Little surprise as women win Japan’s prestigious literary prizes

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Naoki Prize-winner Misumi Kubo, left, and Akutagawa Prize-winner Junko Takase hold up their winning works in Tokyo on Wednesday.

The Akutagawa and Naoki literature prizes, which are given out twice annually, announced this year’s first winners on Wednesday in Tokyo.

Two women won the awards, as the five authors short-listed for the Akutagawa Prize for literary fiction were all women, and four women were among the five finalists for the Naoki Prize for a work of popular fiction.

The Society for the Promotion of Japanese Literature held the selection committee meeting at a ryotei restaurant in the Tsukiji district of Tokyo, and perhaps fittingly, Junko Takase, 34, won the Akutagawa Prize for “Oishii gohan ga taberaremasu yoni” (May we have a delicious meal). The story was first published in the January issue of the Gunzo literature magazine.

The Naoki Prize went to Misumi Kubo, 56, for “Yoru ni hoshi o hanatsu” (Releasing stars at night), which was published by Bungeishunju Ltd.

Each winner receives prize money of ¥1 million. An award ceremony will be held in Tokyo in late August.

This was the second time for Ehime Prefecture native Takase to be short-listed for the Akutagawa Prize. While working a day job, she wrote, winning the Subaru literature prize for her debut work “Inu no katachi o shiteiru mono” (Something with the shape of a dog) in 2019.

Her Akutagawa Prize-winning work tells the story of three young people working at a branch office of a company. The novella skillfully uses the characters’ subtle gestures and food-related episodes to describe their irritation with each other and the values gaps among them, which become exposed through their work.

“It multifacetedly and thoroughly depicts human relations in a small group of people, such as workplace or a relationship,” said novelist Hiromi Kawakami, one of the Akutagawa Prize selectors who won the award in 1996. As for the fact that all the shortlisted works were written by women, she said, “I think that the times are changing and the selection process is very open.”

For Tokyo-born Kubo, her third time on the short list for the Naoki Prize turned out to be lucky. After working as a freelance editor and writer, she won the grand prize of the Onna ni yoru Onna no tameno R-18 literature prize in 2009 for “Mikumari.” Her story collection “Fugainai boku wa sora o mita” (I, a timid person, have looked at the sky), which includes “Mikumari,” won the Yamamoto Shugoro literature prize in 2011.

Her Naoki Prize-winning work is a collection of short stories about people who have been separated from someone special. She uses masterly storytelling techniques and an exquisite writing style to understand and present subtleties of the human psyche.

“These are all pure and beautiful short stories and she has not run away from the pandemic either,” said novelist Mariko Hayashi, a member of the Naoki Prize selection committee who is also the new chairperson of Nihon University. “Contemporary subjects are subtly and smoothly laid out. I am awed by her quality as a writer.”