Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    In the 1870s Japanese bookshops already sold Western books targeting Japan’s growing student population[UPDATED: 3-1-2023]

    Isabella L. Bird (1831-1904), the British explorer and travel writer, records a visit to a bookshop in Japan in 1878 in Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, published in 1881 by G.P. Putnam and Son’s New York, in which she writes about her conversation with a bookseller: 

    He has translations of some of the works of Huxley, Darwin, and Herbert Spencer, which he says, are bought by the young men attending the higher school”. 

    “He had not a single book on any subject connected with religion”.

    And Bird wasn’t the only Victorian visitor to Japan during the 19th century to comment on Japan’s reading, book and publishing culture.

    Another fascinating similar example is Arthur Adams (1820-1878), an English physician and naturalist, who in 1870 wrote the following in his book Travels of a Naturalist in Japan and Manchuria:

    “…they delight in long poems on love and war, and have an abundance of memoirs, legends, books on etiquette, and descriptions of their ceremonies, manners, and customs. They have even, I am informed, a national encyclopedia.”

    Adams’ book includes chapters on Begging Priests, A Paradoxical Race, Unbecoming Custom, as well as The Literature of Japan.

    Adam’s book was reviewed and recommended in the international journal of science, Nature, in September 1870, on publication, which focused its review on insects, animals including the scaly ant-eater (Manis Javanica), and the natural scenery he observed. The review, perhaps not unsurprisingly, did not, like the book itself, cover the reading habits of the observed natives.

    In the 1870s Japanese bookshops already sold Western books targeting Japan’s growing student population Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Julius Caesar, published in Japanese in 1883, was the first play by William Shakespeare to be translated into Japanese[UPDATED: 3-1-2023]

    The first published Japanese language translation of a play by William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) was Julius Caesar. It was published in 1883.

    The translation by Keizo Kawashima (1859-1933), which was in fact incomplete, was published in a Japanese newspaper. Nonetheless, it is considered by most experts to be the first Japanese translation of a Shakespeare play.

    Prior to this, quotes from Shakespeare plays, outlines and adaptations had already started appearing in Japanese often from well-known writers such as Kawasaki Robun (1829-1894), a prominent author and journalist who interestingly wrote a book published in 1872 that contains the first recipe in Japanese for making curry. In Robun’s case the Shakespeare play was Hamlet

    In 1884, Shoyo Tsubouchi (1859-1935), a Japanese writer and translator and later a professor at Waseda University, published the first complete Japanese translation of a Shakespeare play, also Julius Caesar. He gave it the title Shizaru Kidan Jigo no tachi Nagorino Kireaji, The Sharp Edge of Freedom’s Sword.

    It was a Kabuki-like adaption more than a direct or literal translation.  Early Shakespeare translations often targeted general readers not academics or scholars and as any schoolchild growing up in the United Kingdom knows Shakespeare is open to myriad interpretation. Tsubouchi published a new revised translation of Julius Caesar in 1913.

    That said, Hamlet was a play that several important Japanese authors translated in this period not just Robun. Ogai Mori (1862-1922), who is known for his contribution to the unification of written and spoken Japanese and for penning the ‘first modern Japanese short story’, for example, published a translation of Hamlet in 1889, something Bimyo Yamada (1868-1910), another famous novelist and poet, had also done the year before in 1888.

    Hamlet has since these early translations had a very special place amongst some of Japan’s most creative individuals and has now been adapted and translated numerous times after its somewhat late arrival in Japanese in Japan.  Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), probably Japan’s most notorious author, also had a go at adapting Hamlet into an illustrated children’s book.

    The celebrated Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), who loved reading and narratives with tragic scenarios and twists of fate, adapted Shakespeare’s plays into films set in Japan including Hamlet which no doubt has helped give further momentum to the interest that Shakespeare’s Hamlet elicits in Japan.

    There have subsequently been countless translations, adaptations, publications and performances of Shakespeare’s plays in the Japanese language, and Shakespearean films attract large audiences in Japan.

    Alongside Lewis Carroll’s (1832-1898) Alice in Wonderland and Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859-1930) Sherlock Holmes, which arrived in translation in Japan at a similar time, Shakespeare’s plays have probably been adapted and translated into Japanese more than any other literary works from England.

    Julius Caesar, published in Japanese in 1883, was the first play by William Shakespeare to be translated into Japanese Posted by Richard Nathan
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    In the late 1880s a series of articles appeared in the Japanese media about ‘Dangerous Books’ for women[UPDATED: 3-1-2023]

    In the late 1880s much was changing in Japan. It was Meiji era (1868-1912) Japan, when the nation was experiencing a period of rapid modernisation and opening up to the West. Foreign visitors to Japan were increasing in number, foreign books and ideas were arriving in Japan and Japan’s first modern novel, The Drifting Cloud by Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909) had been penned.

    Perhaps it is not surprising given this climate and the growing concern that some had about the new direction Japan was heading that articles started appearing about the dangers of fiction and especially novels read by Japanese women.

