Japanese Literature - Japanese Language Guide

Written byIchika Yamamoto

The oldest literature works were created under the influence of the Chinese culture. Later on, the Japanese society tried to set itself against various aspects of the Chinese influence. A tendency to define the native cult Shintoism, is visible in the literature along with a tendency to describe oral creations and the formation of its own writing culture. This can be seen in the chronicles of Kojiki and Nihon shoki along with the most important book of poetry Manyoshu that have existed since the 7th century. The Manyoshu has served as a base to the traditional Japanese poetry.

Japanese literature blossomed between the 8th and 12th century. This period of time is called Heian period. This period corresponds to the time when the Japanese syllabic script was created. In poetry, 31 syllabic poems called “tanka” were the most widely used. The book Kokinwakashu dates back to the year 905 and contains 21 imperial collections; it was a very important work at that time.

Around the 9th and the 10th century, prose was developed and it was called monogatari (telling). The monumental novel Genji monogatari written by S. Murasaki (at beginning of the 11th century) is an amazing work of Japanese literature. The novel shows a very real reflexion of life in the court society and it is characterized for having psychological descriptions of its figures.

The Japanese prose was not appreciated as much as the scholastic essays written in Chinese. For that reason, mostly women are authors of all important works of the period.

Heroic epic was developed during the 11th to the 17th century. Epic stories displayed wars among powerful families. The most important one is Heike monogatari.

The bourgeoisie has influenced literature progressively through the 17th to the 19th century. Prose of the 17th century was developed as stories presented in illustrated notebooks and sometimes it contained erotic themes. The best writer of the genre was Ihara Saikaku who wrote novels based on erotic topics and on stories of common citizens.

In regard to poetry, a poet named Matsuo Basho created a new poetic form called “haiku” that represented better the minds of that time. The haiku became a main form of poetry that has been used until today.

Notebooks stories based on love, fantasy or satire were published in the 18th century.

A new kind of literature arose in the Meiji period (1868-1912). After 1868, Japan’s capitalistic development started up. Japanese literature opened itself to Western styles. The late 19th century was characterized by the influence of European romanticism whereas the early 20th century was affected by realism and naturalism that came from Zola’s style, but it still diverted from his style a lot. The literature language was substituted by the colloquial language. Japanese naturalism was characterized by the denying of fictive elements in literature and by an effort to sincerely describe won experiences and ideas. Authors that followed that kind of writing form absolutely identified themselves with the main hero and displayed a specific style of subjectivity. However, traditional and esthetical authors (Soseki Nacume, Rjunosuke Akutagawa or Djunychiro Tanizaki) protested against this nihilistic new style. Journalism, educational literature and translated literature were also formed during this period.

The early 20th century was also considered for having strong leftist influences in literature. The main representative was Takiji Kobayashi.

After the war, humanitarian authors got united into the Society of New Japanese Literature. Post war authors such as Hiroshi Noma, Haruo Umezaki, Shohei Ooka tried to describe horrific war experiences. Other original authors also appeared, for example, Kobo Abe or the most interesting person of contemporary Japanese writing, Kenzaburō Ōe

Japanese Poetry

After discovering poetry in the Tang Dynasty, Japan took hundreds of years to adjust this foreign talent to their own language and create the diverse native poetry they portray now in their literary tradition, which, most of the time, is divided between trying to revive their traditional ways and delving into experimental poetry.

Since the middle of the 19th century the major forms of Japanese poetry have been divided into Tanka (also known as Waka), Haiku and Shi. Two of their most renowned poets are Matsuo Basho and Monk Sougi.

Some of the most famous Japanese poets are mention hereby:

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Japanese Language Guide
Author: Ichika Yamamoto
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