Akutagawa Prize #139: Toki ga nijimu asa, by Yang Yi (Yan Ii)

Yan Ii (Yang Yi) 楊逸. Toki ga nijimu asa 時が滲む朝. Bungei Shunjû, 2008.

Winner of the 139th Akutagawa Prize, for early ’08. Yan’s the first winner for whom Japanese is not the native language. (Note: her name in Pinyin would be Yang Yi; the phonetic pronunciation given of it in Japanese is Yan Ii.)

It concerns two boys in rural China, Zhiqiang and Haoyuan, who go to college in the provincial capital in 1989 and get caught up in the democracy movement. They travel to Beijing and participate in the demonstrations in Tienanmen Square, although they go home to Qindu just before the crackdown; nevertheless, the repression of the student movement affects them, too. They’re kicked out of school, and the teacher who had inspired them and led the local movement goes into exile in France. The story then follows Haoyuan as he marries a Japanese woman and settles in Tokyo. The second half of the story follows his life there, as he gets involved in a expat group pushing for democratic reform in China, and sees enthusiasm among the Chinese community in Japan steadily dwindling. He tries to organize resistance to the reversion of Hong Kong in 1997 and the campaign to award the Olympics to Beijing, and finally comes to realize that for most of his countrymen, dreams of political reform are always going to take a back seat to making a living; indeed, as his own family grows, Haoyuan himself becomes less and less sure of his commitment to activism.

The title (which can be translated rather literally as “Mornings when time blurs,” or less literally but maybe more sensibly as “The mornings all run together”) refers, obliquely, to the recurring motif of morning—several key scenes in the novel involve Haoyuan watching a sunrise; his thoughts at these times are seldom clearly articulated, but his emotions are at a high point each time. Presumably the title is meant to indicate a sort of telescoping of time at such moments, linking the various periods in Haoyuan’s life through the motif of these sunrises.

Yan is not the first non ethnic Japanese author to win the Akutagawa Prize—a number of zainichi Koreans have gotten it—but she is the first for whom Japanese is not the recipient’s first language. She was born and raised in China, and came to Japan at age 23. Her Japanese here is serviceable, certainly readable. It’s not exactly beautiful, though—at times it lapses into cliché, and the dialogue is a bit clunky–and given the weight usually placed on a polished style as a marker of literariness in Japan (the cult of the sentence has a long history here) I imagine there’ll be a lot of debate around whether or not this deserved the A-Prize. But I think the novel’s problems lie elsewhere.

It’s successful at telling one story: the gradual weakening of Haoyuan’s youthful idealism. The story is only a hundred and fifty pages long (in fairly large print)—a novella, really, standard length for A-Prize bait. This means it only has time to seriously follow this one story. I suppose you could say it’s ruthless in its focus on this, paring away unnecessary detail so that we get a clear view of Haoyuan’s emotional state as his teenage patriotism is betrayed by the State, and as he moves through a difficult period of exile into acceptance of Japan as his home. The message that, even for someone as dedicated as Haoyuan, politics are inevitably going to pale next to day-to-day concerns comes through loud and clear.

The problem is that in focusing on this emotional arc, and trying to pack almost twenty years of history into a novella, Yan ends up sacrificing a whole lot—too much for the story’s good, I think.

The characters are wafer thin. For all the resonance of Haoyuan’s emotional arc, he and Zhiqiang are little more than vague sketches of the idealistic young student at the beginning, utterly interchangeable with every other student who appears in the book, not to mention each other. We’re finally able to tell Haoyuan apart from Zhiqiang because Haoyuan goes to Japan while Zhiqiang stays in Qindu, but otherwise they might as well be the same person for all the detail we get about them. And everybody else fares worse. Haoyuan’s wife Ume is ethnically and legally Japanese, but she was raised mostly in China—she’s a zanryû koji, a descendant of Japanese in wartime China who was left behind after the war. But despite the rich possibilities of such a character, we’re told next to nothing about her.

The lack of detail extends to the events Haoyuan lives through, as well, and this is where the novel really falls down. The democracy movement and the Tienanmen Square crackdown, the situations of Chinese expatriates in Japan, efforts by overseas Chinese to promote democracy at home, the reversion of Hong Kong, China’s transformation to a market economy, the zanryû koji—all of these are not only interesting historical circumstances in their own right, but they present a lot of excellent story opportunities as well. We as readers—I as a reader—want to know more about what it felt like to be part of these things, how they affected a real individual (as opposed to a faceless symbol). But we get precious little detail. Instead, Yan glosses over these things, the result being an impressionistic novel that fits in quite comfortably alongside the sort of plotless, navel-gazing narratives that usually win the A-Prize. Evidently it’s making a favorable impression on Japanese readers, as it did on the prize committee, but it’s pretty unsatisfactory considering what it could have been, in different hands.

Part of the problem may be that Yan herself wasn’t a participant in Tienanmen—she was already living in Japan at that time, and watched the events on TV while on a brief visit back home (I know I’m being inconsistent here–usually I gripe about the insistence of Japanese literary authors on sticking to autobiography, while here I’m complaining that Yan goes beyond it). She professes not to have any particular political point of view in writing now, and that’s obvious. The students in the movement are shown merely as patriots, doing whatever it is they’re doing solely out of a love of their homeland; there’s very little discussion of what ideas, if any, drive them. We’re told that Haoyuan wants democracy for China, but we never get much of an idea of what this means to him—we know he’s thrilled to hear pop songs smuggled in from Hong Kong and Japan, but that’s about it. And that may be enough motivation for an impressionable college freshman—but why does Haoyuan stay involved in the movement after moving to Japan? This is not explained—we’re told he has ideals, but we’re not really shown them. Again, this is probably intentional on the author’s part, but I think it impoverishes the book.

As an A-Prize recipient, it fits in nicely with other recent winners, many of which have represented neglected subcultures or unheard voices in contemporary Japan—otaku, hip-hop boys, career women, body piercers, work-world dropouts. It’s also timely, as the Prize was announced on the eve of the Beijing Olympics. And certainly one can sympathize with the desire to encourage non-Japanese contributions to the Japanese literary scene. I just wish this was a better book. Actually, I guess I wish it was a different book. That may not be fair, but there it is.