In 2003, two young female authors won the Akutagawa Prize — arguably the most important literary prize in Japan. One winner was 21-year-old Hitomi Kanehara for her novel “Snakes and Earrings” (“Hebi ni Piasu”); the other was Risa Wataya, who was only 19 at the time — the youngest winner of the prize at the time — for her novel “I Want to Kick You in the Back” (“Keritai Senaka”).

I Want to Kick You in the Back, by Risa Wataya
Translated by Julianne Neville
128 pages.
One Peace Books, Fiction.

Despite Wataya’s status as a literary star in Japan and her novel selling more than 1 million copies, “I Want to Kick You in the Back” was only translated into English this year, 12 years after it won the Akutagawa. It’s been a long time coming.

This short novel tells the story of Hatsu, a first-grade high school girl. While her best friend from junior high school fits in easily with their new classmates, Hatsu pushes them away before they have the chance to reject her. In her increasing isolation she is drawn to Ninagawa, a solitary boy obsessed with a famous fashion model. They start hanging out and soon find they are attracted to each other. But Wataya insists that this is definitely not a romance novel.

Little about Hatsu is romantic and the novel’s title comes from her peculiar way of showing affection for Ninagawa: kicking him in the back.

“It’s a story about adolescent boys and girls: Their worries and fears, how they clash with each other,” Wataya says. “They are searching for their raison d’etre, thinking about the meaning of their existence. Hatsu suffers because she doesn’t know how to break through the wall of her loneliness.”

The novel opens with beautiful, heartbreaking prose, showing Hatsu attempting to explain her solitude: “Loneliness makes a sound. It’s crisp and clear and loud, like an alarm bell going off between your ears. And it’s enough to make your head feel ready to split. The reason I keep tearing pieces of our leftover science class print-outs into slender strips is to keep my classmates from hearing that sound coming from inside me right now. The noise of the paper ripping drowns out the ringing of the lonely bell.”

Wataya’s first novel, “Install,” published when she was only 17, is also about adolescence and the experience of high school in Japan — a notoriously difficult place for students who don’t fit in.

“High school is very tough. But it’s possible that the struggle for survival can be a positive force when you become an adult,” she says.

Her own experience of high school was generally positive and she says her early novels came from memories of her high school life.

“Of the characters, I’m most like Hatsu,” she says, “but I enjoyed my time at high school. I loved talking with my friends about manga and books.”

“I Want to Kick You in the Back” is short, but it packs a fierce punch. Written from Hatsu’s perspective, we soon discover that she is an unlikable and highly unreliable narrator who lies about her motivations. On the surface she seems quite unconventional, deliberately sabotaging any chances of friendship offered to her, yet, despite her eccentricity, inside she yearns for the same recognition as her classmates. The book’s success shows Wataya’s characters hit a chord with readers.

“I think it’s because I put honest feelings into the book. By writing sentences that are simple and honest, I hope that sometimes I can reach people’s hearts,” she says.

This seems like modesty. Her writing is lyrical and powerful, characteristics that Julianne Neville’s translation brings out.

Wataya’s five novels have become influential with her generation precisely because she writes so well about the pressure of being young in Japan, where every minute is scheduled by parents, teachers and clubs. She is in her element when writing about the boundaries between internal and external worlds.

Even during the holidays, the idea of the next term panics Hatsu. “What waited for me was a suffocating second term of school,” writes Wataya. “I could imagine myself clearly sitting at my desk during the break between classes in the middle of the clamorous classroom, pressure weighing down on me, restricting my breathing as I died little by little trying to make it through the world’s longest 10 minutes.”

Wataya’s generation has little time for their parents’ perceived out-of-date values and, in return, the older generation see today’s youth as frivolous lazy “freeters,” who would rather have smartphones and luxury-brand bags than work hard and start a family. But although Wataya’s characters are accurate representations of Japan’s youth culture during the 2000’s, she doesn’t view Japan as so easily split.

“My generation — the recession generation — we tend to have a more conservative way of thinking,” she says. “Those who lived through the pomp of (the bubble economy) have maintained the vitality of those days. I think the bubble generation are a good influence. I like writing about the exchange between the two generations.”

Wataya is now 31, and her stories have expanded beyond the narrow confines of school into work and home. Her latest novel “Isn’t she pitiful?” (“Kawaiso da ne?”) which won the Kenzaburo Oe Prize in 2012 and will be translated into English, is a good example of this. It looks at the tensions between friendship and marriage, and tells the story of a department store employee who daydreams her life away.

“I just write about the things I’m interested in. I write the kind of books I want to read,” she says. “At the moment I’m writing a book about how the traditional way of life for women is changing.”

For the past decade, Wataya has been at the forefront of documenting some of those changes, and for this reason “I Want to Kick You in the Back” is a perfect introduction for English readers, with Hatsu as a classic Wataya archetype: pathetically kicking out at society and pushing away the very things she wants just because she’s been told she should want them.

In Wataya’s books, the pressure to conform can lead to ugly internal conflicts. In “I Want to Kick You,” Hatsu loves Nanigawa but she bullies him, mocks his interests and kicks him. “A darker lust was churning inside me,” she writes, “I wanted to see his expression even more hurt. I wanted him to become even more pathetic.”

This is not romance, it’s the messy reality of real life — that’s what Wataya does best.

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