Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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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
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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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    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