Factbook

A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    Essays in Idleness, written in the 14th century is considered one of the definitive books on Japanese aesthetics[UPDATED: 6-7-2022]

    Essays in Idleness, written in 1330, by the Buddhist monk Kenko Yoshida (1283-1352) is a collection of 243 short essays or notes written in a style which almost takes the form of a stream of consciousness. Some of these essays and notes are a few pages long, others just a few sentences.

    Essays in Idleness, Tsurezuregusa, is still widely studied and cited; and is considered one of the definitive books on Japanese aesthetics and the attitude towards life that articulates and explains the principle that ‘beauty is bound to be perishable’ as well as the impermanence of everything in life. The acceptance of which brings insight and happiness through the greater appreciation of what exists and what we already possess.

    A good example from this so-called ‘canon of Japanese aesthetic taste’ is: ‘Are we to look at cheery blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring – these are even more deeply moving.’

    It is hard to imagine a similar quirky poetic miscellany having such iconic status in some other countries or societies or perhaps emerging, for example, in a hardworking frugal Calvinist society were idleness is sometimes viewed as a sin and industriousness, as well as the work ethic, one of society’s most important virtues and a moral duty. Societies where at times much less importance has been placed on cultural pursuits such as art and music, and even literature as we know it today, despite as Kenko, who was a historical contemporary of the Italian author Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) famous for his depiction of hell, put it: ‘The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known.’  
    Essays in Idleness, written in the 14th century is considered one of the definitive books on Japanese aesthetics Posted by Richard Nathan
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    The Japanese poet Ishikawa Takuboku was Meiji Japan’s ‘Angry Young Man’[UPDATED: 4-4-2022]

    The Japanese poet Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912), famous for his modern free-style tanka, disliked the repressive and static atmosphere of the Meiji era (1868-1912). 

    The only son of a Buddhist priest, Takuboku was, according to historians, spoilt and arrogant, as well as highly precocious, and saw limited positive future outcomes for the individual or the nation, in the era’s political and intellectual climate. 

    In 1913 he wrote a famous, often cited essay, The Impasse of Our Age, Jidai Heisoku no Genjo, accusing naturalism and many other so-called ‘isms’ as inadequate, and some of his poetry reflects Japan’s changing society, as well as his own self-scorn and anger. 

    Takuboku has been called Japan’s Meiji Angry Young Man, and much else, including, for example, the first modern Japanese, a provincial romantic, as well as a shameless firebrand. But his poems are still enjoyed and cherished by many today. 

    His refusal to conform and his James Dean (1931-1955) like early death at the age of 26, has helped give him a cult like status in Japan.

    An example of one of his poems translated by Roger Pulvers is:

    FATHERS AND SONS

    Why is the air so thick between them?

    Apart in spirit when facing each other

    Close in absolute silence.

    The Japanese poet Ishikawa Takuboku was Meiji Japan’s ‘Angry Young Man’ Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Some early pioneering 19th century experts on Japanese literature looked down on the creative merits of Japanese poetry and the nation’s poets[UPDATED: 6-17-2021]

    William George Aston (1864-1912) was an early pioneer in the fledgling fields of Japanese language study and Japanese history and literature. He was also a diplomat, and started his Japan related career as a student interpreter at the British Legation, as the British Embassy in Japan was known then, in 1864.

    This was just before the start of Japan’s Meiji Ear (1868-1912), a period of rapid modernisation during which Japan started opening up to the West. Very little was known about Japanese culture outside Japan at this time.

    Alongside Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) and Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850-1935), Aston was considered one of three major British 19th century Japanologists.

    He wrote several books including his 1869 A Short Grammar of the Japanese Spoken Language and was the first translator into English of Nihon Shoki, The Chronicles of Japan, one of Japan’s oldest books.

    Aston also published in 1899 a book titled A History of Japanese Literature, in which he writes:

    “A feature which strikingly distinguishes the Japanese poetic muse from that of western nations is a certain lack of imaginative power. The Japanese are slow to endow inanimate objects with life.”

    “Abstract words are comparatively few, and it does not occur to the Japanese poet (or painter) to represent Truth, Justice, and Faith, as comely damsels in flowing robes, or to make Love a chubby naked boy with wings and a bow and arrows.

    “It is not confined to poetry, or even literature, but it is profoundly characteristic of their whole mental attitude, showing itself in their grammar, which is sparing of personal pronouns; in their art, which has no school of portrait painting or monumental sculpture worth mentioning; in late and imperfect development of drama; and in their religious temper; with its strong bent towards rationalism, and its hazy recognition of a ruling personal power in the universe.

    “To their minds things happen, rather than are done; the tides of fate are far more real to them than the strong will and the endeavour which wrestles with them. The significance of this fact in regard to the moral and psychological development of these races may be left to others to determine. It is sufficient here to note its influence on the literature, and especially on poetry.”

    Perhaps these views reflect the times and the lack of existing Western scholarship in the field and access to a large number of existing works of Japanese poetry and literature in translation.

