Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    The Japanese word for novel entered the Japanese language in 1754 via China[UPDATED: 4-14-2019]

    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. 

    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
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    Japan’s oldest poetry anthology is over a thousand years old[UPDATED: 4-14-2019]

    The Manyoshu, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves is Japan’s oldest surviving book of poetry. It was compiled during Japan’s Nara Period (710-794) when Japan’s capital was located in Nara.

    The Japanese capital subsequently shifted to Kyoto at the start of the Heian Period (794-1185), a period when many famous Japanese works of literature, including the first novel The Tale of Genji, were written. 

    The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves consists of 20 parts or books with different forms of poetry including thousands of tanka (short form poems that predated haiku), as well as kanshi, poems written in Chinese. It was compiled in about 759, but contains poems written even earlier. Some apparently may originate from as far back as the 5th Century. 

    The anthology contains poems about love, travel, nature and more. There is, however, considerable debate about its various editors, authors and compilers, Otomo no Yakamochi (718-785), known for his waka poetry, is widely thought by academics to have been one of the compilers. The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves contains many poems written by him. 

    Interestingly, the name of the new Japanese era, Reiwa, that started on 1 May 2019 and is officially translated as beautiful harmony, was inspired by this collection of Japanese poems. Rei is the first character from the word reigetsu, an auspicious month, used in a poem about an early spring breeze and plum blossom. This new Imperial era name is the first to have its roots within Japanese literature as opposed to classical Chinese literature. 

    Two examples of poems in the collection, both translated by Donald Keene (1922-2019), are: “Will ever there be, Someone else who will rest, Her head on my arms, As once my beloved wife, Made her pillow there?” and Keeping glum silence, In the role of a wise man, Is still not as good, As drinking one’s own sake, And weeping drunken tears”. 

    An English language edition of love poems from the collection, published by Overlook Press in 2005, describes the collection as: “the great literary work of eighth-century Japan, a collection comprised of work from more than four hundred known contributors. Its spectacular richness and diversity–noble sentiments of those residing in the court found next to the rustic expressions of frontier guards stationed at lonely outposts–have made the Manyoshu an object of literary fascination for centuries”.
    Japan’s oldest poetry anthology is over a thousand years old Posted by Richard Nathan
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    In the 1960s a member of the Japanese Imperial Family started moonlighting as a science fiction author[UPDATED: 3-4-2019]

    Princess Fukuko Asaka (1941-2009) started publishing science fiction and fantasy stories in Japanese magazines in the late 1950s under the pen name Bien Fu, and had stories regularly published throughout the 1960s. 

    One of the Princess’s stories was published in the first issue of Uchujin (1957-2009), an important pioneering science fiction magazine of the period. 

    The Princess was the Emperor’s second cousin and the great granddaughter of the Meiji Emperor (1852-1912), who ushered in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), opening up Japan to the West after more than 250 years of self-imposed isolation. This was a period in which Japan and the Imperial family changed beyond all recognition. In fact, all aspects of Japanese society from the way people dressed and wore their hair, to the types of books that were read and written, as well as the food eaten, were to change dramatically. 

    In 1969, while in her late 20s, the Princess invited a group of schoolchildren to a former imperial palace to discuss writing and science fiction. One of those students, Takayuki Tatsumi, went on to become a professor of American Literature at Keio University, a prestigious private university in Tokyo. She was the first science fiction writer Tatsumi had met and by all accounts made a lasting impression. 

    Princess Fukuko Asaka, who lost her official title in 1947 during the post-war occupation of Japan by Allied Forces, published numerous fantasy and science fiction stories throughout the late 1960s and also produced comic strips. 

    Her work features cyborgs and immortal imperial consorts, and she reportedly empathised with Native Americans, whose position in their country, like her own in Japan, had changed after the arrival of people from afar. She was a vocal champion of their rights and the rights of  others threatened with extinction. 

    According to literary critics and academics, this disinherited noblewoman was a pioneer of both Postmodernism and Science Fiction in Japan, and managed to reinvented herself as an author while also helping to lay the ground for others, especially women writers, and writers of new genres like Japanese Cyberpunk that has subsequently flourished in Japan.

