill, compelling her to drive regularly back to her hometown to take care of him (the significance of the title comes from the speed at which the boy's mother covers the distance). The appeal of the story comes from the way the boy becomes in certain respects better able to understand his mother as an individual, thus demonstrating his increased maturity. Nagashima's unsentimental approach to the problem of what constitutes family life in contemporary Japan is refreshing, and as long as one does not look for much depth, his dry, objective touch is deftly applied.

The perceived "lightness" of the story did not sit well with some of the selection-committee members, with Ishihara Shintarō and Miyamoto Teru being especially sharp in their criticism. Somewhat surprisingly in view of the caustic comments he made about Nagashima in the last Akutagawa Prize competition, Murakami Ryū voiced strong support for Mō-supiido de haha wa, claiming that it was a novel that society "needs." One can't help suspecting that, as with other writers, Murakami considers his own writing to be the best model for producing good literature. Strong support for Nagashima also came from Kuroi Senji and Kōno Taeko, with concurring opinions from Ikezawa Natsuki, Hino Keizō, and committee newcomer Takagi Nobuko. Furui Yoshikichi and Miura Tetsuo supported works by other authors.

127th Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2002

Pāku raifu (Park Life), by Yoshida Shūichi

A story told in the first person by a young sales representative for a company that makes bath gels and powders. The man lives and works near Tokyo's Hibiya Park, where he likes to sit during his afternoon breaks and allow his imagination to wander, often to thoughts of the hometown girl who was his first true love but who rebuffed him as being more like a brother than a boyfriend (the two have remained friends, but a key event in the story is the narrator's being told of her plans to get married). In the park, the young man strikes up a friendship with a woman he had earlier stood next to in the subway, and they both seem to take pleasure in the dry, casual relationship that follows. Interspersed with the account of their subsequent meetings are descriptions of the narrator's other acquaintances, including a dysfunctional couple for whom he is babysitting a pet monkey; a paternal, middle-aged colleague; and the narrator's mother, who is making one of her regular visits to Tokyo to see her son and get in some shopping. The story comes to an inconclusive, slice-of-modern-life end when the narrator and his new woman friend view a photo exhibit that includes pictures of the woman's hometown. After visiting the display, the woman tells the narrator she has arrived at a decision about their relationship -- without revealing what the decision is. It may be that she has decided that the time has come for their relationship to be put on a more serious footing, or perhaps she has simply found the potential for increased intimacy too uncomfortable and will say goodbye. The work thus constitutes a contemporary Japanese variation on the theme of lost love, without finally coming down on the side of either encouragement or despair.

The story is enjoyable to read, the author has a sharp eye for the telling detail and a talent for creating memorable descriptions of character, and the portrayal of the semi-anonymous, uncommitted life of the big city rings true. Several members of the selection committee took exception to a perceived superficiality of theme (Ishihara Shintarō, for instance) or the lack of dramatic incident (Miyamoto Teru). But on the whole, Yoshida was commended for his narrative skill and "mature" point of view (Kōno Taeko). I think this is a fair assessment, as long as "mature" is taken to refer to the generation to which Yoshida himself belongs.

128th Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2002

Shoppai doraibu (Salty Drives), by Daidō Tamaki

A story about a woman in her mid-thirties who ends up living with a man in his early sixties. The title comes from the salty ocean air that flows into the car as the two take drives together around the small fishing village that is their home. The man is a longtime family friend who just can't say no when asked for help, a foible that the woman and her family have frequently taken advantage of in the past to borrow money. The woman has lost her sense of direction in life after a brief affair with a dissolute, handsome local actor who still often occupies her thoughts. The gloomy sense of dejection she feels combines with a clear-sighted understanding of her own situation and a defiance of small-town morality to create an ironic and yet sympathetic portrait of the main character.

The story is more of a character study than anything else, and as such it does a good job of conveying the uniqueness of the aging man's personality as well as that of the narrator. The members of the selection committee who opposed awarding the prize to Shoppai doraibu (especially Ishihara Shintarō and Murakami Ryū), tended to be put off by the lack of both dramatic interest and thematic ambition. Those who liked the story (Kuroi Senji, Miura Tetsuo, Takagi Nobuko, and Kōno Taeko) were attracted to the skillful portrayal of character and to the ironical, somewhat melancholy sense of humor. The general feeling was that the story is comparatively slight, and many on the committee appear to have been tempted to give the award instead to a story by Nakamura Fuminori titled (The Gun). It is almost as if the committee decided to give the award to Daidō on the basis of her technical improvement as an author (she has been an Akutagawa Prize candidate three times previously). This should therefore probably be counted one of the weaker recommendations for the prize in recent years.

