Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    The Japanese word for novel entered the Japanese language in 1754 via China[UPDATED: 9-17-2018]

    The Japanese word shosetsu written using two letters or characters meaning ‘small’ and ‘talk ’ first came into use as a Japanese term for fiction in 1754; following the successful translation and adaptation of Chinese books such as Sui-Hu Chuan (The Water Margin), pronounced Suikoden in Japanese. 

    The first ten chapters of Suikoden were published in 1727 and another 10 chapters in 1759 in Japan in translation with Japanese annotations. 

    The word, shosetsu, was initially used only for works of fiction translated from Chinese, but was subsequently used for fiction in general, due to the success of these publications. 

    In the 1880s Shoyo Tsubouchi (1859-1935), a Japanese writer and translator and professor at Waseda University, first proposed that the term shosetsu be adopted as the standard Japanese translation for the English word novel and the French word roman in his paper titled: Shosetsu shinzui (The Essence of the Novel)

    Shosetsu thus become the accepted word used to translate the English word and Western concept of novel into Japanese. 

    Subsequently it was used to mean a novel or any form of prose narrative fiction, story, tale, or romance. Modifiers were added to this old term to differentiate the type of book or prose: tanpen (short or brief edit) to create short-story; and tantei for detective novels. 

    The word shosetsu, however, is in fact a Chinese word with its own long history. It was, according to research, used much earlier than the 1750s in Japan and reportedly as early as 1484, but generally as a term of derision of another’s opinion or work – meaning trivial history, small talk or street rumor, not a work of fiction or novel as we know them today; be they Chinese translations, English translations or Japanese originals.
    The Japanese word for novel entered the Japanese language in 1754 via China Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s first detective story was published in 1889[UPDATED: 3-17-2018]

    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 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. 

    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).

    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). 

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

    Somewhat like Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) after the Second World War, Hirai had the rare ability to bridge and blend the new rapidly urbanising Meiji 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
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    The translation of the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1923 led to a robot literature boom in Japan[UPDATED: 3-5-2018]

    The play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek (1890–1938), written in 1920 and first performed in Prague in 1921, had a major impact in Japan in the 1920s and 30s after its arrival in translation. 

    The play not only popularised the word robot worldwide, but also triggered a flurry of robot stories in Japan; sometimes described by academics as “Early Showa Robot Literature”. Jinzo Ningen (Artificial Human) by Hatsunosuke Hirabayashi (1892-1932) is often cited as a classic example of this genre. 

    The Robot and the Weight of The Bed by Sunjugo Naoki (1891-1934), who the Naoki Literary Prize – one of Japan’s most important literary awards – is named after, is another example. This story written in 1931 is about a dying man’s plan to leave a robot to look after his wife after he has departed this world. It is set in the future when Japan has electrically controlled cars (not dissimilar to the electronic and autonomous cars being developed today) that automatically avoid accidents. The story is about a robot designed to make sure a wife remains faithful to her husband after his death. Other stories from this period feature enhanced or modified humans as well as robots and dolls. 

    The rapid industrialization Japan was experiencing at the time and the arrival of new developing technologies generated creative angst as well as concerns amongst the general population. 

    Robots were not considered by these authors as merely tools to serve humans; they were also seen as potential threats to human and biological life. Japanese authors developed narratives reflecting the growing concerns about mechanization; similar to the fears often articulated in the media today, about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the current generation of robots (actual not imagined), and the prospect of so-called technological singularity, artificial super-intelligence that leads to runaway technological growth, changing our society beyond recognition, perhaps in an uncontrollable unforeseen way.
    The translation of the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1923 led to a robot literature boom in Japan Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The first professional Japanese author who generated enough literary earnings to live from was born in 1765[UPDATED: 3-5-2018]

    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 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
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    The first modern Japanese short story was written by Ogai Mori and published in 1890[UPDATED: 3-3-2018]

    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
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    Mishima, who was “openly gay”, married at the age of 33 after considering a number of prominent women as ‘marriage candidates’[UPDATED: 2-26-2018]

    Despite living “openly” as a homosexual the brilliant Japanese author Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) had a “conventional marriage” to Yoko Sugiyama and had two children, a boy and a girl. 

    They married in June 1958 at a ceremony at International House in Roppongi, Tokyo. A central location, with a traditional Japanese garden where the Meiji Emperor and Empress attended Kabuki plays. it is still used for weddings today. 

    The Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) formally introduced Mishima to his future wife Yoko, after Kawabata’s adopted daughter had been briefly considered by Mishima for the role. According to Mishima’s biographers, he also considered a partnership with Michiko, currently wife of Emperor Akihito. 

    Mishima had a series of important conditions that any future bride had to meet: she had to be shorter than him (his height was 152 cms), she would need to respect his privacy, allow him to continue bodybuilding and be attractive (something he is on record saying he thought she was). 

    In 1958, according to John Nathan’s biography of Mishima, the year when both Mishima and the Crown Prince were married “a weekly magazine polled the nation’s young womenhood” with the question, “If the Crown Prince and Yukio Mishima were the only two men remaining on earth, which would you prefer to marry?” According to Nathan, “more than half of those who responded said they would prefer to commit suicide!” 

