Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    Writing arrived in Japan in the 5th century AD from China[UPDATED: 1-13-2022]

    Japan and the Japanese did not develop their own fully-fledged writing system, but imported one from China during the early 5th century or perhaps even slightly earlier.

    Use of this writing subsequently expanded as Buddhism arrived in Japan alongside Chinese Buddhist monks, eventually helping elevate calligraphy to a respected art form in Japan.

    The introduction of a writing system for the first time like this from another country had a major impact on Japanese folklore, as well as Japan’s oral traditions of storytelling, and the Japanese language itself.

    Initially, it was a struggle for Japan and Japanese people to absorb a writing system designed for a completely different language, with new words and concepts, and match it to their spoken language.

    Today many Japanese words are actually derived from Chinese such as the Japanese word for novel, shosetsu, but Japanese grammar, word order and sentences were then and still are distinct and the two languages are unrelated linguistically. Because of this some type of phonetic script had to be developed to express inflected endings of Japanese words, reflect Japanese grammar, and to record Japanese proper names and more. This took time.

    In fact, two original syllabaries (sets of written characters) were subsequently developed hiragana and katakana leading to Japanese being written with a script that combines and mixes Chinese characters (kanji) and the locally developed ones hiragana and katakana. There are, however, some people who argue, somewhat unconvincingly, that katakana is actually derived from ancient Hebrew.

    One of the earliest examples of Japanese being written like this combing scripts is Japan’s oldest poetry anthology, the ManyoshuCollection of Ten Thousand Leaves, compiled during Japan’s Nara Period (710-794) from which the name of Japan’s new imperial age Reiwa is derived. Japanese writing that uses Chinese lettering exclusively, kanji, is known as kanbun.

    That said, initially, hiragana was often referred to as Onna-de, women’s hand, as it was used mostly by women and for writing poetry, while men generally used kanji and katakana.

    The Tale of Genji written by a women, Murasaki Shikibu (973-1025), in 1010, during Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185), said to be Japan’s oldest novel and perhaps even the world’s oldest novel, if a novel is defined as prose narrative of significant length, was written completely in hiragana.

    Later as literacy rates increased in Japan in the medieval era, books were written for the first time based on well-known oral tales and new works were created specifically to provide new tales that priests and entertainers could introduce in the oral tradition, creating a dynamic interaction between the oral and the newer written traditions of storytelling.

    An important work that facilitated this parallel growth in the oral and written traditions was the Heike Monogatari, a collection of tales written between 1190 and 1221, and another similarly important example is The Gikeiki, The Chronicle of Yoshitsune, which tells the tale of the warrior Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189). Both tales were influenced by and helped propagate the Buddhist beliefs and values of the period. Narrative scrolls, emaki-mono, which blend painting and prose have also historically played a foundational role in the development of  Japanese literature.

    Many years later, following increasing interactions with the West, alongside another new wave of new technologies, ideas, concepts and vocabulary and people, a new fourth syllabary, script, was introduced romaji, which is based on the Latin script that most European languages use.

    Romaji was initially created to help Westerners learning Japanese, but a new version designed for use by Japanese people was developed in 1885.  This has led to a situation where four different scripts are used in written Japanese, kanji, hiragana, katakana and romaji.

    There is also the added complexity, due to this linguistic history, that kanji letters have two different pronunciations in Japanese depending on how the letters are used: a Chinese derived one, known as on-yomi, the sound reading, and a Japanese one called kun-yomi, meaning reading, for the Japanese pronunciation of the kanji letter.

    These quirks of history and the development of written Japanese with its complex writing system, with multiple syllabary, has probably made it difficult for readers outside Japan to enjoy and fully appreciate the breadth and depth of Japanese literature reducing the number of books translated or read by non-Japanese people.

    Nevertheless, it has in its own unique way helped enriched the Japanese language, and the myriad forms of Japanese storytelling, creative writing, and narrative fiction.

    Writing arrived in Japan in the 5th century AD from China Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s most expensive book was published in 1984 with a retail price of US$17,000[UPDATED: 11-5-2021]

    Japan’s most expensive book, an edited collection of manuscripts by Claudius Ptolemaeus (100-168), was published in two-volumes by the Japanese publisher Iwanami Shoten in 1984, just before Japan’s infamous economic bubble (1986-1991), with a retail price of 1,930,000 yen.

