We owe it to each other to tell stories - Neil Gaiman

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Japanese Literature



Keeping to the whole idea of the Japanese Literature Challenge, I thought I would do a post on Japanese Literature. Japanese literature spans a period of almost two millennia. Early works were heavily influenced by cultural contact with China and Chinese literature, often written in Classical Chinese. Indian literature also had an influence through the diffusion of Buddhism in Japan. Eventually, Japanese literature developed into a separate style in its own right as Japanese writers began writing their own works about Japan, although the influence of Chinese literature and Classical Chinese remained until the end of the Edo period. Since Japan reopened its ports to Western trading and diplomacy in the 19th century, Western and Eastern literature have strongly affected each other and continue to do so.


Before the introduction of kanji from China,there was no Japanese writing system. At first, Chinese characters were used in Japanese syntactical formats, and the result was sentences that look like Chinese but are phonetically read as Japanese. Chinese characters were further adapted, creating what is known as man'yōgana, the earliest form of kana, or syllabic writing. The earliest works were created in the Nara period. These include Kojiki, a work recording Japanese mythology and legendary history; Nihon Shoki, a chronicle with a slightly more solid foundation in historical records than Kojiki; and Man'yōsha, a poetry anthology. One of the stories they describe is the tale of Urashima Tarō, which has been identified as the earliest example of a story involving time travel.

Haruki Murakami is one of the most popular and controversial of today's Japanese authors. His genre-defying, humorous and surreal works have sparked fierce debates in Japan over whether they are true "literature" or simple pop-fiction: Kenzaburō Ōe has been one of his harshest critics. Some of Murakami's best-known works include Norwegian Wood (1987) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994–1995). Another best-selling contemporary author is Banana Yoshimoto.

Although modern Japanese writers covered a wide variety of subjects, one particularly Japanese approach stressed their subjects' inner lives, widening the earlier novel's preoccupation with the narrator's consciousness. In Japanese fiction, plot development and action have often been of secondary interest to emotional issues. In keeping with the general trend toward reaffirming national characteristics, many old themes re-emerged, and some authors turned consciously to the past. Strikingly, Buddhist attitudes about the importance of knowing oneself and the poignant impermanence of things formed an undercurrent to sharp social criticism of this material age. There was a growing emphasis on women's roles, the Japanese persona in the modern world, and the malaise of common people lost in the complexities of urban culture.

Popular fiction, non-fiction, and children's literature all flourished in urban Japan in the 1980s. Many popular works fell between "pure literature" and pulp novels, including all sorts of historical serials, information-packed docudramas, science fiction, mysteries, detective fiction, business stories, war journals, and animal stories. Non-fiction covered everything from crime to politics. Although factual journalism predominated, many of these works were interpretive, reflecting a high degree of individualism. Children's works re-emerged in the 1950s, and the newer entrants into this field, many of them younger women, brought new vitality to it in the 1980s.

Manga (comic books) have penetrated almost every sector of the popular market. They include virtually every field of human interest, such as a multivolume high-school history of Japan and, for the adult market, a manga introduction to economics, and pornography. Manga represented between 20 and 30 percent of annual publications at the end of the 1980s, in sales of some ¥400 billion per year.

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