Japanese literature

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Japanese literature

Japanese literature, literary works produced in the language of the islands of Japan.

See also Asian drama.

Earliest Writings

Although Japanese and Chinese are different languages, the Japanese borrowed and adapted Chinese ideographs early in the 8th cent. in order to render their spoken language in written form. Because Japanese is better suited to phonetic transcription, the result is a language of extremely complicated linguistic construction.

In 712 the new writing system was used in the compilation of orally preserved poems and stories into the Kojiki [records of ancient matters], an account of the divine creation of Japan and its imperial clan. Another historical work, the Nihon-shoki [chronicles of Japan] (721), was written in Chinese. The oldest anthology of Japanese verse, Manyoshu [collection of a myriad leaves] (760), contains about 4,500 poems, many from much earlier times. A number of the poems in this collection are more varied in form and more passionate in statement than those written in later eras.

The Heian Era

The addition of two phonetic syllabaries (katakana and hiragana) during the Heian era (794–1185) opened the classic age, in which Japanese literature reached its first peak of development. Classical Chinese still predominated in intellectual literary circles and official court communications, yet literature in the native language, the only written medium permitted to educated women, gained increasing prestige. In his travel journal Tosa Nikki [Tosa diary] (936), the poet Ki no Tsurayuki assumed a female persona in order to write in Japanese.

Much Heian literature of note was written by aristocratic women, foremost among whom was Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki). Her Genji monogatari [tale of Genji] (early 11th cent.) is ranked with the world's greatest novels. Sei Shonagon, another contemporary court lady, wrote Makura no soshi [the pillow book], a compilation of miscellaneous notes and reflections that provides an excellent portrait of Heian aristocratic life, with its emphasis on elegance—always an important element of the Japanese aesthetic.

Ki no Tsurayuki was the leading spirit in the compilation of the Kokinwakashu [collection of ancient and modern verse], the first imperial anthology of Japanese poetry. This collection, which established the model for 21 subsequent imperial anthologies, contained some 1,100 poems organized by topic, written in the tanka form of 31 syllables. The Japanese have always esteemed poetry as the highest of literary arts, and poets regarded inclusion in a poetry anthology as a supreme honor.

Medieval Literature

In the subsequent medieval period (c.1200–1600), themes and concerns central to the newly ascendant warrior class took expression in such works as the Heike monogatari [tale of the Heike], an epic account of the struggle between two great clans that ended the Heian period. Much medieval poetry and prose is colored by Buddhist thought. The somber Hojoki [account of my hut] (c.1212) and the elegant Tsurezuregusa [essays in idleness] (1330), both written by Buddhist renunciants, exemplify the range of literary expression proceeding from a Buddhist sensibility. Buddhist tale literature, ranging from collections of short didactic lessons to lengthy narratives, was also widely produced. The most famous of these, the late Heian Konjaku monogatari shû [tales from past and present], consists of over 1,200 stories of tremendous variety and scope.

The medieval period witnessed the development of noh, a serious dramatic form combining dance, music, chanting, and mime, and kyogen, short comedies performed in interludes between noh plays. The greatest writers of noh plays were Kanami Kiyotsugu (1333–84) and his son Zeami Motokiyo (1363–1443), who developed the noh from its primitive origins to the highly purified and rigorous art form that later influenced such Western poets as W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. While the prestige and production of the tanka continued undiminished, renga, a linked verse form governed by elaborate conventions, composed by single or multiple poets, became popular in the latter half of the medieval period.

Literary Forms of the Edo Era

Otogi-zoshi, short prose fiction popular among a range of social classes, anticipated the broadening social base of literature that developed with the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603, when almost total cultural and physical isolation from other countries created economic conditions that led to a thriving culture of the bourgeoisie. Early Edo prose literature encompassed a diverse range of subjects: didactic tracts, travel guides, essays, satires, and picaresque fiction. Ihara Saikaku was the foremost master of this last form; his novel Koshoku ichidai onna [the life of an amorous woman] is an ironic look at a world of pleasure and eroticism.

The literary tastes of the bourgeoisie also contributed to the development of the kabuki and puppet (joruri; also known as bunraku) theaters. Plays by dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1724), originally written for the puppet theater but adapted into kabuki performance as well, are important in world literature as the first mature tragedies written about the common man. Matsuo Basho, regarded as the greatest of haiku poets, brought the developing haiku, a 17-syllable poem, into full flower. Yosa Buson (1716–81) and Kobayashi Issa (1763–1828) were also important haiku poets. Later Edo fiction, called gesaku, was mostly comic or satirical in nature, although it also included long Confucian didactic tales.

Western Influence

After the dramatic opening of Japan to the West in 1858, the flood of translations from Western literature that followed induced the Japanese to give prose fiction a new direction and psychological realism. Tsubouchi Shoyo (1859–1935) had a profound effect on the modern Japanese novel with his critical study Shosetsu-shinzui [the essence of the novel] (1885), in which he urged the use of colloquial speech rather than the rarefied literary language used by previous writers. Ukigumo [the drifting cloud] (1887–89), by Futabatei Shimei (1864–1909), was the first novel written in colloquial language. The "I novel," a type of personal semifictitious autobiography, was dominant for a time, followed by naturalist and proletarian novels.

Natsume Soseki and Mori Ogai were two major figures of early-20th-century fiction. Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892–1927) is known for his unusual stories based in part on earlier tale literature and folklore. Japanese literature suffered a slump during World War II, when the government censored literary expression it considered contrary to the interests of the state. Nagai Kafu (1870–1959), with his talent for verbal portraiture, nevertheless remained a popular figure during this time.

Postwar Literature

The immense public demand for fiction in postwar Japan has been fed by the prolific output of its writers. Yasunari Kawabata, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, has been praised for the delicate aesthetic sensibility of his novels. Junichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, Kobo Abe, Fumiko Enchi, Shusaku Endo, Sawako Ariyoshi, and Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, are just a few of the modern Japanese writers who have attracted international admiration.

In their search to define a modern Japanese poetic voice, modern poets and dramatists have both revived old forms and created new means of expression. Akiko Yosano is known for the lushness and eroticism of her tanka; Sakutaro Hagiwara (1886–1942), for his deft incorporation of symbolism into the lyric mode; and Kotaro Takamura, for his free verse on a range of subjects. In modern drama, playwright Junji Kinoshita (b. 1914) borrowed elements from the Japanese folk tradition; Mishima wrote dramatic adaptations of noh plays and Japanese legends, while Minoru Betsuyaku (b. 1937), Makoto Sato (b. 1943), and others pioneered underground theater in the late 1960s.

Although modern Japanese poetry and drama have not received as much attention from the West as have novels and short stories, Japanese literature is recognized as a major branch of world literature, and most major works are available in English translation.


See R. Brower and E. Miner, Japanese Court Poetry (1961); D. Keene, World within Walls (1976) and Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era (1984); T. Takaya, Modern Japanese Drama (1979); E. Miner et al., ed., The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature (1985); Ooka and Fitzsimmons, ed., A Play of Mirrors: Eight Major Poets of Modern Japan (1987); H. C. McCullough, Classical Japanese Prose (1990); S. D. Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry (1991).

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