History of Literature





 

Eastern Literature
 

  CONTENTS:

South Asian Literature

Chinese Literature

Japanese Literature

Persian Literature

Arabic Literature




Japanese Literature



 


Japanese Literature
 

The Sacred Mountain
Amaterasu Hides Away
Redesdale Freeman-Mitford "Tales of Old Japan"  (PART I, PART II, PART III)

Kakinomoto Hitomaro

Murasaki Shikibu "The Tale of Genji"
(PART I, PART II)

Kamo Chōmei

Bashō "Haiku"

Chikamatsu Monzaemon
Buson

Ueda Akinari
Shimazaki Tōson
Izumi Kyōka
Masaoka Shiki
Takahama Kyoshi
Hagiwara Sakutarō

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke
Kawabata Yasunari

Mishima Yukio
Abe Kōbō
Ōe Kenzaburō
Murakami Haruki
 

 


Izanami and Izanagi
 



Japanese literature, the body of written works produced by Japanese authors in Japanese or, in its earliest beginnings, at a time when Japan had no written language, in the Chinese classical language.

Both in quantity and quality, Japanese literature ranks as one of the major literatures of the world, comparable in age, richness, and volume to English literature, though its course of development has been quite dissimilar. The surviving works comprise a literary tradition extending from the 7th century ad to the present; during all this time there was never a “dark age” devoid of literary production. Not only do poetry, the novel, and the drama have long histories in Japan, but some literary genres not so highly esteemed in other countries—including diaries, travel accounts, and books of random thoughts—are also prominent. A considerable body of writing by Japanese in the Chinese classical language, of much greater bulk and importance than comparable Latin writings by Englishmen, testifies to the Japanese literary indebtedness to China. Even the writings entirely in Japanese present an extraordinary variety of styles, which cannot be explained merely in terms of the natural evolution of the language. Some styles were patently influenced by the importance of Chinese vocabulary and syntax, but others developed in response to the internal requirements of the various genres, whether the terseness of haiku (a poem in 17 syllables) or the bombast of the dramatic recitation.



General considerations

The difficulties of reading Japanese literature can hardly be exaggerated; even a specialist in one period is likely to have trouble deciphering a work from another period or genre. Japanese style has always favoured ambiguity, and the particles of speech necessary for easy comprehension of a statement are often omitted as unnecessary or as fussily precise. Sometimes the only clue to the subject or object of a sentence is the level of politeness in which the words are couched; for example, the verb mesu (meaning “to eat,” “to wear,” “to ride in a carriage,” etc.) designates merely an action performed by a person of quality. In many cases, ready comprehension of a simple sentence depends on a familiarity with the background of a particular period of history. The verb miru, “to see,” had overtones of “to have an affair with” or even “to marry” during the Heian period in the 10th and 11th centuries, when men were generally able to see women only after they had become intimate. The long period of Japanese isolation in the 17th and 18th centuries also tended to make the literature provincial, or intelligible only to persons sharing a common background; the phrase “some smoke rose noisily” (kemuri tachisawagite), for example, was all readers of the late 17th century needed to realize that an author was referring to the Great Fire of 1682 that ravaged the shogunal capital of Edo (the modern city of Tokyo).

Despite the great difficulties arising from such idiosyncrasies of style, Japanese literature of all periods is exceptionally appealing to modern readers, whether read in the original or in translation. Because it is prevailingly subjective and coloured by an emotional rather than intellectual or moralistic tone, its themes have a universal quality almost unaffected by time. To read a diary by a court lady of the 10th century is still a moving experience, because she described with such honesty and intensity her deepest feelings that the modern-day reader forgets the chasm of history and changed social customs separating her world from today’s.

The “pure” Japanese language, untainted and unfertilized by Chinese influence, contained remarkably few words of an abstract nature. Just as English borrowed words such as morality, honesty, justice, and the like from the Continent, the Japanese borrowed these terms from China; but if the Japanese language was lacking in the vocabulary appropriate to a Confucian essay, it could express almost infinite shadings of emotional content. A Japanese poet who was dissatisfied with the limitations imposed by his native language or who wished to describe unemotional subjects—whether the quiet outing of aged gentlemen to a riverside or the poet’s awareness of his insignificance as compared to the grandeur of the universe—naturally turned to writing poetry in Chinese. For the most part, however, Japanese writers, far from feeling dissatisfied with the limitations on expression imposed by their language, were convinced that virtuoso perfection in phrasing and an acute refinement of sentiment were more important to poetry than the voicing of intellectually satisfying concepts.

From the 16th century on, many words that had been excluded from Japanese poetry because of their foreign origins or their humble meanings, following the dictates of the “codes” of poetic diction established in the 10th century, were adopted by the practitioners of the haiku, originally an iconoclastic, popular verse form. These codes of poetic diction, accompanied by a considerable body of criticism, were the creation of an acute literary sensibility, fostered especially by the traditions of the court, and were usually composed by the leading poets or dramatists themselves. These codes exerted an inhibiting effect on new forms of literary composition, but they also helped to preserve a distinctively aristocratic tone.

The Japanese language itself also shaped poetic devices and forms. Japanese lacks a stress accent and meaningful rhymes (all words end in one of five simple vowels), two traditional features of poetry in the West. By contrast, poetry in Japanese is distinguished from prose mainly in that it consists of alternating lines of five and seven syllables; however, if the intensity of emotional expression is low, this distinction alone cannot save a poem from dropping into prose. The difficulty of maintaining a high level of poetic intensity may account for the preference for short verse forms that could be polished with perfectionist care. But however moving a tanka (verse in 31 syllables) is, it clearly cannot fulfill some of the functions of longer poetic forms, and there are no Japanese equivalents to the great longer poems of Western literature, such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Instead, Japanese poets devoted their efforts to perfecting each syllable of their compositions, expanding the content of a tanka by suggestion and allusion, and prizing shadings of tone and diction more than originality or boldness of expression.

The fluid syntax of the prose affected not only style but content as well. Japanese sentences are sometimes of inordinate length, responding to the subjective turnings and twistings of the author’s thought, and smooth transitions from one statement to the next, rather than structural unity, are considered the mark of excellent prose. The longer works accordingly betray at times a lack of overall structure of the kind associated in the West with Greek concepts of literary form but consist instead of episodes linked chronologically or by other associations. The difficulty experienced by Japanese writers in organizing their impressions and perceptions into sustained works may explain the development of the diary and travel account, genres in which successive days or the successive stages of a journey provide a structure for otherwise unrelated descriptions. Japanese literature contains some of the world’s longest novels and plays, but its genius is most strikingly displayed in the shorter works, whether the tanka, the haiku, the Noh plays (also called No, or nō), or the poetic diaries.

Japanese literature absorbed much direct influence from China, but the characteristic literary works are strikingly dissimilar. The tradition of feminine writing, especially of such introspective works as diaries, gave a colouring to Japanese prose quite unlike the more objective, masculine Chinese writings. Although the Japanese have been criticized (even by some Japanese) for their imitations of Chinese examples, the earliest Japanese novels in fact antedate their Chinese counterparts by centuries, and Japanese theatre developed quite independently. Because the Chinese and Japanese languages are unrelated, Japanese poetry naturally took different forms, although Chinese poetic examples and literary theories were often in the minds of the Japanese poets. Japanese and Korean may be related languages, but Korean literary influence was negligible, though Koreans served an important function in transmitting Chinese literary and philosophical works to Japan. Poetry and prose written in the Korean language were unknown to the Japanese until relatively modern times.

From the 8th to the 19th century Chinese literature enjoyed greater prestige among educated Japanese than their own; but a love for the Japanese classics, especially those composed at the court in the 10th and 11th centuries, gradually spread among the entire people and influenced literary expression in every form, even the songs and tales composed by humble people totally removed from the aristocratic world portrayed in classical literature.




History


Origins

The first writing of literature in Japanese was occasioned by influence from China. The Japanese were still comparatively primitive and without writing when, in the first four centuries ad, knowledge of Chinese civilization gradually reached them. They rapidly assimilated much of this civilization, and the Japanese scribes adopted Chinese characters as a system of writing, although an alphabet (if one had been available to them) would have been infinitely better suited to the Japanese language. The characters, first devised to represent Chinese monosyllables, could be used only with great ingenuity to represent the agglutinative forms of the Japanese language. The ultimate results were chaotic, giving rise to one of the most complicated systems of writing ever invented. The use of Chinese characters enormously influenced modes of expression and led to an association between literary composition and calligraphy lasting many centuries.




Early writings

The earliest Japanese texts were written in Chinese because no system of transcribing the sounds and grammatical forms of Japanese had been invented. The oldest known inscription, on a sword that dates from about ad 440, already showed some modification of normal Chinese usage in order to transcribe Japanese names and expressions. The most accurate way of writing Japanese words was by using Chinese characters not for their meanings but for their phonetic values, giving each character a pronunciation approximating that used by the Chinese themselves. In the oldest extant works, the Kojiki (712; The Kojiki: Records of Ancient Matters) and Nihon shoki, or Nihon-gi (720; Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697), more than 120 songs, some dating back to perhaps the 5th century ad, are given in phonetic transcription, doubtless because the Japanese attached great importance to the sounds themselves. In these two works, both officially commissioned “histories” of Japan, many sections were written entirely in Chinese; but parts of the Kojiki were composed in a complicated mixture of languages that made use of the Chinese characters sometimes for their meaning and sometimes for their sound.


Origin of the tanka in the Kojiki

The Kojiki, though revered as the most ancient document concerning the myths and history of the Japanese people, was not included in collections of literature until well into the 20th century. The myths in the Kojiki are occasionally beguiling (Japanese mythology), but the only truly literary parts of the work are the songs. The early songs lack a fixed metrical form; the lines, consisting of an indeterminate number of syllables, were strung out to irregular lengths, showing no conception of poetic form. Some songs, however, seem to have been reworked—perhaps when the manuscript was transcribed in the 8th century—into what became the classic Japanese verse form, the tanka (short poem), consisting of five lines of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables. Various poetic devices employed in these songs, such as the makura kotoba (“pillow word”), a kind of fixed epithet, remained a feature of later poetry.

Altogether, some 500 primitive songs have been preserved in various collections. Many describe travel, and a fascination with place-names, evident in the loving enumeration of mountains, rivers, and towns with their mantic epithets, was developed to great lengths in the gazetteers (fudoki) compiled at the beginning of the 8th century. These works, of only intermittent literary interest, devote considerable attention to the folk origins of different place-names, as well as to other local legends.
 


Japanese mythology
 


Susano no Mikoto preparing to kill the fight-headed dragon,
1832, by Keisei.

The Sacred Mountain
Amaterasu Hides Away

Redesdale Freeman-Mitford "Tales of Old Japan"  (PART I, PART II, PART III)
 

Japanese mythology, body of stories compiled from oral traditions concerning the legends, gods, ceremonies, customs, practices, and historical accounts of the Japanese people.

Most of the surviving Japanese myths are recorded in the Kojiki (compiled 712; “Records of Ancient Matters”) and the Nihon shoki (compiled in 720; “Chronicles of Japan”). These works tell of the origin of the ruling class and were apparently aimed at strengthening its authority. Therefore, they are not pure myths but have much political colouring. They are based on two main traditions: the Yamato Cycle, centred around the sun goddess Amaterasu Ōmikami, and the Izumo Cycle, in which the principal character is Susanoo (or Susanowo) no Mikoto, the brother of Amaterasu.

Genealogies and mythological records were kept in Japan, at least from the 6th century ad and probably long before that. By the time of the emperor Temmu (7th century), it became necessary to know the genealogy of all important families in order to establish the position of each in the eight levels of rank and title modeled after the Chinese court system. For this reason, Temmu ordered the compilation of myths and genealogies that finally resulted in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki. The compilers of these and other early documents had at their disposal not only oral tradition but also documentary sources. A greater variety of sources was available to the compiler of the Nihon shoki. While the Kojiki is richer in genealogy and myth, the Nihon shoki adds a great deal to scholarly understanding of both the history and the myth of early Japan. Its purpose was to give the newly Sinicized court a history that could be compared with the annals of the Chinese.

The purpose of the cosmologies of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki is to trace the imperial genealogy back to the foundation of the world. The myths of the Yamato Cycle figure prominently in these cosmologies. In the beginning, the world was a chaotic mass, an ill-defined egg, full of seeds. Gradually, the finer parts became heaven (yang), the heavier parts earth (yin). Deities were produced between the two: first, three single deities, and then a series of divine couples. According to the Nihon shoki, one of the first three “pure male” gods appeared in the form of a reed that connected heaven and earth. A central foundation was now laid down for the drifting cosmos, and mud and sand accumulated upon it. A stake was driven in, and an inhabitable place was created. Finally, the god Izanagi (He Who Invites) and the goddess Izanami (She Who Invites) appeared. Ordered by their heavenly superiors, they stood on a floating bridge in heaven and stirred the ocean with a spear. When the spear was pulled up, the brine dripping from the tip formed Onogoro, an island that became solid spontaneously. Izanagi and Izanami then descended to this island, met each other by circling around the celestial pillar, discovered each other’s sexuality, and began to procreate. After initial failures, they produced the eight islands that now make up Japan. Izanami finally gave birth to the god of fire and died of burns. Raging with anger, Izanagi attacked his son, from whose blood such deities as the god of thunder were born. Other gods were born of Izanami on her deathbed. They presided over metal, earth, and agriculture. In grief, Izanagi pursued Izanami to Yomi (analogous to Hades) and asked her to come back to the land of the living. The goddess replied that she had already eaten food cooked on a stove in Yomi and could not return. In spite of her warning, Izanagi looked at his wife and discovered that her body was infested with maggots. The angry and humiliated goddess then chased Izanagi from the underworld. When he finally reached the upper world, Izanagi blocked the entrance to the underworld with an enormous stone. The goddess then threatened Izanagi, saying that she would kill a thousand people every day. He replied that he would father one thousand and five hundred children for every thousand she killed. After this, Izanagi pronounced the formula of divorce.

Izanagi then returned to this world and purified himself from the miasma of Yomi no Kuni. From the lustral water falling from his left eye was born the sun goddess Amaterasu Ōmikami, ancestress of the imperial family. From his right eye was born the moon god Tsukiyomi no Mikoto and from his nose, the trickster god Susanoo. Izanagi gave the sun goddess a jewel from a necklace and told her to govern heaven. He entrusted the dominion of night to the moon god. Susanoo was told to govern the sea. According to the Kojiki, Susanoo became dissatisfied with his share and ascended to heaven to see his older sister. Amaterasu, fearing his wild behaviour, met him and suggested that they prove their faithfulness to each other by bringing forth children. They agreed to receive a seed from each other, chew it, and spit it away. If gods rather than goddesses were born, it would be taken as a sign of the good faith of the one toward the other. When Susanoo brought forth gods, his faithfulness was recognized, and he was permitted to live in heaven.

