Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    Kobo Abe is said to be the Kafka of Japan[UPDATED: 11-22-2019]

    Kobo Abe (1924-1992) is said to be ‘The Kafka of Japan’. He is best known for: The Road Sign at the End of the Street (1948), The Woman in the Dunes (1962), as well as being avant-garde, being expelled from the Japanese Communist Party, and collecting insects.

    His novella, The Wall, won the Akutagawa Prize and established his reputation. His best friend was Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) and he was also a friend of Harold Pinter (1930-2008).

    He didn’t give many interviews, but an interesting conversation with him is reported in the New York Times under the headline: Japan’s Kafka Goes on the Road, where his experimental theatre group is discussed. 

    He and his book The Woman in the Dunes in particular are still popular today amongst some of Japan’s most talented and creative individuals such as the up-and-coming film director Yuka Eda, director and screenwriter of the 2018 crowd-funded film Shojo Kaiko, Girls’ Encounter, and the 2019 drama 21st Century Girl

    Eda cites Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes as one of the books that has had the most influence on her and one she returns to when she is looking for inspiration. She says she admires the novel’s kafkaesque tone and narrative style.
    Kobo Abe is said to be the Kafka of Japan Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Kafka a popular author and name amongst Japan’s creatives[UPDATED: 8-28-2019]

    Kafka is a popular author and name amongst creatives in Japan. In 2007, an animated version of Franz Kafka’s (1883-1924) 1917 short story A Country Doctor was produced by Koji Yamamura and the author’s name also famously appeared in Haruki Murakami’s bestselling 2002 book titled: Kafka on the Shore, a novel in which the protagonist renames himself Kafka after his favourite author.

    Two high profile Japanese people use the name in their pen names Kafka Shishido, a female drummer and singer; and Kafka Asasiri, the author of the manga series Bungo Stray Dogs, a series about the members of a very specialist detective agency; in which the main characters are named after famous authors: such as Agatha Christie (1890-1976), Osamu Dazai(1909-1948), Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), and Akiko Yosano (1878-1942).

    Another example is a character called Kafuka Fu’ura in the award winning manga series and subsequent spin-off anime Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei (Goodbye, Mr. Despair), where the characters have nicknames coined after social issues. The name Kafuka Fu’ura is apparently a conscious reference to Franz Kafka while the character’s actual real name is said to be An Akagi a pun on the Japanese translation of the title of the book Ann of Green Gables by L.M Montgomery (1874-1942).

    Interestingly, a port and the main hub on a small Japanese island called Rebun, with a population of three thousand, north of Hokkaido is called Kafuka. Despite the name; it is not related to Shikoku, the Island, which features in Murakami’s book, Kafka on the Shore.
    Kafka a popular author and name amongst Japan’s creatives Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s most important library, The National Diet Library, serves Library Curry in its canteen[UPDATED: 8-19-2019]

    Japan’s National Diet Library (NDL), founded in 1948, is the library of Japan’s parliament, The National Diet (Kokkai), and the nation’s national library. It is not only one of the most important libraries in Japan, but also one of the largest libraries in the world.

    It was set up to assist members of Japan’s parliament with research and policy-making and now has a similar function as the Library of Congress and the British Library.

    It functions as a national deposit library and copies of all books published in Japan can be found within its collection of books. The motto: ‘The Firm Conviction that Truth Makes Us Free’ is engraved in Japanese and Greek in the hall of its main building in Tokyo. 

    Within the library’s large collection Japan’s oldest surviving cookbook can be found, published in 1643, as well as many historically important books about Japan’s early culinary exchanges with other countries and cultures.

    This includes a book by Robun Kanagaki (1829-1894), a well-known author and journalist, that contains the first recipe in Japanese for making curry, published in 1872. 

    Curry-rice, now a very popular Japanese dish, has not just found its way into the pages of the National Diet Library’s collection of around 10 million books. It also appears as Library Curry –the signature dish of the 4thfloor cafeteria of the library in Tokyo, which is located between the headquarters building of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) and the National Diet.

    This popular beef curry served with rice and pickles costs 550 yen upwards depending on which version you order. Vouchers are purchased using a vending machine found next to a display of plastic models of all the dishes the cafeteria offers.  

    After handing over your voucher to kitchen staff, you are served the signature Library Curry, which has been reviewed positively by appreciative patrons of the library and its canteen on websites like Tripadvisor

    On average, just under 2,000 people visit the Tokyo library every day. Registration is required, but the library, which has published a newsletter in English on its services and collections since 1958, welcomes international visitors. 

