Factbook

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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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    Mount Fuji, which is featured in Japan’s oldest fictional prose and first collection of poetry, is still a powerful literary motif[UPDATED: 12-1-2021]

    In June 2013 the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO announced that Mount Fuji would be recognised as a World Heritage Site. The official proposal that led to the mountain winning this status was known as ‘Fujisan: Sacred Place and Source of Artistic Inspiration’. 

    Mount Fuji, also known as Fujiyama, and Fujisan is Japan’s highest mountain. It is volcanic and last erupted in 1707-1708. Mount Fuji has had a huge impact on Japanese culture including its literature in all its forms and formats. According to UNESCO, it has “inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimage for centuries”. 

    Japan’s oldest extant fictional prose The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, from the Heian Period (794-1185), which tells the tale of Princess Kaguya, features the mountain at the end of the story. Mount Fuji also features in the ManyoshuCollection of Ten Thousand Leaves, Japan’s oldest surviving book of poetry, which was compiled even earlier during Japan’s Nara Period (710-794), when the nation’s capital was located in Nara. 

    Japan’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Yasunari Kawabata (1899- 1972) used it in his works, including First Snow on Fuji; as did the Zen master and poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) who wrote poems about it. Contemporary authors including Randy Taguchi, whose collection of short stories Fujisan about the lives of dysfunctional Japanese individuals living under the shadow of the mountain, continue to draw on it for inspiration. 

    The mountain has been an enduring icon and influence on Japanese literature and the nation’s creative communities. Academics have written books on its influence; books like The Literature of Mt. Fuji: Japanese Classic Literature and Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan. It has also famously featured in woodblock prints by some of Japan’s best-known artists as well as many other Japanese art forms. 

    Its power and influence endures to this day – and it is probably too early to predict if or when Mount Fuji, which stands at 3,776 metres, will reach its cultural and literary peak.

    Mount Fuji, which is featured in Japan’s oldest fictional prose and first collection of poetry, is still a powerful literary motif Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Two famous Japanese authors and the grandson of another, after whom Japan’s most prestigious literary prize is named, attended the famous Beatles concert at the Budokan in 1966[UPDATED: 9-9-2021]

    In 1966 The Beatles gave a milestone concert at Japan’s martial arts arena the Budokan in Tokyo, cementing Japan’s fascination with and long lasting love of the British pop group.

    The Beatles were in fact the first such group to perform at the venue and a British diplomat described their arrival in the land of the rising sun as “the Beatles typhoon” that “swept the youth of Japan off their feet”.

    The concert and the live album (The Beatles at the Budokan, Tokyo) it spawned are famous. But what is less well known is that Japan’s most notorious author Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) attended the celebrated concert with Shusaku Endo (1913-1996), a highly regarded Christian writer, and Hiroshi Akutagawa (1920-1981), the grandson of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), after whom the Akutagawa Prize, one of Japan’s most important literary awards, is named.

    This unusual literary troupe, two of whom where in their 40s, were reportedly more interested in the cult-like hysteria of the fans and the “religious” euphoria of the event than the lyrics of the songs such as Day Tripper, Yesterday and Paperback Writer that were performed.

    Reportedly, Mishima was unimpressed and the experience of  the Fab Four and their noisy fans was not to elicit any kind of memorable or lasting literary response from this esteemed group of writers.

    The Beatles, in fact, played three concerts at the Budokan and still possessed the look of their early years with their ‘mop-top’ hairstyles. It was actually one of the last times the group were filmed with this early look and image, that like The Beatles themselves, Japan took to heart.

    It has been said that, despite what the three observers with their fine literary pedigree may have thought at the time, the concerts were an important cultural moment in Japan’s post-war renewal. Some go as far as arguing that it helped inspire and contribute to Japan’s extraordinary economic optimism and subsequent boom in the 1980s.

    What is indisputable is the cultural response. It was significant and can be observed by the number of tribute bands that have followed in the concerts’ wake.

