Japanese literature

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Japanese literature spans a period of almost two millennia and comprises one of the major literatures in the world, comparable to English literature in age and scope. It comprises a number of genres, including novels, poetry, and drama, travelogues, personal diaries and collections of random thoughts and impressions. From the early seventh century until the present there has never been a period when literature was not being produced by Japanese authors. Japan adopted its writing system from China, often using Chinese characters to represent Japanese words with similar phonetic sounds. Early works were heavily influenced by cultural contact with China and Chinese literature, and was often written in Classical Chinese. Though the Japanese writing system was adapted from Chinese, the two languages are unrelated. The rich emotional vocabulary of the Japanese language gave rise to a refined sensitivity of expression, while Chinese was often used to write about more intellectual and abstract concepts such as morality and justice. The nature of the spoken Japanese language, in which all words end with a simple vowel and stress accents do not exist, shaped the development of poetic forms which were relatively short in length and defined by the numbers of syllables in each line; and which sought above all for precise expression and rich literary allusion. Official court patronage of poetry produced strict artistic codes which dictated the vocabulary and form which could be used for poetic expression. Prose emphasized the smooth transition from one statement to another, rather than organization according to a formal theme.

During the Edo period, the rise of an urban middle class, increased literacy and the importation of Chinese vernacular literature stimulated the development of a number of new genres, such as kabuki theater, comedy, historical romances known as “yomihon,” horror, crime stories, and morality stories. When Japan reopened its ports to Western trading and diplomacy in the nineteenth century, exposure to Western literature influenced Japanese authors to develop more subjective, analytical styles of writing. Today Japanese literature of all periods is enjoyed by modern readers all over the world, who can relate to the sentiments and expressions of emotion which transcend cultural differences and historical distance.


Japanese literature is one of the major literatures of the world, comparable to English literature in age and variety. From the seventh century C.E., when the earliest surviving works were written, until the present day, there has never been a period when literature was not being produced in Japan. Possibly the earliest full-length novel, The Tale of Genji was written in Japan in the early eleventh century. In addition to novels, poetry, and drama, other genres such as travelogues, personal diaries and collections of random thoughts and impressions, are prominent in Japanese literature. In addition to works in the Japanese language, Japanese writers produced a large body of writing in classical Chinese.

Japanese Literature is generally divided into three main periods: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern.

Ancient Literature (until 894)

Before the introduction of kanji from China, there was no writing system in Japan. At first, Chinese characters were used in Japanese syntactical formats, and the literary language was classical Chinese; resulting in sentences that looked like Chinese but were phonetically read as Japanese. Chinese characters were used, not for their meanings, but because they had a phonetic sound which resembled a Japanese word. Modification of the normal usage of Chinese characters to accommodate Japanese names and expressions is already evident in the oldest known inscription, on a sword dating from about 440 C.E.. The use of Chinese characters initiated a centuries-long association of literary composition with the art of calligraphy.

Chinese characters were later adapted to write Japanese speech, creating what is known as the man'yōgana, the earliest form of kana, or syllabic writing. The earliest works were created in the Nara Period. These include Kojiki (712: a work recording Japanese mythology and legendary history, Nihonshoki (720; a chronicle with a slightly more solid foundation in historical records than Kojiki, and Man'yōshū (Ten Thousand Leaves, 759); an anthology of poetry. More than 120 songs in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki were written in phonetic transcription, and parts of the Kojiki contain a mixture of Chinese characters used to represent their Chinese meanings, and Chinese characters used to represent a phonetic sound.

Classical Literature (894 - 1194; the Heian period)

Classical Japanese literature generally refers to literature produced during the Heian Period, what some would consider a golden era of art and literature. The Tale of Genji (early eleventh century) by Murasaki Shikibu is considered the pre-eminent masterpiece of Heian fiction and an early example of a work of fiction in the form of a novel. Other important works of this period include the Kokin Wakashū (905, waka poetry anthology) and The Pillow Book (990s), an essay about the life, loves, and pastimes of nobles in the Emperor's court written by Murasaki Shikibu's contemporary and rival, Sei Shonagon. The iroha poem, now one of two standard orderings for the Japanese syllabary, was also written during the early part of this period.

