Kokoro Anzai, a first-year junior high school girl, is the protagonist of the novel "Kagami no Kojo" (Solitary castle in the mirror) by Mizuki Tsujimura, the winner of this year's Japan Booksellers' Award.

Shortly after school starts in April, Anzai becomes terrified and incapable of going, traumatized by a classmate's inexplicable hostility and merciless harassment.

Since its publication last spring, the novel has been hailed by a broad spectrum of people battling the problem of truancy.

"It is difficult for young people to verbalize their thoughts and feelings while they are in the thick of truancy," said Shiko Ishii, 36, the chief editor of the Futoko Shimbun (Truancy newspaper), which has focused on young truants since about 20 years ago. "But I think Tsujimura's novel exquisitely pins down their thoughts and feelings."

Ishii himself was unable to go to school during his junior high years. He was snubbed by classmates, his teachers were tyrannical, and his parents' over-expectations all combined to crush his spirit.

After he transferred to a free school, he became involved in the publication of the inaugural issue of Futoko Shimbun.

The ranks of junior high school truants have continued to swell over the last few years, according to the education ministry.

"Schools today are frantically trying to ensure that their students fit the mold. And the students are thoroughly stressed out," Ishii noted.

In the novel, the protagonist finds salvation in a "castle" in a parallel universe that exists deep within a mirror in her room.

The author once said in an interview with the Futoko Shimbun that her junior high school years were the "most painful" in her life. But she found comfort in reading, and somehow managed to keep going to school.

After reading this novel, I recalled my own raw feelings and extreme sensitivity typical of adolescence. Just one hurtful comment from a teacher or friend was enough to make me feel utterly worthless as a person and wallow in misery and loneliness.

Does our society provide varied "castles" where adolescents can feel at peace?

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 13

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.