    Ptolemaeus’ astronomical treatise, an astronomy textbook and star catalogue, is generally referred to as the Almagest.

    Copies of the extremely expensive Japanese edition, Uchushi, Cosmography, a collection of reproductions of Ptolemaeus manuscripts, including analysis and commentary by Torataro Shimomura (1902-1995), a philosopher and a science historian and others, are available at the National Diet Library in Tokyo.

    One of the volumes that can be viewed at the National Diet Library, which consists mostly of maps, is numbered as the 239th of a limited edition.

    According to information contained within the book, which is large and heavy, the volume was printed in Germany in 1983 and is based on an original edition published in 1472. The publication of the 1984 Iwanami Shoten edition was arranged by Uni Agency Inc.

    Ptolemaeus, of Greek-Egyptian heritage, was one of the most influential ancient astronomers. He is famous for his mathematics and geography and his earth-centred cosmology.

    His cosmological theory (hypothesis) that the earth was the centre of the universe was held for 1,400 years; until it was refuted by Nicolas Copernicus (1473- 1543) in 1530. When Copernicus wrote De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, in which he argued that the earth, in fact, rotated around the sun. The theory was published in 1543, the year of his death. Despite this local Japanese publishing milestone, one of the most expensive books ever bought was Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519 ) Codex Leicester, a hand-drawn manuscript, which the founder of Microsoft Bill Gates purchased in 1994 for US$30.8 million.
    Japan’s most expensive book was published in 1984 with a retail price of US$17,000 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The translation of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ triggered Japan’s first post-war obscenity trial, in 1951[UPDATED: 11-5-2021]

    After Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan in 1951, full sovereignty returned to Japan bringing the Allied Occupation of Japan (1945-1952) to an end.

    Japan had a new constitution, originally drafted in English that it was putting into place in translation. Legal responsibility for its implementation and new rules and regulations transferred back to Japanese control. This included the regulation of the press, publishers and the media. 

    During the occupation various controls existed including General Headquarters (GCQ), for instance, determining which foreign books could or could not be published in Japanese translation.

    Despite this, Japan’s new constitution, drawn up by GCQ and ratified in 1947, prohibited all forms of censorship and guaranteed freedom of expression. This was a major change to the regulations that governed publishing in Japan, which had seen very limited development since major changes to these laws were implemented in a flurry of new regulations in Japan’s Meiji Era (1868-1912), when newspaper and magazine publishing started to flourish. 

    The post-war, liberal Western-influenced and controlled, atmosphere had a major impact on Japan, even on its publishing. This encouraged the setting up of thousands of new publishing houses and new waves of books arriving in Japan in Japanese translation, often for the first time. 

    In June 1950, a new self-regulation body was established. This became known as the Publishing Morals Committee, Shuppan Butsu Fuki Iinkai. And it was established shortly after the publication in spring of the same year, of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Japanese translation for the first time.

    The book by D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), which was first published in 1928, was translated into Japanese by Sei Ito (1905-1969) and published by Oyama Publishing. 

    The publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover tested these new laws and a trial took place on the grounds of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’s content being obscene. A trial that went all the way to Japan’s supreme court, setting a legal precedent that lasted for decades.

    The Supreme Court decision, in this first post-war obscenity trial, defined obscenity as anything “unnecessarily sexually stimulating, (which) damages the normal sexual sense of shame of ordinary people, or is against good sexual moral principles”. 

    According to Kristen Cather in The Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan,“ The Chatterley trial staged a very public struggle to define literary, cultural, and legal identity, engaging a far-reaching debate over the relationship of domestic Japanese and imported Western traditions”.  

    The Japanese Supreme Court concluded that parts of the book, consisting of about 80 pages, were obscene and banned those sections from publication and fined the translator and publisher in a landmark decision that concluded that the sex in Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not normal and was against good sexual moral principles. 

    Despite Japan’s long history of erotic publishing of woodblock prints including Shunpon and shunga in the Edo Period (1603-1688), erotic guidebooks and tales of man-eating demon women, this imported fictional prose about Lady Chatterley and the day-to-day life of her English gamekeeper, that in addition to their intimate adulterous relationship includes “peripheral” passages on pheasant raising and managing a shooting estate, was deemed obscene. 

