A Short History of Japanese Literature. Part 3

Japanese Literature in the Kamakura and Muromachi Period: from 1185 to 1600 (Middle Ages)

Political rivalries and upheavals of clans brought great social and political changes to medieval Japan. The tennô and the court nobility lost their ruling power due to clan fightings. A military regime (bakufu 幕府) was established and the shôgun became the de facto ruler of the country. Japan was divided into many feudal territories (han). Kamakura became the capital from 1192 until 1333, far away from the imperial court in Kyôto. The tennô‘s role was now reduced to merely a puppet ruler. There were also harsh rivalries at the tennô-court itself, so that the tennô-family-line was temporarily split into two lines.

Culture and literature nearly limited to the nobility for a long time came under the influence of broader social groups; new themes and motives were invented.
As the court‘s influence in literature had vanished, the military nobility grew more important alongside the buddhist monks, as buddhism became more and more a Japanese religion of the masses.

New cultural developments are to be seen in new literary genres as follows:

The gunki monogatari – Military Tales

The gunki monogatari 軍記物語, were partly told on the streets and marketplaces in front of common people, who couldn‘t read or write. The samurai played an important role in literature, his virtues of power, courage and loyalty were praised.

A common literary motif was the transience and the acrimonious fate. Especially the Heike monogatari 平家物語 (The Tales of the Heike) is an important work of that time.


Travel Diaries and Poetry

When Kamakura had been the capital, many people had to travel to and fro Kyôto and Kamakura along the Tôkaidô 東海道.


Many places at this route were praised in poems and stories called uta makura. In addition many travel diaries were written.




A poem anthology, the Shin Kôkinwakashû 新古今和歌集 (New Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern) is to be mentioned as a praiseworthy literary work of this time.

Another outstanding work is the Tsurezuregusa 徒然草 (The Harvest of Leisure) by Yoshida Kenkô, an essay collection with new perspectives of old, mystical and imperfect motifs.

The traditional waka poem vanished slightly and the renga came into fashion due to its entertaining character as renga poems were created together in groups and now even with a broader social audience.

Theatre: and Kyôgen

theatre was invented under the influence of Zen Buddhism since the 14th century. A very lyrical performance as an expression of inner emotions rather than complex staging. It is mysterious, religious and symbolic.

Zo'Onna Noh mask

Kyôgen theatre is combined with Nô play and performed in between. It‘s comical character loosens the theatre scenes up. Enjoyment is it‘s aim.

End of Part 3 — to be continued …

Next: – Literature in the Edo period: 1600 to 1868 (pre-modern) Part 4

1 thought on “A Short History of Japanese Literature. Part 3

  1. Pingback: A Short History of Japanese Literature. Part 2 | Japan Kaleidoskop

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