Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    In the 1940s, studying medicine exempted individuals in Japan from being drafted as soldiers. It’s something that two of Japan’s most talented post-war storytellers did[UPDATED: 12-13-2022]

    Japan’s military conscription rules changed as the Second World War progressed. These changes included lowering the age that individuals had to reach before falling into scope for the Japanese wartime draft as well as the cancellation of university student deferments.

    Students who studied most subjects, including literature and the humanities, were drafted. Most ending up as soldiers, but some students were exempt such as students studying medicine. High school students were also mobilised to work in factories to help the war effort in its final years.

    This no doubt encouraged some literary types such as Kobo Abe (1924-1993), whose father was a doctor, to study medicine. In 1943 Abe entered Tokyo Imperial University Medical School, but after graduating he never actually practised clinical medicine.

    Many believe his wife, who was an artist and theatre designer and subsequently illustrated some of his books, was the inspiration and the main reason behind his decision to quit the medical profession shortly after he graduated from university and one year after they married in 1947.

    Abe went on to become one of Japan’s most renowned and respected authors as well as a favourite amongst Japanese creative types who have dubbed him ‘The Kafka of Japan’. His son, however, decided to return to the family tradition of becoming a practising doctor.

    Another brilliant Japanese storyteller who studied medicine in Japan in the 1940s and is known as ‘The Walt Disney of Japan‘, is Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989). He is probably Japan’s most famous animator and manga artist.

    Tezuka studied medicine at Osaka University from 1945. He also had a medical family background, and was already actively publishing stories as a student.

    Medical studies and the understanding of science, that Tezuka and Abe possessed, in particular the study of anatomy, had an impact on their storytelling. This is reflected most evidently in both of their robot-related narratives – a genre they were both pioneers within; and one that would eventually become something of a national obsession.

    Interestingly, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was also a trained clinician, and at one point ran a struggling medical practice in Hampshire, before making his name with his creations Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in 1887.

    Doyle just like Abe and Tezuka has had a major long term influence on publishing and storytelling trends in Japan, creating a cluster of ultra influential clinically-trained fiction writers, who have; alongside Akinari Ueda (1743-1809), an Edo Period (1603-1868) writer, a physician author and waka poet, famous for his spooky tale 
    Ugetsu Monogatari, Tales of Moonlight and Rain, helped change Japanese storytelling for the better.

    In the 1940s, studying medicine exempted individuals in Japan from being drafted as soldiers. It’s something that two of Japan’s most talented post-war storytellers did Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Yukio Mishima chose his pen name when he was just 16[UPDATED: 11-17-2022]

    Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), one of Japan’s most famous writers, chose his pen name when he was just 16.

    The discovery of a draft of his book Hana Zakari no Mori, The forest in full bloom, has his name, Kimitake Hiraoka, crossed out and the name Yukio Mishima written alongside it. This early draft was written when he was 16. Reportedly, he adopted this pseudonym to spare his father, a civil servant, any embarrassment. 

    The draft was found in Kumamoto in 2016. The forest in full bloom was published in 1941 in the literary journal Bungei Bunka.  

    Mishima, who was reportedly considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 and on at least two other occasions, committed suicide in 1970.
    Yukio Mishima chose his pen name when he was just 16 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    In 1968 the Japanese edition of ‘Playboy’ serialised a Yukio Mishima novel[UPDATED: 11-7-2022]

    Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) is known for many things including killing himself and being nominated multiple times for the Nobel Prize in Literature and never winning. In his short writing life (around 21 years), Mishima was highly prolific publishing 40 novels, translations including a translation of Alice in Wonderland and many plays. He also wrote for both highbrow and popular audiences.

    In 1968 the year Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) become the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mishima’s novel Life for Sale, Inochi urimasu, described by critics as ‘an exhilarating piece of quirky fiction’ was published in serial format, in 21 installments, in Weekly Playboy, a Japanese adult magazine.

    The work is an absurd and dark satire written in the style of a noire crime fiction thriller, sprinkled with some eroticism. Its lead character is an advertising copywriter, called Hanoi Yamada, who after attempting suicide puts his life up for sale.

