September 1, 2011

Japanese Literature

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:30 am by Susan

My blog this month is an interview with Professor Yumi Hirata, Professor of Modern Japanese Literature at the University of Osaka.

If you could recommend ten Japanese books to English readers, what would these be – and why?

I’ve drawn up the following list based on what has been translated (though I can’t vouch for the quality of the translation) while also trying to give a rough overview of Japanese literary history. I’ve also tried to pick books that will be fun to read!

(1)   Kojiki: Kojiki or Record of Ancient Matters – because it is the oldest text of historical fact and fiction.

(2)   Man’yoshu: 1000 Poems from the Manyoshu – the oldest anthology of poems including works from across all classes, age and gender.

(3)   Taketori Monogatari: The Old Bamboo-Hewer’s Story: The Earliest of the Japanese Romances – a prototypical or ancestral fairy tale from not only Japan but East Asia.

(4)   Genji Monogatari: The Tale of Genji – the world-famous Japanese classic.

(5)   Heike Monogatari: The Tale of the Heike – the most fatalistic story of the Japanese medieval age.

(6)  Watch a good interpretation of a Noh play (for example from Arthur Waley’s Noh Plays of Japan) – these are a very important part of Japanese literature and art influencing all genres.

(7)   Ihara Saikaku, Seken Munazan’yo: Worldly Mental Calculations – a representation of the literature of the Edo period and the age of popular culture.

(8)   Higuchi Ichiyo: Nigorie or Takekurabe  – introducing a famous Japanese woman writer in modern times.

(9)   Tanizaki, Jun’ichiro, Sasame yuki: The Makioka Sisters – an intriguing, well-written interweaving of Japanese and European modern history in novel form (it was banned during the war).

(10)  Oe, Kenzaburo, Man’en Gannen no Futtoboru: The Silent Cry  – the starting point for Japanese modern literature, now a world-wide text. 

For many Westerners, Japanese poetry means Haiku. Is this still a popular form in Japan?

Yes it is, for many reasons. For one thing people still write Haiku – according to the 2005 White Paper on Leisure the number of people who enjoy creative writing (including Haiku) in Japan is over 4 million. The arts and entertainment sections of Japanese newspapers usually have some pages for both Tanka and Haiku (these are the two dominant forms of traditional poetry: the former is created from 5,7 and 5 syllables and the latter from 5, 7, 5, 7 and 7 syllables respectively. Both are more popular with creative writers than novels and poetry). The three major papers (with a total circulation exceeding 30 million) have such pages and publish Haikus posted from readers (these are selected, ranked and criticized by well-known Haiku poets).

Haiku is also a collaborative form, coming from the linked verse form Renga. This was a type of collaborative verse enjoyed by people from an emerging moneyed class like wealthy merchants in medieval cities. The traces can be seen in the way people enjoy Haiku which is quite different from that of other creative writing. People usually belong to a particular group of Haiku and have periodic gatherings, where members vote for their favourite verse and a Haiku master then criticizes the result. Sometimes they go on an excursion together to find inspiration.

Then there is Haiku’s physicalized rhythm. Five and seven syllables constitute not only the basic unit of the fixed verse form of Haiku and Tanka, but also the dominant rhythm of Japanese. It is so deeply embedded in daily language that you could easily find these syllables and their combinations in slogans, watchwords, adverts, the lyrics of popular songs, the incantations of children’s play and so on.

Who are the most important writers in Japan today?

Of course this answer will vary from reader to reader, but Haruki Murakami seems to me one of the most important. He is read by scholars as well as the general public, and his books have been widely translated – into 43 languages according to Wikipedia. His official website only exists in English.

This popularity abroad has increased his reputation in Japan. Although the covers of his novels have oriental or Japanese themes, I don’t feel there is much that is inherently Japanese in the worlds he creates. I would love to hear how English readers experience his work and to understand better why it attracts such universal popularity.

Personally, I’m not convinced Murakami’s appeal will last – this will depend on the social conditions and the readers. He might become one of those writers who are forgotten after their lifetime and are then rediscovered at a later date – like the many authors of the Meiji period writing a century ago whose texts have not been read since except by scholars. In graduate school I did research on a poet and novelist of the late 17th century named Ihara Saikaku. His work was forgotten and only rediscovered in the 19th century. This was a time of literary innovation in Japan and authors found unfamiliar ideas and a different style in Saikaku’s work. Their interest sparked a revaluation by scholars. Today Saikaku’s name can be seen in school textbooks and his writings are known but seldom read. Of course this is the fate of many masterpieces, but it reveals how the value of a literary work can vary according to the readership and times.

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