Susanoo, becoming conceited over his success, began to play the role of a trickster. He scattered excrement over the dining room of Amaterasu, where she was celebrating the ceremony of the first fruits. His worst offense was to fling into Amaterasu’s chamber a piebald horse he had “flayed with a backward flaying” (a ritual offense).

Enraged at the pranks of her brother, the sun goddess hid herself in a celestial cave, and darkness filled the heavens and the earth. The gods were at a loss. Finally, they gathered in front of the cave, built a fire, and made cocks crow. They erected a sacred evergreen tree, and from its branches they hung curved beads, mirrors, and cloth offerings. A goddess named Amenouzume no Mikoto then danced half-nude. Amaterasu, hearing the multitudes of gods laughing and applauding, became curious and opened the door of the cave. Seizing the opportunity, a strong-armed god dragged her out of the cave.

The myths of the Izumo Cycle then begin to appear in the narration. Having angered the heavenly gods and having been banished from heaven, Susanoo descended to Izumo, where he rescued Princess Marvellous Rice Field (Kushiinada Hime) from an eight-headed serpent. He then married the Princess and became the progenitor of the ruling family of Izumo. The most important member of the family of Susanoo was the god Ōkuninushi no Mikoto, the great earth chief, who assumed control of this region before the descent to earth of the descendants of the sun goddess.

Before long, Amaterasu, the leader of the celestial gods—the gods of Izumo were known as earthly gods—asked Ōkuninushi to turn over the land of Izumo, saying that “the land of the plentiful reed-covered plains and fresh rice ears” was to be governed by the descendants of the heavenly gods. After the submission of Izumo, Amaterasu made her grandson Ninigi no Mikoto (ninigi is said to represent rice in its maturity) descend to earth. According to the Nihon shoki, Amaterasu handed Ninigi some ears of rice from a sacred rice field and told him to raise rice on earth and to worship the celestial gods. The grandson of the sun goddess then descended to the peak of Takachiho (meaning “high thousand ears”) in Miyazaki, Kyushu. There he married a daughter of the god of the mountain, named Konohana-sakuya Hime (Princess Blossoms of the Trees).

When Ninigi’s wife became pregnant and was about to give birth, all in a single night, he demanded proof that the child was his. She accordingly set fire to her room, then safely produced three sons. One of them, in turn, became the father of the legendary first emperor, Jimmu, who is considered to mark the watershed between the “age of the gods” and the historical age; but Jimmu’s eastern expedition and conquest of the Japanese heartland was also a myth.

Nobuhiro Matsumoto
Donald Keene
 





The significance of the Man’yōshū


A magnificent anthology of poetry, the Man’yōshū (compiled after 759; Ten Thousand Leaves), is the single great literary monument of the Nara period (710–784), although it includes poetry written in the preceding century, if not earlier. Most of the 4,500 or so poems are tanka, but the masterpieces of the Man’yōshū are the 260 chōka (“long poems”), ranging up to 150 lines in length and cast in the form of alternating lines in five and seven syllables followed by a concluding line in seven syllables. The amplitude of the chōka permitted the poets to treat themes impossible within the compass of the tanka—whether the death of a wife or child, the glory of the imperial family, the discovery of a gold mine in a remote province, or the hardships of military service.

The greatest of the Man’yōshū poets, Kakinomoto Hitomaro, served as a kind of poet laureate in the late 7th and early 8th centuries, accompanying the sovereigns on their excursions and composing odes of lamentation for deceased members of the imperial family. Modern scholars have suggested that the chōka may have originated as exorcisms of the dead, quieting the ghosts of recently deceased persons by reciting their deeds and promising that they will never be forgotten. Some of Hitomaro’s masterpieces so convincingly describe the glories of princes or princesses he may never have met that they transcend any difference between “public” expressions of grief and his private feelings. Hitomaro’s chōka are unique in Japanese poetry thanks to their superb combination of imagery, syntax, and emotional strength; they are works of masculine expression. He showed in his tanka, however, that he was also capable of the evocative, feminine qualities typical of later Japanese poetry.

The chōka often concluded with one or more hanka (“envoys”) that resume central points of the preceding poem. The hanka written by the 8th-century poet Yamabe Akahito are so perfectly conceived as to make the chōka they follow at times seem unnecessary; the concision and evocativeness of these poems, identical in form with the tanka, are close to the ideals of later Japanese poetry. Nevertheless, the supreme works of the Man’yōshū are the chōka of Hitomaro, Ōtomo Tabito, Ōtomo Yakamochi (probably the chief compiler of the anthology), and Yamanoue Okura. The most striking quality of the Man’yōshū is its powerful sincerity of expression. The poets were certainly not artless songsmiths exclaiming in wonder over the beauties of nature, a picture that is often painted of them by sentimental critics, but their emotions were stronger and more directly expressed than in later poetry. The corpse of an unknown traveler, rather than the falling of the cherry blossoms, stirred in Hitomaro an awareness of the uncertainty of human life.

The Man’yōshū is exceptional in the number of poems composed outside the court, whether by frontier guards or persons of humble occupation. Perhaps some of these poems were actually written by courtiers in the guise of commoners, but the use of dialect and familiar imagery contrasts with the strict poetic diction imposed in the 10th century. The diversity of themes and poetic forms also distinguishes the Man’yōshū from the more polished but narrower verse of later times. In Okura’s famous “Dialogue on Poverty,” for example, two men—one poor and the other destitute—describe their miserable lots, revealing a concern over social conditions that would be absent from the classical tanka. Okura’s visit to China early in the 8th century, as the member of a Japanese embassy, may account for Chinese influence in his poetry. His poems are also prefaced in many instances by passages in Chinese stating the circumstances of the poems or citing Buddhist parallels.

The Man’yōshū was transcribed in an almost perversely complicated system that used Chinese characters arbitrarily, sometimes for meaning and sometimes for sound. The lack of a suitable script probably inhibited literary production in Japanese during the Nara period. The growing importance, however, of Chinese poetry as the mark of literary accomplishment in a courtier may also have interrupted the development of Japanese literature after its first flowering in the Man’yōshū.

Eighteen Man’yōshū poets are represented in the collection Kaifūsō (751), an anthology of poetry in Chinese composed by members of the court. These poems are little more than pastiches of ideas and images borrowed directly from China; the composition of such poetry reflects the enormous prestige of Chinese civilization at this time.

 


Kakinomoto Hitomaro



Kakinomoto Hitomaro
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
 

Kakinomoto Hitomaro, also called Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (d. 708, Japan), poet venerated by the Japanese since earliest times. He was also Japan’s first great literary figure.

Among his surviving works are poems in the two major Japanese poetic forms of his day—tanka and chōka. Probably he also wrote sedōka (“head-repeated poem,” consisting of two three-line verses of 5, 7, 7 syllables), a relatively minor song form that seems to have been first adapted to literary purposes by Hitomaro and to have barely survived him. All of the poems accepted as indisputably authored by Hitomaro (61 tanka and 16 chōka), as well as a large number of others attributed to him, are to be found in the Man’yōshū (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”), the first and largest of Japan’s anthologies of native poetry. These poems, together with notes by the compilers, are the chief source for information on his life, about which very little is known.

Hitomaro is believed to have been born and reared near Nara. He entered the service of the court in a minor capacity, serving successively two imperial princes; imperial activities are celebrated in some of his most famous poems. Later he became a provincial official, and he is believed to have died in Iwami province (now Shimane prefecture). He seems to have had at least two wives.

Standing on the threshold of Japan’s emergence from a preliterate to a literate, civilized society, Hitomaro achieved in his poems a splendid balance between the homely qualities of primitive song and the more sophisticated interests and literary techniques of a new age. He inherited the stiff techniques, plain imagery, and restricted range and subject matter—the traditional “word hoard”—of preliterate song. To that inheritance he added new subjects, modes, and concerns, as well as new rhetorical and other structural techniques (some of which may have been adapted from Chinese poetry), along with a new seriousness and importance of treatment and tone. Many of his longer poems are introduced by a kind of solemn “overture,” relating the present with the divine past of the Japanese land and people.

All of Hitomaro’s poems are suffused with a deep personal lyricism and with a broad humanity and sense of identity with others. Outstanding among his works are his poem on the ruined capital at Ōmi; his celebration of Prince Karu’s journey to the plains of Aki; two poems each on the death of his first wife and on parting from his second; his lament on the death of Prince Takechi; and his poem composed on finding the body of a man on the island of Samine.
 



Classical literature: Heian period (794–1185)

The foundation of the city of Heian-kyō (later known as Kyōto) as the capital of Japan marked the beginning of a period of great literary brilliance. The earliest writings of the period, however, were almost all in Chinese because of the continued desire to emulate the culture of the continent. Three imperially sponsored anthologies of Chinese poetry appeared between 814 and 827, and it seemed for a time that writing in Japanese would be relegated to an extremely minor position. The most distinguished writer of Chinese verse, the 9th-century poet Sugawara Michizane, gave a final lustre to this period of Chinese learning by his erudition and poetic gifts, but his refusal to go to China when offered the post of ambassador, on the grounds that China no longer had anything to teach Japan, marked a turning point in the response to Chinese influence.


Poetry

The invention of the kana phonetic syllabary, traditionally attributed to the celebrated 9th-century Shingon priest and Sanskrit scholar Kūkai, enormously facilitated writing in Japanese. Private collections of poetry in kana began to be compiled about 880, and in 905 the Kokinshū (A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern), the first major work of kana literature, was compiled by the poet Ki Tsurayuki and others. This anthology contains 1,111 poems divided into 20 books arranged by topics, including 6 books of seasonal poems, 5 books of love poems, and single books devoted to such subjects as travel, mourning, and congratulations. The two prefaces are clearly indebted to the theories of poetry described by the compilers of such Chinese anthologies as the Shijing (“Classic of Poetry”) and Wen xuan (“Selections of Refined Literature”), but the preferences they express would be shared by most tanka poets for the next 1,000 years. The preface by Tsurayuki, the oldest work of sustained prose in kana, enumerated the circumstances that move men to write poetry; he believed that melancholy, whether aroused by a change in the seasons or by a glimpse of white hairs reflected in a mirror, provided a more congenial mood for writing poetry than the harsher emotions treated in the earlier, pre-kana anthology Man’yōshū. The best tanka in the Kokinshū captivate the reader by their perceptivity and tonal beauty, but these flawlessly turned miniatures lack the variety of the Man’yōshū.

Skill in composing tanka became an asset in gaining preference at court; it was also essential to a lover, whose messages to his mistress (who presumably could not read Chinese, still the language employed by men in official documents) often consisted of poems describing his own emotions or begging her favours. In this period the tanka almost completely ousted the chōka, the length of which was indefinite, because the shorter tanka were more suited to the lover’s billet-doux or to competitions on prescribed themes.

For the poets of the Kokinshū and the later court anthologies, originality was less desirable than perfection of language and tone. The critics, far from praising novelty of effects, condemned deviation from the standard poetic diction—which was established by the Kokinshū and consisted of some 2,000 words—and insisted on absolute adherence to the poetic codes first formulated in the 10th century. Although these restrictions saved Japanese poetry from lapses into bad taste or vulgarity, they froze it for centuries in prescribed modes of expression. Only a skilled critic can distinguish a typical tanka of the 10th century from one of the 18th century. The Kokinshū set the precedent for later court anthologies, and a knowledge of its contents was indispensable to all poets as a guide and source of literary allusions.

Love poetry occupies a prominent place in the Kokinshū, but the joys of love are seldom celebrated; instead, the poets write in the melancholy vein prescribed in the preface, describing the uncertainties before a meeting with the beloved, the pain of parting, or the sad realization that an affair has ended. The invariable perfection of diction, unmarred by any indecorous cry from the heart, may sometimes make one doubt the poet’s sincerity. This is not true of the great Kokinshū poets of the 9th century—Ono Komachi, Lady Ise, Ariwara Narihira, and Tsurayuki himself—but even Buddhist priests, who presumably had renounced carnal love, wrote love poetry at the court competitions, and it is hard to detect any difference between such poems and those of actual lovers.

The preface of the Kokinshū lists judgments on the principal poets of the collection. This criticism is unsatisfying to a modern reader because it is so terse and unanalytical, but it nevertheless marks a beginning of Japanese poetic criticism, an art that developed impressively during the course of the Heian period.


Prose

Ki Tsurayuki is celebrated also for his Tosa nikki (936; The Tosa Diary), the account of his homeward journey to Kyōto from the province of Tosa, where he had served as governor. Tsurayuki wrote this diary in Japanese, though men at the time normally kept their diaries in Chinese (perhaps it was in order to escape reproach for adopting this unmanly style that he pretended a woman in the governor’s entourage was the author). Events of the journey are interspersed with the poems composed on various occasions. The work is affecting especially because of the repeated, though muted, references to the death of Tsurayuki’s daughter in Tosa.

Tosa nikki is the earliest example of a literary diary. Although Tsurayuki pretended that it was written by a woman, most of the later Heian diarists who wrote in the Japanese language were, in fact, court ladies; their writings include some of the supreme masterpieces of the literature. Kagerō nikki (The Gossamer Years) describes the life between 954 and 974 of the second wife of Fujiwara Kaneie, a prominent court official. The first volume, related long after the events, is in the manner of an autobiographical novel; even the author confesses that her remembrances are probably tinged with fiction. The next two volumes approach a true diary, with some entries apparently made on the days indicated. The writer (known only as “the mother of Michitsuna”) describes, with many touches of self-pity, her unhappy life with her husband. She evidently assumed that readers would sympathize, and often this is the case, though her self-centred complaints are not endearing. In one passage, in which she gloats over the death of a rival’s child, her obsession with her own griefs shows to worst advantage. Yet her journal is extraordinarily moving precisely because the author dwells exclusively on universally recognizable emotions and omits the details of court life that must have absorbed the men.

Other diaries of the period include the anecdotal Murasaki Shikibu nikki (“The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu”; Eng. trans. Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs), at once an absorbing literary work and a source of information on the court life the author (Murasaki Shikibu) described more romantically in her masterpiece Genji monogatari (c. 1010; The Tale of Genji) and in Izumi Shikibu nikki (The Diary of Izumi Shikibu), which is less a diary than a short story liberally ornamented with poetry.
 


