A Short History of Japanese Literature, Part 6

Japanese Literature in the Taishô era (1912-1926) and early Shôwa era – the development of the pre-war novel

Let me begin this post with a quotation, because it cannot be better shortly described:

“Taisho is Japan’s Jazz Age. Can it be summed up in a phrase? It often is: ero-guro-nansensu — eroticism, grotesquerie, nonsense.

All three filled the air. Was Taisho, then, mere frivolity? To cite only the plainest evidence to the contrary: World War I; the 1918 Rice Riots; “Taisho Democracy;” the founding in 1922 of the Japan Communist Party; the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923; the granting of universal manhood suffrage in 1925; and the repressive Peace Preservation Law passed barely two months later … ” there is much turbulance in the Taishô era and the article of Michael Hoffmann is summing it up very well.


The  great earthquake of 1923  in the Kantô region around Tokyo was a disaster:  For many month the life of the metropolis was interrupted. The economy crashed and the effect was also felt in the publishing industry. The devastation had an impact on the literary scene as well. Authors moved from Tokyo to other cities and it took some time for new publications.

Literary magazines have been very important for the literary market in Japan. It has been usual  that authors publish their works serialized in newspapers or literary magazines. Many of the well-known books were published in this manner. In 1924 some new literary magazines came into life: for example bungei sensen (literary front) by the proletarian literary movement or bungei jidai (literary era) by Kawabata Yasunari and other authors forming the “neo-sensualistic” school.

In the 1920‘s many various literary genre came up. Although it is nearly impossible to use Western categories on Japanese literature one can speak of tendencies: A literary avantgarde arose, presenting a true unique style. Tanizaki Jun‘ichirô, Shiga Naoya and Akutagawa Ryûnosuke, Yasunari Kawabata and Nagai Kafû are to be mentioned as the most prominent representatives of this group. They all have been very influential writers of this time. These authors all have been famous from the very start of their writing career and can be seen as a role model for many Japanese authors.

Women writer

Women cannot be regarded as separated from the literary scene in Japan. They have been important as their male collegues. Tamura Toshiko 田村 俊子 (1884-1945) was a famous female writer, who published her stories in the literary magazine chuô kôron and shinchô regularly. She wrote about daily life, erotic aspects and relationship conflicts. Her novel Akirame (“Resignation”, 1911) won a literary prize early in her career. Nogami Yaeko 野上 弥生子(1885-1985) is more intellectual and individualistic and stands for the liberation of women in the 20’s and 30’s. She won many literary prizes after 1945. Hayashi Fumiko 林 芙美子 (1903-1951)  is very famous for her early novel Hôrôki (放浪記 Vagabond’s Diary) with autobiographical background.


(Photo: Hayashi Fumiko)

Many women writer promoted the women’s liberation movement in Japan and were connected with the proletarian and left-wing movement. In this context one has to mention Sata Ineko 佐多 稲子 (1904- 1998) and Hirabayashi Taiko 平林 たい子 (1905- 1972) as well. Miyamoto Yuriko 宮本 百合子 (1899-1951) was very engaged, she was active even after 1945 in the democratization process of Japan.

All have been praised for their work in and outside of Japan.
It is not possible to mention all Japanese authors, but only a selection of the most influential persons can be made in such a short overview. Of course there are many more Japanese authors to be read and write about in the future.

The Avantgarde

Tanizaki Jun‘ichirô 谷崎 潤一郎  (1886-1965)  is famous for his works characterized by aestheticism and erotic tales of strong women and sexual obsession. Tanizaki includes Western thoughts and Japanese tradition in his writings.

His career began as he founded the literary magazine Shinshichô (New Currents of Thought) with his co-authors in 1910. Here he published his first short story Shisei  (刺靑The Tatooer).

Tanizaki wrote mainly novels. Many of them were translated into other languages as Naomi (Chijin no ai 痴人の愛 , 1924/25), Some Prefer Nettles (Tade kuu mushi 蓼喰う蟲, 1928/29), The Makioka Sisters (Sasameyuki 細雪, 1943-1948) , The Key (Kagi 鍵, 1956) and Diary of a Mad Old Man  (Fûten rôjin nikki  瘋癲老人日記, 1960-1962), which are outstanding works.

Tanizaki also wrote an important essay about his aestheticism: In Praise of Shadows (In‘ei raisan 陰翳礼讃 , 1933/34).

From 1935 to 1965 he translated the Genji monogatari into modern Japanese and offered three different versions of it.


