The material on this page is a brief overview of Japanese literature.
The current page contains a very basic Japanese literature from its
beginnings to the present. It doesn't cover indepth discourse of literature
so that we necessarily provide relevant links for references
of Japanese literacy history]
oldest literary works are Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters,
c.712) and Nihon Shoki (History Book of Ancient Japan,
c.720). These works are the origins of the Japanese people and the formation
of the state. While Nihon Shoki is written almost in Chinese,
Kojiki is written in Japanese using Chinese characters. The great
anthology known as Man'yoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand
Leaves, c.770) contains around 4,500 poems written by people from emperors
to peasants. There are two main forms of poem in the anthology, long
and short, of which the short form, or tanka, survives
to this day. Tanka consist of five lines with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables.
B.H. Chamberlain, translator 1882]
a poem by Kakinomoto Hitomoro] [
The fairy tale Taketori monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo
Cutter), written in the 9th century, is thought to be Japan's first
novel. It is widely known today as Kaguya-hime (The Moon Princess)
and is popular in children's picture books. It tells the tale of an
old bamboo cutter who one day discovers a tiny child in a bamboo stem.
He and his wife adopt her and the child grows into a beautiful woman
in just a few months. She attracts many suitors, including the emperor
but sets impossible tasks for them to win her hand. Finally Kaguya-hime
declares that she will return to her home - the moon. The emperor sends
thousands of troops to stop her but she eludes them and leaves only
a letter behind. The emperor orders the letter burned on the highest
mountain in the land. Miraculously, the the letter continues producing
smoke and as a result the mountain became known as Fuji, "the immortal
story of Taketori Monogatari, Kodan Sha]
Undoubtedly the earliest great work of fiction was Genji Monogatari
(The Tale of Genji) written in 1010 by Murasaki Shikibu (left),
a lady of the Heian court (modern day Kyoto). It is a massive 54-volume
tome that tells of the romantic adventures of noblemen, centering around
the prince Genji, who has gone down in Japanese folklore as their version
of Casanova or Don Juan. It also provides a glimpse into the daily life
of 10th and 11th-century courtiers, as does Makura-no-soshi
(The Pillow Book) by Sei Shonagon
woman of the court. The literature of the Heian Period (794-1185) is
characterized by mono-no-aware, or a feeling of being connected to nature
and all things. This concept is still considered central to the Japanese
psyche though it's not so easy to see in the Japanese of today.
of Genji Monogoatari, by Eiichi Shibuya ] [ Makura-no-shoshi
The Tale of Heike
( Heike Monogatari)
Tale of Heike is one of the war chronicles about Taira-Minamoto War
between 1156 and 1185. The story is about a rise and fall of Taira family.
Taira-Minamoto War is the most famous incident in Japan. A lot of stories
were written about it, and they all were based to gThe Tale of
was recited by blind persons accompanying of the biwa that was one of
the string instruments. They were called biwa minstrels. The story recounts
in the context of the Buddhism philosophy of impermanence.
was an incident to build feudalism in Japan. Minamoto-no Yoritomo started
Kamakura Shogunate Government in 1192. The government had been progressing
This is the chronicle that begins with the famous paragraph:
"The sound of
the Gion Shôja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the
color of the sâla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous
must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring
night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind."
Tale of Heike]
Middle Ages (1180-1600)
The political turbulence associated with the Gempei
Wars of 1180 to 1185 and Yoritomo Minamoto established the Kamakura
bakufu in 1192. The
tale of Heike
is a history of Taira family, the rise and the fall. It was recited
by blind persons accompanying of the biwa( string instruments). The
story recounts in the context of the Buddhism philosophy of impermanence.
The Edo period was characterized by the growing cultural influence exercised
by samurai and townspeople. The commercial class in particular benefited
from various economic and technological developments, the result of
which was a great flowering of culture in the Genroku period (1688-1704).
The haikai master Matsuo Bashô, the novelist Ihara Saikaku, and
the dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon are all associated with this enormous
outburst of creative activity. The nation's cultural center shifted
from the Kyoto-Osaka region to Edo in the second half of the eighteenth
century, leading to the production of large quantities of gesaku (frivolous
works) by the writers who constituted the last literary generation before
the advent of Western influence.
the Shadow of Leaves"') is a sacret manual for the samurai classes
consisting of a series of the philosophy and code of behavior--the Way
to become a true warrior. It is a collection of thoughts by Tuneasa
Yamamoto (1659~1719), resigned warrior of Saga Nabeshima and sayings
recorded over a period of seven years by Tashiro (1678~1748). The work
represents an attitude of Bushido that is a Way of Dying. It later came
to be recognized as a classic exposition of samurai thought and came
to influence many subsequent generations such as Yukio Mishima.
is a poet and writer of popular fiction. Saikaku was born in Osaka.
At the age of 40, he published his first work of prose fiction, KOSHOKU
ICHIDAI OTOKO( 1682; tr The Life of an Amorous Man. Saikaku describes
Japanese love scenes of all kinds with a frankness that has made him
a favorite with expurgators, but he touches the subject of both normal
and abnormal love with tenderness.
Link [ Ihara
Monzaemon (1653-1725 ), whose real name was Sugimori Nobumori, was
born in Nagato Province. He was at first a monk, then returned to secular
life and established himself at Osaka. Starting at around age 30, he
would become one of Japan's most prolific and beloved playwrights, composing
as many as 160 plays for the Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet) theatres. Many
of his pieces were historically based and as many were on contemporary
subjects that appealed to the common people. One of his favored devices
was the tragic love between either a samurai or a townsman and a courtesan.
In most of his plays, he presented a moral dillemna. His most famous
work was Chushingura, the story of the 47 Roshi. It may be that part
of his ability came from the demands of writing for the Bunraku - he
once commented that writing for that stage required him to make his
dialogue as compelling and vivid as possible, given that, after all,
the audience was looking at simple puppets.
as the distilled essence of poetry, haiku are 17-syllable poems
whose development was strongly influenced by the Zen Buddhism. Though
the current 5-7-5 syllable structure and mandatory use of a kigo
( a word to represent the season) were only introduced later in the
Meiji period (1868-1912), the greatest exponent of haiku lived in the
Basho Matsuo (1644-94) was a Zen lay priest and his haiku often
form part of travel journals and were written on the road, capturing
his mood and surroundings in various parts of the country.
The best known work is Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road Through
the Deep North - it is available in the English translation Narrow Road
to Oku by famous Japan scholar Donald Keene). It tells of Basho's almost
1,500 mile pilgramage with his disciple Sora from Edo to northern Japan,
undertaken when he was 48 and shortly before his death.The two other
great haiku poets of this period were Yosa Buson, a painter and
Kobayashi Issa, a peasant villager.
The shortest poetic form in the world, haiku work better in Japanese
than in English and translations are particularly difficult. Anyway,
are some translations of haiku by Basho from Oku no Hosomichi.
Link [ History
of Haiku and Basho Matsuo ]
Ernest Sir Satow
Satow came to Japan in 1862 as a translator for the British Embassy
at the age of 19. He was actively involved in communication with influential
Japanese politicians during the last days of the Tokugawa government.
Mr. Satow was not only a prominent diplomat but was also a great scholar
of Japanese culture. He wrote a book called "A Diplomat in Japan:
The Inner History of the Critical Years in the Evolution of Japan".
It provides a firsthand account of events between 1862 and 1869 from
the perspective of a foreigner, which covers the very important period
of Japan opening to foreigners and the overturn of the shogunate. Sir
Ernest Satow was witness to the important events that formed modern
Japan. The book makes history come alive and fills it with real-life