Murasaki Shikibu



Murasaki Shikibu "The Tale of Genji"
(PART I, PART II
)


Murasaki Shikibu, (b. c. 978, Kyōto, Japan—d. c. 1014, Kyōto), court lady who was the author of the Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), generally considered the greatest work of Japanese literature and thought to be the world’s oldest full novel.

The author’s real name is unknown; it is conjectured that she acquired the sobriquet of Murasaki from the name of the heroine of her novel, and the name Shikibu reflects her father’s position at the Bureau of Rites. She was born into a lesser branch of the noble and highly influential Fujiwara family and was well educated, having learned Chinese (generally the exclusive sphere of males). She married a much older distant cousin, Fujiwara Nobutaka, and bore him a daughter, but after two years of marriage he died.

Some critics believe that she wrote the entire Tale of Genji between 1001 (the year her husband died) and 1005, the year in which she was summoned to serve at court (for reasons unknown). It is more likely that the composition of her extremely long and complex novel extended over a much greater period; her new position within what was then a leading literary centre likely enabled her to produce a story that was not finished until about 1010. In any case this work is the main source of knowledge about her life. It possesses considerable interest for the delightful glimpses it affords of life at the court of the empress Jōtō mon’in, whom Murasaki Shikibu served.

The Tale of Genji captures the image of a unique society of ultrarefined and elegant aristocrats, whose indispensable accomplishments were skill in poetry, music, calligraphy, and courtship. Much of it is concerned with the loves of Prince Genji and the different women in his life, all of whom are exquisitely delineated. Although the novel does not contain scenes of powerful action, it is permeated with a sensitivity to human emotions and to the beauties of nature hardly paralleled elsewhere. The tone of the novel darkens as it progresses, indicating perhaps a deepening of Murasaki Shikibu’s Buddhist conviction of the vanity of the world. Some, however, believe that its last 14 chapters were written by another author.

The translation (1935) of The Tale of Genji by Arthur Waley is a classic of English literature. Murasaki Shikibu’s diary is included in Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan (1935), translated by Annie Shepley Ōmori and Kōchi Doi. Edward Seidensticker published a second translation of The Tale of Genji in 1976, and Royall Tyler translated a third in 2001.

 


The Tale of Genji


The Tale of Genji, Japanese Genji monogatari, masterpiece of Japanese literature by Murasaki Shikibu. Written at the start of the 11th century, it is generally considered the world’s first novel.

Murasaki Shikibu composed The Tale of Genji while a lady in attendance at the Japanese court, likely completing it about 1010. Because Chinese was the court’s scholarly language, works written in Japanese (the literary language used by women, often in personal accounts of life at court) were not taken very seriously; so too, prose was not considered the equal of poetry. The Tale of Genji, however, differed in being informed by a comprehensive knowledge of Chinese and Japanese poetry and in being a graceful work of imaginative fiction. It incorporates some 800 waka, courtly poems purported to be the writing of the main character, and its supple narrative sustains the story through 54 chapters of one character and his legacy.

At its most basic, The Tale of Genji is an absorbing introduction to the culture of the aristocracy in early Heian Japan—its forms of entertainment, its manner of dress, its daily life, and its moral code. The era is exquisitely re-created through the story of Genji, the handsome, sensitive, gifted courtier, an excellent lover and a worthy friend. Most of the story concerns the loves of Genji, and each of the women in his life is vividly delineated. The work shows supreme sensitivity to human emotions and the beauties of nature, but as it proceeds its darkening tone reflects the Buddhist conviction of this world’s transience.

Arthur Waley was the first to translate The Tale of Genji into English (6 vol., 1925–33). Waley’s translation is beautiful and inspiring but also very free. Edward Seidensticker’s translation (1976) is true to the original in both content and tone, but its notes and reader aids are sparse, in contrast to the translation published by Royall Tyler in 2001
 

These “diaries” are closely related in content and form to the uta monogatari (“poem tales”) that emerged as a literary genre later in the 10th century. Ise monogatari (c. 980; Tales of Ise) consists of 143 episodes, each containing one or more poems and an explanation in prose of the circumstances of composition. The brevity and often the ambiguity of the tanka gave rise to a need for such explanations, and, when these explanations became extended or (as in the case of Ise monogatari) were interpreted as biographical information about one poet (Ariwara Narihira), they approached the realm of fiction.

Along with the poem tales, there were works of religious or fanciful inspiration going back to Nihon ryōiki (822; Miraculous Stories from the Japanese Buddhist Tradition), an account of Buddhist miracles in Japan compiled by the priest Kyōkai. Priests probably used these stories, written in Chinese, as a source of sermons with the intent of persuading ordinary Japanese, incapable of reading difficult works of theology, that they must lead virtuous lives if they were not to suffer in hell for present misdeeds. No such didactic intent is noticeable in Taketori monogatari (10th century; Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), a fairy tale about a princess who comes from the Moon to dwell on Earth in the house of a humble bamboo cutter; the various tests she imposes on her suitors, fantastic though they are, are described with humour and realism.

The first lengthy work of fiction in Japanese, Utsubo monogatari (“The Tale of the Hollow Tree”), was apparently written between 970 and 983, although the last chapter may have been written later. This uneven, ill-digested work is of interest chiefly as an amalgam of elements in the poem tales and fairy tales; it contains 986 tanka, and its episodes range from early realism to pure fantasy.

The contrast between this crude work and the sublime Genji monogatari is overwhelming. Perhaps the difference is best explained in terms of the feminine traditions of writing, exemplified especially by the diaries, which enabled Murasaki Shikibu to discover depths in her characters unsuspected by the male author of Utsubo monogatari. The Genji monogatari is the finest work not only of the Heian period but of all Japanese literature and merits being called the first important novel written anywhere in the world. Genji monogatari was called a work of mono no aware (“a sensitivity to things”) by the great 18th-century literary scholar Motoori Norinaga; the hero, Prince Genji, is not remarkable for his martial prowess or his talents as a statesman but as an incomparable lover, sensitive to each of the many women he wins. The story is related in terms of the successive women Genji loves; each of them evokes a different response from this marvelously complex man. The last third of the novel, describing the world after Genji’s death, is much darker in tone, and the principal figures, though still impressive, seem no more than fragmentations of the peerless Genji.

The success of Genji monogatari was immediate. The author of the touching Sarashina nikki (mid-11th century; “Sarashina Diary”; Eng. trans. As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams) describes how as a girl she longed to visit the capital so that she might read the entire work (which had been completed some 10 years earlier). Imitations and derivative works based on Genji monogatari, especially on the last third of it, continued to be written for centuries, inhibiting the fiction composed by the court society.

Makura no sōshi (c. 1000; The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon) is another masterpiece of the Heian period that should be mentioned with Genji monogatari. Japanese critics have often distinguished the aware of Genji monogatari and the okashi of Makura no sōshi. Aware means sensitivity to the tragic implications of a moment or gesture, okashi the comic overtones of perhaps the same moment or gesture. The lover’s departure at dawn evoked many wistful passages in Genji monogatari, but in Makura no sōshi Sei Shōnagon noted with unsparing exactness the lover’s fumbling, ineffectual leave-taking and his lady’s irritation. Murasaki Shikibu’s aware can be traced through later literature—sensitivity always marked the writings of any author in the aristocratic tradition—but Sei Shōnagon’s wit belonged to the Heian court alone.

The Heian court society passed its prime by the middle of the 11th century, but it did not collapse for another 100 years. Long after its political power had been usurped by military men, the court retained its prestige as the fountainhead of culture. But in the 12th century, literary works belonging to a quite different tradition began to appear. Konjaku monogatari (early 12th century; “Tales of Now and Then”; partially translated into English as Ages Ago and as Tales of Times Now Past), a massive collection of religious stories and folktales drawn not only from the Japanese countryside but also from Indian and Chinese sources, described elements of society that had never been treated in the court novels. These stories, though crudely written, provide glimpses of how the common people spoke and behaved in an age marked by warfare and new religious movements. The collection of folk songs Ryōjin hishō, compiled in 1179 by the emperor Go-Shirakawa, suggests the vitality of this burgeoning popular culture even as the aristocratic society was being threatened with destruction.




Medieval literature: Kamakura, Muromachi, and Azuchi-Momoyama periods (1192–1600)


Kamakura period (1192–1333)


The warfare of the 12th century brought to undisputed power military men (samurai) whose new regime was based on martial discipline. Though the samurai expressed respect for the old culture, some of them even studying tanka composition with the Kyōto masters, the capital of the country moved to Kamakura. The lowered position of women under this feudalistic government perhaps explains the noticeable diminution in the importance of writings by court ladies; indeed, there was hardly a woman writer of distinction between the 13th and 19th centuries. The court poets, however, remained prolific: 15 imperially sponsored anthologies were completed between 1188 and 1439, and most of the tanka followed the stereotypes established in earlier literary periods.

The finest of the later anthologies, the Shin kokinshū (c. 1205), was compiled by Fujiwara Sadaie, or Teika, among others, and is considered by many as the supreme accomplishment in tanka composition. The title of the anthology—“the new Kokinshū”—indicates the confidence of the compilers that the poets represented were worthy successors of those in the 905 collection; they included (besides the great Teika himself) Teika’s father, Fujiwara Toshinari (Fujiwara Shunzei); the priest Saigyō; and the former emperor Go-Toba. These poets looked beyond the visible world for symbolic meanings. The brilliant colours of landscapes filled with blossoms or reddening leaves gave way to monochrome paintings; the poet, instead of dwelling on the pleasure or grief of an experience, sought in it some deeper meaning he could sense if not fully express. The tastes of Teika especially dominated Japanese poetic sensibility, thanks not only to his poetry and essays on poetry but to his choices of the works of the past most worthy of preservation.

Teika is credited also with a novel, Matsura no miya monogatari (“Tale of Matsura Shrine,” Eng. trans. The Tale of Matsura). Though it is unfinished and awkwardly constructed, its dreamlike atmosphere lingers in the mind with the overtones of Teika’s poetry; dreams of the past were indeed the refuge of the medieval romancers, who modeled their language on the Genji monogatari, though it was now archaic, and borrowed their themes and characters from the Heian masterpieces. Stories about wicked stepmothers are fairly common; perhaps the writers, contrasting their neglect with the fabled lives of the Heian courtiers, identified themselves with the maltreated stepdaughters, and the typical happy ending of such stories—the stepdaughter in Sumiyoshi monogatari is married to a powerful statesman and her wicked stepmother humiliated—may have been the dream fulfillment of their own hopes.

Various diaries describe travels between Kyōto and the shogun’s capital in Kamakura. Courtiers often made this long journey in order to press claims in lawsuits, and they recorded their impressions along the way in the typical mixture of prose and poetry. Izayoi nikki (“Diary of the Waning Moon”; Eng. trans. in Translations from Early Japanese Literature) tells of a journey made in 1277 by the nun Abutsu. A later autobiographical work that also contains extensive descriptions of travel is the superb Towazu-gatari (c. 1307; “A Story Nobody Asked For”; Eng. trans. The Confessions of Lady Nijō) by Lady Nijō, a work (discovered only in 1940) that provides a final moment of glory to the long tradition of introspective writing by women at court.

Although these writings in the aristocratic manner preserved much of the manner of Heian literature, works of different character became even more prominent in the medieval period. There are many collections of Buddhist and popular tales, of which the most enjoyable is the Uji shūi monogatari (A Collection of Tales from Uji), a compilation made over a period of years of some 197 brief stories. Although the incidents described in these tales are often similar to those found in Konjaku monogatari, they are told with considerably greater literary skill.

An even more distinctive literary genre of the period is the gunki monogatari, or war tale. The most famous, Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike), was apparently first written at the court about 1220, probably by a nobleman who drew his materials from the accounts recited by priests of the warfare between the Taira (Heike) and the Minamoto (Genji) families in the preceding century. The celebrated opening lines of the work, a declaration of the impermanence of all things, also states the main subject, the rise and fall of the Taira family. The text, apparently at first in 3 books, was expanded to 12 in the course of time, as the result of being recited with improvisations by priest-entertainers. This oral transmission may account not only for the unusually large number of textual variants but also for the exceptionally musical and dramatic style of the work. Unlike the Heian novelists, who rarely admitted words of Chinese origin into their works, the reciters of the Heike monogatari employed the contrasting sounds of the imported words to produce what has been acclaimed as the great classic of Japanese style. Although the work is curiously uneven, effective scenes being followed by dull passages in which the narrator seems to be stressing the factual accuracy of his materials, it is at least intermittently superb, and it provided many later novelists and dramatists with characters and incidents for their works.

Heike monogatari was by no means the earliest literary work describing warfare, and other writings, mainly historical in content, were graced by literary flourishes uncommon in similar Western works. Ōkagami (c. 1120?; “The Great Mirror”; Eng. trans. Ōkagami), the most famous of the “mirrors” of Japanese history, undoubtedly influenced the composition of Heike monogatari, especially in its moralistic tone. Hōgen monogatari (Eng. trans. Hōgen monogatari) and Heiji monogatari (partial Eng. trans. in Translations from Early Japanese Literature) chronicle warfare that antedates the events described in Heike monogatari but were probably written somewhat later.

War tales continued to be composed throughout the medieval period. The Taiheiki (“Chronicle of the Great Peace”; Eng. trans. Taiheiki), for example, covers about 50 years, beginning in 1318, when the emperor Go-Daigo ascended the throne. Though revered as a classic by generations of Japanese, it possesses comparatively little appeal for Western readers, no doubt because so few of the figures come alive.

Characters are more vividly described in two historical romances of the mid- to late 14th century: Soga monogatari, an account of the vendetta carried out by the Soga brothers, and Gikeiki (“Chronicle of Gikei”; Eng. trans. Yoshitsune), describing the life of the warrior Minamoto Yoshitsune. Though inartistically composed, these portraits of resourceful and daring heroes caught the imaginations of the Japanese, and their exploits are still prominent on the Kabuki stage.

Another important variety of medieval literature was the reflective essays of Buddhist priests. Hōjō-ki (1212; The Ten Foot Square Hut) by Kamo Chōmei is a hermit’s description of his disenchantment with the world and his discovery of peace in a lonely retreat. The elegiac beauty of its language gives this work, brief though it is, the dignity of a classic. Chōmei was also a distinguished poet, and his essay Mumyōshō (c. 1210–12; “Nameless Notes”) is perhaps the finest example of traditional Japanese poetic criticism.

