Japanese literature developed primarily in the forms of fiction, poetry, the essay, and the drama. This development is usually divided into the Yamato, Heian, Kamakura-Muromachi, Edo, and modern periods; the first four are each named after the site of the main administrative center of Japan at the time.
(archaic times to late 8th century AD). Although no written literature existed before the 8th century, a large number of ballads, ritual prayers, myths, and legends were composed in the previous centuries. These compositions subsequently were recorded and are included in the Koji-ki (Records of Ancient Matters, 712), written largely in Japanese with Chinese characters, and the Nihon shoki (History Book of Ancient Japan, 720), written almost exclusively in Chinese. The earliest extant histories of Japan, these works explain the origin of the Japanese people, the formation of the Japanese state, and the essence of the national polity. Although both works contain much the same mythical and historical material, the Koji-ki is clearly intended for exclusive use by the Japanese, whereas the Nihon shoki, showing the influence of Chinese thought, is broader in scope. A lyric poetry developed from the early ballads included in these works that was collected in the first great Japanese anthology, the Manyo-shu (Anthology of a Myriad Leaves), compiled by the poet Otomo no Yakamochi after 759. In this anthology a primitive syllabary is used, known as manyo-gana, in which Chinese characters serve as phonetic symbols of syllables rather than of words. The two most important poetic forms in the anthology are the choka (long poem), consisting of alternate lines of five and seven syllables, followed by a final line of seven syllables to which is appended one or more hanka (envoys); and the tanka (short poem), consisting of 31 syllables, written in five lines according to a pattern of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables. The tanka became the preeminent Japanese verse form, maintaining its vitality until the modern period, whereas the choka soon waned in popularity. The foremost poet of the Manyo-shu is Kakinomoto Hitomaro (flourished about 680-710), who handled freely all forms of verse. The prevailing mood of the anthology is makoto (truth or sincerity), the full involvement of the person.
(late 8th-late 12th cent.). In the late 8th century the seat of government was shifted to Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto), and a new type of literature emerged among the aristocratic court society. The creation of the Japanese syllabaries in this century aided the development of prose fiction as well as of poetry. The Kokin-shu (Anthology of Ancient and Modern Poems, 905) clearly reflects the change in mood from that of personal sincerity, which characterized the previous period, to one of mono no aware, or empathy with the essence of things, a bond linking nature and human beings. The chief compiler, Ki Tsurayuki (died about 945), who provided the basis for Japanese poetics in his preface, was himself a poet of note, and his poems are included in the anthology. Most of the poems, however, are taken from earlier periods. Tsurayuki is noted also as the author of the Tosa-Diary (935; trans. 1912), the first example of an important Japanese genre, the literary diary. The work recounts his journey home to Kyoto from Tosa Province and includes moving references to his daughter's death there.
The literature of the early 10th century was either in the form of fairy tales such as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (trans. 1956), or of poem-tales such as the Ise monogatari (The Tales of Ise, c. 980). The greatest works of Heian literature appeared in the late 10th and early 11th centuries, notably Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji, c. 1010) by Murasaki Shikibu and Makura-no-soshi (The Pillow-Book) by Sei Shonagon, another woman of the court. The Tale of Genji, a detailed panoramic picture of Heian court life, may be considered the first important novel in world literature. It also includes many tanka written by the characters in various situations. The novel traces in 54 long chapters the life and loves of Prince Genji and Kaoru, his presumed son. It becomes increasingly profound toward the end, probably an indication that the author had perfected her mastery of the craft of fiction. The work of Murasaki Shikibu has frequently been translated into English; a translation by the American scholar Edward Seidensticker appeared in 1976. The Pillow-Book, the earlier of the two classic works, is a witty, often brilliant, collection of sketches revealing the more wordly aspect of the same court society. It was first translated by the English scholar Arthur Waley in 1928.
