Factbook

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    The first modern Japanese short story was written by Ogai Mori and published in 1890[UPDATED: 3-3-2018]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A memorial museum was opened in Tokyo in 2012 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mori’s birth. Interestingly, his daughter Mari Mori (1903-1987) also became a well-known author and is credited with helping start her own new publishing trend and movement, novels about male homosexual passion written by women.
    The first modern Japanese short story was written by Ogai Mori and published in 1890 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    David Bowie’s favourite novel by Yukio Mishima, an author he was fascinated by, was The Sailor Who Fell from Grace from the Sea[UPDATED: 2-28-2018]

    It is well known that David Bowie (1947-2016), the British singer songwriter and actor, was a fan of the Japanese author Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). He painted his portrait, included his name in the lyrics of at least one of his songs; and Yukio Mishima was one of only two Japanese writers included in Bowie’s list of his favourite 100 books, alongside Tadanori Yokoo, the artist and graphic designer sometimes described as Japan’s Andy Warhol. 

    Mishima’s novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace from the Sea (午後の曳航), published in 1963, was Bowie’s favourite. It tells the tale of a band of delinquent boys in a Yokohama suburb; who reject the adult world “as illusory, hypocritical and sentimental”, and train themselves in “a brutal callousness they call objectivity.” When the Westernised mother of one of them begins an affair with a ship’s officer, Ryuji, the friends initially idealize the sailor; but subsequently decide that he is in fact soft and romantic, a betrayal that requires a violent response. 

    The novel was made into a film, directed by Lewis John Carlino in 1979 after Mishima, who was no doubt the most famous Japanese man of his generation internationally and perhaps the most famous that had ever lived at that point in time, committed suicide in a highly stage-managed public manner, instantly making him notorious worldwide.  
    David Bowie’s favourite novel by Yukio Mishima, an author he was fascinated by, was The Sailor Who Fell from Grace from the Sea Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s first national library was set up following a legal decree in 702[UPDATED: 2-28-2018]

    According to historians, the first libraries in Japan were set up by by Shotoku Taishi (574-622) – The Prince of Holy Virtue – a regent and author also known as Prince Umayado (Prince of the Stables). 

    The Horyuji Temple, in Nara, founded in 607, is believed to have been the location of Japan’s first library, which was within the Prince’s ‘study’ at the temple. Subsequently, many temples across Japan started collections of manuscripts and important texts including copies of the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan), one of Japan’s first written accounts of the nation’s history.

    Shotoku Taishi is an important historical figure in Japan and still admired today. His image was included on 10,000 yen notes issued until 1986, and he is credited with developing Japan’s first set of laws – a set of 17 rules – which stress the importance of harmony in the community. The rules have been described as an early type of constitution. 

    According to the Encyclopedia of Library History, Japan’s first national library, Zushoryo, was set up about one hundred years later in the 8th century following new legislation issued in 702, Formalising and standardising the trend started by Shotoku Taishi. 

    The library was modelled on a library in China and run by a government ministry. It was Japan’s official national archive and therefore didn’t need to buy books; five copies of every book written or copied in temples were supposed to be lodged there. 

    The library was also responsible for collecting and conserving both Buddhist and Confucian books and was required to compile official histories of Japan. According to historians, it had a staff of 4 papermakers, 10 brushmakers, 4 inkmakers and 20 copyists. It continued this work until the 11th century.
    Japan’s first national library was set up following a legal decree in 702 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Mishima, who was only active as a writer for 21 years after the publication of his first major novel, managed to write 40 novels, 18 plays and numerous essays during his short life[UPDATED: 2-27-2018]

    Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) wrote 40 novels, 18 plays, 20 books of short stories, books of essays, hundreds of poems, as well as plays and film scripts before he died age 45, two months before his birthday. 

    His first full-length major novel Confessions of a Mask, was published in 1949. It quickly established him as a major literary talent and the wunderkind of his generation – allowing him to quit his job and concentrate full-time on his creative writing. The novel was translated into English by Meredith Weatherby in the 1950s. 

    According to his publisher’s website: “From then until his death he continued to publish novels, short stories, and plays each year. His crowning achievement, the Sea of Fertility tetralogy—which contains the novels Spring Snow (1969), Runaway Horses (1969), The Temple of Dawn (1970), and The Decay of the Angel (1971)—is considered one of the definitive works of twentieth-century Japanese fiction”. 

    Mishima was a natural writer, and amazingly prolific. Writing came easily to him. He was very disciplined and apparently never knowingly missed a deadline. He courted international editors, publishers and translators and could not understand why it took so long for his works to be translated and published. He wrote every night until dawn. 