    And many of Japan’s next generation of authors, often dubbed as the first generation of postmodern authors, count themselves as major Beatles fans. This includes the likes of Soji Shimada, one of Japan’s most famous mystery writers, who says he still dreams of singing a duet with Paul McCartney – but in a Tokyo karaoke parlour rather than on stage at the Budokan.

    Another author, Haruki Murakami titled his 1987 breakthrough novel, Norwegian Wood after the title of the Beatles track of the same name released in 1965 by the band as Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).

    And one of his recent works, a short story, which was adapted for film in 2021 is titled after another Beatles songs Drive My Car.

    Two famous Japanese authors and the grandson of another, after whom Japan’s most prestigious literary prize is named, attended the famous Beatles concert at the Budokan in 1966 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Cross-dressing and transgenderism were popular themes in late Edo Japanese literature[UPDATED: 8-9-2021]

    Japan’s Edo period began in 1603 and ended in 1868. It was a peaceful and prosperous period during which Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa Shoguns; was isolated from the world; and adhered to strict rigid social hierarchies, which were very much the order of the day.

    Edo, now known as Tokyo, became the nation’s capital and grew rapidly into the world’s largest city and a very dynamic one at that.  This growth was not incremental over centuries like Paris and London, but almost overnight, after the nation’s capital was moved from Kyoto.

    The inhabitants of Edo were a mix of samurai and commoners, estimated by historians to be a split of close to 50:50 with Samurai occupying about two thirds of the city and commoners crammed into the remaining third.

    Homosexuality was a feature amongst samurai for centuries and as the Edo period gained momentum and Edo grew, Japanese literature and publications began to reflect Edo’s new dynamics including androgyny, cross-dressing, bisexualism and transgendersim.

    Unlike the rigid social order itself, sexuality, mostly men’s, was more fluid and a popular theme in terms of both entertainment and reading.

    Hiraga Gennai (1728-1779), an inventor and author from a samurai background, wrote about homosexuality and gay life in Japan. His impact is still felt today in anime and light novels where characters, such as a cross-dressing lesbian in Ooku: The Inner Chambers for instance, are named after him.

    Gennai argued in his works that heterosexuality was actually more degenerate and dangerous than homosexual love, which was far superior.

    Another earlier example is The Great Mirror of Male Love, Nanshoku Okagami, by the poet Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693), published in 1687 a collection of homosexual stories part of the genre he invented know as the floating world genre of Japanese prose, yukiyo-zoshi.

    In the late Edo period some authors embraced these new trends about sexuality being fluid, ambiguous and not the least bit rigid like society itself.

    Two such authors included  Jippensha Ikku (1765-1831), Japan’s first professional author who generated enough royalties to live from and who was famous for his Kibyoshi, Yellow Books considered by some as the world’s first adult comic books – along with Kyokutei Bakin (1767-1848) famous for his Yomihon.

    They and others depicted cross-dressing, bisexualism, homoeroticism and transgendersim in their works. Unashamed sexuality and scatology, published as Shunga for example, were also popular and prominent.

    These and other examples such as the following facts: that Asia’s first gay magazine was launched in Japan in 1971; that Japanese officials handed out a novel with an important transgender character at the 1993 Tokyo G-7 summit by Banana Yoshimoto; and that the genre of manga known as Boys Love (BL) about romantic or sexual relationships between male characters generally written by women for women; as well as the pioneering romance author Nobuko Yoshiya (1896-1973) who lived openly as a lesbian, are often cited as so-called important or pioneering examples of Japan’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) related publishing.

    And Japanese authors are still not ignoring these themes today with novels such as Cross by the award-winning author Hiroka Yamashita, for example, being published. This work, which has echoes of Lou Reed’s famous song Walk on the Wilde Side about it is a tale of identity, cross-dressing and sexual fluidity.

    Cross-dressing and transgenderism were popular themes in late Edo Japanese literature 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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    Japan’s first ‘I-novels’ were written and published in 1906 and 1907[UPDATED: 6-3-2021]

    The I-novel also known as watakushi shosetsu, is a type of confessional autobiographical Japanese novel generally written in the first person.

