Japanese literature, one of the world's great literatures, consisting of works written in the Japanese language. Around the 6th century, largely through Korean influences, the Japanese came into contact with Chinese culture and civilization and adopted Chinese ideograms. By the early 8th century, the Japanese had begun to produce a native literature. The Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), the sacred book of Shinto, dates from 712 A.D. A work glorifying the imperial family and its divine descent, the Kojiki also recounts early folk tales, legends, myths, and songs. The Nihonshoki (The Chronicles of Japan) are the earliest Japanese historical work; they date from 720 A.D. Toward the end of the 8th century, after 771 A.D., came the Man'yoshu, a remarkable compendium of 4,500 poems, a wide-ranging record of lyric expression in the native language.
The Heian period (794–1185) marked the end of Japan's absorption of the Chinese influence and the emergence of its own distinct literary character and genius. The Chinese ideograms were too complex for rapidly recording running throught or quick impressions, so the Japanese developed two distinct cursive scripts, the flowing hiragana and the angular katakana. The greatest work of the Heian period and one of the great works of world literature was composed in the hiragana script by a prominent woman of the Heian court, Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Her Tale of Genji, written in the early 11th century, is an elaborate tale of the love and intrigues of a certain Prince Genji. The work is not only a skillfully told story but is also rich in its portrayal of character and deeply colored by a Buddhist sensibility.
The Heian court and its aristocracy were replaced by a military government and, from 1185 to 1587, the samurai, or soldier, class became dominant. The change was reflected in literature. The Tale of the Heike, Japan's greatest historical fiction, was written in the early 1300s. Tonka continued to be composed, but poems called renga were also written. Renga consisted of chains of poems made by several poets, usually composed as they drank. But it was also during these centuries that two great literary forms were developed. The Noh drama, powerful in its solemnity and restraint, featured a masked actor, dance, chanting, and musical accompaniment. It was perfected by the actor and playwright Zeami Motokiyo. The kyogen was slapstick farces which accompanied Noh performances.
The reign of the samurai was marked by frequent instability and bloody warfare. Power was finally consolidated under a single clan which gave its name to an era, the Tokugawa (1603–1867). Under the Tokugawa, the written language was standardized. The kabuki theater developed with its brilliant costumes, melodramatic tales, and energetic acting style. And, in the early 1700s, the puppet theater, or bunraku, was brought to a high level of refinement.
Heian literature was dominated by an aristocratic sensibility; the literature of the Tokugawa era was patronized by the bourgeoisie. In the late 1600s, Ihara Saikaku (1642–93) gave up a career as a poet to pursue a successful career writing fiction. His contemporary, Matsura Basho (1648–94) developed the haiku, a poetic form of 17 syllables, which challenged and eventually supplanted the tanka. The Tokugawas pursued a policy of strict isolation for Japan. That policy ended with the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1858. In 1867, the samurai were replaced by the Emperor Meiji. Just as early Japan had studied China, Meiji Japan set out to study the West, and the impact of those studies opened new fields for Japan's literary talents. Prominent among the Meiji writers of the 1880s who learned western languages, studied western literature, and took the first decisive steps toward mastering the new forms were Yamada Bimyo, Koyo Ozaki, Rohan Koda, Futabatei Shimei, and Tsubouchi Shoyo. Tsubouchi Shoyo was a Shakespeare scholar and urged Japanese writers to compose European-style novels. In response, Futabatei produced Drifting Clouds in 1889. In a remarkably short time, Japanese writers created outstanding works. Perhaps the greatest Japanese novelist was Natsume Soseki, who began his career with the now-famous I Am a Cat in 1905. Ryonosuke Akutagawa wrote brilliant stories and fables, including Rashomon. Shiga Naoya wrote A Dark Night's Passing in 1937. Japan's outstanding contemporary writers include Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, author of The Makioka Sisters; Jiro Osaragi; Osamu Dazai; Kobo Abe; Yasunari Kawabata, author of Snow Country and recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1968; Yukio Mishima, author of Confessions of a Mask; and Oaka Shohei.
Virtually everyone in Japan can read. As a result, all branches of literature have benefited. Apart from numerous publications and periodicals, it has been observed that more works of the world's literature have been translated into Japanese than into any other single language.