    In 1970, the day after completing the last novel in the Fertility series and submitting his manuscript to his Japanese publisher, Mishima famously committed suicide in a highly stage-managed public manner. It was a spectacular performance like death that attracted worldwide attention instantly making; Mishima the man, the author, as well as his more than 100 literary works, a topic of fascination and study by academics and biographers.
    Mishima, who was only active as a writer for 21 years after the publication of his first major novel, managed to write 40 novels, 18 plays and numerous essays during his short life Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Some believe that the origin of one of Japan’s four alphabets, Katakana, is ancient Hebrew[UPDATED: 2-27-2018]

    Japanese uses multiple syllabary (alphabets) and has a special phonetic alphabet for foreign words: katakana, which has helped it manage the impact of foreign words entering its language. It is used for loanwords that enter the Japanese language, such as beer. The other alphabets used are Kanji, Hiragana and Romaji

    Some believe that katakanas origins are ancient Hebrew as there is some similarity between some of the letters, which are also pronounced in a similar manner, such as the letter Ka and Kaph for instance. 

    These similarities are often cited as evidence by proponents of the theory that one of the lost 10 tribes of Israel ended up in Japan. Books have been published in English on the topic and Japanese television programmes have also explored the subject. 

    However, most academics believe that katakana is in fact based on Kanji (Chinese characters) and was developed over a thousand years ago in Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185) by Japanese monks to annotate Chinese texts – mostly Buddhist texts; so they could be read by Japanese readers. The alphabet subsequently became used for non-Chinese loanwords as Japan became exposed to other countries, languages and cultures.

    The so-called lost tribes of Israel reportedly started leaving and disappearing from Israel following the conquest of its northern kingdom by the Assyrians in 721 BCE.  
    Some believe that the origin of one of Japan’s four alphabets, Katakana, is ancient Hebrew Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Mishima, who was “openly gay”, married at the age of 33 after considering a number of prominent women as ‘marriage candidates’[UPDATED: 2-26-2018]

    Despite living “openly” as a homosexual the brilliant Japanese author Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) had a “conventional marriage” to Yoko Sugiyama and had two children, a boy and a girl. 

    They married in June 1958 at a ceremony at International House in Roppongi, Tokyo. A central location, with a traditional Japanese garden where the Meiji Emperor and Empress attended Kabuki plays. it is still used for weddings today. 

    The Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) formally introduced Mishima to his future wife Yoko, after Kawabata’s adopted daughter had been briefly considered by Mishima for the role. According to Mishima’s biographers, he also considered a partnership with Michiko, currently wife of Emperor Akihito. 

    Mishima had a series of important conditions that any future bride had to meet: she had to be shorter than him (his height was 152 cms), she would need to respect his privacy, allow him to continue bodybuilding and be attractive (something he is on record saying he thought she was). 

    In 1958, according to John Nathan’s biography of Mishima, the year when both Mishima and the Crown Prince were married “a weekly magazine polled the nation’s young womenhood” with the question, “If the Crown Prince and Yukio Mishima were the only two men remaining on earth, which would you prefer to marry?” According to Nathan, “more than half of those who responded said they would prefer to commit suicide!” 

    Editors and publishers in New York and London who worked with Mishima were impressed by: his manners and politeness; his English; as well as his openness about being gay and visiting gay meeting spots. In 1960s London, for example, it was socially very hard to be so open and relaxed about one’s sexuality, as homosexuality was still illegal. Homosexual acts conducted in private between two men were only decriminalized in 1967 in the United Kingdom, when The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was passed into law. Both men had to be 21 or older for homosexual acts to be legal.

    In his book The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima Henry Scott Stoke describes their first meeting at a dinner at The Foreign Correspondences’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) in Tokyo in 1966 when he was working as the Tokyo correspondent for The Times. Mishima, attended the event at the Club with his wife. He writes that: “ Mishima spoke fluent English. Yoko was a complete contrast. Also small, she was ten years younger than her husband and looked it. Petite, with a round face, she kept her counsel and spoke little – she had by that time two very young children”. 

    Despite playing a role in the background and Mishima telling the cluster of foreign correspondents gathered at the FCCJ (a recording of which can be heard here) in 1966 that “ Yoko has no imagination”, she had a sharp mind; often accompanied him publicly (which was unusual for spouses in Japan then); helped Mishima professionally when he was alive; and worked hard after his death to manage his literary legacy.
    Mishima, who was “openly gay”, married at the age of 33 after considering a number of prominent women as ‘marriage candidates’ Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Historically, many of Japan’s most creative authors started life as samurai[UPDATED: 2-25-2018]

    Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653-1725), author of Love Suicides at Somezaki who is considered to be Japan’s Shakespeare 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. 

    During Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868) the military class learnt to read and even produce literature and were encouraged to do so; Chikamatsu and Basho are just two high profile examples. Unlike the West where the pen has often been said to mightier than the sword, in Japan people were encouraged to consider them as equal partners. In fact there is a Japanese expression for this 文武両道, bunbu-ryodo; roughly translated this means the way of sentences and warfare are equal, and highlights the importance of achieving some kind of balance in life. 

