Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
If you would like to contribute to this compendium please submit your ideas here.
All will be considered for publication by our expert panel.
  • Share

    Three books written by English speaking non-Japanese female writers have had a massive impact on creative writing in Japan[UPDATED: 3-11-2018]

    According to industry experts and academics, the three most important books in Japanese publishing history written by non-Japanese women are: Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte; Anne of Green Gables, by LM Montgomery and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. 

    After a false start in Japan’s Meiji Period (1868-1912), the Brontes’ complete works including Jane Eyre, by Emily’s sister Charlotte, and Wuthering Heights were published in translation in the 1930s in Japan. Anne of Green Gables, was published in Japanese, as Anne of Red Hair, after the Second World War. 

    Anne’s literary ambitions, strong willed personality, and optimism struck a chord; as did the fact that, like many in post-war Japan, she was an orphan. 

    These books have led to Japanese spin-offs and adaptations, including manga and anime. And as has been the case outside Japan, have inspired new generations of authors and creative writers. For example, Takeo Kono (1926-2015), who won almost all of Japan’s major literature prizes; and Yuko Tsushima (1947-2016), author of Pregnant with a Fox, were both influenced by Emily and her sisters. 

    The Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood is a fan of Anne of Green Gables and wrote on the hundredth anniversary of its publication about the importance of the book, its impact on Japan and how the bestselling manga Sailor Moon is its descendant. 

    It is, however, still far too early to known how JK Rowling and Hermione Granger and her friends will inspire the next generation of creative writers in Japan, following the amazing success of the Harry Potter books and films in Japan.
    Three books written by English speaking non-Japanese female writers have had a massive impact on creative writing in Japan Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    David Bowie’s favourite novel by Yukio Mishima, an author he was fascinated by, was The Sailor Who Fell from Grace from the Sea[UPDATED: 2-28-2018]

    It is well known that David Bowie (1947-2016), the British singer songwriter and actor, was a fan of the Japanese author Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). He painted his portrait, included his name in the lyrics of at least one of his songs; and Yukio Mishima was one of only two Japanese writers included in Bowie’s list of his favourite 100 books, alongside Tadanori Yokoo, the artist and graphic designer sometimes described as Japan’s Andy Warhol. 

    Mishima’s novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace from the Sea (午後の曳航), published in 1963, was Bowie’s favourite. It tells the tale of a band of delinquent boys in a Yokohama suburb; who reject the adult world “as illusory, hypocritical and sentimental”, and train themselves in “a brutal callousness they call objectivity.” When the Westernised mother of one of them begins an affair with a ship’s officer, Ryuji, the friends initially idealize the sailor; but subsequently decide that he is in fact soft and romantic, a betrayal that requires a violent response. 

    The novel was made into a film, directed by Lewis John Carlino in 1979 after Mishima, who was no doubt the most famous Japanese man of his generation internationally and perhaps the most famous that had ever lived at that point in time, committed suicide in a highly stage-managed public manner, instantly making him notorious worldwide.  
    David Bowie’s favourite novel by Yukio Mishima, an author he was fascinated by, was The Sailor Who Fell from Grace from the Sea Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Many of Japan’s most interesting creative writers cite ‘No Longer Human’ by Osamu Dazai as their favourite book or one that had a huge influence on them[UPDATED: 2-27-2018]

    According to Fuminori Nakamura, one of the most exciting new generation of Japanese authors, his only escape when he was young was reading, and the one book that really resonated for him, was No Longer Human (Ningen shikkaku), by Osamu Dazai (1909-1948). 

    Many other leading Japanese authors say something similar when asked about influential books or authors. The multi-award winning author Shusuke Michio, for instance admits that is No Longer Human was the first novel he read after his “bookworm girlfriend” in high school gave him a copy changing the course of his life. Up until that point he had been more interested in music and being in a band than books. 

    Dazai is an author who seems to fascinate many of Japan’s commercially successful and brilliantly creative male contemporary writers. They seem to find echoes of themselves in him and this novel in particular about a reclusive young man who feels “disqualified from being human” but finds solace in literature. 

    Ryu Murakami, author of Tokyo Decadence and Coin Locker Babies, who is from an older generation than Michio and Nakamura, is another example of a high profile award-winning author who has been influenced by Dazai. Reviewers have described him as: “Dazai’s true spiritual heir: a worldly, unshockable writer whose natural milieu lurks in the degeneracy of the world around him”, a moniker that he would no doubt be delighted by.  
    Many of Japan’s most interesting creative writers cite ‘No Longer Human’ by Osamu Dazai as their favourite book or one that had a huge influence on them Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Mishima, who was only active as a writer for 21 years after the publication of his first major novel, managed to write 40 novels, 18 plays and numerous essays during his short life[UPDATED: 2-27-2018]

    Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) wrote 40 novels, 18 plays, 20 books of short stories, books of essays, hundreds of poems, as well as plays and film scripts before he died age 45, two months before his birthday. 

