Complete History and Evolution of Japanese Literature

Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji.

Early achievements of Japanese literature were heavily impacted by cultural association with China and Chinese literature and were often written in Classical Chinese. Indian literature also changed the spread of Hinduism and later Buddhism in Japan. Eventually, Japanese literature evolved into a separate style, although the weight of Chinese literature and Classical Chinese prevailed. Following Japan’s reopening of its ports to Western trading and diplomacy in the 19th century, Western and Eastern literature have heavily affected each other and continue to do so.

Here is the history of Japanese Literature

Nara literature (before 794)

Before the foundation of kanji from China, the Japanese had no writing system. It is believed that Chinese characters came to Japan at the very beginning of the fifth century, brought by settlers from the mainland of Korean and Chinese descent. Early Japanese texts first followed the Chinese model, before gradually transitioning to a hybrid of Chinese characters used in Japanese syntactical formats, ending in sentences that looked like Chinese but were read phonetically as Japanese. Chinese characters were also further adapted, devising what is known as man’yōgana, the earliest form of kana, or Japanese syllabic writing.

Heian literature (794–1185)

The Heian period has been pointed to as the golden period of art and literature in Japan. During this period, literature became centered on a cultural elite of nobility and monks. The imperial court especially favored the poets, most of whom were courtiers or ladies-in-waiting. Reflecting on the aristocratic atmosphere, the poetry was classic and sophisticated and manifested emotions in a rhetorical style. Editing the resulting anthologies of poetry soon became a national pastime. The Iroha poem, now one of two standard orderings for the Japanese syllabary, was also exhibited during the early Heian period.

Kamakura-Muromachi literature (1185–1603)

During the Kamakura period (1185–1333), Japan underwent many civil wars which led to the improvement of a warrior class, and subsequent war tales, histories, and related stories. Work from this period is renowned for its more somber tone compared to the works of previous eras, with themes of life and death, simple lifestyles, and sanctification through killing. A representative work is Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike) (1371), an epic account of the struggle between the Minamoto and Taira clans for control of Japan at the end of the twelfth century. Other important tales of the period include Kamo no Chōmei’s Hōjōki (1212) and Yoshida Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa.

Edo literature (1603–1868)

Literature during this period was written during the largely calm Tokugawa Period (commonly referred to as the Edo Period). Due in large part to the rise of the functioning and middle classes in the new capital of Edo (modern Tokyo), forms of popular drama developed which would later evolve into kabuki. The jōruri and kabuki dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1725) became famous at the end of the 17th century, and he is also recognized as Japan’s Shakespeare.

Many diverse genres of literature made their début during the Edo Period, helped by a rising literacy rate among the expanding population of townspeople, as well as the development of lending libraries. Ihara Saikaku (1642–1693) might be said to have given birth to the modern consciousness of the novel in Japan, mixing vernacular dialogue into his humorous and cautionary tales of the entertainment quarters, the so-called Ukiyozōshi “floating world” genre. Ihara’s Life of an Amorous Man is considered the first work in this genre. Although Ihara’s works were not regarded as high literature at the time because it had been directed towards and popularized by the Chōnin, they became famous and were key to the growth and expanse of ukiyozōshi.

Meiji, Taishō, and early Shōwa literature (1868–1945)

The Meiji era marks the re-opening of Japan to the West, ending over two centuries of a period of national seclusion, and a period of accelerated industrialization. The debut of European literature brought free verse into the poetic repertoire. It became extensively used for longer works incorporating new intellectual themes. Young Japanese prose writers and dramatists grappled with a whole galaxy of new schemes and artistic schools, but novelists were the first to grasp some of these concepts successfully.

Natsume Sōseki’s (1867–1916) humorous novel Wagahai wa neko de aru (I Am a Cat, 1905) exercised a cat as the narrator, and he also wrote the famous novels Botchan (1906) and Kokoro (1914). Natsume, Mori Ōgai, and Shiga Naoya who was called “god of the novel” as the most prominent “I novel” writer were effective in fostering and accommodating Western literary conventions and techniques. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is known especially for his historical short stories. Ozaki Kōyō, Kyōka Izumi, and Ichiyo Higuchi denote a strain of writers whose style hearkens back to early-Modern Japanese history.

Postwar literature (since 1945)

World War II, and Japan’s defeat, strongly shaped Japanese literature. Many authors wrote stories of alienation, loss of confidence, and coping with defeat. Haruo Umezaki’s short story Sakurajima shows a disillusioned and cynical Navy officer stationed in a base located on the Sakurajima volcanic island, close to Kagoshima, on the southern tip of the Kyushu island. Osamu Dazai’s novel The Setting Sun tells of a soldier retreating from Manchukuo. Shōhei Ōoka won the Yomiuri Prize for his novel Fires on the Plain about a Japanese deserter going mad in the Philippine jungle. Yukio Mishima, well known for both his rebellious writing and his questionable suicide by seppuku, began writing in the post-war period. Nobuo Kojima’s short story “The American School” portrays a group of Japanese teachers of English who, in the instant outcome of the war, deal with the American seizure in fluctuating ways.

Source: History of Japanese Kingdom-Cambridge Press, Wiki, Britannica

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