Polynesian objects from early European exploration, £19.99
Explore / Articles
Japanese literature (prose)
Writing was first brought to Japan in the sixth century, from China. At first Japanese writers wrote in Chinese, which continued to be the prestigious language of learning in East Asia. However, the Japanese also devised a system for writing their own language. Chinese characters were used phonetically or given Japanese readings. They were combined with two sets of invented phonetic symbols.
The earliest important Japanese prose works are the Kojiki (AD 712, 'Record of Ancient Matters') and Nihon shoki (AD 720, 'Chronicle of Japan). These were semi-mythological records written at the request of Emperor Temmu (reigned 672-86) in order to establish the dominant political position of the Yamato state. The Nihon shoki uses literary Chinese whereas the Kojiki combines both languages.
In the tenth century fiction developed, often combining poetry and prose. Ise monogatari ('Tales of Ise'), a collection of 125 episodes mostly related to love, was an inspiration for artists through to the end of the Edo period (1868). The eleventh-century Heian court lady, Murasaki Shikibu, wrote Genji monogatari ('The Tale of Genji'), sometimes described as the world's first novel. It tells of the life and loves of Prince Genji, 'the Shining Prince'.
During the medieval period (twelfth to sixteenth centuries), gunki monogatari ('war tales') were prominent, in particular Heike monogatari which recounts the fall of the Taira family in the Gempei Wars (1180-85). The peace and prosperity of the Edo period encouraged such popular writers as Ihara Saikaku (1642-93). His novels and stories often commented satirically on society and complemented the work of Ukiyo-e artists. Another outstanding work of fiction from the Edo period, Hizakurige (‘Shank's Mare') by Ikku Jippensha (1766-1831), tells the comic adventures of two travellers along the Tōkaidō Road.