    His first full-length major novel Confessions of a Mask, was published in 1949. It quickly established him as a major literary talent and the wunderkind of his generation – allowing him to quit his job and concentrate full-time on his creative writing. The novel was translated into English by Meredith Weatherby in the 1950s. 

    According to his publisher’s website: “From then until his death he continued to publish novels, short stories, and plays each year. His crowning achievement, the Sea of Fertility tetralogy—which contains the novels Spring Snow (1969), Runaway Horses (1969), The Temple of Dawn (1970), and The Decay of the Angel (1971)—is considered one of the definitive works of twentieth-century Japanese fiction”. 

    Mishima was a natural writer, and amazingly prolific. Writing came easily to him. He was very disciplined and apparently never knowingly missed a deadline. He courted international editors, publishers and translators and could not understand why it took so long for his works to be translated and published. He wrote every night until dawn. 

    In 1970, the day after completing the last novel in the Fertility series and submitting his manuscript to his Japanese publisher, Mishima famously committed suicide in a highly stage-managed public manner. It was a spectacular performance like death that attracted worldwide attention instantly making; Mishima the man, the author, as well as his more than 100 literary works, a topic of fascination and study by academics and biographers.
    Mishima, who was only active as a writer for 21 years after the publication of his first major novel, managed to write 40 novels, 18 plays and numerous essays during his short life Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Some believe that the origin of one of Japan’s four alphabets, Katakana, is ancient Hebrew[UPDATED: 2-27-2018]

    Japanese uses multiple syllabary (alphabets) and has a special phonetic alphabet for foreign words: katakana, which has helped it manage the impact of foreign words entering its language. It is used for loanwords that enter the Japanese language, such as beer. The other alphabets used are Kanji, Hiragana and Romaji

    Some believe that katakanas origins are ancient Hebrew as there is some similarity between some of the letters, which are also pronounced in a similar manner, such as the letter Ka and Kaph for instance. 

    These similarities are often cited as evidence by proponents of the theory that one of the lost 10 tribes of Israel ended up in Japan. Books have been published in English on the topic and Japanese television programmes have also explored the subject. 

    However, most academics believe that katakana is in fact based on Kanji (Chinese characters) and was developed over a thousand years ago in Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185) by Japanese monks to annotate Chinese texts – mostly Buddhist texts; so they could be read by Japanese readers. The alphabet subsequently became used for non-Chinese loanwords as Japan became exposed to other countries, languages and cultures.

    The so-called lost tribes of Israel reportedly started leaving and disappearing from Israel following the conquest of its northern kingdom by the Assyrians in 721 BCE.  
    Some believe that the origin of one of Japan’s four alphabets, Katakana, is ancient Hebrew Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Haruki Murakami, who loves cats, ran a jazz bar and coffee shop called Peter Cat before making his debut as a writer[UPDATED: 2-26-2018]

    While studying at Waseda University in Tokyo Haruki Murakami, probably the best known contemporary Japanese writer in the English speaking world, met his wife Yoko, while working in a record store and set up a jazz bar and coffee shop called Peter Cat

    He and his wife ran Peter Cat together between 1974 and 1981. He published his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, in 1979. 

    Like the name of his jazz bar, cats also often feature prominently in some of his novels. He is on record as being a cat lover, like many other high profile Japanese authors, such as Kazufumi Shiraishi and Mitsuyo Kakuta. 

    Cats also play important roles in some of his best novels. Novels like The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleKafka on the Shore and a story titled: Town of Cats, included in IQ84, which was published in 2011. 

    Murakami’s books have been translated into more than 50 languages and have sold millions of copies in Japan and internationally.
    Haruki Murakami, who loves cats, ran a jazz bar and coffee shop called Peter Cat before making his debut as a writer Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Historically, many of Japan’s most creative authors started life as samurai[UPDATED: 2-25-2018]

    Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653-1725), author of Love Suicides at Somezaki who is considered to be Japan’s Shakespeare and Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), often said to be the greatest master of haiku, were both born into samurai families and grew up as samurai before switching to the pen or more accurately the ink brush. 

    During Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868) the military class learnt to read and even produce literature and were encouraged to do so; Chikamatsu and Basho are just two high profile examples. Unlike the West where the pen has often been said to mightier than the sword, in Japan people were encouraged to consider them as equal partners. In fact there is a Japanese expression for this 文武両道, bunbu-ryodo; roughly translated this means the way of sentences and warfare are equal, and highlights the importance of achieving some kind of balance in life. 

    Basho’s poetic travelogue, written hundreds of years ago, the Narrow Road to the North is still being read today and is now used to sell 100-day walking tours following the so-called ‘Basho Trail’ mimicking the poet’s pilgrimage route that winds through several of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. 

