Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers

By Donald Keene | Go to book overview
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THE novel has a longer history in Japan than in any other country, and has sometimes attained heights rarely reached elsewhere. It is difficult to say just when the first Japanese novel was written, if only because the definition of the word "novel" itself is so uncertain. If we adopt some arbitrary definition, such as calling any work of fiction in prose over 100 pages in length a novel, we may then say that there are Japanese novels as far back as the tenth century, and that the tradition has remained unbroken to this day.

The Japanese novel had a double origin. There were first of all the anecdotes and tales such as are found in the earliest books. Many of these may have been passed down from generation to generation as part of the national folklore, but there were also stories of Chinese and Indian origin, which came in with the introduction of Buddhism. Such stories ranged in length from a few lines to a dozen or more pages, and, although their contents were highly varied, tales of the strange and miraculous predominated, as one might expect in view of the religious inspiration of most of them.

These stories, often of a fantastic nature, furnished part of the background for the novel. The other important source lay in Japanese poetry. I have mentioned the obscurity of much Japanese verse. The shortness of the commonly used forms was such that, in the attempt to impart as much suggestive power as possible, the poets often left out such obvious information as might be necessary for the comprehension of their verses. This may have been the reason why so many of the early poems have short prose prefaces describing the circum


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Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers


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