Japan Table of Contents

Japanese literature dates from about the fifth century A.D., when the Chinese writing system began to be used by scribes at the Yamato court. As soon as the Japanese courtiers learned to read, they began to write, compiling between the sixth century and the eighth century both a state history of epic proportions, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and one of the world's oldest poetry anthologies, the Man'yoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), both of which contain many older works. They also composed Chinese-style poetry, which they found suitable for more difficult, lengthy, and profound thoughts. By the eighth century, the elite had already come to grips with the problem of assimilating difficult foreign ideas in a complex new language. The dichotomy between native expression and the use of prestigious imported forms became a pattern of Japanese artistic life. Buddhist commentary appeared after several centuries of copying, translation, and study. In the ninth century it found a strong voice and skilled brush in the monk Kukai, through whose inspiration religious themes became a part of the literary fabric.

Prose works had reached a high level by the tenth century, when the literary diary made its appearance. In the eleventh century the world's first novel, Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji), was composed by a court lady, Murasaki Shikibu. Her acute psychological observations molded by a subtle feminine sensibility wove a deft picture of the hothouse Heian court society. It remains a matchless source for all subsequent writers and an important part of the classical education of every Japanese. In the medieval period, women's vernacular writing dominated prose in the form of diaries of court ladies, supplemented by recollections of courtiers, the wry comments and musings of monks, and a wide variety of tales and legends, both secular and profane. Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike) captured the samurai spirit of the Kamakura warriors' age, while the melancholy thirty-one syllable waka poems (in a five-seven-five-seven-seven syllables-per-line arrangement) of the twelfth-century monk Saigyo reflected the mood of a militant era. Writing of the Muromachi period was characteristically the work of exiles from the capital and monastic authors who contemplated the fleeting vanities of this world, and the theme of death and the spirit world, setting the tone for the No plays of Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443). Comic relief was provided by kyogen, using the vernacular to reveal something of the life of the commoner.

The peace and prosperity of the Tokugawa age produced a new mercantile class--the chonin--whose antics were humorously described in the vigorous seventeenth-century novels of Ihara Saikaku, dispelling the lingering melancholy of the late feudal period. A major poet of this age, Matsuo Basho, lifted his voice to extol the qualities of loneliness, of getting away from the new crowded towns by taking the "narrow road to the deep north," a celebrated journey whose three-hundredth anniversary was widely commemorated in the late 1980s. Basho's matchless renku (linked poems) of thirty-six verses and his lighthearted seventeen- syllable haiku (five-seven-five) set a norm for modern emulators. A third literary genius of this period was the great dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon, whose historical and domestic plays formed the soul of the Kabuki theater. In the eighteenth century, Chinese novels were translated into Japanese, the poet Yosa Buson infused a new romantic spirit into haiku poems, and Kobayashi Issa made interesting subjects out of the "ordinariness" of the common folk and the ugly, starveling sparrow.

Japanese literature clearly draws on a tradition rich in poetic and prose forms. The writing of poetry in both the classic thirty-one syllable waka and the seventeen-syllable haiku remained a national pastime and a skill expected of the educated, among whom competitions were frequently held. Japanese renga parties, at which poets and the intelligentsia composed poetry in groups, continued as a major literary pursuit. Haiku poets were among the most honored of all creative artists, and a haiku museum was established in 1976 as a public center for the study of poetry. The ancient waka in modern usage is called a tanka, or short song (also with a five-seven-five-seven-seven syllabic formula). Many writers continued to use this form for less profound thoughts. Even more striking were the modern permutations of older literary forms: such experiments as two syllable haiku, tanka in romaji (romanized form of kana), and Zen ideas expressed in Western-style free verse, or iambic pentameter.

The introduction of European literature in the late nineteenth century 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). Two modern literary giants whose works were deeply rooted in Japanese sensibilities were Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, who captured the East-West value struggle in Japanese life prior to World War II and Kawabata Yasunari, a master of psychological fiction during the mid-twentieth century and a Nobel Prize winner. Capturing the immediate postwar atmosphere were Dazai Osamu and Mishima Yukio, both of whom committed suicide. Dazai's writing reflected the quiet desperation of living with personal defeat, while Mishima provided a glowing vision of traditional morality, gradually overcome by new Western values.

Prominent writers of the 1970s and 1980s, such as e Kensabuo, were identified with intellectual and moral issues in their attempts to raise social and political consciousness. 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 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 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 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.

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, nonfiction, 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. Best-sellers in the late 1980s were several books by a young woman, "Banana" Yoshimoto, and Murakami Haruki's spectacularly successful Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase. Nonfiction 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 reemerged 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. Widely used for soft pornography, they also have included a multivolume high-school history of Japan and, for the adult market, a manga introduction to economics, which was also available in English. Manga represented between 20 and 30 percent of annual publications at the end of the 1980s, in sales of some 400 billion per year.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress