Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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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
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    The Book of Tea, published in 1906, provides guidance on how to appreciate not just tea, but Japanese literature and all that is pure and refined[UPDATED: 2-23-2018]

    “The tiny incidents of daily routine are as much a commentary of radical ideals as the highest flight of philosophy or poetry”, writes Tenshin Okakura (1862-1913) in his highly influential and acclaimed essay: The Book of Tea, in which he argues that tea has influenced much in Japan: homes, habits, porcelain, art and the country’s literature and aesthetic. 

    Japanese literature, like the periods and schools of Tea (Boiled Tea, Whipped Tea and Steeped Tea), has its own periods and genres that developed often in their own unique local manner in isolation, and each preparation of narrative prose like tea “leaves” has its own “individuality, its own special affinity with water and heat, its hereditary memories to recall, its own method of telling a story”. 

    According to The Book of Tea, which was originally written in English targeting an audience outside Japan: “art is only of value to the extent that it speaks to us. It might be a universal language if we ourselves were universal in our sympathies”. 

    The essay, which outlines the Zen principles of simplicity, incompleteness and the importance of the concealment of beauty that may be discovered, also provides useful advice for authors, creative writers, and critics. 

    Okakura writes that according to Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), who he considered to be Japan’s Shakespeare, one of the first principles of dramatic composition is “the importance of taking the audience into the confidence of the author”. And a masterpiece, be it a tea ceremony, the architecture of a tea room (some of which influenced Frank Lloyd Wright), a novel or short story” is a symphony played upon our finest feelings”.
    The Book of Tea, published in 1906, provides guidance on how to appreciate not just tea, but Japanese literature and all that is pure and refined Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The first bilingual English-Japanese dictionary was compiled in 1830 by someone who had never visited Japan[UPDATED: 2-23-2018]

    The English missionary Walter H. Medhurst (1796-1857), who never actually visited Japan, compiled the first bilingual ‘dictionary’ An English and Japanese, and Japanese and English Vocabulary in 1830. 

    The 334-page book was printed in Batavia (Jakarta) Indonesia, where Medhurst was based with his family. It contains Japanese printed in both Roman (Latin) and Japanese letters (characters) together with their English equivalents. Medhurst wrote at the time of publication that the word vocabulary was used in the book’s title as it was “preferred to that of Dictionary, as the work does not profess to include every word in either language”. The book’s second part does, however, contain nearly seven thousand words and is thus considered by some experts to fall within the definition of a dictionary. 

    Medhurst was one of the early translators of the Bible into Chinese and complied Chinese-English and English-Chinese dictionaries. He was also proficient in Malay, but not Japanese and had to rely on exiting dictionaries and other documents to compile his Vocabulary. 

    Medhurst wrote in the book’s introduction: “The following compilation is with diffidence offered to the public, principally because the author has never been to Japan, and has never had an opportunity of conversing with the natives: but having through the kindness of several gentlemen from Japan, obtained the sight of some native books, particularly in the Japanese and Chinese character combined, the author has been enabled, from his knowledge of the latter language, to compile the following vocabulary”. 

    The Japanese translator Hori Tatsunosuke (1823-1892), who initially acted as a Dutch-Japanese translator before learning English is said to have compiled the first “proper” and widely used English–Japanese dictionary, Ei-Wa taiyaku  Shuchin jisho (A Pocket Dictionary of the English and Japanese Language), which was published 30 years later in 1862. It was mostly based upon English-Dutch and Dutch-Japanese bilingual dictionaries including sections of A New Pocket Dictionary of the English-Dutch and Dutch-English Languages, and contained about 35,000 headwords and consisted of about a thousand pages. 

    Another early dictionary was the six-thousand word English-Japanese dictionary, Angeria gorin taisei, compiled on behalf of the Japanese authorities by the Nagasaki-based Dutch interpreter Motoki Shozaemon in 1814, which also drew on Japan ‘s early exposure to the Dutch language. Unlike Medhurst’s 1830 Vocabulary, it was not a two-way bilingual dictionary. 

    The first Dutch-Japanese dictionary, the Edo Halma, was complied in 1796 by Sanpaku Inamura (1758-1811) using a Dutch–French dictionary published in 1708 by the Dutch printer and publisher Francois Halma (1653-1722) as its base. Dutch helped accelerate Japan’s knowledge of the English language and its study significantly. 

