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Japan: Chinese Novelist wins Akutagawa Award

On Tuesday, the Akutagawa Award for Fiction, generally considered the most prestigious literary prize in Japan, was awarded to Chinese novelist Yang Yi (楊逸, Liu Qiao in Chinese) for her work, “Tokiga nijimu asa” [ja] [時が滲む朝, or “A Morning When Time Blurs”]. Yang, who was born in Harbin and whose native language is Chinese, came to Japan in 1987 and, after learning Japanese at a language school, studied Geography at Ochanomizu University [ja] in Tokyo. She was earlier nominated for (but did not win) the Akutagawa award in November for her first novel, “Wang-chan” [ja].

Below are some thoughts from blogs, forums and media in both Japanese and Chinese (Chinese links and translations thanks to Meng Zhang, Oiwan Lam and Pipper Lee).

There was a wide range of views on the award in Japan, with forums offering the most critical responses. In a thread at 2channel, one commenter refers to Zainichi Korean Miri Yu who won the Akutagawa Award in 1996:

44 :名無しさん@九周年:2008/07/16(水) 08:43:45 ID:kz9a78nd0
ここ最近の芥川賞受賞作品&作家って、なんか話題性だけのおかしな選考多くね?
あの柳 美里でさえ受賞してるんだぜ?

A lot of the works and authors that have won the Akutagawasho recently are weird choices, no? Just selected to attract attention or something?
Come on, even Miri Yu won that prize!

Another commenter wrote:

57 :名無しさん@九周年:2008/07/16(水) 08:47:55 ID:w3Rkufdc0
出来レースなのかもしれんが、日本人作家が受賞できなかったのは事実だ
次はどんな手を使ってもいいから受賞しろよ
純粋な作品の質でも負けてるかもしれんぞ

The race may have been fixed before it even started, but it is still a fact that no Japanese managed to win the award.
Next time let's win this award, using whatever means necessary
Even with the quality of a genuine work [of art], we may still bloody lose

Tiananmen came up a lot in comments. One commenter wrote:

68 :名無しさん@九周年:2008/07/16(水) 08:51:23 ID:7VuLmnlS0
反体制の人だろうな、どう考えても
天安門事件を扱って小説書いて中国に帰ろうものなら
即逮捕だろもう二度とでてはこれない

I guess [she must be] a dissident, however you think about it
if you write a novel about the Tiananmen Square Incident, and then try to return to China,
you'll get arrested right away, no? and never get out again

Bloggers offered generally more encouraging views. Japanese blogger pote741 described how impressed they were at Yang winning the prize:

私はまだ読んでいないので何とも言えないのだが…
この楊さん。凄いな〜〜〜〜。

I haven't read the book so I can't really say anything, but…
Yang-san, so impressive 〜〜〜〜

日本語を第一言語として普段使っている我々ですら
「日本語って難しいな〜〜」っと思っているのに
よくぞ外国人が日本語で小説を書き、しかも「芥川賞」を受賞したもんだ

Even us Japanese people who use Japanese as our mother tongue,
think to ourselves, “Japanese is so difficult 〜〜”,
so I am amazed that a foreigner has written a book in Japanese, and even managed to win the “Akutagawa” Award!

最近、日本の文学界では
「携帯小説」などのように
読み易く、文節の短い「詩」的な文章が流行っている
コレは字マスに規定があり、横表示の携帯ならではの文節なのだが
これによってクドクドと文字を並べる文章から
端的で人の心を打つ文体が出来上がったと思う

Recently in the Japanese literary world,
easy-to-read texts with short “poem”-like paragraphs,
such as “keitai shosetsu”, have become very popular.
This paragraph style is perfect for horizontal-display keitai [mobile phones] with a limit on the number of characters,
but as a result, from long verbose texts,
a literary style has been created that is plain and straightforward, and that targets people's emotions.

[…]

これらを考えてみても「楊さん」凄いぞ〜っと思うのだが…
その一方で何だか寂しい気もする
日本人の書いた小説よりも、外国人の書いた小説の方が優れていたのか〜〜
っという「ガッカリ感」がある

Even considering all of this though, I think Yang-san is awesome…
On the other hand, I also feel somehow sad.
A kind of feeling of “disappointment”,
that a novel written by non-Japanese is better than novels written by Japanese〜〜

Blogger physicomath was also impressed:

日本人でも多和田葉子さんだかがドイツ語で小説を書いてドイツ語圏で評価されて何かの賞をとったというので評判になったが、それでも母語でない言葉で書いて文学賞をとるというのはすばらしい。

Among Japanese, there was also Yoko Tawada, who wrote a novel in German that was well-received among German-speaking countries, and won some kind of prize. But even so, to write in a language that is not your mother tongue, and win a literature prize, that is incredible.

