Japan - Culture

Facts & Stats | History | Culture | Geography | Religion | Current Events | Links & Resources

Antiquity (to 794)
Middle Antiquity (794-1180)
Middle Ages (1180-1600)
Recent Past (1600-1867)
Modern Day (1868-Present)


The material on this page is a brief overview of Japanese literature. The current page contains a very basic Japanese literature from its beginnings to the present. It doesn't cover indepth discourse of literature so that we necessarily provide relevant links for references

Antiquity (to 794)

The oldest literary works are Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, c.712) and Nihon Shoki (History Book of Ancient Japan, c.720). These works are the origins of the Japanese people and the formation of the state. While Nihon Shoki is written almost in Chinese, Kojiki is written in Japanese using Chinese characters. The great anthology known as Man'yoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, c.770) contains around 4,500 poems written by people from emperors to peasants. There are two main forms of poem in the anthology, long and short, of which the short form, or tanka, survives to this day. Tanka consist of five lines with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables.

[Kojiki, B.H. Chamberlain, translator 1882Opens in new window]

return to top

Middle Antiquity (794-1180)

The fairy tale Taketori monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), written in the 9th century, is thought to be Japan's first novel. It is widely known today as Kaguya-hime (The Moon Princess) and is popular in children's picture books. It tells the tale of an old bamboo cutter who one day discovers a tiny child in a bamboo stem. He and his wife adopt her and the child grows into a beautiful woman in just a few months. She attracts many suitors, including the emperor but sets impossible tasks for them to win her hand. Finally Kaguya-hime declares that she will return to her home - the moon. The emperor sends thousands of troops to stop her but she eludes them and leaves only a letter behind. The emperor orders the letter burned on the highest mountain in the land. Miraculously, the the letter continues producing smoke and as a result the mountain became known as Fuji, "the immortal one".

Undoubtedly the earliest great work of fiction was Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) written in 1010 by Murasaki Shikibu (left), a lady of the Heian court (modern day Kyoto). It is a massive 54-volume tome that tells of the romantic adventures of noblemen, centering around the prince Genji, who has gone down in Japanese folklore as their version of Casanova or Don Juan. It also provides a glimpse into the daily life of 10th and 11th-century courtiers, as does Makura-no-soshi (The Pillow Book) by Sei Shonagon, another woman of the court. The literature of the Heian Period (794-1185) is characterized by mono-no-aware, or a feeling of being connected to nature and all things. This concept is still considered central to the Japanese psyche though it's not so easy to see in the Japanese of today.

[Story of Genji Monogoatari, by Eiichi ShibuyaOpens in new window]
[Makura-no-shoshiOpens in new window]

The Tale of Heike

The Tale of Heike is one of the war chronicles about Taira-Minamoto War between 1156 and 1185. The story is about a rise and fall of Taira family. Taira-Minamoto War is the most famous incident in Japan. A lot of stories were written about it, and they all were based to gThe Tale of Heikeh.It was recited by blind persons accompanying of the biwa that was one of the string instruments. They were called biwa minstrels. The story recounts in the context of the Buddhism philosophy of impermanence.

Taira-Minamoto War was an incident to build feudalism in Japan. Minamoto-no Yoritomo started Kamakura Shogunate Government in 1192. The government had been progressing of feudalism.
This is the chronicle that begins with the famous paragraph:

"The sound of the Gion Shôja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind."

[The Tale of HeikeOpens in new window]

return to top

Middle Ages (1180-1600)

The political turbulence associated with the Gempei Wars of 1180 to 1185 and Yoritomo Minamoto established the Kamakura bakufu in 1192. The tale of Heike is a history of Taira family, the rise and the fall. It was recited by blind persons accompanying of the biwa( string instruments). The story recounts in the context of the Buddhism philosophy of impermanence.

