Ancient Japan

The Flowering of Japanese Literature
In the Tokugawa . . .period (1603-1868), the early literature of Japan occupies a special mythological place. The central concern of Tokugawa poets and scholars was the distillation of Japanese culture from all its Chinese and Asian accretions. Since so much of Japanese culture—religion, philosophy, political theory, painting, ceramics, music, writing, and so on—derived from Chinese models, the only source of "real" Japanese culture they could find were the earliest specimens of literature. These early specimens, however, were deeply influenced by Chinese models as well.

   We know little or nothing about Japanese literature in the earliest periods before the introduction of writing. This period was largely dominated by popular songs and stories told in pantomime. It wasn't until the introduction of Chinese writing the the very first Japanese work of literature was composed, the Kojiki , or Record of Ancient Matters , around 620. This work, along with the Nihongi written a few decades later, is the earliest account of both Japanese history and Japanese mythology. While both works borrow heavily from Chinese historiographical styles and in part from Chinese mythology and religion, from the Tokugawa period onwards both Japanese and Europeans have regarded these two works as the best source of indigenous Japanese literature.


World Cultures Glossary
History
   In the West, we are inclined to think of history as something like a bare recitation of facts, but in reality history is closer to something like literature. History's least important aspect is factuality; history, rather, is important in that it selectively remembers and orders past events to give a culture in the present an identity. History as literature is called historiography, or "the writing of history." Early Japanese historiography is dominated by mythical tales and unverifiable events. The writers of early Japanese history are not concerned with verification in the same way the modern historians are; they are, rather, concerned with setting out the special character of Japanese culture in the Yamato and Nara periods. This special character is laid down in the mythological foundations of Japan and the Japanese people; both the Kojiki and the Nihongi compose narratives that make the Japanese a special people in creation with a special kinship to the creating goddess. The history of the Japanese becomes in these narratives the central events in human history and, like the historical writing in so many other cultures, including our own, the narratives create a myth that various developments in Japan are origins of practices throughout the human world.



Manyoshu   More important than the two epic early histories to understanding Japanese culture is the Manyoshu , or "Collection of Myriad Leaves," the first collection of Japanese poetry. Written down somewhere in the first half of the eighth century, the Manyoshu represent a form of literature as close as we can get to a native Japanese literary tradition.


Japan Glossary
Mono no aware
Aware
Tokugawa Japan
Kokugaku
   In the eighteenth century, the group of scholars and poets that dedicated themselves to kokugaku , or "Japanese Studies," considered the Manyoshu to be the single most important work of literature in Japan. Within this work, they discovered what they felt were the essential characteristics of both Japanese literature as a whole and the Japanese mind. Chief among these characteristics was mono no aware , or a sense of the sadness of things. What does this mean? For the kokugakushu , the poems of the Manyoshu are distinguished by their perception of how all objects, no matter how inconspicuous, betray the ultimate sadness or tragedy of life on earth. This isn't a "teenagers dressed in black" kind of tragedy that you see all around you, but rather a calm, sedate, and meditative sense of the universality of loss and sadness. In addition, the kokugakushu found that the essential spirit of Japanese poetry was one of sensitivity (aware ) to the things of the world. For the kokugakushu , the Manyoshu showed that the Japanese mind had a special connection to the things of this world and their beauty and meaning. This understanding of the Manyoshu in the eighteenth century made this collection of poems one of the most significant works of Japanese literature in the pre-modern and modern times. The aesthetic of aware and mono no aware became one of the dominant principles of modern Japanese writing and film.



   The poetry itself deals with simple events described in a simple and direct style. The Manyoshu poetry, like that of the Nara and Heian poets which it greatly influenced, does not have many of the characteristics of European and European-derived poetry. It is not a poetry of complicated sound schemes—there is no rhyme, heavy alliteration, or complicated meters. Early Japanese poetry had only thirty-one syllables per poem in five lines (5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 7 syllables). As pointed out by the kokugakushu , the primary aesthetic principle is the evocation of a mood, emotion, feeling, or realization in a description of an event or an object—often an object unrelated to the cause of the mood or emotion. In the Manyoshu poetry and all its derivatives, the whole world can be writ small in a single, inconsequential event, such as the falling of a leaf of the blossoming of a cherry tree. The principle mood is one of a sense of the passing of things, a kind of sedate understanding of loss and sorrow. This interpretation, however, is very narrow—the Manyoshu poetry and its derivatives betray the entire range of human experience and emotion.The style is simple and direct, evoking meaning not from florid language or elaborate metaphors, but from the object or event being described. In T'ang China at this time, a debate was raging among poets about style: one camp believed that florid language and elaborate metaphor made good poetry while another camp believed that poetry should describe concrete events in simple and direct language. In Japanese poetry, the emphasis on concreteness and simplicity was always the norm.



