Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    Japan’s first magazine, and the first in Asia, dedicated to gay men, Barazoku, was launched in 1971[UPDATED: 1-22-2023]

    Japan’s first commercial magazine targeting gay men was launched in 1971.

    Barazoku, which is thought to have been Asia’s as well as Japan’s first commercial gay magazine, was not just sold in specialist bookshops and clubs. The magazine was distributed by the two major Japanese book and magazine distributors, Tohan and Nippan, making the magazine a national one and available in most major Japanese cities.

    The magazine whose name is made up of two words rose, bara, and tribe, zoku,is no longer published in print, but during the 33 years when it was, Barazoku survived disapproval, legal injunctions, and numerous arrests of its founder and editor, Bungaku Ito, who was not himself gay.

    Ito was an opportunistic publisher. Initially, he published a book on lesbianism titled Resubian Tekunikku, Lesbian Technique, the commercial success of which led him to publish a second book – Homo Technique, which contained some male nude photographs.

    Both were authored by Masami Akiyama, according to
    Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age by Mark J. McClelland.

    Much of the Barazoku’s revenue came from classified and personal advertisements. The magazine was published bimonthly and was generally about 70-pages in length. In its early years the magazine followed the typical format of Japanese magazines with articles, short stories, advice, interviews, and news as well as its popular and important classifieds section.

    Barazoku reportedly published anonymous work by some of Japan’s most famous poets and authors.

    Despite the demise of the print magazine itself, the term Barazoku is still sometimes used in Japan today as a term for gay men and its use is considered either controversial or old-fashioned by some.

    There is, however, also a website, which claims to be the official site of Barazoku, trying to keep the name alive for a new generation of readers.

    Following Barazoku’s example a cluster of other similar themed magazines were launched in the 1970s such as Adon (1974) Sabu (1974) and The Ken (1978).

     

    Japan’s first magazine, and the first in Asia, dedicated to gay men, Barazoku, was launched in 1971 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Julius Caesar, published in Japanese in 1883, was the first play by William Shakespeare to be translated into Japanese[UPDATED: 1-3-2023]

    The first published Japanese language translation of a play by William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) was Julius Caesar. It was published in 1883.

    The translation by Keizo Kawashima (1859-1933), which was in fact incomplete, was published in a Japanese newspaper. Nonetheless, it is considered by most experts to be the first Japanese translation of a Shakespeare play.

    Prior to this, quotes from Shakespeare plays, outlines and adaptations had already started appearing in Japanese often from well-known writers such as Kawasaki Robun (1829-1894), a prominent author and journalist who interestingly wrote a book published in 1872 that contains the first recipe in Japanese for making curry. In Robun’s case the Shakespeare play was Hamlet

    In 1884, Shoyo Tsubouchi (1859-1935), a Japanese writer and translator and later a professor at Waseda University, published the first complete Japanese translation of a Shakespeare play, also Julius Caesar. He gave it the title Shizaru Kidan Jigo no tachi Nagorino Kireaji, The Sharp Edge of Freedom’s Sword.

    It was a Kabuki-like adaption more than a direct or literal translation.  Early Shakespeare translations often targeted general readers not academics or scholars and as any schoolchild growing up in the United Kingdom knows Shakespeare is open to myriad interpretation. Tsubouchi published a new revised translation of Julius Caesar in 1913.

    That said, Hamlet was a play that several important Japanese authors translated in this period not just Robun. Ogai Mori (1862-1922), who is known for his contribution to the unification of written and spoken Japanese and for penning the ‘first modern Japanese short story’, for example, published a translation of Hamlet in 1889, something Bimyo Yamada (1868-1910), another famous novelist and poet, had also done the year before in 1888.

    Hamlet has since these early translations had a very special place amongst some of Japan’s most creative individuals and has now been adapted and translated numerous times after its somewhat late arrival in Japanese in Japan.  Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), probably Japan’s most notorious author, also had a go at adapting Hamlet into an illustrated children’s book.

    The celebrated Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), who loved reading and narratives with tragic scenarios and twists of fate, adapted Shakespeare’s plays into films set in Japan including Hamlet which no doubt has helped give further momentum to the interest that Shakespeare’s Hamlet elicits in Japan.

    There have subsequently been countless translations, adaptations, publications and performances of Shakespeare’s plays in the Japanese language, and Shakespearean films attract large audiences in Japan.

