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Review: Japanese Literature - From Murasaki to Murakami
September 25, 2015

Japanese Literature: From Murasaki to Murakami by Marvin Marcus

In this slim volume, part of the "Key Issues in Asian Studies" of the Association for Asian Studies, Marvin Marcus zooms through nearly fifteen hundred years of Japanese literature. And a rich literary history it is, including one of the world's first novels ("The Tale of Genji") to one of the worlds most famous contemporary authors, Haruki Murakami. Japan is home to two Nobel literature laureates and has had other authors in the running.

The roots of formal Japanese literature is, as is much of Japanese culture, a mix of native and imported elements, primarily from China. Marcus explains,
It was the hybridization of Chinese literature - especially with its great poetic, historiographic, and essayist traditions - that laid the foundation for the rise of a distinctively Japanese literature ...
The first literary work in this tradition, the Kojiki ("Record of Ancient Matters"), created around 712, explored the Japanese creation myths and exploits of native gods, but also contained the first published Japanese poetry, including the appearance of waka, the classic verse construction of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. Poetry of this era was also compiled in the Manyōshū ("A Collection of a Thousand Leaves"). For example, this meditation on the meaning of life written by the priest Mansei:
Our life in this world?
To what shall I compare it?
To the boat that goes
Rowing out at break of day
Leaving not a trace behind
During the Heian period (circa 800 to 1200), the Japanese capital was moved to Kyoto and the Chinese influence was stronger, and the classic The Tale of Genji was written by the court lady Murasaki. Genji was a symbol of the romanticized man skillful in love and letters. The key to understanding Genji and his sensibility is mono no aware, which is a deeply felt emotional reaction to the impermanence of beauty. Here is a brief excerpt that captures some of this concept.
Tears of deep emotion filled Genji's eyes as he pondered the many implications of human ephemerality, but they did not mar the beauty and elegance of his appearance.
Other works in this era include the exchange of waka and personal narratives captured in the anonymous "Tales of Ise" and "The Pillow Book" by Sei Shōnagon. Of course, there was much going on outside the walls of the capital, including power struggles and poverty, and eventually the "golden age" gave way to protracted war.

The years roughly bounded by 1200 and 1600 were dominated by warriors and battles, and ultimately the consolidation of states by the Tokugawa shogunate. Fiction reflected this era's conflicts, including "The Tale of the Heike", an anonymous work based on climactic battles and its tragic heroes. Some of the action is captured like a martial arts movie:
Hard-pressed by a host of adversaries, he [Jōmyō] struck out in every direction, employing zigzag, interlacing, crosswise, dragonfly reverse, and waterwheel maneuvers. He cut down eight men on the spot ...
Marcus makes the point that not all warriors were men, as women figured in the conflicts. And other literature from this era is less dramatic and more meditative such as Hōjōiki's "An Account of My Hut", so-called essays in idleness, poetry, including renga or a genre of linked verse, and noh theater.

During the Tokugawa era (1600 to 1868), when the capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo) and Japan was essentially isolated from the outside world, literature turned toward the culture of pleasure, or ukiyo, literally "floating world". The merchant class replaced the samurai as the class with most economic power, if not respect. Fictional accounts of the floating world included Ihara Saikaku's "The Life of an Amorous Man" and "Five Women Who Loved Love". Kubuki became the popular theater productions, and nearly as popular was bunraku or theater puppetry.

The most famous Tokugawa drama was based on forty seven samurai who revenged the death of their leader who was forced to kill himself, then they committed ritual suicide. Chūshingura ("Treasury of the Loyal Retainers") was originally a play of many hours. Its popularity continues to this day as the ideal of bushido the way of the warrior, although in much shorter versions such as in film and manga, or Japanese comics.

Poetry continued to be popular in the Tokugawa era, although the most popular genre became haiku, which is a shortened waka of 5-7-5 syllables. The great master of haiku, revered to this day, was Basho. His iconic haiku is famous across the world:
Kawazu tobikomu
Mizu no oto

The ancient pond
A frog jumps in
The sound of water
When the Tokugawa era came to end, hastened with the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry's forced diplomacy, Japan's literary world also opened up. As Marcus states,
... the Meiji Restoration [referring to the Emperor's return as head of state] of 1868 marks a historical watershed, essentially demarcating the two domains of pre-modern and modern Japan.
The two writers who most exemplify this switch are Ōgai Mori and Sōseki Natsume. Mori spent time in Germany and many of his stories reflect this international experience. For example, "The Dancing Girl" tells a probably at least partially autobiographical story of a young Japanese man winning the heart of a German woman. With one foot in pre-modern Japan, he also wrote stories of honorable and violent samurai.

Sōseki is arguably the most famous and respected fiction writer in Japan. His novels were also influenced by his stay in Europe, His most famous works were satirical, for example "I Am a Cat". Seen from the point of view of a cat belonging to a "pedantic blowhard" professor, the novel targets imperialistic dogma.

Other Japanese writers rose to prominence in this era, including Ichiyō Higuchi, whose career was cut short when she died at twenty-four; Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, known partially for his works that included explicit sex; and short story master Ryūnosuki Akutagawa, for whom the Akutagawa Prize is named.

While the Meiji Reformation marked the boundary of pre-modern and modern Japanese history, World War II marked a change in Japanese literature from modern to postmodern. The war inspired several works of fiction, for example those about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Black Rain" by Masuji Ibuse is the most well-known novel which manages to convey the horror of the event through accumulated documentary evidence, but is told within the frame of community, domesticity, and daily routine ... humanizing the ultimate inhumanity and underscoring the healing powers of time, hope, and familial bonds.

Japan's two Nobel prize winners, Yasunari Kawabata (1968) and Kensaburō Ōe, wrote in completely different literary milieus. Kawabata (e.g. Snow Country) recaptured a simpler, beautiful world gone by, if it ever did exist, in language that was also disappearing. Ōe (e.g. A Personal Matter) was firmly in the modern, international era, more critical and realistic about Japan. Others in this era include Yukio Mishima (Confessions of a Mask) and Kobo Abe (The Ruined Map).

Firmly in the postmodern fictional world, are several Japanese writers, the most well-known of which are Banana Yoshimoto ("Kitchen"), Ryu Murakami ("Coin Locker Babies"), and the international bestseller Haruki Murakami. Of the latter, Marcus writes, "Murakami constructs an utterly familiar domestic stage for his literary flights and fantasies. Much of his work centers on a first-person protagonist - boku, in Japanese. Ever the cool, disaffected chronicler of his world, boku reflects on an unbearable bout of late night hunger in 'The Elephant Vanishes'."
Time oozed through the dark like a lead weight in a fish's gut. I read the print on the aluminum beer cans. I stared at my watch. I looked at the refrigerator door. I turned the pages of yesterday's paper. I used the edge of a postcard to scrape together the cookie crumbs on the tabletop.
Marcus notes that Murakami's critics who feel his work lacks meaning and purpose miss the point: "the man knows how to tell a story." Likewise, Marcus knows how to succinctly tell the story of Japanese literature. His book is highly recommended for those interested in an introduction and summary of Japanese literature.


Number of comments: 1
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Jo Reed
Sounds like a lot of ground to cover given the great J-lit tradition. Maybe a wikipedia entry would do the trick. But the book should be good for an introductory survey course.


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