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

    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
  • Share

    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
  • Share

    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
  • Share

    Japan’s first ‘detective story’ was published in 1889[UPDATED: 5-4-2021]

    Ruiko Kuroiwa (1862-1913), who founded a newspaper and edited several others, is widely thought and cited as having written Japan’s first ‘detective story’, a classic whodunit style short story titled Muzan (In Cold Blood), nine years after the first modern Japanese short story, Dancing Girl, by Ogai Mori, was published in 1890. 

    That said, Japan actually has a much longer and very rich history of crime fiction, the broader genre that the sub-genre detective fiction falls within, which was defined only after highly influential Western-style detective fiction started spreading in Japan in translation.

    So much so that early Western visitors to Japan sometimes pontificated on its extent and corrupting influences as well as the fact that many of these Japanese books were “coarsely” illustrated. 

    Nonetheless, some academics also cite others works by Japanese authors published at a similar time to Kuroiwa’s short story as the first authentically Japanese ‘detective story’.

    Detective stories were known then and up until World War II in Japan as tantei shosetsu (detective books) after which they were renamed suiri shosetsu (reasoning books). 

    Kuroiwa was part of the new literary class that emerged in Japan’s Meiji Era (1868-1912), a period of rapid modernisation and change when Japan was opening up to Western influence after the resignation of the Shogun and more than two hundred years of self-imposed isolation.  

    Kuroiwa initially joined others in translating European books, such as Jules Verne’s (1828-1905) Le Voyage dans la lune, before penning Japan’s first detective story. He also translated The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells (1866-1946). He reportedly translated around 100 novels from French and English into Japanese.

    However, it was Taro Hirai (1894-1965), writing under the pen name Edogawa Rampo, who established the modern genre in Japan and popularized it by combing scientific method with Japanese sentiment, as well as the suspense-type narratives that had been popular in Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868) the period that preceded the Meiji Era.

    Several years after graduating from Wasada University, where subsequently many famous authors studied, Hirai published his debut work: The Two-Sen Copper Coin (二銭銅貨 Nisen doka) in 1923.

    Somewhat like Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) many years later after the Second World War, Hirai had the rare ability to bridge and blend the new rapidly urbanising Japan with the old Japan, helping readers of his generation deal with transitioning society through fiction.

    He was and is still highly influential and a prize (The Edogawa Rampo Prize) named after him has been awarded every year since 1955.
    Japan’s first ‘detective story’ was published in 1889 Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    The first professional Japanese author who generated enough literary earnings to live from was born in 1765[UPDATED: 4-21-2021]

    Jippensha Ikku (1765-1831) the prolific bestselling author and illustrator of titles such as the Shank’s Mare, a comic novel that follows two amiable scoundrels on a madcap road trip adventure along the great highway leading from Tokyo to Kyoto (Tokaido), was reportedly the first creative individual in Japan to be able to support himself on literary earnings alone. Shank’s Mare was published in instalments over many years. 

    As a young man at an early stage of his career, Ikku lived with Juzaburo Tsutaya (1750-1797), a highly innovative trendsetting publisher of woodblock prints in Edo, the world’s largest city at that time.

    Ikku, like many, was drawn to the city seeking opportunity and success. He was born in Shizoka. 

    His experience at Tsutaya’s residence helped him, after some earlier false starts, tremendously. He acknowledged that his time residing with Tsutaya allowed him to see Tsutaya in action close up, meet his connections and friends, and witness his approach to publishing. 

    Tsutaya was the publisher and distributor of many titles including the Yoshiwara saiken, a very popular guidebook to the Yoshiwara pleasure district in what is now Tokyo where prostitution was legal.

    All the different types of people Ikku met at Tsutaya’s house or through him and his guidebook helped Ikku develop his narratives and become one of the most commercially successful authors of his generation.

    The Shank’s Mare, which is still readable today, is available in English translation from Amazon.
    The first professional Japanese author who generated enough literary earnings to live from was born in 1765 Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    The first ‘modern Japanese short story’ was written by Ogai Mori and published in 1890[UPDATED: 4-21-2021]

    The modern short story in Japan was a Western import that arrived at the turn of the 20th century in the 1890s. It is hard to confirm what was the very first modern authentic Japanese short story, but academics often attribute this honor to Maihime (The Dancing Girl) by Ogai Mori (1862-1922). 

