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Arts and Culture, Literature

Heike monogatari, Ukigumo, Kawabata Yasunari, Taira clan, Minamoto clan

Throughout most of their history, the Japanese people have written poetry and prose in both Chinese and Japanese. This section deals mainly with literature written in the Japanese language.

Japan’s earliest literary writings are simple poems found in the country’s oldest existing books, the Koji-ki (Records of Ancient Matters, 712) and the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720) of the early Nara period. The mid-Nara period witnessed the compilation of Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), an anthology of some 4,500 poems written in the 7th and 8th centuries. Courtiers wrote most of the poems in Manyoshu, the great majority of them in the 5-line, 31-syllable waka (or tanka) form. Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, the best known of the poets, also wrote in a longer form that makes up a small percentage of the poems in the anthology. Some of the poems are celebrations of public events, such as coronations and imperial hunts, but even at this early time Japanese poetry was primarily personal. Its two main subjects were the beauties of nature, especially as found in the changing seasons, and heterosexual romantic love.

During the Heian period, court poets, using the waka form exclusively, reduced the range of poetic topics. Proper subjects had to meet the poets’ ideal of courtliness (miyabi) and demonstrate a sensitivity to the fragile beauties of nature and the emotions of others, an aesthetic known as mono no aware. The Kokinshu (Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, begun in 905) set the standard for all future court poetry. Meanwhile, the invention of the kana syllabary (in which each symbol represents a syllable) enabled the Japanese to write freely in their own language for the first time. (Previously, most writing was in Chinese.) The invention of kana also stimulated the development of a prose literature. Court women took the lead in writing prose, using forms such as the fictional diary and the miscellany, a collection of jottings, anecdotes, lists, and the like. The two greatest Heian prose writings were the work of court women: Makura no soshi (Pillow Book), a miscellany by Sei Shonagon;, and Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji, 1010?) by Murasaki Shikibu, a lengthy novel evoking court life during the mid-Heian period.

The early Kamakura period saw the production of two great works of literature: Shin kokinshu (New Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, 1205?) and Hojoki (An Account of My Hut, 1212). Shin kokinshu, which ranks with Kokinshu as the finest of the court poetry anthologies, stresses achieving “depth” in verse through the application of aesthetic values such as yugen (mystery and depth). Hojoki describes the attempts of its author, former courtier and priest Kamo no Chomei, to divest himself of all but the most minimal material possessions to prepare himself, upon death, to enter the Pure Land paradise of the Amida Buddha.

The Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike, begun 1220?) recounts the story of the war between the Taira clan (also known as the Heike) and the Minamoto clan during the late 12th century. It ranks second only to the Tale of Genji among the great Japanese prose writings of premodern times. The tale evokes the lives of both the warrior and the courtier elites during the transition from the ancient courtly age to the feudal age. The product of more than a century and a half of textual development, Heike monogatari was not completed until the late 14th century.

One of the most important literary developments of the middle and late Muromachi period was linked verse poetry (renga). As the creative potential of the classical waka declined, linked verse gained great popularity. Renga masters, such as Sogi in the late 15th century, became famous not only for their poetry but also as traveling teachers who spread the linked verse method throughout the country.

In the Tokugawa period, townsmen living in the great cities produced most of Japan’s major literature. Haiku, consisting of just the first seventeen syllables of the waka, became a means for expressing emotional insights, or enlightenments, especially when composed by a master such as Basho. Even today, haiku enjoys enormous popularity in Japan, and over the years countless non-Japanese have tried their hands at composing haiku. The last years of the 17th century and the first years of the 18th century saw an epoch of cultural flourishing known as the Genroku period. Much of Genroku culture focused on the pleasure quarters of the great cities. Prose writer Saikaku gained fame for his stories about the affairs of the pleasure quarters, especially about courtesans and prostitutes and the merchants and samurai they entertained.

Although the modern age has seen important developments in poetry, the novel is the literary medium that has enjoyed the most artistic success. Since Futabatei Shimei published Ukigumo (The Drifting Cloud, 1887-1889), considered Japan’s first modern novel, Japanese writers have steadily gained international prominence. Inspired both by their native literary traditions and by writings in European languages, including English, French, German, and Russian, Japanese writers have created a corpus of fine novels. One of Japan’s most acclaimed novelists is Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, author of Sasameyuki (1943-1948; translated in English as The Makioka Sisters, 1957), a re-creation of the life of an Osaka family in the years just before World War II. Another is Kawabata Yasunari, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. In his novels, Kawabata draws heavily on traditional Japanese literary styles, and his own style has been characterized as haiku-like. Prominent late 20th-century writers include Oe Kenzaburo, the second Japanese recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, and Abe Kobo.

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