    The very first ones are said to have been HakaiBroken Commandment by Toson Shimazaki (1872-1943) and Futon, The Quilt, by Katai Tayama (1872-1930), published in 1906 and 1907, respectively. 

    The genre, however, was only defined retrospectively after their publication and the term, I-novel (watakushi shostesu), did not in fact appear, according to historians, until 1920-21. Today the genre is known outside Japan in its broadest sense by the rather voguish term autofiction.

    Though an important and well-known genre within Japanese fiction, a clear definition still feels a little elusive. The genre falls broadly into two categories: confessional novels; and mental state novels, which focus on an author’s observations, attitudes and thoughts.

    One of the earliest essays to define the I-novel was published in 1925 by Koji Uno (1891-1961) Watakushi shostesu shiken, My personal View of the I-novel.

    According to Narrating the Self: Fictions of Japanese Modernity by Tomi Suzuki, some have tried to define the I-novel thematically, while others as a direct and faithful transcription or confession of an author’s personal life.

    Having said all this, there are some I-novels that have been written in the third person. But others deliberately avoid the use of the word, I, watakushi, in their prose.

    Interestingly, some Japanese authors decided that the best approach to becoming a successful and famous I-novel author was to live an odd or outrageous life, and then writing about it.

    A contemporary example of the genre is The Guest Cat by the poet Takashi Hiraide, which became a New York Times bestseller following its publication in English in 2014.

    This book, about a writer, his wife – a proofreader and a regular feline visitor, has now been published in at least 15 languages, and is sometimes translated from English as well as the original Japanese. 

    This is something that has perplexed the author who was aware that the English edition had used the word while he had consciously avoided the use of the Japanese word for I – watukushi in the original Japanese, making the novella, for him at least, an I-novel

    There is, in fact, a long tradition in Japan of writing about personal experiences and observations. It’s a tradition that goes back long before the very first I-novels appeared. One such publication is Essays in Idleness, written in 1330 by Kenko Yoshida (1284-1350).

    It is a collection of 243 short essays or notes written almost like a stream of consciousness that continues to captivate to this day. Indeed, it is still widely studied; and is considered one of the definitive books on Japanese aesthetics.

    Japan’s first ‘I-novels’ were written and published in 1906 and 1907 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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    The Nobel Prize committee cited Rudyard Kipling’s writing on the manners and customs of the Japanese when they awarded him his Nobel prize in 1907[UPDATED: 6-2-2021]

    Carl David af Wirsén (1842-1912), the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy that awards the Nobel Prize in literature, cited Rudyard Kipling’s (1865-1936) writings on the manners and customs of the Japanese as an example of Kipling’s distinctive, original and sometimes ironic style of writing when he presented Kipling with his Nobel prize in December 1907.

    Kipling, an English journalist and author of books including The Jungle Book, visited Japan in 1889 and 1892. No other leading English literary figure of his day is thought to have spent so long in Japan or to have written so fully about the country. Thomas Cook, the travel agency, helped Kipling plan his first trip to Japan and onwards to the United States. 

    Oscar Wilde wrote in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying that ‘the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people… The Japanese people are… simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art,’ which triggered the following response from Kipling, who was just 23 and still unknown, on his arrival in Nagasaki in 1889, ‘Mister Oscar Wilde of The Nineteenth Century is a long toothed liar!’

    Sir Hugh Cortazzi (1924-2018), the former British Ambassador to Japan and George Webb published an edited collection of Kipling’s writings in 1988 including letters, newspaper articles, and verse on Japan, a country that Kipling seems to have been fascinated by, entitled Kipling’s Japan.

    A good example of his Japan related prose is a verse quoted in the book’s introduction: ‘Rangoon shall strew her rubies at your feet, New skies shall show uncharted constellations, And gentle earthquakes in Japan shall meet Your rage for observations’.

    The Nobel Prize committee cited Rudyard Kipling’s writing on the manners and customs of the Japanese when they awarded him his Nobel prize in 1907 Posted by Richard Nathan