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Akutagawa literary prize candidate causing stir over alleged plagiarism

In this composite photo, from left, "Itai" (Corpse) by Kota Ishii (Shinchosha Publishing Co.), the literary magazine "Gunzo" that carried Yuko Hojo's "Utsukushii Kao" (Beautiful face) as the winner of the Gunzo Prize for New Writers (Kodansha) and Kiyoshi Kanebishi's "3.11 Dokoku no Kiroku" (March 11 record of weeping) (Shinyosha) are seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The debut work of author Yuko Hojo, a candidate for the acclaimed Akutagawa Prize in Japanese literature, has been caught up in accusations of plagiarism that has sparked vigorous debate between publishers and literary experts.

Hojo's "Utsukushii Kao" (beautiful face) won the Gunzo Prize for New Writers presented by publisher Kodansha based in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward, and was published in the edition of the literary magazine "Gunzo" released in May. The story is told in the first person by a high school girl in a disaster-hit area, weaving a tale of her feelings of hate toward and pandering to the media that come to cover the damage and of the loss of her relatives. The story gathered high praise from critics, and even became a candidate for the 159th Akutagawa Prize.

However, at the end of June this year, it was found that many points in the story resembled those from works such as the non-fiction "Itai" (Corpse) by Kota Ishii, printed by Shinchosha Publishing Co. in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward and an anthology of accounts of the March 2011 disasters "3.11 Dokoku no Kiroku" (March 11 record of weeping) edited by Kiyoshi Kanebishi and published by the Chiyoda Ward-based Shinyosha. There were even sections describing the evacuation centers, mortuaries and mental state of the victims that were almost identical to descriptions from these other sources. Hojo explained that she had never visited the site of a disaster.

Kodansha has issued an apology for "not releasing a list of works cited," while also claiming that the quotes "were limited and don't affect the main part of the story itself." The company then posted the entirety of the text online for the public to judge. However, Shinchosha fired back with a statement, saying, "Even if you say the works were used for reference, the story still should have been written using the author's own words," and other criticism, locking the two companies in battle.

Hojo has apologized and tried to offer an explanation, commenting, "In several scenes, I thought I shouldn't use my imagination to falsely describe disaster-hit areas," and, "It was because of my own negligence and immaturity." She made no mention of the Akutagawa Prize.

Kanebishi, a professor at Tohoku Gakuin University and editor of "3.11 Dokoku no Kiroku," questioned Hojo's attitude while penning her novel.

"It is a record of feelings that disaster victims wrote while thinking seriously and showing hesitation. The matter is related to how the author approached the disasters," Kanebishi commented through the publisher.

The similar sections are limited to only finer details and not the entirety of the storyline, and Kodansha is emphasizing, "Even considering the problems, it doesn't take away from the essence or value of the work." However, the novel has been unable to overcome its "copy-and-paste" image, and literary critics and other writers alike are calling it plagiarism.

"Some parts use almost exactly the same expressions (as the original works)," lamented one source at the publishing industry. "Isn't the root of the problem the fact that Hojo didn't put it into her own words?"

However, literary critic Kazuo Tanaka, who praised Hojo's novel in a literary comment in the Mainichi Shimbun, does not view the work as a stolen piece. When approached for comment, he repeated his acclaim of the story, "There is a necessity (to the quoted portions), and it connects back to the persuasiveness of the piece. It is precisely because she was not a victim that she could pen this story. It's a masterpiece."

As for the Akutagawa Prize, the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Literature, which holds the literary contest, has decided not to remove "Utsukushii Kao" from the running. Debate over candidates' works will be left to a nine-member prize selection panel, which will discuss their merits on July 18.

(Japanese original by Kazuki Ohara, Cultural News Department)

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