See also Asian drama.
Although Japanese and Chinese are different languages, the Japanese borrowed and adapted Chinese ideographs early in the 8th cent. in order to render their spoken language in written form. Because Japanese is better suited to phonetic transcription, the result is a language of extremely complicated linguistic construction.
In 712 the new writing system was used in the compilation of orally preserved poems and stories into the Kojiki [records of ancient matters], an account of the divine creation of Japan and its imperial clan. Another historical work, the Nihon-shoki [chronicles of Japan] (721), was written in Chinese. The oldest anthology of Japanese verse, Manyoshu [collection of a myriad leaves] (760), contains about 4,500 poems, many from much earlier times. A number of the poems in this collection are more varied in form and more passionate in statement than those written in later eras.
The addition of two phonetic syllabaries (katakana and hiragana) during the Heian era (794-1185) opened the classic age, in which Japanese literature reached its first peak of development. Classical Chinese still predominated in intellectual literary circles and official court communications, yet literature in the native language, the only written medium permitted to educated women, gained increasing prestige. In his travel journal Tosa Nikki [Tosa diary] (936), the poet Ki no Tsurayuki assumed a female persona in order to write in Japanese.
Much Heian literature of note was written by aristocratic women, foremost among whom was Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki). Her Genji monogatari [tale of Genji] (early 11th cent.) is ranked with the world's greatest novels. Sei Shonagon, another contemporary court lady, wrote Makura no soshi [the pillow book], a compilation of miscellaneous notes and reflections that provides an excellent portrait of Heian aristocratic life, with its emphasis on elegance—always an important element of the Japanese aesthetic.
Ki no Tsurayuki was the leading spirit in the compilation of the Kokinwakashu [collection of ancient and modern verse], the first imperial anthology of Japanese poetry. This collection, which established the model for 21 subsequent imperial anthologies, contained some 1,100 poems organized by topic, written in the tanka form of 31 syllables. The Japanese have always esteemed poetry as the highest of literary arts, and poets regarded inclusion in a poetry anthology as a supreme honor.
In the subsequent medieval period (c.1200-1600), themes and concerns central to the newly ascendant warrior class took expression in such works as the Heike monogatari [tale of the Heike], an epic account of the struggle between two great clans that ended the Heian period. Much medieval poetry and prose is colored by Buddhist thought. The somber Hojoki [account of my hut] (c.1212) and the elegant Tsurezuregusa [essays in idleness] (1330), both written by Buddhist renunciants, exemplify the range of literary expression proceeding from a Buddhist sensibility. Buddhist tale literature, ranging from collections of short didactic lessons to lengthy narratives, was also widely produced. The most famous of these, the late Heian Konjaku monogatari shû [tales from past and present], consists of over 1,200 stories of tremendous variety and scope.
The medieval period witnessed the development of noh, a serious dramatic form combining dance, music, chanting, and mime, and kyogen, short comedies performed in interludes between noh plays. The greatest writers of noh plays were Kanami Kiyotsugu (1333-84) and his son Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), who developed the noh from its primitive origins to the highly purified and rigorous art form that later influenced such Western poets as W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. While the prestige and production of the tanka continued undiminished, renga, a linked verse form governed by elaborate conventions, composed by single or multiple poets, became popular in the latter half of the medieval period.
Otogi-zoshi, short prose fiction popular among a range of social classes, anticipated the broadening social base of literature that developed with the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603, when almost total cultural and physical isolation from other countries created economic conditions that led to a thriving culture of the bourgeoisie. Early Edo prose literature encompassed a diverse range of subjects: didactic tracts, travel guides, essays, satires, and picaresque fiction. Ihara Saikaku was the foremost master of this last form; his novel Koshoku ichidai onna [the life of an amorous woman] is an ironic look at a world of pleasure and eroticism.
The literary tastes of the bourgeoisie also contributed to the development of the kabuki and puppet (joruri; also known as bunraku) theaters. Plays by dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724), originally written for the puppet theater but adapted into kabuki performance as well, are important in world literature as the first mature tragedies written about the common man. Matsuo Basho, regarded as the greatest of haiku poets, brought the developing haiku, a 17-syllable poem, into full flower. Yosa Buson (1716-81) and Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) were also important haiku poets. Later Edo fiction, called gesaku, was mostly comic or satirical in nature, although it also included long Confucian didactic tales.
After the dramatic opening of Japan to the West in 1858, the flood of translations from Western literature that followed induced the Japanese to give prose fiction a new direction and psychological realism. Tsubouchi Shoyo (1859-1935) had a profound effect on the modern Japanese novel with his critical study Shosetsu-shinzui [the essence of the novel] (1885), in which he urged the use of colloquial speech rather than the rarefied literary language used by previous writers. Ukigumo [the drifting cloud] (1887-89), by Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909), was the first novel written in colloquial language. The "I novel," a type of personal semifictitious autobiography, was dominant for a time, followed by naturalist and proletarian novels.
