Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Japanese literature spans a period of almost two millennia of writing. Early work was heavily influenced by Chinese literature, but Japan quickly developed a style and quality of its own. When Japan reopened its ports to Western trading and diplomacy in the 19th century, Western Literature had a strong effect on Japanese writers, and this influence is still seen today.
As with all literature, Japanese literature is best read in the original. Due to deep linguistic and cultural differences, many Japanese words and phrases are not easily translated. Although Japanese literature and Japanese authors are perhaps not as well known in the west as those in the European and American canons, Japan possesses an ancient and rich literary tradition that draws upon a millenium and a half of written records.
There is debate regarding the classification of periods in Japanese literature. The following is a general guide based on important political and cultural events. Given the immense span of years covered in this article, it is not comprehensive, but rather highlights prominent works and authors of the various periods. All names are in the Japanese order of surname first, given name second.
Ancient Literature (pre-8th Century)
With the introduction of kanji (漢字, lit. "Chinese characters") from the Asian mainland, writing became possible, as there was no native writing system. Consequently, the only literary language was classical Chinese to begin with; later, the characters were adapted to write Japanese, creating what is known as the man'yōgana, the earliest form of kana, or syllabic writing. Works created in the Nara Period include Kojiki (712: a partly mythological, partly accurate history of Japan), Nihonshoki (720: a chronicle with a slightly more solid foundation in historical records than the Kojiki), and Man'yōshū (759: a poetry anthology). The language used in the works of this period differs significantly from later periods in both its grammar and phonology. Even in this early era, significant dialectal differences within Japanese are apparent.
Classical Literature (8th Century - 12th Century)
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 11th century) by Murasaki Shikibu is considered the preeminent 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 Wakashu (905) and The Pillow Book (990s), the latter written by Murasaki Shikibu's contemporary and rival, Sei Shonagon, about the life, loves, and pastimes of nobles in the Emperor's court. The iroha poem was also written during this period, becoming the standard order for the Japanese syllabary until 19th century Meiji era reforms.
Medieval Literature (13th Century - 16th Century)
A period of civil war and strife in Japan, this era is represented by The Tale of the Heike (1371). This story is an epic account of the struggle between the Minamoto and Taira clans for control of Japan at the end of the 12th century. Other important tales of the period include Kamo no Chomei's Hojoki (1212) and Yoshida Kenko's Tsurezuregusa (1331). Writing Japanese using a mixture of kanji and kana the way it is done today started with these works in the medieval period. Literature of this period evinces the influences that Buddhism and Zen ethics had on the emerging samurai class. Work from this period is noted for insights into life and death, simple lifestyles, and redemption of killing.
Early-Modern Literature (17th Century - mid-19th Century)
Literature during this time was written during the largely 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 starting at the end of the 17th century. Matsuo Basho, best known for Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道, 1702: a travel diary variously rendered 'Narrow Road to the Far North', 'Narrow Road to Oku,' and so on into English), is considered to be one of the first and greatest masters of haiku poetry. Hokusai, perhaps Japan's most famous wood block print artist, illustrated fiction aside from his famous 24 Views of Mount Fuji .
Many genres of literature made their debut during the Edo Period, helped by a rising literacy rate that reached well over 90% (according to some sources), as well as the development of a library(-like) system. Ihara Saikaku might be said to have given birth to the modern consciousness of the novel in Japan. Juppensha Ikku (十返捨一九) wrote Tokaido chuhizakurige (東海道中膝栗毛), a mix of travelogue and comedy. Ueda Akinari initiated the modern tradition of weird fiction in Japan with his Ugetsu Monogatari , while Kyokutei Bakin wrote the extremely popular fantasy/historical romance Nanso Satomi Hakkenden (南総里見八犬伝). Santo Kyoden wrote tales of the gay quarters until the Kansei edicts banned such works. Genres included horror, crime stories, morality stories, comedy, and pornography-- often accompanied by colorful wooden block prints. Formats included yomihon, various zoshi, chapbooks, &c.
Late-Modern Literature (late 19th Century - present)
The Meiji era marks the re-opening of Japan to the West, and a period of rapid industrialization. Shiga Naoya, the so called "god of the novel," and Mori Ogai were instrumental in adopting and adapting Western literary conventions and techniques. Natsume Soseki, who wrote several famous novels including Botchan and Kokoro (1914), and Akutagawa Ryunosuke, known especially for his historical short stories, are other famous authors from these turbulent times. Ozaki Koyo, Izumi Kyoka, and Higuchi Ichiyo represent a strain of writers whose style hearkens back to early-Modern Japanese literature. War-time Japan saw the debut 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.
World War II, and Japan's defeat, influenced Japanese literature. Many authors wrote stories of disaffection, loss of purpose, and the coping with defeat. Dazai Osamu's short story The Setting Sun tells of a returning soldier from Manchukuo. Mishima Yukio, well-known for both his nihilistic writing and his controversial suicide by seppuku, began writing in the post-war period. Abe Kobo, who wrote fantastic novels such as Woman in the Dunes (1960) and Endo Shusaku, known for works influenced by his Catholic beliefs, also prospered in post-war Japan. Oe Kenzaburo, Japan's second winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature wrote his most well-known work, A Personal Matter in 1964.
Murakami Haruki is one of the most popular and controversial of today's Japanese authors. His genre-defying, humorous and fantastic 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. However, Western critics are nearly unanimous in assessing Murakami's works as having serious literary value. Some of his most well-known works include Norwegian Wood (1987) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-1995).
The Future of Japanese Literature
Entering the 21st century, there is controversy whether the rise in popular forms of entertainment such as manga and anime has caused a decline in the quality of literature in Japan. The counter-argument is that manga positively affect modern literature by encouraging younger people to read more.
Significant authors and works
Famous authors and literary works of significant stature are listed in chronological order below. For an exhaustive list of authors see List of Japanese authors:
- Sei Shonagon (c.~966 - c.10??): The Pillow Book
- Murasaki Shikibu (c.973 - c.1025): The Tale of Genji
- The Tale of the Heike (1371)
- Ihara Saikaku (1642 – 1693)
- Matsuo Basho (1644 - 1694)
- Ueda Akinari (1734 - 1809)
- Santo Kyoden (1761 - 1816)
- Juppensha Ikku (1765 - 1831)
- Kyokutei Bakin (1767 - 1858)
- Mori Ogai (1862 - 1922)
- Ozaki Koyo (1867 - 1903)
- Natsume Soseki (1867 - 1916)
- Izumi Kyoka (1873 - 1939)
- Shiga Naoya (1883 - 1971)
- Tanizaki Junichiro (1886 - 1965)
- Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892 - 1927)
- Kawabata Yasunari (1899 - 1972)
- Dazai Osamu (1909 - 1948)
- Endo Shusaku (1923 - 1996)
- Abe Kobo (1924 - 1993)
- Mishima Yukio (1925 - 1970)
- Oe Kenzaburo (born 1935)
- Murakami Haruki (born 1949)
- Murakami Ryu (born 1952)
Awards and Contests
Varieties of awards and contests are held throughout a year. These are roughly divided into two categories, one awarded to those works already released and one awarded to those that has not been released. See List of awards and contests for Japanese literature for the complete list.
- Donald Keene, Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from the Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, Columbia University Press © 1993 reprinted 1999 ISBN 0231114419
- Donald Keene, World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of The Pre-Modern Era 1600-1867, Columbia University Press © 1976 reprinted 1999 ISBN 0231114672
- Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, Poetry, Drama, Criticism, Columbia University Press © 1984 reprinted 1998 ISBN 0231114354
- Donald Keene, Travellers of a Hundred Ages: The Japanese as Revealed Through 1,000 Years of Diaries, Columbia University Press © 1989 reprinted 1999 ISBN 0231114370
- List of Japanese authors
- List of Japanese classic texts
- Aozora Bunko for a repository of Japanese literature
- Young Adult novel
- http://users.mdonline.net/wabei/ - translations of Japanese short stories and folk tales
- A Mini-collection of Modern Japanese Literature
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