Possibly the earliest full-length novel, The Tale of
Genji was written in Japan in the early eleventh
century. In addition to novels, poetry, and
drama, other genres such as
travelogues, personal diaries and collections of
random thoughts and impressions, are
prominent in Japanese literature.
From the seventh century C.E., when the
earliest surviving works were written, until the
present day, there has never been a period
when literature was not being produced in
Japanese Literature is generally divided into
three main periods: Ancient, Medieval, and
Japanese literature spans a period of
almost two millennia of writing. Early work
was heavily influenced by Chinese
literature, but Japan quickly developed a
style and quality of its own.
When Japan reopened its ports to Western
trading and diplomacy in the 19th century,
Western Literature had a strong effect on
Japanese writers, and this influence is still
Japanese literature traces its beginnings
to oral traditions that were first recorded
in written form in the early eighth century
after a writing system was introduced
The Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters)
and Nihon shoki (Chronicle of Japan)
were completed in 712 and 720,
respectively, as government projects.
The most brilliant literary product of this period was
the Man'yoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand
Leaves), an anthology of 4,500 poems composed by
people ranging from unknown commoners to
emperors and compiled around 759.
Already emerging was a verse form comprising 31
syllables (5-7-5-7-7) known as tanka.
In 905 the Kokin wakashu or Kokinshu (Collection of
Poems from Ancient and Modern Times) was
published as the first poetry anthology commissioned
by an emperor; its preface paid high tribute to the
vast possibilities of literature.
Before the introduction of kanji (漢字, lit.
"Chinese characters") from China, there was
no writing system in Japan.
At first, Chinese characters were used in
Japanese syntactical formats, and the literary
language was classical Chinese; resulting in
sentences that looked like Chinese but were
phonetically read as Japanese.
Chinese characters were used, not for their
meanings, but because they had a phonetic
sound which resembled a Japanese word.
Modification of the normal usage of Chinese
characters to accommodate Japanese
names and expressions is already evident in
the oldest known inscription, on a sword
dating from about 440 C.E.
The use of Chinese characters initiated a
centuries-long association of literary
composition with the art of calligraphy.
Chinese characters were later adapted to
write Japanese speech, creating what is
known as the man'yōgana, the earliest
form of kana, or syllabic writing. The
earliest works were created in the Nara
These include Kojiki (712: a work recording
Japanese mythology and legendary
history, Nihonshoki (720; a chronicle with a
slightly more solid foundation in historical
records than Kojiki, and Man'yōshū (Ten
Thousand Leaves, 759); an anthology of poetry.
More than 120 songs in
the Kojiki and Nihonshoki were written in
phonetic transcription, and parts of the Kojiki
contain a mixture of Chinese characters used to
represent their Chinese meanings, and Chinese
characters used to represent a phonetic sound.
Classical Japanese literature generally refers
to literature produced during the Heian
Period, considered as the a golden era of art
In the resplendent aristocratic culture that
thrived early in the eleventh century, a time
when the use of the hiragana alphabet
derived from Chinese characters had
become widespread, court ladies played the
central role in developing literature.
One of them, Murasaki Shikibu wrote the
54-chapter novel Genji monogatari (Tale
of Genji) [in early 11 century, ca 1008],
while another, Sei Shonagon, wrote
Makura no soshi (The Pillow Book), a
diverse collection of jottings and essays
The Tale of Genji (early eleventh century)
by Murasaki Shikibu is considered the pre-
eminent masterpiece of Heian fiction and
an early example of a work of fiction in the
form of a novel.
Other important works of this period include
the Kokin Wakashū (905, waka poetry
anthology) and The Pillow Book (990s), an
essay about the life, loves, and pastimes of
nobles in the Emperor's court written by
Murasaki Shikibu's contemporary and
rival, Sei Shonagon.
The iroha poem, now one of two standard
orderings for the Japanese syllabary, was
also written during the early part of this
During this time, the imperial court
patronized poets, many of whom were
courtiers or ladies-in-waiting.
Editing anthologies of poetry was a national
Reflecting the aristocratic atmosphere, the
poetry was elegant and sophisticated and
expressed emotions in a rhetorical style.
Others also wrote diaries and stories, and
their psychological portrayals remain fresh
and vivid to present-day readers.
