Japanese Literature

For people who are not familiar with the Japanese literature, scholars generally agree that it is one of the richest, and matches English literature in terms of volume and age. The literature currently found in Japan is made up of works that can be traced from the 7th century. Japan has never experienced a “dark age” where people did not engage in literary development and production. Some of the most common literary production in Japan that have been produced throughout history include dramas, novels, and poetry. However, Japan also has certain types of literary works that are not considered literature in western countries, and they include books that capture random thoughts, diaries, and travel accounts.

The Origins of Japanese Literature

Historians have established that the early writings in Japan were influenced by the Chinese writings. In the first century, before coming into contact with the Chinese, the Japanese were relatively primitive. After the knowledge of Chinese civilization reached them, they rapidly integrated this knowledge, and borrowed the Chinese alphabet. The use of the Chinese alphabet led to the emergence of literary compositions and calligraphy in Japan.

Early Japanese Writings

The oldest Japanese writing was Kojiki, which was a record of ancient issues, and Nihon Shoki that contained more than 120 songs from antiquity to 697 A.D. The Kojiki is the most respected literary work in Japan because it is the oldest document that captures the history and myths of the country.

Classical Japanese Literature (894-1194)

Classical literature refers to literature developed in Japan during the golden era or the Heian period. One of the most significant literary works produced during this era is the “The Tale of Genji”, a novel fiction, written by Murasaki Shikibu. Other significant literary works produced within the same period include “The Pillow Book”, which was an essay discussing the hobbies of royalties and their love life, and Kokin Wakashu, a poetry anthology.

Medieval Literature in Japan (1195-1600)

Zen Buddhism heavily influenced the literature published in Japan during the medieval era. Most of the writers during this period were poets, priests, travelers and celibates. In the medieval era, several civil wars broke out in Japan, and this was reflected in the literary works produced at the time, which included war tales and stories related to war. An example of literature produced during this period is “The Tale of the Heike” that narrated the clash between the clans of the Taira and Minamoto in an effort to control Japan.

Pre-Modern Japanese Literature (1600-1868)

Drama was the most popular literary work produced in Japan during this period because the country was peaceful, and the middle and working classes were steadily growing. Moreover, several genres of literature emerged for the first time during this period, due to the increase in literacy among Japanese that were living in urban centers, and the emergence of libraries that lent books to the masses. In addition, literary works in Japan were starting to experience some western influence because of Dutch people that settled in Nagasaki. One of the new genres of literature that emerged in Japan was fiction that was influenced by Chinese vernacular. Other new genres of literature that came up included comedy, crime stories, horrors, magnificent woodcut prints, and morality stories.

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