    The new era of samurai authorship that Basho was part of followed the arrival from Korea of movable type technology and the printing of the first Japanese book using the technology in 1593. Commercial publishing kicked off about a decade later in 1609, in Kyoto, at the start of the Edo Period, generating new career options for forward thinking samurai. 

    Edo, now known as Tokyo, also became a publishing centre with a growing market of readers to sell books to. The city grew in size becoming the world’s largest city with a population of a million by the 18th century, generating its own narratives and authors. 

    Until the middle of the 18th century most Japanese authors were from samurai backgrounds, but things began to change as literacy rates increased. Authors began selecting different target groups as readers; the warrior classes and intelligentsia, or the higher end of the emerging chonin (townspeople) class, the majority of who were merchants. The situation changed again during Japan’s Meiji Era (1868-1912) when the country rapidly modernised and opened up to the West. 

    However, the most famous true warrior samurai author is probably Musashi Miyamoto (1584-1645). He is primarily known in the West as the author of The Book of Five Rings. The book, which he wrote at the end of his life, is a guide to swordsmanship strategies. 

    Following an English translation by William Scott Wilson it became an essential business-strategy manual in the 1980s, when the Japanese economy was growing rapidly and Japanese influence was spreading worldwide. Unlike most Edo Period samurai authors who never drew their swords, Miyamoto very skilfully used his sword in battle and duals to kill opponents. 

    Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933) is another classic. Nitobe’s father was a retainer of a daimyo (warlord). Nitobe junior converted to Christianity and became a diplomat and international statesman and wrote his famous essay on samurai ethics in English in 1900. 

    The book, which was published in Japanese after its success in English, describes the sources of bushido (the way of the warrior) and the virtues most admired in Japan including self-control, duty and politeness. It had a major impact and influenced many including Former US President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who bought copies for his friends. 

    Despite his image and reputation Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), who killed himself with a sword in a very public manner using a painful traditional samurai methodology, was not technically from a samurai background. He was not in fact “born a samurai” as his father and grandfather were not from a samurai family.

    Mishima’s paternal grandmother (Natsu Nagai), who brought him up, however was. She was raised in an aristocratic household and could trace her linage back to one of the first Shoguns Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616), arguably Japan’s most important and influential samurai, through marriage.

    The Press Release announcing the award of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature to Kenzaburo Oe highlights his samurai background stating that he was “the scion of a prominent samurai family” from the Oe clan in Shikoku.
    Historically, many of Japan’s most creative authors started life as samurai Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    More than 50 Japanese authors have killed themselves since 1900[UPDATED: 2-23-2018]

    Research shows that at least 54 Japanese authors have committed suicide since 1900. This includes some of Japan’s most famous and highly regarded authors and one of its two Nobel prize winners, Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), as well as Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) after whom one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes is named. 

    Another very well known example is Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) who famously and publicly committed suicide. His spectacular death, age 45, in November two month before his birthday, made international news and confirmed his position as Japan’s most internationally famous individual and notorious author.

    Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) author of the novel No Longer Human, which alongside Dazai himself is often cited by contemporary male Japanese writers as their favorite book, also killed himself. Dazai, who attempted suicide several times from an early age, idolized Ryunosuke Akutagawa, whose death in 1927 had a very profound and terrible impact on him. 

    Sadly, Dazai’s own death in turn had a terrible impact on Hidemitsu Tanaka (1913-1949), the Olympic rower and novelist he mentored, who also killed himself. Tanaka wrote two Olympic related novels Orinposu no Kajitsu, The Fruit of Olympus, (1940) and Tantei Soshu, The Boat Rower, (1944). Tanaka killed himself at Dazai’s grave the year after Dazai’s death. 

    There is no doubt over how these four famous authors died, but Kawabata’s suicide is considered by some, including his wife, as accidental. His death and the circumstances were reported widely and internationally as suicide in publications such as The New York Times, for instance. 

    Kawabata helped Mishima at several important points in his life and the two were close. Kawabata officiated at Mishima’s funeral, which was attended by thousands. However, unlike Mishima, Kawabata was at the end for his career and in poor heath when he died on the 16 April 1972, 17 months after Mishima. 

    Other well known Japanese authors included in the list of more than 50 authors who reportedly killed themselves are Takeo Arishima (1878-1923), Tamaki Hara (1905-1951) Ashihei Hino (1907-1960) and Hisashi Nozawa (1960-2004). 

    Japan is often associated with suicide partly due to its Kamikaze pilots in the war and stories about famous Samurai warriors. However, it does, in fact have a higher suicide rate than many nations.

    According to OECD data, Japan’s suicide rate is 18.7 per 100,000 one of the world’s highest rates amongst the nations surveyed by the OECD, and about 60 percent higher than the world average, but behind South Korea, which has an even higher rate at 28.7.

    People often cite Japan’s long tradition of an ‘honourable suicide’ as one reason for the high rate and also the lack of the Christian concept of sin and suicide being one such sin.
    More than 50 Japanese authors have killed themselves since 1900 Posted by Richard Nathan