Early works of Japanese literature were heavily influenced by cultural contact with China
and Chinese literature
, and were often written in Classical Chinese
. Indian literature
also had an influence through the spread of Buddhism in Japan
. In the Heian period
, Japan's original ''kokufū'' culture (lit., "national culture") developed and literature also established its own style. Following Japan's reopening of its ports to Western trading and diplomacy in the 19th century, Western literature
has influenced the development of modern Japanese writers, while they have in turn been more recognized outside Japan, with two Nobel Prizes so far, as of 2020.
-period literature (before 794)
Before the introduction of kanji
from China to Japan, Japan had no writing system; it is believed that Chinese characters came to Japan at the very beginning of the fifth century, brought by immigrants from Korea and China. Early Japanese texts first followed the Chinese model,
before gradually transitioning to a hybrid of Chinese characters used in Japanese syntactical formats, resulting in sentences written with Chinese characters but read phonetically in Japanese.
Chinese characters were also further adapted, creating what is known as , the earliest form of , or Japanese syllabic writing.
The earliest literary works in Japan were created in the period.
These include the (712), a historical record that also chronicles ancient Japanese mythology and folk songs; the (720), a chronicle written in Chinese that is significantly more detailed than the ; and the (759), a poetry anthology. One of the stories they describe is the tale of .
Heian literature (794–1185)
The Heian period
has been referred to as the golden era of art and literature in Japan. During this era, literature became centered on a cultural elite of nobility and monks. The imperial court particularly patronized the poets, most of whom were courtiers or ladies-in-waiting. Reflecting the aristocratic atmosphere, the poetry was elegant and sophisticated and expressed emotions in a rhetorical style. Editing the resulting anthologies of poetry soon became a national pastime. The poem, now one of two standard orderings for the Japanese syllabary
, was also developed during the early Heian period.
''The Tale of Genji
'' (), written in the early 11th century by a woman named , is considered the pre-eminent novel of Heian fiction. Other important writings of this period include the (905), a -poetry anthology, and ''The Pillow Book
'' () (990s). ''The Pillow Book'' was written by , 's contemporary and rival, as an essay about the life, loves, and pastimes of nobles in the Emperor's court. Another notable piece of fictional Japanese literature was , a collection of over a thousand stories in 31 volumes. The volumes cover various tales from India
The 10th-century Japanese narrative, ''The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter
'' (), can be considered an early example of proto-science fiction
. The protagonist of the story, , is a princess from the Moon who is sent to Earth for safety during a celestial war, and is found and raised by a bamboo cutter. She is later taken back to her extraterrestrial family in an illustrated depiction of a disc-shaped flying object similar to a flying saucer
[ (cf. )]
period literature (1185–1603)
During the Kamakura period
(1185–1333), Japan experienced many civil wars which led to the development of a warrior class, and subsequent war tales, histories, and related stories.
Work from this period is notable for its more somber tone compared to the works of previous eras, with themes of life and death, simple lifestyles, and redemption through killing. A representative work is ''The Tale of the Heike
'' () (1371), an epic account of the struggle between the and clans for control of Japan at the end of the twelfth century. Other important tales of the period include 's (1212) and 's (1331).
Despite a decline in the importance of the imperial court, aristocratic literature remained the center of Japanese culture at the beginning of the period. Many literary works were marked by a nostalgia for the Heian period.
The period also saw a renewed vitality of poetry, with a number of anthologies compiled,
such as the compiled in the early 1200s. However, there were fewer notable works by female authors during this period, reflecting the lowered status of women.
As the importance of the imperial court continued to decline, a major feature of literature (1333–1603) was the spread of cultural activity through all levels of society. Classical court literature, which had been the focal point of Japanese literature up until this point, gradually disappeared.
New genres such as , or linked verse, and Noh
theater developed among the common people,
and such as the Nihon Ryoiki were created by Buddhist priests for preaching. The development of roads, along with a growing public interest in travel and pilgrimages, brought rise to the greater popularity of travel literature from the early 13th to 14th centuries. Notable examples of travel diaries include (1432) and (1480).
