Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    David Bowie’s favourite novel by Yukio Mishima, an author he was fascinated by, was The Sailor Who Fell from Grace from the Sea[UPDATED: 2-28-2018]

    It is well known that David Bowie (1947-2016), the British singer songwriter and actor, was a fan of the Japanese author Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). He painted his portrait, included his name in the lyrics of at least one of his songs; and Yukio Mishima was one of only two Japanese writers included in Bowie’s list of his favourite 100 books, alongside Tadanori Yokoo, the artist and graphic designer sometimes described as Japan’s Andy Warhol. 

    Mishima’s novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace from the Sea (午後の曳航), published in 1963, was Bowie’s favourite. It tells the tale of a band of delinquent boys in a Yokohama suburb; who reject the adult world “as illusory, hypocritical and sentimental”, and train themselves in “a brutal callousness they call objectivity.” When the Westernised mother of one of them begins an affair with a ship’s officer, Ryuji, the friends initially idealize the sailor; but subsequently decide that he is in fact soft and romantic, a betrayal that requires a violent response. 

    The novel was made into a film, directed by Lewis John Carlino in 1979 after Mishima, who was no doubt the most famous Japanese man of his generation internationally and perhaps the most famous that had ever lived at that point in time, committed suicide in a highly stage-managed public manner, instantly making him notorious worldwide.  
    David Bowie’s favourite novel by Yukio Mishima, an author he was fascinated by, was The Sailor Who Fell from Grace from the Sea Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Historically, many of Japan’s most creative authors started life as samurai[UPDATED: 2-25-2018]

    Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653-1725), author of Love Suicides at Somezaki who is considered to be Japan’s Shakespeare 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. 

    During Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868) the military class learnt to read and even produce literature and were encouraged to do so; Chikamatsu and Basho are just two high profile examples. Unlike the West where the pen has often been said to mightier than the sword, in Japan people were encouraged to consider them as equal partners. In fact there is a Japanese expression for this 文武両道, bunbu-ryodo; roughly translated this means the way of sentences and warfare are equal, and highlights the importance of achieving some kind of balance in life. 

    Basho’s poetic travelogue, written hundreds of years ago, the Narrow Road to the North is still being read today and is now used to sell 100-day walking tours following the so-called ‘Basho Trail’ mimicking the poet’s pilgrimage route that winds through several of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. 

    The new era of samurai authorship that Basho was part of followed the arrival from Korea of movable type technology and the printing of the first Japanese book using the technology in 1593. Commercial publishing kicked off about a decade later in 1609, in Kyoto, at the start of the Edo Period, generating new career options for forward thinking samurai. 

    Edo, now known as Tokyo, also became a publishing centre with a growing market of readers to sell books to. The city grew in size becoming the world’s largest city with a population of a million by the 18th century, generating its own narratives and authors. 

    Until the middle of the 18th century most Japanese authors were from samurai backgrounds, but things began to change as literacy rates increased. Authors began selecting different target groups as readers; the warrior classes and intelligentsia, or the higher end of the emerging chonin (townspeople) class, the majority of who were merchants. The situation changed again during Japan’s Meiji Era (1868-1912) when the country rapidly modernised and opened up to the West. 

    However, the most famous true warrior samurai author is probably Musashi Miyamoto (1584-1645). He is primarily known in the West as the author of The Book of Five Rings. The book, which he wrote at the end of his life, is a guide to swordsmanship strategies. 

    Following an English translation by William Scott Wilson it became an essential business-strategy manual in the 1980s, when the Japanese economy was growing rapidly and Japanese influence was spreading worldwide. Unlike most Edo Period samurai authors who never drew their swords, Miyamoto very skilfully used his sword in battle and duals to kill opponents. 

    Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933) is another classic. Nitobe’s father was a retainer of a daimyo (warlord). Nitobe junior converted to Christianity and became a diplomat and international statesman and wrote his famous essay on samurai ethics in English in 1900. 

    The book, which was published in Japanese after its success in English, describes the sources of bushido (the way of the warrior) and the virtues most admired in Japan including self-control, duty and politeness. It had a major impact and influenced many including Former US President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who bought copies for his friends. 

    Despite his image and reputation Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), who killed himself with a sword in a very public manner using a painful traditional samurai methodology, was not technically from a samurai background. He was not in fact “born a samurai” as his father and grandfather were not from a samurai family.

    Mishima’s paternal grandmother (Natsu Nagai), who brought him up, however was. She was raised in an aristocratic household and could trace her linage back to one of the first Shoguns Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616), arguably Japan’s most important and influential samurai, through marriage.

    The Press Release announcing the award of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature to Kenzaburo Oe highlights his samurai background stating that he was “the scion of a prominent samurai family” from the Oe clan in Shikoku.
    Historically, many of Japan’s most creative authors started life as samurai Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The Book of Tea, published in 1906, provides guidance on how to appreciate not just tea, but Japanese literature and all that is pure and refined[UPDATED: 2-23-2018]

    “The tiny incidents of daily routine are as much a commentary of radical ideals as the highest flight of philosophy or poetry”, writes Tenshin Okakura (1862-1913) in his highly influential and acclaimed essay: The Book of Tea, in which he argues that tea has influenced much in Japan: homes, habits, porcelain, art and the country’s literature and aesthetic. 

