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TOKYO: As Japan’s most famous literary awards see their 150th iteration Thursday, the sponsor of the Akutagawa and Naoki awards faces daunting challenges at a time when book sales are on a worrying decline.

The Society for the Promotion of Japanese Literature has made special efforts for the commemorative event, but observers say the authority the semi-annual prizes carry sometimes makes it difficult for society to explore new horizons.

The Akutagawa Prize is named after literary great Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), and Naoki Prize after author Sanjugo Naoki (1891-1934). Both prizes were inaugurated in 1935 by author Kan Kikuchi, founder of publishing company Bungei Shunju, which now effectively oversees the awards. To date, 154 writers have received the Akutagawa Prize and 177 have been given the Naoki Prize.

The Naoki Prize is awarded to the “most outstanding author of popular literature” with candidates selected among up-and-coming and mid-career writers in far-flung genres.

“The award is for writers who can consistently produce excellent work over an extended period,” said Norikazu Yamada, editor of literary magazine All Yomimono.

Indeed, many writers have taken major strides in their careers after receiving the Naoki Prize. To name a few, Keita Genji blossomed as a writer who depicted the lives of salaried workers, while Toyoko Yamazaki served as a leading figure in the genre of fiction that revealed the roots of social problems until her death last year.

The aim of consistency in selecting talented writers has often made its selection committee prudent. This became evident during the selection of the first award. Novelist Eiji Yoshikawa wrote the following comment after selecting the first recipient of the Naoki Prize: “As the essence of popular literature is complicated, it is incredibly difficult to recommend only one work for the award.”

These days, selection committee members also tend to say they want to see another work of a particular writer before giving the prize. It is therefore rare for a writer to win the prize on his or her first nomination.

Such tendencies have invited criticism, saying they result in missed opportunities to give the prize to a writer at his or her prime, or that the award is incapable of discovering new talent.

Such dissatisfaction led to the creation in 2003 of the Honya Taisho award, given by bookstore clerks. Books selected for the award have been selling far better than those chosen for Naoki Prize: While most Naoki Prize winners generate sales of about 100,000 copies, it is not unusual for Honya Taisho books to sell more than 1 million copies.

For the upcoming commemorative award, All Yomimono published excerpts of the six nominated works, accompanied by interviews with the authors, to bring the award closer to general readers.

The Akutagawa Prize, on the other hand, is normally given to a little-known or up-and-coming writer of highly artistic, serious literary fiction. Better known to the public than Naoki Prize, the award has been bestowed on emerging talents through a flexible selection process.

The key phrase in the award’s selection criterion in recent years has been “diversity in literature.

” In January 2011, the prize was awarded to two writers from completely different backgrounds: Mariko Asabuki, 29, from a renowned literary family, and Kenta Nishimura, 46, a writer whose formal education ended at middle school.

Two years ago, writer and politician Shintaro Ishihara, then 79, and others left the selection committee and were replaced by younger writers. Six of the nine members, all born after World War II, are now in their 50s, creating an age distribution that many say is unbalanced.

“Members of that generation tend to be interested in more radical works,” literary critic Yoshinori Shimizu said.

For the first time, the nominated works for this Akutagawa Prize include the winner of Dazai Osamu Prize, Sayonara Orenji (Goodbye, my orange) by Kei Iwaki.

The move aims to give new breadth to the award, the selection of which will likely attract public attention on this commemorative occasion.—By arrangement with the Washington Post