Factbook

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    Two famous Japanese authors and the grandson of another, after whom Japan’s most prestigious literary prize is named, attended the famous Beatles concert at the Budokan in 1966[UPDATED: 9-9-2021]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Cross-dressing and transgenderism were popular themes in late Edo Japanese literature Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s ‘first’ Olympic Book, ‘The Fruits of Olympus’, was published in 1940[UPDATED: 7-6-2021]

    In 1932 Japan sent a large team of 115 men and 16 women to the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. They performed extremely well, winning 7 gold, 7 silver, and 4 bronze medals. Japan’s success at this Olympics did not just generate nationalistic pride at home; it also produced one of Japan’s first Olympic literary works, a bestselling novella by Hidemitsu Tanaka (1913-1949), Orinposu no Kajitsu, The Fruits of Olympus (1940).

    Tanaka was an Olympic rower who at the age of 19 competed in the Men’s Coxed Eights. He and his Olympic crew didn’t bring back any medals from the games. But the Olympic experience led to Tanaka’s novella, which unlike his Olympic feats was a major success, creating its own narrative milestone.

    The Fruits of Olympus, a rites of passage novel about unrequited love, is the tale of a young moody athlete, also a rower, leaving his country and representing it on the Los Angeles Olympic stage.

    It is not your typical Japanese sports book with an individual becoming a national hero by overcoming every challenge faced through extreme hard work and diligence. Much of the short novel takes place on the boat journey from Japan to the games in the United States.

    The novella, a semi-autobiographical I-novel style work of autofiction, follows Sakamoto, a university rower who doesn’t enjoy all aspects of being part of his Olympic team. The rowers life takes on new meaning, however, during the boat journey to America on which a female athlete (an 18 year-old high jumper) catches his eye and he falls for her. 

    The Fruits of Olympus articulates the anxiety of youth struggling with young love, authority, peer-pressure and expectations. Rowing success is elusive, Sakamoto’s efforts are fruitless and he returns to Japan without fulfilling his dreams; and is unable to rise to the challenge of even telling the high jumper how he feels.

    The Fruits of Olympus was initially published in a literary magazine, Bungakukai, but became more popular in book format, according to academics, after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War – especially among schoolboys.

    Perhaps, as some academics have argued, Sakamoto’s international failure, his skepticism about the strategy and approach adopted, and his inability to articulate his feelings, including those of defeat, reflected how many felt in post-war Japan.

    Since its publication in 1940: popular Japanese sports have diversified to include diving and football as well as rowing; and Japan’s Olympic literature has also evolved in a way that would undoubtedly have surprised but perhaps also delighted Tanaka.

    Japan’s ‘first’ Olympic Book, ‘The Fruits of Olympus’, was published in 1940 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s first ‘I-novels’ were written and published in 1906 and 1907[UPDATED: 6-3-2021]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Japan’s first ‘I-novels’ were written and published in 1906 and 1907 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    By the early 1900s so many books had been published ‘Explaining Japan’ that one author felt compelled to write a book summarising them[UPDATED: 6-2-2021]

    In 1904, Kiyoshi Kawakami (1873-1949), a Japanese journalist based in Seattle, wrote a book titled Japan and the Japanese, where he looked back and summarised how Western writers had opined on and written about Japan.

    He explained his objective as: “I had read a considerable number of books and review articles by foreign writers on various topics connected with Japanese life. It then occurred to me that a compilation of the views of some of the representative foreign writers on Japan would be of great interest as well as benefit to the reading public, especially to younger readers at home.”

    Kawakami includes extracts from writers such as Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904), Isabella Bird (1831-1904), Captain Brinkley (1841-1912), Pierre Loti (1850-1923) and others in his book.

    Japan and the Japanese includes topics and headlines such as:

    The Most Paradoxical Race, The Virtue of the Japanese Woman, Frauds and Tricks of Trade, New Japan: The Schoolmaster of Asia, Lack of Imaginative Power in The Japanese Poet, The Japanese Girl, Indifference to Nudity, Self-Inflicted Ugliness of Japanese Women, First Impressions of Japan, Japanese Cultivation not Civilisation, The Characteristic Peculiarity of Japanese Servants, Foreign Costume as Worn by Japanese Men and Women, Frog-Poems in Japanese Literature, Why Japanese Merchants Lack Commercial Morality, Popular Misconceptions of Japan, Alleged Unchastity of the Japanese Women, Japan Old and New.

    Below are some of Kawakami’s observations and comments:

    “Are we complimented when such an author as this tells the world that Japan is peopled with dear giggling dolls, living in dear little miniature houses made of cardboard, and eating fairy food out of miniature dishes?

    “Have we any reason to rejoice when a man like M. Pierre Loti seems to take Japan as a bright and fascinating freak of geography and ethnology? To be brief, Japan is or at least has been, in the eyes of most of her admirers, like an innocent sweet damsel to be petted and played with, and not like a strong man commanding the respect of all who come in contact with him.

    “To a reader such as he I must explain that those foreigners who have studied and endeavored to understand Japan form a mere fraction as compared with the great mass among which prevails dense ignorance regarding things Japanese.

    “The present war with Russia will no doubt greatly assist in introducing Japan to a vastly wider circle of foreign acquaintances and in doing away with many of the misunderstandings that have been preventing the Westerners from establishing a closer friendship with the greatest of all Oriental races.

    “My labour will be more than rewarded if the foreign reader of this book lays hold of the fact that the Japanese of the new school do not care to be exploited for those old, quaint, and beautiful ‘ things Japanese:’ that they are something else than what they have been; while the Japanese reader bears in mind that upon his shoulders rest the grave responsibility of realizing the Greater Japan which is no longer the habitation of dear little weaklings.”

    Kawakami wasn’t the only Japanese writer who felt obliged to write books in English about Japan and the Japanese.

    In 1905, a Japanese aristocrat, Baron Suyematsu (1855-1920), educated at Cambridge University graduating with a law degree in 1884, for instance, also felt compelled to write books in English in what can surely be described as an early form of ‘myth-busting’ or ‘fake news’ management.

    One of Suyematsu books was titled Fantasy of Far Japan or Summer Dream Dialogues. It was published, by Archibald Constable, in 1905 and he wrote a second book titled The Risen Sun.

    Another famous and important similar example is Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933) who like many emerging Japanese authors of the period was from a samurai background. He was the son of a retainer of a daimyo (warlord).

    Nitobe converted to Christianity and became a diplomat and international statesman. He wrote his famous essay on samurai ethics in English in 1900, before the books by Kawakami and Suyematsu were published.

    Nitobe’s book had a major impact and influenced many including former US President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who reportedly bought copies for his friends.

    By the early 1900s so many books had been published ‘Explaining Japan’ that one author felt compelled to write a book summarising them Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The Nobel Prize committee cited Rudyard Kipling’s writing on the manners and customs of the Japanese when they awarded him his Nobel prize in 1907[UPDATED: 6-2-2021]

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

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

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

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

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

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