   The writing of poetry, however, was severely hampered by the adoption of the Chinese writing system. The Japanese did not have a native writing system and so adopted Chinese writing which was, at the time, partly a pictographic writing system and partly a phonetic writing system. The Japanese used Chinese characters to develop a new writing technology they called kana , which means "borrowed words." In some cases they used Chinese words in their pictographic meaning—for instance, the Chinese character for "mountain" (shang ) could serve as the Japanese character for mountain. However, when the Japanese came to unique Japanese names or concepts, they had no Chinese characters for these names or concepts. In these cases, they used the Chinese characters phonetically. So, if one is writing "Yamaguchi" in kana , you would use the Chinese character for "mountain," which is yama in Japanese, to write the first two syllables of the name. In early Japanese writing, however, there were no formal rules for phonetic spelling, so the first two syllables of "Yamaguchi" could also be spelled by using the character for "ya" and the character for "ma." The Manyoshu is extremely important in the history of Japanese writing because the principles of writing in the work, called the Manyo kana , became the basis of the formal rules of kana writing.


Heian Literature   The literature and culture of the Heian period is dominated by women and women's culture. This literature, whose greatest and most lasting work was the Genji monogatari , or "Tale of Genji," was also dominated by the long novel. Poetry, despite the example of the Manyoshu , became largely based on imitations of Chinese, particularly T'ang, poetry. The flowering and proliferation of literature in the Heian period was in part made possible by the introduction of a new writing system that was purely phonetic, hiragana . In Japanese historiography, hiragana was introduced by the Buddhist, Kobo Daishi, who had studied Sanskrit, a phonetic alphabet, in India. The alphabet that he invented was a syllabic alphabet—in part based on Chinese writing, hiragana is made of simple, cursive strokes in which each character represents a single syllable. Not only is hiragana easier and faster to write, it also doesn't require a knowledge of Chinese characters. In the Heian period, however, the two writing systems became gendered—kana was associated with men's writing and hiragana was associated with women's writing.

   The great classic work of Japanese and world literature, the Genji monogatari , was written in the first two or three decades of the eleventh century with additions and accretions added over the next two centuries. It was written by Murasaki Shikibu (not her real name), a court lady who was the daughter of a regional governor (Shikibu was the title of her father—the Genji shows nothing but contempt for regional governors). In the mid-level courts, women developed strong and educated communities that were in part integrated with courtly life. Two of the most important works of the Heian period, the Murasaki Shikibu Diary and the Pillow Book of another middle court lady, Sei Shonagon, chronicle the lives of women in the court.

   The Genji monogatari is a series of loosely connected stories detailing the life and maturation of Genji. The son of an emperor, Genji goes through a series of setbacks in his quest for favor and love. About 3/4 of the way through the novel, Genji dies and the rest of the novel concerns his son.


Japan Glossary
Miyabi
   There are two principle aesthetics operating in the Genji. While the novel ostensibly deals with the course of Genji's life at court, it's principle theme is the passing away of good things, such as love, refinement, beauty, and ultimately life. It is, then, a novel about aware , or sadness. It is also, however, about Genji's attempts to refine himself, to pursue beauty and refinement. This aesthetic, miyabi , was an aesthetic of the upper classes and distinguished life at court from everyday Japanese life. Miyabi means an appreciation of fine things and beauty; one of the objects of miyabi is the beauty of women. Even though the novel was written by a woman, women in the novel are presented in their highest forms as objects of perfect beauty and symmetry. However, since the novel primarily concerns the knowledge that things pass away, the refinement chronicled in the novel is seen from a nostalgic point of view, a way of life or a shining moment in Heian culture that, at the time of the writing of the novel, had passed away.


Japan Glossary
Okashi
   The second great work of Heian literature was the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon written around 1000 AD. Like the Genji, the Pillow Book chronicles life in the Heian court and the pursuit of miyabi as it is made concrete in everyday life at the court. However, whereas Genji monogatari is governed by the aesthetic of aware , the sense that good things ultimately pass away, the Pillow Book is governed by another aesthetic, okashi , which means something like "wit." The word in Japanese actually refers to anything which causes one to smile or anything which causes delight or amsement. The Pillow Book largely concerns events at court which are amusing, delightful, and often witty. Unlike Genji , it does not deal with the sadness of life and, when it deals with sad events, it often does so in an ironic way. Properly speaking, sad or tragic events are not okashi and making light of them is a violation of literary decorum. In practice, however, if a writer is subtle and ironic enough, even sad events can be turned into an occasion for amusement. Together these two works, the Genji monogatari and the Pillow Book , which developed out of strong women's communities and cultural practices, became the defining literary models for the aesthetics of Japanese literature in the remainder of Japanese history.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 7-1-97