The appearance of the Konjaku
monogatari (Tales of a Time That Is Now
Past) around 1120 added a new dimension
This collection of more than 1,000 Buddhist
and secular tales from India, China, and
Japan is particularly notable for its rich
descriptions of the lives of the nobility and
common people in Japan at that time.
In the latter half of the twelfth century
warriors of the Taira clan (Heike) seized
political power at the imperial court,
virtually forming a new aristocracy.
Heike mono-gatari (The Tale of the
Heike), which depicts the rise and fall of
the Taira with the spotlight on their wars
with the Minamoto clan (Genji), was
completed in the first half of the
This period also produced literature by
recluses, typified by Kamo no Chomei's
Hojoki (An Account of My Hut)  ,
which reflects on the uncertainty of
existence, and Yoshida Kenko's
Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness) [ca
1330] , a work marked by penetrating
reflections on life.
Both works raise the question of spiritual
Medieval Japanese Literature is marked by
the strong influence of Zen Buddhism, and
many writers were priests, travelers, or
Also during this period, Japan experienced
many civil wars which led to the
development of a warrior class, and a
widespread interest in war tales, histories,
and related stories.
Work from this period is notable for its
insights into life and death, simple lifestyles,
and redemption through killing.
A representative work is The Tale of the
Heike (1371), an epic account of the struggle
between the Minamoto and Taira clans for
control of Japan at the end of the twelfth
Other important tales of the period
include Kamo no Chōmei's Hōjōki (1212)
and Yoshida Kenko's Tsurezuregusa (1331).
Other notable genres in this period
were renga, or linked verse, and Noh theater.
Both were rapidly developed in the middle of
the fourteenth century, during the
early Muromachi period.
The literature of this time was written
during the generally peaceful Tokugawa
Period (commonly referred to as the Edo
Due in large part to the rise of the
working and middle classes in the new
capital of Edo (modern Tokyo), forms of
popular drama developed which would
later evolve into kabuki.
The joruri and kabuki
Monzaemon became popular at the
end of the seventeenth century.
Matsuo Bashō wrote Oku no Hosomichi (
奥の細道, 1702), a travel
diary. Hokusai, perhaps Japan's most
famous woodblock print artist, also
illustrated fiction as well as his famous 36
Views of Mount Fuji.
Two giants emerged in the field of prose:
Ihara Saikaku, who realistically portrayed
the life of Osaka merchants, and
Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who wrote joruri,
a form of storytelling involving chanted
lines, and kabuki plays.
These writers brought about a great
flowering of literature.
Later Yosa Buson composed superb haiku
depicting nature, while fiction writer Ueda
Akinari produced a collection of gothic
stories called Ugetsu monogatari (Tales of
Moonlight and Rain)  .
Ihara Saikaku might be said to have given birth
to the modern consciousness of the novel in
Japan, mixing vernacular dialogue into his
humorous and cautionary tales of the pleasure
Jippensha Ikku (十返舎一九) wrote Tōkaidōchū
hizakurige (東海道中膝栗毛), a mix of travelogue
Tsuga Teisho, Takebe Ayatari, and Okajima
Kanzan were instrumental in developing
theyomihon, which were historical romances
almost entirely in prose, influenced by Chinese
vernacular novels such as Three Kingdoms
and Shui hu zhuan.
Kyokutei Bakin wrote the extremely popular
fantasy and historical romance, Nansō
Satomi Hakkenden (南総里見八犬伝), in
addition to other yomihon.
Santō Kyōden wrote yomihon mostly set in
the gay quarters until the Kansei edicts
banned such works, and he turned to
New genres included horror, crime
stories, morality stories, and comedy, often
accompanied by colorful woodcut prints.
Many genres of literature made their début
during the Edo Period, inspired by a rising
literacy rate among the growing population
of townspeople, as well as the
development of lending libraries.
Although there was a minor Western
influence trickling into the country from the
Dutch settlement at Nagasaki, it was the
importation of Chinese vernacular fiction
that proved the greatest outside influence
on the development of early modern
The Meiji period was when Japan, under
Western influence, took the first steps
toward developing a modern literature.
It marked the re-opening of Japan to the
West, and a period of rapid
In the Meiji era unification of the written
and spoken language was advocated,
and Futabatei Shimei's Ukigumo (Drifting
Clouds)  won acclaim as a new
form of novel.
