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 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)

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 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.

In this time the imperial court and highest ranked kuge patronized the poets. There was no professional poets but most of them were courtiers or ladies-in-waiting. Editing anthologies of poetry was one of national enterprises. Reflecting the aristocratic atmosphere, the poetry in that time was elegant and sophiscated and expressed their emotions in rhetorical style.

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.

Other remarkable genres in this period were renga, collective poetry and Noh theatre. Both were rapidly developed in the middle of the 14th century, that is, early Muromachi period.

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.

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. Jippensha Ikku (十返舎一九) 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). Santō Kyōden 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 woodcut prints. Formats included yomihon, various zōshi, and chapbooks.

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 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, a master of psychological fiction.

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.

Prominent writers of the 1970s and 1980s, were identified with intellectual and moral issues in their attempts to raise social and political consciousness. One of them, Oe Kenzaburo wrote his most well-known work, A Personal Matter in 1964 and became Japan's second winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Inoue Mitsuaki had long been concerned with the atomic bomb and continued in the 1980s to write on problems of the nuclear age, while Endo Shusaku depicted the religious dilemma of the Kakure Kirishitan, Roman Catholics in feudal Japan, as a springboard to address spiritual problems. Inoue Yasushi also turned to the past in masterful historical novels of Inner Asia and ancient Japan, in order to portray present human fate.

Avant-garde writers, such as Abe Kobo, who wrote fantastic novels such as Woman in the Dunes (1960), wanted to express the Japanese experience in modern terms without using either international styles or traditional conventions, developed new inner visions. Furui Yoshikichi tellingly related the lives of alienated urban dwellers coping with the minutiae of daily life, while the psychodramas within such daily life crises have been explored by a rising number of important women novelists. The 1988 Naoki Prize went to Todo Shizuko for Ripening Summer, a story capturing the complex psychology of modern women. Other award-winning stories at the end of the decade dealt with current issues of the elderly in hospitals, the recent past (Pure- Hearted Shopping District in Koenji, Tokyo), and the life of a Meiji period ukiyo-e artist. In international literature, Ishiguro Kazuo, a native of Japan, had taken up residence in Britain and won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize.

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). Another best-selling contemporary author is Banana Yoshimoto.

Although modern Japanese writers covered a wide variety of subjects, one particularly Japanese approach stressed their subjects' inner lives, widening the earlier novel's preoccupation with the narrator's consciousness. In Japanese fiction, plot development and action have often been of secondary interest to emotional issues. In keeping with the general trend toward reaffirming national characteristics, many old themes reemerged, and some authors turned consciously to the past. Strikingly, Buddhist attitudes about the importance of knowing oneself and the poignant impermanence of things formed an undercurrent to sharp social criticism of this material age. There was a growing emphasis on women's roles, the Japanese persona in the modern world, and the malaise of common people lost in the complexities of urban culture.

Popular fiction, non-fiction, and children's literature all flourished in urban Japan in the 1980s. Many popular works fell between "pure literature" and pulp novels, including all sorts of historical serials, information-packed docudramas, science fiction, mysteries, business stories, war journals, and animal stories. Non-fiction covered everything from crime to politics. Although factual journalism predominated, many of these works were interpretive, reflecting a high degree of individualism. Children's works remerged in the 1950s, and the newer entrants into this field, many of them younger women, brought new vitality to it in the 1980s.

Manga (comic books) have penetrated almost every sector of the popular market. They include virtually any field of human interest, such as a multivolume high-school history of Japan and, for the adult market, a manga introduction to economics, and pornography. Manga represented between 20 and 30 percent of annual publications at the end of the 1980s, in sales of some ¥400 billion per year.

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:

Classical Literature
Sei Shonagon (c.~966 - c.10??): The Pillow Book
Murasaki Shikibu (c.973 - c.1025): The Tale of Genji

Medieval Literature
The Tale of the Heike (1371)

Early-Modern Literature
Ihara Saikaku (1642 � 1693)
Matsuo Basho (1644 - 1694)
Ueda Akinari (1734 - 1809)
Santo Kyoden (1761 - 1816)
Juppensha Ikku (1765 - 1831)
Kyokutei Bakin (1767 - 1858)

Late-Modern Literature
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)
Eiji Yoshikawa (1892-1962)
Kawabata Yasunari (1899 - 1972)
Dazai Osamu (1909 - 1948)
Endo Shusaku (1923 - 1996)
Abe Kobo (1924 - 1993)
Mishima Yukio (1925 - 1970)
Oe Kenzaburo (1935)
Murakami Haruki (1949)
Murakami Ryu (1952)

(Article based on Wikipedia article and used under the GNU Free Documentation License)

Japanese Culture