    It might also reflect the very notion of what a poem is, with the word in English originally meaning ‘composition in verse’ while the function of a Japanese poem is said to be the capture and recording of something observed, often fleeting, in prose that subsequently conjures up the imagination.

    Whatever the reasons, the next generation of Western commentators, in the 1920s for example, had different views with some arguing that the role nature played in Japanese literature, poetry and culture was special, and had a longer history of possessing such a pivotal position than in European countries, for example. 

    Some even writing that it (Japanese poetry) and haiku in particular had the “purity of a work of art, a work which rose at times to the height of the religious”.

    Some early pioneering 19th century experts on Japanese literature looked down on the creative merits of Japanese poetry and the nation’s poets 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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    Some Western commentators in the 1920s already thought that the place of nature in Japanese literature, poetry and culture was noteworthy and exceptional[UPDATED: 4-16-2021]

    Some Western commentators in the 1920s already thought that the role nature played in Japanese literature, poetry and culture was special, and had a longer history of possessing such a pivotal position than in European countries.

    This is something that Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the first Asian winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, also thought and described as ‘the genius of Japan’ in 1916.

    That said, an important and notable European example of this is Paul-Louise Couchoud (1879-1959), a French philosopher, poet and physician, who wrote: “While in French literature, any recorded impression of nature is exceptional, Japanese poetry since its farthest origin, bloomed into landscapes”. 

    And yet despite this praise an earlier generation of European literary critics such as William George Aston (1864-1912), a pioneer in the emerging field of Japanese studies, had, at times, been much less flattering about and well disposed to Japanese poetry.

    Nonetheless Couchard writes, “the almost prehistoric inhabitants noted the exquisite examples of these impressions in short poems which were collected in the sixth century of our era,” in Japanese Impressions, published in English translation in 1921.

    “A Japanese is accustomed to place a flower in his room not as an ornament but as a companion. Many of the lyric epigrams play on this refinement of taste. The poppy is even frailer than a sick child:

    Alone in the room

    Where no soul exists,

    A tall white poppy.

    Buson.

    Couchoud writes.

    Couchoud also argued that attention and interest in nature “is the oldest and profoundest trait of the race” of Japanese people, something that Tagore also thought was the case with much of Japanese culture being rooted in nature, but he feared this might tragically be lost through modernisation and westernisation.

    A very good example of this awareness of nature is probably the role Mount Fuji has and still plays in Japanese culture, art and literature. A role that has even been recognised by UNESCO, which placed the mountain on its World Heritage List in 2013, for being a ‘sacred place and source of artistic inspiration’.

    Probably ever since Couchoud, and perhaps even before he wrote his book and started adapting Japanese haiku into French, with perhaps a few notable exceptions, commentators, and on occasion even diplomats, have looked to this national characteristic and Japanese poetry to decode and understand the psyche of the Land of the Rising Sun.

    And according to Couchoud the “most ardent and penetrative” poet of all was Matsuo Basho (1644-1694).

    “It was he who gave haiku its soul; who transformed it from a delicate amusement and touched it with purity of a work of art, a work which rose at times to the height of the religious,” he writes.

    And Couchoud even compares Basho to the French mathematician and writer Balaise Pascal (1623-1662), who was his contemporary in terms of the period his life spanned.

    “He was a Japanese Pascal, without geometrical sense, but equally grave and equally tormented by the desire to discover access to the human heart”.

    Some Western commentators in the 1920s already thought that the place of nature in Japanese literature, poetry and culture was noteworthy and exceptional Posted by Richard Nathan
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    For over a thousand years many of Japan’s emperors have played an active role in publishing: writing poems, books and even scientific papers[UPDATED: 5-2-2019]

    Since Japan’s first book on the nation’s history was commissioned by Emperor Temmu, Japan’s 40th emperor, and published in 712 after his death, Japanese emperors have been intimately involved in many important publishing milestones in Japan.

    The nation’s first book to be produced using moveable type was, for example, chosen by another emperor for printing in 1593.

    The Japanese Imperial Family has had a very long association with the literary arts, especially poetry.

    Japanese emperors have not only encouraged and patronised the poetic arts and Japanese verse known as waka and tanka in particularbut have also written thousands of poems themselves.

    The Meiji Emperor (1852-1912) who ruled over a period in history when Japan opened up to the West, after more than 250 years of self-imposed isolation, wrote over 100,000 waka and tanka poems and was known as ‘the sage of poetry’.

    The Meiji Emperor learnt the art of writing poetry from his father Emperor Komei (1831-1867). His era was an age of transformation and a crisis of modernisation.

    To s
    ome that must have seemed mind-boggling at the time, with the arrival of railways for instance, that transformed Japanese society. Writing poetry appears to have helped him process these changes.

    He wrote many different types of poems, describing his reaction to the arrival of these new technologies in Japan including photography, trains and telescopes. Some experts also believe that his writing indicates that he wished to avoid war and had a pacifist streak.