In poetry circles the influence of translated foreign
poems led to a "new style" poetry movement and the
scope of literary forms continued to widen.
Novelists Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki studied in
Germany and Britain, respectively, and their works
reflect the influence of the literature of those
The introduction of European literature brought free
verse into the poetic repertoire; it became widely
used for longer works embodying new intellectual
Young Japanese prose writers and dramatists
struggled with a whole galaxy of new ideas and
artistic schools, but novelists were the first to
successfully assimilate some of these concepts.
In the early Meiji era (1868-1880s), Fukuzawa Yukichi
and Nakae Chomin authored Enlightenment
literature, while pre-modern popular books depicted
the quickly changing country.
In the mid-Meiji (late 1880s - early 1890s) Realism was
introduced by Tsubouchi Shoyo and Futabatei
Shimei, while the Classicism of Ozaki Koyo, Yamada
Bimyo and Koda Rohan gained popularity.
Higuchi Ichiyo, a rare woman writer in this era, wrote
short stories on powerless women of this age in a
simple style, between literary and colloquial.
Izumi Kyoka, a favored disciple of Ozaki, pursued a
flowing and elegant style and wrote early novels
such as The Operating Room (1895) in literary style
and later ones including The Holy Man of Mount
Koya (1900) in colloquial language.
Mori Ogai introduced Romanticism to Japan with his
anthology of translated poems (1889), and it was
carried to its height by Shimazaki Toson and his
contemporaries and by the
magazines Myōjō and Bungaku-kai in the early 1900s.
Mori also wrote some modern novels including The
Dancing Girl (1890), Wild Geese (1911), and later
wrote historical novels.
A new colloquial literature developed centering on
the ―I‖ novel, (Watakushi-shôsetu), a form of fiction
that describes the world from the author’s point of
view and depicts his own mental states.
This style incorporated some unusual protagonists
such as the cat narrator of Natsume Soseki's
humorous and satirical Wagahai wa neko de aru
(―I Am a Cat,‖ 1905).
Natsume Soseki, who is often compared
with Mori Ogai, also wrote the famous
novels Botchan (1906) and Sanshirô (1908),
depicting the freshness and purity of youth.
He eventually pursued transcendence of
human emotions and egoism in his later
works including Kokoro (1914), and his last
unfinished novel Light and Darkness(1916).
Shiga Naoya, the so called "god of the
novel," wrote in an autobiographical style,
depicting his states of his mind, that is also
classified as ―I‖ novel.
Shimazaki shifted from Romanticism to Naturalism,
which was established with the publication of The
Broken Commandment (1906) and Katai
Tayama's Futon (1907).
Naturalism led to the ―I‖ novel.
Neo-romanticism came out of anti-naturalism and
was led by Nagai Kafu, Junichiro Tanizaki, Kotaro
Takamura, Kitahara Hakushu and others during the
Mushanokoji Saneatsu, Shiga Naoya and others
founded a magazine, Shirakaba, in 1910 to
Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who was highly praised by
Soseki, represented Neo-realism in the mid-1910s
and wrote intellectual, analytical short stories
including Rashômon (1915).
During the 1920s and early 1930s the proletarian literary
movement, comprising such writers as Kobayashi Takiji,
Kuroshima Denji, Miyamoto Yuriko, and Sata Ineko,
produced a politically radical literature depicting the
harsh lives of workers, peasants, women, and other
downtrodden members of society, and their struggles for
War-time Japan saw the début of several authors best
known for the beauty of their language and their tales of
love and sensuality, notably Tanizaki Junichiro and
Japan's first winner of the Nobel Prize for
Literature, Kawabata Yasunari, a master of
Hino Ashihei wrote lyrical bestsellers glorifying the war,
while Ishikawa Tatsuzo attempted to publish a
disturbingly realistic account of the advance on Nanjing.
Writers who opposed the war include Kuroshima Denji,
Kaneko Mitsuharu, Oguma Hideo, and Ishikawa Jun.
Soseki nurtured many talented literary figures.
One of them, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, wrote
many superb novelettes based on his detailed
knowledge of the Japanese classics.
His suicide in 1927 was seen as a symbol of the
agony Japan was experiencing in the process
of rapid modernization, a major theme of
modern Japanese literature. In 1968 Kawabata
Yasunari became the first Japanese to win the
Nobel Prize for literature, and Oe Kenzaburo
won it in 1994.