[http://homepage1.nifty.com/aby/2002/heike.htmOpens in new window]

return to top

Recent Past (1600-1867)

The Edo period was characterized by the growing cultural influence exercised by samurai and townspeople. The commercial class in particular benefited from various economic and technological developments, the result of which was a great flowering of culture in the Genroku period (1688-1704). The haikai master Matsuo Bashô, the novelist Ihara Saikaku, and the dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon are all associated with this enormous outburst of creative activity. The nation's cultural center shifted from the Kyoto-Osaka region to Edo in the second half of the eighteenth century, leading to the production of large quantities of gesaku (frivolous works) by the writers who constituted the last literary generation before the advent of Western influence.


Hagakure ("In the Shadow of Leaves"') is a sacret manual for the samurai classes consisting of a series of the philosophy and code of behavior--the Way to become a true warrior. It is a collection of thoughts by Tuneasa Yamamoto (1659~1719), resigned warrior of Saga Nabeshima and sayings recorded over a period of seven years by Tashiro (1678~1748). The work represents an attitude of Bushido that is a Way of Dying. It later came to be recognized as a classic exposition of samurai thought and came to influence many subsequent generations such as Yukio Mishima.

Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693)

Saikaku Ihara is a poet and writer of popular fiction. Saikaku was born in Osaka. At the age of 40, he published his first work of prose fiction, KOSHOKU ICHIDAI OTOKO( 1682; tr The Life of an Amorous Man. Saikaku describes Japanese love scenes of all kinds with a frankness that has made him a favorite with expurgators, but he touches the subject of both normal and abnormal love with tenderness.

[Ihara SaikakuOpens in new window]

Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725 ), whose real name was Sugimori Nobumori, was born in Nagato Province. He was at first a monk, then returned to secular life and established himself at Osaka. Starting at around age 30, he would become one of Japan's most prolific and beloved playwrights, composing as many as 160 plays for the Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet) theatres. Many of his pieces were historically based and as many were on contemporary subjects that appealed to the common people. One of his favored devices was the tragic love between either a samurai or a townsman and a courtesan. In most of his plays, he presented a moral dillemna. His most famous work was Chushingura, the story of the 47 Roshi. It may be that part of his ability came from the demands of writing for the Bunraku - he once commented that writing for that stage required him to make his dialogue as compelling and vivid as possible, given that, after all, the audience was looking at simple puppets.


Perhaps as the distilled essence of poetry, haiku are 17-syllable poems whose development was strongly influenced by the Zen Buddhism. Though the current 5-7-5 syllable structure and mandatory use of a kigo ( a word to represent the season) were only introduced later in the Meiji period (1868-1912), the greatest exponent of haiku lived in the Edo period.

Basho Matsuo (1644-94) was a Zen lay priest and his haiku often form part of travel journals and were written on the road, capturing his mood and surroundings in various parts of the country. The best known work is Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road Through the Deep North - it is available in the English translation Narrow Road to Oku by famous Japan scholar Donald Keene). It tells of Basho's almost 1,500 mile pilgramage with his disciple Sora from Edo to northern Japan, undertaken when he was 48 and shortly before his death.The two other great haiku poets of this period were Yosa Buson, a painter and Kobayashi Issa, a peasant villager.

The shortest poetic form in the world, haiku work better in Japanese than in English and translations are particularly difficult. Anyway, hereOpens in new window are some translations of haiku by Basho from Oku no Hosomichi.

[History of Haiku and Basho MatsuoOpens in new window]

Ernest Sir Satow (1843-1929)

Ernest Satow came to Japan in 1862 as a translator for the British Embassy at the age of 19. He was actively involved in communication with influential Japanese politicians during the last days of the Tokugawa government. Mr. Satow was not only a prominent diplomat but was also a great scholar of Japanese culture. He wrote a book called "A Diplomat in Japan: The Inner History of the Critical Years in the Evolution of Japan". It provides a firsthand account of events between 1862 and 1869 from the perspective of a foreigner, which covers the very important period of Japan opening to foreigners and the overturn of the shogunate. Sir Ernest Satow was witness to the important events that formed modern Japan. The book makes history come alive and fills it with real-life people

return to top

Modern Day (1868-Present)

When Japan opened to the rest of the world in the Meiji period (1868-1912), the influence of western literary concepts and techniques was poured into the country. Novelists experimented with 'new' ideas such as liberalism, idealism, and romanticism and were variously influenced by French, British or German literature.