    Weekly Playboy was launched in 1966 in Japan by the manga and magazine publishing house Shueisha, a sister company of Viz Media the largest US publisher of manga and graphic novels, and is still in print today.

    In addition to the photography, Weekly Playboy also publishes serialised fiction, which has a long tradition in Japan.

    Life for Sale was subsequently published in book format on Christmas day in 1968 and much later adapted for television in Japan, as a six episode drama by Amazon Prime. An English translation by Stephen Dodd was published in 2019.

    In 1968 the Japanese edition of ‘Playboy’ serialised a Yukio Mishima novel Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Essays in Idleness, written in the 14th century is considered one of the definitive books on Japanese aesthetics[UPDATED: 6-7-2022]

    Essays in Idleness, written in 1330, by the Buddhist monk Kenko Yoshida (1283-1352) is a collection of 243 short essays or notes written in a style which almost takes the form of a stream of consciousness. Some of these essays and notes are a few pages long, others just a few sentences.

    Essays in Idleness, Tsurezuregusa, is still widely studied and cited; and is considered one of the definitive books on Japanese aesthetics and the attitude towards life that articulates and explains the principle that ‘beauty is bound to be perishable’ as well as the impermanence of everything in life. The acceptance of which brings insight and happiness through the greater appreciation of what exists and what we already possess.

    A good example from this so-called ‘canon of Japanese aesthetic taste’ is: ‘Are we to look at cheery blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring – these are even more deeply moving.’

    It is hard to imagine a similar quirky poetic miscellany having such iconic status in some other countries or societies or perhaps emerging, for example, in a hardworking frugal Calvinist society were idleness is sometimes viewed as a sin and industriousness, as well as the work ethic, one of society’s most important virtues and a moral duty. Societies where at times much less importance has been placed on cultural pursuits such as art and music, and even literature as we know it today, despite as Kenko, who was a historical contemporary of the Italian author Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) famous for his depiction of hell, put it: ‘The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known.’  
    Essays in Idleness, written in the 14th century is considered one of the definitive books on Japanese aesthetics Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Long before the Internet magnified content about suicide, Japanese publishers and authors, including some of the nation’s most renowned, wrote about suicide helping the narrative of death proliferate[UPDATED: 5-4-2022]

    Japan is often associated with suicide partly due to its Kamikaze pilots in World War II and stories about famous and loyal Samurai warriors and their legacy-making honorable deaths.

    The Complete Manual of Suicide, Kanzen Jisatsu Manyuaru, by Wataru Tsurumi published in 1993 is, however, probably Japan’s best known and most successful book on the topic. The 198-page book, which details 11 categories of suicide from hanging to freezing, has sold more than a million copies. A publishing success that encouraged the author to issue an immediate follow-on second volume in 1994.

    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. As well as Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) whose very public suicide helped cement his reputation as Japan’s most notorious author around the world.

    That said, Japan 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.

    An estimated 800,000 people commit suicide annually worldwide. In 2020 in Japan, according to initial figures at pixel time from the country’s health ministry, there were 21,077 cases of suicide.

    So perhaps it is unsurprising that suicide is often portrayed in Japanese books, and popular media and often features as a plot motif in narrative fiction.

    Two of the internationally best-known living Japanese authors Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, amongst many other contemporary and historical Japanese storytellers, have featured deaths by suicide or attempted suicides in their works.

    Suicide features in Murakami’s breakthrough 1987 novel Norwegian Wood, Noruwei no Mori, a tale about loss, coming-of-age and sexuality. Toru’s the book’s somewhat aimless protagonist is haunted by the suicide of his best friend Kizuki. Yoshimoto’s 1994 novel Amrita, amurita, the title of which is sanskrit for immortality, also features a suicide connected to the protagonist. In its case the protagonist’s sister, a substance-abusing actress.

    Two other famous examples of suicide featuring works from two of the most renowned Japanese authors of the past include Natsume Soseki’s (1867-1916) Kokoro and No Longer Human, Ningen Shikkaku, by Osamu Dazai (1909-1948). The latter, published in 1948 is often cited by many of Japan’s most interesting and creative contemporary writers as their favourite book or one that had a huge influence on them. These two bestsellers top the nation’s book sales rankings.

