Japanese Literature by Periods

Japanese literature spans a period of nearly two millennia of writing. In the earliest works we see the influence of Chinese literature, but Japan quickly developed its own style. When Japan reopened its ports to Western trade and diplomacy in the 19th century, Western literature greatly influenced its writers, Western influence is still evident today.

Nara period (710-794)

Japanese literature has its origins in oral tradition, the first records of this literature were made in the 8th century after the writing system was introduced from China. The Kojiki (record of ancient subjects) and Nihon shoki (chronicle of Japan) were two government projects that were completed in 712 and 720 respectively. The most brilliant work of this period was the Man’yoshu, an anthology of 4,500 poems composed by people of all walks of life and collected around 759.

The “tanka” verses of 31 syllables (5-7-5-7-7) also began to be worked on. In 905 the poetic anthology: Kokin wakashu or Kokinshu, a collection of ancient and modern poems, was published under the order of the emperor. It was a very important post.

Heian Period (794-1185) In the resplendent aristocratic culture that flourished in the 11th century, when the use of the Chinese-derived hiragana alphabet was spreading, the ladies of the court played the leading role in the development of literature. One of them, Murasaki Shikibu wrote a 54-chapter novel Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) (early 11th century); Sei Shonagon wrote Makura no shosi (The Pillow Book) a collection of essays and notes (around 996).

Others wrote diaries and stories that continue to be read today. The appearance of Konjaku monogatari (Tales of a time that has passed) around 1120 added a new dimension to literature. This collection of more than 1000 Buddhist and secular accounts from India, China and Japan is important for the number of descriptions of the life of the nobility and the life of the people in Japan at that time.

Kamakura-Muromachi period (1185-1573)

In the last half of the 12th century, the warriors of the Taira (Heike) clan seized the imperial power of the court, forming a new aristocracy. Heike mono-gatari (Heike’s Tale) portrays the triumphs and defeats of the Taira in their wars with the Minamoto (genji) clan and was completed in the first half of the 13th century.

This period also produced intimate literature such as Chomei’s Hojoki de Kamo (Description of my cabin) (1212), which reflects on the uncertainty of existence; Yoshida Kenko’s Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Free Time) (1330) a work with impressive reflections on life. Both works raise the question of spiritual salvation.

Edo period (1603-1868)

In this period, two very important figures emerged in prose: Ihara Saikaku who realistically portrayed the life of Osaka merchants and Chikamatsu Monzaemin who used joruri, a way of telling hostilities with kabuki songs and works. These two writers made literature flourish. Years later Yosa Buson wrote haiku, excellent works that portrayed nature. The writer Ueda Akinari produced several works on Gothic stories that were called Ugetsu monogatari, Tales of the Moonlight and the Rain (1776).

Meiji period to the present

The Meiji period is the stage in which Japan under Western influence began to develop a more modern literature. At this time the unification of written and spoken language was advocated; and a new form of novel was accepted thanks to Futabatei Shimei’s Ukigumo (Clouds without course) (1887). The translation of foreign poetry helped create a new poetic genre and its corresponding literary movement.

Novelists Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki studied in Germany and Great Britain, respectively, and their works reflect the influence of these countries. Soseki directed several literary figures. One of them, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, wrote several novels based on his knowledge of Japanese classics. His suicide in 1927 was taken as a symbol of the agony that Japan was experiencing due to the rapid processes of modernization, these changes were also subjects of literature.

In 1968 Kawabata Yasunari received the Nobel Prize for literature, he was the first Japanese to get it, years later in 1994 Oe Kenzaburo, also Japanese, also received it. These two writers and other contemporary authors such as Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, Mishima Yukio, Abe Kobo, and Inoue Yasushi have seen their works translated into various languages.


According to bridgat, the culture of Japan is the result of a historical process that begins with the waves of immigration originating from the continent of Asia and the islands of the Pacific Ocean, followed by a strong cultural influence from China and, later, a long period of isolation with the the rest of the world called Sakoku from the Tokugawa shogunate until the beginning of the Meiji Era, at the end of the 19th century, where it received immense foreign influence and which increased after the end of World War II. This resulted in a culture distinct from other Asian cultures.

In Japan, personal interrelationships are highly influenced by the ideas of “honor”, “obligation” and “duty”, and which represents a different custom to an individualistic and liberal culture of Western countries. The conceptions of “morality” and “desirable behaviors” are less practiced in family, school and friendship situations, however a more formal practice is observed in front of superiors or unknown people.

On the other hand, the Japanese have an intricate and complicated sense of humor, which is highly reflected in language, culture, religion and ethics, which is sometimes considered very difficult to interpret by other cultures.

Japanese Literature