Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Originality of Japanese Literature

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Originality of Japanese Literature

Article excerpt

The originality of Japanese literature

A whole series of paradoxes has given Japanese literature a unique place in the history of world culture. But its distinctiveness does not isolate it: we need only consider Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji,(1) which dates from the beginning of the eleventh century and which is a delight to read, not only for specialists in classical Japanese literature or even just for lovers of things Japanese, but also for all who are interested in the structure of the novel, and, more generally, in psychological relationships as these can be depicted by a novelist.

The Tale of Genji, which is surprisingly modern in its style of narration, has two altogether remarkable features. Firstly, although it appeared at the dawn of written Japanese culture, it is a novel; secondly, its author is a woman. These two characteristics in themselves reveal the amazing originality of Japanese literature: it starts with the genre which, in all other cultures, is a late development, and, moreover, women are not only immediately accepted in literature, but are in the vanguard. This novel was preceded by collections of poetry, historical and mythological chronicles and folk tales, but there is no comparable example of such an early emergence of the novel genre in literary history.

The "court diaries' of the Heian period (794-1185) herald or echo this achievement, in which another special feature should be noted: the drifting of the story between poetry and prose, with many waka (poems of thirty-one syllables) breaking up the steady pace of the narrative. Although classical Japanese presents difficulties for twentieth-century Japanese readers, and although these diaries require translation into modern parlance, it is astonishing how close this world of "court ladies' seems to us. Why do we recognize ourselves in Izumi Shikibu, in Michitsuna's mother and in Sei Shonagon? Why do the notions of the ephemeral, the world's inconstancy, and nostalgic longing still touch a nerve in us? These earliest introspective narratives, in their sumptuous setting and in the hierarchical world of the court, also speak with a personal voice that is timeless.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (c.966-early eleventh century; see extract overleaf) or, later, in the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the Hojoki, still have a sort of transparency and self-evidence that enable their authors to show us ourselves--whether the character is an abandoned woman or a hermit lost in the mountains. This intimacy, which spans the centuries, will continue to be found in the most modern works of literature. The introspective novels of the early twentieth century, despite major historical and linquistic upheavals, undoubtedly bear witness to that rare homogeneity. We read the masterpieces of Natsume Soseki (1867-1916)(2) or Nagai Kafu (1879-1959)(3) as a natural continuation of those which went before. Moreover, these two authors, like the later Tanizaki Junichiro (1886-1965)(4) are constantly inquiring into their relations with the past, not because of a backward-looking or traditionalist frame of mind, which would threaten to cast a blight of sterility on their writing, but out of a desire to discover the roots of their unity of inspiration. …

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