A Short History of Japanese Literature. Part 1

Introduction: Roots of Japanese Literature

Until the 60‘s of the 19th century Japans literature followed a very unique tradition. This is a result of the seclusion from any other country of Japan from 1600 to 1868. Apart from Chinese influences from the 5th to the 9th century Japanese literature is mostly untouched by foreign influences until then. It was meant for Japanese and mainly read by them.

The Japanese language, the Japanese writing system, the cultural background and the traditions were barriers too and made its appeal exotic until the middle of the 20th century.

The early folkloristic themes varied from tales of country, the old folks, climate and nature. The motives of the seasons are to be found in both prose and lyrics.

The special waka or tanka-lyric 和歌 with 31 syllables and the well-known haiku 俳句 with 17 syllables are unique.

Until modern times there is a tradition of „miniature“ literature: not too complicated structures or extraordinary plots, often there are autobiographical stories. Predominant is the literary genre of memoirs, the so-called nikki 日記 (diary) and the essay-writing 随筆 zuihitsu (essay).

In addition to that Japan has brought up many historical stories, which are called rekishi monogatari 歴史物語.

The development of Japanese literature is often divided into the following periods, but the Western classification given in brackets do not match exactly. Japans historical development is different from the Western historical system. Therefore it is only a light orientation:

Yamato period: from the 6th century to 794 (antiquity)
Heian period: from 794 to 1185 (classic)
Kamakura and Muromachi period: from 1185 to 1600 (middle ages)
Edo period: 1600 to 1868 (pre-modern)
– 1868 until today (modern)

Japanese literature in the  Yamato period: from the 6th century to 794 (antiquity)

In the beginning of the 7th century there was a shift from oral tradition to written literature due to the adaption of Chinese characters. The Chinese script was known only to few people like priests and administration officials, and mainly high-class court members.
As Nara became the central capital in 710 a steady cultural development was to be seen.

The oldest historical literary work is the Kojiki 古事記 (Record of Ancient Matters) of 712, this accumulates the story of origins of old Japan, myths, and oral folkloristic tales. The collection was meant to strengthen the reign of the tennô.

Ono-YasumaroOno Yasumaro- editor of the Kojiki. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ono-Yasumaro.jpg

Other more folkloristic tales are compiled in so-called fudoki 風土記,  which are provincial tales.

Harima_FudokiHarima Fudoki. Oldest Fudoki manuscript. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harima_Fudoki.jpg

The lyrical masterpiece of this period is the famous Man‘yôshû 万葉集,  (The Ten Thousand Leaves) a compilation of poems of mainly court-members dealing with love and nature. It is about true-heartedness, pure feeling and romantic that is all defined in the term makoto 誠.

End of Part 1 — to be continued …

Next: Japanese Literature in the Heian period: from 794 to 1185 (classic) Part 2

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