A later priest, Yoshida Kenkō, writing during the days of warfare and unrest that brought an end to the Kamakura shogunate in 1333, the brief restoration of imperial authority under the emperor Go-Daigo from 1333 to 1335, and the institution of the Ashikaga shogunate in 1338, barely hints at the turmoil of the times in his masterpiece Tsurezuregusa (c. 1330; Essays in Idleness); instead, he looks back nostalgically to the happier days of the past. Kenkō’s aesthetic judgments, often based on a this-worldly awareness rather surprising in a Buddhist priest, gained wide currency, especially after the 17th century, when Tsurezuregusa was widely read.
 


Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike)


Heike monogatari, English The Tale of the Heike, medieval Japanese epic, which is to the Japanese what the Iliad is to the Western world—a prolific source of later dramas, ballads, and tales. It stems from unwritten traditional tales and variant texts composed between 1190 and 1221, which were gathered together (c. 1240), probably by a scholar named Yukinaga, to form a single text. Its poetic prose was intended to be chanted to the accompaniment of a biwa (four-stringed lute). A version recited by the blind priest Kakuichi and recorded by a disciple in 1371 is considered the text’s definitive form. Several translations into English have been published.

Based on the actual historical struggle between the Taira (Heike) and Minamoto (Genji) families, which convulsed Japan in civil war for some years, the Heike monogatari features the exploits of Minamoto Yoshitsune, the most popular hero of Japanese legend, and recounts many episodes of the heroism of aristocratic samurai warriors. Its overall theme is the tragic downfall of the Taira family. It opens with the tolling of a temple bell that, proclaiming the impermanence of all things, reveals the truth that the mighty—even the tyrannical Taira Kiyomori, whose powers seem unlimited—will be brought low like dust before the wind. The Taira suffer a series of defeats, culminating in a sea battle off Dannoura (1185) in which the seven-year-old emperor and many nobles are drowned. The work concludes with an account of the subsequent life of the empress mother, born a Taira. She dies in a remote convent to the tolling of a bell.

 

 


Kamo Chōmei




Kamo Chōmei, also called Kamo no Chōmei (b. 1155, Japan—d. July 24, 1216, Kyōto), poet and critic of Japanese vernacular poetry, one of the major figures in the history of Japanese poetics. He is best known as a classic example of the man of sensibility turned recluse and as the author of Hōjō-ki (1212; The Ten Foot Square Hut), a description of his life in seclusion.

The son of a Shintō priest of Kyōto, Chōmei was given a thorough artistic training. Despite his comparatively humble origin, his poetic gifts brought him grudging recognition from the court and, eventually, a court-appointed office. Shortly after his position was established, Chōmei took Buddhist orders (1204) and turned his back on the world. He lived first for four or five years in the hills of Ōhara and then built his tiny hermit’s hut in the Hino foothills southeast of the capital and completed his Hōjō-ki. The work is a series of brief accounts of the disasters that had befallen Kyōto during Chōmei’s lifetime, followed by a contrasting description of the natural beauty and peace of his hermit’s life. The whole is dominated by a characteristic Buddhist view of the vanity of human endeavour and the impermanence of material things. The Hōjō-ki bears a more than coincidental resemblance to the Chitei-ki (“Account of My Cottage by the Pond”) of Yoshishige Yasutane (934?–997), a work in Chinese prose dating from 981.

Chōmei, in fact, kept in touch with the court and the poetic world after his retirement. In 1205, to his great delight, 10 of his poems were included in the first draft of the Shin kokinshū, the eighth imperial anthology of court poetry. About 1208 or 1209 he began work on his Mumyō shō (“Nameless Notes”), an extremely valuable collection of critical comments, anecdotes, and poetic lore. In 1214 or 1215 he is believed to have completed his Hosshin shū (“Examples of Religious Vocation”). His other works include a selection of his own poems (probably compiled in 1181) and the Ise-ki (“Record of a Journey to Ise”), no longer extant. Chōmei’s poetry is representative of the best of an age that produced many poets of the first rank. His poetry was unusual in its extreme difficulty but possessed great tonal depth and resonance.
 




The Muromachi (1338–1573) and Azuchi-Momoyama (1574–1600) periods


In the 15th century a poetic form of multiple authorship displaced the tanka as the preferred medium of the leading poets. Renga (linked verse) had begun as the composition of a single tanka by two people and was a popular pastime even in remote rural areas. One person would compose the first three lines of a tanka, often giving obscure or even contradictory details in order to make it harder for the second person to complete the poem intelligibly. Gradually, renga spread to the court poets, who saw the artistic possibilities of this diversion and drew up “codes” intended to establish renga as an art. These codes made possible the masterpieces of the 15th century, but their insistence on formalities (e.g., how often a “link” about the Moon might appear in 100 links and which links must end with a noun and which with a verb) inevitably diluted the vigour and freshness of the early renga, itself a reaction against the excessively formal tanka. Nevertheless, the renga of the great 15th-century master Sōgi and his associates are unique in their shifting lyrical impulses, their moves from link to link like successive moments of a landscape seen from a boat, avoiding any illusion that the whole was conceived in one person’s mind.

While of considerable historical interest, the short stories of the 15th and 16th centuries, commonly known as otogi-zōshi, cannot be said to possess high literary value. Some look back to the world of the Heian court; others contain folk materials or elements of the miraculous that may have been included to interest barely literate readers. Promising stories are sometimes ruined by absurdities before their course is run, but even the less successful stories provide valuable glimpses of a society that, though afflicted by warfare, enjoyed the possibility of welcome change. The stories are anonymous, but the authors seem to have been both courtiers and Buddhist priests.

Unquestionably the finest literary works of the 15th century are the Noh dramas, especially those by Zeami. They were written in magnificent poetry (often compared to “brocade” because of the rich pattern created by many allusions to poetry of the past) and were provided with a structure that is at once extremely economical and free. Many are concerned with the Buddhist sin of attachment: an inability to forget his life in this world prevents a dead man from gaining release but forces him to return again and again as a ghost to relive the violence or passion of his former existence. Only prayer and renunciation can bring about deliverance. Zeami’s treatises on the art of Noh display extraordinary perceptivity. His stated aims were dramatic conviction and reality, but these ideals meant ultimates to him and not superficial realism. Some Noh plays, it is true, have little symbolic or supernatural content. But, in a typical program of five Noh plays, the central elements are the highly poetic and elusive masterpieces that suggest a world which is invisible to the eye but can be evoked by the actors through the beauty of movements and speech. Unhappiness over a world torn by disorder may have led writers to suggest in their works truths that lie too deep for words. This seems to have been the meaning of yūgen (“mystery and depth”), the ideal of the Noh plays. Parallel developments occurred in the tea ceremony, the landscape garden, and monochrome painting, all arts that suggest or symbolize rather than state.


 

Literature during the Tokugawa period (1603–1867)


The restoration of peace and the unification of Japan were achieved in the early 17th century, and for approximately 250 years the Japanese enjoyed almost uninterrupted peace. During the first half of the Tokugawa period, the cities of Kyōto and Ōsaka dominated cultural activity, but from about 1770 Edo (the modern Tokyo) became paramount. From the mid-1630s to the early 1850s Japan was closed, by government decree, to contact with the outside world. Initially, this isolation encouraged the development of indigenous forms of literature, but, eventually, in the virtual absence of fertilizing influence from abroad, it resulted in provincial writing. The adoption of printing in the early 17th century made a popular literature possible. The Japanese had known the art of printing since at least the 8th century, but they had reserved it exclusively for reproducing Buddhist writings. The Japanese classics existed only in manuscript form. It is possible that the demand for copies of literary works was so small that it could be satisfied with manuscripts, costly though they were; or perhaps aesthetic considerations made the Japanese prefer manuscripts in beautiful calligraphy, sometimes embellished with illustrations. Whatever the case, not until 1591 was a nonreligious work printed. About the same time, Portuguese missionaries in Nagasaki were printing books in the Roman alphabet. In 1593, in the wake of the Japanese invasion of Korea, a printing press with movable type was sent as a present to the emperor Go-Yōzei. Printing soon developed into the hobby or extravagance of the rich, and many examples of Japanese literature began to appear in small editions. Commercial publication began in 1609; by the 1620s even works of slight literary value were being printed for a public eager for new books.




Early Tokugawa period (1603–c. 1770)


Poetry underwent many changes during the early part of the Tokugawa period. At first the court poets jealously maintained their monopoly over the tanka, but gradually other men, many of them kokugakusha (“scholars of national learning”), changed the course of tanka composition by attempting to restore to the form the simple strength of Man’yōshū. The best of the waka poets in the courtly tradition was Kagawa Kageki, a poet of exceptional skill, though he is less likely to leave an impression on modern readers than the unconventional Ōkuma Kotomichi or Tachibana Akemi, both of whom died in 1868, during the first year of the Meiji era.

The chief development in poetry during the Tokugawa shogunate was the emergence of the haiku as an important genre. This exceedingly brief form (17 syllables arranged in lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables) had originated in the hokku, or opening verse of a renga sequence, which had to contain in its three lines mention of the season, the time of day, the dominant features of the landscape, and so on, making it almost an independent poem. The hokku became known as the haiku late in the 19th century, when it was entirely divested of its original function of opening a sequence of verse, but today even the 17th-century hokku are usually called haiku.

As early as the 16th century haikai no renga, or comic renga, had been composed by way of diversion after an evening of serious renga composition, reverting to the original social, rather than literary, purpose of making linked verse. As so often happened in Japan, however, a new art, born as a reaction to the stultifying practices of an older art, was “discovered,” codified, and made respectable by practitioners of the older art, generally at the cost of its freshness and vitality. Matsunaga Teitoku, a conventional 17th-century poet of tanka and renga who revered the old traditions, became almost in spite of himself the mentor of the new movement in comic verse, largely as the result of pressure from his eager disciples. Teitoku brought dignity to the comic renga and made it a demanding medium, rather than the quip of a moment. His haikai were distinguishable from serious renga not by their comic conception but by the presence of a haigon—a word of Chinese or recent origin that was normally not tolerated in classical verse.

Inevitably, a reaction arose against Teitoku’s formalism. The poets of the Danrin school, headed by Nishiyama Sōin and Saikaku, insisted that it was pointless to waste months if not years perfecting a sequence of 100 verses. Their ideal was rapid and impromptu composition, and their verses, generally colloquial in diction, were intended to amuse for a moment rather than to last for all time. Saikaku especially excelled at one-man composition of extended sequences; in 1684 he composed the incredible total of 23,500 verses in a single day and night, too fast for the scribes to do more than tally.

The haiku was perfected into a form capable of conveying poetry of the highest quality by Bashō. After passing through an apprenticeship in both Teitoku and Danrin schools, Bashō founded a school of his own and insisted that a haiku must contain both a perception of some eternal truth and an element of contemporaneity, combining the characteristic features of the two earlier schools. Despite their brief compass, Bashō’s haiku often suggest, by means of the few essential elements he presents, the whole world from which they have been extracted; the reader must participate in the creation of the poem. Bashō’s best-known works are travel accounts interspersed with his verses; of these, Oku no hosomichi (1694; The Narrow Road Through the Deep North) is perhaps the most popular and revered work of Tokugawa literature.

The general name for the prose composed between 1600 and 1682 is kana-zōshi, or “kana books,” the name originally having been used to distinguish popular writings in the Japanese syllabary from more-learned works in Chinese. The genre embraced not only fiction but also works of a near-historical nature, pious tracts, books of practical information, guidebooks, evaluations of courtesans and actors, and miscellaneous essays. Only one writer of any distinction is associated with the kana-zōshi—Asai Ryōi, a samurai who became the first popular and professional writer in Japanese history. Thanks to the development of relatively cheap methods of printing and a marked increase in the reading public, Ryōi was able to make a living as a writer. Although some of his works are Buddhist, he wrote in a simple style, mainly in kana. His most famous novel, Ukiyo monogatari (c. 1661; “Tales of the Floating World”), is primitive both in technique and in plot, but under his mask of frivolity Ryōi attempted to treat the hardships of a society where the officially proclaimed Confucian philosophy concealed gross inequalities.

The first important novelist of the new era was Saikaku. Some Japanese critics rank him second only to Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji, in all Japanese literature, and his works have been edited with the care accorded only to great classics. Such attention would surely have surprised Saikaku, whose fiction was dashed off almost as rapidly as his legendary performances of comic renga, with little concern for the judgments of posterity. His first novel, Kōshoku ichidai otoko (1682; The Life of an Amorous Man), changed the course of Japanese fiction. The title itself had strong erotic overtones, and the plot describes the adventures of one man, from his precocious essays at lovemaking as a child of seven to his decision at age 60 to sail to an island populated only by women. The licensed quarters of prostitution established in various Japanese cities by the Tokugawa government (despite its professions of Confucian morality), in order to help control unruly samurai by dissipating their energies, became a centre of the new culture. Expertise in the customs of the brothels was judged the mark of the man of the world. The old term ukiyo, which had formerly meant the “sad world” of Buddhist stories, now came to designate its homonym, the “floating world” of pleasure; this was the chosen world of Saikaku’s hero, Yonosuke, who became the emblematic figure of the era.

Saikaku’s masterpiece, Kōshoku gonin onna (1686; Five Women Who Loved Love), described the loves of women of the merchant class, rather than prostitutes; this was the first time that women of this class were given such attention. In other works he described, sometimes with humour but sometimes with bitterness, the struggles of merchants to make fortunes. His combination of a glittering style and warm sympathy for the characters lifted his tales from the borders of pornography to high art.

Saikaku was a central figure in the renaissance of literature of the late 17th century. The name Genroku (an era name designating the period 1688–1704) is often used of the characteristic artistic products: paintings and prints of the ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) style; ukiyo-zōshi (“tales of the floating world”); Kabuki; jōruri, or puppet theatre; and haiku poetry. Unlike its antecedents, this culture prized modernity above conformity to the ancient traditions; to be abreast of the floating world was to be up-to-date, sharing in the latest fashions and slang, delighting in the moment rather than in the eternal truths of Noh plays or medieval poetry.