    A subsequent trial relating to an abridged translation by Tatsuhiko Shibusawa (1928-1987) of a version of Histoire de Juliette by the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) also led to a successful conviction.

    Interestingly Shibusawa, a relative of Eiichi Shibusawa (1840-1931) one of Japan’s most influential early industrialists who helped found many companies including the first Western-style paper mill in Japan in 1875, had written his graduation thesis on the Marquis de Sade.

    The lengthy nine year trial dragged in several famous Japanese authors as witnesses including Shusaku Endo (1923-1996), Shohei Ooka (1909-1988) and the Nobel Prize-winner Kenzaburo Oe helping increase Shibusawa’s public profile.

    For some Japanese critics, even today, pornography and the publication of materials that are on the periphery of falling within scope of Japan’s official definition of the obscene is seen as a subversive tool through which to resist the authorities and assert a type of cultural national independence.

    That said, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, howeverwas not just controversial in Japan. It was banned in the United Kingdom until Penguin books won a landmark obscenity trial in 1960 allowing its full publication in English. This decision had a profound cultural and social impact in Britain.

    It was only in 1996 that the full book was finally published in Japan in Japanese, which allowed newspapers in Britain and America to report on this publishing breakthrough with such headlines as: Japanese to see more of ‘Lady Chatterley’ and Chatterley’ to bare all in Japan.  

    As academic interest in historically ‘obscene books’, many of which seem unremarkable in today’s light, increases, libraries like the British Library are starting to digitise their online collections and are making them available to researchers worldwide through collections like the Gale’s Archives of Sexuality and Gender.

    These books are no longer concealed in special sections in libraries and are just a click away for some subscribers and library users.

    The translation of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ triggered Japan’s first post-war obscenity trial, in 1951 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The first Western-style paper mill opened in 1875 in Japan[UPDATED: 10-4-2021]

    As Japan rapidly modernised in its Meiji era (1868-1912), after more than 250 years of isolation, there was a huge demand for paper to meet many types of new and emerging needs including: the printing of public bonds and paper money; newly launched magazines and newspapers; as well as paper certificates for new regulations for the registering of land and property ownership. 

    Despite Japan’s long and distinguished history of papermaking that stretched as far back as 610, when Chinese papermaking technologies first arrived in Japan through Korea, traditional handmade paper manufacturing could not keep up with the massive demand that modernisation created. 

    Imports of Western machine-manufactured paper that could be mass-produced by employing paper pulp, increased massively while production of traditional Japanese paper, Washi, declined as Japan urbanised and modernised.

    Historically, during Japan’s feudal periods most feudal lords, daimyo, considered papermaking of strategic importance, as paper was even in their eras an indispensable and highly valued commodity. So they developed secure local supplies to meet the needs of their given territories.

    In a similar manner, some farsighted Meiji era pioneers, like the daimyo before them, thought modern Japan also needed its own local machine-made paper capabilities.

    In 1873, Eiichi Shibusawa (1840-1931) set up Shoshi Kaisha, subsequently renamed Oji Paper Company, and Japan’s first Western-style machine paper mill was officially opened two years later on the 16 December 1875. With the help of a 26 year-old British expert, Frank Cheethmen, the company imported equipment. Shibusawa image will appear on new 10,000 yen Japanese banknotes that will be introduced in 2024.

    The Oji paper mill was located in Oji in Tokyo close to the Otonashi River for logistical reasons. Recycled undergarments were used initially to make the first paper produced at the mill.

    Four years later Japan’s first wood pulp mill was opened. The Oji Group, a pulp, paper and packaging business still exists today.

    Despite paper being invented in China, and only arriving in Europe centuries later, in the 11thcentury, modern machine-made paper was actually first created in France in 1798, according to Kiyofusa Narita (1884-1979) Director of the Paper Museum in Tokyo and a former executive at Oji Paper. Production in Japan of this type of paper only began about 76 years later.

    Nonetheless, despite the delays, Japanese paper today in all its forms is considered some of the best produced in the world. And as is often the case in Japan its paper has its own unique standard sizes, quality scales and types including Tengujo, the world’s thinnest paper.