The impacts of Western civilization in modern era were Western ideas such as philosophical thought and educational system to the society. "Any Japanese thinker had to distill his own thinking out of the conflict between his own traditional heritage and what he adopted from the Western mind". The period between the turn of the century and the domination of militarism produced many great writers: Mori Ogai, Natsume Soseki and his protoge Akutagawa Ryunosuke.

Ogai (1862-1922) gave up an early literary career to concentrate on his work as a doctor with the Japanese army, returning to writing only after his retirement. He was inspired mainly by German literature and played a leading role in the Japanese romantic literary movement. He wrote poetry, drama and historical biography, but his best work of fiction is considered to be his novel The Wild Geese (1912). It is a poignant story of unfulfilled love, set against the background of the dramatic social change that came with the fall of the Meiji regime, as the young heroine is forced by poverty to become mistress to a moneylender.

Soseki Natume

Soseki (1867-1916) - as he is usually known - began his career as a scholar of English literature at Tokyo Imperial University. He resigned to devote his time to writing and published his first novel Wagahai wa neko de aru (I am a Cat) in 1905. It is a satirical portrait of human vanity and was followed by increasingly pessimistic, brooding novels such as Kokoro (Heart) and his unfinished masterpiece, Meian (Light and Darkness). Soseki's works often dwell upon the alienation of modern humanity, the search for morality, and the difficulty of human communication. Soseki's portrait graces the front of the current 1,000 yen note.

Tanizaki Junichiro

Tanizaki, Junichiro (1886–1965), beginning in the generation following Soseki, is a prolific writer influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents.Tanizaki is perhaps best known for Sasameyuki (1943–48, tr. The Makioka Sisters, 1957). Tanizaki's other novels include a modern version of The Tale of Genji; Some Prefer Nettles (1928); Quicksand (1928–30); The Key (1956), and Diary of a Mad Old Man (1961). The turning point in Tanizaki's life was the great earthquake in Tokyo region in 1923, which destroyed half the city, and he moved to the Kansai region, where a more traditional lifestyle still prevailed. The new environment influenced his outlook, and many of his works carry an implied condemnation of excessive interest in Western things. In his nostalgic love for the traditions and remnants of the past, Tanizaki expressed in the essay 'In Praise of Shadows' (1933-34). Tanizaki often writes of women, taking as his themes obsessive love, the destructive forces of sexuality, and the dual nature of woman as goddess and demon. His other works are the selected short stories of Seven Japanese Tales, The Gourmet Club, the novellas The Reed Cutter (1932) and Captain Shigemoto's Mother (1949–50).

[http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/tanizaki.htOpens in new window]
[http://www.washburn.edu/reference/bridge24/Tanizaki.htmlOpens in new window]

Okakura Tenshin (Kazuo)

Okakura Tenshin (1862-1913) was Museum curator and historian of Japanese painting. After graduating from Tokyo Imperial University in 1880, Okakura became a member of the Ministry of Education. His interests later turned to art education, allowing him to travel to Europe and America to do research on art education methods. Upon his return to Japan, Okakura was appointed head of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. His leadership encouraged artists to develop a new style of painting that combined the conventional style of the Japanese painting technique Nihonga with Western realism. After resigning from the School of Fine Arts in 1898, Okakura created the Japan Art Institute. His interest in Western painting, and his knowledge of Japanese painting styles led Okakura to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where he served as both an advisor and as the head of the East Asian department. He published "The book of Tea" written in 1906. Perhaps the most entertaining, most charming explanation and interpretation of traditional Japanese culture in terms of the tea ceremony

[http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/tea.htmOpens in new window]

Nitobe Inazo

Nitobe was born in 1862 in the provincial city of Morioka in northeast Japan, to a family of samurai lineage. After schooling in Tokyo, he went to the Sapporo Agricultural College (present-day Hokkaido University) and studied agricultural economics. The college enabled him to study English and became a Christian, along with Uchimura Kanzo, his classmate who later became one of the most influential Christians in Japan. In 1883 Nitobe entered Tokyo University to study English literature and economics. A year later, he left the university to go to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he studied in a seminar with, among others, the young Woodrow Wilson. He continued his study in Germany and received a doctorate from the University of Halle in 1890. Bushido: the Soul of Japan, the book was first published in English in 1900. The book is an introduction to the core values of traditional Japanese society, which Nitobe believed was based on the samurai’s code of ethics. Nitobe describes those values in eloquent language, drawing comparisons with the religious and philosophical traditions of other civilizations, including all great Western philosophers, Judeo-Christian teachings, Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.