Another, darker side to Genroku culture is depicted in Saikaku’s late works, with their descriptions of the desperate expedients to which people turned in order to pay their bills. Saikaku seldom showed much sympathy for the prostitutes he described, but the chief dramatist of the time, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, wrote his best plays about unhappy women, driven by poverty into their lives as prostitutes, whose only release from the sordid world in which they were condemned to dwell came when they joined their lovers in double suicides. In the world of merchants treated by Chikamatsu, a lack of money, rather than the cosmic griefs of the Noh plays, drove men to death with the prostitutes they loved but could not afford to buy.

Chikamatsu wrote most of his plays for the puppet theatre, which, in the 18th century, enjoyed even greater popularity than Kabuki. His plays fell into two main categories: those based, however loosely, on historical facts or legends, and those dealing with contemporary life. The domestic plays are rated much higher critically because they avoid the bombast and fantastic displays of heroism that mark the historical dramas, but the latter, adapted for the Kabuki theatre, are superb acting vehicles.

The mainstays of the puppet theatre were written not by Chikamatsu but by his successors; his plays, despite their literary superiority, failed to satisfy audiences’ craving for displays of puppet techniques and for extreme representations of loyalty, self-sacrifice, and other virtues of the society. The most popular puppet play (later also adapted for Kabuki actors) was Chūshingura (1748; “The Treasury of Loyal Retainers”; Eng. trans. Chūshingura) by Takeda Izumo and his collaborators; the same men were responsible for half a dozen other perennial favourites of the Japanese stage. The last great 18th-century writer of puppet plays, Chikamatsu Hanji, was a master of highly dramatic, if implausible, plots.
 


Bashō

 "Haiku"





Bashō, in full Matsuo Bashō, pseudonym of Matsuo Munefusa (b. 1644, Ueno, Iga province, Japan—d. Nov. 28, 1694, Ōsaka), the supreme Japanese haiku poet, who greatly enriched the 17-syllable haiku form and made it an accepted medium of artistic expression.

Interested in haiku from an early age, Bashō at first put his literary interests aside and entered the service of a local feudal lord. After his lord’s death in 1666, however, Bashō abandoned his samurai (warrior) status to devote himself to poetry. Moving to the capital city of Edo (now Tokyo), he gradually acquired a reputation as a poet and critic. In 1679 he wrote his first verse in the “new style” for which he came to be known:

On a withered branch

A crow has alighted:

Nightfall in autumn.

The simple descriptive mood evoked by this statement and the comparison and contrast of two independent phenomena became the hallmark of Bashō’s style. He attempted to go beyond the stale dependence on form and ephemeral allusions to current gossip that had been characteristic of haiku, which in his day had amounted to little but a popular literary pastime. Instead he insisted that the haiku must be at once unhackneyed and eternal. Following the Zen philosophy he studied, Bashō attempted to compress the meaning of the world into the simple pattern of his poetry, disclosing hidden hopes in small things and showing the interdependence of all objects.

In 1684 Bashō made the first of many journeys that figure so importantly in his work. His accounts of his travels are prized not only for the haiku that record various sights along the way but also for the equally beautiful prose passages that furnish the backgrounds. Oku no hosomichi (1694; The Narrow Road to the Deep North), describing his visit to northern Japan, is one of the loveliest works of Japanese literature.

On his travels Bashō also met local poets and competed with them in composing the linked verse (renga), an art in which he so excelled that some critics believe his renga were his finest work. When Bashō began writing renga the link between successive verses had generally depended on a pun or play on words, but he insisted that poets must go beyond mere verbal dexterity and link their verses by “perfume,” “echo,” “harmony,” and other delicately conceived criteria.

One term frequently used to describe Bashō’s poetry is sabi, which means the love of the old, the faded, and the unobtrusive, a quality found in the verse

Scent of chrysanthemums . . .

And in Nara

All the ancient Buddhas.

Here the musty smell of the chrysanthemums blends with the visual image of the dusty, flaking statues in the old capital. Living a life that was in true accord with the gentle spirit of his poetry, Bashō maintained an austere, simple hermitage that contrasted with the general flamboyance of his times. On occasion he withdrew from society altogether, retiring to Fukagawa, site of his Bashō-an (“Cottage of the Plantain Tree”), a simple hut from which the poet derived his pen name. Later men, honouring both the man and his poetry, revered him as the saint of the haiku.

The Narrow Road to Oku (1996), Donald Keene’s translation of Oku no hosomichi, provides the original text and a modern-language version by Kawabata Yasunari. The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat and Other Poetry of the Basho School (1981), a translation by Earl Miner and Hiroko Odagiri, presents a celebrated linked-verse sequence in which Bashō took part, along with a commentary.

 

 

 


Chikamatsu Monzaemon


Chikamatsu Monzaemon, original name Sugimori Nobumori (b. 1653, Echizen [now in Fukui prefecture], Japan—d. Jan. 6, 1725, Amagasaki, Settsu province?), Japanese playwright, widely regarded as among the greatest dramatists of that country. He is credited with more than 100 plays, most of which were written as jōruri dramas, performed by puppets. He was the first author of jōruri to write works that not only gave the puppet operator the opportunity to display his skill but also were of considerable literary merit.

Chikamatsu was born into a samurai family, but his father apparently abandoned his feudal duties sometime between 1664 and 1670, moving the family to Kyōto. While there, Chikamatsu served a member of the court aristocracy. The origin of his connection to the theatre is unknown. Yotsugi Soga (1683; “The Soga Heir”), a jōruri, is the first play that can be definitely attributed to Chikamatsu. The following year he wrote a Kabuki play, and by 1693 he was writing exclusively for actors. In 1703 he reestablished an earlier connection with the jōruri chanter Takemoto Gidayū, and he moved in 1705 from Kyōto to Ōsaka to be nearer to Gidayū’s puppet theatre, the Takemoto-za. Chikamatsu remained a staff playwright for this theatre until his death.

Chikamatsu’s works fall into two main categories: jidaimono (historical romances) and sewamono (domestic tragedies). Modern critics generally prefer the latter plays because they are more realistic and closer to European conceptions of drama, but the historical romances are more exciting as puppet plays. Some of Chikamatsu’s views on the art of the puppet theatre have been preserved in Naniwa miyage, a work written by a friend in 1738. There Chikamatsu is reported to have said, “Art is something that lies in the slender margin between the real and the unreal,” and in his own works he endeavoured accordingly to steer between the fantasy that had been the rule in the puppet theatre and the realism that was coming into vogue.

The characters who populate Chikamatsu’s domestic tragedies are merchants, housewives, servants, criminals, prostitutes, and all the other varieties of people who lived in the Ōsaka of his day. Most of his domestic tragedies were based on actual incidents, such as double suicides of lovers. Sonezaki shinjū (1703; The Love Suicides at Sonezaki), for example, was written within a fortnight of the actual double suicide on which it is based. The haste of composition is not at all apparent even in this first example of Chikamatsu’s double-suicide plays, the archetype of his other domestic tragedies.

Chikamatsu’s most popular work was Kokusenya kassen (1715; The Battles of Coxinga), a historical melodrama based loosely on events in the life of the Chinese-Japanese adventurer who attempted to restore the Ming dynasty in China. Another celebrated work is Shinjū ten no Amijima (1720; Double Suicide at Amijima), still frequently performed. Despite Chikamatsu’s eminence, however, the decline in popularity of puppet plays has resulted in most members of the theatregoing public being unfamiliar with his work, except in the abridgments and considerably revised versions used in Kabuki theatre, on film, and elsewhere. Eleven of his best-known plays appear in Major Plays of Chikamatsu (1961, reissued 1990), translated by Donald Keene. Mainly historical plays are in Chikamatsu: Five Late Plays (2001), translated by C. Andrew Gerstle.

Donald Keene
 



Late Tokugawa period (c. 1770–1867)


The literature of the late Tokugawa period is generally inferior to earlier achievements, especially those of the Genroku masters. Authentic new voices, however, were heard in traditional poetic forms. Later neo-Man’yōshū poets such as Ryōkan, Ōkuma Kotomichi, and Tachibana Akemi proved that the tanka was not limited to descriptions of the sights of nature or disappointed love but could express joy over fish for dinner or wrath at political events. Some poets who felt that the tanka did not provide ample scope for the display of such emotions turned, as in the past, to writing poetry in Chinese. The early 19th-century poet Rai Sanyō probably wrote verse in Chinese more skillfully than any previous Japanese.

Later Tokugawa poets also added distinctive notes of their own to the haiku. Buson, for example, introduced a romantic and narrative element, and Issa employed the accents of the common people.

A great variety of fiction was produced during the last century of the Tokugawa shogunate, but it is commonly lumped together under the somewhat derogatory heading of gesaku (“playful composition”). The word playful did not necessarily refer to the subject matter but to the professed attitude of the authors, educated men who disclaimed responsibility for their compositions. Ueda Akinari, the last master of fiction of the 18th century, won a high place in literary history mainly through his brilliant style, displayed to best advantage in Ugetsu monogatari (1776; Tales of Moonlight and Rain), a collection of supernatural tales. The gesaku writers, however, did not follow Akinari in his perfectionist attention to style and construction; instead, many of them produced books of almost formless gossip, substituting the raciness of daily speech for the elegance of the classical language and relying heavily on the copious illustrations for success with the public.

The gesaku writers were professionals who made their living by sale of their books. They aimed at as wide a public as possible, and, when a book was successful, it was usually followed by as many sequels as the public would accept. The most popular of the comic variety of gesaku fiction was Tōkai dōchū hizakurige (1802–22; “Travels on Foot on the Tōkaidō”; Eng. trans. Shank’s Mare), by Jippensha Ikku, an account of the travels and comic misfortunes of two irrepressible men from Edo along the Tōkaidō, the great highway between Kyōto and Edo. Shunshoku umegoyomi (1832–33; “Spring Colours: The Plum Calendar”), by Tamenaga Shunsui, is the story of Tanjirō, a peerlessly handsome but ineffectual young man for whose affections various women fight. The author at one point defended himself against charges of immorality: “Even though the women I portray may seem immoral, they are all imbued with deep sentiments of chastity and fidelity.” It was the standard practice of gesaku writers, no matter how frivolous their compositions might be, to pretend that their intent was didactic.

The yomihon (“books for reading”—so called to distinguish them from works enjoyed mainly for their illustrations) were much more openly moralistic. Although they were considered to be gesaku, no less than the most trivial books of gossip, their plots were burdened with historical materials culled from Chinese and Japanese sources, and the authors frequently underlined their didactic purpose. Despite the serious intent of the yomihon, they were romances rather than novels, and their characters, highly schematized, include witches and fairy princesses as well as impeccably noble gentlemen. Where they succeeded, as in a few works by Takizawa Bakin, they are absorbing as examples of storytelling rather than as embodiments of the principle of kanzen chōaku (“the encouragement of virtue and the chastisement of vice”), Bakin’s professed aim in writing fiction.

Japanese literature in general was at one of its lowest levels at the end of the Tokugawa period. A few tanka poets and the Kabuki dramatist Kawatake Mokuami are the only writers of the period whose works are still read today. It was an exhausted literature that could be revived only by the introduction of fresh influences from abroad.
 


Buson


Buson, also called Yosa Buson, original surname Taniguchi (b. 1716, Kema, Settsu province, Japan—d. Jan. 17, 1784, Kyōto), Japanese painter of distinction but even more renowned as one of the great haiku poets.

Buson came of a wealthy family but chose to leave it behind to pursue a career in the arts. He traveled extensively in northeastern Japan and studied haiku under several masters, among them Hayano Hajin, whom he eulogized in Hokuju Rōsen wo itonamu (1745; “Homage to Hokuju Rōsen”). In 1751 he settled in Kyōto as a professional painter, remaining there for most of his life. He did, however, spend three years (1754–57) in Yosa, Tango province, a region noted for its scenic beauty. There he worked intensively to improve his technique in both poetry and painting. During this period he changed his surname from Taniguchi to Yosa. Buson’s fame as a poet rose particularly after 1772. He urged a revival of the tradition of his great predecessor Matsuo Bashō but never reached the level of humanistic understanding attained by Bashō. Buson’s poetry, perhaps reflecting his interest in painting, is ornate and sensuous, rich in visual detail. “Use the colloquial language to transcend colloquialism,” he urged, and he declared that in haiku “one must talk poetry.” To Buson this required not only an accurate ear and an experienced eye but also intimacy with Chinese and Japanese classics. Buson’s interest in Chinese poetry is especially evident in three long poems that are irregular in form. His experimental poems have been called “Chinese poems in Japanese,” and two of them contain passages in Chinese.

 

 


Ueda Akinari



 

Ueda Akinari, pseudonym of Ueda Senjiro (b. July 25, 1734, Ōsaka, Japan—d. Aug. 8, 1809, Kyōto), preeminent writer and poet of late 18th-century Japan, best known for his tales of the supernatural.

Ueda was adopted into the family of an oil and paper merchant and brought up with great kindness. A childhood attack of smallpox left him with some paralysis in his hands, and it may have caused his blindness late in life. Ueda became interested in classical Japanese and Chinese literature around the age of 25. He had started to write ukiyo-zōshi, “tales of the floating world,” the popular fiction of the day, when in 1771 the business he had managed since his stepfather’s death (1761) burned down. He took that as his opportunity to devote his full time to writing. In 1776, after eight years of work, he produced Ugetsu monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain). These ghost tales showed a concern for literary style not present in most popular fiction of the time, in which the text was usually simply an accompaniment for the illustrations that formed the main part of the books.

A student of history and philology, Ueda called for a revival of classical literature and language reform. His late years were spent in poverty-stricken wandering. His Harusame monogatari (1808; Tales of the Spring Rain) is another fine story collection. Ugetsu monogatari was the basis for the film Ugetsu (1953), directed by Mizoguchi Kenji.
 



Modern literature


Even after the arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s U.S. Navy fleet in 1853 and the gradual opening of the country to the West and its influence, there was at first little noticeable effect on Japanese literature. The long closure of the country and the general sameness of Tokugawa society for decades at a time seemed to have atrophied the imaginations of the gesaku writers. Even the presence of curiously garbed foreigners, which should have provoked some sort of reaction from authors searching for new material, initially produced little effect. The gesaku writers were oblivious to the changes in Japanese society, and they continued to grind out minor variants on the same hackneyed themes of the preceding 200 years.

It was only after the removal in 1868 of the capital to Edo (renamed Tokyo) and the declaration by the emperor Meiji that he would seek knowledge from the entire world that the gesaku writers realized their days of influence were numbered. They soon fell under attack from their old enemies, the Confucian denouncers of immoral books, and also from advocates of the new Western learning. Although the gesaku writers responded with satirical pieces and traditional Japanese fiction deriding the new learning, they were helpless to resist the changes transforming the entire society.



