When writer Shinya Tanaka won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize last month, he said, “I deserve this,” paraphrasing U.S. actress Shirley MacLaine at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1984.
His cynicism about selection committee members and Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara also drew attention from the media and public, probably more so than his work, and online videos of the news conference went viral.
But even without making a stir, winners of the Akutagawa Prize and the Naoki Prize, two major literary awards, fall under the spotlight twice a year when the awards ceremony is televised nationwide.
Of the over 500 book awards in Japan, these two are considered the most prestigious.
Following are some questions and answers about the nation’s literature awards:
How do the Akutagawa and Naoki prizes differ?
Basically, the Akutagawa Prize, established in memory of renowned novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa, is given to promising writers of serious literature, while the Naoki Prize, named after writer Sanjugo Naoki, is for popular fiction.
The Society for the Promotion of Japanese Literature, an organization under publisher Bungei Shunju Ltd., nominates writers for the two awards twice a year, in January and July.
According to the Bungei Shunju website, the two prizes were founded in 1935 by novelist Kan Kikuchi, who started the Bungei Shunju monthly magazine.
Who is the youngest Akutagawa recipient?
That would be Risa Wataya, who won the prize in 2004 at age 19. She debuted as a writer when she was 17, and her first novel, “Install,” was turned into a movie.
The second-youngest was Hitomi Kanehara, who shared the prize with Wataya in 2004 at age 20. The winning novel, Kanehara’s debut piece titled “Snakes and Earrings,” was a work whose main character starts to take an interest in piercing and tattooing.
Are there any renowned writers not awarded an Akutagawa?
Yes. Internationally acclaimed Haruki Murakami was nominated for the Akutagawa Prize in 1979 and 1980 but was unsuccessful. Neither Osamu Dazai nor Yukio Mishima won the prize, although Dazai’s work was nominated in 1935, according to “Dazai Osamu,” a book published by Shinchosha Publishing Co.
Do the prizes include money?
Yes. Winners pick up ¥1 million, but the main prize is a high-end pocket watch — a tradition since the prizes were first given out in 1935.
The monetary award is smaller compared with Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize, which includes ￡50,000 (about ¥6 million). But in France, winners of the famous Prix Goncourt only receive ?10, which is only about ¥1,000.
Who selects the winners?
Both the Akutagawa and Naoki prizes have nine judges, mostly writers, who select from five to seven nominees listed by Bungei Shunju editors, according to the book “Bungakusho Mettagiri” (“Slashing Literature Awards”) by critics Nozomi Omori and Yumi Toyozaki.
The judges are paid ¥1 million annually, and there is no time limit on their terms, unlike renowned literary awards in the United States and Britain, where judges are routinely replaced.
The terms of judges here can last until they resign. For example, Kosaku Takii served as an Akutagawa Prize judge for 47 years, between 1935 and 1982, and Jiro Osaragi was a judge of the Naoki Prize for 38 years, also beginning in 1935 when the prize was launched.
Akutagawa judge Ishihara, the Tokyo governor, officially announced last month he will resign the position, calling stories recently nominated for the award “a parade of rubbish.” Ishihara, who was elected governor in 1999, won the Akutagawa Prize in 1956. He has been a judge since 1995.
What other Japanese literary prizes are widely known?
Japan is known for having numerous literature awards. According to “Bungakusho Mettagiri,” the total exceeds 500, although the number of literature devotees is widely believed to have declined in recent years.
Despite this, some awards have helped propel a number of writers to prominence. They include the Noma Literary Prize, established by Seiji Noma, founder of publishing house Kodansha Ltd., in 1941. The annual prize hands winners, all professional writers, ¥5 million. Others include the Yukio Mishima Prize and the Shugoro Yamamoto Prize, which were both started in 1988 by Shinchosha Publishing Co.
The firm awards ¥1 million for winners of both prizes.
The Edogawa Rampo Prize, established in 1955 by Kodansha, and the Shosetsu Subaru Prize, launched in 1988 by publisher Shueisha Inc., are awarded to new writers of unpublished novels.
The former is named after a mystery writer who adopted the pen name in homage to Edgar Allan Poe. The required genre is mysteries.
The Rampo prize awards ¥10 million, and the Subaru prize ¥2 million.
Which award boasts the highest prize money?
The Kono Mystery ga Sugoi Prize founded by magazine publisher Takarajimasha Inc. in 2002 tops the list at ¥12 million.
In 2005, Poplar Publishing Co., a children’s book publisher, launched a new prize offering ¥20 million to the winner. After no grand prize was awarded between 2006 and 2008, actor and model Hiro Mizushima won the prize as the second and last winner in 2010 with his debut novel “Kagerou” — which he wrote under a pen name. However, he declined the money.
Now Poplar’s prize comes with ¥2 million.
Some publishing houses that print the winning titles tie up with TV stations after securing the rights to make a winning novel into a movie or TV drama.
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