Table of Contents

Chapter 1--An Introduction to Our Authors
Chapter 2--ONO NO KOMACHI (9th Century)--Classical (Heian)

Chapter 3--KAMO NO CHOMEI (1153-1216)--Medieval (Kamakura)

Chapter 4--CHIKAMATSUMONZAEMON(1653-1725)--Renaissance (Tokugawa)

Chapter 5--NATSUME SOSEKI (1867-1916)--Modern (Meiji)

Chapter 6--BETSUYAKU MINORU (1938--)--Contemporary

Chapter 7--Conclusion--The Availability of Japanese Literature

The history of Japanese literature is remarkably similar to that of that other "tight little island" on the opposite side of the globe, England--whose literature we in America know almost as if it were our own, of course.  Both islands became literate at almost the same time, the late 5th unto early 6th century, under the influence of a written language brought by missionaries from the neighboring continent.  In the case of England it was Latin (and the Roman alphabet), brought by Christian priests; in the case of Japan, Chinese (with its thousands of characters), brought by Buddhist priests, mostly from Korea.

A very few people, mostly priests, then learned to write, in that foreign language.  Then, by a century or so later, adapting the foreign writing system, some began to write the native language.  Thus, by the 700s--over twelve hundred years ago, but over a thousand years after Greece, Egypt, India, and China were already writing--Japan and England began to have a literature.  In Japan the first great book, the Kojiki, dates from 712; in England (while the dating is less certain) Beowulf dates from about 725--within a single generation.

Scholars tend to divide the history of both literatures into the same five periods: Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, Modern, and Contemporary.  I use these periods (with their Japanese designations) to structure this book, choosing a representative writer, and one for whom I have a special affection, from each.

Japan clearly had the higher civilization in the Classical, or Heian, period (794-1185), probably the highest civilization in the world.(1)  And it can easily claim the higher literary achievement at least until the time of Chaucer (1343-1400).  This early period is named after the capital city, Heian Kyo (now Kyoto), and theirs was an aristocratic literature, centered in activities at court.  Some of the greatest works were written by women of the court, among them the subject of our next chapter, Ono no Komachi.  But the most important of these women was Murasaki Shikibu, author of the masterwork of all Japanese literature (and first great novel in world literature), the 1200-page The Tale of Genji, written about the year 1000 (+/-10)--compared to which Beowulf is a primitive epic indeed.

This was a literature of love and peace, not warfare.  The Fujiwara family maintained power, not by military conquest, but by marrying its daughters into the imperial family.  The great hero is Genji, Murasaki's Shining Prince--a singer, poet, dancer, and lover, not a warrior--as the poetry and fiction of the Heian period established "romantic" values in Japan almost unknown in the West until the late Middle Ages, and, in part for this reason, seem much more sophisticated to a modern reader.

The Buddhist influence was important from the beginning in Japanese literature, as the Christian influence was in English literature, but Heian literature was still largely secular, written by and for the court elite.  The expression of Buddhism in poetry, prose, and particularly the drama, becomes more prominent in the Medieval, or Kamakura, period (1185-1333), however.  This is a time of civil warfare, and the center of power moves 300 miles east (the other end of the Tokaido Road), to Kamakura (south of present-day Tokyo).  The code of the samurai and a male-dominated warrior literature develops.  The Tales of the Heike (mid-13th century), recounting the battles of the Taira and Minamoto clans, is one of the most substantial, and better known, works of the period.

But new sects of Buddhism were also important and were related to the development of the Noh, which remains a "religious" drama, combining Zen form and Shingon content in a church-like atmosphere.  People don't clap, but meditate, in response to Noh.  The aristocratic form of the new Buddhism, informing the discipline of the samurai code, the Noh drama, and the tea ceremony was Zen.  But the Shingon and Nichiren sects were the more popular forms, reaching a much wider range of people, most of whom could not read (but could recite, say, namu amida butsu endlessly).  Kamo no Chomei, the writer featured in chapter three, reflects this contemporary Buddhist response to the vicissitudes of life in retiring from the world to his ten-foot hut.  His witness is definitely that of a Medieval Japanese Buddhist, but the similarity of much of what he affirms to what Thoreau affirms in Walden as an American Transcendentalist also appeals to me--and reflects its universality.

