Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    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
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    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
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    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
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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