A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
If you would like to contribute to this compendium please submit your ideas here.
All will be considered for publication by our expert panel.
  • Share

    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
  • Share

    Two of Japan’s most famous authors Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Yukio Mishima translated ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ into Japanese[UPDATED: 3-8-2021]

    Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in English in 1865, has been translated into Japanese more times than any other language, and two of Japan’s most famous authors; Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), after whom one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes is named; and Japan’s most notorious author Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), have translated the story into Japanese.

    Akutagawa’s translation of Lewis’s story was published in 1927. It was a collaborative effort with others and had the Japanese title Arisu Monogatari; and Mishima’s translation was published in 1952, with illustrations by Goro Kumada  (1911-2009), with the title Fushiginokuni Arisu

    Rendering and adapting Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into brilliant and readable Japanese, that reflects the nuances of the original story, is a rabbit hole of a challenge that many have tried and continue to try, since at least 1895, not just these two famous and highly regarded authors.

    Two of Japan’s most famous authors Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Yukio Mishima translated ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ into Japanese Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    In Meiji Japan books were the ultimate ‘must-clutch’ fashion accessories for young women and schoolgirls[UPDATED: 10-28-2020]

    In Meiji era (1868-1912) Japan, when the nation was experiencing a period of rapid modernisation and opening up to the West, books and often Western imported ones were a ‘must-clutch’ fashion accessory for young women.

    An example of this can be seen in the 1897 woodblock print series, True Beauties, by Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912) at the Ota Museum in Tokyo.  In one of the images in this series a schoolgirl is depicted holding a western-style umbrella, dressed in traditional Japanese clothing and holding a foreign book in her left hand with a ring on her finger.

    It is probably not too far of a stretch to say that the brown leather covered book with its crest looks somewhat similar to an early Louise Vuitton bag. Another example of an image of a young Japanese woman reading a Western novel in a woodblock print is Mirror of Enlightenment Feelings by Kunichika Utagawa (1838-1900).

    Images of women reading has been an important motif in Japanese art for a long time, so much so that research and books on the topic such as: The Female as Subject: Reading and Writing In Early Modern Japan have been published.

    Historically, reading was the preserve of Japanese aristocrats and thus women readers projected an image of high social rank especially those who read the classics and poetry, but as Japan modernised what was being read, how the book was held, and the environment within which the reading women was depicted all became important.

    In Meiji Japan being educated, open-minded while still holding onto one’s local obligations was considered important. Clutching an impressive Western-looking book as one walked around in a traditional kimono was an aspiration getup or the must-have look for some.

    In Meiji Japan books were the ultimate ‘must-clutch’ fashion accessories for young women and schoolgirls Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Two influential books from the 1700s helped shape Japan as a Robot Nation[UPDATED: 8-21-2020]

    Japan is sometimes referred to as the Robot Kingdom due to its large number of robots and its openness to new technologies including robotics.

    Japan has more industrial robots than most countries; and more Artificial Intelligence (AI) patents than any other, according to some OECD measures. The government even has a written strategy that articulates the steps the nation will take towards becoming Japan as a Robotics Superpower.

    Two books published in 1730 and 1796 played a very important role in Japan’s development into the so-called Robot Nation it is today. 

    Both books were about mechanical Japanese toys known as Karakiri NingyoThese two Karakuri books helped increase the popularity of these intricately designed mechanical Japanese automata, and position robots as fun and unthreatening devices in most Japanese people’s minds.

    The 1796 book by Hosokawa Honzo Yorinao (1741-1796), Karakuri zui, sometimes described as Japan’s first mechanical engineering textbook, has been particularly influential.

    It provided detailed diagrams and descriptions of how to make Karakiri Ningyo, which are still used today by hobbyists and craftsmen to repair and reproduce this early form of home-entertainment robots.

    Even though Japan’s Karakuri roots go back much further with some believing as far as AD 697, the influence of these books, like the automata themselves, has had long-term and significant impact on Japan, its industry; and even the wider world. Japanese engineers at firms such as Toyota have referred to them and copied some of their design concepts in their products.

    And The British Museum has a woodblock print of Hosokawa’s book, titled Compendium of Clever Machines, in its famous collection.

    These two books and Japan’s rich and creative history of robot books in general, which includes both fiction and non-fiction, continues to influence and inspire robot engineers and researchers, as well as writers in Japan.

    Some of Japan’s most renowned contemporary storytellers such as Kazufumi Shiraishi and Soji Shimada have, for example, joined many other talented writers penning robot and cyborg tales.

    Works such as their respective Stand-in Companion and One Love Chigusa, generating a virtuous circle of creativity that seems to be providing perpetual momentum to this trend and the evolution of robot books, robot technology and its literature in Japan, and perhaps even robots themselves.