    In the 1960s a member of the Japanese Imperial Family started moonlighting as a science fiction author Posted by Richard Nathan
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    More than 50 Japanese authors have killed themselves since 1900[UPDATED: 12-27-2018]

    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) 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
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    Japan’s oldest publishing house, Hozokan, is more than 400 years old[UPDATED: 3-22-2018]

    Hozokan, the Kyoto based Buddhist publisher can trace its roots back to 1602 and is considered to be Japan’s oldest publisher. It publishes books on Buddhism, targeting both specialists and general readers. 

    Hozokan’s longevity, and the nature of its subject specialism, has not stopped it embracing modern publishing marketing tools and techniques. It has an attractive website, and like most publishers today is embracing social media using, for instance, Twitter to promote its books. 

    The publisher started publishing the writings of Buddha just before Japan’s Tokugawa Period (1603-1868) commenced, in 1602. The same year that Oxford University’s Bodleian Library was opened, and the first performance of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was performed in London. Japan’s oldest book, Hokekyo gisho, a Buddhist text, was written almost a thousand years earlier, in 615. 

    Hozokan’s mission is to publish titles, mostly based on Buddhist teachings, that “will nurture moral and spiritual growth and foster a new age of spirituality in the 21st century”. It has benefited significantly from being based in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, which is the home of many important temples. 

    The world’s oldest publisher is said to be Cambridge University Press, which was founded much earlier in 1534 after Henry VIII granted it permission to print “all manner of books”.
    Japan’s oldest publishing house, Hozokan, is more than 400 years old Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Encyclopedia, known as dictionaries of a hundred subjects, have been published in Japan for more than a thousand years[UPDATED: 3-22-2018]

    In Japan encyclopedia are called hyakka jiten (百科事典), which literally means “dictionary of a hundred subjects”. They have been compiled and published since Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185). 

    The first Japanese encyclopedia is said to be the Wamyo ruijusho published in 938. Other Japanese encyclopaedia are considered its descendants. It survives today in its 10 volume and 20 volume formats.
    Encyclopedia, known as dictionaries of a hundred subjects, have been published in Japan for more than a thousand years Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s first detective story was published in 1889[UPDATED: 3-17-2018]

    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 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. 

    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).

    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). 

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

    Somewhat like Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) after the Second World War, Hirai had the rare ability to bridge and blend the new rapidly urbanising Meiji 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
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    Three books written by English speaking non-Japanese female writers have had a massive impact on creative writing in Japan[UPDATED: 3-11-2018]

    According to industry experts and academics, the three most important books in Japanese publishing history written by non-Japanese women are: Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte; Anne of Green Gables, by LM Montgomery and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. 

    After a false start in Japan’s Meiji Period (1868-1912), the Brontes’ complete works including Jane Eyre, by Emily’s sister Charlotte, and Wuthering Heights were published in translation in the 1930s in Japan. Anne of Green Gables, was published in Japanese, as Anne of Red Hair, after the Second World War. 

    Anne’s literary ambitions, strong willed personality, and optimism struck a chord; as did the fact that, like many in post-war Japan, she was an orphan. 

    These books have led to Japanese spin-offs and adaptations, including manga and anime. And as has been the case outside Japan, have inspired new generations of authors and creative writers. For example, Takeo Kono (1926-2015), who won almost all of Japan’s major literature prizes; and Yuko Tsushima (1947-2016), author of Pregnant with a Fox, were both influenced by Emily and her sisters. 

    The Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood is a fan of Anne of Green Gables and wrote on the hundredth anniversary of its publication about the importance of the book, its impact on Japan and how the bestselling manga Sailor Moon is its descendant. 

    It is, however, still far too early to known how JK Rowling and Hermione Granger and her friends will inspire the next generation of creative writers in Japan, following the amazing success of the Harry Potter books and films in Japan.
    Three books written by English speaking non-Japanese female writers have had a massive impact on creative writing in Japan Posted by Richard Nathan