    The number of such publications and author deaths has made this a topic of academic enquiry with research papers being written on the topic such as ‘The Portrayal of Suicide in Postmodern Japanese Literature and Popular Media Culture’.

    People often cite Japan’s long tradition of an ‘honourable suicide’ as one of the main reasons for the high rate and also the lack of the Christian concept of sin – suicide being one such sin. However, other important factors behind these tragic deaths include concerns over identity, the need to conform, self-sacrifice for others, marginalization, abuse, bullying, loneliness and disconnection, as well as economic concerns.

    Japan has regulations and policies to prevent suicide and the rate had been falling. Something that experts have put down to the improving economy after Japan’s so-called post-economic bubble lost decades, but the rate is now sadly back on the increase, especially amongst school children.

    The launch of the World Wide Web in 1989, four years before the publication of the bestseller The Complete Manual of Suicide, and the subsequent development of social media sites with the associated memes; as well as nefarious individuals that attract the attention of impressionable school children online and disseminate content about suicide, are no doubt factors in these dreadful numbers.

    Long before the Internet magnified content about suicide, Japanese publishers and authors, including some of the nation’s most renowned, wrote about suicide helping the narrative of death proliferate Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The Japanese poet Ishikawa Takuboku was Meiji Japan’s ‘Angry Young Man’[UPDATED: 4-4-2022]

    The Japanese poet Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912), famous for his modern free-style tanka, disliked the repressive and static atmosphere of the Meiji era (1868-1912). 

    The only son of a Buddhist priest, Takuboku was, according to historians, spoilt and arrogant, as well as highly precocious, and saw limited positive future outcomes for the individual or the nation, in the era’s political and intellectual climate. 

    In 1913 he wrote a famous, often cited essay, The Impasse of Our Age, Jidai Heisoku no Genjo, accusing naturalism and many other so-called ‘isms’ as inadequate, and some of his poetry reflects Japan’s changing society, as well as his own self-scorn and anger. 

    Takuboku has been called Japan’s Meiji Angry Young Man, and much else, including, for example, the first modern Japanese, a provincial romantic, as well as a shameless firebrand. But his poems are still enjoyed and cherished by many today. 

    His refusal to conform and his James Dean (1931-1955) like early death at the age of 26, has helped give him a cult like status in Japan.

    An example of one of his poems translated by Roger Pulvers is:

    FATHERS AND SONS

    Why is the air so thick between them?

    Apart in spirit when facing each other

    Close in absolute silence.

    The Japanese poet Ishikawa Takuboku was Meiji Japan’s ‘Angry Young Man’ Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Two famous Japanese authors and the grandson of another, after whom Japan’s most prestigious literary prize is named, attended the famous Beatles concert at the Budokan in 1966[UPDATED: 9-9-2021]

    In 1966 The Beatles gave a milestone concert at Japan’s martial arts arena the Budokan in Tokyo, cementing Japan’s fascination with and long lasting love of the British pop group.

    The Beatles were in fact the first such group to perform at the venue and a British diplomat described their arrival in the land of the rising sun as “the Beatles typhoon” that “swept the youth of Japan off their feet”.

    The concert and the live album (The Beatles at the Budokan, Tokyo) it spawned are famous. But what is less well known is that Japan’s most notorious author Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) attended the celebrated concert with Shusaku Endo (1913-1996), a highly regarded Christian writer, and Hiroshi Akutagawa (1920-1981), the grandson of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), after whom the Akutagawa Prize, one of Japan’s most important literary awards, is named.

    This unusual literary troupe, two of whom where in their 40s, were reportedly more interested in the cult-like hysteria of the fans and the “religious” euphoria of the event than the lyrics of the songs such as Day Tripper, Yesterday and Paperback Writer that were performed.

    Reportedly, Mishima was unimpressed and the experience of  the Fab Four and their noisy fans was not to elicit any kind of memorable or lasting literary response from this esteemed group of writers.

    The Beatles, in fact, played three concerts at the Budokan and still possessed the look of their early years with their ‘mop-top’ hairstyles. It was actually one of the last times the group were filmed with this early look and image, that like The Beatles themselves, Japan took to heart.