129th Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2003

Hariganemushi (The Hairworm), by Yoshimura Man'ichi

The plot revolves around the rapid moral dissolution of a young high school ethics teacher who falls prey to his increasingly violent and uncontrollable sexual urges. The main character, Nakaoka Shin'ichi, begins his descent toward society's dark yet fascinating underside after meeting Sachiko, the woman who services him at a Tokyo "soapland" (the narrator himself is from Osaka). Nakaoka's attraction to Sachiko -- uneducated, abused, and married to a no-account -- appears at first glance incomprehensible, but can perhaps be attributed to his deep-seated frustration with the arbitrary moral strictures and hypocrisy of "normal" society (Nakaoka's senior colleague Mrs. Shibata functions as the respectable but still sexually attractive double for Sachiko). Nakaoka and Sachiko travel together by car to Shikoku, where Sachiko was born and where she has left her two sons to be cared for at an institution. After causing Sachiko to lose a tooth, Nakaoka promises to marry her (not out of any sense of sympathy or pity, it should be added). Nakaoka eventually reneges on his promise, and after a particularly grotesque scene of sexual violence involving a group of juvenile delinquents as well as Nakaoka and Sachiko, the two separate. Sachiko has not forgiven Nakaoka for breaking his promise, however, and the novel ends with her attempt to strangle him while he sleeps, an attempt that turns into yet another expression of perverted desire. Otherwise, each chapter in this seven-chapter novel ends on the same note of disgust initiated by the story's opening scene, in which the main character flicks the head off a praying mantis and watches a hairworm emerge from its abdomen.

The selection committee was somewhat divided over the shock value of the over-the-top sexual violence in the story, with Ishihara Shintarō, for example, pointing with approval to the powerfully disturbing depiction of the sorry moral state of contemporary Japanese youth, and Miyamoto Teru, on the other hand, professing to find the depiction merely disgusting and even old-fashioned. Murakami Ryū, while acknowledging Yoshimura's skill, criticized the story for a certain lack of involvement (setsujitsu-sa) and complained in general that stylistic polish was far too much in evidence among all the supposedly "new" writers under consideration. Others supporting Hariganemushi were Takagi Nobuko, Kōno Taeko, Yamada Eimi, and (more reluctantly) Kuroi Senji and Ikezawa Natsuki. Those opposed or strongly favoring other works included, besides Miyamoto and Murakami, Furui Yoshikichi and Miura Tetsuo.

There is no doubting the topical interest of the story (the author himself was formerly a high school teacher and draws upon personal experience), and the violence is indeed stomach-turning in places (the scene in which the hero sews up his girlfriend's arm without benefit of anesthetic bears comparison to the cat scene in Mishima Yukio's Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, even as the resemblance lends support to Miyamoto's opinion that there is little new under the fictional sun). Although several members of the selection committee commented on what they took to be the slapstick nature of the violence ("it's fiction, after all"), I confess that such humor, to the extent that it exists, left me flat. In Hollywood terms, the story could perhaps be characterized as Kitano Takeshi meets In the Realm of the Senses. Those who are put off by Kitano's films or by Ōshima Nagisa's cinematic account of the Abe Sada incident will be equally disgusted by Hariganemushi. Those who prefer to find social and artistic depths in such films will be able to find them here as well. But it is hard see the story as providing any greater insight into the nature and meaning of extreme, random violence than we already have.

130th Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2003; two winners

Keritai senaka (Kick Me), by Wataya Risa

The story of two high school loners on the threshold of adulthood and romantic love. The narrator, Hatsu, is a girl who, although alienated from her classmates, is nevertheless quite typical in her personality and aspirations. She takes an interest in the other friendless student in her class, a boy named Ninagawa, who has a frankly immature crush on an exotic-looking fashion model named Oli Chang. Hatsu attracts Ninagawa's interest by telling him of her chance encounter with the model, and the relationship between the two gradually deepens without becoming overtly romantic. The title, which in Japanese more literally means "a back I want to kick," refers to Hatsu's efforts to get Ninagawa to pay more attention to her.