    The Dancing Girl is about the relationship between a dancer, Elise, and a Japanese exchange student in Germany who is forced to choose between love, and career and duty. The narrative is sometimes compared to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly with the roles reversed. The student decides to prioritize his career and leave Elise, alone and pregnant, and return to Japan from Berlin with tragic consequences. 

    Its very first sentence in the translation by Richard Bowring is: “They have finished loading the coal, and the tables here in the second-class saloon stand silent” and the short story ends “I also left some money to pay for the birth of the child that I had left in the womb of the poor mad girl. Friends like Aizawa Kenkichi are rare indeed, and yet to this very day there remains a part of me that curses him”. 

    The story, which is said to be partly autobiographical, was Mori’s first published work of fiction. It was written in 1890 and initially published in the relatively new and influential magazine Kokumin no Tomo (The Nation’s Friend), after he had spent 4 years in Germany between 1884 and 1888. 

    Mori and this short story helped modernize Japanese literature, not just introducing the new format, but also a new style of prose that included character development, psychology, and realism based on personal experience. 

    Mori, who came from a family of doctors, was influenced by both Shakespeare and Goethe, and this moving emotional short story featuring a long suffering woman and abandonment would have been a familiar narrative to Japanese readers at the time, but the added dimension of personal psychology highlighting the protagonist’s view of his actions, not just the actions themselves, was completely new. 

    Mori is probably best known today for his novel Gan (The Wild Geeese). Mori wrote two other novels: Seinen (Youth) and Kaijin (Ashes), which was unfinished. He is better known and regarded for his novella and short stories. 

    However, he also published translations including a Japanese translation of The Improvisatore (Sokkyo Shijin) the debut novel by Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), who is better known today for his children’s books. Andersen’s novel, like The Dancing Girl, was semi-autobiographical. It took Mori nine years to complete the translation. 

    Short-form fiction and prose existed in Japan before The Dancing Girl was published, but the styles and formats of the Edo Period (1603-1868) and earlier were very different. At the time of the publication of The Dancing Girl no Japanese term existed to describe the new format and the Japanese term for short story, as it is used today, Tanpen Shosetsu (literally short or brief edit novel), came into use for the first time. 

    The Dancing Girl is still influential and studied by students and academics today. As can been seen from this quote from the 2009 novel Real World, by the multi-award-winning crime writer Natsuo Kirino: “when we got to be seniors our Japanese teacher assigned us to write an essay on Ogai’s story The Dancing Girl.” An English translation of the section of her brilliant but disturbing novel including this quote can be read in The New York Times here

    A memorial museum was opened in Tokyo in 2012 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mori’s birth. Interestingly, his daughter Mari Mori (1903-1987) also became a well-known author and is credited with helping start her own new publishing trend and movement, novels about male homosexual passion written by women.
    The first ‘modern Japanese short story’ was written by Ogai Mori and published in 1890 Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Some Western commentators in the 1920s already thought that the place of nature in Japanese literature, poetry and culture was noteworthy and exceptional[UPDATED: 4-16-2021]

    Some Western commentators in the 1920s already thought 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.

    This is something that Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the first Asian winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, also thought and described as ‘the genius of Japan’ in 1916.

    That said, an important and notable European example of this is Paul-Louise Couchoud (1879-1959), a French philosopher, poet and physician, who wrote: “While in French literature, any recorded impression of nature is exceptional, Japanese poetry since its farthest origin, bloomed into landscapes”. 

    And yet despite this praise an earlier generation of European literary critics such as William George Aston (1864-1912), a pioneer in the emerging field of Japanese studies, had, at times, been much less flattering about and well disposed to Japanese poetry.

    Nonetheless Couchard writes, “the almost prehistoric inhabitants noted the exquisite examples of these impressions in short poems which were collected in the sixth century of our era,” in Japanese Impressions, published in English translation in 1921.

    “A Japanese is accustomed to place a flower in his room not as an ornament but as a companion. Many of the lyric epigrams play on this refinement of taste. The poppy is even frailer than a sick child:

    Alone in the room

    Where no soul exists,

    A tall white poppy.

    Buson.

    Couchoud writes.

    Couchoud also argued that attention and interest in nature “is the oldest and profoundest trait of the race” of Japanese people, something that Tagore also thought was the case with much of Japanese culture being rooted in nature, but he feared this might tragically be lost through modernisation and westernisation.

