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2008: Heavy bleeding

Heavy Bleeding

The first Akutagawa Prize of 2008 went to Yang Yi (楊逸) for 『時が滲む朝』Toki ga nijumu asa (“The mornings when time bleeds”).

The hype at the time claimed that Toki dared to explore the soul of modern China: Patriotism! Tiananmen! Diaspora! Mixed emotions regarding Japan! As a Chinese citizen who writes in Japanese, despite it not being her native language, Yang was positioned as naturally hip to such topics and uniquely placed to explain them to a Japanese audience.

And you have to remember that this was during the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, when a string of torch relay-related incidents reminded the Chinese people that they were neither universally loved nor considered the good guys in re Tibet or Falun Gong, and reminded the rest of the world that whatever disagreements the Chinese people had with their government, they were fiercely patriotic and did not in any respect consider themselves the bad guys in re Tibet, Falun Gong, or anything else. Despite the flood of long, pompous pieces in the English and Japanese presses about China and its people, folks just couldn’t wrap their heads around the journey from democracy-or-death in 1989 to respect-the-torch-or-STFU twenty years later. Clearly the standard narrative about China had been wrong. What a relief that this new author Yang was here to explain it to us!

But in reality, as reviewer upon reviewer noted, the book deals with these political issues only obliquely and superficially. It is a tale about post-Tiananmen China and its diaspora, but the story is told from the perspective of someone whose involvement was fairly minor and who isn’t prone to much self-reflection anyway. Right from the start, we know that the main character Haoyuan’s family has a history of being screwed over by the government. Does this bother Haoyuan? Does it affect his budding patriotism or shape his later passion for democracy? We never really find out. And this is apparently the part most closely based on Yang’s own life!

The entire first half of the book reads like a fairy tale, clear and smooth; Haoyuan’s move to Japan is like a prism which splits the pure white light of the China story into the moral rainbow of the Japan story, where Haoyuan finally begins to meet people who are capable of telling a lie. The story does get more interesting at this point, but we still get frustratingly little information about how Haoyuan feels about meeting folks who are using the democracy movement for personal gain instead of Serving the People. In the end everything is tied together with a moral: Haoyuan’s child calls Japan home, and maybe Haoyuan does too. To the extent that Yang wanted to tell a mellow story about how family is what’s really important in the end, she is successful, but the chorus of voices complaining that it wasn’t exactly the story they wanted to hear is understandable too.

The other objection to Toki was that it was insufficiently “pure” — as in junbungaku, “pure literature”. Some analyses attributed this to Yang’s being a non-native speaker of Japanese. However, arguments about clunky sentence structure and the like aside, it seems more likely to me that the naive and unsophisticated style in Toki is a conscious approach to the characters and their own political activities. Certainly Yang’s earlier works Wang-chan『ワンちゃん』 and Rōshojo (『老処女』, “Old maid”) demonstrate her ability to write a story about an isolated person tortured and finally driven insane by the unfairness of society, as the requirements of pure literature dictate. (In all seriousness, Wang-chan had far more rounded characters than Toki and was more enjoyable on all fronts. Recommended.)

Popular and critical response to Toki aside, Yang’s achievement as the first-non-native speaker to win the award is significant and will be remembered. The countdown to Japan’s Nabokov has begun.

December 8, 2008

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

13 Responses

  1. language hat Says:

    Huh. Have there been no significant writers of Japanese who were not Japanese?

  2. Daniel Says:

    Alex Kerr? Although Lost Japan isn’t fiction, and he also does some writing in English, too.

  3. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Arthur Binard’s first book of Japanese poetry, “Tsuriagete wa”, got taken seriously enough to win an award or two. But his work after that seems to get progressively more twee.

    Mark Petersen is quite prolific, although almost all of his oeuvre is about how to speak better English.

    I feel like there must have been some significant writing done in Japanese by non-native speakers on the continent during the years of occupation and war, but I don’t know anything about it.

