Classical literature (koten bungaku), meaning literature from the earliest times up to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, is customarily divided by literary scholars into four major periods: jōdai (antiquity), chūko (middle antiquity), chūsei (the middle ages), and kinsei (the recent past). This method of periodization largely reflects the traditional terminology employed by Japanese historians. Jōdai covers Japanese literary history through the Nara period (710-794); chūko is used more or less synonymously with the literature of the Heian period (794-1180); chūsei takes in the Kamakura (1180-1333), Muromachi (1333-1573), and Azuchi-Momoyama (1573-1600) periods; and kinsei is most often used to refer to the Edo period (1600-1867). Two caveats are in order. One is that several of these boundaries are "fuzzy": different events are taken by different scholars to mark the end of one period and the beginning of the next. The second is that in practice it is quite acceptable to speak of "Heian literature" or "Edo literature," for instance, instead of using the terms given here.
- The literature of antiquity (to 794)
- Written literature in Japan dates from the Nara period, although an oral tradition existed well before that time. The work that is usually taken to reveal the process of change from an oral to a written tradition and from communal to personal concerns is the collection of poems known as the Man'yōshū (The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves).
- The literature of middle antiquity (794-1180)
- Literature in the early Heian period flourished under Chinese (Tang) influence, but became more expressive of native sentiments as Japan withdrew into itself and political institutions based on Chinese models either collapsed or were molded into more congenial forms. Chinese poetry was supplanted by the waka (literally, "Japanese song") as the preeminent literary form. Imperial collections of poetry were compiled, and prose works, most by women, were written in the newly developed phonetic kana script. The decline of the aristocracy toward the end of the period was paralleled by a loss of creative energy and a growing sense of pessimism, although collections of folktales and popular songs signaled the involvement of a new social class in the production of works of recognized literary value.
- The literature of the middle ages (1180-1600)
- The political turbulence associated with the Gempei Wars of 1180 to 1185 and the establishment of the Kamakura bakufu (1192) gave rise to a literature that both centered on military exploits and often expressed disillusion with such exploits. Mujō (impermanence, transience) became a key concept underlying the literature of this period, although at the same time groups devoted to the composition of renga (linked verse) were turning to literature for the purpose of seeking pleasure there.
- The literature of the recent past (1600-1867)
- The Edo period was characterized by the growing cultural influence exercised by samurai and townspeople. The commercial class in particular benefited from various economic and technological developments, the result of which was a great flowering of culture in the Genroku period (1688-1704). The haikai master Matsuo Bashō, the novelist Ihara Saikaku, and the dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon are all associated with this enormous outburst of creative activity. The nation's cultural center shifted from the Kyoto-Osaka region to Edo in the second half of the eighteenth century, leading to the production of large quantities of gesaku (frivolous works) by the writers who constituted the last literary generation before the advent of Western influence.