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The history of early Japanese literature is represented, in the main, by chronicles, anthologies of poetry, and diaries and novels based largely on life at the Imperial court. Among the latter group, the most famous works are the Genji Monogatari and Makura no Soshi. Both were written by women; in fact, during the Heian period (794-1185) literary works by women were the prominent prose form, works by men being largely confined to poetry in the tanka style. The Genji Monogatari is ranked among the world's greatest works of literature, both in style and construction and in the vividness of its characterisation. The majority of the work was translated into English by a British scholar between 1925 and 1935.
The 400-year interval between the Heian and Edo periods was a time of great unrest, and works of the late 12th to 15th centuries echoed the times. The Heike Monogatari, a military saga, opens with a Buddhistic declaration of the impermanence of things. The Tsurezuregusa is a collection of lyrical essays on the appreciation of nature as a retreat from the prevailing scene of war and uncertainty. The atmosphere of works of the Middle Ages was carried over to the Edo period to some extent by poets working in the tanka and haiku forms. The greatest literary figure of this period, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), assimilated the traditional lyricism of Japanese poetry within a style that reached out to the instinctive experience of the common man. Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693) was a writer of novels and stories typifying the life-style of the newly-emerging merchant class. His works are vivid, and often humorous, accounts of life during a period of dramatic social change.
After 1868, the manners, customs and culture of the West began to pervade the life of the Japanese people and Western literature, too, entered Japan for the first time on any significant scale. The imagery of Western poetry and romanticism was adopted with enthusiasm and, above all, there was a surge of interest in the novel.
Realism and rationality were watchwords of the new movement, and the greatest writers of the second half of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th – Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki – were successful in blending these new concepts with the traditions of Japanese literature.
Among their contemporaries and successors were many fine novelists whose works have been widely translated into English and other languages, notably Tanizaki Junichiro and Kawabata Yasunari. In 1968, Kawabata Yasunari was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
As mentioned above in the context of modern Japanese novels, the Meiji period saw a great flowering of interest in Western literature. In the case of poetry, this resulted in the formation of a group of Japanese poets whose work was stylistically influenced by the West though imbued with traditional Japanese expression. The first collection of such poems to be published in Japan was the Wakanashu of Shimazaki Toson, in 1897; this work was strongly influenced by the style and imagery of the English Romantic Poets. At around the same time, several anthologies of works by English and American poets were translated into Japanese. Late 19th century and early 20th century poets adhering to the Japanese forms of tanka and haiku found new inspiration in the democratic and optimistic society of the Meiji and Taisho periods and Japanese poetry experienced something of a revival. Among the most noted of the traditional poets of the time were Yosano Akiko (1878-1942) and Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). Others, such as Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912) and Kitahara Hakushu (1885-1942), while working in Japanese poetic forms, drew their inspiration from the realities of contemporary life rather than the intellectual images of former eras.
The contents of this site are excerpted from THE OFFICIAL RECORD OF TIME CAPSULE EXPO'70(March 1975). Please note that company and organization names may differ from those of the current ones.
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