    Basho’s poetic travelogue, written hundreds of years ago, the Narrow Road to the North is still being read today and is now used to sell 100-day walking tours following the so-called ‘Basho Trail’ mimicking the poet’s pilgrimage route that winds through several of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. 

    The new era of samurai authorship that Basho was part of followed the arrival from Korea of movable type technology and the printing of the first Japanese book using the technology in 1593. Commercial publishing kicked off about a decade later in 1609, in Kyoto, at the start of the Edo Period, generating new career options for forward thinking samurai. 

    Edo, now known as Tokyo, also became a publishing centre with a growing market of readers to sell books to. The city grew in size becoming the world’s largest city with a population of a million by the 18th century, generating its own narratives and authors. 

    Until the middle of the 18th century most Japanese authors were from samurai backgrounds, but things began to change as literacy rates increased. Authors began selecting different target groups as readers; the warrior classes and intelligentsia, or the higher end of the emerging chonin (townspeople) class, the majority of who were merchants. The situation changed again during Japan’s Meiji Era (1868-1912) when the country rapidly modernised and opened up to the West. 

    However, the most famous true warrior samurai author is probably Musashi Miyamoto (1584-1645). He is primarily known in the West as the author of The Book of Five Rings. The book, which he wrote at the end of his life, is a guide to swordsmanship strategies. 

    Following an English translation by William Scott Wilson it became an essential business-strategy manual in the 1980s, when the Japanese economy was growing rapidly and Japanese influence was spreading worldwide. Unlike most Edo Period samurai authors who never drew their swords, Miyamoto very skilfully used his sword in battle and duals to kill opponents. 

    Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933) is another classic. Nitobe’s father was a retainer of a daimyo (warlord). Nitobe junior converted to Christianity and became a diplomat and international statesman and wrote his famous essay on samurai ethics in English in 1900. 

    The book, which was published in Japanese after its success in English, describes the sources of bushido (the way of the warrior) and the virtues most admired in Japan including self-control, duty and politeness. It had a major impact and influenced many including Former US President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who bought copies for his friends. 

    Despite his image and reputation Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), who killed himself with a sword in a very public manner using a painful traditional samurai methodology, was not technically from a samurai background. He was not in fact “born a samurai” as his father and grandfather were not from a samurai family.

    Mishima’s paternal grandmother (Natsu Nagai), who brought him up, however was. She was raised in an aristocratic household and could trace her linage back to one of the first Shoguns Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616), arguably Japan’s most important and influential samurai, through marriage.

    The Press Release announcing the award of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature to Kenzaburo Oe highlights his samurai background stating that he was “the scion of a prominent samurai family” from the Oe clan in Shikoku.
    Historically, many of Japan’s most creative authors started life as samurai Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Despite being rivals for the Nobel Prize, Kawabata and Mishima were friends[UPDATED: 2-25-2018]

    Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) became the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, ahead of Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) who was nominated more than once for the prize and throughout the 1960s was considered a very strong candidate. 

    The two men first met in 1946 when Mishima, a brilliant student considered the best or one of the best nationally, was still a student at Tokyo University before he joined the Ministry of Finance on graduation in 1947. 

    Mishima was looking for support and contacts in the world of publishing to get his short stories published and Kawabata kindly offered to help when Mishima turned up at his house. Subsequently, Kawabata wrote a highly supportive preface to Mishima’s novel Theieves, published in 1948, a novel about a young couple that kill themselves on their wedding night. The novel was not a major critical success and did not gain much if any attention. 

    However, the encounter eventually led to the publication of Mishima’s first full-length major novel Confessions of a Mask, the following year in 1949, which quickly established him as a major literary talent and the literary wunderkind of his generation; by that time he had already quit his job, after nine months at the ministry, to concentrate full-time on creative writing with the hope of becoming a well regarded professional author. 

    Kawabata played an important role throughout Mishima’s life at very key moments: formally introducing Mishima to his future wife Yuko, after Kawabata’s adopted daughter had been briefly thought of as a potential bride by Mishima: and also giving the eulogy at Mishima’s funeral after he dramatically killed himself. He also had a formal role at Mishima’s wedding in 1958 at International House in Tokyo. 

    According to an article in The New Times published the day after his death, Harold Strauss, his long-time editor at Alfred Knopf, said: “Mishima was torn apart by the Japanese transition” and “had one foot in the past and one in the future. He was able to articulate this change as no other Japanese novelist was able to do. Older writers such as Yasunari Kawabata can write only of the past and younger writers such as Kobo Abe can write only of the present.” 

    Mishima was also a close friend of Kobo Abe (1924-1933) considered by some to be Japan’s Kafka. Unlike Mishima and Kawabata, who died two years after Mishima having gassed himself, Abe died in hospital after a brief illness of heart failure.
    Despite being rivals for the Nobel Prize, Kawabata and Mishima were friends Posted by Richard Nathan