    The following poem by the Meiji Emperor was published in English translation by Harold Wright in the Kyoto Journal:

     

    Being all alone

    And consoling our own heart

    for this one day,

    The time was spent quietly

    in the writing of poems

     

    Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989) also penned many poems and new rare caches of his creative outputs are still coming to light decades after his death.

    New waka poems, including poems that show Japan’s role in World War II, occupied his thoughts as he aged, and have made their way into the public domain as recently as 2019

    Emperor Akihito, his son now known as Emperor Emeritus, and his wife Michiko have also written and published books and poetry, including a collection of more than 300 poems titled Tomoshibi Light , which was published in English in 1991. The collection was originally published in Japanese in 1986 when Akihito was still Crown Prince.

    Many anticipate that the new Emperor, Naruhito, who took up the position on 1 May 2019, will continue this long tradition, but most doubt he will write multiple poems on a daily basis like his predecessor, the Meiji Emperor.

    That said, a book written by him about his experience as a student at Oxford University has been published in English, translated by Sir Hugh Cortazzi (1924-2018), a former British Ambassador to Japan, The Thames and I: A Memoir of Two Years at Oxford

    In addition to writing books and poetry, some emperors are known to have had much broader interests that have led to them subscribing to international magazines and publications long before this was possible for most in Japan. 

    In 1875, Emperor Komei, for example, was listed amongst the names of the subscribers to the Illustrated London News (1842-1971), the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine. Two recent emperors, Akihito and Hirohito, have subscribed to international magazines including another British publication, Nature, the weekly science journal.  

    In fact, Emperor Akihito, who has a species of goby fished named after him, has done much more than just write poems and read about the latest scientific research trends alongside fulfilling his role as a constitutional monarch. He has published 38 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals including the world’s most prestigious ones, Nature and Science and has even been seen at one or two scientific conferences in Japan. 

    At times, Japan’s Imperial Literature and creative writing has even stretched into science fiction with one member of the Emperor’s family penning books that helped develop the genre now known as ‘cyberpunk’ using the pen name Bien Fu in the 1960s.

    Literary and publishing genes continue to flourish in the family. And in 2017, an essay by the Emperor’s daughter Princess Aiko, titled Praying for Peace in the World, was widely praised for its literary style and content. The Princess wrote the essay for the yearbook commemorating her graduation from Gakushuin Girls’ Junior High School.

     

    For over a thousand years many of Japan’s emperors have played an active role in publishing: writing poems, books and even scientific papers Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s oldest poetry anthology is over a thousand years old[UPDATED: 4-14-2019]

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

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

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

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

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

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

    An English language edition of love poems from the collection, published by Overlook Press in 2005, describes the collection as: “the great literary work of eighth-century Japan, a collection comprised of work from more than four hundred known contributors. Its spectacular richness and diversity–noble sentiments of those residing in the court found next to the rustic expressions of frontier guards stationed at lonely outposts–have made the Manyoshu an object of literary fascination for centuries”.
    Japan’s oldest poetry anthology is over a thousand years old Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japanese literature and creative writing is being exploited cleverly to attract more tourists to the country[UPDATED: 5-28-2018]

    Literary tourism is now a growing part of what is known in Japan as kontentsu tsurizumu (contents tourism). The term is used to describe tourism inspired by popular culture and includes both literary tourism and film-induced tourism. 

    It is defined by academics, who run The International Journal of Contents Tourism, as “travel behaviour motivated fully or partially by narratives, characters, locations, and other creative elements of popular culture forms, including television, film, television dramas, manga, anime, novels, and computer games”. 

    Historically, books like Snow Country by the Nobel prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) have been used to market hot spring resorts such as Yuzawa Onsen, in Niigata Prefecture, that feature in the book, but literature in all its forms is increasingly being used very creatively as part of the government’s Cool Japan branding campaign to project soft power and increase Japan’s inbound tourism. 

    The local government in Kagawa Prefecture, for example, sponsored a series of four romantic novels set in their prefecture, Japan’s smallest, by Thai authors titled: Kagawa, Let Love Lead

    Thailand is an important and growing market for Japanese fiction in translation, as well as a rapidly growing source for inbound tourists since visa restrictions were lifted in 2013. 

    Tourism has become a strategic priority and economically important to many regions in Japan. The number of tourists has trebled over the last five years, reaching an estimated 28.7 million in 2017. Local officials hope that the specially commissioned novels will increase awareness of their region and inspire more people to visit. 

    There are now a plethora of literature-related tours in Japan. You might for instance, want to follow the steps of haiku poets, discover the locations in Haruki Murakami’s novels, or go in search of those locations that feature in Japanese crime fiction popular in China.

    There are also countless websites and posts providing recommendations on social media sites for the world’s book lovers who plan to visit Japan. So much so that Kadokawa, one of Japan’s major publishers, has set up its own travel company, Cool Japan Travel, Inc to increase demand and provide those who have embarked on a literary pilgrimage to Japan, a better and more memorable experience.  
    Japanese literature and creative writing is being exploited cleverly to attract more tourists to the country Posted by Richard Nathan