    Japanese literature, like the periods and schools of Tea (Boiled Tea, Whipped Tea and Steeped Tea), has its own periods and genres that developed often in their own unique local manner in isolation, and each preparation of narrative prose like tea “leaves” has its own “individuality, its own special affinity with water and heat, its hereditary memories to recall, its own method of telling a story”. 

    According to The Book of Tea, which was originally written in English targeting an audience outside Japan: “art is only of value to the extent that it speaks to us. It might be a universal language if we ourselves were universal in our sympathies”. 

    The essay, which outlines the Zen principles of simplicity, incompleteness and the importance of the concealment of beauty that may be discovered, also provides useful advice for authors, creative writers, and critics. 

    Okakura writes that according to Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), who he considered to be Japan’s Shakespeare, one of the first principles of dramatic composition is “the importance of taking the audience into the confidence of the author”. And a masterpiece, be it a tea ceremony, the architecture of a tea room (some of which influenced Frank Lloyd Wright), a novel or short story” is a symphony played upon our finest feelings”.
    The Book of Tea, published in 1906, provides guidance on how to appreciate not just tea, but Japanese literature and all that is pure and refined Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s first monthly book series for Kindergartens, launched in 1907, is still being published 90 years later[UPDATED: 2-22-2018]

    Kinderbook was launched in 1927 as the Observational Picture Books Kinder Book, by Froebel-Kan, a Tokyo based company named after the German educator Friedrich Wilhelm A. Froebel (1782-1852), who established the world’s first kindergarten, and coined the name for these learning centres.  

    The decision to launch Japan’s first monthly picture book series for pre-school age children followed the first Japanese regulations in 1926, known as the Kindergarten Ordinance, introducing new standards and teacher qualifications for kindergartens. 

    The first issue, published the year after the regulations were enacted, was titled: All About Rice. Illustrated books were published monthly, in a magazine style approach, and were and still are distributed directly to kindergartens across Japan. The number of which increased after the Ordinance, when about 6% of the population attended kindergarten. 

    Froebel-Kan, founded in 1906, now owned by one of Japan’s largest printing companies, Toppan Printing Co.Ltd, still publishes the series, which has evolved and developed over the last 90 years alongside new printing, design and educational techniques. 

    Many talented authors and illustrators have worked on the series including the famous Japanese poet Shuntaro Tanikawa. The books document in a very unique way Japan’s modernisation and some difficult periods that its authors, illustrators and publisher had to navigate including: the aftermath of natural disasters and war. 

    According to its publisher’s website, the series “gives children the power to live and to develop their future, and an abundance of spirit”. The company now also publishes a monthly childcare magazine, sells playground equipment, and helps design kindergartens and early learning centres. It also publishes the popular Japanese language editions of Where’s Wally, by the English illustrator Martin Handford.
    Japan’s first monthly book series for Kindergartens, launched in 1907, is still being published 90 years later Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s oldest book is a religious text[UPDATED: 2-14-2018]

    Japan’s oldest surviving book is a religious Buddhist text called the Hokekyo gisho, the authorship of which is generally attributed to Shotoku Taishi (574-622) in 615.

    It is a commentary, that stresses the importance of faith, on the Lotus sutra from the Asuka Period (538-710), a period when Buddhism first arrived in Japan from Korea and China.

    It is owned by the Imperial Family and is sometimes also cited as an example of the oldest Japanese calligraphy.
    Japan’s oldest book is a religious text Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Despite large number of crime fiction titles being written Japan has one of the world’s lowest homicide rates[UPDATED: 2-14-2018]

    Despite a large number of crime fiction titles or Suiri Shosetsu (Japanese detective fiction) being written and published each year, Japan has one of the world’s lowest homicide rates of 0.3 (the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants), according to the OECD. This compares with an OECD average of 4.1.
    Despite large number of crime fiction titles being written Japan has one of the world’s lowest homicide rates Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s oldest novel and perhaps even the world’s oldest is The Tale of Genji[UPDATED: 2-12-2018]

    The Tale of Genji written by Murasaki Shikibu, in 1010, during Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185) is 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.

    However, there were also many poets and writers during this period and earlier including many notable women who wrote autobiographical narratives in diaries, memoirs and poetic writings and essays such as the Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon.

    Fragments from the original scroll The Tale of Genji was written on have survived and are preserved at two Japanese museums.
    Japan’s oldest novel and perhaps even the world’s oldest is The Tale of Genji Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japanese folk tales contain stories of time travel & shape-shifting animals[UPDATED: 2-12-2018]

    Japanese folk tales contain stories of time travel, shape-shifting animals – sometimes a Crane considered a National Treasure in Japan but more often foxes – as well as many different types of supernatural creatures. Some claim that a least one of these stories is the first reported account of an extra terrestrial visitation.
    Japanese folk tales contain stories of time travel & shape-shifting animals Posted by Richard Nathan