    Alongside Lewis Carroll’s (1832-1898) Alice in Wonderland and Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859-1930) Sherlock Holmes, which arrived in translation in Japan at a similar time, Shakespeare’s plays have probably been adapted and translated into Japanese more than any other literary works from England.

    Julius Caesar, published in Japanese in 1883, was the first play by William Shakespeare to be translated into Japanese Posted by Richard Nathan
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    In the 1940s, studying medicine exempted individuals in Japan from being drafted as soldiers. It’s something that two of Japan’s most talented post-war storytellers did[UPDATED: 12-13-2022]

    Japan’s military conscription rules changed as the Second World War progressed. These changes included lowering the age that individuals had to reach before falling into scope for the Japanese wartime draft as well as the cancellation of university student deferments.

    Students who studied most subjects, including literature and the humanities, were drafted. Most ending up as soldiers, but some students were exempt such as students studying medicine. High school students were also mobilised to work in factories to help the war effort in its final years.

    This no doubt encouraged some literary types such as Kobo Abe (1924-1993), whose father was a doctor, to study medicine. In 1943 Abe entered Tokyo Imperial University Medical School, but after graduating he never actually practised clinical medicine.

    Many believe his wife, who was an artist and theatre designer and subsequently illustrated some of his books, was the inspiration and the main reason behind his decision to quit the medical profession shortly after he graduated from university and one year after they married in 1947.

    Abe went on to become one of Japan’s most renowned and respected authors as well as a favourite amongst Japanese creative types who have dubbed him ‘The Kafka of Japan’. His son, however, decided to return to the family tradition of becoming a practising doctor.

    Another brilliant Japanese storyteller who studied medicine in Japan in the 1940s and is known as ‘The Walt Disney of Japan‘, is Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989). He is probably Japan’s most famous animator and manga artist.

    Tezuka studied medicine at Osaka University from 1945. He also had a medical family background, and was already actively publishing stories as a student.

    Medical studies and the understanding of science, that Tezuka and Abe possessed, in particular the study of anatomy, had an impact on their storytelling. This is reflected most evidently in both of their robot-related narratives – a genre they were both pioneers within; and one that would eventually become something of a national obsession.

    Interestingly, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was also a trained clinician, and at one point ran a struggling medical practice in Hampshire, before making his name with his creations Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in 1887.

    Doyle just like Abe and Tezuka has had a major long term influence on publishing and storytelling trends in Japan, creating a cluster of ultra influential clinically-trained fiction writers, who have; alongside Akinari Ueda (1743-1809), an Edo Period (1603-1868) writer, a physician author and waka poet, famous for his spooky tale 
    Ugetsu Monogatari, Tales of Moonlight and Rain, helped change Japanese storytelling for the better.

    In the 1940s, studying medicine exempted individuals in Japan from being drafted as soldiers. It’s something that two of Japan’s most talented post-war storytellers did Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Yukio Mishima chose his pen name when he was just 16[UPDATED: 11-17-2022]

    Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), one of Japan’s most famous writers, chose his pen name when he was just 16.

    The discovery of a draft of his book Hana Zakari no Mori, The forest in full bloom, has his name, Kimitake Hiraoka, crossed out and the name Yukio Mishima written alongside it. This early draft was written when he was 16. Reportedly, he adopted this pseudonym to spare his father, a civil servant, any embarrassment. 

    The draft was found in Kumamoto in 2016. The forest in full bloom was published in 1941 in the literary journal Bungei Bunka.  

    Mishima, who was reportedly considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 and on at least two other occasions, committed suicide in 1970.
    Yukio Mishima chose his pen name when he was just 16 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    In 1968 the Japanese edition of ‘Playboy’ serialised a Yukio Mishima novel[UPDATED: 11-7-2022]

    Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) is known for many things including killing himself and being nominated multiple times for the Nobel Prize in Literature and never winning. In his short writing life (around 21 years), Mishima was highly prolific publishing 40 novels, translations including a translation of Alice in Wonderland and many plays. He also wrote for both highbrow and popular audiences.

    In 1968 the year Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) become the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mishima’s novel Life for Sale, Inochi urimasu, described by critics as ‘an exhilarating piece of quirky fiction’ was published in serial format, in 21 installments, in Weekly Playboy, a Japanese adult magazine.