    Today Tengujo is a machine-manufactured paper produced by Hidaka Washi a factory in Kochi Japan. It is still, however, made using the bark of Kozo (paper mulberry) trees just like Washi, traditional Japanese paper, was in the 7th Century. Despite machine-manufactured paper being a delayed Western import Japan is a strategic player in the international paper industry, Tengujo, for example, plays a critical role in the conservation of paper manuscripts around the world at the Louvre, the British Museum and Library of Congress, and Japan can today also proudly claim to have produced the world’s smallest printed book, as well as the world’s thinnest paper, something that would please Shibusawa and his peers who brought modern printing to Japan.
    The first Western-style paper mill opened in 1875 in Japan Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s ‘first’ Olympic Book, ‘The Fruits of Olympus’, was published in 1940[UPDATED: 7-6-2021]

    In 1932 Japan sent a large team of 115 men and 16 women to the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. They performed extremely well, winning 7 gold, 7 silver, and 4 bronze medals. Japan’s success at this Olympics did not just generate nationalistic pride at home; it also produced one of Japan’s first Olympic literary works, a bestselling novella by Hidemitsu Tanaka (1913-1949), Orinposu no Kajitsu, The Fruits of Olympus (1940).

    Tanaka was an Olympic rower who at the age of 19 competed in the Men’s Coxed Eights. He and his Olympic crew didn’t bring back any medals from the games. But the Olympic experience led to Tanaka’s novella, which unlike his Olympic feats was a major success, creating its own narrative milestone.

    The Fruits of Olympus, a rites of passage novel about unrequited love, is the tale of a young moody athlete, also a rower, leaving his country and representing it on the Los Angeles Olympic stage.

    It is not your typical Japanese sports book with an individual becoming a national hero by overcoming every challenge faced through extreme hard work and diligence. Much of the short novel takes place on the boat journey from Japan to the games in the United States.

    The novella, a semi-autobiographical I-novel style work of autofiction, follows Sakamoto, a university rower who doesn’t enjoy all aspects of being part of his Olympic team. The rowers life takes on new meaning, however, during the boat journey to America on which a female athlete (an 18 year-old high jumper) catches his eye and he falls for her. 

    The Fruits of Olympus articulates the anxiety of youth struggling with young love, authority, peer-pressure and expectations. Rowing success is elusive, Sakamoto’s efforts are fruitless and he returns to Japan without fulfilling his dreams; and is unable to rise to the challenge of even telling the high jumper how he feels.

    The Fruits of Olympus was initially published in a literary magazine, Bungakukai, but became more popular in book format, according to academics, after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War – especially among schoolboys.

    Perhaps, as some academics have argued, Sakamoto’s international failure, his skepticism about the strategy and approach adopted, and his inability to articulate his feelings, including those of defeat, reflected how many felt in post-war Japan.

    Since its publication in 1940: popular Japanese sports have diversified to include diving and football as well as rowing; and Japan’s Olympic literature has also evolved in a way that would undoubtedly have surprised but perhaps also delighted Tanaka.

    Japan’s ‘first’ Olympic Book, ‘The Fruits of Olympus’, was published in 1940 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The world’s bestselling comic book series by a single author is ‘One Piece’ a Japanese manga[UPDATED: 6-3-2021]

    According to The Guinness Book of Records, Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece sold 320,866,000 units worldwide between its launch in 1997 and 2015 when it was first listed by Guinness as a record breaking series.

    One Piece, which is an on-going series that still tops the bestseller lists in Japan, was initially launched by the Japanese publisher Shueisha in its weekly magazine Shonen Jump in July 1997.

    Since its magazine launch One Piece, now the world’s bestselling manga, has also been published in book format in more than 92 tanko-bon single hardback volumes.

    The pirate adventure, One Piece, which features a young pirate Monkey D. Luffy fighting the World Government, is now what industry observers call an international media franchise, and includes anime spin-offs and much more.

    One Piece has also had a huge cultural impact in Japan and outside the nation that has led, for instance, to some of Japan’s most interesting authors, such as Fuminori Nakamura, penning essays about the series and its cultural impact, as well as academic papers such as Pirates, Justice and Global Order in the Anime One Piece.

