The Akutagawa Prize

The Akutagawa Prize is the most prestigious literary prize in Japan. It is awarded twice every year, in January and July. It was first awarded in 1935 when a friend of deceased Ryunosuke Akutagawa (one of the most important Japanese writers during the Meiji era) decided to establish the award in his honor. The winner receives a pocket watch and one million yen (around 10,000 euro/13,000 dollars).

It is a prize that usually causes controversy as it confronts authors of the literary community that consider that the prize should only be awarded to authors that can write with a proper sensitivity and “classic” Japanese style, while others think that it should sometimes be awarded to young authors that use a more “modern” Japanese style and deal with more current events. For example, Haruki Murakami has never received the prize, he is considered an author “out of the Japanese literary community”, he is accused of being too liberal when using the Japanese language and being too influenced by the West. In some interviews Haruki Murakami has declared that he doesn’t care about what other Japanese authors say about him, but in his novel 1Q84 when Tengo, Fukaeri and Ushikawa are writing their book to try to win the Akutagawa prize, several indirect criticism can be noticed that some have considered as personal opinions of Murakami about the prize and the circle of publishers and authors that have more influence over it.

This year the scandal has arised when one of the most known members of the jury, Shintaro Ishihara (who has been the Tokyo prefecture governor for more than 10 years) declared that after 17 years he had decided to leave his place in the prize selection commitee because the quality of the works that have been presented to the prize during the last years has been very poor.

The last prize winner, Tanaka Shinya (田中 慎弥), who just received the prize in January, must have been most likely offended by the resignation of Shintaro Ishihara at the same time that he elected his novel for the prize. Tanaka Shinya is a hermit writer that had almost not given any interviews until recently.

Tanaka Shinya. Akutagawa prize
Tanaka Shinya, the last Akutagawa prize winner.

Shintaro Ishihara
Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo governor and member of the Akutagawa prize jury during 17 years, who resigned due to the low quality of the literary works presented.

In some of the interviews, Tanaka Shinya has indirectly sent some harsh words directed to Shintaro Ishihara and also to the rest of the Akutagawa prize jury, I translate here some of the answers which have been more controversial:

“My literary works have been finalist four times in a row. I am not surprised to have received the award, it is something natural.”

“I could have rejected the award but it’s better to receive it so that I don’t cause a scandal that could make the Tokyo Metropolitan Government tremble” (indirectly referring to Shintaro Ishihara)

Would you like to say something directly to Shintaro Ishihara?
“Is he trying to create a political party for old people, isn’t he? Then he should dedicate himself to create his political party.”

“I don’t have a computer nor a phone. I write with pen and paper.”

“I have been writing since I was 20 years old. I have never worked for a company.”

“I live with my mother.”

“Let’s finish this interview soon.”

Tanaka Shinya interview (in Japanese) after receiving the Akutagawa prize.