Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    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
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    Japan’s first ‘I-novels’ were written and published in 1906 and 1907[UPDATED: 5-29-2020]

    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.

    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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    Many of Japan’s most interesting creative writers cite ‘No Longer Human’ by Osamu Dazai as their favourite book or one that had a huge influence on them[UPDATED: 5-29-2020]

    According to Fuminori Nakamura, one of the most exciting new generation of Japanese authors, his only escape when he was young was reading, and the one book that really resonated for him, was No Longer Human (Ningen shikkaku), by Osamu Dazai (1909-1948). 

    Many other leading Japanese authors say something similar when asked about influential books or authors. The multi award-winning author Shusuke Michio, for instance admits that No Longer Human was the first novel he read after his “bookworm girlfriend” in high school gave him a copy changing the course of his life. Up until that point he had been more interested in music and being in a band than books. 

    Dazai is an author who seems to fascinate many of Japan’s commercially successful and brilliantly creative male contemporary writers. They seem to find echoes of themselves in him and this novel in particular about a reclusive young man who feels “disqualified from being human” but finds solace in literature. 

    Ryu Murakami, author of Tokyo Decadence and Coin Locker Babies, who is from an older generation than Michio and Nakamura, is another example of a high profile award-winning author who has been influenced by Dazai.

    Reviewers have described him as: “Dazai’s true spiritual heir: a worldly, unshockable writer whose natural milieu lurks in the degeneracy of the world around him”, a moniker that he would no doubt be delighted by.  
    Many of Japan’s most interesting creative writers cite ‘No Longer Human’ by Osamu Dazai as their favourite book or one that had a huge influence on them Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japanese authors in the 1800s turned tuberculosis into a romantic condition[UPDATED: 3-16-2020]

    In Japan’s Meiji era (1868-1912) when the nation was rapidly modernising after more than 250 years of isolation, Western influences were extremely strong. These spanned almost everything – even literary perceptions of tuberculosis, which was originally stigmatised in Japan.

    The disease became a romantic condition with titles such as Hototogisu, referred to in English as The Cuckoo or Nami-Ko: A Realistic Novel, penned in 1899, by Roka Tokutomi (1868-1927).

    Hototogisuone of the first of this genre depicting tuberculosis, was published long before Thomas Mann’s (1875-1955) famous novel, The Magic Mountain, which was published in German in 1924, and is considered a classic of this genre.

    The Magic Mountain, a favourite of contemporary Japanese authors, such as Haruki Murakami, uses the experiences of a young man at a Swiss sanatorium to depict the microcosm of Europe and the ideologies of the time.

    Hototogisu, on-the-other-hand is the tragic tale, of a young woman called Namiko who contracts tuberculosis, that blends grief, and love with tragic realism in its narrative. 

    A digital edition of an English translation published in 1904 under the title Nami-Ko, translated by Sakae Shioya (1873-1961) and E. F. Edgett (1867-1946), is available online.

    The author writes in its introduction: “it was not to reveal our life and customs to the foreigner that Nami-Ko was written however, for at the time of its writing, four years ago, I did not dream that it would ever be translated, or, indeed that it would ever reach the popularity it has gained in my country”.

    According to Nobue Urushihara Urvil, an academic at the University of Texas, in modern Japanese literature, tuberculosis was a special subject. In addition to the romanticised images of the illness, what is characteristic of the construction of tuberculosis in Japanese literature is its association with the concept of the individual or self

    “Tuberculosis in literature of the time was celebrated as a tool to conceive the inferiority of [the] modern person. Tuberculosis was an important theme in an enormous number of works of literature including novels, short stories, haiku poems, free-style poetry, and essays”, according to Urvil.

    Many Japanese writers were themselves suffering from tuberculosis and most of them who had it died from the disease. 

    Nonetheless, not all diseases were treated the same way by Japan’s Meiji era authors. In contrast, syphilis, which some famous Japanese authors are known to have had, as well as leprosy (Hansen’s Disease), were generally not depicted in works of fiction, and when they were, they were not usually seen as romantic or philosophical diseases that portrayed the human condition, and the peripheral and margins of society. 

    That said, the world’s first cell phone novel, or keitai shosetsu, Deep Love, released in 2003 treated AIDS as a romantic and tragic condition with echoes of Hototogisu in its narrative. Written by a 30-year-old Japanese man, it’s a gritty young-adult novel about a girl who turns to prostitution to pay for her boyfriend’s heart surgery, and tragically dies after she contracts AIDS. 

    The 2020 pandemic, caused by the coronavirus (Covid-19), immediately spawned reading lists on social media as well as book recommendations from independent bookshops and newspapers including lists such as: Pandemics: An Essential Reading List ; Your Quarantine Reader, and Your coronavirus reading list: reader suggestions to bring joy in difficult times.

    These lists include famous titles such as: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) published in 1722, The Plague by Albert Camus (1913-1960) , Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and even occasionally books by Japanese authors, Ascendance of a Bookworm by Miya Kazuki for instance. 

