Japanese Literature: a short introduction

文学 – Bungaku: Literature

A brief overview of Japanese literature and a summary of the literary history of Japan

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A short literary history of Japan by books

Based on JLit.net

  • 712 – Kojiki – Record of Ancient Matters – Early Literature (Nara period)
  • 720 – Nihon Shoki – Chronicles of Japan – Early Literature (Nara period)

Both Kojiki and Nihon Shoki are collections of myths, genealogies, legends of folk heroes, historical records and ancient songs written in hybrid Sino-Japanese (Classical Chinese and preliterate Japanese).

  • end 8th century – Man’yoshu – The 10.000 Leaves – Early Literature (Heian Period) – Poetry
  • 905 – Kokin Wakashu – Waka Collection of Ancient and Modern Times – Early Literature (Heian Period) – Poetry

With the Man’yoshu and the Kokin Wakashu, we have the first major collections of native poetry. They both collect Waka; 31-syllable verses.

  • early 10th century – Ise Monogatari – The Tale of Ise – Early Literature (Heian Period) – Prose
  • 935 – Tosa Nikki – The Tosa Diary – Early Literature ( Heian Period) – Prose
  • early 11th century – Genji Monogatari – The Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu – Early Literature (Heian Period) – Prose
  • early 11th century – Makura no Soshi – The Pillowbook – Sei Shonagon – Early Literature (Heian Period) – Prose

Little by little, the Japanese kana are introduced in literature. The great prose classics (Genji Monogatari and Makura no Soshi) of the 11th century were produced by women who took part of the courts of Empresses at those times.

  • early 13th century – Heike Monogatari – The Tale of the Heike – unknown – Medieval Literature (Kamakura Period) – Prose
  • 1212 – Hojoki – The Ten Foot Square Hut – Kamo no Chomei – Medieval Literature (Kamakura Period) – Prose
  • 1330 – Tsurezuregusa – Essays in Idleness – Yoshida Tenko – Medieval Literature (Kamakura Period) – Prose

In these period, the works are deeply influenced by Buddhist notion of inconstancy of worldly affairs (‘Mujo’).

  • 1682 – Koshoku Ichidai Otoko – The Life of an Amorous Man – Ihara Saikaku – Edo Literature – Prose
  • 1702 – Oku no Hosomichi – The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Matsuo Basho – Edo Literature – Poetry

During the Edo period, there were two trends. With Koshoku Ichidai Otoko we have a humorous work that illustrates the popularity of illustrated commercial prose works at those times. Also with the Oku no Hosomichi, we have the raise of Haikai (later Haiku) to a higher level of great poetry by Matsuo Basho.

  • 1887 – Ukigumo – Drifting Clouds – Futabatei Shimei – Modern Literature – Prose
  • 1896 Takekurabe – Growing up – Higuchi Ichiyo – Modern Literature – Prose
  • 1906 – Hakai – The Broken Commandment – Shimazaki Toson – Modern Literature – Prose

The Meiji restauration brought Western influences into Japanese culture. For literature, the biggest change was the fact that the novel became a serious, respected genre of literature in Japan.

  • 1914 – Kokoro – The Heart – Natsume Soseki – Modern Literature – Prose
  • 1915 – Rashomon – Rashomon – Akutagawa Ryunosuke – Modern Literature – Prose
  • 1918 – Chusai – Chusai – Mori Ogai – Modern Literature – Prose

The modern Japanese realistic novel was brought to full maturity by Natsume Soseki, Mori Ogai and Akutagawa Ryunosuke. Their works are full of psychologic subtleties and fictionalized studies in history and biography.

  • 1947 – Shayo – The Setting Sun – Dazai Osamu – Postwar Literature – Prose
  • 1948 – Sasameyuki – The Makioka Sisters – Tanizaki Jun’ichiro – Postwar Literature – Prose
  • 1948 – Yukiguni – Snow Country – Kawabata Yasunari – Postwar Literature – Prose
  • 1954 – Yama no Oto – The Sound of the Mountain – Kawabata Yasunari – Postwar Literature – Prose
  • 1956 – Kinkakuji – The Temple of the Golden Pavilion – Mishima Yukio – Postwar Literature (2nd generation) – Prose
  • 1962 – Suna no Onna – The Woman in the Dunes – Abe Kobo – Postwar Literature (2nd generation) – Prose

The postwar literature of Japan is reflecting the sense of loss and confusion following the experience of World War II. It is in this period that a first Japanese Nobel laureate, Kawabata, has to be located. With Mishima and Abe we have a second generation of postwar authors.

  • 1964 – Kojintekina Taiken – A Personnal Matter – Oe Kenzaburo – Modern Literature – Prose
  • 1978 – Choji – Child of Fortune – Tsushima Yuko – Modern Literature – Prose

After the ’50s, Japanese fiction can no longer be easily characterized in terms of postwar consciousness. The so called 3th generation of postwar writers experiment with new manners, modes, forms of (re)presentation, restructuring the I-novel, etc. With a new Japanese Nobel laureate as a consequence: Oe Kenzaburo.

  • 1988 – Noruwei no Mori – Norwegian Wood – Murakami Haruki – Modern Literature – Prose
  • 1988 – Kichin – Kitchen – Yoshimoto Banana – Modern Literature – Prose

Finally we have the youngest generation of Japanese writers who are immensely popular with young readers both in Japan and abroad.

  • After 2000 – Keitai novels

Since 2000 a lot of new forms of literature have been appearing. Among them, the so called Keitai (mobile phone) Novels are most popular. It is a modern version of the earlier books that were produced and edited on a periodic base. Popular keitai novels became bestsellers in book form or have been dramatized.