    It has been said that, despite what the three observers with their fine literary pedigree may have thought at the time, the concerts were an important cultural moment in Japan’s post-war renewal. Some go as far as arguing that it helped inspire and contribute to Japan’s extraordinary economic optimism and subsequent boom in the 1980s.

    What is indisputable is the cultural response. It was significant and can be observed by the number of tribute bands that have followed in the concerts’ wake.

    And many of Japan’s next generation of authors, often dubbed as the first generation of postmodern authors, count themselves as major Beatles fans. This includes the likes of Soji Shimada, one of Japan’s most famous mystery writers, who says he still dreams of singing a duet with Paul McCartney – but in a Tokyo karaoke parlour rather than on stage at the Budokan.

    Another author, Haruki Murakami titled his 1987 breakthrough novel, Norwegian Wood after the title of the Beatles track of the same name released in 1965 by the band as Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).

    And one of his recent works, a short story, which was adapted for film in 2021 is titled after another Beatles songs Drive My Car.

    Two famous Japanese authors and the grandson of another, after whom Japan’s most prestigious literary prize is named, attended the famous Beatles concert at the Budokan in 1966 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Cross-dressing and transgenderism were popular themes in late Edo Japanese literature[UPDATED: 8-9-2021]

    Japan’s Edo period began in 1603 and ended in 1868. It was a peaceful and prosperous period during which Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa Shoguns; was isolated from the world; and adhered to strict rigid social hierarchies, which were very much the order of the day.

    Edo, now known as Tokyo, became the nation’s capital and grew rapidly into the world’s largest city and a very dynamic one at that.  This growth was not incremental over centuries like Paris and London, but almost overnight, after the nation’s capital was moved from Kyoto.

    The inhabitants of Edo were a mix of samurai and commoners, estimated by historians to be a split of close to 50:50 with Samurai occupying about two thirds of the city and commoners crammed into the remaining third.

    Homosexuality was a feature amongst samurai for centuries and as the Edo period gained momentum and Edo grew, Japanese literature and publications began to reflect Edo’s new dynamics including androgyny, cross-dressing, bisexualism and transgendersim.

    Unlike the rigid social order itself, sexuality, mostly men’s, was more fluid and a popular theme in terms of both entertainment and reading.

    Hiraga Gennai (1728-1779), an inventor and author from a samurai background, wrote about homosexuality and gay life in Japan. His impact is still felt today in anime and light novels where characters, such as a cross-dressing lesbian in Ooku: The Inner Chambers for instance, are named after him.

    Gennai argued in his works that heterosexuality was actually more degenerate and dangerous than homosexual love, which was far superior.

    Another earlier example is The Great Mirror of Male Love, Nanshoku Okagami, by the poet Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693), published in 1687 a collection of homosexual stories part of the genre he invented know as the floating world genre of Japanese prose, yukiyo-zoshi.

    In the late Edo period some authors embraced these new trends about sexuality being fluid, ambiguous and not the least bit rigid like society itself.

    Two such authors included  Jippensha Ikku (1765-1831), Japan’s first professional author who generated enough royalties to live from and who was famous for his Kibyoshi, Yellow Books considered by some as the world’s first adult comic books – along with Kyokutei Bakin (1767-1848) famous for his Yomihon.

    They and others depicted cross-dressing, bisexualism, homoeroticism and transgendersim in their works. Unashamed sexuality and scatology, published as Shunga for example, were also popular and prominent.

    These and other examples such as the following facts: that Asia’s first gay magazine was launched in Japan in 1971; that Japanese officials handed out a novel with an important transgender character at the 1993 Tokyo G-7 summit by Banana Yoshimoto; and that the genre of manga known as Boys Love (BL) about romantic or sexual relationships between male characters generally written by women for women; as well as the pioneering romance author Nobuko Yoshiya (1896-1973) who lived openly as a lesbian, are often cited as so-called important or pioneering examples of Japan’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) related publishing.

    And Japanese authors are still not ignoring these themes today with novels such as Cross by the award-winning author Hiroka Yamashita, for example, being published. This work, which has echoes of Lou Reed’s famous song Walk on the Wilde Side about it is a tale of identity, cross-dressing and sexual fluidity.

    Cross-dressing and transgenderism were popular themes in late Edo Japanese literature Posted by Richard Nathan