    A series of articles appeared, mostly written by men, in the press between 1889 and 1890 about the problems of women reading novels and the danger that novels posed for women and the health of the nation.

    The concerns raised were not just about books, but also about the new literary freedom that women were experiencing, about the choice of their reading matter, and also their new ability to publish and write for new publications such as Jogaku Zassshi, the Women’s Education Journal, a magazine launched in 1885 by Yoshiharu Iwamoto (1863-1942) a famous Meiji era advocate for women’s education.

    Books and often ones imported from the West were also starting to become the ultimate ‘must-clutch’ fashion accessories for young women and schoolgirls in a visible outward public expression of these new freedoms.

    There were concerns not just about new and imported publications, but also about the classics, even The Tale of Genji, which had been required reading for over a thousand years for Japanese aristocratic women. Commentators were worried about the temperaments of the female characters and the lusty content.

    Examples of titles of the type of articles that appeared include: Advantages and Disadvantages of Young Women Reading Novels, Young Women And Novels, Problems of Girls Education by Novels, and Behaviour and Morality.

    Some of the concerns raised were: that if girls wasted their lives and energy reading novels they would not be able to live a normal married life; that novels portrayed unreasonable expectations and misguided hopes; that reading would increase divorce rates as fictional men and real husbands differed.

    In a general sense many of the concerns voiced in the 1880s are similar to the ones raised today about the danger of social media, the Internet, and video games. Perhaps they were the click bait of their era designed to help sell magazines and newspapers with their growing female readerships. Even today, the Japanese media enjoy covering scandals and scare stories about the shocking behaviour of high school and university age girls.

    These concerns were, however, also being raised at a similar time to when Western travellers to Japan, such as the British travel writer Isabella L. Bird (1831-1904), were writing about their observations of Japan, with its dangerous corrupting and popular crime fiction, and lack of religious books, as well as their thoughts about the role of women in Japanese society.

    These early Japan commentators often looked back at moral codes, such as the Japanese Code of Morals for Women first published in Japan during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), as well as reading matter and attitudes, that were rapidly becoming outdated. It is no easy task, but these early Japan watchers and commentators were probably less well attuned to the new real currents within a changing Japanese society, and the complex nuances of a large island nation, than they knew or would perhaps interest their readers who were reading about Japan for the first time.

    However, there was no stopping these trendsetting Japanese women, and the momentum they generated for women reading and writing has not ceased since. This was actually in fact nothing new as aristocratic women had been reading and writing highly creatively for a very long time in Japan.

    That said, in 1903, twenty years after these articles started appearing in the press worrying about whether Japanese women would remain ryosai kenbo, good wife wise mother, as per the popular term coined in the Meiji era about what was expected of women, the first Western-style magazine specifically targeting women was launched. 36 years after the first Western-style magazine was launched in Japan.

    This launch of a commercial magazine targeting Japanese women was followed by another groundbreaking launch by five pioneering feminists of a magazine called Seito, Blue Stocking in 1911 that shocked the nation and had issues banned on occasion as they apparently posed a danger to the nation. It covered topics such as prostitution, abortion, women’ suffrage (something they got, universally, approved in 1945) and poverty.

    In the late 1880s a series of articles appeared in the Japanese media about ‘Dangerous Books’ for women Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Long before the Internet magnified content about suicide, Japanese publishers and authors, including some of the nation’s most renowned, wrote about suicide helping the narrative of death proliferate[UPDATED: 3-1-2023]

    Japan is often associated with suicide partly due to its Kamikaze pilots in World War II and stories about famous and loyal Samurai warriors and their legacy-making honorable deaths.

    The Complete Manual of Suicide, Kanzen Jisatsu Manyuaru, by Wataru Tsurumi published in 1993 is, however, probably Japan’s best known and most successful book on the topic. The 198-page book, which details 11 categories of suicide from hanging to freezing, has sold more than a million copies. A publishing success that encouraged the author to issue an immediate follow-on second volume in 1994.

    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. As well as Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) whose very public suicide helped cement his reputation as Japan’s most notorious author around the world.

    That said, Japan 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.

    An estimated 800,000 people commit suicide annually worldwide. In 2020 in Japan, according to initial figures at pixel time from the country’s health ministry, there were 21,077 cases of suicide.

    So perhaps it is unsurprising that suicide is often portrayed in Japanese books, and popular media and often features as a plot motif in narrative fiction.

    Two of the internationally best-known living Japanese authors Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, amongst many other contemporary and historical Japanese storytellers, have featured deaths by suicide or attempted suicides in their works.

    Suicide features in Murakami’s breakthrough 1987 novel Norwegian Wood, Noruwei no Mori, a tale about loss, coming-of-age and sexuality. Toru’s the book’s somewhat aimless protagonist is haunted by the suicide of his best friend Kizuki. Yoshimoto’s 1994 novel Amrita, amurita, the title of which is sanskrit for immortality, also features a suicide connected to the protagonist. In its case the protagonist’s sister, a substance-abusing actress.