It is important to note that both Hatsu and Ninagawa are loners rather than rebels or misfits. Hatsu's ordinariness, for example, is effectively conveyed by having her comment on her own plain looks and personality, and by portraying her as unable to read the Chinese character that makes up the first half of Ninagawa's name. The depiction of Ninagawa's immaturity is equally on target, with the adolescent sexuality of his crush on Oli Chang true to what one imagines to be the case with boys in general and Japanese boys in particular. It is this immaturity in Ninagawa that causes Hatsu to feel jealous of Oli Chang and prompts the impulse to kick the boy in the back to get him to notice her. This impulse overlaps with the way Hatsu finds herself frustratedly chasing after Ninagawa when they go to a live "fashion concert" featuring Oli Chang, and also with the suggestion that Ninagawa might return her interest when, at the end of the story, he confesses that when he met first Hatsu he felt as if he were getting caught up in some "great project."

One would like to believe that Wataya is aware of the irony of having two otherwise nondescript Japanese youths getting caught up in what they consider a "great project" that, precisely because of the characters' limitations, is notably restricted in scope and intensity. It is the presence of this irony that allows the story to become more than simply a true-to-life vignette of contemporary Japanese youth, giving rise to a tantalizing ambivalence regarding the possibilities of love. That Wataya may indeed be aware of such irony is what makes the choice of her story for the Akutagawa Prize an altogether appropriate one, although at the same time her stylistic mannerisms tend to narrow the gap between writer and characters that gives rise to the irony, and Wataya also seems to have had trouble devising an ending that does not come off as being, well, a little sappy (this was true of her first novel, Insutōru [Install], as well). But as several members of the selection committee pointed out, it would be little short of churlish to demand too much from a teenager's relatively slight second novel, and it can be said that for the first time in recent memory, the Akutagawa Prize has fulfilled its mission in drawing attention to two genuinely promising young writers.

Hebi ni piasu (Snakes and Earrings), by Kanehara Hitomi

In contrast to Wataya's narrator, Nakazawa Rui, the young woman who narrates "Snakes and Earrings" (this English title appears on the cover of the hardback edition), is more of a true social misfit who finds herself entangled in romantic relationships with two obsessively unstable young men. One of these youths is "Ama," which the man claims is short for "Amadeus" but is in fact a shortened version of his real name, Amada Kazunori. Ama has gone in for body piercing to such an extent that he has given himself a split tongue, like a snake's, a process described in excruciating detail in the opening pages of the novel. Rui accepts his offer to get a tattoo as her introduction to the procedure (one might even say culture) of body modification, and her self-questioning about her motivation constitutes the story's theme. The friend to whom Ama takes Rui to get her tattoo, Shiba (short for Shibata Kizuki), exerts a powerful influence on Rui, who then decides to have her own tongue pierced and sleeps with Shiba to pay for it. The resulting rivalry between Ama and Shiba constitutes the center of thematic interest.

Rui and Shiba continue their sexual relationship, taking care to hide it from the intensely jealous Ama, and Shiba gets Rui to promise that if she ever feels like dying, she will let him be the one to kill her. Meanwhile, Ama ends up killing a small-time gangster who approaches Rui one night in Shinjuku, and before long himself ends up missing (his mutilated and brutally sodomized body is discovered later). Rui grieves at her loss of Ama despite his shortcomings, for she knows that he really loved her; but she soon ends up living with Shiba, who is most likely Ama's killer. Rui is clearly aware of this possibility, but decides to ignore it in the hope that Shiba will ultimately take Ama's place.

Whether Rui's final expression of hope suggests redemption or self-deception is the question the reader faces at the end of the story. I think it is the latter, and take the main theme to be one of despair. In that sense, Kanehara's story seems rather more self-consciously literary than Wataya's. Certainly Kanehara's style seems to be more fully developed, with no trace of the occasionally immature touches one cannot help noticing in Wataya. The structure of the story, however, comes under strain at the end, with its unlikely catastrophe and the pat revelation of the three main characters' real names, as though too obviously in preparation for a final summing up. If the chief (potential) problem with Wataya is a limited sense of vision, perhaps Kanehara can be said to face the problem of developing a more fully formed aesthetic response to the despair she portrays (even if that answer need not be redemptive). But with the exception of Ishihara Shintarō, who has become something of an old fogey concerning the moral fiber of modern youth, no one on the selection committee seems to have opposed the final selection of Kanehara regardless of their own first choice, and this can no doubt be taken as an indication of her talent. As a result of the astounding amount of media attention lavished on them because of their age and sex, both Kanehara and Wataya must now contend for the foreseeable future with the imposing and unenviable task of making good on their youthful promise.

