Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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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
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    Some early pioneering 19th century experts on Japanese literature looked down on the creative merits of Japanese poetry and the nation’s poets[UPDATED: 6-17-2021]

    William George Aston (1864-1912) was an early pioneer in the fledgling fields of Japanese language study and Japanese history and literature. He was also a diplomat, and started his Japan related career as a student interpreter at the British Legation, as the British Embassy in Japan was known then, in 1864.

    This was just before the start of Japan’s Meiji Ear (1868-1912), a period of rapid modernisation during which Japan started opening up to the West. Very little was known about Japanese culture outside Japan at this time.

    Alongside Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) and Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850-1935), Aston was considered one of three major British 19th century Japanologists.

    He wrote several books including his 1869 A Short Grammar of the Japanese Spoken Language and was the first translator into English of Nihon Shoki, The Chronicles of Japan, one of Japan’s oldest books.

    Aston also published in 1899 a book titled A History of Japanese Literature, in which he writes:

    “A feature which strikingly distinguishes the Japanese poetic muse from that of western nations is a certain lack of imaginative power. The Japanese are slow to endow inanimate objects with life.”

    “Abstract words are comparatively few, and it does not occur to the Japanese poet (or painter) to represent Truth, Justice, and Faith, as comely damsels in flowing robes, or to make Love a chubby naked boy with wings and a bow and arrows.

    “It is not confined to poetry, or even literature, but it is profoundly characteristic of their whole mental attitude, showing itself in their grammar, which is sparing of personal pronouns; in their art, which has no school of portrait painting or monumental sculpture worth mentioning; in late and imperfect development of drama; and in their religious temper; with its strong bent towards rationalism, and its hazy recognition of a ruling personal power in the universe.

    “To their minds things happen, rather than are done; the tides of fate are far more real to them than the strong will and the endeavour which wrestles with them. The significance of this fact in regard to the moral and psychological development of these races may be left to others to determine. It is sufficient here to note its influence on the literature, and especially on poetry.”

    Perhaps these views reflect the times and the lack of existing Western scholarship in the field and access to a large number of existing works of Japanese poetry and literature in translation.

    It might also reflect the very notion of what a poem is, with the word in English originally meaning ‘composition in verse’ while the function of a Japanese poem is said to be the capture and recording of something observed, often fleeting, in prose that subsequently conjures up the imagination.

    Whatever the reasons, the next generation of Western commentators, in the 1920s for example, had different views with some arguing that the role nature played in Japanese literature, poetry and culture was special, and had a longer history of possessing such a pivotal position than in European countries, for example. 

    Some even writing that it (Japanese poetry) and haiku in particular had the “purity of a work of art, a work which rose at times to the height of the religious”.

    Some early pioneering 19th century experts on Japanese literature looked down on the creative merits of Japanese poetry and the nation’s poets Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s first ‘I-novels’ were written and published in 1906 and 1907[UPDATED: 6-3-2021]

    The I-novel also known as watakushi shosetsu, is a type of confessional autobiographical Japanese novel generally written in the first person.

    The very first ones are said to have been HakaiBroken Commandment by Toson Shimazaki (1872-1943) and Futon, The Quilt, by Katai Tayama (1872-1930), published in 1906 and 1907, respectively. 

    The genre, however, was only defined retrospectively after their publication and the term, I-novel (watakushi shostesu), did not in fact appear, according to historians, until 1920-21. Today the genre is known outside Japan in its broadest sense by the rather voguish term autofiction.

    Though an important and well-known genre within Japanese fiction, a clear definition still feels a little elusive. The genre falls broadly into two categories: confessional novels; and mental state novels, which focus on an author’s observations, attitudes and thoughts.

    One of the earliest essays to define the I-novel was published in 1925 by Koji Uno (1891-1961) Watakushi shostesu shiken, My personal View of the I-novel.

    According to Narrating the Self: Fictions of Japanese Modernity by Tomi Suzuki, some have tried to define the I-novel thematically, while others as a direct and faithful transcription or confession of an author’s personal life.

