Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
If you would like to contribute to this compendium please submit your ideas here.
All will be considered for publication by our expert panel.
  • Share
    • History

    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
  • Share
    • History

    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
  • Share
    • History

    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
  • Share
    • History

    The term ‘Atomic Bomb Literature’ came into wide use in the 1960s[UPDATED: 5-5-2021]

    The term Atomic Bomb Literature, Genbaku bungaku, only came into use in the 1960s despite international publishers including, for example, The New Yorker publishing special issues and books about the atomic bombs much earlier and Japanese survivors documenting and writing about their personal experiences. 

    In August 1946, The New Yorker published a sensational special issue written by John Hersey (1914-1993) on Hiroshima that immediately sold out. It was subsequently published in book format by Knopf and translated into many different languages selling in the millions. However, immediately after the Second World War, for at least a decade, most information about the damage caused by the two atomic bombs was censored. 

    The term, ‘Atomic Bomb Literature’ is now a widely used term by academics and its definition includes testimonials, historical, political, scientific, and journalistic works; as well as novels, poems, and plays. 

    There are several generations of atomic bomb writers and they are not exclusively Japanese or limited to works set in Hiroshima or Nagasaki or fiction or non-fiction that directly references the two cities that the two atomics bombs were dropped over in August 1945 or the survivors of the bombs known in Japan as hibakusha.

    The genre includes works such as Ray Bradbury’s (1920-2012) There will Come Soft Rains and Kamila Shamsie’s Burt Shadows, and some people go as far as to include some of the Godzilla films within its scope. 

    The most famous works, in the genre, by Japanese authors are probably Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse (1898-1993) and the manga Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa (1939-2012).

    Unsurprisingly, the atomic bombs influenced many Japanese writers in different ways including those who experienced or witnessed them personally as either adults or as children and those with no direct experience. 

    Japanese writers include early survivors such as the poet Tamiki Hara (1905-1951) who famously wrote: ‘as if the skin of the world around me was peeled off in an instant’ as well as the Nobel prize-winner Kenzaburo Oe who wrote Hiroshima Notes and also edited the collection The Crazy Iris and Other Stories published on the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

    The breadth and extent of the associated literature is now so broad that it has created opportunities for academics to study and write about the genre which has led to the publication of books such as Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and The Atomic Bomb by John Whittier Treat an academic based at Yale University, as well as many research papers by academics based in many different countries, not just the United States and Japan.

    And in 2020 a book by Lesley M.M. Blume, titled Fallout, that documents the making of John Hersey work Hiroshima, promoted by its publisher as “the Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter who revealed it to the world” was published on the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. 

    These days universities and colleges now even teach courses and modules on the genre such as Literature of World War II and the Atomic Bomb in Japan: History, Memory and Empire which is taught at Bowdoin College in Maine in the United States.

    This enduring exposure to the narratives of the bombs through A-bomb writers and the academics who study Atomic Bomb Literature is welcomed by many for creating living memories that will not be forgotten or lost with the passage of time.    
    The term ‘Atomic Bomb Literature’ came into wide use in the 1960s Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share
    • History

    Japan’s first ‘detective story’ was published in 1889[UPDATED: 5-4-2021]

    Ruiko Kuroiwa (1862-1913), who founded a newspaper and edited several others, is widely thought and cited as having written Japan’s first ‘detective story’, a classic whodunit style short story titled Muzan (In Cold Blood), nine years after the first modern Japanese short story, Dancing Girl, by Ogai Mori, was published in 1890. 

    That said, Japan actually has a much longer and very rich history of crime fiction, the broader genre that the sub-genre detective fiction falls within, which was defined only after highly influential Western-style detective fiction started spreading in Japan in translation.

    So much so that early Western visitors to Japan sometimes pontificated on its extent and corrupting influences as well as the fact that many of these Japanese books were “coarsely” illustrated. 

    Nonetheless, some academics also cite others works by Japanese authors published at a similar time to Kuroiwa’s short story as the first authentically Japanese ‘detective story’.

    Detective stories were known then and up until World War II in Japan as tantei shosetsu (detective books) after which they were renamed suiri shosetsu (reasoning books). 

    Kuroiwa was part of the new literary class that emerged in Japan’s Meiji Era (1868-1912), a period of rapid modernisation and change when Japan was opening up to Western influence after the resignation of the Shogun and more than two hundred years of self-imposed isolation.  

    Kuroiwa initially joined others in translating European books, such as Jules Verne’s (1828-1905) Le Voyage dans la lune, before penning Japan’s first detective story. He also translated The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells (1866-1946). He reportedly translated around 100 novels from French and English into Japanese.

    However, it was Taro Hirai (1894-1965), writing under the pen name Edogawa Rampo, who established the modern genre in Japan and popularized it by combing scientific method with Japanese sentiment, as well as the suspense-type narratives that had been popular in Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868) the period that preceded the Meiji Era.

    Several years after graduating from Wasada University, where subsequently many famous authors studied, Hirai published his debut work: The Two-Sen Copper Coin (二銭銅貨 Nisen doka) in 1923.

    Somewhat like Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) many years later after the Second World War, Hirai had the rare ability to bridge and blend the new rapidly urbanising Japan with the old Japan, helping readers of his generation deal with transitioning society through fiction.