During this time, the imperial court patronized poets, many of whom were courtiers or ladies-in-waiting. Editing anthologies of poetry was a national pastime. Reflecting the aristocratic atmosphere, the poetry was elegant and sophisticated and expressed emotions in a rhetorical style.

Medieval Literature (1195 - 1600)

Medieval Japanese Literature is marked by the strong influence of Zen Buddhism, and many writers were priests, travelers, or ascetic poets. Also during this period, Japan experienced many civil wars which led to the development of a warrior class, and a widespread interest in war tales, histories, and related stories. Work from this period is notable for its insights into life and death, simple lifestyles, and redemption through killing. A representative work is The Tale of the Heike (1371), an epic account of the struggle between the Minamoto and Taira clans for control of Japan at the end of the twelfth century. Other important tales of the period include Kamo no Chōmei's Hōjōki (1212) and Yoshida Kenko's Tsurezuregusa (1331).

Other notable genres in this period were renga, or linked verse, and Noh theater. Both were rapidly developed in the middle of the fourteenth century, during the early Muromachi period.

Early-Modern Literature (1600-1868)

The literature of this time was written during the generally peaceful Tokugawa Period (commonly referred to as the Edo Period). Due in large part to the rise of the working and middle classes in the new capital of Edo (modern Tokyo), forms of popular drama developed which would later evolve into kabuki. The joruri and kabuki dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon became popular at the end of the seventeenth century. Matsuo Bashō wrote Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道, 1702), a travel diary. Hokusai, perhaps Japan's most famous woodblock print artist, also illustrated fiction as well as his famous 36 Views of Mount Fuji.

Many genres of literature made their début during the Edo Period, inspired by a rising literacy rate among the growing population of townspeople, as well as the development of lending libraries. Although there was a minor Western influence trickling into the country from the Dutch settlement at Nagasaki, it was the importation of Chinese vernacular fiction that proved the greatest outside influence on the development of early modern Japanese fiction. Ihara Saikaku might be said to have given birth to the modern consciousness of the novel in Japan, mixing vernacular dialogue into his humorous and cautionary tales of the pleasure quarters. Jippensha Ikku (十返舎一九) wrote Tōkaidōchū hizakurige (東海道中膝栗毛), a mix of travelogue and comedy. Tsuga Teisho, Takebe Ayatari, and Okajima Kanzan were instrumental in developing the yomihon, which were historical romances almost entirely in prose, influenced by Chinese vernacular novels such as Three Kingdoms and Shui hu zhuan. Kyokutei Bakin wrote the extremely popular fantasy and historical romance, Nansō Satomi Hakkenden (南総里見八犬伝), in addition to other yomihon. Santō Kyōden wrote yomihon mostly set in the gay quarters until the Kansei edicts banned such works, and he turned to comedic kibyōshi. New genres included horror, crime stories, morality stories, and comedy, often accompanied by colorful woodcut prints.

Meiji, Taisho, and Early Showa literature (1868-1945)

The Meiji era marked the re-opening of Japan to the West, and a period of rapid industrialization. The introduction of European literature brought free verse into the poetic repertoire; it became widely used for longer works embodying new intellectual themes. Young Japanese prose writers and dramatists struggled with a whole galaxy of new ideas and artistic schools, but novelists were the first to successfully assimilate some of these concepts.

In the early Meiji era (1868-1880s), Fukuzawa Yukichi and Nakae Chomin authored Enlightenment literature, while pre-modern popular books depicted the quickly changing country. In the mid-Meiji (late 1880s - early 1890s) Realism was introduced by Tsubouchi Shoyo and Futabatei Shimei, while the Classicism of Ozaki Koyo, Yamada Bimyo and Koda Rohan gained popularity. Higuchi Ichiyo, a rare woman writer in this era, wrote short stories on powerless women of this age in a simple style, between literary and colloquial. Izumi Kyoka, a favored disciple of Ozaki, pursued a flowing and elegant style and wrote early novels such as The Operating Room (1895) in literary style and later ones including The Holy Man of Mount Koya (1900) in colloquial language.