They and other contemporary writers, such as
Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, Mishima Yukio, Abe
Kobo, and Inoue Yasushi, have been translated
into other languages.
Japan’s defeat in World War II influenced Japanese
literature during the 1940s and 1950s. Many authors
wrote stories about disaffection, loss of purpose, and
the coping with defeat.
Dazai Osamu's novel The Setting Sun tells of a soldier
returning from Manchukuo.
Mishima Yukio, well known for both his nihilistic writing
and his controversial suicide by seppuku, began
writing in the post-war period.
Kojima Nobuo's short story, "The American School,"
portrays a group of Japanese teachers of English
who, in the immediate aftermath of the war, deal
with the American occupation in varying ways.
Prominent writers of the 1970s and 1980s were
identified with intellectual and moral issues in their
attempts to raise social and political consciousness.
One of them, Oe Kenzaburo wrote his best-known
work, A Personal Matter in 1964 and became Japan's
second winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Inoue Mitsuaki had long been concerned with the
atomic bomb and continued during the 1980’s to
write on problems of the nuclear age, while Endo
Shusaku depicted the religious dilemma of the
Kakure Kirishitan, Roman Catholics in feudal Japan,
as a springboard to address spiritual problems.
Inoue Yasushi also turned to the past in masterful
historical novels, set in Inner Asia and ancient Japan,
in order to comment on present human fate.
Avant-garde writers, such as Abe Kobo, who wrote
fantastic novels such as Woman in the Dunes (1960), and
wanted to express the Japanese experience in modern
terms without using either international styles or
traditional conventions, developed new inner visions.
Furui Yoshikichi tellingly related the lives of alienated
urban dwellers coping with the minutiae of daily
life, while the psychodramas within such daily life crises
have been explored by a rising number of important
The 1988 Naoki Prize went to Todo Shizuko for Ripening
Summer, a story capturing the complex psychology of
Other award-winning stories at the end of the decade
dealt with current issues of the elderly in hospitals; the
recent past; the Pure-Hearted Shopping District in
Koenji, Tokyo; and the life of a Meiji period ukiyo-e artist.
In international literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, a native
of Japan, who had taken up residence in Britain,
won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize.
Murakami Haruki is one of the most popular and
controversial of today's Japanese authors.
His genre-defying, humorous and surreal works have
sparked fierce debates in Japan over whether they
are true "literature" or simple pop-fiction:
Oe Kenzaburo has been one of his harshest critics.
Some of his best-known works include Norwegian
Wood (1987) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-
Another best-selling contemporary author is Banana
Popular fiction, non-fiction, and children's literature all
flourished in urban Japan during the 1980s.
Many popular works fell between "pure literature"
and pulp novels, including all sorts of historical serials,
information-packed docudramas, science fiction,
mysteries, detective fiction, business stories, war
journals, and animal stories.
Non-fiction covered everything from crime to politics.
Although factual journalism predominated, many of
these works were interpretive, reflecting a high
degree of individualism.
Children's works re-emerged in the 1950s, and the
newer entrants into this field, many of them younger
women, brought new vitality to it in the 1980s.
Manga (comic books) have penetrated almost
every sector of the popular market.
They include virtually every field of human
interest, such as a multi volume high-school
history of Japan and, for the adult market, a
manga introduction to economics, and
At the end of the 1980s, manga represented
between twenty and thirty percent of total
annual publications in Japan, representing
sales of some four hundred billion yen annually.
In contemporary Japan, there is a debate over
whether the rise in popular forms of
entertainment such as manga and anime has
caused a decline in the quality of literature in
Akutagawa Ryonosuke was born in Tokyo into
a family which had lived for generations in the
shitamachi district of Tokyo, famous for its
cultural traditions. Shortly after Akutagawa's
birth his mother, Fuku, became insane.
His father, Niihara Toshizo, a dairyman, was not
able to take care of his son, and Akutagawa
was adopted by his uncle, Akutagawa Dosho,
whose surname he assumed.
In 1913 Akutagawa entered the Tokyo Imperial
University, where he studied English, graduating
in 1916 with a thesis on William Morris.
Throughout his life, Akutagawa remained a
voracious reader of the Western novels.