    The world’s bestselling comic book series by a single author is ‘One Piece’ a Japanese manga Posted by Richard Nathan
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    By the early 1900s so many books had been published ‘Explaining Japan’ that one author felt compelled to write a book summarising them[UPDATED: 6-2-2021]

    In 1904, Kiyoshi Kawakami (1873-1949), a Japanese journalist based in Seattle, wrote a book titled Japan and the Japanese, where he looked back and summarised how Western writers had opined on and written about Japan.

    He explained his objective as: “I had read a considerable number of books and review articles by foreign writers on various topics connected with Japanese life. It then occurred to me that a compilation of the views of some of the representative foreign writers on Japan would be of great interest as well as benefit to the reading public, especially to younger readers at home.”

    Kawakami includes extracts from writers such as Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904), Isabella Bird (1831-1904), Captain Brinkley (1841-1912), Pierre Loti (1850-1923) and others in his book.

    Japan and the Japanese includes topics and headlines such as:

    The Most Paradoxical Race, The Virtue of the Japanese Woman, Frauds and Tricks of Trade, New Japan: The Schoolmaster of Asia, Lack of Imaginative Power in The Japanese Poet, The Japanese Girl, Indifference to Nudity, Self-Inflicted Ugliness of Japanese Women, First Impressions of Japan, Japanese Cultivation not Civilisation, The Characteristic Peculiarity of Japanese Servants, Foreign Costume as Worn by Japanese Men and Women, Frog-Poems in Japanese Literature, Why Japanese Merchants Lack Commercial Morality, Popular Misconceptions of Japan, Alleged Unchastity of the Japanese Women, Japan Old and New.

    Below are some of Kawakami’s observations and comments:

    “Are we complimented when such an author as this tells the world that Japan is peopled with dear giggling dolls, living in dear little miniature houses made of cardboard, and eating fairy food out of miniature dishes?

    “Have we any reason to rejoice when a man like M. Pierre Loti seems to take Japan as a bright and fascinating freak of geography and ethnology? To be brief, Japan is or at least has been, in the eyes of most of her admirers, like an innocent sweet damsel to be petted and played with, and not like a strong man commanding the respect of all who come in contact with him.

    “To a reader such as he I must explain that those foreigners who have studied and endeavored to understand Japan form a mere fraction as compared with the great mass among which prevails dense ignorance regarding things Japanese.

    “The present war with Russia will no doubt greatly assist in introducing Japan to a vastly wider circle of foreign acquaintances and in doing away with many of the misunderstandings that have been preventing the Westerners from establishing a closer friendship with the greatest of all Oriental races.

    “My labour will be more than rewarded if the foreign reader of this book lays hold of the fact that the Japanese of the new school do not care to be exploited for those old, quaint, and beautiful ‘ things Japanese:’ that they are something else than what they have been; while the Japanese reader bears in mind that upon his shoulders rest the grave responsibility of realizing the Greater Japan which is no longer the habitation of dear little weaklings.”

    Kawakami wasn’t the only Japanese writer who felt obliged to write books in English about Japan and the Japanese.

    In 1905, a Japanese aristocrat, Baron Suyematsu (1855-1920), educated at Cambridge University graduating with a law degree in 1884, for instance, also felt compelled to write books in English in what can surely be described as an early form of ‘myth-busting’ or ‘fake news’ management.

    One of Suyematsu books was titled Fantasy of Far Japan or Summer Dream Dialogues. It was published, by Archibald Constable, in 1905 and he wrote a second book titled The Risen Sun.

    Another famous and important similar example is Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933) who like many emerging Japanese authors of the period was from a samurai background. He was the son of a retainer of a daimyo (warlord).

    Nitobe converted to Christianity and became a diplomat and international statesman. He wrote his famous essay on samurai ethics in English in 1900, before the books by Kawakami and Suyematsu were published.

    Nitobe’s book had a major impact and influenced many including former US President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who reportedly bought copies for his friends.

    By the early 1900s so many books had been published ‘Explaining Japan’ that one author felt compelled to write a book summarising them Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Manga magazines and books generate more than half of all publishing revenues in Japan[UPDATED: 6-2-2021]

    According to The All Japan Magazine and Book Publisher’s and Editor’s Association (AJPEA) manga magazines and books generate more than half of all publishing revenues, which are estimated at 1.4 trillion yen (US$14 billion), in Japan.

    Manga magazines and books generate more than half of all publishing revenues in Japan Posted by Richard Nathan