Mori Ogai introduced Romanticism to Japan with his anthology of translated poems (1889), and it was carried to its height by Shimazaki Toson and his contemporaries and by the magazines Myōjō and Bungaku-kai in the early 1900s. Mori also wrote some modern novels including The Dancing Girl (1890), Wild Geese (1911), and later wrote historical novels. A new colloquial literature developed centering on the “I” novel, (Watakushi-shôsetu), a form of fiction that describes the world from the author’s point of view and depicts his own mental states. This style incorporated some unusual protagonists such as the cat narrator of Natsume Soseki's humorous and satirical Wagahai wa neko de aru (“I Am a Cat,” 1905). Natsume Soseki, who is often compared with Mori Ogai, also wrote the famous novels Botchan (1906) and Sanshirô (1908), depicting the freshness and purity of youth. He eventually pursued transcendence of human emotions and egoism in his later works including Kokoro (1914), and his last unfinished novel Light and Darkness (1916). Shiga Naoya, the so called "god of the novel," wrote in an autobiographical style, depicting his states of his mind, that is also classified as “I” novel.

Shimazaki shifted from Romanticism to Naturalism, which was established with the publication of The Broken Commandment (1906) and Katai Tayama's Futon (1907). Naturalism led to the “I” novel. Neo-romanticism came out of anti-naturalism and was led by Nagai Kafu, Junichiro Tanizaki, Kotaro Takamura, Kitahara Hakushu and others during the early 1910s. Mushanokoji Saneatsu, Shiga Naoya and others founded a magazine, Shirakaba, in 1910 to promote Humanism. Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who was highly praised by Soseki, represented Neo-realism in the mid-1910s and wrote intellectual, analytical short stories including Rashômon (1915).

During the 1920s and early 1930s the proletarian literary movement, comprising such writers as Kobayashi Takiji, Kuroshima Denji, Miyamoto Yuriko, and Sata Ineko, produced a politically radical literature depicting the harsh lives of workers, peasants, women, and other downtrodden members of society, and their struggles for change.

War-time Japan saw the début of several authors best known for the beauty of their language and their tales of love and sensuality, notably Tanizaki Junichiro and Japan's first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kawabata Yasunari, a master of psychological fiction. Hino Ashihei wrote lyrical bestsellers glorifying the war, while Ishikawa Tatsuzo attempted to publish a disturbingly realistic account of the advance on Nanjing. Writers who opposed the war include Kuroshima Denji, Kaneko Mitsuharu, Oguma Hideo, and Ishikawa Jun.

Post-War Literature

Japan’s defeat in World War II influenced Japanese literature during the 1940s and 1950s. Many authors wrote stories about disaffection, loss of purpose, and the coping with defeat. Dazai Osamu's novel The Setting Sun tells of a soldier returning from Manchukuo. Mishima Yukio, well known for both his nihilistic writing and his controversial suicide by seppuku, began writing in the post-war period. Kojima Nobuo's short story, "The American School," portrays a group of Japanese teachers of English who, in the immediate aftermath of the war, deal with the American occupation in varying ways.

Prominent writers of the 1970s and 1980s were identified with intellectual and moral issues in their attempts to raise social and political consciousness. One of them, Oe Kenzaburo wrote his best-known work, A Personal Matter in 1964 and became Japan's second winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Inoue Mitsuaki had long been concerned with the atomic bomb and continued during the 1980’s to write on problems of the nuclear age, while Endo Shusaku depicted the religious dilemma of the Kakure Kirishitan, Roman Catholics in feudal Japan, as a springboard to address spiritual problems. Inoue Yasushi also turned to the past in masterful historical novels, set in Inner Asia and ancient Japan, in order to comment on present human fate.

Avant-garde writers, such as Abe Kobo, who wrote fantastic novels such as Woman in the Dunes (1960), and wanted to express the Japanese experience in modern terms without using either international styles or traditional conventions, developed new inner visions. Furui Yoshikichi tellingly related the lives of alienated urban dwellers coping with the minutiae of daily life, while the psychodramas within such daily life crises have been explored by a rising number of important women novelists. The 1988 Naoki Prize went to Todo Shizuko for Ripening Summer. a story capturing the complex psychology of modern women. Other award-winning stories at the end of the decade dealt with current issues of the elderly in hospitals; the recent past; the Pure-Hearted Shopping District in Koenji, Tokyo; and the life of a Meiji period ukiyo-e artist. In international literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, a native of Japan, who had taken up residence in Britain, won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize.