While still at the university, Akutagawa
started to write short fiction. His first literary
work was a 1914 translation of Anatole
France's Balthasar (1889).
With his friends, Kikuchi Kan and Kumé
Masao, he founded the literary
magazine Shin Shicho, where he published
'Rashomon' (or 'The Rasho Gate', 1915).
His second volume of short stories, Tobako
tu akuma (1917; Tobacco and the
Devil), featured stories set in medieval
Japan and drew heavily on Asian legends
in form and theme.
―Kumo no Ito‖ (―The Spider's Thread‖) deals
allegorically with one man's pervasive egoism,
a flaw that proves fatal both to himself and to
While Akutagawa's subjects constitute faithful
representations of both the grim and the foolish
aspects of human behavior, they are not
always devoid of humor.
―Hana‖ (―The Nose‖), one of Akutagawa's
best-known stories, addresses egoism by
relating the predicament of a Buddhist monk
who has succeeded in shortening his enormous
nose, the bane of his existence and, as he sees
it, the impediment to his social acceptance,
but his vanity is penalized by disfigurement of
his face and coldness from his peers.
Haiku is one of the most important form of
traditional Japanese poetry.
Haiku is both a type of poetic pattern and a way of
experiencing the world.
A well-executed haiku is rooted in the physical
world of our senses, yet suggests something
deeper, often evoking the mysterious, transitory
nature of all existence.
Haiku is, today, a 17-syllable verse form consisting
of three metrical units of 5, 7, and 5 syllables.
The term hokku literally means "starting
verse", and was the first starting link of a much
longer chain of verses known ashaika.
Because the hokku set the tone for the rest of
the poetic chain, it enjoyed a privileged
position in haikai poetry, and it was not
uncommon for a poet to compose a hokku by
itself without following up with the rest of the
Haiku derives from a type of Japanese court
poetry called tanka that was popularized and
refined during the 9th through 12 centuries.
Traditional haiku is an example of pure syllabic
verse. Which means that the number of
syllables determines the form, not the number
of stressed words in a line.
Traditional Japanese pattern:
› 17 syllables
› 3 lines
› 1st line: 5 syllables
› 2nd line: 7 syllables
› 3rd line: 5 syllables
Other important elements:
› Simple, direct, non-metaphorical language. Don't
use abstract words.
› Captures a transitory insight or moment in time
(called "satori" or the "aha moment" )
› Contains a kigo, an image of nature that evokes a
particular seasons (usually occurs in the 1st or 3rd
› Usually contains a cutting or pivot word that turns the
movement of the poem in some way.
Here is a famous poem by
Basho. Look at both the
Japanese and the English
versions, then roll your
mouse over them to learn
Notice how the pivot
word "in" could be
interpreted in two ways.
Does the frog leap in the
water or the water's
Mizu no oto
a frog leaps in
William J. Higginson*
Basho Matsuo is known as the first great poet
in the history of haikai (and haiku).
He too, wrote poems using jokes and plays
upon words in his early stages, as they were in
fashion, but began to attach importance to
the role of thought in haikai (especially in
hokku) from around 1680.
The thought of Tchouang-tseu, philosopher in
the 4th century B.C., influenced greatly
Basho, and he often quoted the texts of "The
Book of master Tchouang" in his hokkus.
The thinker Tchouang-tseu denied the
artificiality and the utilitarianism, seeing value
of intellect low.
He asserted that things seemingly useless had
the real value, and that it was the right way
of life not to go against the natural law.
He was considered the father of haiku had studied
Taoism and classical Chinese poetry in his youth.
At first he wrote derivative verse, but eventually broke
free from the conventions of Japanese poetry, which
at the time, had an elegant, refined style full of
allusions to the court.
He began to wander the countryside and write travel
journals as well as tanka.
During the last part of his life he attempted to live
with "karumi" or "lightness."
Or as he said in one of his poems "like looking at a
shallow river with a sandy bed."
To a leg of a heron
Adding a long shank
Of a pheasant.
Japanese drama commenced around the 7th century and to
date has evolved a wide variety of genres characterized
generally by the fusion of dramatic, musical, and dance
The music and dance, as well as the subjects, settings, costumes,
and acting styles, were rigidly stylized and, until recent times,
offered relatively few realistic or naturalistic qualities.
