A Short History of Japanese Literature. Part 2

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

The development of the Japanese writing system as a mix of Chinese characters (kanji 漢字) and two syllable systems, Hiragana ひらがな and Katakana カタカナ, was essential for a more genuine Japanese literature. Its foundation is to be seen in two streams:

1. At the court in Heiankyô, today Kyôto, the noble court ladies wrote diaries and tales about daily high nobility life with all nuances of romance, behavior and manners. The female authors first used a script called Man‘yogana as a device which helped them to read ideographic Chinese characters. This was the basis of the first Japanese syllable system, the Hiragana, which is an integral part of Japanese today.

It consists of 48 syllables. It is used as an alphabet and you can write Japanese without using the complex Chinese characters (kanji). Here you can see the transformation from a kanji to a Hiragana.


(source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hiragana_origin.jpg)

So the court ladies had now an easy tool to write and were eager to record everything which gave Japanese literature at court a boost.

The most important works are:

– The Genji monogatari 源氏物語 (The Tale of Genji) written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century. A monumental work telling the story of Prince Genji and his adventures, amorous affairs and court intrigues.


(Source http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Tosa_Mitsuoki_001.jpg)

Makura no sôshi 枕草子 (The Pillow Book) of Sei Shônagon. A diary of a noble court lady full of esprit.


2. Buddhist literature of this time was more open to an overall perspective of Japanese life and even integrated folktales as well, this is the Setsuwa bungaku 説話文学. The priests used the Chinese characters and helped themselves to read a text with another syllable system. This was the origin of the Katakana, still in use today.

Katakana origine

(source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Katakana_origine.svg)

Still Japanese men used Chinese in official documents related to politics and administration and in poetry as well. There was a very lively poetry- scene: Regularly poet contests called uta awase 歌合 were held at the court and was a popular form of entertainment of the nobility.


(source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Poetry_Match_Kanpyo.jpg)

In 905 the most important official anthology of poems of the Heian period was the Kôkin wakashû 古今和歌集 or short Kokinshû 古今集. It was written on behalf of the imperial order of the tennô.

In addition poems were an integral part of Japanese tales, the uta monogatari 歌物語.

Apart from that the Japanese have written many tales monogatari in this period, unfortunately only few are available today, only to mention two of the most famous:

The Taketori monogari 竹取物語 (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter).


(source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Tale_of_the_Bamboo_Cutter__Discovery_of_Princess_Kaguya.jpg)

The Ise monogatari 伊勢物語 (Tales of Ise).


(source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Journey_to_the_East_BM_1881.1210.0.332_n03.jpg)

Although there was a strong influence of the Chinese until the 9th century, the Japanese became focussing on Japanese tradition and the development of the above mentioned literary streams.

End of Part 2 — to be continued …

Next: Kamakura and Muromachi period: from 1185 to 1600 (middle ages) Part 3

4 thoughts on “A Short History of Japanese Literature. Part 2

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