Natsume Soseki and Mori Ogai were two major figures of early-20th-century fiction. Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) is known for his unusual stories based in part on earlier tale literature and folklore. Japanese literature suffered a slump during World War II, when the government censored literary expression it considered contrary to the interests of the state. Nagai Kafu (1870-1959), with his talent for verbal portraiture, nevertheless remained a popular figure during this time.
The immense public demand for fiction in postwar Japan has been fed by the prolific output of its writers. Yasunari Kawabata, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, has been praised for the delicate aesthetic sensibility of his novels. Junichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, Kobo Abe, Fumiko Enchi, Shusaku Endo, Sawako Ariyoshi, and Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, are just a few of the modern Japanese writers who have attracted international admiration.
In their search to define a modern Japanese poetic voice, modern poets and dramatists have both revived old forms and created new means of expression. Akiko Yosano is known for the lushness and eroticism of her tanka; Sakutaro Hagiwara (1886-1942), for his deft incorporation of symbolism into the lyric mode; and Kotaro Takamura, for his free verse on a range of subjects. In modern drama, playwright Junji Kinoshita (b. 1914) borrowed elements from the Japanese folk tradition; Mishima wrote dramatic adaptations of noh plays and Japanese legends, while Minoru Betsuyaku (b. 1937), Makoto Sato (b. 1943), and others pioneered underground theater in the late 1960s.
Although modern Japanese poetry and drama have not received as much attention from the West as have novels and short stories, Japanese literature is recognized as a major branch of world literature, and most major works are available in English translation.
See R. Brower and E. Miner, Japanese Court Poetry (1961); D. Keene, World within Walls (1976) and Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era (1984); T. Takaya, Modern Japanese Drama (1979); E. Miner et al., ed., The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature (1985); Ooka and Fitzsimmons, ed., A Play of Mirrors: Eight Major Poets of Modern Japan (1987); H. C. McCullough, Classical Japanese Prose (1990); S. D. Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry (1991).
The 10th century Japanese narrative, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, can be considered an early example of proto-science fiction. The protagonist of the story, Kaguya-hime, is a princess from the Moon who is sent to Earth for safety during a celestial war, and is found and raised by a bamboo cutter in Japan. She is later taken back to the Moon by her real extraterrestrial family. A manuscript illustration depicts a disc-shaped flying object similar to to a flying saucer.
In this time the imperial court patronized the poets, most of whom were courtiers or ladies-in-waiting. Editing anthologies of poetry was a national pastime. Reflecting the aristocratic atmosphere, the poetry was elegant and sophisticated and expressed emotions in a rhetorical style.
Many genres of literature made their début during the Edo Period, helped by a rising literacy rate among the growing population of townspeople, as well as the development of lending libraries. Although there was a minor Western influence trickling into the country from the Dutch settlement at Nagasaki, it was the importation of Chinese vernacular fiction that proved the greatest outside influence on the development of Early Modern Japanese fiction. Ihara Saikaku might be said to have given birth to the modern consciousness of the novel in Japan, mixing vernacular dialogue into his humorous and cautionary tales of the pleasure quarters. Jippensha Ikku wrote Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige, which is a mix of travelogue and comedy. Tsuga Teisho, Takebe Ayatari, and Okajima Kanzan were instrumental in developing the yomihon, which were historical romances almost entirely in prose, influenced by Chinese vernacular novels such as Three Kingdoms and Shui hu zhuan. Two yomihon masterpieces were written by Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu monogatari and Harusame monogatari. Kyokutei Bakin wrote the extremely popular fantasy/historical romance Nansō Satomi Hakkenden (南総里見八犬伝) in addition to other yomihon. Santō Kyōden wrote yomihon mostly set in the gay quarters until the Kansei edicts banned such works, and he turned to comedic kibyōshi. Genres included horror, crime stories, morality stories, comedy, and pornography—often accompanied by colorful woodcut prints.
In the early Meiji era (1868–1880s), Fukuzawa Yukichi and Nakae Chomin authored Enlightenment literature, while pre-modern popular books depicted the quickly changing country. Then Realism was brought in by Tsubouchi Shoyo and Futabatei Shimei in the mid-Meiji (late 1880s–early 1890s) while the Classicism of Ozaki Koyo, Yamada Bimyo and Kōda Rohan gained popularity. Ichiyō Higuchi, a rare woman writer in this era, wrote short stories on powerless women of this age in a simple style in between literary and colloquial. Kyoka Izumi, a favored disciple of Ozaki, pursued a flowing and elegant style and wrote early novels such as The Operating Room (1895) in literary style and later ones including The Holy Man of Mount Koya (1900) in colloquial.
Romanticism was brought in by Mori Ōgai with his anthology of translated poems (1889) and carried to its height by Tōson Shimazaki etc. and magazines Myōjō and Bungaku-kai in early 1900s. Mori also wrote some modern novels including The Dancing Girl (1890), Wild Geese (1911), then later wrote historical novels. Natsume Sōseki, who is often compared with Mori Ōgai, wrote I Am a Cat (1905) with humor and satire, then depicted fresh and pure youth in Botchan (1906) and Sanshirô (1908). He eventually pursued transcendence of human emotions and egoism in his later works including Kokoro (1914) his last and unfinished novel Light and darkness (1916).