    Two other famous examples of suicide featuring works from two of the most renowned Japanese authors of the past include Natsume Soseki’s (1867-1916) Kokoro and No Longer Human, Ningen Shikkaku, by Osamu Dazai (1909-1948). The latter, published in 1948 is often cited by many of Japan’s most interesting and creative contemporary writers as their favourite book or one that had a huge influence on them. These two bestsellers top the nation’s book sales rankings.

    The number of such publications and author deaths has made this a topic of academic enquiry with research papers being written on the topic such as ‘The Portrayal of Suicide in Postmodern Japanese Literature and Popular Media Culture’.

    People often cite Japan’s long tradition of an ‘honourable suicide’ as one of the main reasons for the high rate and also the lack of the Christian concept of sin – suicide being one such sin. However, other important factors behind these tragic deaths include concerns over identity, the need to conform, self-sacrifice for others, marginalization, abuse, bullying, loneliness and disconnection, as well as economic concerns.

    Japan has regulations and policies to prevent suicide and the rate had been falling. Something that experts have put down to the improving economy after Japan’s so-called post-economic bubble lost decades, but the rate is now sadly back on the increase, especially amongst school children.

    The launch of the World Wide Web in 1989, four years before the publication of the bestseller The Complete Manual of Suicide, and the subsequent development of social media sites with the associated memes; as well as nefarious individuals that attract the attention of impressionable school children online and disseminate content about suicide, are no doubt factors in these dreadful numbers.

    Long before the Internet magnified content about suicide, Japanese publishers and authors, including some of the nation’s most renowned, wrote about suicide helping the narrative of death proliferate 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: 3-1-2023]

    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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    Japan’s ‘first’ Olympic Book, ‘The Fruits of Olympus’, was published in 1940[UPDATED: 3-1-2023]

    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 a tale of the fruits of success.

    The Fruits of Olympus 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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    In the 1940s, studying medicine exempted individuals in Japan from being drafted as soldiers. It’s something that two of Japan’s most talented post-war storytellers did[UPDATED: 2-5-2023]

    Japan’s military conscription rules changed as the Second World War progressed. These changes included lowering the age that individuals had to reach before falling into scope for the Japanese wartime draft as well as the cancellation of university student deferments.

    Students who studied most subjects, including literature and the humanities, were drafted. Most ending up as soldiers, but some students were exempt such as students studying medicine. High school students were also mobilised to work in factories to help the war effort in its final years.

    This no doubt encouraged some literary types such as Kobo Abe (1924-1993), whose father was a doctor, to study medicine. In 1943 Abe entered Tokyo Imperial University Medical School, but after graduating he never actually practised clinical medicine.

    Many believe his wife, who was an artist and theatre designer and subsequently illustrated some of his books, was the inspiration and the main reason behind his decision to quit the medical profession shortly after he graduated from university and one year after they married in 1947.

    Abe, who is said to have been a shy man beneath the mantle of arrogance that success can sometimes bring, went on to become one of Japan’s most renowned and respected authors as well as a favourite amongst Japanese creative types who have dubbed him ‘The Kafka of Japan’. His daughter and only child, however, decided to return to the family tradition of becoming a practising doctor. She is an obstetrician and a mother of three children.

    Another brilliant Japanese storyteller who studied medicine in Japan in the 1940s and is known as ‘The Walt Disney of Japan‘, is Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989). He is probably Japan’s most famous animator and manga artist.

    Tezuka studied medicine at Osaka University from 1945. He also had a medical family background, and was already actively publishing stories as a student.

    Medical studies and the understanding of science, that Tezuka and Abe possessed, in particular the study of anatomy, had an impact on their storytelling. This is reflected most evidently in both of their robot-related narratives – a genre they were both pioneers within; and one that would eventually become something of a national obsession.

    Interestingly, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was also a trained clinician, and at one point ran a struggling medical practice in Hampshire, before making his name with his creations Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in 1887.

    Doyle just like Abe and Tezuka has had a major long term influence on publishing and storytelling trends in Japan, creating a cluster of ultra influential clinically-trained fiction writers, who have; alongside Akinari Ueda (1743-1809), an Edo Period (1603-1868) writer, a physician author and waka poet, famous for his spooky tale 
    Ugetsu Monogatari, Tales of Moonlight and Rain, helped change Japanese storytelling for the better.

    In the 1940s, studying medicine exempted individuals in Japan from being drafted as soldiers. It’s something that two of Japan’s most talented post-war storytellers did Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s first magazine, and the first in Asia, dedicated to gay men, Barazoku, was launched in 1971[UPDATED: 1-22-2023]

    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, zoku,is 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.

    Following Barazoku’s example a cluster of other similar themed magazines were launched in the 1970s such as Adon (1974) Sabu (1974) and The Ken (1978).

     

    Japan’s first magazine, and the first in Asia, dedicated to gay men, Barazoku, was launched in 1971 Posted by Richard Nathan