Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    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
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    Banana Yoshimoto chose the pen name banana as it was gender neutral[UPDATED: 2-22-2018]

    Banana Yoshimoto, one of the most internationally recognised contemporary female Japanese writers established her career in 1988 with her debut novel Kitchen, which was nominated for various prizes, instantly putting her on Japan’s literary map. She wrote the novel while working as a waitress in a golf club. 

    She chose her pen name while at college before graduation choosing banana to replace her given name Mahoko as she liked banana flowers and thought the name was memorable, “cute”, and  “purposefully androgynous.” 

    She comes from a very creative family. Her father Taaki Yoshimoto (1924-2012) was a well-known poet and literary critic and her sister is a well-known cartoonist.
    Banana Yoshimoto chose the pen name banana as it was gender neutral Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Despite large number of crime fiction titles being written Japan has one of the world’s lowest homicide rates[UPDATED: 2-14-2018]

    Despite a large number of crime fiction titles or Suiri Shosetsu (Japanese detective fiction) being written and published each year, Japan has one of the world’s lowest homicide rates of 0.3 (the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants), according to the OECD. This compares with an OECD average of 4.1.
    Despite large number of crime fiction titles being written Japan has one of the world’s lowest homicide rates Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The two best-known living Japanese authors[UPDATED: 2-12-2018]

    Outside Japan, in most of the world, the two best-known living Japanese authors are probably currently Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto.

    Haruki Murakami published his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, in 1979, in the June issue of Gunzo, a Japanese literary magazine. Banana Yoshimoto’s first novel, Kitchen was published in Japan in 1988 and initially internationally in Italian. She has now been published in 36 different languages, while works Murakami have been translated into 50 languages.

    However, Keigo Higashino, the brilliant Japanese crime fiction writer, is the most famous and most read Japanese author in China, where he regularly heads the lists of bestselling authors. Currently, outside China and Japan he is much less well-known.  
    The two best-known living Japanese authors Posted by Richard Nathan
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    David Bowie was a Yukio Mishima fan, and painted his portrait in 1970[UPDATED: 2-8-2018]

    David Bowie (1947-2016), the British singer songwriter and actor, was a fan of the Japanese author Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), especially his novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace from the Sea, published in 1963.  

    The novel was made into a film, directed by Lewis John Carlino in 1979 after Mishima famously committed ritual suicide in a highly stage-managed public manner. The novel was listed amongst David Bowie’s favourite 100 books.  

    David Bowie, who also painted, painted a portrait of Yukio Mishima in 1977, which was exhibited at the “David Bowie” exhibition in 2014 at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin. The portrait was apparently hung on the wall of Bowie’s flat in Berlin. 

    Bowie also owned a sculpture of Mishima by the Scottish pop artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005). The sculpture was sold at auction for 47,500 pounds after Bowie’s death.

    In 2013, Bowie included Mishima’s name in the lyric of his song Heat from the album The Next Day, his first album in a decade and his penultimate one. “Then we saw Mishima’s dog, Trapped between the rocks, Blocking the waterfall, The songs of dust, The World would end, And night was always falling. The peacock in the snow”.

    Another interesting musical connection is the vocal version of the theme song composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Sylivian for the 1983 film, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, directed by Nagisa Oshima (1932-2013) starring Bowie. It is titled “Forbidden Colours” in reference to Mishima.


    David Bowie was a Yukio Mishima fan, and painted his portrait in 1970 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s creative industries inspired by its rich legacy of folk stories & tales of old[UPDATED: 6-24-2017]

    Japanese tales of old in their different versions have not only inspired and fueled science fiction, fantasy and other genre within Japanese literature, but other creative industries in Japan as well, including video game design. For instance, Pokemon (Pocket Monsters) draws on the rich world of mythical creatures found within Mukashibanashi (folk tales), as obviously does Yokai Watch, which is named after a class of monsters, supernatural beings and phantoms from these ancient stories.
    Japan’s creative industries inspired by its rich legacy of folk stories & tales of old Posted by Richard Nathan