    It’s
    not possible to estimate how many servings of curry are consumed on a typical day, but 9.9 billion servings of curry are reportedly served nationally each year in all its varied Japanese forms. This equates to 78 meals per person. In comparison, about 1 billion books, of which only about 640 million are actually purchased, are distributed annually in Japan.

    This said, every year 1.5 million photocopies are made at the National Diet Library and 21 million individuals access the library’s website through which the cover of the book, The Expert on Western Cookerycontaining Japan’s first recipe for curry-rice can be viewed. 

    Japan’s most important library, The National Diet Library, serves Library Curry in its canteen Posted by Richard Nathan
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    For over a thousand years many of Japan’s emperors have played an active role in publishing: writing poems, books and even scientific papers[UPDATED: 5-2-2019]

    Since Japan’s first book on the nation’s history was commissioned by Emperor Temmu, Japan’s 40th emperor, and published in 712 after his death, Japanese emperors have been intimately involved in many important publishing milestones in Japan.

    The nation’s first book to be produced using moveable type was, for example, chosen by another emperor for printing in 1593.

    The Japanese Imperial Family has had a very long association with the literary arts, especially poetry.

    Japanese emperors have not only encouraged and patronised the poetic arts and Japanese verse known as waka and tanka in particularbut have also written thousands of poems themselves.

    The Meiji Emperor (1852-1912) who ruled over a period in history when Japan opened up to the West, after more than 250 years of self-imposed isolation, wrote over 100,000 waka and tanka poems and was known as ‘the sage of poetry’.

    The Meiji Emperor learnt the art of writing poetry from his father Emperor Komei (1831-1867). His era was an age of transformation and a crisis of modernisation.

    To s
    ome that must have seemed mind-boggling at the time, with the arrival of railways for instance, that transformed Japanese society. Writing poetry appears to have helped him process these changes.

    He wrote many different types of poems, describing his reaction to the arrival of these new technologies in Japan including photography, trains and telescopes. Some experts also believe that his writing indicates that he wished to avoid war and had a pacifist streak.

    The following poem by the Meiji Emperor was published in English translation by Harold Wright in the Kyoto Journal:

     

    Being all alone

    And consoling our own heart

    for this one day,

    The time was spent quietly

    in the writing of poems

     

    Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989) also penned many poems and new rare caches of his creative outputs are still coming to light decades after his death.

    New waka poems, including poems that show Japan’s role in World War II, occupied his thoughts as he aged, and have made their way into the public domain as recently as 2019

    Emperor Akihito, his son now known as Emperor Emeritus, and his wife Michiko have also written and published books and poetry, including a collection of more than 300 poems titled Tomoshibi Light , which was published in English in 1991. The collection was originally published in Japanese in 1986 when Akihito was still Crown Prince.

    Many anticipate that the new Emperor, Naruhito, who took up the position on 1 May 2019, will continue this long tradition, but most doubt he will write multiple poems on a daily basis like his predecessor, the Meiji Emperor.

    That said, a book written by him about his experience as a student at Oxford University has been published in English, translated by Sir Hugh Cortazzi (1924-2018), a former British Ambassador to Japan, The Thames and I: A Memoir of Two Years at Oxford

    In addition to writing books and poetry, some emperors are known to have had much broader interests that have led to them subscribing to international magazines and publications long before this was possible for most in Japan. 

    In 1875, Emperor Komei, for example, was listed amongst the names of the subscribers to the Illustrated London News (1842-1971), the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine. Two recent emperors, Akihito and Hirohito, have subscribed to international magazines including another British publication, Nature, the weekly science journal.  

    In fact, Emperor Akihito, who has a species of goby fished named after him, has done much more than just write poems and read about the latest scientific research trends alongside fulfilling his role as a constitutional monarch. He has published 38 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals including the world’s most prestigious ones, Nature and Science and has even been seen at one or two scientific conferences in Japan. 

    At times, Japan’s Imperial Literature and creative writing has even stretched into science fiction with one member of the Emperor’s family penning books that helped develop the genre now known as ‘cyberpunk’ using the pen name Bien Fu in the 1960s.

    Literary and publishing genes continue to flourish in the family. And in 2017, an essay by the Emperor’s daughter Princess Aiko, titled Praying for Peace in the World, was widely praised for its literary style and content. The Princess wrote the essay for the yearbook commemorating her graduation from Gakushuin Girls’ Junior High School.

     

    For over a thousand years many of Japan’s emperors have played an active role in publishing: writing poems, books and even scientific papers Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The Japanese word for novel entered the Japanese language in 1754 via China[UPDATED: 4-14-2019]

    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. 