131st Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2004

Kaigo nyūmon (Guide for the Care of the Elderly), by Mobu Norio

A fairly straightforward story about a 29-year-old Kansai man -- the narrator -- who discovers the true value of family by undertaking to care for his grandmother, paralyzed and bedridden after a household fall. Spending his nights on a foldaway bed at the old woman's bedside, the narrator passes his days in something of a daze, listening to grunge rock and smoking marijuana; and because his efforts go largely unobserved, he is regarded as an unreliable good-for-nothing by an aunt who -- although always ready to shed a tear over her mother's helpless condition -- is herself careful to avoid becoming involved in alleviating it. Venting his resentment over such hypocrisy (which he formulates into a number of guidelines that provide the basis for the title), the narrator nevertheless finds ample reward in reestablishing strong emotional bonds with his mother and grandmother. The novella's chief conceit lies in a comparison between the narrator and the potentially suicidal character described in the grunge-rock song "Cabin Man" by the Cows. While from the outside it may appear that both have an antisocial death wish, the true desire of each is, as quoted in the last lines of the story, "I WANNA RIIIIIISE!" The narrator's version of "rising" involves acknowledging a deeply felt and yet unsentimentally realistic sense of personal responsibility.

The members of the selection committee devoted most of their comments on the story to its social message and its colloquial style. Furui Yoshikichi held it up as a something of an exemplary tale for contemporary youth, while Kōno Taeko found the characters to be mere puppets operating at the whim of the author. Ishihara Shintarō, deriding the lack of a complicating irony in the guidelines formulated by the narrator, also complained of a mismatch between the seriousness of the theme and the narrator's hip-hop stylistic affectations, particularly the constant use of "Yo, nigger!" (in Japanese the phrase is written "YO hōhai," with the reading nigā attached to the kanji for hōhai). His concern over the story's style was shared by Miyamoto Teru. Takagi Nobuko, more tone-deaf than Ishihara to the phrase's racial implications, by contrast found the content and style to be well matched, and a similarly positive view was expressed by Kuroi Senji. Personally, the use of the phrase struck me as the work of a hip-hop wannabe (inauthentic, if you will), and Yamada Eimi was naturally (if ironically) the one to point this out directly, chiding Mobu for his pseudo-rap style and calling him inaka-kusai for using nigā as the reading for hōhai. The story appears to have won the prize largely on the basis of two or three strong recommendations and the lack of strong support for any single rival (it may also have benefited from the absence of two regular members of the selection committee, including Murakami Ryū). It was rightly recognized as being, below its faux-contemporary surface, a "serious" story about a pressing contemporary issue. But one also suspects that the doubts expressed by several committee members about Mobu's future potential are also on target.

132nd Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2004

Gurando fināre (Grand Finale), by Abe Kazushige

A story about a 37-year-old man who is divorced by his wife after she discovers that for years he has been taking nude photographs of young girls -- including their own elementary-school daughter -- and selling them to pornographic magazines. The narrator, Sawami, is subsequently forbidden by a court order from approaching either his former wife or daughter, fired from the company for which he has been making educational films, and moves from Tokyo back to his hometown in Yamagata Prefecture. But some ten months later, on his daughter's eighth birthday, he asks a mutual friend to visit his former wife's house and give his daughter a birthday present along with a note that would result in Sawami's kidnapping his own child. Two days later, when the two friends meet at a club to discuss the outcome, the friend reveals that he only delivered the present, and then he exposes Sawami as a pedophile to some other friends who happen to be partying at the same club. The first part of the story ends with one of the friends visiting Sawami at his hotel the next day, confirming the details of his depravity, and chastising him by telling him about a friend of hers who had committed suicide because of the abuse she had suffered.

