Japanese Long Fiction Analysis

Early years

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Japanese long fiction in its formative aspects and for much of its tradition of nearly thirteen centuries may be treated basically as a recitative form, derived from the human impulse to tell a story, sing a song, do a dance, or paint a picture. As such, it may be readily related to the development of narrative prose elsewhere. In Japan, as in China, India, and Persia, however, the narrative, or recitative, mode became interpenetrated with both lyric and dramatic modes of projection. Thus, fiction and poetry, story and song, drama and recitation were frequently mixed. This was already true of the earliest texts, Records of Ancient Matters as well as the Nihon shoki, or Nihongi (720 c.e.; Chronicles of Japan, 1896), which was also presented to the court early in the Nara period; and the early eleventh century court romance Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933), by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978-c. 1030), all of which combined narrative and lyric modes of representation. Poetic elements were harnessed to augment the narrative, as in long Chinese fiction and as discussed by Anthony C. Yu, the translator of Xiyou ji (pb. 1952; also known as Hsi-yu chi; The Journey to the West, 1977-1983), by Wu Chengen, in that book’s volume 1 introduction.

Typically, the lyric element in traditional Japanese long fiction served to project a character or person’s state of mind or emotion, and the narrative element provided description, something like a pattern inscribed on a vase or embroidered on a cloth background. A sense of drama and immediacy came from dialogue, which is found in the earliest examples of Japanese narrative prose.

Narration and dialogue in Records of Ancient Matters and in the Bible, for instance, afford a useful comparison. Both...

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The Tale of Genji

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Thus, both myth and folklore may be seen as sources of long fiction in Japan. Later, in The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, which describes the career of Prince Genji and two generations of his progeny as well as the society in which they lived, examples abound. To mention only one example, in the last ten chapters of The Tale of Genji, water spirits derived from Japanese mythology appear to be personified as female characters. Indeed, this most widely admired part of the text acclaimed as the supreme masterpiece of Japanese literature may be read as an extended allegory of female water spirits who invite the love of human men and who pass away like water flowing swiftly in its course from mountain springs to the salty sea, leaving behind sad memories.

The lyric, or poetic, element in Japanese long fiction is exemplified by its function in The Tale of Genji. Distributed throughout the narrative are nearly eight hundred examples of thirty-one-syllable poems known as waka or tanka. Sometimes these poems furnish the germ for a situation or mood that is then developed in the text; at other times, a verse recapitulates emotions that a character experiences, summarizing a situation and serving as a distillation of human feeling. More of these short poems appear in The Tale of Genji than in the shortest of the imperial anthologies of such verses, which were compiled between the tenth and fifteenth centuries under court auspices.

It is no wonder, then, that by the twelfth century in Japan, poets and critics expressed great admiration for The Tale of Genji, not so much because of the story and plot as because of the role of the poetry in the tissue of the text. The poet and critic Fujiwara Shunzei (1114-1204), for example, taught that familiarity with the tale was essential to every poet’s education. To him, the individual episodes together with the verses with which they were integrated conveyed the essence of various aspects of love, of the human response to the beauty of nature, and of the poignancy of human situations such as suffering, old age, and death. All these features may be subsumed under the classical Japanese exclamatory word aware, which in a nominative sense became mono no aware, a term used in the vocabulary of criticism and aesthetics to suggest great sensitivity and a range of powerful human feeling, especially with regard to objects and “things.”

Besides its sensitivity, The Tale of Genji came to exemplify another classical Japanese aesthetic quality, miyabi (courtly elegance), which exerts a soothing and civilizing influence. In large measure because The Tale of Genji survived through centuries of social upheaval and civil war, literary and artistic culture became irrevocably embedded in the fabric of Japanese culture. To Shunzei and successive generations of critics, The Tale of Genji remained a handbook for poets.

In yet another way, The Tale of Genji manifests a characteristic of traditional Japanese long fiction. This relates to connections between what may be termed “icon” and “logos”—picture and word. Unlike in England, where as late as the eighteenth century there existed a great tradition of literature with virtually nothing “that could be called a native tradition of painting,” as Ronald Paulson observes in Book and Painting (1982), Japan, as The Tale of Genji reveals, saw word and picture develop hand in hand.

Within the text itself, word descriptions could be projected by means of visual terms: When a young boy, as if especially dressed for the occasion, walked out among flowers early on a misty summer day, his trousers wet with dew, and picked a morning glory, the narrative relates, “He made a picture that called out to be painted.” Already by the time The Tale of Genji was written, there existed a pictorial tradition that accompanied such fictional narratives. Chapter 17 of the tale, “A Picture Contest,” describes in fictional terms how word and picture were connected. In fact, The Tale of Genji may be seen as a confluence of literary and iconographic systems, in which iconocentric and logocentric aspects of the human imagination are combined and integrated in a fresh and appealing way. The tradition of combining picture and word continued virtually through modern times. Successive editions of The Tale of Genji are marvelously illustrated, and other novels and romances are similarly illuminated. Even now, in long fiction published serially in newspapers, illustrations retain a prominent place.

By way of contrast, early English novels had little connection with illustrations. As Paulson points out, in the European tradition, word came first and image followed, whereas in Japan, picture and story emerged together; icon might even take primacy over logos. In the twelfth century, an edition of The Tale of Genji already existed in the form of e-maki (illustrated scrolls) that combined literary text and painted scenes in a harmonious way. Later, a system of complex iconographic conventions developed, as Miyeko Murase describes in Iconography of “The Tale of Genji” (1983). The illustrator’s pictorial imagination was often regarded as deserving credit equal to that of the...