    The work is an absurd and dark satire written in the style of a noire crime fiction thriller, sprinkled with some eroticism. Its lead character is an advertising copywriter, called Hanoi Yamada, who after attempting suicide puts his life up for sale.

    Weekly Playboy was launched in 1966 in Japan by the manga and magazine publishing house Shueisha, a sister company of Viz Media the largest US publisher of manga and graphic novels, and is still in print today.

    In addition to the photography, Weekly Playboy also publishes serialised fiction, which has a long tradition in Japan.

    Life for Sale was subsequently published in book format on Christmas day in 1968 and much later adapted for television in Japan, as a six episode drama by Amazon Prime. An English translation by Stephen Dodd was published in 2019.

    In 1968 the Japanese edition of ‘Playboy’ serialised a Yukio Mishima novel Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan experienced a ‘Bushido’ publishing boom in the early 1900s[UPDATED: 10-13-2022]

    Bushido: the Soul of Japan, which US President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), bought copies of for his friends, is still probably the most famous book about samurai ethics and the so-called way of the Japanese warrior gentleman.

    It was published initially in English in 1900, and subsequently, after its international success in Japanese in 1908, helped encourage a Bushido publishing boom in Japan that flourished between 1905 and 1914.

    Bushido: the Soul of Japan was penned by Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933) a prominent figure from an elite samurai background who later became an international diplomat.

    The books published during this period helped define and brand Japan’s unique samurai-spirit within Japan and throughout the world.

    They were published in a period when there was growing international interest in Japan following the nation’s victory over Russia in the Russo-Japan War (1904-1905) and the nation’s long period of self-imposed international hibernation during its Edo period (1603-1868).

    The actual provenance of the term Bushido, The Way of Warrior, is, however, much less clear. Some, including apparently Nitobe himself, thought that the term was coined in Japan’s Meiji period (1868-192) by Nitobe.

    However, the term is said to actually date back to the 17th century and was also used in Japan’s Meiji period before Nitobe’s book was published, for example, in 1898 when a martial arts group in Japan published a journal titled: Bushido Zasshi.

    That said, despite thousands of books being written and published about Japanese swords and samurai over a very long period in Japan, the definition of the ideal samurai, and Japan’s so-called fighting spirit, has constantly evolved and there is probably actually no historical basis of a single defining and unifying code of samurai ethics.

    The term and all it encompasses is probably nothing more than a romantic repositioning of the past that tries to connect the perceived chivalry of European knights with those of Japanese samurai. Thereby making a rising Japan and its civilization seem less threatening.

    Importantly, the role of the samurai had actually changed significantly in Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), the period that preceded the Meiji period, when the roles of many samurai transitioned from that of warriors to bureaucrats, for example, and even into authors and poets.

    During this Shogun-run unusually long peaceful period, the authorities encouraged publishing and many new pursuits flourished. All international activities were heavily restricted creating what some have called Japan’s Galapagos syndrome when the nation evolved independently in glorious hermit-like isolation from the rest of the world.

    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.

    The subsequent Bushido publishing boom took place in a period when Japan was changing, opening up to the West, as well as trying to figure out what it meant to be a modern industrialised international open nation-state.

    This included reconsidering how as a nation it dressed, wore its hair, and ate – not to mention the right kind of sports Japan’s youth should play, in order to create the right type of menfolk a nation, which aspired to be compared with other leading nations, apparently required.

    An example of this debate can be glimpsed in 1911 in the pages of the Tokyo edition of the Asahi Shimbun, a leading Japanese newspaper, which published a series of ‘anti-baseball articles’ and argued that Rugby was the better sport for Japan and its samurai spirit.

    One article quotes comments from Nitobe saying: “Playing baseball could be likened to picking a pocket”. “To play baseball, you must be able to deceive the opposing team and lead them into a trap”, and “you must always sharpen your senses so that you will never miss the chance to steal a base”. Although Americans can play such a sport, he argued: “British and German people cannot play it. The British national sport is football, and to play football, you have to be strong and brave enough to keep the ball without fearing injury. You must keep the ball even if your nose is crooked, or your jawbone is fractured”. Americans, he believed, “cannot play such a tough sport”.

    In fact, by the early 1900s so many books had been published ‘Explaining Japan’ that one author felt compelled in 1904 to write a book summarising them.