    Two influential books from the 1700s helped shape Japan as a Robot Nation Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Newspaper novels, Shimbun Shosetsu, still popular today, were launched in Japan in 1886 by the Yomiuri newspaper[UPDATED: 7-20-2020]

    There is some debate amongst academics about which work was the very first published newspaper novel, Shimbun Shosetsu, in Japan.

    Several are often mentioned, but some consider Torioi Omatsu Kaijo ShinwaThe New Martine Tales of Bird-Chasing Omatsu, by Hikosaku Kubota (1846-1898), published between 1877, and 1878, as one of the first, if not the very first, serialised newspaper novel. 

    It is a tale, allegedly based on a true story, of an attractive young woman who swindles her admirers, but in a twist of fate ends up being swindled herself in an early-age femme fatale type narrative.

    Omatsu, its protagonist, is an untouchable door-stopping beggar. At that time, such individuals were often given the moniker ‘bird-chaser’.

    The tale was published in 14 newspaper installments before being released as a woodblock-printed book, in 1878, based on the newspaper articles. A copy of which can be viewed online at Japan’s National Diet Library (NDL).

    It was, in a sense, a very early form of what is known today as fake news a type of reportage referred to in the 1880s in Japan as tsukuribanashi, manufactured stories.

    Omatsu’s exploits were initially reported as news and not as fiction in the newspaper and used to promote newspaper sales and expand readership. 

    Omatsu’s tale was published before what is generally considered Japan’s first modern novel in 1887, Ukigumo, The Drifting Cloud, by Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909).

    This was also before the Yomiuri newspaper, its publisher, which now claims to have the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world, 
    had created a dedicated section headed Shimbun Shosetsu, Newspaper Novel, clearly distinguishing fictional information from facts reported in its pages.

    It took almost a decade from the publication of
    The New Martine Tales of Bird-Chasing Omatsu for the newspaper’s Shimbun Shosetsu section to be launched in 1886, formally differentiating these two types of distinct content types, and spawning the genre of the Newspaper Novel.

    Kubota’s tale may not fall neatly into the definition of a modern novel in terms of its style, narrative and structure, despite using the often-exploited and occasionally iconic stock character of a protagonist who is a dangerous seductress, sometimes referred to in Japan as dokufu, poisonous women.

    Nonetheless, according to John Whitter Treat in The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature it ‘constituted the first modern readership in Japan by virtue of its scale.’ He considers it to be Japan’s first bestseller newspaper generated novel. 

    The Konjiki Yasha, The Gold Demonby Koyo Ozaki (1968-1903) published between 1897-1903 is also cited as one of Japan’s first important serialised novels.

    Also know as The Usurer in English. It was alongside Hototogisu, The Cuckoo, by Kenjiro Tokutomi (1868-1927) one of the two bestselling works of literature in Japan’s Meiji period (1868-1912). 

    Serialised fiction published in newspapers is still popular today in Japan. High profile authors such as Mitsuyo Kakuta, Fuminori Nakamura and Kazufumi Shiraishi continue to write Shimbun Shosetsu with great success.

    The Yomiuri newspaper, the largest of Japan’s so-called big five national newspapers, is also still heavily involved in the publishing and promotion of literary fiction, now clearly marked as fiction, through its newspapers, and magazines such as Chuo-Koron one of Japan’s oldest continuously published magazines,

    The newspaper also organises literary prizes, owns a book publishing company, and the serialised fiction the Yomiuri continues to publish in its morning and evening editions is still enjoyed by millions throughout Japan.

    Newspaper novels, Shimbun Shosetsu, still popular today, were launched in Japan in 1886 by the Yomiuri newspaper Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    The Shogun’s respect for publishing was a key factor that led to the Tokugawa-state lasting 265 years[UPDATED: 6-24-2020]

    Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616) who founded a military state and a dynasty of shoguns that ruled for 265 years during what is known as Japan’s Tokugawa or Edo period (1603-1868), placed significant importance on literature, reading, books and publishing.

    Tokugawa sponsored the publication of books including Confucian classics and Buddhist texts and believed that encouraging the production and distribution of books was an essential part of good governance.

    Tokugawa famously said: ‘when people forget the moral requisites of humanity, order is lost, government declines, and there is no peace. The only way to deliver those morals to the people is through books. The first step of good government is to print books for a wide audience’. It’s interesting to note, too, that the Tokugawa period was the most stable and peaceful period in Japanese history.

    The books published under his leadership were generally practical and educational and not just theoretical and abstract texts. After he consolidated his power, books were gathered from across Japan and collected at Edo Castle. Over time, this lead to the building of an impressive collection of more than one hundred thousand books, most of which are now part of Japan’s National Archives and the Imperial library.