The performers wore impressive robes, and their dances had
Plays were also performed at shrine festivals in support of prayers
for harvests or to depict the history of the shrine. The actors and
musicians were organized into troupes. By the 14th century the
theatre had developed one of its foremost artistic
achievements, Noh drama.
These plays included solemn dances intended to suggest the
deepest emotions of the principal character and were written in
the poetic language of the Japanese classics.
At the end of the 15th century two new popular forms
appeared; they were the puppet theatre, jo ruri, also
called bunraku, and a form known as kabuki.
The puppet theatre combines three elements: the
puppets; the chanters who sing and declaim for the
puppets; and the players of the samisen, a three-stringed
instrument, who provide the accompaniment.
The greatest Japanese dramatist, Chikamatsu
Monzaemon, wrote chiefly for the puppet theatre, the
artistic level of which is perhaps higher in Japan than
anywhere else in the world.
The puppet theatre, after attaining its greatest popularity
in the 18th century, lost in public favor to the kabuki,
which has continued to be the most popular traditional
By the mid-1980s kabuki was popular with American
audiences, and troupes made annual appearances in
the USA Kabuki tends to be spectacle rather than drama.
This art form was created by Okuni, a female shrine
attendant, in the 17th century.
Kabuki plays are performed in large theatres, with
a hanamichi, or raised platform, extending from
the back of the theatre to the stage.
Kabuki theatre is an art form that has gone full
circle, Kabuki started out all female and, 400 years
later is only played by men.
The word 'kabuki' is made of three characters in
Japanese: 'ka' meaning 'songs', 'bu' meaning
'dance' and 'ki' meaning 'skill'.
Kabuki is performed at a special theatre and the
displays are usually overwhelming in their use of
color, makeup and stylized movements.
The revolving stage and trapdoors mean that
impressive entrances and exits occur throughout
A large part of the popularity of the early, all-female
performances was due to their sensual nature.
The performers were also prostitutes and male audiences
often got out of control.
As a result, women were banned from performing by
the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Ironically, the young male actors who took over kabuki also
engaged in prostitution and audience disturbances
continued to break out.
Again, the Shogunate clamped down and troupes
composed of older actors were required to perform more
formalized and strictly theatrical dramas, based on kyogen.
Changes were made to the traditional noh stage, such as
adding a draw curtain and a hanamichi (catwalk) through
the audience to allow dramatic entrances and exits.
Kabuki performers are extremely famous in Japan
and the skill is usually kept within families; son
following father into the business.
Some players concentrate on female roles while
others usually play male roles, although there is some
The female specialists are called 'onnagata' and
spend an incredible amount of time learning how to
move, eat, talk, dress, etc., like a woman.
When a scene reaches its climax, the actor strikes
flamboyant poses, over emphasizing the emotion
and drama of the moment and certain performers
have become famous for their portrayal of a
particular kabuki scene.
Others strive to equal or surpass these exalted
Aragoto characters are the superhero types seen in jidaimono,
and are recognized by their distinctive kumadori make-up,
painted in stripes of red, black and blue on the face, arms and
Wagoto characters are quite the reverse, often being played
by onnagata, and are much more sensitive, restrained and
romantic in feel.
Japanese Kabuki plays can be divided into three main
catagories: shosagoto, or dance pieces; jidaimono, or history
plays; and sewamono, or plays of the common people.
Shosagoto are generally made up of a combination of mai,
a circling movement with the heels kept close to the floor, odori,
folk-influenced gestures and turns, and furi, use of mime often
involving props such as fans.
Characters in jidaimono may be aristocrats ,lords, princesses and
empresses, or their retainers and vassals, and often a kind of
superhero will dominate the drama.
In sewamono, the characters are the lowest level of pre-modern
Japanese society, and the plays often revolve around a conflict
between giri, and ninjo, human emotions, which may be a
forbidden love which causes a dramatic climax.
Eat, drink and be merry in a kabukiza.
You can even call out the names of your favorite performers
as they appear on stage and many spectators follow certain
In most performances you will see excerpts from a few famous
plays usually followed by a play in its entirety.