Introduction of Western literature

Translations from European languages of nonliterary works began to appear soon after the Meiji Restoration. The most famous example was the translation (1870) of Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help; it became a kind of bible for ambitious young Japanese eager to emulate Western examples of success. The first important translation of a European novel was Ernest Maltravers, by the British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, which appeared in 1879 under the title Karyū shunwa (“A Spring Tale of Blossoms and Willows”). The early translations were inaccurate, and the translators unceremoniously deleted any passages that they could not understand readily or that they feared might be unintelligible to Japanese readers. They also felt obliged to reassure readers that, despite the foreign names of the characters, the emotions they felt were exactly the same as those of a Japanese.

It did not take long, however, for the translators to discover that European literature possessed qualities never found in the Japanese writings of the past. The literary scholar Tsubouchi Shōyō was led by his readings in European fiction and criticism to reject didacticism as a legitimate purpose of fiction; he insisted instead on its artistic values. His critical essay Shōsetsu shinzui (1885–86; The Essence of the Novel) greatly influenced the writing of subsequent fiction not only because of its emphasis on realism as opposed to didacticism but because Shōyō, a member of the samurai class, expressed the conviction that novels, hitherto despised by the intellectuals as mere entertainments for women and children, were worthy of even a scholar’s attention.

The first modern Japanese novel was Ukigumo (1887–89; “Drifting Cloud”; Eng. trans. Japan’s First Modern Novel), by Futabatei Shimei, who was familiar with Russian literature and contemporary Western literary criticism. Futabatei wrote Ukigumo in the colloquial, apparently because his readings in Russian literature had convinced him that only the colloquial could suitably be used when describing the writer’s own society. Despite Futabatei’s success with this experiment, most Japanese writers continued to employ the literary language until the end of the century. This was due, no doubt, to their reluctance to give up the rich heritage of traditional expression in favour of the unadorned modern tongue.
 


Western influences on poetry

Translations of Western poetry led to the creation of new Japanese literary forms. The pioneer collection Shintaishi-shō (1882; “Selection of Poems in the New Style”) contained not only translations from English but also five original poems by the translators in the poetic genres of the foreign examples. The translators declared that although European poetry had greater variety than Japanese poetry—some poems are rhymed, others unrhymed, some are extremely long, others abrupt—it was invariably written in the language of ordinary speech. An insistence on modern language and the availability of many different poetic forms were not the only lessons offered by European poetry. The translators also made the Japanese public aware of how much of human experience had never been treated in the tanka or haiku forms.

Innumerable Western critics have sarcastically commented on the Japanese proclivity for imitating foreign literary models and on their alleged indifference to their own traditions. It is true that without Russian examples Futabatei could not have written Ukigumo, and without English examples such poets as Shimazaki Tōson could not have created modern Japanese poetry. But far from recklessly abandoning their literary heritage, most writers were at great pains to acquaint themselves with their traditional literature. The outstanding novelists of the 1890s—Ozaki Kōyō, Kōda Rohan, Higuchi Ichiyō, and Izumi Kyōka—all read Saikaku and were noticeably influenced by him. Ichiyō’s short novel Takekurabe (1895; Growing Up) described the children of the Yoshiwara quarter of Edo in a realistic manner quite unlike that of the usual stories about prostitutes and their customers, but she used the language of Saikaku for her narration. Kyōka, though educated partly at a Western mission school, wrote superbly in the vein of late Tokugawa fiction; something of the distant Japanese literary past pervaded even his writings of the 1930s, the final years of his life.

In poetry, too, the first products of Western influence were comically inept experiments with rhyme and with such unpromising subjects as the principles of sociology. Tōson’s “Akikaze no uta” (1896; “Song of the Autumn Wind”), however, is not merely a skillful echo of Percy Bysshe Shelley but a true picture of a Japanese landscape; the irregular lines of his poem tend to fall into the traditional pattern of five and seven syllables.

A decade after the works of English Romantic poets such as Shelley and William Wordsworth had influenced Japanese poetry, the translations made by Ueda Bin of the French Parnassian and Symbolist poets made an even more powerful impression. Ueda wrote, “The function of symbols is to help create in the reader an emotional state similar to that in the poet’s mind; symbols do not necessarily communicate the same conception to everyone.” This view was borrowed from the West, but it accorded perfectly with the qualities of the tanka.

Because of the ambiguities of traditional Japanese poetic expression, it was natural for a given poem to produce different effects on different readers; the important thing, as in Symbolist poetry, was to communicate the poet’s mood. If the Japanese poets of the early 1900s had been urged to avoid contamination by foreign ideas, they would have declared that this was contrary to the spirit of an enlightened age. But when informed that eminent foreign poets preferred ambiguity to clarity, the Japanese responded with double enthusiasm.
 


Shimazaki Tōson


Shimazaki Tōson, pseudonym of Shimazaki Haruki (b. March 25, 1872, Magome, Nagano prefecture, Japan—d. Aug. 22, 1943, Ōiso, Kanagawa prefecture), Japanese poet and novelist, whose fiction illuminated the clash of old and new values in a Japan feverishly modernizing itself during the period of the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912).

Tōson was educated in Tokyo at Meiji Gakuin, where he was also baptized, although Christianity did not lastingly affect either his life or his thought. In the early 1890s he began to write poetry and joined the short-lived romantic movement of young poets and writers, which he later described in his novel Haru (1908; “Spring”). The first of his major novels, Hakai (1906; The Broken Commandment), the story of a young outcast schoolteacher’s struggle for self-realization, has been called representative of the naturalist school, then the vogue in Japan, although it more clearly reflects the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau than of Émile Zola. Ie (1910–11; The Family) depicts the stresses Japan’s modernization brought to his own family. Shinsei (1918–19; “New Life”) narrates the unsavoury affair of a writer with his niece in a manner that carries the confessional principle to embarrassing excesses.

Tōson began research in 1928 for Yoake mae (1935; “Before the Dawn”), his greatest work and one of the masterpieces of modern Japanese literature. This is a story of the struggle for the Imperial Restoration in the 1860s as mirrored in a rural community. The tragic hero of the novel, modeled after the writer’s own father, eventually dies an embittered death, convinced that the cause of pure patriotism had been betrayed by the glib modernizers of post-Restoration Japan. A final novel, Tōhō no Mon (“Gate to the East”), incomplete at his death, seems to invoke the Buddhist wisdom of medieval Japan as a way out of the impasse of the present.
 

 

 


Izumi Kyōka



 

Izumi Kyōka, pseudonym of Izumi Kyōtarō (b. Nov. 4, 1873, Kanazawa, Japan—d. Sept. 7, 1939, Tokyo), prolific Japanese writer who created a distinctive, often supernatural fictional world.

Kyōka was born into a family of provincial artists and artisans. He went to Tokyo in 1890, hoping to be accepted as a disciple of Ozaki Kōyō, the leader of the literary scene at that time, but he was too shy to announce his presence. The next year he summoned up the courage to meet Kōyō and was immediately taken in as a houseboy. He lived with Kōyō until 1894. In return for cleaning the house and performing errands, he was given careful instruction by Kōyō, who went over every word in Kyōka’s manuscripts.

Kyōka’s first successful work, “Giketsu kyōketsu” (1894; “Noble Blood, Heroic Blood”), is melodramatic and implausible, but the characters are so vivid that the story was easily turned into a play. “Yakō junsa” (1895; “Night Patrolman”) and “Gekashitsu” (1895; “Surgical Room”) are short works that depict persons who are so moved by their convictions that they perform unbelievable acts of self-sacrifice. Kōya hijiri (1900; “The Holy Man of Mount Kōya”) gives full play to Kyōka’s fascination with the weird and the mysterious.

In 1899 Kyōka met a geisha whom he later married. In Yushima mōde (1899; “Worship at Yushima”), one of his most popular works, he described the world of the geisha, which reappeared in important works such as Onna keizu (1907; “A Woman’s Pedigree”) and “Uta andon” (1910; “A Song Under Lanterns”; Eng. trans. “The Song of the Troubadour”). Kyōka remained aloof from contemporary changes in literary taste, writing for devoted followers and refusing to abandon his highly individual art. Japanese Gothic Tales (1996), translated into English by Charles Shirō Inouye, contains four of Kyōka’s stories together with an extended discussion of his art.
 




Revitalization of the tanka and haiku

Even the traditional forms, tanka and haiku, though moribund in 1868, took on new life, thanks largely to the efforts of Masaoka Shiki, a distinguished late 19th-century poet in both forms but of even greater importance as a critic. Yosano Akiko, Ishikawa Takuboku, and Saitō Mokichi were probably the most successful practitioners of the new tanka. Akiko’s collection Midaregami (1901; Tangled Hair) stirred female readers especially, not only because of its lyrical beauty but because Akiko herself seemed to be proclaiming a new age of romantic love. Takuboku emerged in the course of his short life (he died in 1912 at age 26) as perhaps the most popular tanka poet of all time. His verses are filled with strikingly individual expressions of his intransigent personality. Saitō Mokichi combined an absorption with Man’yōshū stylistics and a professional competence in psychiatry. Despite the austere nature of his poetry, he was recognized for many years as the leading tanka poet. In haiku, Takahama Kyoshi built up a following of poets strong enough to withstand the attacks of critics who declared that the form was inadequate to deal with the problems of modern life. Kyoshi himself eventually decided that the function of haiku was the traditional one of an intuitive apprehension of the beauties of nature, but other haiku poets employed the medium to express entirely unconventional themes.

Most tanka and haiku poets continued to use the classical language, probably because its relative concision permitted them to impart greater content to their verses than modern Japanese permits. Poets of the “new style,” therefore, were readier to employ the colloquial. Hagiwara Sakutarō, generally considered the finest Japanese poet of the 20th century, brilliantly exploited the musical and expressive possibilities of the modern tongue. Other poets, such as Horiguchi Daigaku, devoted themselves to translations of European poetry, achieving results so compelling in Japanese that these translations are considered to form an important part of the modern poetry of Japan.
 


Masaoka Shiki

Masaoka Shiki, pseudonym of Masaoka Tsunenori (b. Oct. 14, 1867, Matsuyama, Japan—d. Sept. 19, 1902, Tokyo), poet, essayist, and critic who revived the haiku and tanka, traditional Japanese poetic forms.

Masaoka was born into a samurai (warrior) family. He went to Tokyo to study in 1883 and began to write poetry in 1885. After studying at Tokyo Imperial University from 1890 to 1892, he joined a publishing firm. During his brief service with the Japanese army as a correspondent during the Sino-Japanese War, the tuberculosis he had first contracted in 1889 became worse, and from that time on he was almost constantly an invalid. Nevertheless, he maintained a prominent position in the literary world, and his views on poetry and aesthetics, as well as his own poems, appeared regularly.

As early as 1892 Masaoka began to feel that a new literary spirit was needed to free poetry from centuries-old rules prescribing topics and vocabulary. In an essay entitled “Jojibun” (“Narration”), which appeared in the newspaper Nihon in 1900, Masaoka introduced the word shasei (“delineation from nature”) to describe his theory. He believed that a poet should present things as they really are and should write in the language of contemporary speech. Through his articles Masaoka also stimulated renewed interest in the 8th-century poetry anthology Man’yō-shū (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”) and in the haiku poet Buson. Masaoka frequently wrote of his illness, both in his poems and in such essays as “Byōshō rokushaku” (1902; “The Six-foot Sickbed”), but his work is remarkably detached and almost entirely lacking in self-pity.

 

 


Takahama Kyoshi




Takahama Kyoshi, (b. Feb. 22, 1874, Matsuyama, Japan—d. April 8, 1959, Kamakura), haiku poet, a major figure in the development of haiku literature in modern Japan.

Through his friend Kawahigashi Hekigotō, he became acquainted with the renowned poet Masaoka Shiki and began to write haiku poems. In 1898 Takahama became the editor of Hototogisu, a magazine of haiku that was started by Shiki. He and Kawahigashi, the two outstanding disciples of Shiki, became pitted against each other after Shiki’s death.

Kawahigashi became the leader of a new style of haiku, one that disregarded the traditional pattern. For a time Takahama was preoccupied with writing novels in a realistic, sketchlike style, but he eventually returned to haiku. Writing in Hototogisu, he opposed Kawahigashi’s new movement and advocated realism in haiku, stressing that haiku poets should contemplate nature as it is. He published these beliefs in Susumu beki haiku no michi (1918; “The Proper Direction for Haiku”). His numerous collections of poetry have been compiled into the two-volume anthology Takahama Kyoshi zenhaiku shū (1980; “The Complete Haiku Poems of Takahama Kyoshi”). Takahama also wrote several novels, including Haikaishi (1909; “Haiku Poet”).
 

 

 


Hagiwara Sakutarō


 

Hagiwara Sakutarō, (b. Nov. 1, 1886, Maebashi, Japan—d. May 11, 1942, Tokyo), poet who is considered the father of free verse in Japanese.

The son of a prosperous physician, Hagiwara enjoyed a sheltered and indulged childhood. At age 15 he discovered literature and began writing classical verse, which he submitted to literary magazines. He refused to become a doctor, which precluded him from inheriting the hospital his father had founded. He left college without graduating, turned to studying mandolin and guitar, and spent time in Tokyo. At 18 he had become infatuated with a woman who would later appear throughout his work as “Elena,” but her family frowned on Hagiwara’s failure to finish college and secure regular employment, and she eventually married a doctor. Hagiwara’s arranged marriage in 1919 produced two daughters, and he moved permanently with his family to Tokyo in 1925. His wife deserted him four years later.

Hagiwara’s style developed slowly; support from his father throughout his life relieved him of financial worries and enabled him to work at his own pace. By 1913 Hagiwara had abandoned classical metrical schemes for free verse. In 1916 he cofounded a poetry magazine with the poet Murō Saisei, and a year later Hagiwara self-published his first book of poetry, Tsuki ni hoeru (Howling at the Moon), which irreversibly transformed modern Japanese verse. Hagiwara contended that “psychic terror” distinguished his work, and the first poem of the collection describes the nightmare of being buried alive. In his second poetry collection, Aoneko (1923; “Blue Cat”), Hagiwara presented himself as a cheerless and tormented man thirsting for affection. These two collections established his reputation as a poet. His difficult style was not immediately understood, although one of the leaders of the Japanese literary world, the novelist Mori Ōgai, was impressed by his mode of expression.