Shimazaki shifted from Romanticism to Naturalism which was established with his The Broken Commandment (1906) and Katai Tayama's Futon (1907). Naturalism hatched "I Novel" (Watakushi-shôsetu) that describes about the authors themselves and depicts their own mental states. Neo-romanticism came out of anti-naturalism and was led by Kafū Nagai, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, Kotaro Takamura, Hakushū Kitahara and so on in the early 1910s. Saneatsu Mushanokōji, Naoya Shiga and others founded a magazine Shirakaba in 1910. They shared a common characteristic, Humanism. Shiga's style was autobiographical and depicted states of his mind and sometimes classified as "I Novel" in this sense. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who was highly praised by Soseki, wrote short stories including Rashōmon (1915) with an intellectual and analytic attitude, and represented Neo-realism in the mid 1910s.
During the 1920s and early 1930s the proletarian literary movement, comprising such writers as Takiji Kobayashi, Denji Kuroshima, Yuriko Miyamoto, and Ineko Sata produced a politically radical literature depicting the harsh lives of workers, peasants, women, and other downtrodden members of society, and their struggles for change.
War-time Japan saw the début of several authors best known for the beauty of their language and their tales of love and sensuality, notably Jun'ichirō Tanizaki and Japan's first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Yasunari Kawabata, a master of psychological fiction. Ashihei Hino wrote lyrical bestsellers glorifying the war, while Tatsuzo Ishikawa attempted to publish a disturbingly realistic account of the advance on Nanjing. Writers who opposed the war include Denji Kuroshima, Mitsuharu Kaneko, Hideo Oguma, and Jun Ishikawa.
Prominent writers of the 1970s and 1980s were identified with intellectual and moral issues in their attempts to raise social and political consciousness. One of them, Kenzaburo Oe wrote his best-known work, A Personal Matter in 1964 and became Japan's second winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Mitsuaki Inoue had long been concerned with the atomic bomb and continued in the 1980s to write on problems of the nuclear age, while Shusaku Endo depicted the religious dilemma of the Kakure Kirishitan, Roman Catholics in feudal Japan, as a springboard to address spiritual problems. Yasushi Inoue also turned to the past in masterful historical novels of Inner Asia and ancient Japan, in order to portray present human fate.
Avant-garde writers, such as Kōbō Abe, who wrote fantastic novels such as Woman in the Dunes (1960), wanted to express the Japanese experience in modern terms without using either international styles or traditional conventions, developed new inner visions. Yoshikichi Furui tellingly related the lives of alienated urban dwellers coping with the minutiae of daily life, while the psychodramas within such daily life crises have been explored by a rising number of important women novelists. The 1988 Naoki Prize went to Shizuko Todo for Ripening Summer, a story capturing the complex psychology of modern women. Other award-winning stories at the end of the decade dealt with current issues of the elderly in hospitals, the recent past (Pure- Hearted Shopping District in Kōenji, Tokyo), and the life of a Meiji period ukiyo-e artist. In international literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, a native of Japan, had taken up residence in Britain and won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize.
Haruki Murakami is one of the most popular and controversial of today's Japanese authors. His genre-defying, humorous and surreal works have sparked fierce debates in Japan over whether they are true "literature" or simple pop-fiction: Kenzaburo Oe has been one of his harshest critics. Some of his best-known works include Norwegian Wood (1987) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994–1995). Another best-selling contemporary author is Banana Yoshimoto.
Although modern Japanese writers covered a wide variety of subjects, one particularly Japanese approach stressed their subjects' inner lives, widening the earlier novel's preoccupation with the narrator's consciousness. In Japanese fiction, plot development and action have often been of secondary interest to emotional issues. In keeping with the general trend toward reaffirming national characteristics, many old themes re-emerged, and some authors turned consciously to the past. Strikingly, Buddhist attitudes about the importance of knowing oneself and the poignant impermanence of things formed an undercurrent to sharp social criticism of this material age. There was a growing emphasis on women's roles, the Japanese persona in the modern world, and the malaise of common people lost in the complexities of urban culture.
Popular fiction, non-fiction, and children's literature all flourished in urban Japan in the 1980s. Many popular works fell between "pure literature" and pulp novels, including all sorts of historical serials, information-packed docudramas, science fiction, mysteries, detective fiction, business stories, war journals, and animal stories. Non-fiction covered everything from crime to politics. Although factual journalism predominated, many of these works were interpretive, reflecting a high degree of individualism. Children's works re-emerged in the 1950s, and the newer entrants into this field, many of them younger women, brought new vitality to it in the 1980s.
Manga (comic books) have penetrated almost every sector of the popular market. They include virtually every field of human interest, such as a multi volume high-school history of Japan and, for the adult market, a manga introduction to economics, and pornography. Manga represented between 20 and 30 percent of annual publications at the end of the 1980s, in sales of some ¥400 billion per year.