Japanese Modern Literature (from 1868)
When Japan opened to the rest of the world in the Meiji
period (1868-1912), the influence of western literary concepts
and techniques was felt strongly. Novelists experimented with
'new' ideas such as liberalism, idealism, and romanticism and
were variously influenced by French, British or German literature.
One writer who came to Japan and became the first foreigner to
truly capture the essence of the country in his work was Lafcadio Hearn,
better known in Japan by his adopted name Koizumi Yakumo (1850-1904).
B>Kwaidan, a collection of ghost stories, is perhaps best known by Japanese
The period between the turn of the century and the domination
of militarism in the 1930's produced three great writers: Mori Ogai,
Natsume Soseki and his protoge Akutagawa Ryunosuke.
Ogai (1862-1922) gave up an early literary career to concentrate
on his work as a doctor with the Japanese army, returning to writing
only after his retirement. He was inspired mainly by German literature
and played a leading role in the Japanese romantic literary movement.
He wrote poetry, drama and historical biography, but his best
work of fiction is considered to be his novel The Wild Geese
(1912). It is a poignant story of unfulfilled love, set against
the background of the dramatic social change that came with the
fall of the Meiji regime, as the young heroine is forced by poverty
to become mistress to a moneylender.
Soseki (1867-1916) - as he is usually known - began his career
as a scholar of English literature at Tokyo Imperial University.
He resigned to devote his time to writing and published his first
novel Wagahai wa neko de aru (I am a Cat) in 1905. It is
a satirical portrait of human vanity
and was followed by increasingly pessimistic, brooding novels
such as Kokoro (Heart) and his unfinished masterpiece,
Meian (Light and Darkness). Soseki's works often dwell upon the alienation
of modern humanity, the search for morality, and the difficulty
of human communication. Soseki's portrait graced the front of
the ¥1,000 note for many years.
Akutagawa (1892-1927) is best remembered today for the literary
prize in his name that is awarded to young fiction writers. He
was a prodigious student and studied under Soseki at Tokyo Imperial
University. His most famous work is Rashomon and Other Stories
(1915), the title story of which was one of the sources of Kurosawa
Akira's masterpiece. In this book of short stories, he questions
the values of his society, dramatizes the complexities of human
psychology, and studies, with a taste for Zen-like paradox, the
precarious balance of illusion and reality.
During the 1930's and 40's, the domination of the military meant
that literature was largely stifled. The two great writers to
emerge in the postwar period were Kawabata Yasunari
(1899-1972), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in
1968, and Tanizaki Junichiro. Their most famous works are Kawabata's
Yuki-guni (Snow Country, 1935-47) and Tanizaki's Tade-kuu Mushi
(Some Prefer Nettles, 1928). The former tells of a relationship
between a middle-aged writer and an aging geisha. The latter uses
the cities of Tokyo (which had just been devastated by an earthquake)
and Osaka as symbols of the conflict between modern and traditional
Perhaps better known abroad is Mishima Yukio (1925-70), whose life and death were as dramatic as his art.
He was a homosexual and obsessed with the body, physical beauty
and its inevitable decline and death. His first major work was
Kamen no Kokuhaku (Confessions of a Mask, 1949) and he handed his last, the 4-part
novel Hojo no Umi ( The Sea of Fertility, 1965-70), to his publisher on the day
of his death. Another masterpiece, Kinkakuji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1956) tells of a monk disgusted
by his own ugliness who burns down the famous Kyoto pavilion rather
than see it fall into the hands of the US military. Mishima despaired
at the westernisation of Japan and longed for a return to nobler
times. He was perhaps the only writer of his day who was capable
enough to write kabuki plays in the traditional style. He was
excused military service during the war and the guilt of this
plagued him throughout his life. He took up bodybuilding and martial
arts and liked to pose in photographs depicting his violent end.
With life imitating art, he committed ritual suicide together
with members of his fanatical private army after failing to create
a revolt by the military.
Left to right: Kawabata receives the Nobel Prize for Literature;
Mishima Yukio; Yoshimoto Banana and the cover of her book Kitchen.
In 1994, Oe Kenzaburo (1935- ) became Japan's second literary Nobel recipient. Representative
of his works are Kojinteki na Taiken (A Personal Matter, 1963) and
Manen Gannen no Futtoboru (The Silent Cry, 1967). Both novels dealt with the theme of being
the father of a brain-damaged child, which Oe knew about from
experience. In his novels, Oe creates a world rich in poetry and
imaginative power, where reality and myth are inextricably intertwined.
He also wrote about the polarity felt by 20th century Japanese
between their own culture and the outside world. Recently he wrote
Tsugaeri (1999) based on the 1995 sarin gas attack by a religious cult
on a Tokyo subway that killed 12 people.
Among the most popular authors in recent years are Murakami Haruki,
Murakami Ryu (no relation) and Yoshimoto Banana, all
of whom are known for their harsh insights into modern Japanese
society. Murakami Haruki (1949- ) is perhaps the most read outside
Japan. The novels Noruwei no Mori (Norwegian Wood, 1987) and Hitsuji
o Meguru Bouken (A Wild Sheep Chase, 1989) are among his best known. Murakami
Ryu (1952- ) won the Akutagawa Prize in 1976 for his novel Kagirinaku Toumeini
Chikai Buruu (Almost Transparent Blue, 1976). Other works include Coin
Locker Babies (1980) and Topaz (Tokyo Decadence, 1988). He often appears on TV and writes in
magazines discussing the current state of Japan and its youth.
Yoshimoto (1964- ) is usually either loved or hated by readers.
Her dark novels have dealt with themes such as death, incest
and lesbianism. Her first breakthrough came with the 1987 novella
Kitchen, still her best known book.