    Not everyone embraced this Meiji period cultural branding, decoding and positioning of Japan and its warrior class. Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), after whom one of Japan’s most important literary prizes is named, poured scorn on the concept in his 1916, somewhat cynical short story, The Handkerchief, hankachi.

    The story, which has the following opening line: “Hasegawa Kinzo, professor in the Faculty of Law at Tokyo Imperial University, was sitting in a rattan chair on the veranda, reading Stringberg’s Dramturgy”, was published in Chuokoron, an influential monthly magazine that is now one of Japan’s oldest continuously published magazines.

    The Handkerchief is a story replete with cynicism and scorn about a Japanese professor of colonial policy married to an American woman who adores Japanese culture.

    The professor is said to be modeled on Nitobe, and the short story, which Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) loved, a criticism of Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan, which had been published 16 years earlier.

    Nitobe was a prolific writer of papers, books and articles but his literary legacy is now tightly bound to his short book, Bushido. A book that has very successfully defined the lens through which many have and continue to view Japan. A lens that some thought even at its time of publication was inaccurate and inappropriate.

    His Bushido book triggered literary responses from other Japan-based authors, not just Akutagawa. Another excellent example is Representative Men of Japan by the Christian author Kanzo Uchimura (1861-1930) who wanted to make the world aware of other types of Japanese men and their values, views, philosophies and ways of living.

    Uchimura’s collection of essays published in 1908, written in English introduced five wise men, some of whom have been called sages, to readers; Saigo Takamori (1828-1877), Uesugi Yozan (1751-1822), Ninomiya Sontoku (1787-1856), Nakae Toju (1608-1648) and Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282).

    Interestingly, this thoughtful 231-page book was translated into German from the original English in 1908 by Johannes Hesse (1847-1916) the father of the Nobel Prize-winning author Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), an author who was himself influenced by Japan, initially by the nation’s poetry. Extracts of his works have been included in Japanese translation in school textbooks and Hesse has an almost cult-like status within Japanese literary circles.

    In the 1980s, before the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble and so-called lost decades, when the world’s gaze fell on Japan again as the nation experienced another expansive period (this time limited to the economic front), there was another mini-boom in Bushido related publishing.

    And books on Bushido and all things samurai are still published today and used as promotional tools to brand Japan as an exciting tourist destination and many other things besides.

    So even if the provenance of the word, bushido, and its original meaning are murky, the term has still managed to wrap itself around Japan and its perceived national identity encompassing values such as; self-control, honour, stoic-resolve, politeness and endurance.

    An enduring legacy that perhaps brave and loyal sword-swinging samurai of the past might actually be proud of and aspire to even if they weren’t actually aware of the moral code of the Japanese warrior gentleman when they were alive.

    Japan experienced a ‘Bushido’ publishing boom in the early 1900s Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Writing arrived in Japan in the 5th century AD from China[UPDATED: 7-8-2022]

    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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    Essays in Idleness, written in the 14th century is considered one of the definitive books on Japanese aesthetics[UPDATED: 6-7-2022]

    Essays in Idleness, written in 1330, by the Buddhist monk Kenko Yoshida (1283-1352) is a collection of 243 short essays or notes written in a style which almost takes the form of a stream of consciousness. Some of these essays and notes are a few pages long, others just a few sentences.

    Essays in Idleness, Tsurezuregusa, is still widely studied and cited; and is considered one of the definitive books on Japanese aesthetics and the attitude towards life that articulates and explains the principle that ‘beauty is bound to be perishable’ as well as the impermanence of everything in life. The acceptance of which brings insight and happiness through the greater appreciation of what exists and what we already possess.

    A good example from this so-called ‘canon of Japanese aesthetic taste’ is: ‘Are we to look at cheery blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring – these are even more deeply moving.’

    It is hard to imagine a similar quirky poetic miscellany having such iconic status in some other countries or societies or perhaps emerging, for example, in a hardworking frugal Calvinist society were idleness is sometimes viewed as a sin and industriousness, as well as the work ethic, one of society’s most important virtues and a moral duty. Societies where at times much less importance has been placed on cultural pursuits such as art and music, and even literature as we know it today, despite as Kenko, who was a historical contemporary of the Italian author Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) famous for his depiction of hell, put it: ‘The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known.’  
    Essays in Idleness, written in the 14th century is considered one of the definitive books on Japanese aesthetics Posted by Richard Nathan