    Editors and publishers in New York and London who worked with Mishima were impressed by: his manners and politeness; his English; as well as his openness about being gay and visiting gay meeting spots. In 1960s London, for example, it was socially very hard to be so open and relaxed about one’s sexuality, as homosexuality was still illegal. Homosexual acts conducted in private between two men were only decriminalized in 1967 in the United Kingdom, when The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was passed into law. Both men had to be 21 or older for homosexual acts to be legal.

    In his book The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima Henry Scott Stoke describes their first meeting at a dinner at The Foreign Correspondences’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) in Tokyo in 1966 when he was working as the Tokyo correspondent for The Times. Mishima, attended the event at the Club with his wife. He writes that: “ Mishima spoke fluent English. Yoko was a complete contrast. Also small, she was ten years younger than her husband and looked it. Petite, with a round face, she kept her counsel and spoke little – she had by that time two very young children”. 

    Despite playing a role in the background and Mishima telling the cluster of foreign correspondents gathered at the FCCJ (a recording of which can be heard here) in 1966 that “ Yoko has no imagination”, she had a sharp mind; often accompanied him publicly (which was unusual for spouses in Japan then); helped Mishima professionally when he was alive; and worked hard after his death to manage his literary legacy.
    Mishima, who was “openly gay”, married at the age of 33 after considering a number of prominent women as ‘marriage candidates’ Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Despite being rivals for the Nobel Prize, Kawabata and Mishima were friends[UPDATED: 2-25-2018]

    Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) became the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, ahead of Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) who was nominated more than once for the prize and throughout the 1960s was considered a very strong candidate. 

    The two men first met in 1946 when Mishima, a brilliant student considered the best or one of the best nationally, was still a student at Tokyo University before he joined the Ministry of Finance on graduation in 1947. 

    Mishima was looking for support and contacts in the world of publishing to get his short stories published and Kawabata kindly offered to help when Mishima turned up at his house. Subsequently, Kawabata wrote a highly supportive preface to Mishima’s novel Theieves, published in 1948, a novel about a young couple that kill themselves on their wedding night. The novel was not a major critical success and did not gain much if any attention. 

    However, the encounter eventually led to the publication of Mishima’s first full-length major novel Confessions of a Mask, the following year in 1949, which quickly established him as a major literary talent and the literary wunderkind of his generation; by that time he had already quit his job, after nine months at the ministry, to concentrate full-time on creative writing with the hope of becoming a well regarded professional author. 

    Kawabata played an important role throughout Mishima’s life at very key moments: formally introducing Mishima to his future wife Yuko, after Kawabata’s adopted daughter had been briefly thought of as a potential bride by Mishima: and also giving the eulogy at Mishima’s funeral after he dramatically killed himself. He also had a formal role at Mishima’s wedding in 1958 at International House in Tokyo. 

    According to an article in The New Times published the day after his death, Harold Strauss, his long-time editor at Alfred Knopf, said: “Mishima was torn apart by the Japanese transition” and “had one foot in the past and one in the future. He was able to articulate this change as no other Japanese novelist was able to do. Older writers such as Yasunari Kawabata can write only of the past and younger writers such as Kobo Abe can write only of the present.” 

    Mishima was also a close friend of Kobo Abe (1924-1933) considered by some to be Japan’s Kafka. Unlike Mishima and Kawabata, who died two years after Mishima having gassed himself, Abe died in hospital after a brief illness of heart failure.
    Despite being rivals for the Nobel Prize, Kawabata and Mishima were friends Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The Book of Tea, published in 1906, provides guidance on how to appreciate not just tea, but Japanese literature and all that is pure and refined[UPDATED: 2-23-2018]

    “The tiny incidents of daily routine are as much a commentary of radical ideals as the highest flight of philosophy or poetry”, writes Tenshin Okakura (1862-1913) in his highly influential and acclaimed essay: The Book of Tea, in which he argues that tea has influenced much in Japan: homes, habits, porcelain, art and the country’s literature and aesthetic. 

    Japanese literature, like the periods and schools of Tea (Boiled Tea, Whipped Tea and Steeped Tea), has its own periods and genres that developed often in their own unique local manner in isolation, and each preparation of narrative prose like tea “leaves” has its own “individuality, its own special affinity with water and heat, its hereditary memories to recall, its own method of telling a story”. 

    According to The Book of Tea, which was originally written in English targeting an audience outside Japan: “art is only of value to the extent that it speaks to us. It might be a universal language if we ourselves were universal in our sympathies”. 

    The essay, which outlines the Zen principles of simplicity, incompleteness and the importance of the concealment of beauty that may be discovered, also provides useful advice for authors, creative writers, and critics. 

    Okakura writes that according to Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), who he considered to be Japan’s Shakespeare, one of the first principles of dramatic composition is “the importance of taking the audience into the confidence of the author”. And a masterpiece, be it a tea ceremony, the architecture of a tea room (some of which influenced Frank Lloyd Wright), a novel or short story” is a symphony played upon our finest feelings”.
    The Book of Tea, published in 1906, provides guidance on how to appreciate not just tea, but Japanese literature and all that is pure and refined Posted by Richard Nathan