By the time of Shakespeare (1564-1616), the literary lead has definitely passed to England.  The Japanese Renaissance, or Tokugawa, period (1600-1868), begins over a 100 years later than the Renaissance in England (1485-1660), but on the same political basis.(2)  As Henry Tudor had established a political stability in England that encouraged the development of an urban middle class, and the arts that class chose to support after his victory at Bosworth Field in 1485, Tokugawa Ieyasu did much the same after his victory at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 (shortly before Elizabeth, the last of the Tudors, died in1603), establishing the bakufu, the government that ruled Japan until 1868.

If the literature of the Classical period had been aristocratic, and that of the Medieval period religious, that of this Renaissance period is definitely middle-class and secular in both cultures.  And, in both, the theatre becomes a central cultural institution, since literacy is still not widespread.  Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), the subject of chapter four, was the most important dramatist of this period, writing plays expressing these middle-class values for both the new Kabuki and the Bunraku (puppet) theatre, and becoming Japan's greatest dramatist, as Shakespeare is England's.

There is important fiction and poetry in Japan in these years, too, but not the flood of it there is in England by the time the Tokugawa period ends--in Romantic poetry and Victorian fiction.  So when Commodore Perry's black ships open Japan to the West in 1853, Japan does need to catch up in literature, as in so much else--or so it seems to the Japanese.

And that is the temper of the Modern, or Meiji, period (1868-1912), named for the new young emperor, whose capital is moved to Edo (now Tokyo).  The goal was to catch up with the West in every sphere of activity, including literature, and matching English achievement in the novel became important. As part of this effort Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), the subject of chapter five, majored in English at Tokyo University, was sent to England for graduate study, and then appointed professor of English literature at Tokyo University when he returned.  He became the most distinguished of a number of early 20th-century Japanese novelists, and from his time on there have always been major novelists in Japan.  A course in the 20th-Century Japanese Novel can be as rich as one in the 20th-Century English (or American) Novel, now that enough of those novels have been translated.

I could easily have stayed with a novelist for the major figure in the Contemporary period (since World War II--or, as the Japanese say, the Pacific War), for both Kawabata Yasunari (in 1968) and Oe Kenzaburo (in 1994) have won the Nobel Prize, and I consider Mishima Yukio (1925-1970) the Japanese writer who has influenced my life most deeply, and the one I believe will stand as the most important twentieth-century novelist in the world (if not James Joyce) two hundred years from now (even if, after reading and teaching both extensively, I do now prefer Soseki).

Instead, I chose to emphasize the drama, with Betsuyaku Minoru (1938--) as the subject for chapter six, in part because I have translated five of his plays, but, more importantly, because the Japanese achievement in drama became so significant in the '60s--and Americans still know almost nothing about it.  Novels have been translated; plays have not (Mishima, a dozen of whose novels have been translated into English is, in fact, almost as important as a dramatist in Japan).  There are a number of major dramatists still at work in Tokyo who are younger than I am,(3) but the greatest of these, in my opinion, is Betsuyaku, who became the playwright as thinker, on the model of Beckett and Ionesco.  Others are doing distinguished work, but none whose work I know have managed to capture that Absurdist flavor with his perception and wit--and remarkable dramatic language, as well.  Betsuyaku also writes children's books, and sometimes uses children's stories as the basis for his plays--as he used the Hans Christian Anderson story in The Little Match Girl, which won the Kishida Kunio Award (the Japanese equivalent of the Tony) in 1966--though more often the model will be a Japanese children's story.  I find that this marriage of simplicity and complexity makes his work fascinating.

To illustrate variety in form as well as major historical periods, I have chosen writers in different genres.  Perhaps because I agree with Aristotle that drama is the highest literary form, I have chosen two dramatists--but dramatists very different from one another, one from the Renaissance period and one Contemporary--then a poet, an essayist, and a novelist.  But common to all, over these twelve centuries, I believe, is the pride and independence characteristic of the Japanese spirit--which I admire as it is expressed in each of these five authors--all among my favorites.

(1)  The best introduction to this period in Japanese literary history is probably Ivan Morris's, The World of the Shining Prince (Oxford University Press, 1964).

(2)  In simplifying the comparison I have omitted the Muromachi period (1333-1600), as I will later omit the large block of time in this century from 1912 through WWII (the Pacific War).  I will comment on the reasons for those omissions in those chapters, but feel that the main lines of the comparison remain sound.

(3)  Goodman, David G., Japanese Drama and Culture in the 1960s  (M. E. Sharpe: Armonk, New York, 1988)