Murakami Haruki is one of the most popular and controversial of today's Japanese authors. His genre-defying, humorous and surreal works have sparked fierce debates in Japan over whether they are true "literature" or simple pop-fiction: Oe Kenzaburo has been one of his harshest critics. Some of his best-known works include Norwegian Wood (1987) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-1995). Another best-selling contemporary author is Banana Yoshimoto.

Modern Themes

Although modern Japanese writers covered a wide variety of subjects, one particularly Japanese approach stressed their subjects' inner lives, widening the earlier novel's preoccupation with the narrator's consciousness. In Japanese fiction, plot development and action have often been of secondary interest to emotional issues. In keeping with the general trend toward reaffirming national characteristics, many old themes re-emerged in modern literature, and some authors turned consciously to the past. Strikingly, Buddhist attitudes about the importance of knowing oneself and the poignant impermanence of things formed an undercurrent of sharp social criticism of modern materialism. There was a growing emphasis on women's roles, the Japanese persona in the modern world, and the malaise of common people lost in the complexities of urban culture.

Contemporary Literature

Popular fiction, non-fiction, and children's literature all flourished in urban Japan during the 1980s. Many popular works fell between "pure literature" and pulp novels, including all sorts of historical serials, information-packed docudramas, science fiction, mysteries, detective fiction, business stories, war journals, and animal stories. Non-fiction covered everything from crime to politics. Although factual journalism predominated, many of these works were interpretive, reflecting a high degree of individualism. Children's works re-emerged in the 1950s, and the newer entrants into this field, many of them younger women, brought new vitality to it in the 1980s.

Manga (comic books) have penetrated almost every sector of the popular market. They include virtually every field of human interest, such as a multi volume high-school history of Japan and, for the adult market, a manga introduction to economics, and pornography. At the end of the 1980s, manga represented between twenty and thirty percent of total annual publications in Japan, representing sales of some four hundred billion yen annually. In contemporary Japan, there is a debate over whether the rise in popular forms of entertainment such as manga and anime has caused a decline in the quality of literature in Japan.

Characteristics of Japanese Literature

Japanese literature can be difficult to read and understand, because in many ways the written Japanese reflects certain peculiarities of the spoken language. Statements are often ambiguous, omitting as unnecessary the particles of speech which would normally identify words as the subject or object of a sentence, or using colloquial verb forms from a specific region or social class. Special language used to depict gender, age, social status, or regional origins is often the only clue as to who is speaking or being spoken about in a sentence. In many cases the significance of a simple sentence can only be understood by someone who is familiar with the cultural or historical background of the work.

Japan’s deliberate isolation during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries created a strong cultural homogeneity, and the literature of that period incorporated many common understandings that are unintelligible to someone who does not share the same background. For example, Japanese readers of the seventeenth century immediately understood the phrase,“some smoke rose noisily” (kemuri tachisawagite), as a reference to Great Fire of 1682 that ravaged Edo (the modern city of Tokyo).

Though the Japanese writing system was first adapted from Chinese, the Japanese and Chinese languages are unrelated. The original Japanese language contained a great variety of words expressing emotion and feeling, but very few words for abstract intellectual concepts such as justice, morality, honesty or rectitude. Japanese literature tends to be emotional and subjective, rather than intellectual, and consequently appeals strongly to modern readers all over the world, who can relate to sentiments and feelings which transcend historical changes and cultural differences. Japanese writers who wanted to express more intellectual or abstract meanings wrote in Chinese, or borrowed from the Chinese language.

As early as the tenth century, patronage of literature and poetry by the court and the aristocracy gave rise to literary criticism and artistic “codes,” developed by the writers and poets themselves, which dictated the style and form of poetic composition. These codes restricted the types of sentence structures which were acceptable, and generally prohibited the use of words with humble meanings or foreign origins until the sixteenth century, when less formal haikai no renga (俳諧の連歌, “playful linked verse”) became popular. Japanese writers emphasized refinement of sentiment and elegant phrasing over the expression of intellectual concepts.