A visiting student in China studying Chinese language, blogger johny_gee searched through Chinese language media coverage of the prize and found some interesting results:

さて、受賞作品『時が滲む朝』は内容が内容だけに中国ではどういう扱いになるのかなぁと思っていましたが、日本でも既に報道されているように一部メディアは芥川賞受賞は伝えるものの、その内容、特に89年の件に関しては全く触れておりません。でもこういった報道もありますし、ココ のように「安」の字を伏せて報道しているところや、三文字をそのまま出しているココ のようなところもあります。それぞれのサイトがどういった性質のサイトだかは知りませんが、いずれにしても中国で普通に開けるサイトです。へ~、書いちゃうところもあるんだなぁって感じですね。

Now then, the content of the award-winning work “Tokiga nijimu asa” [“A Morning When Time Blurs”] being what it is, I wondered to myself how it would be handled in China. As it was already reported in Japan, only part of the media covered the Akutagawa award, and in what coverage there was, everything about the incident in 1989 in particular was left out. There is this kind of report, and also this one where the “安” [“an” from Tiananmen] is covered over, and this one that has all three characters [天安门] without any change. I don't know what kind of sites each of these three sites are, but they are sites that are ordinarily accessible within China. Hmm… so there are actually places where they write it all out like that [in China].

中国語版も出版されて中国でもベストセラーに!!!!…………なんてことはありえないんでしょうけど。

Maybe it will be published in Chinese and become a bestseller in China too!!!!……… well, that's a bit far-fetched.

Now turning to the Chinese-language Internet, johny_gee's observation about media avoiding mention of Tiananmen seems to be the state of affairs, as demonstrated by this description of the book (translation by Meng Zhang):

杨逸此次获奖作品描写了农村出生的一名中国男子东渡日本,他和其他中国人在此后十几年的生活中所体验的理想与现实的落差。

Yang Yi's award-winning work depicts the life of a Chinese man who was born in the countryside and then moves to Japan, experiencing the gap between ideals and reality with his Chinese friends in the following years.

One blogger writes (following translations by Oiwan Lam):

日本人为何将139届芥川文学奖为什么给一个不太著名的中国人?

来一个鼓掌就掌声雷鸣,来一个鼓励就桂冠加顶。
这就是日本人惯用的”捧杀”手段。日语里有”Homegoroshi”
的说法,如果用中文来诠释的话有”给你赞誉,让你混头,终为我用”的意思。

Why should Japanese give the Akutagawa Prize to a Chinese person who is not so well known?

Clap one hand and millions follow, give some encouragement and one feels like they have received a crown.
Japanese are used to these ways, in Japanese it is called “homegoroshi” (褒め殺し), which means “give you some praise, make you dizzy and become useful to me”.

Blogger warphotographer meanwhile notices that the novel is about the Tiananmen incident [zh] and wonders why foreign countries always focus on the painful experiences of Chinese people. At dongyangjing.com, “Tokyo doctor” (东京博士) wonders if it is necessary for yang to use Tiananmen as background:

说到底大背景是不是真的有必要采用天安门事件我也心存疑问,作者的初衷也许不一定是我们的小人之心,但客观上难以回避有点在海外哗众取宠追风的嫌疑

I also wonder if it is necessary for Yang to use the Tiananmen incident as background. Maybe her intention is not what we have been speculating about, but the fact that it has attracted so much overseas attention makes the whole thing seem suspicious.

Ning chun long, on the other hand, welcomes the news, reminding readers:

1、清记住这张脸,这是一个中国人,一个拥有中国国籍的中国人。
2、请记住她获得的是日本最权威文学大奖,日本人也同样值得尊重。

1. Please remember this face. She is a Chinese, a Chinese with Chinese nationality.
2. Please remember that she has won the most renowned award in Japan, and we should respect Japanese for that.

Commenter shy snow at this blog post (which quotes the media report) explains why they are concerned about reactions to the work:

我很怕有一些愤青在网上骂她啊,因为”大学生が1989年の天安門事件で挫折……”
其他的我不能评价什么,因为不了解这个作家,也不了解作品。

就是担心国人的仇日情绪乱发泄

I am so afraid that some angry youth will criticize her because of the story about “university students in the 1989 Tiananmen incident”. I can't really make any comment as I don't know the writer or her work. But I am worried that people will take this chance to express their anti-Japanese sentiments.

As a final note, although mention of Tiananmen was avoided or even blocked out in the Chinese media, the topic was picked up in Taiwanese media that covered the story (see this article at TTV [zh] and this one at Liberty Times [zh]).

Chinese links and translations thanks to Meng Zhang, Oiwan Lam and Pipper Lee

3 comments

  • Eric hu

    Thanks Chris, this award renew my personal dislike of some japanese.

  • Bob

    Great work….. I mean the co-work of authors!
    But…I am afraid I can by no way get the book.

  • yes, it’s true that she and some authors have focus on TNM, as if all Chinese are from Beijing , and that everyone have the same experiences as Beijingers have. circa ’89-early 90’s …still, kudos to her for winning the award from a non-right wing org .

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