Literary history

The information contained in the pages on literary history is such as Japanese high school students are expected to know to be able to pass university entrance examinations. Subtlety may be lacking, but the kind of information found here -- together with the rote memorization of certain key passages -- can perhaps be said to constitute the core of the Japanese literary tradition as it is studied by a large proportion of Japan's population.

Premodern period

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 "literature of the Heian period," from 794 up to the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate in 1192; chūsei takes in the Kamakura (1185-1333), Muromachi (1336-1573), and Azuchi-Momoyama (1573-1600) periods, continuing up to the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603; and kinsei is most often used to refer to the Edo period (1603-1867). 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 (to take one example, the start of the Kamakura period is now taught in schools to be 1185, but 1192 is still firmly established in the popular imagination). 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 (794-1185)
    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 poem") 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 (1185-1603)
    The political turbulence associated with the Genpei 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 (1603-1867)
    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.
Modern period

The basis for the periodization of modern literature (kindai bungaku) is gradually becoming problematic as the "modern" period grows ever longer. The most common division is the one based on the reigns of the emperors who have ruled since 1868: Meiji (1868-1912), Taishō (1912-1926), Shōwa (1926-1989), Heisei (1989-2019), and Reiwa (from 2019). The usefulness of these divisions is mitigated, however, both by the basic political continuity of the past 130 years and by the failure to take into account the single most traumatic disruption of that unity, World War II. Literary histories therefore tend to subdivide the modern era by choosing various historical or cultural events to mark the boundaries of important literary developments, perhaps attaching an explanatory note to identify the reason for the division, resulting in a descriptive heading like "The early-to-middle Meiji period (the creation and development of a modern literature)." The situation is further complicated by the recent questioning of "modernization" as a paradigm for constructing Japan's post-Meiji literary history. The effect all this will eventually have on literature as it is taught in the schools is by no means clear at this point.

  • Meiji literature (1868-1912)
    The Meiji period was when Japan, under Western influence, took the first steps toward developing a modern literature. The major hallmarks up to the time of the Russo-Japanese War are considered to be Tsubouchi Shōyō's theoretical study Shōsetsu shinzui (The Essence of the Novel, 1885) because of its advocacy of psychological realism, and Futabatei Shimei's Ukigumo (Drifting Clouds, 1887), both for its realistic character portrayal and because the narrative medium is an approximation of everyday speech. Counterpoints are offered by the highly stylized prose of the Ken'yūsha (Friends of the Inkstone) group centering on Ozaki Kōyō, and the kind of romanticism evident in the early stories of Mori Ōgai and, especially, the poetry of Kitamura Tōkoku, Shimazaki Tōson, and Yosano Tekkan. The movement known as Japanese Naturalism gained prominence with the publication of Shimazaki Tōson's novel Hakai (The Broken Commandment, 1906) and Tayama Katai's short story Futon (The Quilt, 1907). Naturalism predominated on the literary scene until around 1910, although such authors as Natsume Sōseki, Mori Ōgai, and Nagai Kafū were not associated with it and might even be considered antagonistic to it. The humanistic idealism of the Shirakaba (White Birch) writers from the second decade of the century is taken to mark a turn away from Naturalism and toward a broader definition of literature.
  • Taishō literature (1912-1926)
    The intellectual aestheticism of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke and decadence of Tanizaki Jun'ichirō characterize this short period, as do (toward its end) the introduction of elements of Western literary modernism in the early work of Yokomitsu Riichi and Kawabata Yasunari, along with the first stirrings of proletarian literature. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is sometimes taken as a major cultural divide in this process.
  • Shōwa (1926-1989), Heisei (1989-2019), and Reiwa (2019- ) literature
    Proletarian literature was the chief literary movement of the 1920s, supplemented by the uniquely Japanese genre of autobiographical fiction known as the "I novel" (watakushi shōsetsu or shishōsetsu). Government suppression of proletarian literature in the 1930s was attended by the publication of "conversion" (tenkō) novels by writers compelled to renounce their communist ideals. The subsequent patriotic writings of the war years have largely been forgotten. The end of the war witnessed a resurgent cosmopolitanism that has resulted in a striking literary diversity and has led to a reassessment of  the way in which tradition and modernity can be said to contribute to the Japanese sense of identity. This process of reevaluation can be seen in the choice of the two postwar Japanese winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Kawabata Yasunari (1968), who titled his acceptance speech "Japan the Beautiful and Myself," and Ōe Kenzaburō (1994), who in deliberate contrast chose the title "Japan the Ambiguous and Myself."

    The situation since the 1980s has been characterized by an ever increasing diversity, with the "postmodernism" of Murakami Haruki often being one of the last topics mentioned in recent general surveys. This means, in other words, that "accepted" literary history has not really caught up with developments since the late Shōwa period. But any future account of Heisei -- and now Reiwa -- literature will surely have to take note not only of growing categorical fragmentation and diversity but also of the profusion of visually oriented and non-print media (manga, anime, streaming, gaming) that is currently working to reshape the very definition of "literature."