    (This ignores the ethnic Koreans/Ainu/etc. who grew up speaking the Japanese language but don’t identify as Japanese. Kaneshiro Kazuki’s Go was a big hit that even got made into a movie. But these works are arguably irrelevant to this discussion because whatever their literary merits the technical feat of writing in a non-native language isn’t present.)

  4. M-Bone Says:

    This guy has probably gotten the most acclaim. His first book was pretty good.

  5. W. David MARX Says:

    I can’t imagine a less Japanese name than Hideo.

  6. M-Bone Says:

    Maybe Debito.

    In any case, “Hideo” is not part Japanese or anything (and not a native speaker). He is half Jewish and half Polish Catholic, it seems.

  7. Adamu Says:

    I remember about six years ago reading a book by an American named David Zoppetti that won the “Subaru” prize for literature, their first non-native Japanese speaker to get the award. The book was called いちげんさん a fictionalized chronicle of his college days at Doshisha, focusing on his romance with a blind girl and a job translating for a foreign TV crew that led to a run-in with the yakuza. Dont remember too much beyond that.

    I am not sure how “significant” he is as a writer since I personally didn’t feel anything too special in the writing (of course I was working with some pretty sub-standard Japanese at the time). Last I heard he was working for a Japanese TV station.

  8. Adamu Says:

    Hmm, Japan Times is saying Zoppetti has an American mother but was raised in Switzerland so I guess that means he isnt American really.

    Oh and I remember the prize judges liked how he never named the protagonist but just referred to him as “Boku” throughout the book, which was apparently a technique used by some Japanese literary master who I can’t remember.

  9. Adamu Says:

    Also I believe during the colonial period there must have been lots of non-native Koreans and Taiwanese who wrote in Japanese, though I don’t have any examples and it would be hard to draw a line between who is native and who isn’t.

  10. Aceface Says:

    There’s actually a genre in Japanese lit studies called 外地文学.

    You can’t miss this guy when you are talking about foreign born writer who writes in Japanese.

  11. W. David MARX Says:

    I think we watched the movie based on his book in my Japanese class at some point.

  12. Adamu Says:

    To the topic of the prize — pardon my ignorance, but isn’t the point of Akutagawa to reward young/new authors? Kind of like a rookie of the year award? Every year I see the reviews of the Akutagawa Prize and they all seem to focus on the flaws of the work as if it didn’t really deserve a prize or something.

    In that context I find it totally reasonable to select a book that might not be perfect but nonetheless represents a new development in literature, and by extension Japanese society (Hebi ni Piasu seems relevant less as literature than as an example of how far Western tattoo/body modification has become accepted in Japanese subcultures)

  13. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    How could I forget Levy? I even have his book in Japanese about reading the Man’yoshu in English.

    Re the Akutagawa Prize, the website says “各新聞・雑誌(同人雑誌を含む)に発表された純文学短編作品中最も優秀なるものに呈する賞(応募方式ではない)。主に無名もしくは新進作家が対象となる”

    So the focus is on barely- or unknowns, but it’s still for the 最も優秀なる example of 純文学. That’s why the reviews tend to focus on the flaws: because the act of awarding a work the prize automatically declares it among the greatest recent works of Japanese literature, so the easy angle is “what’s wrong with it?”. (You see the same thing at work in reviews of highly anticipated works from respected authors, in any language.)

    Moving on, you could argue that a flawed work that speaks to new developments in society is more 優秀 than a technically superior work that doesn’t, but then it comes down to the definition of 優秀 (an irresolvable aesthetic issue) and, in a whole separate debate, 純 (an irresolvable semantic issue).

    Empirically speaking the Akutagawa Prize committee does seem to lean more towards works with a voice representing a heretofore silent (or non-existent) segment of Japanese society. Some people like this. Others consider it a superficial flavor-of-the-month approach that favors novelty and politics over “pure” (純) literary merit, which after all might be just as well showcased in a novel about an unremarkable salaryman.

    Of course it’s not an either/or thing; you can be interested in both approaches to literature and I imagine that most readers are. The Akutagawa Prize just gets used as a whipping boy because it is THE prize: whatever side it takes, people will complain that it is ignoring the other.