    A very good example of this awareness of nature is probably the role Mount Fuji has and still plays in Japanese culture, art and literature. A role that has even been recognised by UNESCO, which placed the mountain on its World Heritage List in 2013, for being a ‘sacred place and source of artistic inspiration’.

    Probably ever since Couchoud, and perhaps even before he wrote his book and started adapting Japanese haiku into French, with perhaps a few notable exceptions, commentators, and on occasion even diplomats, have looked to this national characteristic and Japanese poetry to decode and understand the psyche of the Land of the Rising Sun.

    And according to Couchoud the “most ardent and penetrative” poet of all was Matsuo Basho (1644-1694).

    “It was he who gave haiku its soul; who transformed it from a delicate amusement and touched it with purity of a work of art, a work which rose at times to the height of the religious,” he writes.

    And Couchoud even compares Basho to the French mathematician and writer Balaise Pascal (1623-1662), who was his contemporary in terms of the period his life spanned.

    “He was a Japanese Pascal, without geometrical sense, but equally grave and equally tormented by the desire to discover access to the human heart”.

    Some Western commentators in the 1920s already thought that the place of nature in Japanese literature, poetry and culture was noteworthy and exceptional Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    A Japanese literary magazine launched in 1910, called ‘White Birch’, was probably the most culturally influential magazine of Japan’s Taisho Period[UPDATED: 2-4-2021]

    A magazine or author can sometimes capture a national zeitgeist of the times. For British popular culture and style, the magazine The Face probably played that role in 1980s Britain, and Haruki Murakami is said to be the author that best represents and captures Heisei Japan (1989-2019).

    For Taisho Japan (1912-1926), an open and at times experimental period in Japanese history, the trendsetting, ‘it’, magazine for the young literary in-crowd was White Birch, Shirakaba (1910-1923), a monthly publication.

    The publication and authors such as Naoya Shiga (1883-1971), Saneatsu Mushanokoji (1885-1976) and Takeo Arishima (1878-1923) created a ‘new wave’ of literature in Japan. This literature focused on a rejection of Confucianism and highlighted the inherent conflict between traditional family structures, and the awakening individuality of youth.

    The individuals behind White Birch and the movement were mostly from wealthily privileged backgrounds. The narratives and messages generated by White Birch, however, struck a chord with many and were hugely influential amongst writers, artists and intellectuals – some of whom were exposed to Western art, such as German Expressionism and Post-Impressionism, for the first time through the pages of the magazine.

    This was the time of so-called ‘modern boys’ and ‘modern girls’, known as mobo and moga. Mostly city dwelling, the boys wore their hair long and dressed in Western clothing while the girls cut their hair short and also dressed in Western style clothing, and both liked to carry Western novels under their arms, and in the case of the boys often Marxist literature.

    They were the irrepressible youth of Taisho Japan defined by the conflict with traditions and family. This was a period of newfound individualism, idealism and optimism, when many young people in the cities embraced humanism and individuality, while often outraging and shocking the older generations with their Westernized approaches to life and attitudes.

    Blue Stocking, Seito, is another example of an influential magazine of the period, which was in fact actually influenced by White Birch to such an extent that its founders, four feminists, decided to use the same printer when they launched their magazine in 1911.

    In fact, from the 1890s onwards hundreds of magazines were launched during a period when literary journals and magazines helped develop, mature and modernise Japanese literature and create a nation of readers.

    Nonetheless, these optimistic times, and the publication of White Birch, came to an end after a major earthquake, the Great Kanto Earthquake, struck Tokyo in 1923. 

    This devastating earthquake that some saw as divine punishment for the new ‘extravagant’ and ‘immoral’ lifestyles, wiped out much of Tokyo killing more than 100,000 people and requiring 200,000 buildings to be rebuilt. It was by all accounts the largest urban disaster of its time.

    It was widely believed that it would take Tokyo decades to be returned to its former state. But in actual fact, the city was rebuilt and modernised quickly, ushering in a new and different era, the Showa era (1926-1989). 

    Despite the demise of some of these early trendsetting literary publications, including Shirakaba, Japan’s literary scene and the nation’s literature has continued to flourish in multitudes of creative forms and formats. And today books by Japanese authors continue to shock and delight readers in Japan and now increasing outside Japan in translation.
    A Japanese literary magazine launched in 1910, called ‘White Birch’, was probably the most culturally influential magazine of Japan’s Taisho Period Posted by Richard Nathan