Japanese Literature

Japanese literature reveals a lot of influence by the Chinese literature from the ancient period all the way to the Edo period (1603-1868) which corresponds to the early modern Japanese literature. Japanese literary works also reveal elements of Indian and later of Western elements but above all, they reveal a distinct style which has also greatly influenced both Eastern and Western literatures.

Japanese literature is typically divided into four periods:

Ancient Literature (until 794)

The earliest Japanese literary works date to the 8th century and mostly deal with Japanese legends and myths. The finest example is Kojiki which his thought to be written by O no Yasumaro in the early 8th century. Other notable works during the ancient period include Nihon Shoki (720) which has been shown to be partly based on real historical events and Man’yoshu (759) which is the oldest example of Japanese poetry.

Classical Literature (794-1185)

During the Heian period that followed the Nara period (ancient period), the Japanese literature reached its golden age. A Japanese noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu wrote the Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari, early 11th century) which is considered the world’s first novel, while the 10th century folk-tale Taketori Monogatari is considered one of the first examples of proto-science fiction. Other notable works and authors from the classical period include Kokin Wakashu (c. 905), Makura no Soshi by Sei Shonagon and Konjaku Monogatarishu.

Medieval Literature (1185-1603)

Medieval Japanese literature was greatly influenced by civil wars and the emergence of the warrior class, resulting in the rise of war tales. Among the finest examples of are the Tale of the Heike (Heike Monogatari, late 12th century) which deals with the struggle between the two powerful Japanese clans, Hojoki (1212) by Kamo no Chomei and Tsurezuregusa (c.1330-1332) by Yoshida Kenko.

Besides war tales, the medieval period also saw the rise of the so-called renga, a genre of Japanese poetry which is one of the most prominent literary arts in Japan before the modern period.

Modern Literature (1603- )

Modern Japanese literature is typically further divided into early modern and modern literature. The first period corresponds to the Edo period, while the second starts with the Meiji period (1868-1912) when Japan opened to the West and entered the period of industrialisation.

The early modern Japanese literature saw the rise of the many new genres including kabuki or Japanese dance-drama, haiku (hokku) poetry and yomihon, a type of Japanese books which, unlike others in the Edo period such as kusazoshi, put little emphasis on illustration. Notable authors from the early modern period include Ihara Saikaku, Jippensha Ikku, Tokaidochu Hizakurige, Ueda Akinari and Santo Kyoden.

Modern Japanese literature was marked by the emergence of new styles including romanticism that was introduced by Mori Ogai in the late 19th century and reached its height in the early 20th century. Pre-war Japan saw the rise of proletarian literary works, while war-time Japan produced some of the finest literary works in modern period.

The Second World War has greatly influenced post-war Japanese literature but soon, Japanese authors also started to deal with the problems of the modern society. Just like the Western authors, the contemporary Japanese authors cover just about all genres and subjects. But despite the influence of globalisation, Japanese literature has managed to retain its distinct style as well as remained a breeding ground for new literary forms. One of the best examples are the manga comic books which have also achieved a major success on the international book market.

Some of the most prominent modern Japanese authors include: Toson Shimazaki, Kafu Nagai, Takiji Kobayashi, Denji Kuroshima, Yasunari Kawabata, Osamu Dazai, Nobuo Kojima, Kobi Abe and Haruki Murakami to mention only a few.