Awarding Distinction: The Creation of the Akutagawa-shō
December 9, 1999
Ted Mack, Harvard University
The 1935 foundation of the Akutagawa and Naoki Prizes was a pivotal moment in the history of modern Japanese literature. Kikuchi Kan, who created the awards quote;to contribute in some way to the success of literary endeavors,quote; wrote of the Akutagawa Prize’s positive reception, quote;I would be ecstatic if the authority of the Akutgawa Prize grew like this with each new prize.quote; It did. In describing the importance of the prizes, the literary scholar and critic Kawamura Minato writes, quote;For authors… the gateways to success in the bundan are the Akutagawa and Naoki Prizes.quote; He continues to say that, while there are many other awards in Japan, quote;the Akutagawa and Naoki Prizes are the most famous and the ones with the most authority.quote;
My presentation will focus on the event of the creation of the awards and their prewar history in an attempt to investigate the nature of literary awards themselves. Working from the provisional definition of literary prizes as authoritative acts of distinction, which attempt to distinguish superior manifestations of certain qualities from among a limited set of potential candidates, I will address a series of questions: Where does the authority come from? What are the qualities valued? How is the set of candidates defined? And finally, what are the concrete repercussions of this act of distinction? By first proposing answers to these questions as they relate to the Akutagawa and Naoki Prizes, I will then consider what this tells us about why the award was created and about distinction and authority in modern Japanese literature in general.
The ambiguous nature of the Akutagawa Prize’s role in modern Japanese literature was captured well by the author Yasuoka Shotaro. In the fall of 1981 Yasuoka – a selection committee member from 1971 until 1986 — wrote, quote;The twice-annual ‘Akutagawa Prize’ is like an omikoshi in the middle of a riotous festival, the only difference being that no one knows who or where the people actually carrying it are. The one thing that is obvious to everyone is that it is flowing off, amid the cries of ‘Wasshoi! Wasshoi!’, in a direction unrelated to literature.quote;