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JULY13, 2019

Japanese literature, literary works produced in the language of the
islands of Japan.

See also Asian drama.

Earliest Writings

Although Japanese and Chinese are different languages, the

Japanese borrowed and adapted Chinese ideographs early in the
8th cent. in order to render their spoken language in written form.
Because Japanese is better suited to phonetic transcription, the
result is a language of extremely complicated linguistic construction.

In 712 the new writing system was used in the compilation of orally
preserved poems and stories into the Kojiki [records of ancient
matters], an account of the divine creation of Japan and its imperial
clan. Another historical work, the Nihon-shoki [chronicles of Japan]
(721), was written in Chinese. The oldest anthology of Japanese
verse, Manyoshu [collection of a myriad leaves] (760), contains
about 4,500 poems, many from much earlier times. A number of the
poems in this collection are more varied in form and more
passionate in statement than those written in later eras.

The Heian Era

The addition of two phonetic syllabaries (katakana and hiragana)

during the Heian era (794–1185) opened the classic age, in which
Japanese literature reached its first peak of development. Classical
Chinese still predominated in intellectual literary circles and official
court communications, yet literature in the native language, the only
written medium permitted to educated women, gained increasing
prestige. In his travel journal Tosa Nikki [Tosa diary] (936), the
poet Ki no Tsurayuki assumed a female persona in order to write in

Much Heian literature of note was written by aristocratic women,

foremost among whom was Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki).
Her Genji monogatari [tale of Genji] (early 11th cent.) is ranked with
the world's greatest novels. Sei Shonagon, another contemporary
court lady, wrote Makura no soshi [the pillow book], a compilation of
miscellaneous notes and reflections that provides an excellent
portrait of Heian aristocratic life, with its emphasis on elegance—
always an important element of the Japanese aesthetic.

Ki no Tsurayuki was the leading spirit in the compilation of

the Kokinwakashu [collection of ancient and modern verse], the first
imperial anthology of Japanese poetry. This collection, which
established the model for 21 subsequent imperial anthologies,
contained some 1,100 poems organized by topic, written in
the tanka form of 31 syllables. The Japanese have always
esteemed poetry as the highest of literary arts, and poets regarded
inclusion in a poetry anthology as a supreme honor.

Medieval Literature

In the subsequent medieval period (c.1200–1600), themes and

concerns central to the newly ascendant warrior class took
expression in such works as the Heike monogatari [tale of the
Heike], an epic account of the struggle between two great clans that
ended the Heian period. Much medieval poetry and prose is colored
by Buddhist thought. The somber Hojoki [account of my hut]
(c.1212) and the elegant Tsurezuregusa [essays in idleness] (1330),
both written by Buddhist renunciants, exemplify the range of literary
expression proceeding from a Buddhist sensibility. Buddhist tale
literature, ranging from collections of short didactic lessons to
lengthy narratives, was also widely produced. The most famous of
these, the late Heian Konjaku monogatari shû [tales from past and
present], consists of over 1,200 stories of tremendous variety and

The medieval period witnessed the development of noh, a serious

dramatic form combining dance, music, chanting, and mime, and
kyogen, short comedies performed in interludes between noh plays.
The greatest writers of noh plays were Kanami Kiyotsugu (1333–84)
and his son Zeami Motokiyo (1363–1443), who developed the noh
from its primitive origins to the highly purified and rigorous art form
that later influenced such Western poets as W. B. Yeats and Ezra
Pound. While the prestige and production of the tanka continued
undiminished, renga, a linked verse form governed by elaborate
conventions, composed by single or multiple poets, became popular
in the latter half of the medieval period.

Literary Forms of the Edo Era

Otogi-zoshi, short prose fiction popular among a range of social

classes, anticipated the broadening social base of literature that
developed with the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in
1603, when almost total cultural and physical isolation from other
countries created economic conditions that led to a thriving culture
of the bourgeoisie. Early Edo prose literature encompassed a
diverse range of subjects: didactic tracts, travel guides, essays,
satires, and picaresque fiction. Ihara Saikaku was the foremost
master of this last form; his novel Koshoku ichidai onna [the life of
an amorous woman] is an ironic look at a world of pleasure and

The literary tastes of the bourgeoisie also contributed to the

development of the kabuki and puppet (joruri; also known
as bunraku) theaters. Plays by dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon
(1653–1724), originally written for the puppet theater but adapted
into kabuki performance as well, are important in world literature as
the first mature tragedies written about the common man.
Matsuo Basho, regarded as the greatest of haiku poets, brought the
developing haiku, a 17-syllable poem, into full flower. Yosa Buson
(1716–81) and Kobayashi Issa (1763–1828) were also important
haiku poets. Later Edo fiction, called gesaku, was mostly comic or
satirical in nature, although it also included long Confucian didactic

Western Influence

After the dramatic opening of Japan to the West in 1858, the flood
of translations from Western literature that followed induced the
Japanese to give prose fiction a new direction and psychological
realism. Tsubouchi Shoyo (1859–1935) had a profound effect on
the modern Japanese novel with his critical study Shosetsu-
shinzui [the essence of the novel] (1885), in which he urged the use
of colloquial speech rather than the rarefied literary language used
by previous writers. Ukigumo [the drifting cloud] (1887–89), by
Futabatei Shimei (1864–1909), was the first novel written in
colloquial language. The "I novel," a type of personal semifictitious
autobiography, was dominant for a time, followed by naturalist and
proletarian novels.
Natsume Soseki and Mori Ogai were two major figures of early-
20th-century fiction. Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892–1927) is known
for his unusual stories based in part on earlier tale literature and
folklore. Japanese literature suffered a slump during World War II,
when the government censored literary expression it considered
contrary to the interests of the state. Nagai Kafu (1870–1959), with
his talent for verbal portraiture, nevertheless remained a popular
figure during this time.

Postwar Literature

The immense public demand for fiction in postwar Japan has been
fed by the prolific output of its writers. Yasunari Kawabata, who won
the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, has been praised for the
delicate aesthetic sensibility of his novels. Junichiro Tanizaki,
Yukio Mishima, Kobo Abe, Fumiko Enchi, Shusaku Endo, Sawako
Ariyoshi, and Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature
in 1994, are just a few of the modern Japanese writers who have
attracted international admiration.

In their search to define a modern Japanese poetic voice, modern

poets and dramatists have both revived old forms and created new
means of expression. Akiko Yosano is known for the lushness and
eroticism of her tanka; Sakutaro Hagiwara (1886–1942), for his deft
incorporation of symbolism into the lyric mode; and
Kotaro Takamura, for his free verse on a range of subjects. In
modern drama, playwright Junji Kinoshita (b. 1914) borrowed
elements from the Japanese folk tradition; Mishima wrote dramatic
adaptations of noh plays and Japanese legends, while Minoru
Betsuyaku (b. 1937), Makoto Sato (b. 1943), and others pioneered
underground theater in the late 1960s.
Although modern Japanese poetry and drama have not received as
much attention from the West as have novels and short stories,
Japanese literature is recognized as a major branch of world
literature, and most major works are available in English translation.