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The Heike Monogatari

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About one hundred and fifty years after the appearance of The Tale of Genji, Japanese society entered a period of turmoil that ushered in cataclysmic social and political change. One of the works of long fiction that grew out of the collective experience of the age was the epic chronicle known as the Heike monogatari (The Heike Monogatari, 1918-1921; also known as The Tale of the Heiki, 1975, 1988). As an account of the rise and fall of the Taira family in the late twelfth century, The Heike Monogatari took form gradually in the following century. Originally intended for recitation to the musical accompaniment of the Japanese lute, it stands out in form and impact over the centuries since as the nearest equivalent in Japan to a great epic. Written in a heightened style and dotted with about one hundred short lyric verses, the text, like The Tale of Genji, has much of the tone of narrative poetry. Although The Heike Monogatari is now admired chiefly for its literary qualities, it was formerly read for its historical content; the same was true with Records of Ancient Matters. This point suggests that in the tradition of Japanese long fiction, certain texts exemplify the idea of telling a tale that combines elements of both make-believe and truth.

Above all, the unifying force in The Heike Monogatari is the passage of time; various transitional segments and expressions suggest the temporal flow of events. In turn, this theme is related to the philosophical concerns of Buddhism. In the epic, both lyric descriptions and the development of character are subordinated to karma, or the concept of fate, the vanity and transitoriness of life, and the value of abandoning ordinary pursuits in favor of monasticism. A profound moralistic bent also runs through The Heike Monogatari, which can be traced to the Chinese influence of Confucianism. Confucian moralism appears in the form of an emphasis on intense personal loyalty; an unstinting spirit of service that links master and retainer, husband and wife, parent and child in The Heike Monogatari is also a product of...

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The thirteenth through the seventeenth centuries

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About two hundred works of narrative prose fiction produced in Japan between the thirteenth and the seventeenth centuries are extant into the twenty-first century. Besides those that have survived, some two hundred other titles remain in name only, being mentioned in anthologies, catalogs, and the like, largely from the Middle Ages. Most of these titles, however, are short fiction, retold versions or elaborations of parts of The Tale of Genji and The Heike Monogatari. In time, the best of these became yfkyoku, or librettos, for Japanese theatrical performances known as No drama, or mai-no-hon (literally, dance books), as texts for singing and chanting a form of medieval ballad were called. James...

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Japanese long fiction after the seventeenth century

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With the reestablishment of an era of peace in the early seventeenth century following a period of civil war, conditions became conducive to literary production. The total number of titles of narrative prose preserved from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries amounts to more than ten times as many as those dating from the eighth through the sixteenth centuries. In the twentieth century, Japanese literary historians developed a complex generic terminology for narrative prose. As authorship of long fiction gradually proliferated, the distinction between practical, historical, philosophical, dramatic, and poetic compositions, on one hand, and works of narrative prose, on the other hand, became somewhat more clear-cut.


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The twentieth century

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By the beginning of the twentieth century, the modern counterpart of older forms of Japanese long fiction proved to be a medium capable of dealing with the main theme of twentieth century Japanese literature—awareness of the self. Japanese writers espoused the ideology of individualism. A characteristically Japanese form of long fiction, the shishosetsu (literally, I novel), emerged. Concurrently, Japanese authors capitalized on newfound personal freedom to deal with topics that indicated heightened social and political awareness. One of the most famous I novels is An’ya kuro (1921-1937; A Dark Night’s Passing, 1976), by Naoya Shiga (1883-1971); it was described by Edwin McClellan, the book’s...

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After World War II

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Best typifying the immediate postwar period, the autobiographical novels of Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) describe a time of excruciating self-examination and extreme nihilism in Japan. In some respects, they anticipated Beat literature. Shayó (1947; The Setting Sun, 1956), about the privation and despair that an aristocratic family endures, gave birth to a new expression in the Japanese language, “setting sun people,” which referred to anyone who fell from a position of comfort and prosperity to one of abject misery, much like the Heike clan at the end of the twelfth century. Ningen shikkaku (1948; No Longer Human, 1958) particularizes the gloomy postwar years in Japan.

Many other...

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The late twentieth century and beyond

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After the early 1980’s, a number of shifts occurred in the attempts by younger authors in Japan to reveal in their novels a broader representation of the complexities of contemporary Japanese life. Older distinctions between “high” and “popular” fiction have been steadily breaking down. Some critics see parallels between the situation in contemporary Japan and the United States, where postmodern concerns often preempt attention from older forms of modernism.

In some ways, this trend began as early as the 1960’s in Japan, when the work of two important writers attracted and sustained widespread attention. The first of these is Morio Kita (pseudonym of Sokichi Saito, b. 1927), whose lengthy novel Nireke no...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Bowring, Richard. Murasaki Shikibu: “The Tale of Genji.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Lucid and thoughtful guide to Japan’s greatest classic novel, The Tale of Genji. Examines the cultural context in which the novel was written, the novel’s language and style, and its impact on the literature that followed.

Gessel, Van C. Three Modern Novelists: Sseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata. New York: Kodansha International, 1993. Three brief but balanced biographical accounts of the lives and works of three modern masters of Japanese fiction.

Kato, Shuichi. A History of Japanese Literature:...

(The entire section is 365 words.)