(late 12th-16th cent.). The collapse of the manorial system in Japan culminated in the defeat of the Taira clan by the Minamoto clan, who established the government in Kamakura in 1192. From the end of the 12th until the early 17th century Japan was in an almost constant state of warfare and turmoil. The dominant figures in Japanese society were the samurai, or warrior, who engaged in a life of action, and the Buddhist priest, who devoted his life primarily to contemplation. The finest of several imperial anthologies of poetry, the Shin kokin-shu (New Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, 1205?), commissioned by former emperor Go-Toba and compiled by a committee that included Fujiwara Teika, reflects the change in national and literary mood to one of gloom and solitude. Japanese scholars use the term yugen (mystery and depth), which has definite religious overtones, to characterize the entire literature of this period. One of the major poets of this anthology is, significantly, a religious figure, the priest Saigyo. The defeat of the Taira by the Minamoto clan became the subject of the most famous prose piece of the period, the Heike monogatari (The Tales of the Taira Clan, c. 1220), by an anonymous author. The Ten Foot Square Hut (1212; trans. 1928) by another priest, Kamo Chomei, contrasts the vanity of the world with the virtues of Buddhist contemplation. Diary of the Waning Moon (1277; trans. 1951) is a literary diary compiled by a nun, Abutsu, consisting of prose and poetry, the latter sections being of greater importance. Essays in Idleness (1340; trans. 1967) by Kenko Yoshida is reminiscent of The Pillow-Book but more melancholy in mood, undoubtedly reflecting regret at the disturbances of the times. The major type of fiction of this era was the otogizoshi, collections of popular short stories by unknown authors.
The foremost poetic development in the period after the early 14th century was the creation of the renga, or linked verse, a form circumscribed by many regulations. Three or more poets would cooperate in composing one long poem, consisting of alternate verses, one containing lines of seven, five, and seven syllables and the other two lines of seven syllables each. The greatest masters of this form, Sogi, Shohaku, and Socho, together composed the famous Minase sangin (Three Poets at Minase) in 1488.
(1603-1867). With the establishment of peace in 1603 under the Tokugawa clan, which had its seat of government in Edo (present-day Tokyo), commerce flourished and towns developed, producing a merchant class that soon created its own literature, a bawdy, worldly fiction radically different in character from the literature of the preceding period. The most important figure of the period was Ihara Saikaku, whose Life of an Amorous Man (1682; trans. 1964) is a brilliant work of fiction full of humor and wit, presenting a panoramic view of the sensual life of mercantile society. Many writers imitated Saikaku in the 18th century, but none equaled his achievements. The 19th century brought into prominence an important, if somewhat limited, writer of fiction, Jippensha Ikku (circa 1765-1831). He is the author of Hizakurige (1802-22; trans. 1929), which is a delightful picaresque work that relates the misadventures of two scamps.
The haiku, a poem in 17 syllables, was perfected in this period. Possibly the greatest Japanese aesthetic achievement in literature, it can be described as the distilled essence of poetry, and it reflects the influence of Zen, a form of Buddhism that prevailed in Japan at this time. Three poets are preeminent for their haiku. The first is the Zen Buddhist lay-priest Basho, who took excursions to remote regions, composing as the mood struck him, so that his poetry is set within travel accounts, the prose sections of which are also significant. He is revered as the greatest of Japanese poets for his sensitivity and profundity and is particularly noted for his Narrow Road Through the Deep North (1964; trans. 1966). The second is Yosa Buson, whose haiku express his experience as a painter. The third is Kobayashi Issa, a poet of humble origin, who drew his material from village life. Comic poetry, in a variety of forms, also flourished during the Edo period.
(1867 to the present). Throughout the modern period Japanese writers were influenced by other literatures, primarily those of the West, and they refashioned many foreign literary concepts and techniques in fiction and poetry.
