Japanese Literature

Literature is not a must-have knowledge for business people working with Japanese markets. However, for those seeking to become “specialists in Japan,” it wouldn’t hurt to read some of the important literary works from Japan.

Origin of Japanese Literature

Japanese literature stretches over a period of almost two millenniums of writing. Early works were very influenced by China and Chinese literature. Despite this heavy influence, Japan quickly developed its own style of literature. When Japan reopened its ports to Western trading in the 19th century, Western and Eastern literature began to strongly affect each other. This cultural influence is still seen today.

Ancient Literature (pre-8th Century)

We know little to nothing about Japanese literature in the earliest periods before the introduction of writing. The earliest works we know of were created in the Nara period. One example of these works is called Kojiki (712 C.E.). Kojiki is a partly legendary and partly accurate history of Japan. This work, along with the Nihongi (written a few decades later) is the earliest record of both Japanese history and Japanese mythology.

Japanese Classical Literature (8th Century – 12th Century)

Classical Japanese literature usually refers to the literature produced during the Heian Period. Some consider this period a golden era of art and literature. The Tale of Genji (early 11th century) by Murasaki Shikibu is considered the greatest fiction masterpiece from this period.  Other important works of this period include the Kokin Wakashu (905, waka anthology) and The Pillow Book (990’s).

Medieval Literature (13th Century – 16th Century)

The Tale of the Heike (1371) best represents this period of civil war and conflict in Japan. It is a story of the struggle between the Minamoto and Taira clans to control Japan at the end of the 12th century. Other important tales of the period include Kamo no Chōmei’s Hōjōki (1212) and Yoshida Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa (1331).

Early-Modern Literature (17th Century – mid-19th Century)

Literature of this time was written during the generally peaceful Edo Period. Many genres of literature were introduced during this period. This was helped by a growing literacy rate that reached over 90%. Matsuo Bashō, best known for Oku no Hosomichi (1702: a travel diary), became very popular at this time. He is considered one of the first and greatest masters of haiku poetry.

Modern literature (1868–1945)

When Japan opened to the rest of the world in the Meiji period, Japan was strongly influenced by western literary concepts. Enlightenment literature, realism, romanticism and naturalism were all established in Japan at this time. Writers such as Fukuzawa Yukichi, Mori Ōgai, Tōson Shimazaki and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (Japan’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature) dramatically changed literature for the country at this time.

Post-war literature

Japan’s defeat in World War II influenced Japanese literature in this era. Dazai Osamu’s novel The Setting Sun tells of a returning soldier from Manchukuo. The famous Mishima Yukio began writing in the post-war period. Popular fiction, non-fiction, and children’s literature all flourished in urban Japan in the 1980’s.  Most recently, manga (comic books) have been introduced and are becoming very trendy in Japan. It is the hope that manga is positively affecting modern literature by encouraging younger people to read.

Importance of Translation

After the second world war Japanese to English translations have grown steadily in both quality and volume. Consequently, much of the Japanese literature has become available to non-Japanese speakers.

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