An Introduction to: Classical Japanese Literature
So, what is it?
Old Japanese books, man. And we’re talking old. But wait! Old books are the bomb. They’ve got heart-wrenching tales of courtly love, samurai battles to rival Game of Thrones and fables of creatures equally weird as they are wonderful.
When we speak of classical Japanese literature, we usually mean works dating from the 8th century up until the dawn of Japan’s Meiji era in the 19th century.
And like anything cultural, literature has changed with society. So to make this intro easier, I’ve split up classical Japan into four categories and included recommendations of works with English translations available.
Long, long ago in a world inhabited by gods
Every nation needs an original creation story and the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) — Japan’s oldest historical record — recounts the dawn of Japanese civilization through myths and folk songs. It also answers the question: Why is the Japanese Imperial family divine? Because they happen to be descendants of the sun goddess, Amaterasu.
About a decade later, Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan) arrived on the scene with more historically accurate material, particularly about the reigns of emperors Tenji, Tenmu and Jito.
If these seem like a bit of a slog, don’t worry, the Heian period is just around the corner and brings with it a flourishing of all things fiction — including the first novel and first sci-fi(-ish) short story.
Badass poets and innovative imaginations of the Heian court
The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book
The two big stars of the Heian period were undoubtedly Murasaki Shikubu and Sei Shonagon. The former having written The Tale of Genji, arguably the first novel ever written, and the latter The Pillow Book (Makura no Sōshi), an indispensable account of the trials and tribulations of courtly life.
If you’ve read anything about life as an Heian aristocrat, you’ll know they dedicated themselves to one thing above all: poetry. The styles popular back then, like waka, are extremely short and were the standard method of communication — essentially elegantly crafted Tinder messages.
One of the first collections of poetry was commissioned by the emperor Uda and named the Kokin Wakashu. This meaty volume consists of over 1,111 poems written by the court celebrities of the day.
More of a sci-fi or fantasy fan? Taketori Monogatari, is a bizarre story dating back to the tenth century and known alternately as The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter. The protagonist, Princess Kaguya, was born on the moon but sent to Earth (sounds a bit Sailor Moon) to escape the chaos of a celestial war. A kindly bamboo cutter finds her nestled inside a glowing bamboo stalk, takes her home to his wife and they raise her as their own. This contender for the first sci-fi story has also been made into a gorgeous movie by Studio Ghibli.
Epic battles, monks and frolicking frogs
The Tale of the Heike
The term “Heian” means peace but our next period was anything but. Japan was in the grip of numerous civil wars. What’s useful to have during war? Warriors, and lots of them.
It comes as no surprise that famous literary works from this period are tales of war and death. The Tale of the Heike is a perfect example. Detailing the clash between two warring clans, the Minamoto and Taira, as they fought for control of Japan at the end of the 12th century, it gives an important glimpse into society at the time.
Monks were also putting their pens to paper and churning out some of the best of Buddhist literature. One genre named zuihitsu — often a mixture of personal essays, anecdotes and ideas loosely linked together — was inspired by Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book. This became popular with the publication of H0joki written by Kamo no Chomei and focused on the Buddhist concept of transience. The court-poet-turned-monk is famous for living in a 10-square-foot hut (proto-LeoPalace?) on Mount Hino in Shiga Prefecture.
A century later, Yoshida Kenko’s Tsurezuregusa followed in its footsteps, recounting anything from humorous incidents to deep discussions about impermanence.
Literature outside of the norm was also being produced. The Choju-jinbutsu-giga, a contender for the title of first manga, was started in the 12th century and finally finished in the 13th. The three scrolls depict foxes, monkeys and frogs (plus others) acting like humans in various everyday situations. Genuinely hilarious, parts of this satirical piece are on display at the Kyushu National Museum exhibition from October 4 until November 20.
Also, the traditional theater style of Noh was coming into its own during the 14th century alongside renga, a form of collaborative poetry which would pave the way for haiku in the Edo period, which is where we’re heading to next…
The Edo cultural explosion
The Complete Haiku
Previously, Kyoto and Nara in the Kansai region had been the center of the Japanese world. All of this changed in the Edo period when the power shifted, along with the emperor and the shogunate, to Tokyo (Edo was the old name for Tokyo). Edo was bustling with samurai charisma, geisha charm and artists inspired by these changing times. Haiku was perfected by Matsuo Basho, who published a collection aptly named The Complete Haiku during the 17th century.
The Love Suicides at Sonezaki
The closing off of the outside world, both physically and culturally, as a result of sakoku (closed country) led to a bourgeoisie class with the time and money to invest in the arts. Costume drama like kabuki and the puppet theater, bunraku, flourished thanks to the plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon whose work revolved around the life and trials of ordinary people. One such was The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, which tells the story of two lovers driven to death. The tragedies he wrote rivaled those of Shakespeare.
Koshoku Ichidai Onna
Travel guides, essays and satires were being churned out in unprecedented numbers. The Yoshiwara, or pleasure district, was the muse of many a writer. Iharu Saikaku delved head first into this world with his novel Koshoku Ichidai Onna (The Life of An Amorous Woman). An ironic take on the world of love and lust, an old woman recounts the story of her life as the daughter of a nobleman, courtesan and prostitute.
Did we miss anything? Let us know what other classics you would recommend in the comments!