    Unsurprisingly, the lists have generated new interested in and demand for these titles. Camus’ novel started flying off the shelves in Japan in March 2020 at the height of news about the virus, for example, leading to Shinchosha, Camus’ Japanese publisher, to order a reprint. 

    New ‘Lockdown Literature’ is bound to start appearing in Japan and elsewhere in different forms and formats, but whether the canon of ‘Corona-Literature’ to come will be defined by a narrative or author that treats the virus as a romantic condition, like tuberculosis, or focuses on the self, relationships at a distance or social distancing in our social media age is something that future generations of readers will determine.
    Japanese authors in the 1800s turned tuberculosis into a romantic condition Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s first magazine, and the first in Asia, dedicated to gay men, Barazoku, was launched in 1971[UPDATED: 2-28-2020]

    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, zokui s 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.

     

    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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    Japan’s first generation of postmodern authors grew up listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles[UPDATED: 2-26-2020]

    The generation of Japanese authors that grew up in the 1960s, including some internationally renowned names like Kiyoshi Kasai, Haruki Murakami, Kenji Nakagami, Masahiko Shimada, Soji Shimada and Genichiro Takahashi, are sometimes referred to by academics as Japan’s first postmodern authors.

    They were all born after the Second World War, experienced the student movements of the 1960s, and grew up during a period when Japan was rebuilding and growing in confidence.

    Their worldview and experiences were very distinct from the generation of authors that preceded them, who witnessed devastation and national defeat. Authors like Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) and Yukio Mishima (1925-1970).

    Japan’s so-called first postmodern authors grew up in an optimistic period heavily influenced by the United States and a growing mass market that included new American pulp-fiction arriving in Japan in translation. The influence of Western music, literature, film and television would have been significant.

    As is often the case in Japan after an initial period of digestion that involved imitation and experimentation local creative communities, including the nation’s writers and storytellers, started to develop their own approaches and styles. 

    These postmodern authors were the first generation to grow up listening to the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, which many of them became ardent fans of.

    The guitar-playing Beatles-loving so-called master of post-modern Japanese whodunnits, Soji Shimada, who is credited with inventing a new sub-genre of murder mysteries, is for example, on record saying that one of his dreams has been to sing If I Fell (A Hard Day’s Night) in chorus, as a duet, with Paul McCartney.

    Shimada also cites many Western films, such as Slueth directed by Joesph L. Mankiewicza and staring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, as influences.

    Their writing styles and narratives, which authors such as Murakami for instance have woven musical influences into sometimes for simple effect and at other times as a literary device, evolved and developed to mirror and document Japan’s social and economic changes.

    Works by these post-modern Japanese authors now span different genre and periods including, for example, the inflation and subsequent collapse of Japan’s economic bubble in the 1990s that led to Japan’s so-called Lost Decade (1991-2000).

    These rhythms of change combined with different Western, often American, motifs have fascinated many outside Japan, including documentary makers at the BBC. As well as academics and filmmakers from other countries including Denmark, who have looked to these authors and their works, especially Murakami’s, in order to explain and explore contemporary Japan and its Heisei Period (1989-2019) in particular.

    In 2019, the Asahi Shimbun surveyed 120 experts, who had contributed book reviews to this important national Japanese newspaper about their choice for the best book from the Heisei period. 1Q84 by Murakami topped the list, which will no doubt encourage even more journalists, academics and historians to use his works in particular to depict and understand both postmodern Japan and postmodern Japanese literature.

    Japan’s first generation of postmodern authors grew up listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles Posted by Richard Nathan
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    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
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    Narrative scrolls, emaki-mono, are the historical foundation of Japanese literature[UPDATED: 10-4-2019]

    Historically, Japanese literature began life as a unique blend of painting and prose, which generally took the form of narrative scrolls, known as emaki-mono in Japanese.

    For thousands of years these handscrolls have been used to record and share stories in Japan. An extremely famous and noteworthy example is Japan’s oldest novel, and according to some the world’s oldest, The Tale of Genji, which was written on illustrated scrolls by Murasaki Shikibu (978-1014), in 1010, during Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185).

    This classic Japanese tale of romance consists of 54 scrolls and a million words; as well as multiple love interests, illustrations and poems. It falls within the definition of a novel as it is prose narrative of significant length.

    Scrolls are and have been important in other countries as well as Japan, including China for instance, but in the 12th and 13th centuries Japan’s approach to their publication developed into a truly unique national style.

    Few examples of scrolls from these periods have survived until today. However, the rare few that have are of significant academic interest.

    According to The Art and Architecture of Japan by Robert Treat Paine and Alexander Soper, “No section of Japanese art history possesses so much interest and importance” as the scroll paintings from this period. 

    Another important early Japanese example of an illustrated scroll is Kokon Chomonju, A Collection of Tales Written and Heard in Ancient and Modern Times, generally believed to have been written by Narisue Tachibana in 1254.

    Tachibana famously wrote that he was so fond of pictures that he collected stories to preserve them and render them as paintings. It’s a good illustration of the close relationship that prose and painting enjoyed in the development of Japan’s literary canon.

     

    Narrative scrolls, emaki-mono, are the historical foundation of Japanese literature Posted by Richard Nathan