The humorist Kanagaki Robunis a transitional figure who attempted vainly to adapt himself to the new age but basically adhered to the comic style of the Edo period. Translations from Western literature, at first primarily from works of British authors, gave impetus to the political novel, an interesting if not highly literary genre that prevailed throughout the 1880s. Kajin no kigu (Chance Meeting with Two Beauties), by Tokai Sanshi, is an extravagant and unintentionally humorous work tracing the travels and fortunes of a young Japanese politician. The critical work Shosetsu shinzui (The Essence of the Novel, 1885), by the writer Tsubouchi Shoyo, argues for a prose art grounded in realism, on the Western model. The next step forward in modernization was The Drifting Cloud (1887; trans. 1967) by Futabatei Shimei, the first serious novel in the colloquial language.
The Kenyusha (The Society of the Friends of the Inkstone), a student literary society founded by the novelist and poet Ozaki Koyo, became important in Japanese literary life after 1890. The society influenced the creation of a new literature that maintained traditional aesthetic values while incorporating Western techniques. A young writer so influenced, Higuchi Ichiyo, deftly traces the psychology of children and young lovers in a number of short stories. Her Growing Up (1896; trans. 1956) is generally considered her masterpiece.
French naturalistic fiction attracted young Japanese authors, who soon developed a naturalism of their own with less social content and far greater subjectivity. The leading figure in this naturalistic style is Shimazaki Toson, whose Hakai (The Breaking of the Commandment, 1906), describing the confession of an outcast youth, firmly established the movement. Two exceedingly important figures, Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki, stood aloof from this dominating French tradition. Ogai drew his inspiration primarily from German literature. He was active in writing poetry, drama, novels, and historical biography. Perhaps his best work of fiction is The Wild Geese (1911-13; trans. 1959), which examines with remarkable acuity the feelings of a girl who is forced to be the mistress of a usurer. Soseki was a scholar of English literature before he turned to imaginative writing. His monumental achievement in the psychological novel makes him unquestionably one of the greatest writers Japan has produced in modern times. In his works written between 1905 and his death in 1916 he created a fictional world that constitutes a ruthless indictment of modern egoism. His incomplete last work, Meian (Light and Darkness), is perhaps the only modern Japanese novel that in scope and depth resembles the achievement of the Russian masters.
In the period from 1910 to 1930 Akutagawa Ryunosuke, a disciple of Soseki, created a highly structured, polished short-story form that, in English translation, has found admirers throughout the world. "Rashomon" (1915), which was made into a motion picture, is one of his tales that was translated in Rashomon and Other Stories (1952).
The militarist domination of Japanese life in the 1930s largely stifled literature, although a few writers retreated into an uncontroversial aestheticism. Kawabata Yasunari, the recipient of the 1968 Nobel Prize for literature, and Tanizaki Junichiro are foremost among the authors who emerged from World War II to continue perfecting their craft. Their work is known to readers of English through the excellent translations by Edward Seidensticker of Kawabata's Snow Country (1935-47; trans. 1956) and Tanizaki's Some Prefer Nettles (1929; trans. 1955). Another of Japan's most highly regarded postwar writers, Mishima Yukio, wrote a number of novels, plays, and short stories concerning his despair over the Westernization of his country and his desire for a return to the nobler Japan of earlier times. Among his haunting works are his first novel, the partly autobiographical Confessions of a Mask (1949; trans. 1958), and his tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility (1970; trans. 1972-75), an epic story of modern Japan. The death-obsessed Mishima died by committing ritual hara-kiri.
Although poetry has been less important than fiction throughout the modern period, Masaoka Shiki deserves mention as the creator of modern forms of the tanka and haiku. Since the end of the 19th century a vigorous movement for the writing of poetry in the Western style has arisen, and several prominent poets have emerged in this genre.
In the period after World War II Japanese literature received a careful and sympathetic appraisal by several American scholars, foremost among them Donald Keene. Through their work of criticism and translation, Japanese literature has become recognized as a vital part of world literature.