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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

The Trajectories of Two "Empty Categories" - The Dichotomy of Pure and Mass Literature in the Japanese Literary System

May 13, 1999

Bettina Gildenhard, Universität Heidelberg

Every six months the award of two of the most influential literaryprices in Japan attracts the attention of the literary world and the massmedia alike: the Akutagawa-prize for pure literature (junbungaku)and the Naoki-prize for mass literature (taishū bungaku).

The obvious aim of the ceremonies is to honour young and promising authors(and to raise the sale figures of their works). At the same time, however,the ceremonies celebrate (and cement) the seemingly unbridgeable differencesthat exist between pure and mass literature. This dichotomy is deeply rootedin the discourse about literature in Japan and influences the ways in whicha writer and his or her work are perceived by the public. Even today, mostwriters and critics simply take it for granted that a pure and a mass literatureexist and that each type of literature possesses ist own distinctive andunchanging characteristics.

At closer inspection, however, the terms pure and mass literature turnout to be anything but fixed and clearly defined categories. Their meaninghas undergone significant changes in the course of time, and even criticsof the same period do not always agree on the precise definition of theseterms. It seems as if only the concepts, but not their contents, are firmlyestablished. To come to grips with this unsatisfying situation, my presentationattempts a “geneaological reconstructionEof the history of the two terms.Starting with an examination of the founding of the Akutagawa- and theNaoki-prize in 1935, it traces the historical trajectories of the conceptsof junbungaku and taishū bungaku and tries to illustratehow they influenced the Japanese literary system.