Edo-period literature (1603–1868)
Literature during this time was written during the largely peaceful Tokugawa Period
(commonly referred to as the Edo Period
). Due in large part to the rise of the working and middle classes in the new capital of Edo
), forms of popular drama developed which would later evolve into kabuki
. The and kabuki dramatist (1653–1725) became popular at the end of the 17th century, and he is also known as Japan's Shakespeare
Many different genres of literature made their début during the Edo Period, helped by a rising literacy rate among the growing population of townspeople, as well as the development of lending libraries. (1642–1693) might be said to have given birth to the modern consciousness of the novel in Japan, mixing vernacular dialogue into his humorous and cautionary tales of the pleasure quarters, the so-called ("floating world
") genre. 's ''Life of an Amorous Man'' is considered the first work in this genre. Although 's works were not regarded as high literature at the time because it had been aimed towards and popularized by the (merchant classes), they became popular and were key to the development and spread of .
(1644–1694) is recognized as the greatest master of haiku
(then called ) His poems were influenced by his firsthand experience of the world around him, often encapsulating the feeling of a scene in a few simple elements. He made his life's work the transformation of into a literary genre. For , involved a combination of comic playfulness and spiritual depth, ascetic practice, and involvement in human society. In particular, wrote a major work in the form of a travel diary
and considered "one of the major texts of classical Japanese literature."
(1703–1775) is widely regarded as one of the greatest haiku
poets. Before her time, haiku by women were often dismissed and ignored. Her dedication toward her career not only paved a way for her career but it also opened a path for other women to follow. Her early poems were influenced by , although she did later develop her own unique style as an independent figure in her own right. While still a teenager, she had already become very popular all over Japan for her poetry. Her poems, although mostly dealing with nature, work for unity of nature with humanity Her own life was that of the poets who made their lives and the world they lived in one with themselves, living a simple and humble life. She was able to make connections by being observant and carefully studying the unique things around her ordinary world and writing them down.
was an intellectual movement situated in Edo and centered on the study of Dutch
(and by subsequently western
) science and technology, history, philosophy, art, and language, based primarily on the Dutch books imported via . The polymath
(1728–1780) was a scholar of and a writer of popular fiction. (1733–1817) was a Japanese scholar known for his translation of (New Book of Anatomy) from the Dutch-language anatomy book '. As a full-blown translation from a Western language, it was the first of its kind in Japan. Although there was a minor Western influence trickling into the country from the Dutch settlement at Nagasaki
, it was the importation of Chinese vernacular fiction
that proved the greatest outside influence on the development of Early Modern Japanese fiction.
(1765–1831) is known as Japan's Mark Twain
and wrote , which is a mix of travelogue and comedy. , , and were instrumental in developing the , which were historical romances almost entirely in prose, influenced by Chinese vernacular novels such as and .
Two masterpieces were written by (1734–1809): and . (1767–1848) wrote the extremely popular fantasy/historical romance over a period of twenty-eight years to complete (1814–1842), in addition to other . wrote mostly set in the red-light districts until the edicts banned such works, and he turned to comedic . Genres included horror, crime stories, morality stories, comedy, and pornography — often accompanied by colorful woodcut prints.
(1760–1849), perhaps Japan's most famous woodblock print
artist, also illustrated fiction as well as his famous 36 Views of Mount Fuji
Nevertheless, in the period, as in earlier periods, scholarly work continued to be published in Chinese, which was the language of the learned much as Latin was in Europe.
, and early -period literature (1868–1945)
The Meiji period
marked the re-opening of Japan to the West, ending over two centuries of national seclusion
, and marking the beginning of a period of rapid industrialization. The introduction of European literature
brought free verse into the poetic repertoire. It became widely used for longer works embodying new intellectual themes. Young Japanese prose writers and dramatists faced a suddenly-broadened horizon of new ideas and artistic schools, with novelists amongst some of the first to assimilate these concepts successfully into their writing.
's (1867–1916) humorous novel (''I Am a Cat
'', 1905) employed a cat as the narrator, and he also wrote the famous novels (1906) and (1914). , and , who was called "god of the novel" as the most prominent "I novel
" writer, were instrumental in adopting and adapting Western literary conventions and techniques. is known especially for his historical short stories. , and represent a strain of writers whose style hearkens back to early-Modern Japanese literature.
