Japan’s Prizewinning Books of 2023

Books Culture Society

A roundup of the books that won the Akutagawa Prize, Naoki Prize, and other major literary awards in Japan in 2023.

Akutagawa Prize

Three books won Japan’s Akutagawa Prize in 2023, awarded to “new” writers of literature, who may have published works, but are not considered established. Prizes, sometimes shared, are announced in January and July.

Among the winners, Ichikawa Saō, author of Hanchibakku (Hunchback), has congenital myopathy, and has used a respirator since she was 14. At the age of 39, she began an online course at the Waseda University School of Human Sciences, and since graduating she has focused on writing.

Her novel appears to have autobiographical aspects. The protagonist, who is severely disabled from birth with a curved spine that means she has to use a respirator, takes a distance course via the internet, while also posting erotic fiction for women online. She dreams of being a high-class prostitute. After a male carer comes to assist her with bathing one day during the COVID-19 pandemic, a shocking story unfolds.

Author Hirano Keiichirō was among the judges to praise the work, saying, “It’s a highly provocative novel that criticizes and dissects the deceit of society from a disabled perspective, encouraging reframing. The style is intellectually layered, with well-polished expression.” He added, “The powerful way that the book poses its questions means that there are no easy answers for readers.”

The novel is set to appear in English in 2025.

The Akutagawa winners for 2023 are:

  • Kono yo no yorokobi yo (The Joy of the World) by Idogawa Iko (January) 
  • Arechi no kazoku (Families in the Wasteland) by Satō Atsushi (January)
  • Hanchibakku (Hunchback) by Ichikawa Saō (July)

Naoki Prize

There were four winners of the Naoki Prize, awarded for popular fiction, generally to more established writers than the Akutagawa Prize. Prizes, sometimes shared, are announced in January and July.

Kobikichō no adauchi (Vengeance in Kobikichō), by Nagai Sayako, won both the Naoki Prize and the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize, which is awarded for “superb storytelling.” Nagai made her debut in 2010 and has built a reputation for her historical fiction.

Vengeance in Kobikichō takes place in the early nineteenth century. Two years after the boy actor Kikunosuke successfully avenges his father, a relative seeks to find out what really happened, uncovering the startling truth. Naoki Prize judge Miyabe Miyuki praised the work for its incorporation of mystery elements in the setting of the Edo period (1603–1868).

The Naoki winners for 2023 are:

  • Chizu to kobushi (The Map and the Fist) by Ogawa Satoshi (January)
  • Shirogane no ha (Silver Leaf) by Chihaya Akane (January)
  • Kobikichō no adauchi (Vengeance in Kobikichō) by Nagai Sayako (July)
  • Gokuraku seii taishōgun (Paradise Shōgun) by Kakine Ryōsuke (July)

Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize

  • Kobikichō no adauchi (Vengeance in Kobikichō) by Nagai Sayako

From left, Naoki Prize winners Nagai Sayako and Kakine Ryōsuke, and Akutagawa Prize winner Ichikawa Saō, at the awards ceremony in Tokyo on July 19, 2023. (© Jiji)
From left, Naoki Prize winners Nagai Sayako and Kakine Ryōsuke, and Akutagawa Prize winner Ichikawa Saō, at the awards ceremony in Tokyo on July 19, 2023. (© Jiji)

Yoshikawa Eiji Prize

Kirino Natuso won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize, awarded for outstanding popular fiction, for her novel Tsubame wa modotte konai (The Swallows Don’t Return). Kirino, who has previously received a number of prizes for her work, is most famous for her dark crime novel Out (1997), an international hit that was published in an English translation by Stephen Snyder in 2004.

Swallows tackles the topics of surrogate pregnancy and ethics in the reproductive health business. Riki is a 29-year-old nurse living in Hokkaidō who acts on her dream of living in Tokyo, finding a hospital job in the big city, but is soon exhausted by the demands of the nonregular position. Amid financial struggles, she learns from a colleague of a high-paying side job, and goes to visit a clinic where a famous ballet dancer and his wife are seeking a surrogate mother. The novel explores how these characters’ lives are changed by reproductive medicine. Despite the serious theme, it has a compelling narrative drive.

  • Tsubame wa modotte konai (The Swallows Don’t Return) by Kirino Natsuo

Japan Booksellers’ Prize

Chosen through a vote by bookstore employees throughout Japan.

Mishima Yukio Prize

Awarded to pioneering works of literature.

  • Shokubutsu shōjo (Vegetable Girl) by Asahina Aki

Mystery Writers of Japan Award

A prize for excellent mystery novels.

  • Yoru no dōhyō (Signposts at Night) by Ashizawa Yō
  • Kimi no kuizu (Your Quiz) by Ogawa Satoshi

Ōya Sōichi Nonfiction Award

For superb nonfiction.

  • Kuroi umi: Fune wa totsuzen shinkai e kieta (Black Sea: The Sudden Disappearance of a Ship) by Izawa Rie

The Bestsellers of 2023

Finally, here are the year’s bestselling fiction books in the tankōbon format for new publications, according to major distributor Nippon Shuppan Hanbai.

  1. Hen na ie (Strange House) by Uketsu
  2. Hen na e (Strange Pictures) by Uketsu
  3. Machi to sono futashika na kabe (The City and Its Uncertain Walls) by Murakami Haruki
  4. Nanji, hoshi no gotoku (Thou Art Like a Star) by Nagira Yū
  5. Majo to sugoshita nanokakan (Seven Days He Spent with the Laplace Witch) by Higashino Keigo

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Prizewinning books in 2023: from left, Hanchibakku [Hunchback], Kobikichō no adauchi [Vengeance in Kobikichō], Gokuraku seii taishōgun [Paradise Shōgun], and Nanji, hoshi no gotoku [Thou Art Like a Star].)