Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    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
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    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
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    The ‘best Japanese work of fiction’ published in Japanese during Japan’s Heisei era was ‘IQ84’ by Haruki Murakami[UPDATED: 1-13-2021]

    In 2019 Japan’s imperial age known as the Hesei era (1989-2019) ended and a new era began called the Reiwa era. The inception of a new era and the end of another led to the media reflecting on the highlights of the last era and trying to identify the best of everything of that era including, for example, the best works of Japanese fiction.

    The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s most prestigious national newspapers, surveyed 120 experts, who had contributed book reviews to this important newspaper about their choice for the best book from the Heisei period. 

    1Q84 by Murakami topped their list. It is probably far too early to determine the ‘best’ novel from the Heisei era, and no doubt everyone has their own favourite Murakami novel, but it is still very interesting to know which book was considered by some to be ‘the best’ in the final year of the period.

    Unsurprisingly, journalists, academics and filmmakers from outside Japan, from Denmark and the United Kingdom for example, often look to Japanese authors and their works, especially Murakami’s, in order to explain and explore contemporary Japan and frame its Heisei era (1989-2019) in particular.

    Murakami’s works are seen as both an interpretation and reflection of this time, and is no doubt a trend that will continue no matter the merits of such an approach. A trend he and the media are helping propagate in interviews.. In one such interview in the Asahi Shimbun, at the time of the publication of their survey, Murakami talks about the Heisei era, as well as his journey as a writer and his books.

    The ‘best Japanese work of fiction’ published in Japanese during Japan’s Heisei era was ‘IQ84’ by Haruki Murakami Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japanese literature and novels littered with cats[UPDATED: 9-18-2020]

    There is a long tradition of cats within Japanese literature, folk stories and art. Many ‘cat books’ feature amongst the ranks of Japan’s bestselling titles.

    Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) wrote a highly regarded satirical account of the Meiji Era in Japan titled: I am a Cat, for example, in 1905. Junichiro Tanazaki (1886-1965) who is held in similar regard wrote the novella A Cat, A Man and Two Women in 1936 when he was in the process of adapting The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese.

    Another example is the highly successful series initially published in 1978 Calico Cat Holmes Series by the mystery writer Jiro Akagawa, which now consists of more than 30 novels and 14 collections of short stories.

    The first winner of the Agatha Christie Award, The Black Cat Takes a Stroll by Akimaro Mori, yet another example, very successfully uses the feline form to describe its professor protagonist. 

    The publication of books about cats or with cats as a narrative motif is a continuing trend. Analysis shows that the number of books with the word cat in their title has been steadily increasing in Japan since the 1990s and the rate of publication continues to rise.
    Japanese literature and novels littered with cats Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The Japanese word for novel entered the Japanese language in 1754 via China[UPDATED: 7-13-2020]

    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.  

    Nevertheless, the word, Shosetsu, is very flexible in Japanese. Its use now covers works of only a few lines to hundreds or even thousands of pages. 

    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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    Santa’s first documented Christmas appearance in Japan was in 1900 when he arrived as Santa Kuro in the pages of a children’s book[UPDATED: 12-9-2019]

    Christianity arrived in Japan in 1549 with Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and the first Christmas Mass in Japan was reportedly celebrated at Yamaguchi Church in 1552. However, Santa Claus, probably one of the most recognised icons and characters associated with Christmas celebrations around the world today, did not make a documented appearance in Japan for another 348 years. 

    After its arrival in Japan, Christianity and Christians were repressed and the religion was subsequently banned in 1614. Christianity only really started flourishing again when Japan opened up to the West, after more than 250 years of isolation, during Japan’s Meiji era (1868-1912) when freedom of religion was allowed from 1871 onwards. 

    It was during this period when Japan was exposed to more and more Western influences, including dinners and banquets arranged by non-Japanese families celebrating Christmas in Japan, that Santa Claus finally made his first appearance in the land of the rising sun.

    His very first appearance in Japan may well have been have been in the book, Santa Kuro, published by Shindo Nobuyoshi, in 1900.

    A black and white drawing of a familiar, but slim-looking Santa Claus appears on Santa Kuro’s inside cover.

    This early image of the legendary bearer of gifts, as well as the book itself, can be viewed online at the National Diet Library of Japan

    The tale of Santa Kuro is set in Nagano in Japan, where many years later the Winter Olympic Games were held in 1998, and tells the story of a poor Christian farming family who save a farmer from a distant village.

    This unknown farmer subsequently saves their Christmas when they fall on hard times by bringing gifts for the family’s son and a message of thanks for their belief in God and for their kind act of saving an unknown stranger. 

    Another book published in 1914, Kodomo No Tomo (The Children’s Friend), which includes a more traditional looking Santa Claus, wearing a red and white coat and a red and white hat, is also cited as an early Japanese Santa Claus book.

