Episode 20: The Akutagawa Prize and Kobo Abe

Machi Yamida Abe’s illustration from The Woman in the Dunes

Check out Episode 20 of the Read Literature podcast.

The Akutagawa Prize is probably Japan’s most celebrated literary award.

To better understand the Akutagawa Prize and its place in modern Japanese literature, we’ll start with an introduction to the history of “literary” fiction in Japan.

Then we’ll move on to the history of the Akutagawa Prize itself, from its creation in 1935 through its most recent winners.

And then we’ll finish with a look at the life and career of Kobo Abe including his most famous book, The Woman in the Dunes.

(CW: suicide, attempted rape in a novel)

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  • Beyond the Curve (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter)
    • includes a partial translation of “The Crime of S. Karma”
  • The Woman in the Dunes (translated by Dale Saunders)

More by Kobo Abe:

This episode also mentions:

Purchase Akutagawa winners from our Bookshop.

Find Out More

A GoodReads list of Akutagawa-winning stories. Works that have been translated into English are usually included with their titles in English.

RJL’s list of Akutagawa Prize Winners in English. The list includes non-winning works available from Akutagawa-winner authors.

Glynne Walley’s write-ups of Akutagawa-winning stories since 2000. Walley is a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Oregon.

Li Kotomi’s Akutagawa acceptance speech. Kotomi was the first Tawainese-born Akutagawa winner when she won in 2021.

A profile of Gregory Kherzrnejat, an American nominated for the 2023 Akutagawa Prize, in the Japan Times. If Kherznejat had won, he would have been the first native English speaker and first American Akutagawa winner.

Comments about Kobo Abe and “The Crime of S. Karma” by the Akutagawa Selection Committee. Note that the link is to the Google Translate version of a Japanese website.

A review of Karin Yamaguchi’s memoir, Kobo Abe and Me. Abe’s mistress’s memoir hasn’t been translated into English, but this is a thorough review.

An interview with Kobo Abe’s daughter Neri.

The Internet Movie Database entry for 1964’s The Woman in the Dunes. The entry includes a film trailer.

Kobo Abe’s obituary in The New York Times.

“Literature” at Japanese Wiki Corpus

Japanese Literature at Facebook

Japanese Literature at Goodreads

Other RJL Episodes of Interest:


Abe Kobo. “The Crime of S. Karma” in Beyond the Curve. Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Kodansha, 1991.

–. Interview with Nancy S. Hardin. Contemporary Literature, 1974.

“Abe Kobo” at Prizeworld.com, 2017. (Japanese language site via Google Translate, both free)

Ashby, Janet. “Heavy and Light in Minority Fiction” in The Japan Times, 2000.

“[Breaking News] Bookstore Clerk and Author Atsushi Sato, who Lives in Sendai, Won the Akutagawa Prize” at Kahoku News, 2023. (Japanese language site via Google Translate, both free)

Chilton, Myles. “Realist Magic and the Invented Tokyos of Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana” in Journal of Narrative Theory, 2009.

Coutts, Angela. “Gender and Literary Production in Modern Japan: The Role of Female-Run Journals in Promoting Writing by Women During the Interwar Years” in Signs, 2006.

El-Khoury, Masumi Abe. Editor’s Intentions and Author’s Desires: How Junbungaku Affects the Akutagawa Prize and Japan’s Commercial Literary World. UBC. MA Thesis. 2011. (free)

Ericson, Joan E. “The Origins of the Concept of ‘Women’s Literature’” in The Woman’s Hand: Gender and Theory in Japanese Women’s Writing, Stanford, 1996.

Fernando, Shaun. “Works Winning the Akutagawa and Naoki Prizes Are Trending on Social Media” at JapanFoward.com, 2022. (free)

Ha, Thu-Huong. “Could the Akutagawa Prize Get Its First American Winner? At The Japan Times, 2023.

Iwamoto Yoshio. “The Nobel Prize in Literature, 1967-1987: A Japanese View” in World Literature Today, 1988.

“Japan’s Kafka Goes on the Road” in The New York Times, 1979. (free)

Keene, Donald. “Ryūnosuke Akutagawa” in Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era—Fiction, 4th ed., 1999.

Mack, Edward. “Accounting for Taste: The Creation of the Akutagwa and Naoki Prizes for Literature” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 2004.

–. Manufacturing Modern Japanese Literature: Publishing, Prizes, and the Ascription of Literary Value. Duke, 2010.

Mak, Rebecca. “The Akutagawa/Tanizaki Debate: Actors in Bundan Discourse” in Routledge Handbook of Modern Japanese Literature, ed. Rachael Hutchinson and Leith Morton, 2016.

Marcus, Marvin. Japanese Literature from Murasaki to Murakami, Association for Asian Studies, 2015.

Masahiko Morimoto. “Akutagawa Prize Winner Li Kotomi: Updating the Face of Japanese LIterature One Novel at a Time” at Japan-Forward.com, 2021. (free)

Napier, Susan J. The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity. Routledge, 1996.

Powell, Allison Markin. “10 Japanese Books by Women We’d Love to See in English” at Lithub.com, 2016.

–. “Translation Women in Essential: Allison Markin Powell on Translating Kaoru Takamura’s Groundbreaking Japanese Crime Epic” at Soho.com, 2022.

Richter, Frederick. “A Comparative Approach to Abe Kōbō’s S. Karuma-shi no Hazai” in The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, 1974.

Seidensticker, Edward. “The ‘Pure’ and the ‘In-Between’ in Modern Japanese Theories of the Novel” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 1966.

Shields, Nancy. Fake Fish: The Theater of Kobo Abe. Weatherhill, 1996.

Shirane, Haruo, ed. Early Modern Japanese Literature—An Anthology, 1600-1900. Columbia, 2002.

Sterngold, James. “Kobo Abe, 68, the Skeptical Poet of an Uprooted Society, Is Dead” in The New York Times, 1993. (free)

Tatsumi Takayuki. “Generations and Controversies: An Overview of Japanese Science Fiction, 1957-1997” in Science Fiction Studies, 2000.

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