[http://www.iic.edu/IICArchive/MinSok2003/MinSok2003Akaha.htmOpens in new window]

Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945)

Born in Ishikawa Prefecture. The most important Japanese philosopher, Nishida was a professor at Kyoto University from 1910 to 1927, where he formed his own school of thought, which came to be known as the Kyoto school. In his book Zen no kenkyu (1911, tran. A Study of Good, 1960), he espoused the ideas of voluntarism in explaining his theory of "pure experience". In an effort to bring together Bergson's theory and neo-Kantism, he established his own creative blend of western and eastern thought in Hataraku mono kara miru mono e (1927, From the Acting to the Seeing). His ideas on the Buddhist concept of emptiness (mu) from a western standpoint is regarded even today as original and invaluable. The Philosophy Path in the Sakyo ward was named as such because Nishida frequented this area.

[http://www.shindharmanet.com/writings/nishida.htmOpens in new window]

Yanagida Kunio (1875-1962)

Born in born as a son of Matsuok family in 1875 in the provincial city of Hyogo, Japan. Latter he was adopted intoYanagida's family and was literary youth with Tayama Katai and Kunikida Dokuho. Yanagida studied agricultural politics at Tokyo imperial Univeristy (Tokyo University) and then worked in the farm ministry of Japan. He set out on nationwide tour and found interested in folk culture of local communities. He published "Guide to the Japanese Folk Tale", that is continuous his efforts to codify Japanese folklore with his colleage, Minakata Kumagusu and Origuchi Nobuo. Ynagita searched for Japan's national character and distinctiveness of folk custom and published several books focusing on folklore Movement:International Perspectives on Yanagita Kunio and Japanese Folklore Studies (Cornell University East Asia Papers, No. 37).

Kuki Shuzo (1888-1941)

Kuki's achievement is best known for Structure of Iki, a remarkable book on modern aesthetics. The Japanese aesthetic ideal, iki may serves as a fine example of the application of a vernacular aesthetic ideal for clarifying the nature of the Japanese contribution to modernism. Kuki studied Western philosophy in France and Germany from 1921 to 1929, and he supported his arguments using the method of Western philosophy, especially indebted to Martin Heidegger's hermeneutics. Kuki's well-known definition of iki in The Structure of "Iki" consists of three marks; erotic allure (bitai) with pride (hari) and resignation (also sophisticated indifference, akirame). He structured aesthetic ideal of everyday life to conceptualize something emotional, concrete, and aesthetic which represents an universal principle of human nature.

[http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/ew103940.htmOpens in new window]

Watsuji Teturo (1889-1960)

Watsuji Teturo is one of the most influential philosophers of modern Japan to develop his philosophical thought out of this struggle. In Japan he established himself in the history of contemporary Japanese thought by the distinctive ethics he developed and the important questions about the relationship between the individual and society. Watsuji’s initial critical appropriation of Heidegger’s thought in Climate and Culture (Fudo) criticize the lack of spatiality in Heidegger’s Being and Time. He attempted to develop a notion of ethics which emphasizes the ethos typical to Japanese culture.

[Watsuji Teturo's ontological approachOpens in new window]

Akutagawa (1892-1927)

Akutagawa is best remembered today for the literary prize in his name that is awarded to young fiction writers. He was a prodigious student and studied under Soseki at Tokyo Imperial University. His most famous work is Rashomon and Other Stories (1915), the title story of which was one of the sources of Kurosawa Akira's masterpiece. In this book of short stories, he questions the values of his society, dramatizes the complexities of human psychology, and studies, with a taste for Zen-like paradox, the precarious balance of illusion and reality.

Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972)

During the 1930's and 40's, the domination of the military meant that literature was largely stifled. The two great writers to emerge in the postwar period were Kawabata Yasunari, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1968. The most famous works are Yuki-guni (Snow Country, 1935-47). Kawabata gained his first success in 1925 with the novella Izu no Odoriko (The Izu Dancer). Young women appeared also in other Kawabata's works, such as Nemureru Bijo (1961, Sleeping Beauty) and the short novel TANPOPO (Dandelion, posthumous). In 1954 appeared Kawabata's perhaps best work, Yama no Oto (The Sound of the Mountains), which depicted family crisis in a series of linked episodes.

[Kawabata YasunariOpens in new window]
[Kawabata's Speech at Novel MuseumOpens in new window]
[Kawabata's biographyOpens in new window]

 Maruyama Masao (1914-1996)

Born in Osaka, Maruyama studied political science at Tokyo Imperial University and searched for its value of social event logic and criticized Japanese modernity based on his own perspecitves. Well known research, supernational logics and its mentality is highly recommended book among journals he published. "Thought and Behavior in Modern Japanese" is focusing on the specific peculiarities of Japanese politics and the cultural patterns that the study seeks to explain why Japanese intellectuals during World War II either blindly accepted nationalistic militarism or seemed impotent to halt its rise. "Politics Democracy in Postwar Japan: and the Search for Autonomy", is also pivoting on writings by Maruyama, and his concepts of personal and social autonomy, examines the fierce debate. He explored the Japanese past and national identity, Marx, modernization, fascism, pacifism, and the security treaty crisis of 1960.

Perhaps better known abroad is Mishima Yukio (1925-70), whose life and death were as dramatic as his art. He was a homosexual and obsessed with the body, physical beauty and its inevitable decline and death. His first major work was Kamen no Kokuhaku (Confessions of a Mask, 1949) and he handed his last, the 4-part novel Hojo no Umi ( The Sea of Fertility, 1965-70), to his publisher on the day of his death. Another masterpiece, Kinkakuji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1956) tells of a monk disgusted by his own ugliness who burns down the famous Kyoto pavilion rather than see it fall into the hands of the US military. Mishima despaired at the westernisation of Japan and longed for a return to nobler times. He was excused military service during the war and the guilt of this plagued him throughout his life. He took up bodybuilding and martial arts and liked to pose in photographs depicting his violent end. With life imitating art, he committed ritual suicide together with members of his fanatical private army after failing to create a revolt by the military.

In 1994, Oe Kenzaburo (1935- ) became Japan's second literary Nobel recipient. Representative of his works are Kojinteki na Taiken (A Personal Matter, 1963) and Manen Gannen no Futtoboru (The Silent Cry, 1967). Both novels dealt with the theme of being the father of a brain-damaged child, which Oe knew about from experience. In his novels, Oe creates a world rich in poetry and imaginative power, where reality and myth are inextricably intertwined. He also wrote about the polarity felt by 20th century Japanese between their own culture and the outside world. Recently he wrote Tsugaeri (1999) based on the 1995 sarin gas attack by a religious cult on a Tokyo subway that killed 12 people.

[Oe KenzaburoOpens in new window]
[Oe 's Speech at Novel MuseumOpens in new window]

Among the most popular authors in recent years are Murakami Haruki, Murakami Ryu (no relation) and Yoshoimoto Banana, all of whom are known for their harsh insights into modern Japanese society. Murakami Haruki (1949- ) is perhaps the most read outside Japan. The novels Noruwei no Mori (Norwegian Wood, 1987) and Hitsuji o Meguru Bouken (A Wild Sheep Chase, 1989) are among his best known.

Murakami Ryu (1952- ) won the Akutagawa Prize in 1976 for his novel Kagirinaku Toumeini Chikai Buruu (Almost Transparent Blue, 1976). Other works include Coin Locker Babies (1980) and Topaz (Tokyo Decadence, 1988). He often appears on TV and writes in magazines discussing the current state of Japan and its youth. Yoshimoto (1964- ) is usually either loved or hated by readers. Her dark novels have dealth with themes such as death, incest and lesbianism. Her first breakthrough came with the 1987 novella Kitchen, still her best known book.

return to top