    By this time regular citing of Santa Claus were taking place in Japan. In 1912, for example, a familiar looking Santa Claus, rendered by the pioneering Japanese graphic designer Hisui Sugiura (1876-1965) was even featured in Mitsukoshi magazine, the famous department store’s house magazine.

    Kodomo No Tomo is, however, often included in pictorial histories of Santa Claus and analysis of the curious evolution and history of Santa Claus and his varied depictions around the world in different cultures.

    Kodomo No Tomo‘s rendering of Santa Claus is much more Western, with a much less slim Santa, and less Japanese looking one than when he first appeared in Japan a decade or more earlier, as Santa Kuro.  

    Japan’s Christian community is small and Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan, but Santa Claus, and his associated motifs, have had a major impact and continue to play an important role in Japan; as have many Christian authors, writers and publishers .

     

    Santa’s first documented Christmas appearance in Japan was in 1900 when he arrived as Santa Kuro in the pages of a children’s book Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Narrative scrolls, emaki-mono, are the historical foundation of Japanese literature[UPDATED: 10-4-2019]

    Historically, Japanese literature began life as a unique blend of painting and prose, which generally took the form of narrative scrolls, known as emaki-mono in Japanese.

    For thousands of years these handscrolls have been used to record and share stories in Japan. An extremely famous and noteworthy example is Japan’s oldest novel, and according to some the world’s oldest, The Tale of Genji, which was written on illustrated scrolls by Murasaki Shikibu (978-1014), in 1010, during Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185).

    This classic Japanese tale of romance consists of 54 scrolls and a million words; as well as multiple love interests, illustrations and poems. It falls within the definition of a novel as it is prose narrative of significant length.

    Scrolls are and have been important in other countries as well as Japan, including China for instance, but in the 12th and 13th centuries Japan’s approach to their publication developed into a truly unique national style.

    Few examples of scrolls from these periods have survived until today. However, the rare few that have are of significant academic interest.

    According to The Art and Architecture of Japan by Robert Treat Paine and Alexander Soper, “No section of Japanese art history possesses so much interest and importance” as the scroll paintings from this period. 

    Another important early Japanese example of an illustrated scroll is Kokon Chomonju, A Collection of Tales Written and Heard in Ancient and Modern Times, generally believed to have been written by Narisue Tachibana in 1254.

    Tachibana famously wrote that he was so fond of pictures that he collected stories to preserve them and render them as paintings. It’s a good illustration of the close relationship that prose and painting enjoyed in the development of Japan’s literary canon.

     

    Narrative scrolls, emaki-mono, are the historical foundation of Japanese literature Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s oldest poetry anthology is over a thousand years old[UPDATED: 4-14-2019]

    The Manyoshu, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves is Japan’s oldest surviving book of poetry. It was compiled during Japan’s Nara Period (710-794) when Japan’s capital was located in Nara.

    The Japanese capital subsequently shifted to Kyoto at the start of the Heian Period (794-1185), a period when many famous Japanese works of literature, including the first novel The Tale of Genji, were written. 

    The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves consists of 20 parts or books with different forms of poetry including thousands of tanka (short form poems that predated haiku), as well as kanshi, poems written in Chinese. It was compiled in about 759, but contains poems written even earlier. Some apparently may originate from as far back as the 5th Century. 

    The anthology contains poems about love, travel, nature and more. There is, however, considerable debate about its various editors, authors and compilers, Otomo no Yakamochi (718-785), known for his waka poetry, is widely thought by academics to have been one of the compilers. The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves contains many poems written by him. 

    Interestingly, the name of the new Japanese era, Reiwa, that started on 1 May 2019 and is officially translated as beautiful harmony, was inspired by this collection of Japanese poems. Rei is the first character from the word reigetsu, an auspicious month, used in a poem about an early spring breeze and plum blossom. This new Imperial era name is the first to have its roots within Japanese literature as opposed to classical Chinese literature. 

    Two examples of poems in the collection, both translated by Donald Keene (1922-2019), are: “Will ever there be, Someone else who will rest, Her head on my arms, As once my beloved wife, Made her pillow there?” and Keeping glum silence, In the role of a wise man, Is still not as good, As drinking one’s own sake, And weeping drunken tears”. 

    An English language edition of love poems from the collection, published by Overlook Press in 2005, describes the collection as: “the great literary work of eighth-century Japan, a collection comprised of work from more than four hundred known contributors. Its spectacular richness and diversity–noble sentiments of those residing in the court found next to the rustic expressions of frontier guards stationed at lonely outposts–have made the Manyoshu an object of literary fascination for centuries”.
    Japan’s oldest poetry anthology is over a thousand years old Posted by Richard Nathan