(Illustration: 我といふ人の心はたゝひとり われより外に知る人ハなし 潤一郎. “The heart of mine is only one, it cannot be known by anybody but myself.” Handwritten poem of Tanizaki Jun’ichirô approx. 1963).

Shiga Naoya 志賀 直哉 (1883 – 1971) is a unique Japanese writer, who founded the journal Shirakaba (White Birch). Influenced by Tolstoi he gives his own interpretations of humanism in his psychologically well observed novels of family conflicts, mostly narrated in the first person perspective (shi shôsestu – I novel) and with autobiographical subjects. His most praised novels are Wakai “Reconciliation” of 1917 and  A Dark Night’s Passing. (An’ya kôro 1921-19237). He wrote many short stories. A translation of some of them are published in the anthology: The Paper Door And Other Stories.

Akutagawa Ryunosuke 芥川龍之介 (1892-1927)

He was a publisher of the literary magazine Shinshichô (New Currents of Thought) in 1914.
His  short story Rashomon 羅生門 which he wrote in his student years is probably still nowadays the most famous of his works. The film of Kurosawa Akira 黒澤 明  is based on this and on Akutagawas “In A Grove” (Yabu no Naka 藪の中) .

209px-Rashomon_poster_2Akutagawa was a follower of the Japanese author Natsume Sôseki. In 1916 he wrote his story “The Nose” (Hana)  and became widely recognized for it. Apart from that he worked as an English-teacher and a journalist of the newspaper Ôsaka Manichi Shinbun.

Akutagawa was specialized in writing short stories of historical background giving a modern re-interpretation of for example the Konjaku monogatari. He was a brilliant author of many literary styles: he also wrote many essays and autobiographic notes. In his later life he became mentally ill and committed suicide at the age of 35.

Japanese original works are available on the Internet at aozora.

Rashômon and Seventeen Other Stories is a selection of his stories in English, and provides a good overview of his works.

Kawabata Yasunari  川端 康成 (1899- 1972) re-established the literary magazine Shinshichô (New Currents of Thought) in 1914 and was the  co-founder of the magazine bungei jidai (“The Artistic Age”).

Kawabata was the son of a physician, but became unfortunately an orphan early in his life. At the age of 18 he moved to Tokyo, where he studied English and Japanese literature. His writings stand for sensualism, strong lyricism and high aestheticism.

His literary magazine represents a platform of literary experiments for Japanese authors. Kawabata first wrote many short stories which he called Palm-of-the-Hand Stories (tenoshira no shôsetsu 掌の小説). In 1926 he came up with his first novel The Dancing Girl of Izu (Izu no odoriko 伊豆の踊子). His famous novel  Snow Country (Yukiguni 雪国) was serialized from 1935 to 1947.

In his later years he worked on The Master of Go (Meijin 名人),  Thousand Cranes (Sembazuru 千羽鶴, 1956), The Sound of the Mountain  (Yama no oto 山の音, 1969),  The House of the Sleeping Beauties (眠れる美女 Nemureru bijo) and many others.
He was president of P.E.N. in Japan from 1948 to 1965. In 1968 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature as the first Japanese author.

Matsuei(This picture shows Matsuei of Yuzawa, a geisha. She inspired Kawabata to write his famous novel  Snow Country)

Nagai Kafu 永井 荷風 (1879- 1959)

Nagai Kafû was the son of a high official and business man. His first short story was Sudare no tsuki (Moon behind the Bamboo grove) in 1898. His work was highly influenced by Guy de Maupassant and Émile Zola. He spent the year 1903 in the United States and 1907 in France as a student of literature. He became famous of his Amerika monogatari in 1908 and Furansu monogatari in 1909. After his return to Japan he became a professor for literature in Tokyo.
His work is regarded as aesthetic and associated with realism. His most famous novels are Sumida River (Sumidagawa すみだ川) of 1909, Geisha in Rivalry (Udekurabe 腕くらべ 1916/17) and  A Strange Tale from East of the River (Bokutô kitan 濹東綺譚 1937).

Until 1932 many authors made experiments with surrealism and expressionism. The rise of nationalism in the 1930‘s, censorship and prosecution as  the effect of imperialism and war policy nearly brought the literary scene to become silent. The official policy haunted liberals, democrats, proletarian and left-wing writers, put them into jail or intimidated intellectuals and free thinking minds. It took time until the end of the war after 1945 that there was a new beginning of a rich faceted Japanese literature.