Will he or won’t he? It’s about the time of year when the Japanese media descends into a frenzy of speculation about whether Haruki Murakami will land the Nobel Prize in literature, becoming the first Japanese literary laureate since Kenzaburo Oe in 1994.
There is certainly nothing new about intense media interest in the prospect of one of Japan’s literati winning the Nobel Prize, the winners of which are announced typically in October each year. In Japan, the battle to win the ultimate literary prize has been an epic struggle involving many of the nation’s leading literary figures.
The Nobel Prize had a special meaning to Japan: it was seen as a symbol of rehabilitation in the aftermath of the nation’s defeat in World War II.
Japan took a solitary Nobel Prize in 1949, awarded to physicist Hideki Yukawa, but by the early 1960s no further prizes had been awarded. The country was again recognized on the world stage when Tokyo was chosen as the host city for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and the attention was sustained as Japan maintained a period of spectacular economic growth through to the ’80s. For the nation’s writers, capturing of the Nobel Prize in literature would put the seal on the nation’s eye-popping reinvention of itself.
No writer coveted that award more than Yukio Mishima (1925-70) who in the early ’60s seemed determined to land this ultimate accolade, when he was still only in his 30s. English translations of his novels, including “The Sound of Waves” and “Confessions of a Mask” meant Mishima became the first living Japanese writer to gain widespread fame in the West. He was also egged on by his great friend, the translator and critic Donald Keene, who actively lobbied for Mishima to be awarded major international awards such as the Formentor Prize.
However, he was not successful.
Mishima’s name appeared on lists produced by Western newspapers of deserving writers for the Nobel Prize, and Mishima made it his business to visit home of the Nobel Prize and its judges, Stockholm, on a reconnaissance mission. He also lavished attention on Swedish ambassador to Japan Karl Fredrik Almqvist.
Even when Japan won the prize again in physics in 1965 (awarded to Shinichiro Tomonaga), the media frenzy around Mishima remained constant. Tiring of it, Mishima fled Japan for places such as Thailand to avoid media demands for comment.
But that didn’t stop the newspapers. The Mainichi Shimbun diverted one of its reporters covering the Vietnam War to track down Mishima — who was eventually discovered in the steak room of a plush Bangkok hotel — just in case he won.
The Nobel committee has a 50-year restriction on disclosing its proceedings and from the information released in January this year we know that in 1964 there were three other Japanese writers — apart from Mishima — considered for the prize. Most surprising was the revelation about how close the author Junichiro Tanizaki came to winning the prize that year. He was on the final shortlist of two names. Sadly, Tanizaki died the following year.
Mishima’s chances were on the wane in the late ’60s as he became increasingly politicized. A right-winger who formed his own private army, Mishima was — according to Keene — misconceived by the Nobel Prize judges in Stockholm as a communist. At the height of Cold War, it was considered politic to award the prize to a more anodyne choice such as Mishima’s mentor, Yasunari Kawabata, instead.
When in 1968 it was announced that Kawabata had won the prize, Mishima may have gritted his teeth, but wrote a glowing article of praise for a newspaper. He then visited Kawabata’s home to congratulate him. Kawabata declared — with consummate falsehood — that he did not want the prize.
It was not widely known at the time that Kawabata had actually forced Mishima to write a note to the award’s judges, recommending the older writer for the prize, in exchange for Kawabata’s support in a legal dispute at the beginning of the ’60s. To make the situation more complex, it turned out Mishima had also partly ghostwritten one of Kawabata’s works, “House of the Sleeping Beauties.”
Little more than two years after the fateful Nobel Prize announcement in 1968, Mishima had killed himself, and Kawabata followed suit two years after that.
When someone attempted to comfort Mishima in 1968 that he would win the prize the next time, Mishima correctly prophesied that the next Japanese winner would be his arch-rival, Kenzaburo Oe.
Yet Oe’s victory in 1994 was far from obvious. Many in the West believed that the Christian author Shusaku Endo, thanks to his classic novel “Silence,” was a stronger candidate than the little-read Oe. Others believed the award would go to the fantasy and absurdist author Kobo Abe. But Abe died in 1993 and Endo passed away three years later — both without Nobel recognition.
And here we are now, with only two Japanese winners in the 114 years since the prize was first awarded.
Yet Murakami has also, by means of the unprecedented international popularity of his novels, dissipated much of the significance of the Nobel Prize to Japan. When Murakami fans in the West are already mobbing bookshops to get their hands on his latest release, he and the country he represents hardly need the Nobel seal of approval to make Western readers sit up and take notice.
Indeed Murakami’s prolific activity as a proponent of other Japanese writer’s works, such as Natsume Soseki and Ryunosuke Akutagawa, has arguably brought more international recognition for Japanese literature than the Nobel Prize has ever done.
Yet we still find ourselves wondering, once again, whether this is the year.
Damian Flanagan is the author of “Yukio Mishima” published by Reaktion Books.