Hagiwara’s last collection of free verse, Hyōtō (1934; “Isle of Ice”), explores his sense of having never been accepted; its first poem concludes, “Your home shall be no place!” Prose poems appear in Shukumei (1939; “Fate”), which critiques the smothering of individuality by group life. Hagiwara also published a collection of aphorisms, Atarashiki yokujo (1922; “Fresh Passions”), which expresses his sensual philosophy, and several collections of essays.

Hagiwara focused on intimate glooms, never on the charms of nature or the transience of beauty. With its reliance on self-exploration and its confession of vulgar secrets using the vernacular, Hagiwara’s poetry represented a revolutionary trend in 20th-century Japanese literature.
 




The novel between 1905 and 1941

The dominant stream in Japanese fiction since the publication of Hakai (1906; The Broken Commandment), by Shimazaki Tōson, and Futon (1907; The Quilt), by Tayama Katai, has been naturalism. Although the movement was originally inspired by the works of the 19th-century French novelist Émile Zola and other European naturalists, it quickly took on a distinctively Japanese colouring, rejecting (as a Confucian scholar might have rejected gesaku fiction) carefully developed plots or stylistic beauty in favour of absolute verisimilitude in the author’s confessions or in the author’s minute descriptions of the lives of unimportant people hemmed in by circumstances beyond their control.

By general consent, however, the two outstanding novelists of the early 20th century were men who stood outside the naturalist movement, Mori Ōgai and Natsume Sōseki. Ōgai began as a writer of partly autobiographical fiction with strong overtones of German Romantic writings. Midway in his career he shifted to historical novels that are virtually devoid of fictional elements but are given literary distinction by their concise and masculine style. Sōseki gained fame with humorous novels such as Botchan (1906; “The Young Master”; Eng. trans. Botchan), a fictionalized account of his experiences as a teacher in a provincial town. Botchan enjoyed phenomenal popularity after it first appeared. It is the most approachable of Sōseki’s novels, and the Japanese found pleasure in identifying themselves with the impetuous, reckless, yet basically decent hero. The coloration of Sōseki’s subsequent novels became progressively darker, but even the most gloomy have maintained their reputation among Japanese readers, who take it for granted that Sōseki is the greatest of the modern Japanese novelists and who find echoes in their own lives of the mental suffering he described. Sōseki wrote mainly about intellectuals living in a Japan that had been brutally thrust into the 20th century. His best-known novel, Kokoro (1914; “The Heart”; Eng. trans. Kokoro), revolves around another familiar situation in his novels, two men in love with the same woman. His last novel, Meian (1916; Light and Darkness), though unfinished, has been acclaimed by some as his masterpiece.

An amazing burst of creative activity occurred in the decade following the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Probably never before in the history of Japanese literature were so many important writers working at once. Three novelists who first emerged into prominence at this time were Nagai Kafū, Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. Nagai Kafū was infatuated with French culture and described with contempt the meretricious surface of modern Japan. In later years, however, though still alienated from the Japanese present, he showed nostalgia for the Japan of his youth, and his most appealing works contain evocations of the traces of an old and genuine Japan that survived in the parody of Western culture that was Tokyo.

Tanizaki’s novels, notably Tade kuu mushi (1929; Some Prefer Nettles), often presented a conflict between traditional Japanese and Western-inspired ways. In his early works he also proclaimed a preference for the West. Tanizaki’s views changed after he moved to the Kansai region in the wake of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, and his subsequent writings traced his gradual accommodation with the old culture of Japan that he had previously rejected. Between 1939 and 1941 Tanizaki published the first of his three modern-language versions of Genji monogatari. He willingly sacrificed years of his career to this task because of his unbounded admiration for the supreme work of Japanese literature.

Tanizaki’s longest novel, Sasameyuki (1943–48; The Makioka Sisters), evoked with evident nostalgia the Japan of the 1930s, when people were preoccupied not with the prosecution of a war but with marriage arrangements, visits to sites famous for their cherry blossoms, or the cultural differences between Tokyo and Ōsaka. Two postwar novels by Tanizaki enjoyed great popularity, Kagi (1956; The Key), the account of a professor’s determination to have his fill of sex with his wife before impotence overtakes him, and Fūten rōjin nikki (1961–62; Diary of a Mad Old Man), a work in a comic vein that describes a very old man’s infatuation with his daughter-in-law. No reader would turn to Tanizaki for wisdom as to how to lead his life, nor for a penetrating analysis of society, but his works not only provide the pleasures of well-told stories but also convey the special phenomenon of adulation and rejection of the West that played so prominent a part in the Japanese culture of the 20th century.

Akutagawa established his reputation as a brilliant storyteller who transformed materials found in old Japanese collections by infusing them with modern psychology. No writer enjoyed a greater following in his time, but Akutagawa found less and less satisfaction in his reworkings of existing tales and turned eventually to writing about himself in a sometimes harrowing manner. His suicide in 1927 shocked the entire Japanese literary world. The exact cause is unknown—he wrote of a “vague malaise”—but perhaps Akutagawa felt incapable either of sublimating his personal experiences into fiction or else of giving them the accents of the proletarian literature movement, then at its height.

The proletarian literature movement in Japan, as in various other countries, attempted to use literature as a weapon to effect reform and even revolution in response to social injustices. Although the movement gained virtual control of the Japanese literary world in the late 1920s, governmental repression beginning in 1928 eventually destroyed it. The chief proletarian writer, Kobayashi Takiji, was tortured to death by the police in 1933. Few of the writings produced by the movement are of literary worth, but the concern for classes of people who had formerly been neglected by Japanese writers gave these works their special significance.

Other writers of the period, convinced that the essential function of literature was artistic and not propagandistic, formed schools such as the “Neosensualists” led by Yokomitsu Riichi and Kawabata Yasunari. Yokomitsu’s politics eventually moved far to the right, and the promulgation of these views, rather than his efforts to achieve modernism, coloured his later writings. But Kawabata’s works (for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968) are still admired for their lyricism and intuitive construction. Though Kawabata began as a modernist and experimented with modernist techniques to the end of his career, he is better known for his portraits of women, whether the geisha of Yukiguni (1948; Snow Country) or the different women whose lives are concerned with the tea ceremony in Sembazuru (1952; Thousand Cranes).

Japanese critics have divided the fiction of the prewar period into schools, each usually consisting of one leading writer and his disciples. Probably the most influential author was Shiga Naoya. His characteristic literary form was the “I novel” (watakushi shōsetsu), a work that treats autobiographical materials with stylistic beauty and great intelligence but is not remarkable for invention. Shiga’s commanding presence caused the I novel to be more respected by most critics than outright works of fiction, but the writings of his disciples are sometimes hardly more than pages torn from a diary, of interest only if the reader is already devoted to the author.
 







Akutagawa Ryūnosuke




 

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, pseudonym Chōkōdō Shujin or Gaki (b. March 1, 1892, Tokyo, Japan—d. July 24, 1927, Tokyo), prolific Japanese writer known especially for his stories based on events in the Japanese past and for his stylistic virtuosity.

As a boy Akutagawa was sickly and hypersensitive, but he excelled at school and was a voracious reader. He began his literary career while attending Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo), where he studied English literature from 1913 to 1916.

The publication in 1915 of his short story “Rashōmon” led to his introduction to Natsume Sōseki, the outstanding Japanese novelist of the day. With Sōseki’s encouragement he began to write a series of stories derived largely from 12th- and 13th-century collections of Japanese tales but retold in the light of modern psychology and in a highly individual style. He ranged wide in his choice of material, drawing inspiration from such disparate sources as China, Japan’s 16th-century Christian community in Nagasaki, and European contacts with 19th-century Japan. Many of his stories have a feverish intensity that is well-suited to their often macabre themes.

In 1922 he turned toward autobiographical fiction, but Akutagawa’s stories of modern life lack the exotic and sometimes lurid glow of the older tales, perhaps accounting for their comparative unpopularity. His last important work, “Kappa” (1927), although a satiric fable about elflike creatures (kappa), is written in the mirthless vein of his last period and reflects his depressed state at the time. His suicide came as a shock to the literary world.

Akutagawa is one of the most widely translated of all Japanese writers, and a number of his stories have been made into films. The film classic Rashomon (1950), directed by Kurosawa Akira, is based on a combination of Akutagawa’s story by that title and another story of his, “Yabu no naka” (1921; “In a Grove”).

 

 


Kawabata Yasunari



 

Kawabata Yasunari, (b. June 11, 1899, Ōsaka, Japan—d. April 16, 1972, Zushi), Japanese novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. His melancholic lyricism echoes an ancient Japanese literary tradition in the modern idiom.

The sense of loneliness and preoccupation with death that permeates much of Kawabata’s mature writing possibly derives from the loneliness of his childhood (he was orphaned early and lost all near relatives while still in his youth). He graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in 1924 and made his entrance into the literary world with the semiautobiographical Izu no odoriko (1926; The Izu Dancer). It appeared in the journal Bungei jidai (“The Artistic Age”), which he founded with the writer Yokomitsu Riichi; this journal became the organ of the Neosensualist group with which Kawabata was early associated.

This school is said to have derived much of its aesthetic from European literary currents such as Dadaism and Expressionism. Their influence on Kawabata’s novels may be seen in the abrupt transitions between separate brief, lyrical episodes; in imagery that is frequently startling in its mixture of incongruous impressions; and in his juxtaposition of the beautiful and the ugly. These same qualities, however, are present in Japanese prose of the 17th century and in the renga (linked verse) of the 15th century. It is to the latter that Kawabata’s fiction seemed to draw nearer in later years.

There is a seeming formlessness about much of Kawabata’s writing that is reminiscent of the fluid composition of renga. His best-known novel, Yukiguni (1948; Snow Country), the story of a forlorn country geisha, was begun in 1935. After several different endings were discarded, it was completed 12 years later, although the final version did not appear until 1948. Sembazuru (Thousand Cranes), a series of episodes centred on the tea ceremony, was begun in 1949 and never completed. These and Yama no oto (1949–54; The Sound of the Mountain) are considered to be his best novels. The later book focuses on the comfort an old man who cannot chide his own children gets from his daughter-in-law.

When Kawabata accepted the Nobel Prize, he said that in his work he tried to beautify death and to seek harmony among man, nature, and emptiness. He committed suicide after the death of his friend Mishima Yukio.
 




The postwar novel


The aggressive wars waged by the Japanese militarists in the 1930s inhibited literary production. Censorship became increasingly stringent, and writers were expected to promote the war effort. In 1941–45, as World War II was being fought in the Pacific, little worthwhile literature appeared. Tanizaki began serial publication of The Makioka Sisters in 1943, but publication was halted by official order, and the completed work appeared only after the war. The immediate postwar years signaled an extraordinary period of activity, both by the older generation and by new writers. The period is vividly described in the writings of Dazai Osamu, notably in Shayō (1947; The Setting Sun). Other writers described the horrors of the war years; perhaps the most powerful was Nobi (1951; Fires on the Plain) by Ōoka Shōhei, which described defeated Japanese soldiers in the Philippine jungles. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 also inspired much poetry and prose, though it was often too close to the events to achieve artistic integrity. A few works, especially Kuroi ame (1966; Black Rain) by Ibuse Masuji, succeeded in suggesting the ultimately indescribable horror of the disaster.

The Japan of the immediate postwar period and the prosperous Japan of the 1950s and 1960s provided the background for most of the works of Mishima Yukio, an exceptionally brilliant and versatile novelist and playwright who became the first Japanese writer generally known abroad. Mishima’s best-known works include Kinkaku-ji (1956; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion), a psychological study, based on an actual incident, of a young monk who burned a famous architectural masterpiece; and Hōjō no umi (1965–70; The Sea of Fertility), a tetralogy, set in Japan, that covers the period from about 1912 to the 1960s. Abe Kōbō was notable among modern writers in that he managed, sometimes by resorting to avant-garde techniques, to transcend the particular condition of being Japanese and to create universal myths of suffering humanity in such a work as Suna no onna (1962; The Woman in the Dunes). The unique nature of traditional Japanese culture, which made it infertile ground for Christianity in the 16th century, was treated in several moving novels by Endō Shūsaku, notably Chimmoku (1966; Silence). The novels of Kita Morio were characterized by an attractive streak of humour that provided a welcome contrast to the prevailingly dark tonality of other contemporary Japanese novels. His Nire-ke no hitobito (1963–64; The House of Nire), though based on the careers of his grandfather and his father (the poet Saitō Mokichi), was saved by its humour from becoming no more than an I novel.

Ōe Kenzaburō achieved fame early in life, winning a major literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, in 1958, when he was 23. His early works were mainly set in the remote valley on the island of Shikoku where he was born and raised, and he returned to this setting in some later works, finding in it an essential key to his life. In 1994 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the second awarded to a Japanese. Although his style is complicated and difficult, he was able to move readers, particularly through his accounts of life with his brain-damaged son. Unlike most authors of the preceding generation, Ōe devoted his efforts also to political concerns, bringing him popularity especially with university students and others committed to political and social reform.

For more than 20 years after he won the Akutagawa Prize, Ōe was considered to be the youngest writer of importance, and critics lamented the dearth of promising new writers. However, a new generation, represented by Nakagami Kenji and Murakami Haruki, found favour not only in Japan but abroad, where their novels were translated and admired. Nakagami, the son of an unwed mother, was born into the burakumin (Japan’s traditional underclass). His background, which he did not attempt to hide, gave his novels an intensity, a deliberate coarseness, and sometimes a fury not to be found in the works of his contemporaries, most of them from prosperous families. Murakami’s novels, though looked down on by Ōe because he perceived them to lack intellectual concerns, drew critical acclaim and sold remarkably well. This popularity was due in part to his familiarity with American popular culture, an integral part of the lives of young people all over the world, but also to his skill as a highly accomplished storyteller, able to mix real and unreal events convincingly.
 


Mishima Yukio


Mishima Yukio, pseudonym of Hiraoka Kimitake (b. Jan. 14, 1925, Tokyo—d. Nov. 25, 1970, Tokyo), prolific writer who is regarded by many critics as the most important Japanese novelist of the 20th century.

Mishima was the son of a high civil servant and attended the aristocratic Peers School in Tokyo. During World War II, having failed to qualify physically for military service, he worked in a Tokyo factory and after the war studied law at the University of Tokyo. In 1948–49 he worked in the banking division of the Japanese Ministry of Finance. His first novel, Kamen no kokuhaku (1949; Confessions of a Mask), is a partly autobiographical work that describes with exceptional stylistic brilliance a homosexual who must mask his abnormal sexual preferences from the society around him. The novel gained Mishima immediate acclaim, and he began to devote his full energies to writing.