The nature of the Japanese language influenced the development of poetic forms. All Japanese words end in one of five simple vowels, making it difficult to construct effective rhymes. Japanese words also lack a stress accent, so that poetry was distinguished from prose mainly by being divided into lines of specific numbers of syllables rather than by cadence and rhythm. These characteristics made longer poetic forms difficult, and most Japanese poems are short, their poetic quality coming from rich allusions and multiple meanings evoked by each word used in the composition.

Japanese prose often contains very long sentences which follow the train of the author’s thought. Japanese writers concentrated more on making a smooth transition from one thought to the next than on linking each statement to an overall structure or meaning. Personal diaries and accounts of travel from place to place developed as a means of linking unrelated elements together in a chronological succession.

Significant Authors and Works

Famous authors and literary works of significant stature are listed in chronological order below.

Classical literature

Medieval literature

  • Yoshida Kenkō (c.1283–1352): Tsurezuregusa
  • The Tale of Genji also known as The Tale of the Heike (1371)

Early-modern literature

  • Ihara Saikaku (1642 - 1693)
  • Matsuo Basho (1644 - 1694)
  • Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653 - 1725)
  • Ueda Akinari (1734 - 1809)
  • Santo Kyoden (1761 - 1816)
  • Jippensha Ikku (1765 - 1831)
  • Kyokutei Bakin (1767 - 1848)
  • Edo Meisho Zue (travelogue, 1834)
  • Hokuetsu Seppu (work of human geography, 1837)

Modern literature

  • Mori Ogai (1862 - 1922)
  • Ozaki Koyo (1867 - 1903)
  • Natsume Soseki (1867 - 1916)
  • Izumi Kyoka (1873 - 1939)
  • Shiga Naoya (1883 - 1971)
  • Ishikawa Takuboku (1886 - 1912)
  • Tanizaki Junichiro (1886 - 1965)
  • Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892 - 1927)
  • Eiji Yoshikawa (1892 - 1962)
  • Kaneko Mitsuharu (1895 - 1975)
  • Miyazawa Kenji (1896 - 1933)
  • Kuroshima Denji (1898 - 1943)
  • Tsuboi Shigeji (1898 - 1975)
  • Ishikawa Jun (1899 - 1987)
  • Kawabata Yasunari (1899 - 1972)
  • Miyamoto Yuriko (1899 - 1951)
  • Tsuboi Sakae (1900 - 1967)
  • Oguma Hideo (1901 - 1940)
  • Kobayashi Takiji (1903 - 1933)
  • Ishikawa Tatsuzo (1905-1985)
  • Dazai Osamu (1909 - 1948)
  • Endo Shusaku (1923 - 1996)
  • Abe Kobo (1924 - 1993)
  • Mishima Yukio (1925 - 1970)
  • Inoue Hisashi (1933 -)
  • Oe Kenzaburo (1935 -)
  • Yamamoto Michiko (1936 -)
  • Nakagami Kenji (1946 - 1992)
  • Murakami Haruki (1949 -)
  • Murakami Ryu (1952 -)
  • Banana Yoshimoto/Yoshimoto Mahoko (1964 - )

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Keene, Donald. Modern Japanese Literature. Grove Press, 1956. ISBN 038417254X
  • __________. World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of The Pre-Modern Era 1600-1867. Columbia University Press, (original 1976) 1999. ISBN 0231114672
  • __________. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, Poetry, Drama, Criticism. Columbia University Press, 1984 reprinted 1998. ISBN 0231114354
  • __________. Travellers of a Hundred Ages: The Japanese as Revealed Through 1,000 Years of Diaries. Columbia University Press, (original 1989) 1999. ISBN 0231114370
  • __________. Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from the Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century. Columbia University Press, 1993 reprinted 1999. ISBN 0231114419
  • Ema Tsutomu, Taniyama Shigeru, and Ino Kenji. Shinshū Kokugo Sōran (新修国語総覧) Kyoto Shobō, (original 1977) revised 1981, reprinted 1982.

External links

All links retrieved March 24, 2018.


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