    However, the earliest Japanese bilingual dictionaries offering translations of Japanese into a Western language were in fact Portuguese-Japanese dictionaries, including the often celebrated Vocabylario da lingoa Iapam compiled in 1603 by Jesuit missionaries.
    The first bilingual English-Japanese dictionary was compiled in 1830 by someone who had never visited Japan Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s first monthly book series for Kindergartens, launched in 1907, is still being published 90 years later[UPDATED: 2-22-2018]

    Kinderbook was launched in 1927 as the Observational Picture Books Kinder Book, by Froebel-Kan, a Tokyo based company named after the German educator Friedrich Wilhelm A. Froebel (1782-1852), who established the world’s first kindergarten, and coined the name for these learning centres.  

    The decision to launch Japan’s first monthly picture book series for pre-school age children followed the first Japanese regulations in 1926, known as the Kindergarten Ordinance, introducing new standards and teacher qualifications for kindergartens. 

    The first issue, published the year after the regulations were enacted, was titled: All About Rice. Illustrated books were published monthly, in a magazine style approach, and were and still are distributed directly to kindergartens across Japan. The number of which increased after the Ordinance, when about 6% of the population attended kindergarten. 

    Froebel-Kan, founded in 1906, now owned by one of Japan’s largest printing companies, Toppan Printing Co.Ltd, still publishes the series, which has evolved and developed over the last 90 years alongside new printing, design and educational techniques. 

    Many talented authors and illustrators have worked on the series including the famous Japanese poet Shuntaro Tanikawa. The books document in a very unique way Japan’s modernisation and some difficult periods that its authors, illustrators and publisher had to navigate including: the aftermath of natural disasters and war. 

    According to its publisher’s website, the series “gives children the power to live and to develop their future, and an abundance of spirit”. The company now also publishes a monthly childcare magazine, sells playground equipment, and helps design kindergartens and early learning centres. It also publishes the popular Japanese language editions of Where’s Wally, by the English illustrator Martin Handford.
    Japan’s first monthly book series for Kindergartens, launched in 1907, is still being published 90 years later Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s oldest book is a religious text[UPDATED: 2-14-2018]

    Japan’s oldest surviving book is a religious Buddhist text called the Hokekyo gisho, the authorship of which is generally attributed to Shotoku Taishi (574-622) in 615.

    It is a commentary, that stresses the importance of faith, on the Lotus sutra from the Asuka Period (538-710), a period when Buddhism first arrived in Japan from Korea and China.

    It is owned by the Imperial Family and is sometimes also cited as an example of the oldest Japanese calligraphy.
    Japan’s oldest book is a religious text Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Yukio Mishima chose his pen name when he was just 16[UPDATED: 2-14-2018]

    Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), one of Japan’s most famous writers, chose his pen name when he was just 16.

    The discovery of a draft of his book Hana Zakari no Mori, The forest in full bloom, has his name, Kimitake Hiraoka, crossed out and the name Yukio Mishima written alongside it. This early draft was written when he was 16.

    The draft was found in Kumamoto in 2016. The forest in full bloom was published in 1941 in the literary journal Bungei Bunka.

    Mishima, who was reportedly considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 and on at least two other occasions, committed suicide in 1970.
    Yukio Mishima chose his pen name when he was just 16 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s first medical textbook, written in 984, is considered Asia’s first book on medical ethics[UPDATED: 2-14-2018]

    Japan’s first medical textbook was written in 984 by Yasunori Tamba (912- 995), who is sometimes referred to as the Hypocrates of Japan, during Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185). 

    The book, known as Ishimpo or Ishinpo was written in kanbun, the Chinese writing system used during this period in Japan, and presented to the Emperor of Japan. 

    The text consisting of 30-volumes is a systemised compilation of medical knowledge, theory, techniques and practice. It is partly based on and cites ancient Chinese texts, which no longer exist. 

    It covers sexual disease and practice, dental and oral problems – such as bad breath, cleft palate, toothache, and tooth decay – as well as pharmacology, surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, moxibustion and acupuncture. 

    The Cambridge World History of Medical Ethics lists the Ishimpo as the first Asian text in its 77-page Chronology of Medical Ethics, which starts from 4,000 BCE. 

    The first three individuals the chronology cites are: Moses (circa 1,200 BCE) Kong Qiu or Confucius (551-479 BCE) and Buddha (563-482 BCE). The first text included is the Hippocratic Corpus including its famous oath written in 400 BCE. 

    The type of traditional medical practice, including acupuncture and moxibustion, described in the Ishimpo now falls within the Japanese definition of Kampo (Chinese Medicine), which was originally used to distinguish this form of medical practice from Rampo (Dutch Medicine), the Western medical practices and techniques that Dutch traders and sailors brought with them to Japan in the 16th Century. 

    The oldest and most complete copy of the Ishimpo, which is illustrated in parts, is preserved at the Tokyo National Museum and is designated as a National Treasure of Japan.
    Japan’s first medical textbook, written in 984, is considered Asia’s first book on medical ethics Posted by Richard Nathan