He followed up his initial success with several novels whose main characters are tormented by various physical or psychological problems or who are obsessed by unattainable ideals that make everyday happiness impossible for them. Among these works are Ai no kawaki (1950; Thirst for Love), Kinjiki (1954; Forbidden Colours), and Shiosai (1954; The Sound of Waves). Kinkaku-ji (1956; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) is the story of a troubled young acolyte at a Buddhist temple who burns down the famous building because he himself cannot attain to its beauty. Utage no ato (1960; After the Banquet) explores the twin themes of middle-aged love and corruption in Japanese politics. In addition to novels, short stories, and essays, Mishima also wrote plays in the form of the Japanese Nō drama, producing reworked and modernized versions of the traditional stories. His plays include Sado kōshaku fujin (1965; Madame de Sade) and Kindai nōgaku shu (1956; Five Modern Nōh Plays).

Mishima’s last work, Hōjō no umi (1965–70; The Sea of Fertility), is a four-volume epic that is regarded by many as his most lasting achievement. Its four separate novels, Haru no yuki (Spring Snow), Homma (Runaway Horses), Akatsuki no tera (The Temple of Dawn), and Tennin gosui (The Decay of the Angel), are set in Japan and cover the period from about 1912 to the 1960s. Each of them depicts a different reincarnation of the same being: as a young aristocrat in 1912, as a political fanatic in the 1930s, as a Thai princess before and after World War II, and as an evil young orphan in the 1960s. These books effectively communicate Mishima’s own increasing obsession with blood, death, and suicide, his interest in self-destructive personalities, and his rejection of the sterility of modern life.

Mishima’s novels are typically Japanese in their sensuous and imaginative appreciation of natural detail, but their solid and competent plots, their probing psychological analysis, and a certain understated humour helped make them widely read in other countries.

The short story “Yukoku” (“Patriotism”) from the collection Death in Midsummer, and Other Stories (1966) revealed Mishima’s own political views and proved prophetic of his own end. The story describes, with obvious admiration, a young army officer who commits seppuku, or ritual disembowelment, to demonstrate his loyalty to the Japanese emperor. Mishima was deeply attracted to the austere patriotism and martial spirit of Japan’s past, which he contrasted unfavourably with the materialistic, Westernized people and the prosperous society of Japan in the postwar era. Mishima himself was torn between these differing values. Although he maintained an essentially Western life-style in his private life and had a vast knowledge of Western culture, he raged against Japan’s imitation of the West. He diligently developed the age-old Japanese arts of karate and kendo and formed a controversial private army of about 80 students, the Tate no Kai (Shield Society), with the idea of preserving the Japanese martial spirit and helping protect the emperor (the symbol of Japanese culture) in case of an uprising by the left or a Communist attack.

On Nov. 25, 1970, after having that day delivered the final installment of The Sea of Fertility to his publisher, Mishima and four Shield Society followers seized control of the commanding general’s office at a military headquarters near downtown Tokyo. He gave a 10-minute speech from a balcony to a thousand assembled servicemen in which he urged them to overthrow Japan’s post-World War II constitution, which forbids war and Japanese rearmament. The soldiers’ response was unsympathetic, and Mishima then committed seppuku in the traditional manner, disemboweling himself with his sword, followed by decapitation at the hands of a follower. This shocking event aroused much speculation as to Mishima’s motives, and regret that his death had robbed the world of such a gifted writer.
 

 

 


Abe Kōbō


Abe Kōbō, pseudonym of Abe Kimifusa (b. March 7, 1924, Tokyo, Japan—d. Jan. 22, 1993, Tokyo), Japanese novelist and playwright noted for his use of bizarre and allegorical situations to underline the isolation of the individual.

He grew up in Mukden (now Shenyang), in Manchuria, where his father, a physician, taught at the medical college. In middle school his strongest subject was mathematics, but he was also interested in collecting insects and had begun to immerse himself in the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Edgar Allan Poe, and Lewis Carroll. Abe went to Japan in 1941 to attend high school. In 1943 he began studying medicine at the Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo), but he returned to Manchuria in 1945 without obtaining a degree. Repatriated to Japan in 1946, he was graduated in medicine in 1948 on condition that he never practice. By this time, however, he was deeply involved in literary activity. He published in 1947 at his own expense Mumei shishū (“Poems of an Unknown”), and in the following year his novel Owarishi michi no shirube ni (“The Road Sign at the End of the Street”), published commercially, was well received. In 1951 his short novel Kabe (“The Wall”) was awarded the Akutagawa Prize, establishing his reputation. In 1955 Abe wrote his first plays, beginning a long association with the theatre.

Since the early 1950s, Abe had been a member of the Japanese Communist Party, but his visit to eastern Europe in 1956 proved disillusioning. He attempted to leave the party in 1958 when the Soviet army invaded Hungary, but he was refused, only to be expelled in 1962. In that same year Suna no onna (The Woman in the Dunes), Abe’s most popular (and probably his best) novel, was published to general acclaim. It was made into an internationally successful film in 1964.

From the mid-1960s his works were regularly translated on both sides of the Iron Curtain. They include Daiyon kampyōki (1959; Inter Ice Age 4), Tanin no kao (1964; The Face of Another), Moetsukita chizu (1967; The Ruined Map), Hako otoko (1973; The Box Man), Mikkai (1977; Secret Rendezvous), Hakobune Sakura-maru (1984; The Ark Sakura), and Kangarū nōto (1991; Kangaroo Notebook). Beyond the Curve, a translation into English of short stories drawn from various periods of his career, was published in 1991.

Abe formed the Abe Kōbō Studio, a theatrical company, in 1973. He regularly wrote one or two plays a year for the company and served as its director. The best-known of his plays, Tomodachi (1967; Friends), was performed in the United States and France. In theatre, as well as in the novel, he stood for the avant-garde and experimental. Several of his most successful plays appear in Three Plays by Kōbō Abe (1993), translated into English by Donald Keene.
 

 

 


Ōe Kenzaburō




Ōe Kenzaburō, (b. Jan. 31, 1935, Ehime prefecture, Shikoku, Japan), Japanese novelist whose works express the disillusionment and rebellion of his post-World War II generation. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.

Ōe came from a family of wealthy landowners, who lost most of their property with the occupation-imposed land reform following the war. He entered the University of Tokyo in 1954, graduating in 1959, and the brilliance of his writing while he was still a student caused him to be hailed the most promising young writer since Mishima Yukio.

Ōe first attracted attention on the literary scene with Shisha no ogori (1957; Lavish Are the Dead), published in the magazine Bungakukai. His literary output was, however, uneven. His first novel, Memushiri kouchi (1958; Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids), was highly praised, and he won a major literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, for Shiiku (1958; The Catch). But his second novel, Warera no jidai (1959; “Our Age”), was poorly received, as his contemporaries felt that Ōe was becoming increasingly preoccupied with social and political criticism.

Ōe became deeply involved in the politics of the New Left. The murder in 1960 of Chairman Asanuma Inejirō of the Japanese Socialist Party by a right-wing youth inspired Ōe to write two short stories in 1961, “Sebuntin” (“Seventeen”) and “Seiji shōnen shisu,” the latter of which drew heavy criticism from right-wing organizations.

Married in 1960, Ōe entered a further stage of development in his writing when his son was born in 1963 with an abnormality of the skull. This event inspired his finest novel, Kojinteki-na taiken (1964; A Personal Matter), a darkly humorous account of a new father’s struggle to accept the birth of his brain-damaged child. A visit to Hiroshima resulted in the work Hiroshima nōto (1965; “Hiroshima Notes”), which deals with the survivors of the atomic bombing of that city. In the early 1970s Ōe’s writing, particularly his essays, reflected a growing concern for power politics in the nuclear age and with questions involving the Third World.

Ōe continued to investigate the problems of characters who feel alienated from establishment conformity and the materialism of postwar Japan’s consumer-oriented society. Among his later works were the novel Man’en gannen no futtōbōru (1967; The Silent Cry); a collection of short fiction entitled Warera no kyōki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo (1969; Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness); and the novels Pinchi rannā chōsho (1976; The Pinch Runner Memorandum) and Dōjidai gēmu (1979; “Coeval Games”). The novel Atarashii hito yo meza meyo (1983; “Awake, New Man”) is distinguished by a highly sophisticated literary technique and by the author’s frankness in personal confession; it concerns the growing up of a mentally retarded boy and the tension and anxiety he arouses in his family.
 

 

 


Murakami Haruki



 

Murakami Haruki, (b. Jan. 12, 1949, Kyōto, Japan), the most widely translated Japanese novelist of his generation.

Murakami’s first novel, Kaze no uta o kike (1979; Hear the Wind Sing), won a prize for best fiction by a new writer. From the start his writing was characterized by images and events that the author himself found difficult to explain but which seemed to come from the inner recesses of his memory. Some argued that this ambiguity, far from being off-putting, was one reason for his popularity with readers, especially young ones, who were bored with the self-confessions that formed the mainstream of contemporary Japanese literature. His perceived lack of a political or intellectual stance irritated “serious” authors (such as Ōe Kenzaburō), who dismissed his early writings as being no more than entertainment.

Murakami’s first major international success came with Hitsuji o meguru bōken (1982; A Wild Sheep Chase), a novel that acquires an eerie quality from the mysterious sheep that comes to possess the narrator’s friend, known as “the Rat.” The narrator and the Rat reappeared in Murakami’s next important novel, Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando (1985; Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), a fantasy that was successful with the public and won the prestigious Tanizaki Prize. Murakami adopted a more straightforward style for the coming-of-age novel Noruwei no mori (1987; Norwegian Wood), which sold millions of copies in Japan and firmly established him as a literary celebrity.

Disaffected by the social climate in Japan and by his growing fame, Murakami sojourned in Europe for several years in the late 1980s, and in 1991 he moved to the United States. While teaching at Princeton University (1991–93) and Tufts University (1993–95), Murakami wrote one of his most ambitious novels, Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru (1994–95; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). The narrative represents a departure from his usual themes: it is devoted in part to depicting Japanese militarism on the Asian continent as a nightmare.

In 1995 Murakami returned to Japan, prompted by the Kōbe earthquake and by the sarin gas attack carried out by the AUM Shinrikyo religious sect on a Tokyo subway. The two deadly events subsequently served as inspiration for his work. Andāguraundo (1997; Underground) is a nonfiction account of the subway attack, and Kami no kodomo-tachi wa mina odoru (2000; After the Quake) is a collection of six short stories that explores the psychological effects of the earthquake on residents of Japan.

The novel Supūtoniku no koibito (1999; Sputnik Sweetheart) probes the nature of love as it tells the story of the disappearance of Sumire, a young novelist. Subsequent novels include Umibe no Kafuka (2002; Kafka on the Shore) and Afutā dāku (2004; After Dark). 1Q84 (2009), its title a reference to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), shifts between two characters as they navigate an alternate reality of their own making; the book’s dystopian themes range from the September 11 attacks to vigilante justice.

The short-story collections The Elephant Vanishes (1993) and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2006) translate Murakami’s stories into English. His memoir, Hashiru koto ni tsuite kataru toki ni boku no kataru koto (2007; What I Talk About When I Talk About Running), centres on his love for marathon running. An experienced translator of American literature, Murakami also published editions in Japanese of works by Raymond Carver, Paul Theroux, Truman Capote, Ursula K. Le Guin, and J.D. Salinger.
 




The modern drama

The modern Japanese theatre had its origins in the translations and adaptations of Western plays at the end of the 19th century, when the public was still too much under the influence of Kabuki to appreciate plays without music or dance. The development of modern drama was also impeded, paradoxically, by the fact that Kabuki (unlike traditional fiction or poetry) was in good shape at the opening of the modern era. The plays of Kawatake Mokuami, composed both before and after the Meiji Restoration, made for exciting theatre, and no urgent need was felt for reform. Change did occur, but both traditional puppet and Kabuki theatres managed to survive the era of rapid modernization. Tsubouchi Shōyō, who translated the works of William Shakespeare, wrote several successful plays based on Japanese historical events that combined the structure and characterization of European plays with the acting techniques of Kabuki. It was left to novelists such as Mori Ōgai to attempt to create a theatre in the tradition of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen rather than that of Kabuki.

The development of modern drama was otherwise hampered by the introduction of motion pictures, which had a much greater appeal for the public. The successful playwrights of the 1910s and 1920s, such as Okamoto Kidō, wrote works that, although the products of a modern mind, preserved the traditional stage language and historical themes. Mayama Seika wrote both traditional and modern works, but even in his most traditional, such as his version of the classic Kabuki play cycle Chūshingura, the dramatist’s stance was that of a modern man.

The first truly modern playwright was probably Kishida Kunio, whose plays, with their contemporary settings, do not depend for their effects on elaborate scenery, music, or histrionics. Kishida was handicapped by the scarcity of actors capable of performing roles that gave them little opportunity for a grandiose display of emotions. Not until after World War II were modern dramas that were capable of moving an international audience written and competently staged. The plays of Mishima Yukio and Abe Kōbo were the first Japanese plays to be successfully performed abroad in many languages.



Modern poetry

At the beginning of the 20th century it was predicted that the traditional forms of Japanese poetry would be abandoned by poets who craved freedom in their choice of subjects and vocabulary and who did not wish their poems to be squeezed into 31 or 17 syllables. Masaoka Shiki conjectured, drawing on mathematics, that sooner or later it would become impossible to compose a new poem in the traditional forms. But the Japanese continued to find the short poem congenial: a momentary perception that would be diluted if expanded into several stanzas can be captured perfectly in a haiku, and, if the traditional forms are too short to narrate the poet’s emotions in detail, overtones can hint at depths beyond the words, just as traditional paintings suggest rather than state.

By no means did all poets “return” to traditional forms. Hagiwara Sakutarō wrote only free verse, and this was true of most other modern poets. Some poets were strongly affected by modern European and American poetry; during the postwar period a school of poetry that took its name from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land echoed Eliot at his gloomiest. Some poets used poetry for patriotic purposes during the Pacific campaigns of World War II or to express political views during the turbulent days following the defeat in 1945. But most Japanese who wrote modern poetry in the second half of the 20th century were closer to their counterparts in other countries than ever before, sharing their anxiety over the same crises and feeling the same intense need for love.

Donald Keene

 
 
 
 
 
 

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