    In 1593 the first ‘Japanese book’ was printed using movable type, a decade before Tokugawa was appointed as Shogun. After retiring as Shogun, Tokugawa commissioned a large-scale publishing project that required the creation of copper metal type for more than a hundred thousand Chinese character types (logographic letters known as Kanji used in Japanese writing).

    The books printed with this type are known as the Suruga Editions and played an important role in the development of publishing and printing in Japan.

    Japan’s first commercial publishing emerged in Kyoto during this period and spread to Osaka and Edo, now Tokyo. The military class learnt to read and even produce literature. They were, in fact, encouraged to do so. 

    Some Samurai, mostly from the lower ranks, played an active and important role in the development of popular fiction. This included authors like Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653-1724) and Jippensha Ikku (1765-1831). 

    Literacy rates among men and women increased, becoming the highest in the world. However, there was only a limited amount of publishing actually conducted by the Shogunate authorities (the government) during this period. Much of it was outsourced to commercial publishers who would also have published calendars, maps and directories. 

    Commercial publishers dominated the industry not just through contract publishing for the authorities and the selling of books but also by commissioning the engraving of print blocks, and haiku books, for example. 

    This helped commercial publishing grow and flourish. By 1693, according to historians, the number of commercial publishers in Japan had increased to around 400 publishers with 7,800 titles published in that year alone. There are currently around 3,500 publishers in Japan publishing more than 70,000 books per year.

    Just as is the case today, only a small number of commercial publishers dominated the industry back in the Edo Period, with half of all the books being published by less than 10 percent of the publishers.

    Analysis indicates that the number of books available in Japan during the latter half of the 17thcentury when authors like Chikamatsu, who is considered by some to be Japan’s Shakespeare, were in their writing prime were double the number from when these authors were learning to read.

    Books, reading and writing had already enjoyed a long history in Japan, but the importance that Tokugawa placed on books cannot be overstated. Indeed, many, including Tsunenari Tokugawa, the eighteenth head of the Tokugawa family, believed that this was a key factor in the longevity of the state and system of government that Tokugawa initiated.

    Tsunenari Tokugawa writes in his book, The Edo Inheritance, published in English translation in 2009: ‘Ieyasu, while no liberal, asserted that the publication of classics and dissemination of knowledge are the heart of good government and followed up this assertion with action four centuries ago. I think this alone makes him a great historical figure.’

    Tokugawa’s actions helped create so-called ‘Pax Tokugawa’ as well as a new generation of samurai authors, a book loving public and a vibrant reading culture with what some academics have described as ‘epic levels of book consumption’.

    Chikamatsu, author of Love Suicides at Somezaki  and Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), often said to be the greatest master of haiku, were both born into samurai families and grew up as samurai before switching to the pen, or more accurately the ink brush – something the first Tokugawa Shogun would have been delighted by.

    The Shogun’s respect for publishing was a key factor that led to the Tokugawa-state lasting 265 years Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    A series of publications in 1912 introduced psychoanalysis to Japan[UPDATED: 5-29-2020]

    Seventeen years after Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) first used the term psychoanalysis to describe his new method, the concept was introduced to Japan in 1912, according to Perversion and Modern Japan: Psychoanalysis, Literature and Culture, in a series of articles.

    Nonetheless, the actual first official use of the word psychoanalysis in Japanese or English, which many argue was a term coined by Freud, is unclear. Freud is reported to have used the word initially in a letter in 1896 and subsequently in his book The Interpretation of Dreams, which was published in German in 1899 with an initial print run of 600 copies; and subsequently in English translation in 1913.

    The concept of psychoanalysis was, however, by 1913 fully introduced and used in Japan, just as the first English translation of The Interpretation of Dreams was being published by Macmillan in the United Kingdom. This introduction was made by Morooka Son, an academic at Kyushu Imperial University, in a series of papers in the Japanese literary journal Eniguma, the first of which was published in 1912.

    Son published a Japanese translation of Dream of an unmarried woman with notes and commentary; and wrote a Freudian analysis of a European novel as well as a local one, The Tale of Genji, thought to be the world’s oldest novelin three separate papers, according to Perversion and Modern Japan: Psychoanalysis, Literature and Culture edited by Keith Vincent, Nina Cornyetz. 

    The links between psychoanalysis, folklore, classical literature, narrative texts and mythology are well known and documented since at least 1899 when Freud drew on Greek myths using the term Oedipus Complex in his book The Interpretation of Dreams to analyse a particular dynamic of the relationship between a child and a parent of the opposite-sex. 

    Even before the arrival of Freud and psychoanalysis in Japan, during the nation’s modernising Meiji era (1868-1912), Japanese intellectuals including the Buddhist philosopher Inoue Enryo (1858-1919) were already analysing Japanese literature, especially narratives that depicted the weird, magical or supernatural; to help explain Japanese society and to debunk long held superstitions while highlighting the need for Japan to change.