    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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    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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    More than 50 Japanese authors have killed themselves since 1900[UPDATED: 12-27-2018]

    Research shows that at least 54 Japanese authors have committed suicide since 1900. This includes some of Japan’s most famous and highly regarded authors and one of its two Nobel prize winners, Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), as well as Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) after whom one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes is named. 

    Another very well known example is Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) who famously and publicly committed suicide. His spectacular death, age 45, in November two month before his birthday, made international news and confirmed his position as Japan’s most internationally famous individual and notorious author.

    Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) author of the novel No Longer Human, which alongside Dazai himself, is often cited by contemporary male Japanese writers as their favorite, also killed himself. Dazai, who attempted suicide several times from an early age, idolized Ryunosuke Akutagawa, whose death in 1927 had a very profound and terrible impact on him. 

    Sadly, Dazai’s own death in turn had a terrible impact on Hidemitsu Tanaka (1913-1949), the Olympic rower and novelist he mentored, who also killed himself. Tanaka wrote two Olympic related novels Orinposu no Kajitsu, The Fruit of Olympus, (1940) and Tantei Soshu, The Boat Rower, (1944). Tanaka killed himself at Dazai’s grave the year after Dazai’s death. 

    There is no doubt over how these four famous authors died, but Kawabata’s suicide is considered by some, including his wife, as accidental. Nevertheless, his death and the circumstances were reported widely and internationally as suicide in publications such as The New York Times, for instance. 

    Kawabata helped Mishima at several important points in his life and the two were close. Kawabata officiated at Mishima’s funeral, which was attended by thousands. However, unlike Mishima, Kawabata was at the end for his career and in poor heath when he died on the 16 April 1972, 17 months after Mishima. 

    Other well known Japanese authors included in the list of more than 50 authors who reportedly killed themselves are Takeo Arishima (1878-1923), Tamaki Hara (1905-1951) Ashihei Hino (1907-1960) and Hisashi Nozawa (1960-2004). And no doubt other lesser known and aspiring authors make have also taken their own lives.

    Japan is often associated with suicide partly due to its Kamikaze pilots in the war and stories about famous Samurai warriors. However, it does, in fact have a higher suicide rate than many nations.

    According to OECD data, Japan’s suicide rate is 18.7 per 100,000 one of the world’s highest rates amongst the nations surveyed by the OECD, and about 60 percent higher than the world average, but behind South Korea, which has an even higher rate at 28.7.

    People often cite Japan’s long tradition of an ‘honourable suicide’ as one reason for the high rate and also the lack of the Christian concept of sin and suicide being one such sin.
    More than 50 Japanese authors have killed themselves since 1900 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Honnomushi is Japanese for bookworm and there are hundreds of thousands of them in Japan[UPDATED: 11-8-2018]

    The Japanese for an avid and devoted reader, honnomushi (本の虫), is similar to the word used in English and many other languages, bookworm. The direct translation of honnomushi is book insect or bug. 

    Bookworm and honnomushi, as well as being the common informal term for bibliophiles, is used in both languages to describe any insect that is thought to bore through books.

    Actual book-borers, unlike avid book buying readers in Japan, are actually uncommon. The Oxford Dictionary defines them as: “the larva of a wood-boring beetle which feeds on the paper and glue in books”. 

    These pesky creatures that librarians have hated for centuries are sometimes referred to as booklouse (Liposcelis divinatorius). There are also some types of moths that are attracted to book bindings. 

    Japan has one of the world’s highest literary rates and the average Japanese person reads for four hours per week – making the country very fertile ground for nurturing metaphorical bookworms. 

    The term honnomushi is used regularly by Japanese bloggers in writing about the books they are reading. And there are many publications depicting book-loving bookworm characters, often girls, such as Bungaku Shojo (Literature Girl), a 16-volume light novel series by Mizuki Nomura about members of a high school literature club that has sold more than a million copies. 

    There are many different terms in Japanese that use the word bug or insect; not just honnomushi. Other interesting examples include: mushinoshirase (message from a bug) meaning foreboding, hunch, a gut feeling; and mushinoiki (breath of a bug) meaning lifeless or barely alive, to list just two. 

    Various theories exist about the origin of these phrases, but experts believe most of them may come from Koshin-Shinko, a type of Japanese folklore based on Taoist-beliefs including the belief that we are all born with three bugs or worms in our stomachs, which require careful management.
    Honnomushi is Japanese for bookworm and there are hundreds of thousands of them in Japan Posted by Richard Nathan