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: 10-12-2020]

    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. 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

    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
  • Share
    • History

    More than 50 Japanese authors have killed themselves since 1900[UPDATED: 9-11-2020]

    Research shows that at least 54 Japanese authors have committed suicide since 1900. This includes some of Japan’s most famous and highly regarded authors and one of its two Nobel prize winners, Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), as well as Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) after whom one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes is named. 

    Another very well known example is Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) who famously and publicly committed suicide. His spectacular death, age 45, in November two month before his birthday, made international news and confirmed his position as Japan’s most internationally famous individual and notorious author.

    Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) author of the novel No Longer Human, which alongside Dazai himself, is often cited by contemporary male Japanese writers as their favorite, also killed himself. Dazai, who attempted suicide several times from an early age, idolized Ryunosuke Akutagawa, whose death in 1927 had a very profound and terrible impact on him. 

    Sadly, Dazai’s own death in turn had a terrible impact on Hidemitsu Tanaka (1913-1949), the Olympic rower and novelist he mentored, who also killed himself. Tanaka wrote two Olympic related novels Orinposu no Kajitsu, The Fruit of Olympus, (1940) and Tantei Soshu, The Boat Rower, (1944). Tanaka killed himself at Dazai’s grave the year after Dazai’s death. 

    There is no doubt over how these four famous authors died, but Kawabata’s suicide is considered by some, including his wife, as accidental. Nevertheless, his death and the circumstances were reported widely and internationally as suicide in publications such as The New York Times, for instance. 

    Kawabata helped Mishima at several important points in his life and the two were close. Kawabata officiated at Mishima’s funeral, which was attended by thousands. However, unlike Mishima, Kawabata was at the end for his career and in poor heath when he died on the 16 April 1972, 17 months after Mishima. 

    Other well known Japanese authors included in the list of more than 50 authors who reportedly killed themselves are Takeo Arishima (1878-1923), Tamaki Hara (1905-1951) Ashihei Hino (1907-1960), Izumi Suzuki (1949-1986) and Hisashi Nozawa (1960-2004). And no doubt other lesser known and aspiring authors make have also taken their own lives.

    Japan is often associated with suicide partly due to its Kamikaze pilots in the war and stories about famous Samurai warriors. However, it does, in fact have a higher suicide rate than many nations.

    According to OECD data, Japan’s suicide rate is 18.7 per 100,000 one of the world’s highest rates amongst the nations surveyed by the OECD, and about 60 percent higher than the world average, but behind South Korea, which has an even higher rate at 28.7.

    People often cite Japan’s long tradition of an ‘honourable suicide’ as one reason for the high rate and also the lack of the Christian concept of sin and suicide being one such sin.
    More than 50 Japanese authors have killed themselves since 1900 Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share
    • History

    Two influential books from the 1700s helped shape Japan as a Robot Nation[UPDATED: 8-21-2020]

    Japan is sometimes referred to as the Robot Kingdom due to its large number of robots and its openness to new technologies including robotics.

    Japan has more industrial robots than most countries; and more Artificial Intelligence (AI) patents than any other, according to some OECD measures. The government even has a written strategy that articulates the steps the nation will take towards becoming Japan as a Robotics Superpower.

    Two books published in 1730 and 1796 played a very important role in Japan’s development into the so-called Robot Nation it is today. 

    Both books were about mechanical Japanese toys known as Karakiri NingyoThese two Karakuri books helped increase the popularity of these intricately designed mechanical Japanese automata, and position robots as fun and unthreatening devices in most Japanese people’s minds.

    The 1796 book by Hosokawa Honzo Yorinao (1741-1796), Karakuri zui, sometimes described as Japan’s first mechanical engineering textbook, has been particularly influential.

    It provided detailed diagrams and descriptions of how to make Karakiri Ningyo, which are still used today by hobbyists and craftsmen to repair and reproduce this early form of home-entertainment robots.

    Even though Japan’s Karakuri roots go back much further with some believing as far as AD 697, the influence of these books, like the automata themselves, has had long-term and significant impact on Japan, its industry; and even the wider world. Japanese engineers at firms such as Toyota have referred to them and copied some of their design concepts in their products.

    And The British Museum has a woodblock print of Hosokawa’s book, titled Compendium of Clever Machines, in its famous collection.

    These two books and Japan’s rich and creative history of robot books in general, which includes both fiction and non-fiction, continues to influence and inspire robot engineers and researchers, as well as writers in Japan.

    Some of Japan’s most renowned contemporary storytellers such as Kazufumi Shiraishi and Soji Shimada have, for example, joined many other talented writers penning robot and cyborg tales.

    Works such as their respective Stand-in Companion and One Love Chigusa, generating a virtuous circle of creativity that seems to be providing perpetual momentum to this trend and the evolution of robot books, robot technology and its literature in Japan, and perhaps even robots themselves.

    Two influential books from the 1700s helped shape Japan as a Robot Nation Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share
    • History

    The Japanese word for novel entered the Japanese language in 1754 via China[UPDATED: 7-13-2020]

    The Japanese word shosetsu written using two letters or characters meaning ‘small’ and ‘talk ’ first came into use as a Japanese term for fiction in 1754; following the successful translation and adaptation of Chinese books such as Sui-Hu Chuan (The Water Margin), pronounced Suikoden in Japanese. 

    The first ten chapters of Suikoden were published in 1727 and another 10 chapters in 1759 in Japan in translation with Japanese annotations. 

    The word, shosetsu, was initially used only for works of fiction translated from Chinese, but was subsequently used for fiction in general, due to the success of these publications. 

    In the 1880s Shoyo Tsubouchi (1859-1935), a Japanese writer and translator and professor at Waseda University, first proposed that the term shosetsu be adopted as the standard Japanese translation for the English word novel and the French word roman in his paper titled: Shosetsu shinzui (The Essence of the Novel)

    Shosetsu thus become the accepted word used to translate the English word and Western concept of novel into Japanese. 

    Subsequently it was used to mean a novel or any form of prose narrative fiction, story, tale, or romance. Modifiers were added to this old term to differentiate the type of book or prose: tanpen (short or brief edit) to create short-story; and tantei for detective novels.  

    Nevertheless, the word, Shosetsu, is very flexible in Japanese. Its use now covers works of only a few lines to hundreds or even thousands of pages. 

    The word shosetsu, however, is in fact a Chinese word with its own long history. It was, according to research, used much earlier than the 1750s in Japan and reportedly as early as 1484, but generally as a term of derision of another’s opinion or work – meaning trivial history, small talk or street rumor, not a work of fiction or novel as we know them today; be they Chinese translations, English translations or Japanese originals.
    The Japanese word for novel entered the Japanese language in 1754 via China Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share
    • History

    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
  • Share
    • History

    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
  • Share
    • History

    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