The shorter second part of the story sees Sawami back in his hometown, where a former classmate who is now an elementary-school teacher asks him to help his class put on a play for the school's cultural festival. Sawami at first refuses, wishing to avoid any sort of temptation, but gives in when two of the schoolchildren, sixth-grade girls who are fast friends, plead with him to direct them in a performance based on the German forget-me-not legend. Sawami throws himself into the project with a vigor that suggests he considers it a form of penance. Sawami learns from his schoolteacher friend that one of the girls will be moving away from the town after graduation because of the social shame attached to having an older brother who has committed murder, and at first Sawami imagines that the girls are so insistent on putting on a good performance in order to create a lasting memory of their friendship. Before long, however, he comes to suspect that instead they may be using the play as a kind of farewell statement before committing suicide together. Sawami therefore decides to give each of the girls a parakeet as a Christmas present, hoping that it might dissuade them from carrying out this plan, in the process perhaps serving as a means of personal redemption. This act is meant to be the "grand finale" of the title, although the story ends before the gifting takes place.

Six of the nine members on the selection committee supported the choice of Gurando fināre for the prize, although with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The strongest support came from Takagi Nobuko, who praised the story as a truly frightening depiction of the inner life of a sexual deviant (Yamada Eimi's comments were also quite favorable). Other members noted the story's social relevance as reflected in its allusions, sometimes explicit, to various news topics (a recent murder of a girl in Nara, an unusual spate of "Internet suicides," the 9/11 terrorist attack, and genocides in Africa). Apparently there was even a measure of sympathy at work regarding the large number of stories by Abe previously considered for the prize (this was his fifth such work). Ishihara Shintarō, however, declared the story to be entirely without merit because it merely constituted a collage of trendy social topics lacking any sort of "internal necessity." This position was echoed in the comments of Murakami Ryū, who, while noting that he ultimately cast his vote for Abe, nevertheless pointed out the author's reluctance to involve himself in a serious exploration of the narrator's psychology, thereby distancing himself from the significance of the real events to which the story alludes and resulting in an awkwardness in the treatment of character and even narrative technique (Murakami faulted Abe's use of the first person as a means for exploring the narrator's character).

I find myself to be in almost complete agreement with the negative comments made by Murakami. One might also point out the facile non-ending ending; the structural contrivance of the Tokyo-versus-Yamagata setting, including the obviously intentional overlapping of the image of Sawami's daughter with that of the two Yamagata girls (Sawami had also presented his daughter with a pet parakeet); a lurking sentimentality toward the end of the story in the treatment of the narrator's motivation; the bizarrely Mr. Bean-like attachment of Sawami to a gingerbread-man doll whose thematic purpose becomes trivialized in the novel's second section; and a lack of skill in writing children's dialogue. Further, given that so many names are actually mentioned in the text (those of the narrator's former wife, his daughter, the mutual friend, and the two sixth-grade Yamagata girls, for instance), it is entirely incomprehensible to me why Abe (or the narrator) refers to two other friends only by the initials "Y" and "I." As for the central theme, the story can't hold a candle to Lolita, the novel with which it must inevitably be compared (the Japanese term rorikon appears in the story itself, so it isn't as if Abe hasn't heard of Nabokov). As a side comment, it is interesting to note that the start of this story is reminiscent of the start of Murakami's own Akutagawa Prize-winning story Kagiri naku tōmei ni chikai burū (Almost Transparent Blue), an impression that itself suggests a certain lack of narrative ambition. Abe is hardly without talent, but this story simply does not haunt the imagination the way one feels it ought to.