    He was and is still highly influential and a prize (The Edogawa Rampo Prize) named after him has been awarded every year since 1955.
    Japan’s first ‘detective story’ was published in 1889 Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share
    • History

    The first professional Japanese author who generated enough literary earnings to live from was born in 1765[UPDATED: 4-21-2021]

    Jippensha Ikku (1765-1831) the prolific bestselling author and illustrator of titles such as the Shank’s Mare, a comic novel that follows two amiable scoundrels on a madcap road trip adventure along the great highway leading from Tokyo to Kyoto (Tokaido), was reportedly the first creative individual in Japan to be able to support himself on literary earnings alone. Shank’s Mare was published in instalments over many years. 

    As a young man at an early stage of his career, Ikku lived with Juzaburo Tsutaya (1750-1797), a highly innovative trendsetting publisher of woodblock prints in Edo, the world’s largest city at that time.

    Ikku, like many, was drawn to the city seeking opportunity and success. He was born in Shizoka. 

    His experience at Tsutaya’s residence helped him, after some earlier false starts, tremendously. He acknowledged that his time residing with Tsutaya allowed him to see Tsutaya in action close up, meet his connections and friends, and witness his approach to publishing. 

    Tsutaya was the publisher and distributor of many titles including the Yoshiwara saiken, a very popular guidebook to the Yoshiwara pleasure district in what is now Tokyo where prostitution was legal.

    All the different types of people Ikku met at Tsutaya’s house or through him and his guidebook helped Ikku develop his narratives and become one of the most commercially successful authors of his generation.

    The Shank’s Mare, which is still readable today, is available in English translation from Amazon.
    The first professional Japanese author who generated enough literary earnings to live from was born in 1765 Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share
    • History

    The first ‘modern Japanese short story’ was written by Ogai Mori and published in 1890[UPDATED: 4-21-2021]

    The modern short story in Japan was a Western import that arrived at the turn of the 20th century in the 1890s. It is hard to confirm what was the very first modern authentic Japanese short story, but academics often attribute this honor to Maihime (The Dancing Girl) by Ogai Mori (1862-1922). 

    The Dancing Girl is about the relationship between a dancer, Elise, and a Japanese exchange student in Germany who is forced to choose between love, and career and duty. The narrative is sometimes compared to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly with the roles reversed. The student decides to prioritize his career and leave Elise, alone and pregnant, and return to Japan from Berlin with tragic consequences. 

    Its very first sentence in the translation by Richard Bowring is: “They have finished loading the coal, and the tables here in the second-class saloon stand silent” and the short story ends “I also left some money to pay for the birth of the child that I had left in the womb of the poor mad girl. Friends like Aizawa Kenkichi are rare indeed, and yet to this very day there remains a part of me that curses him”. 

    The story, which is said to be partly autobiographical, was Mori’s first published work of fiction. It was written in 1890 and initially published in the relatively new and influential magazine Kokumin no Tomo (The Nation’s Friend), after he had spent 4 years in Germany between 1884 and 1888. 

    Mori and this short story helped modernize Japanese literature, not just introducing the new format, but also a new style of prose that included character development, psychology, and realism based on personal experience. 

    Mori, who came from a family of doctors, was influenced by both Shakespeare and Goethe, and this moving emotional short story featuring a long suffering woman and abandonment would have been a familiar narrative to Japanese readers at the time, but the added dimension of personal psychology highlighting the protagonist’s view of his actions, not just the actions themselves, was completely new. 

    Mori is probably best known today for his novel Gan (The Wild Geeese). Mori wrote two other novels: Seinen (Youth) and Kaijin (Ashes), which was unfinished. He is better known and regarded for his novella and short stories. 

    However, he also published translations including a Japanese translation of The Improvisatore (Sokkyo Shijin) the debut novel by Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), who is better known today for his children’s books. Andersen’s novel, like The Dancing Girl, was semi-autobiographical. It took Mori nine years to complete the translation. 

    Short-form fiction and prose existed in Japan before The Dancing Girl was published, but the styles and formats of the Edo Period (1603-1868) and earlier were very different. At the time of the publication of The Dancing Girl no Japanese term existed to describe the new format and the Japanese term for short story, as it is used today, Tanpen Shosetsu (literally short or brief edit novel), came into use for the first time. 

    The Dancing Girl is still influential and studied by students and academics today. As can been seen from this quote from the 2009 novel Real World, by the multi-award-winning crime writer Natsuo Kirino: “when we got to be seniors our Japanese teacher assigned us to write an essay on Ogai’s story The Dancing Girl.” An English translation of the section of her brilliant but disturbing novel including this quote can be read in The New York Times here

    A memorial museum was opened in Tokyo in 2012 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mori’s birth. Interestingly, his daughter Mari Mori (1903-1987) also became a well-known author and is credited with helping start her own new publishing trend and movement, novels about male homosexual passion written by women.
    The first ‘modern Japanese short story’ was written by Ogai Mori and published in 1890 Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share
    • History

    Japanese authors in the 1800s turned tuberculosis into a romantic condition[UPDATED: 9-18-2020]

    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. A good by tragic example of this is Masaoka Shiki (1867-1907) considered one of the four great haiku masters who a close and influential friend of Soseki Natsume (1867-1916) who himself is often referred to as Japan’s greatest modern novelist.

    Shiki, who was only 34 when he died, studied alongside Soseki in high school and also at Tokyo Imperial University. His penname Shiki can also be read as hotogisu, cuckoo, and according to legend in Japan this bird coughs up blood when it sings.

    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