In the early Meiji period (1868–1880s), authored Enlightenment literature, while pre-modern popular books depicted the quickly changing country. Then Realism
was brought in by and in the mid-Meiji period (late 1880s–early 1890s) while the Classicism of and gained popularity. , a rare female writer in this era, wrote short stories on powerless women of this age in a simple style in between literary and colloquial. , a favored disciple of , pursued a flowing and elegant style and wrote early novels such as ''The Operating Room'' (1895) in literary style and later ones including ''The Holy Man of Mount'' (1900) in colloquial language.
was brought in by with his anthology of translated poems (1889) and carried to its height by , alongside magazines such as and in the early 1900s. also wrote some modern novels including ''The Dancing Girl
'' (1890), ''The Wild Geese
'' (1911), then later wrote historical novels. , who is often compared with , wrote ''I Am a Cat'' (1905) with humor and satire, then depicted fresh and pure youth in (1906) and (1908). He eventually pursued transcendence of human emotions and egoism in his later works including (1914) and his last and unfinished novel ''Light and darkness'' (1916).
shifted from Romanticism to Naturalism
which was established with his ''The Broken Commandment'' (1906) and 's ''Futon'' (1907). Naturalism hatched "I Novel" () that describes the authors themselves and depicts their own mental states. Neo-romanticism came out of anti-naturalism and was led by and others in the early 1910s. and others founded a magazine in 1910. They shared a common characteristic, Humanism. 's style was autobiographical and depicted states of his mind and sometimes classified as "I Novel" in this sense. , who was highly praised by , wrote short stories including "" (1915) with an intellectual and analytic attitude and represented Neo-realism in the mid-1910s.
During the 1920s and early 1930s the proletarian literary movement, comprising such writers as and produced a politically radical literature depicting the harsh lives of workers, peasants, women, and other downtrodden members of society, and their struggles for change.
War-time Japan saw the début of several authors best known for the beauty of their language and their tales of love and sensuality, notably and Japan's first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature
, , a master of psychological fiction. wrote lyrical bestsellers glorifying the war, while attempted to publish a disturbingly realistic account of the advance on . Writers who opposed the war include and .
Postwar literature (1945-onwards)
World War II
, and Japan's defeat, deeply influenced Japanese literature. Many authors wrote stories of disaffection, loss of purpose, and the coping with defeat. 's short story "" shows a disillusioned and skeptical Navy officer stationed in a base located on the volcanic island, close to , on the southern tip of the island. 's novel ''The Setting Sun
'' tells of a soldier returning from . won the Prize for his novel ''Fires on the Plain
'' about a Japanese deserter going mad in the Philippine jungle. , well known for both his nihilistic
writing and his controversial suicide by , began writing in the post-war period. 's short story "The American School" portrays a group of Japanese teachers of English who, in the immediate aftermath of the war, deal with the American occupation in varying ways.
Prominent writers of the 1970s and 1980s were identified with intellectual and moral issues in their attempts to raise social and political consciousness. One of them, published his best-known work, ''A Personal Matter
'' in 1964 and became Japan's second winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
had long been concerned with the atomic bomb and continued in the 1980s to write on problems of the nuclear age, while depicted the religious dilemma of the , Roman Catholics in feudal Japan, as a springboard to address spiritual problems. also turned to the past in masterful historical novels of Inner Asia and ancient Japan, in order to portray present human fate.
Avant-garde writers, such as , who wrote novels such as ''The Woman in the Dunes
'' (1960), wanted to express the Japanese experience in modern terms without using either international styles or traditional conventions, developed new inner visions. related the lives of alienated urban dwellers coping with the minutiae of daily life, while the psychodramas within such daily life crises have been explored by a rising number of important women novelists. The 1988 Prize went to for ''Ripening Summer
'', a story capturing the complex psychology of modern women. Other award-winning stories at the end of the decade dealt with current issues of the elderly in hospitals, the recent past (Pure- Hearted Shopping District in , Tokyo), and the life of a Meiji period
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: has been one of his harshest critics. Some of 's best-known works include ''Norwegian Wood
'' (1987) and ''The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
, a best-selling contemporary author whose "manga-esque" style of writing sparked much controversy when she debuted in the late 1980s, has come to be recognized as a unique and talented author over the intervening years. Her writing style stresses dialogue over description, resembling the script of a manga
, and her works focus on love, friendship, and loss. Her breakout work was 1988's ''Kitchen
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 the younger women, brought new vitality to it in the 1980s.
