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Friday, March 3, 2000

Heavy and light in minority fiction


The first Akutagawa Prizes of the year 2000 have been awarded to two works about minority life in Japan. "Kage no Sumika" by Gengetsu, a second-generation Korean-Japanese, deals with life in Osaka's Korean community, while "Natsu no Yakusoku" by Fujino Chiya sketches the daily life of a group of young urban professionals in Tokyo who happen to be gay.

The two novellas can be found in the March issue of Bungei Shunju, along with comments by the jury which selected them. The consensus of the judges seemed to be that both authors had shown considerable improvement and had promise for the future, but that Gengetsu's novella was a little too heavy while Fujino's was a little too light. In particular Ishihara Shintaro complained of a lack of freshness in young authors in Japan today. The flood of information inundating us now serves to dull the senses of readers and make authors careless in picking out exactly the right theme. On the other hand, Kono Taeko singled out the recent tendency to entitle literary works in English or katakana (such as three other candidates for the most recent Akutagawa Prize -- "Search Engine System Crash," "Tiny, Tiny" and "Muse"). She thinks such works tend to be written off the top of one's head (literally, with "insufficient fermentation") and to show a weak creative impulse and lack of passion.

I was particularly interested in Fujino, since she seemed an unlikely Akutagawa winner. Now 38 years old, she won the Kaien New Writer Award in 1995 and the Noma New Writer Award in 1998. A transsexual herself, she told the Asahi Shimbun (Jan. 31) that she doesn't want to deal with gay issues as a weighty social problem but simply to write about people who are somewhat out of step with society. In an interview with the writer Kuroi Senji in Bungakukai (March), Fujino notes as well that everyone has some sense of not fitting into the world around them. She does not intend her stories to be treatises on social prejudice or the problems of gay life.

She tells Kuroi that although she had long been interested in writing she didn't actually embark on a literary career until she was fired from her job as an editor at a manga magazine. The trouble began when she started living and dressing as a woman a few years after being hired. Her immediate boss didn't object as long as she did her job but higherups became involved and eventually fired her as a corrupting moral influence!

Kuroi also ran into problems with the company where he was working while writing on the side. At first he was just treated as an odd character, but after a few years his boss told him the company had no use for employees who were not company men 24 hours a day.

When Kuroi brings up the criticism that "Natsu no Yakusoku" is lacking in conflict and tension, Fujino responds that in daily life as well much is left unspoken. She felt no need to explicitly write about what is implicitly understood.

I have to admit that I also found "Natsu no Yakusoku" to be lacking in dramatic tension, although written with a light and skillful touch. The story centers on the lives of a group of friends in their 20s: the gay couple Maruo and Hikaru; Tamayo, a transsexual working in a family beauty parlor; the novelist Kiku-chan and her friend Nozomi, an OL.

Maruo is a somewhat overweight, easygoing company man who enjoys his food and drink while Hikaru is a freelance editor. They seem to be a longstanding couple, although they are still living in separate apartments. It is early summer and daily life proceeds normally. Maruo works late, goes out drinking with coworkers, and stops off at the convenience store on his way home. Tamayo, Nozomi and Kiku-chan spend an evening drinking and chatting in Kiku-chan's apartment. On a Sunday Maruo and Hikaru go to see an Indian movie, have dinner in a restaurant and go window shopping.

Of course there are scattered incidents of prejudice. One evening when Maruo and Hikaru are walking home holding hands, they are jeered at by a group of junior high school boys pushing past them on their way to the station. Hikaru gets angry but Maruo laughs it off and cajoles Hikaru out of his bad humor.

In a nice scene, Maruo goes on a Saturday to Tamayo's place for a haircut and they take a bento to a nearby park. Tamayo looks rather wistfully at the family with children nearby and tells Maruo how the unconditional love of her dog Apollon helps her overcome bad feelings about everyday slights she encounters.

In this way life goes on while Tamayo tries to geteveryone to agree to go away together to the country inAugust, the "yakusoku" of the title. I kept waiting for something to happen, a lover's quarrel even, but nothing did until the rather contrived ending when Tamayo accidentally gets hit by a pot flying from the window ofa fighting married couple. Since she's in the hospital with a broken jaw, the friends probably won't be able to go away together this year.

I can't help thinking this story would be dismissed as too slight if the characters were heterosexual, but one can also see it as reflecting a wider search for community within the dislocations of contemporary life. Fujino herself said at the Akutagawa Prize ceremony that she was especially happy to receive the award for a story about people helping and supporting each other, and she thanked the friends and editors who had made her own success possible.

Janet Ashby, a freelance writer and translator, came to Japan in 1975. She has a special interest in Japanese pop culture.


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