    Enryo, applied rational analysis to Japan’s literature of the extraordinary, creating taxonomies of ghosts and monsters, as metaphors for psychological disorders, and attributing their appearance to symptoms of ‘nerves’.

    Despite the relatively early arrival of the concept of psychoanalysis in Japan, different folklore and mythologies, as well as the Japanese language itself and local religious beliefs, led some early highly prominent psychoanalysts outside Japan, such as the influential French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacque Lacan (1901-1981), to conclude that: the Japanese were unanalysable; probably didn’t require psychoanalysis; or that psychoanalysis and Japan were a poor match.

    This in turn has allowed others to continue to argue the case of the uniqueness of Japan, the Japanese, and Japanese culture – even though psychoanalysis has continued to evolve as a discipline in Japan

    It may have also helped reinforce the view held by some outside Japan and some within, that Japan is at times unfathomably perverse, and generally impossible to understand.  

    These perceptions have created a field day for journalists who frequently extol Japan’s unique weirdness or unfathomable perversions; not to mention cultural theorists looking to attain research grants to deconstruct Japan’s ‘unique’ foibles.

    In various and often delightfully unpredictable ways this has inspired authors and many others in the Japanese creative arts, including Japan’s talented animators and video game makers, to adapt or modernise ancient tales of the extraordinary or to blend them with the influences of European gothic fiction, as well as advances in technology, to create new creative products and works.

    Some contemporary Japanese authors, such as the Akutagawa prize-nominated Kanji Hanawa, have specialised in exploring human psychology and complex relationships with the aim of exposing the pressures and challenges of life in modern day Japan.

    A good example of this is Hanawa’s work Backlightwhich frames the abandonment of a seven-year-old boy in the woods of Hokkaido, and his relationship with his family, through the lens of psychology while also exploring folklore, identity and cultural analysis, at times with scorn and subtle indignation.

    Another interesting example is the animator Hayao Miyazaki, famous for the folklore inspired Spirited Away and many other films, who often explores humanities relationship with nature, an important theme in early Japanese literature, in his work.

    Miyazaki’s animations have been praised for how they depict the unconscious anxiety of children and have even been deconstructed from the perspective of psychoanalysis in academic papers such as Fantasy and reality in Miyazaki’s animated world

    This psychoanalysis inspired creativity, despite Japan still being considered unanalysable by some, has helped generate new forms of Japanese surrealism and suggestive storytelling that are at times both compelling and highly imaginative, while also being accessible, entertaining and uncanny.

    A series of publications in 1912 introduced psychoanalysis to Japan Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    An Italian who came to Japan to design the nation’s first modern banknotes helped found one of the country’s most important printers[UPDATED: 11-21-2019]

    Edoardo Chiossone (1833-1898) an Italian painter, engraver and lithographer arrived in Japan in 1875 at the height of Japan’s period of rapid modernisation, known as the Meiji Era (1868-1912), to help design and create the country’s first modern banknotes. 

    He designed banknotes including: a 5-Yen banknote; the 1878 1-Yen banknote, the first modern Japanese banknote to include an image of an individual the legendary Empress Jingu (170-269); and a banknote with the image of Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) an important Heian Period (794-1185) poet and politician, for example.

    The image Chiossone created for the 1-Yen banknote depicts a somewhat European-looking Empress Jingu, wearing heavy ornate necklaces in an oval on the righthand side of the banknote.

    In total Chiossone created 500 plates that were used to print bonds, stamps, securities, as well as banknotes for use in Japan. Initially, many were printed outside Japan.

    Chiossone, who stayed for 23 years and died in Japan, had a major influence on the world of printing, publishing and even on how the world saw Japan and its Emperor at the time, the Meiji Emperor (1852-1912).

    He is also credited with helping found the printing company Toppan Insatsu by training its two founders, as well as training many individuals who went on to transform Japanese printing and publishing.

    He worked very closely with Enkichi Kimura (1853-1911), for example, and others helping them to subsequently found Toppan, which has now become a global printing company and runs the Printing Museum, Tokyo. Among other things, the museum proudly displays the world’s smallest printed book, printed by Toppan in 2013. 

    Modern printing may have taken off much more slowly in Japan had it not been for Chiossone’s important contribution. He lived in Japan during a period when many new newspapers and magazines were launched and printing, like the Internet today, was a transformational technology. 

    Chiossone is also remembered for his famous 1888 widely circulated portrait of the Meiji Emperor, and his impressive personal collection of Japanese art, which is now housed at the Museum of Japanese Art ‘Edoardo Chiossone’ in Genova.

    An Italian who came to Japan to design the nation’s first modern banknotes helped found one of the country’s most important printers Posted by Richard Nathan