133rd Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2005

Tsuchi no naka no kodomo (Child in the Dirt), by Nakamura Fuminori

The narrator is a 27-year-old man who was abandoned by his parents and raised until about the age of seven by abusive relatives. The abuse culminated in an attempt to bury the narrator alive (and hence the title), but the boy managed to free himself from this would-be grave and is subsequently institutionalized. Since then, however, the narrator has been unable to function normally in society and now lives a purposeless life with an equally down-and-nearly-out young woman whom he has invited to share his apartment and bed, even though she takes no pleasure in sex. The girl has an accident after one of her frequent drinking binges, and the narrator goes to the director of the institution where he spent his childhood to borrow the money to pay the hospital bills. The director, whose name is Yanase, readily agrees, but the stress brought on by the narrator's sense of worthlessness causes him to hallucinate and nearly suffer a nervous breakdown. Soon afterward, the narrator -- who has been working halfheartedly as a taxi driver -- picks up two men who try to rob and kill him, bringing back the memory of being buried alive. The narrator resists and manages to escape, but he crashes his taxi and later regains consciousness in the same hospital where his girlfriend is being treated. No trace can be found of the two men who allegedly tried to kill him, and the reader is invited to conclude that the entire incident was a hallucination paralleling the incident with Yanase. Nevertheless, the crash prompts the girlfriend to take a serious interest in caring for the narrator, and the narrator himself seems to undergo a rebirth of sorts, recovering a sense of self-reliance sufficient enough to refuse to meet his biological father when Yanase tries to set up a meeting between them.

The story ends up being a rather derivative form of existential fiction, aiming for contemporary relevance by addressing the issue of child abuse but focusing thematically on the well-worn motifs of alienation and personal responsibility, and setting those motifs in a rather contrived structural framework that involves the use of some pretty heavy-handed psychological symbolism. It is rather too self-consciously "literary" (a reference to Kafka's The Castle leaves no doubt on that score), the inner monologues of the narrator eventually grow tedious, and the conversations between the narrator and his girlfriend are unconvincing.

These various problems were recognized by the members of the selection committee, the most disappointed of whom seems to have been Yamada Eimi, who excoriated the author for his immaturity in so easily assuming that a stillbirth makes a convincing argument for female frigidity (Yamada nevertheless admitted that this story was the only one of the candidates to have any structure at all). Murakami Ryū was opposed, and Ikezawa Natsuki damned with faint praise. The only fully committed member was Kuroi Senji, while most of the others basically agreed to the award on the basis of future expectations -- hardly the sort of positive assessment one might expect for an Akutagawa Prize winner.

134th Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2005

Oki de matsu (Waiting Offshore), by Itoyama Akiko

An affecting, if slight, story about the relationship between a thirtysomething female office worker named Oikawa and a male colleague, Makihara Futoru, who entered the company at the same time as Oikawa. Makihara and Oikawa exchange a promise to destroy the hard-disk drive of the other should either one of them die (ostensibly to prevent potentially embarrassing material from being viewed by loved ones). When Makihara is killed in a freak accident, Oikawa (the first-person narrator) keeps her promise, and then -- just before being transferred out of the Kanto area where both have been stationed -- she stops by Makihara's apartment for a last look, there meeting his ghost and engaging in a final, nostalgic conversation. The emotional impact of the story comes from the convincing development of the relationship between the two co-workers, which is intimate without being romantic, and from the use of two narrative devices. One of these is structural: arranging for the story begin and end at the same time and place, thereby completing a narrative circle. The other device is the use of the ghost (which could well be purely imaginary), which provides an outside perspective on the narrator herself, thus closing the thematic distance between the two characters in conjunction with a return to the narrative present.

The use of these devices makes the story rather formulaic, and the irony that the information Makihara wants to keep secret becomes known to his widow by other means seems forced. But Kōno Taeko, for instance, detected a fresh sense of reality in Itoyama's treatment of office life (Oikawa belongs to the sōgōshoku category of women employees, employed on an equal basis with men), and other members of the selection committee preferred to regard the obvious patterning as demonstrating confidence (Yamada Eimi) and competence (Miyamoto Teru). Others in favor of the story included Kuroi Senji, Ikezawa Natsuki, and (more passively) Takagi Nobuko. The only outright objections came from Ishihara Shintarō, who lamented the triteness of all current fiction by newcomers, and possibly Murakami Ryū, who did not mention Itoyama at all in his comment but went on at length about the story he thought should have won, Sagawa Mitsuharu's Gin'iro no tsubasa (Silver Wings). Ishihara may be getting rather cantankerous in his old age (he himself mentions the possibility in passing), but it is true that many of the recent stories that have been awarded the Akutagawa Prize seem to have a very narrow field of vision. One might also note that the motivational premise of Itoyama's story is undermined somewhat by the fact that encryption software, properly used, is perfectly capable of keeping the contents of personal files private from pretty much everyone.

The Akutagawa Prize selection committee is currently down to eight members in size, with Furui Yoshikichi having stepped down after the 132nd prize and Miura Tetsuo after the 133rd prize. Replacements have not yet been named.