The stories generally focus on some form of conflict whether
between siblings, rivals or others and it often seems that they
are fairytale-like renditions where people are either good or
The costuming and posturing make it easier to pick who falls
into which category although there are some surprises where
someone turns out to have another identity or some hidden
The history of the whole of Japanese
theater might have been entirely different
if, in 1375 at Kasuge Temple near Nara,
two adolescent boys had not formed a
passionate friendship, a special
relationship that would cause a unique
and ultimately influential art form to come
Noh—its name derived from nō, meaning
―talent‖ or ―skill‖.
Noh performers are simply storytellers who
use their visual appearances and their
movements to suggest the essence of their
tale rather than to enact it.
Little ―happens‖ in a Noh drama, and the
total effect is less that of a present action
than of a simile or metaphor made visual.
The first type, the kami (―god‖) play, involves a
sacred story of a Shintō shrine;
The second, shura mono (―fighting play‖), centres on
The third, katsura mono (―wig play‖), has a female
The fourth type, varied in content, includes
the gendai mono (―present-day play‖), in which the
story is contemporary and ―realistic‖ rather than
legendary and supernatural, and the kyōjo
mono (―madwoman play‖), in which the protagonist
becomes insane through the loss of a lover or child;
The fifth type, the kiri or kichiku (―final‖ or ―demon‖)
play, features devils, strange beasts, and
Its dialogue is sparse, serving as a mere
frame for the movement and music.
A standard Noh program consists of three
plays selected from the five types so as to
achieve both an artistic unity and the
desired mood; invariably, a play of the fifth
type is the concluding work.
Kyōgen, humorous sketches, are performed
as interludes between plays.
A program may begin with an okina, which
is essentially an invocation for peace and
prosperity in dance form.
the principal actor, or shite
the subordinate actor, or waki
the kyōgen actors, one of whom is often involved in Noh plays as a
Each is a specialty having several ―schools‖ of performers, and each
has its own ―acting place‖ on the stage.
Subsidiary roles include those of attendant (tsure), of a ―boy‖ (kokata),
and of nonspeaking ―walk-on‖ (tomo).
Accompaniment is provided by an instrumental chorus (hayashi) of
four musicians—who play a flute (nōkan), small hand drum (ko-
tsuzumi), large hand drum (ō-tsuzumi), and large drum (taiko)—and by
a chorus (jiutai) consisting of 8–10 singers.
The recitation (utai) is one of the most important elements in the
Each type of dialogue and song has its own name: the sashi is like a
recitative; the uta are the songs proper; the rongi, or debate, is intoned
between chorus and shite; and the kiri is the chorus with which the play
Murasaki Shikibu (978?-1026?), Japanese
novelist, one of her country's greatest
writers, and the author of what is generally
considered the world's first novel, The Tale
of Genji (first trans. by Arthur Waley in 6 vol.,
Little is known about the author (including
her real name), except that she was
married to Fujiwara Nobutaka and that she
kept a diary of court life, which she
transformed into a novel after her
It was written 1,000 years ago and has 54 chapters and over
1,000 pages of text in its English translation.
It is generally considered to be the world's first true novel, and
was certainly the first psychological novel ever written.
The Tale of Genji concerns the amorous adventures of the
fictional Prince Genji and the more staid lives of his descendants.
The novel paints a charming and apparently accurate picture of
Japanese court life in the Heian period, during the reign of
Empress Akiko, whom Murasaki Shikibu attended.
Among the novel's chief delights are the portraits of the women
in Prince Genji's life.
These women are individually described, with their aristocratic
refinements, talents in the arts of music, drawing, and poetry,
and love for the beauties of nature.
As the work nears its conclusion, the tone becomes more mature
and somber, shaded by Buddhist judgments on the fleeting joys
of earthly existence.
The Lady of the
The Third Princess
Oigimi at Uji
The Lady of the
The Lady of the
The Rokujo Lady
Nokiba no Hagi
The Lady of Omi
To no Chujo
Rakuyo no Miya
The Eighth Prince
Tanka was often written to explore religious or
courtly themes and had a structure of five lines
with 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure.
During this period, it became a popular activity
to write long strings of linked tanka verse.
One person would often contribute the first
three lines (5-7-5) of the poetic chain and a
different author would complete the chain by
composing a 7-7 section.
Then another author would build on the
previous 7-7, with another 5-7-5 passage.
This chaining of verses called renga, could
sometimes add up to hundreds of linked tanka.