(comics) has penetrated almost every sector of the popular market. It includes virtually every field of human interest, such as multivolume high-school histories 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.
Cell phone novel
s appeared in the early 21st century. Written by and for cell phone users
, the novels — typically romances read by young women — have become very popular both online and in print. Some, such as ''Love Sky
'', have sold millions of print copies, and at the end of 2007 cell phone novels comprised four of the top five fiction best sellers.
Female writers in Japan enjoyed a brief period of success during the Heian period
, but were undermined following the decline in power of the Imperial Court
in the 14th century. Later, in the Meiji era
, earlier works written by women such as and were championed amongst the earliest examples of the Japanese literary language, even at a time when the authors themselves experienced challenges due to their gender. One Meiji era writer, , sought to encourage positive comparisons between her contemporaries and their feminine forebears in the hopes that female authors would be viewed with respect by society, despite assuming a public role outside the traditional confines of a woman's role in her home (see ). Other notable feminine authors of the Meiji era included and .
[The Modern Murasaki, Columbia University Press, pages x-2]
Significant authors and works
* (c.660–c.720): numerous and in the
* (c.718–785): possible compiler of the
* ( – )
* ( – )
* ( – ):
* ( – )
* ( – ): ''The Pillow Book
* ( – ): ''The Tale of Genji
* ( – ):
* Lady ( – ):
* ''The Tale of the Heike
* (–1645): ''The Book of Five Rings
* (work of human geography
Meiji- and Taisho-period literature
* Lafcadio Hearn
* (b. 1931)
* (b. 1935)
* (b. 1936)
* (b. 1949)
* (b. 1951)
* (b. 1952)
* (b. 1962)
* (b. 1964)
* (b. 1976)
Awards and contests
Japan has some literary contests and awards in which authors can participate and be awarded.
is one of the most prestigious literary awards, and receives wide attention from media.
*Aston, William George
. ''A History of Japanese Literature
'', William Heinemann, 1899.
*Birnbaum, A., (ed.).'' Monkey Brain Sushi: New Tastes in Japanese Fiction''. Kodansha International (JPN).
**''Modern Japanese Literature'', Grove Press, 1956.
**''World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of The Pre-Modern Era 1600–1867'', Columbia University Press © 1976 reprinted 1999
**''Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, Poetry, Drama, Criticism'', Columbia University Press © 1984 reprinted 1998
**''Travellers of a Hundred Ages: The Japanese as Revealed Through 1,000 Years of Diaries'', Columbia University Press © 1989 reprinted 1999
**''Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from the Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century'', Columbia University Press © 1993 reprinted 1999
*McCullough, Helen Craig, ''Classical Japanese prose: an anthology'', Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 1990,
*Miner, Earl Roy, Odagiri, Hiroko, and Morrell, Robert E., ''The Princeton companion to classical Japanese literature'', Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1985.
* Ema Tsutomu, Taniyama Shigeru, Ino Kenji, ' Kyoto Shobō © 1977 revised 1981 reprinted 1982
* List of Japanese writers
* List of Japanese classical texts
* Japanese poetry
* Aozora Bunko
– a repository of Japanese literature
* Japanese detective fiction
* Japanese science fiction
* Light novel
* Aston, William George. ''A history of Japanese literature'' (NY, 1899online
* Karatani, Kōjin. ''Origins of modern Japanese literature'' (Duke University Press, 1993).
* Katō, Shūichi. ''A History of Japanese Literature: The first thousand years. Vol. 1.'' (Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International, 1979).
* Keene, Donald. ''Japanese literature: An introduction for Western readers'' (1953).
* Konishi, Jin'ichi. ''A History of Japanese Literature, Volume 3: The High Middle Ages'' (Princeton University Press, 2014).
* Keene, Donald. ''Anthology of Japanese literature: from the earliest era to the mid-nineteenth century'' (Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2007).
Online text librariesJapanese Text Initiative
University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center
Michael Watson, Meiji Gakuin University
ResourcesJapanese Literature Publishing Project
the Agency for Cultural Affairs
of JapanJapanese Book News Website
the Japan FoundationElectronic texts of pre-modern Japanese literature by Satoko Shimazaki
for fiction and nonfiction.