History of Japan's Literature

This page is based on Japan: A Pocket Guide, 1996 Edition (Foreign Press Center)

Nara Period


Japanese literature traces its beginnings to oral traditions that were first recorded in written form in the early eighth century after a writing system was introduced from China. The Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and Nihon shoki (Chronicle of Japan) were completed in 712 and 720, respectively, as government projects. The former is an anthology of myths, legends, and other stories, while the latter is a chronological record of history. The Fudoki (Records of Wind and Earth), compiled by provincial officials beginning in 713, describe the history, geography, products, and folklore of the various provinces.

The most brilliant literary product of this period was the Man'yoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), an anthology of 4,500 poems composed by people ranging from unknown commoners to emperors and compiled around 759. Already emerging was a verse form comprising 31 syllables (5-7-5-7-7) known as tanka. In 905 the Kokin wakashu or Kokinshu (Collection of Poems from Ancient and Modern Times) was published as the first poetry anthology commissioned by an emperor; its preface paid high tribute to the vast possibilities of literature.

Heian Period


In the resplendent aristocratic culture that thrived early in the eleventh century, a time when the use of the hiragana alphabet derived from Chinese characters had become widespread, court ladies played the central role in developing literature. One of them, Murasaki Shikibu wrote the 54-chapter novel Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji) [in ealy 11 century, ca 1008 ?], while another, Sei Shonagon, wrote Makura no soshi (The Pillow Book), a diverse collection of jottings and essays [around 996 ]. Others also wrote diaries and stories, and their psychological portrayals remain fresh and vivid to present-day readers. The appearance of the Konjaku monogatari (Tales of a Time That Is Now Past) around 1120 added a new dimension to literature. This collection of more than 1,000 Buddhist and secular tales from India, China, and Japan is particularly notable for its rich descriptions of the lives of the nobility and common people in Japan at that time.

Kamakura-Muromachi Period


In the latter half of the twelfth century warriors of the Taira clan (Heike) seized political power at the imperial court, virtually forming a new aristocracy. Heike mono-gatari (The Tale of the Heike),which depicts the rise and fall of the Taira with the spotlight on their wars with the Minamoto clan (Genji), was completed in the first half of the thirteenth century [before 1219 ]. It is a grand epic deeply rooted in Buddhist ethics and filled with sorrow for those who perished, colorful descriptions of its varied characters, and stirring battle scenes. In former times the tale was narrated to the accompaniment of a Japanese lute. The Shin kokin wakashu (New Collection of Poems from Ancient and Modern Times), an anthology of poetry commissioned by retired Emperor Go-Toba, was also completed around this time [ca 1205 ?] ; it is dedicated to the pursuit of a subtle, profound beauty far removed from the mundane reality of civil strife.

This period also produced literature by recluses, typified by Kamo no Chomei 's Hojoki (An Account of My Hut) [1212] , which reflects on the uncertainty of existence, and Yoshida Kenko 's Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness) [ca 1330 ] , a work marked by penetrating reflections on life. Both works raise the question of spiritual salvation. Meanwhile, the profound thoughts and incisive logic of the Shobogenzo (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye) [before 1237 ] , one of the first Buddhist texts written in Japanese rather than Chinese, marked a major development in Zen thought. The Taiheiki (Chronicle of the Great Peace), depicting the 50 years from 1318 to 1367 when two rival imperial courts struggled for power, is a valuable historical record, while the noh plays perfected by Kan'ami and his son Zeami are of great literary value. Zeami 's Fushi kaden (The Transmission of the Flower of Acting Style) [1400] is a brilliant essay on dramatic art.

Edo Period


Around this time the function of literature as a means of social intercourse broadened. Composing renga (successive linked verses by several people forming a long poem) became a favorite pastime, and this gave birth to haikai (a sort of jocular renga) in the sixteenth century. It was the renowned seventeenth century poet Matsuo Basho who perfected a new condensed poetic form of 17 syllables (5-7-5) known as haiku, an embodiment of elegant simplicity and tranquility.

In the Genroku era (1688-1704) city-dwelling artisans and merchants became the main supporters of literature, and professional artists began to appear. Two giants emerged in the field of prose: Ihara Saikaku, who realistically portrayed the life of Osaka merchants, and Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who wrote joruri, a form of storytelling involving chanted lines, and kabuki plays. These writers brought about a great flowering of literature. Later Yosa Buson composed superb haiku depicting nature, while fiction writer Ueda Akinari produced a collection of gothic stories called Ugetsu monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) [1776] .

Meiji Period to present

In the Meiji era (1868-1912) unification of the written and spoken language was advocated, and Futabatei Shimei 's Ukigumo (Drifting Clouds) [1887] won acclaim as a new form of novel. In poetry circles the influence of translated foreign poems led to a "new style" poetry movement, and the scope of literary forms continued to widen. Novelists Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki studied in Germany and Britain, respectively, and their works reflect the influence of the literature of those countries. Soseki nurtured many talented literary figures. One of them, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, wrote many superb novelettes based on his detailed knowledge of the Japanese classics. His suicide in 1927 was seen as a symbol of the agony Japan was experiencing in the process of rapid modernization, a major theme of modern Japanese literature.

Naturalism as advocated by Emile Zola dominated Japan's literary world for the first decade of the twentieth century. This school of literature, as represented by Shimazaki Toson, is noted for the "I novel," a style of novel typical of Japan. A number of pre-World War II literary currents, such as proletarian literature and neo-sensualism, petered out during the war but later regained strength, generating a diverse range of works.

In 1968 Kawabata Yasunari became the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and Oe Kenzaburo won it in 1994. They and other contemporary writers, such as Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, Mishima Yukio, Abe Kobo, and Inoue Yasushi, have been translated into other languages. In the last few years works by the remarkably active postwar-generation writers Murakami Ryu (who won the Akutagawa Prize), Murakami Haruki, Yoshimoto Banana, and others have also been translated into many languages and have gained tremendous popularity.

(note: all the Japanese names here follow the Japanese practice of placeing the surname first)

Reference:Research Institute for Publication, Shuppan shihyo nenpo (Annual Publishing Index), 1996.