JAPANESE LITERATUREJapanese 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 millennium and a half of written records.
Japanese Literature - History
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.
Japanese 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.
Japanese Classical Literature (8th Century - 12th Century)
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 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
Wakashu (905, waka anthology) 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 the early this period, becoming the standard order for
the Japanese syllabary until 19th century Meiji era reforms.
Japanese 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 Chōmei's Hōjōki (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.
Japanese 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 Bashō, 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 36 Views
of Mount Fuji.
Japanese Meiji and Taisho Literature (late 19th Century - WW II)
The Meiji era marks
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 have struggled with a whole galaxy of new ideas and artistic
schools, but novelists were the first to successfully assimilate some of
these concepts. A new colloquial literature developed centering on the "I
novel," with some unusual protagonists as in Natsume Soseki's Wagahai wa
neko de aru (I Am a Cat). Other famous novels written by him include Botchan
and Kokoro (1914). Shiga Naoya, the so called "god of the novel," and Mori
Ogai were instrumental in adopting and adapting Western literary conventions
and techniques. Akutagawa Ryunosuke is known especially for his historical
short stories. Ozaki Koyo, Izumi Kyoka, and Higuchi Ichiyo represent a
strain of writers whose style hearkens back to early-Modern Japanese
Japanese Post-war literature
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
novel 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.
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 Japanese 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: