Literature prizes elevate women

Japan may rank extraordinarily low — 105th out of 136 countries — on the world gender gap index, but this year’s winners of two famous literary prizes were all women, an irony that will surely not be lost on the prizewinners and their readers.

The winner of the 150th Akutagawa Prize was Hiroko Oyamada for her novel “Ana” (“Hole”), a story with a woman as the central character.

The two authors who shared this year’s 150th Naoki Prize, Makate Asai and Kaoruko Himeno, also focused on women. They deserve congratulations.

All three authors winning this year’s Akutagawa Prize, for up-and-coming writers, and the Naoki Prize, for popular literature, focused in large part on the experience of women.

Oyamada’s work focuses on a young woman who resigns from work and moves to a rural area, where, after falling in a hole, mysterious events start happening.

Asai’s work describes the fate of women during the end of the Edo Period and Himeno’s explores the everyday life of her female protagonist in Shiga Prefecture.

Should the issue of gender even be raised? Perhaps the writers should be considered solely on the quality of their work. No doubt the quality of the writing was paramount for the award selection committees. Because Japan continues to suffer such horrendous gender inequality, the fact that talented women are producing work of high quality and social relevance deserves mention. Japan’s women are strong, creative and productive.

These three writers offer a view of Japan in which women’s struggles and feelings are more central than in the “official” story the government follows. Their award-winning fiction helps position women better in a country where women have little power. Japanese women ranked 118th out of 136 countries in political empowerment on the world gender gap index in 2013.

That is not to say these writers are writing just to promote women. Surely, as writers, they work for deep meanings with strong language and impressive stories first and foremost.

These writers, and their works, should be a reminder of how much women contribute to Japan. Himeno, for example, has written books for 25 years, and Asai began writing in 2008 while running an advertising company. The 149th awards for both prizes also went to women.

While these women deserve to be recognized for their literary achievements, they can also valuably serve as role models for all women struggling to express the hardship of their lives and pushing in creative, or just everyday ways, to change the injustice and unfairness that women in Japan have suffered for too long.