    Having said all this, there are some I-novels that have been written in the third person. But others deliberately avoid the use of the word, I, watakushi, in their prose.

    Interestingly, some Japanese authors decided that the best approach to becoming a successful and famous I-novel author was to live an odd or outrageous life, and then writing about it.

    A contemporary example of the genre is The Guest Cat by the poet Takashi Hiraide, which became a New York Times bestseller following its publication in English in 2014.

    This book, about a writer, his wife – a proofreader and a regular feline visitor, has now been published in at least 15 languages, and is sometimes translated from English as well as the original Japanese. 

    This is something that has perplexed the author who was aware that the English edition had used the word while he had consciously avoided the use of the Japanese word for I – watukushi in the original Japanese, making the novella, for him at least, an I-novel

    There is, in fact, a long tradition in Japan of writing about personal experiences and observations. It’s a tradition that goes back long before the very first I-novels appeared. One such publication is Essays in Idleness, written in 1330 by Kenko Yoshida (1284-1350).

    It is a collection of 243 short essays or notes written almost like a stream of consciousness that continues to captivate to this day. Indeed, it is still widely studied; and is considered one of the definitive books on Japanese aesthetics.

    Japan’s first ‘I-novels’ were written and published in 1906 and 1907 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The term ‘Atomic Bomb Literature’ came into wide use in the 1960s[UPDATED: 5-5-2021]

    The term Atomic Bomb Literature, Genbaku bungaku, only came into use in the 1960s despite international publishers including, for example, The New Yorker publishing special issues and books about the atomic bombs much earlier and Japanese survivors documenting and writing about their personal experiences. 

    In August 1946, The New Yorker published a sensational special issue written by John Hersey (1914-1993) on Hiroshima that immediately sold out. It was subsequently published in book format by Knopf and translated into many different languages selling in the millions. However, immediately after the Second World War, for at least a decade, most information about the damage caused by the two atomic bombs was censored. 

    The term, ‘Atomic Bomb Literature’ is now a widely used term by academics and its definition includes testimonials, historical, political, scientific, and journalistic works; as well as novels, poems, and plays. 

    There are several generations of atomic bomb writers and they are not exclusively Japanese or limited to works set in Hiroshima or Nagasaki or fiction or non-fiction that directly references the two cities that the two atomics bombs were dropped over in August 1945 or the survivors of the bombs known in Japan as hibakusha.

    The genre includes works such as Ray Bradbury’s (1920-2012) There will Come Soft Rains and Kamila Shamsie’s Burt Shadows, and some people go as far as to include some of the Godzilla films within its scope. 

    The most famous works, in the genre, by Japanese authors are probably Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse (1898-1993) and the manga Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa (1939-2012).

    Unsurprisingly, the atomic bombs influenced many Japanese writers in different ways including those who experienced or witnessed them personally as either adults or as children and those with no direct experience. 

    Japanese writers include early survivors such as the poet Tamiki Hara (1905-1951) who famously wrote: ‘as if the skin of the world around me was peeled off in an instant’ as well as the Nobel prize-winner Kenzaburo Oe who wrote Hiroshima Notes and also edited the collection The Crazy Iris and Other Stories published on the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

    The breadth and extent of the associated literature is now so broad that it has created opportunities for academics to study and write about the genre which has led to the publication of books such as Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and The Atomic Bomb by John Whittier Treat an academic based at Yale University, as well as many research papers by academics based in many different countries, not just the United States and Japan.

    And in 2020 a book by Lesley M.M. Blume, titled Fallout, that documents the making of John Hersey work Hiroshima, promoted by its publisher as “the Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter who revealed it to the world” was published on the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. 

    These days universities and colleges now even teach courses and modules on the genre such as Literature of World War II and the Atomic Bomb in Japan: History, Memory and Empire which is taught at Bowdoin College in Maine in the United States.

    This enduring exposure to the narratives of the bombs through A-bomb writers and the academics who study Atomic Bomb Literature is welcomed by many for creating living memories that will not be forgotten or lost with the passage of time.    
    The term ‘Atomic Bomb Literature’ came into wide use in the 1960s Posted by Richard Nathan