Past Hokudai/Cast Entries

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Japanese Literature

Japanese Literature 
Beginning of Japanese literature
Originally, the early Japanese myths and legends were handed down orally because they didn’t have a writing system. In the 5th or 6th century, letters of Chinese origin were introduced into Japan. That’s why the earliest Japanese writers were greatly influenced by the Chinese.

The one of the most ancient works is the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), which was completed in 712, and, the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), which was completed eight years later. In both of these collections, many sections of history, myth, legend, and songs are written in Chinese. The oldest collection of waka poems is the Manyo-shu (Collection of  Myriad Leaves) written at the end of the Nara Era (710~784). It is a set of twenty volumes, and has 4,500 marvelous poems by various authors from poor peasants and soldiers to emperors. The styles of poetry are tanka or short poems. These poems are simple but, on the other hand, these are also vigorous, and can move us deeply.

Development of Japanese literature
In the Heian Era (794~1185), a kana system was invented by the Japanese. Writing stories using kana letters are easier than that of Chinese characters and could be described the scene minutely and the expression of feelings deeply. It was used by many women in the court. Thanks to the kana system, a lot of great literature such as Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) written by Murasaki Shikibu, and Makura no Soshi (The Pillow Book) written by Sei Shonagon were produced. Genji Monogatari is perhaps the best-known masterpiece of Japanese literature.

The oldest story using kana letters is Taketori Monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter), which was completed before the year 900. We don’t know who wrote this story, but this story is enjoyed by many people today. This story reads like fiction, and concludes myths and legends of ancient Japan. We can know the way of thinking at the time from this interesting story. 

In the early Kamakura Era (1185~1333), the Heike Monogatari was completed, which is one of the typical war chronicles in Japan. Mainly, these episodes were narrated by a Biwa Hoshi (A blind lute player). The chronicle gives a vivid description of the fight between Heike and Genji.

In the Edo Era (1603~1867), haiku was invented, which is a style of Japanese poem consisting of seventeen syllables. Basho Matsuo, who is considered to be the master of the haiku, worked hard to establish the haiku as art. He traveled in various parts of Japan with his pupil and composed many splendid haiku and wrote travelogues.

With the Meiji Era (1868~1912), Japanese society changed greatly. Westernization introduced the thought and culture of Europe was promoted and exerted a great influence on Japanese literature. Because of this, Japanese literature became more realistic. Also, various writing schools came into existence at that time. These schools at least influenced their works. In the Meiji Era, and the following Taisho (1912~1926) and Showa Eras (1926~1989), a large number of writers who we are proud of include Soseki Natsume, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and Osamu Dazai all of whom wrote outstanding novels. Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata won Japan’s first Nobel Prize for literature in 1968. At present, their works are given in textbooks used in school. These impress us and we can learn many lessons from such works.

Present-day of Japanese literature
Kenzaburo Oe, who won Japan’s second Nobel Prize for literature in 1994, and Haruki Murakami will become leaders in the present-day of Japanese literature. These days in Japan, popular literature like a detective novel and a historical novel is spread and enjoyed, compared to the polite literature (artistic literature). 

With the spread of the Internet and mobile phones, the style of literature is changing. For example, novels written by using mobile phones are getting popular among the young. The reasons are that reading such a novel is easy because of a plain style and mainly these novels are love stories, so they gain the sympathy of many people. These may not be the exact  Haruki Murakami’s masterpieces style of literature. However, these novels can be evaluated as a new style of literature.

How Japanese literature differs from American literature and Chinese literature
American literature was mainly shaped by the history of the nation. Many authors were known for writing the certain periods and events in the nation's history. Chinese literature is one of the major literary heritages of the world with an uninterrupted history of more than 3,000 years, dating back at least to the 14th century BC. The most famous in Japan is the Analects of Confucius. It’s the practical ethics that is in line with daily life. As has been mentioned, these works had a great effect on early Japanese literature and our way of thinking.

Future of Japanese literature
I believe the Japanese language is suited for the expression of sensitive feelings and the description of views and scenery. Japan also has much entertainment and amazing culture recognized in the world. Although many interesting books will be published one after another in the future, Japanese literature should develop without losing this style of language too much. I hope that new literature that fuses with these would be established.

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Mirai Sozo is the School of Future Learning at Hokuriku University. The primary focus is on language (English and Chinese) and management (hospital administration, sports, and business).
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