The first Akutagawa Prizes of the year 2000 have been awarded to two works about minority life in Japan. "Kage no Sumika" by Gengetsu, a second-generation Korean-Japanese, deals with life in Osaka's Korean community, while "Natsu no Yakusoku" by Fujino Chiya sketches the daily life of a group of young urban professionals in Tokyo who happen to be gay.

The two novellas can be found in the March issue of Bungei Shunju, along with comments by the jury which selected them. The consensus of the judges seemed to be that both authors had shown considerable improvement and had promise for the future, but that Gengetsu's novella was a little too heavy while Fujino's was a little too light. In particular Ishihara Shintaro complained of a lack of freshness in young authors in Japan today. The flood of information inundating us now serves to dull the senses of readers and make authors careless in picking out exactly the right theme. On the other hand, Kono Taeko singled out the recent tendency to entitle literary works in English or katakana (such as three other candidates for the most recent Akutagawa Prize -- "Search Engine System Crash," "Tiny, Tiny" and "Muse"). She thinks such works tend to be written off the top of one's head (literally, with "insufficient fermentation") and to show a weak creative impulse and lack of passion.

I was particularly interested in Fujino, since she seemed an unlikely Akutagawa winner. Now 38 years old, she won the Kaien New Writer Award in 1995 and the Noma New Writer Award in 1998. A transsexual herself, she told the Asahi Shimbun (Jan. 31) that she doesn't want to deal with gay issues as a weighty social problem but simply to write about people who are somewhat out of step with society. In an interview with the writer Kuroi Senji in Bungakukai (March), Fujino notes as well that everyone has some sense of not fitting into the world around them. She does not intend her stories to be treatises on social prejudice or the problems of gay life.