Japanese Literature Part 2

Middle Ages (13th – 16th centuries)

With the social upheavals following the takeover of power by the warrior class (samurai), a cross-class literature gradually emerged, in the creation of which warriors, monks and, increasingly, the emerging bourgeoisie participated. It was the heyday of the epics performed by blind reciters in the Sino-Japanese mixed style, which sang in elegiac tones about the power struggles of the sword nobility, as in the Heike-monogatari (“History of the House of Taira”, 13th century) and in “Taiheiki” (“Chronicle of the Great Peace”, around 1370). – The numerous, Buddhist moralizing sermon books (Setsuwa) – including the “Uji shūi monogatari” (“Review of the stories from Uji”) and the “Shasekishū” (“pebble collection”, both 13th century) – contain a broad spectrum of short narrative prose, among others characterized by impressionistic snapshots, sophisticated realistic sketches and ironic-humorous anecdotes. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, this genre was replaced by entertaining, didactic-edifying popular books (Otogi-zōshi). – Incomparably more demanding are the monks’ works by monks, which are strongly Buddhist in their ideas and based on classical prose, in the style of “Hōjōki” (“Notes from a narrow hermitage”) des Kamo no Chōmei (* 1153, † 1216) and “Tsurezuregusa” (“Notes from leisure hours”) by Yoshida Kenkō (* 1283, † 1350).

In poetry around the middle of the 14th century, the chain poetry (renga) gained great popularity: as a performative communal poetry produced in the course of gatherings, in which those present each use an upper or lower tunnel of the waka (5-7-5 syllables or 7- 7 syllables) alternately linked in associative chains to form long, up to 1,000 strophic structures. Depending on the occasion, the authors’ group was able to bring together poets from the most varied of classes – at major events from emperors to beggars. – Few surviving collections of folk songs (kouta), such as the »Kanginshū« (»Collection of Muscle Songs«, 1518), bear witness to the unbroken productivity of folk creativity.

According to ehealthfacts, the earliest written drama genre in Japan, the Nō, emerged from the combination of popular performance or narrative forms with sacred games. In the 14th century, under the protection of the shogunate, it matured into lyrical dance pieces with a strong tendency towards hero-centered monodrama. Most of the acts were borrowed from older literature; their sources ranged from the sagas and legends of antiquity through the courtly classical period to contemporary war epics. Under the spell of the chain poetry popular at court, low-ranking actors produced complex lyrical texts of high poetic density and cohesion, shaped by Buddhist ideas. The most important authors include Kiyotsugu Kan’ami (* 1333, † 1384), Motokiyo Zeamiand Zenchiku Konparu (* 1405, † 1470?). – A counterpart to the heavy melancholy of the Nō dramas is offered by the cheerful Kyōgen, listed as intermezzi (popular farces, antics, rumors). In their realistic, upright, lifelike actions one can find, among other things. rich collections of urban and rural folklore (folk songs, hits, chain poems, puzzles, nursery rhymes, etc.).

Early modernity (17th century to mid-19th century)

The authoritarian rule of the Tokugawa shoguns favored the prosperity of the big cities, whose bourgeoisie advanced to bear a self-confident culture of their own, which reached its first climax in the Genroku era (1688–1704). – A new form established itself in lyric poetry: the 17-syllable haiku emerged as an autonomous poetic form that broke out of the strict rule-corset from the independence of a Oberstollen (5-7-5) of the occasionally humorous, word-playfully joking chain poetry (Haikai renga) and strived for a maximum of expressiveness with minimal rhetorical means. With Matsuo Bashō and its student circle this new form of poetry reached a heyday towards the end of the 17th century. In addition to the haiku, its witty and humorous, over time increasingly satirical counterpart, the senryū, enjoyed growing popularity. – With the spread of the printing press and the increase in the level of education of broad sections of the population, the upswing of entertaining, popular prose types was connected: The simple, linear narrative reading books in syllabary (Kanaz-ōshi) as well as anecdotes and jokes (Warai-banashi) paved the way for the realistic portrayal of customs in the novels of Ihara Saikaku . For the next two centuries the chatty flourished Entertainment literature in all shades with moralizing and instructive stories (Yomihon), gossip stories from the joyous quarters (Sharebon), humorous stories (Kokkeibon) and melodramatic romance novels (Ninjōbon). Kyokutei Bakin was one of the most prolific authors of this trivial culture. – An independent dramatic literature emerged towards the end of the 17th century with the action-oriented, rhetorically demanding pieces that Chikamatsu Monzaemon initially wrote for the puppet show (Jōruri). His complex historical dramas (Jidaimono) and realistic bourgeois plays (Sewamono), which are rich in characters and scenes, also found their way into the repertoire of the star theaterKabuki on. They became models for the plays of later playwrights, among others. Tsuruya Nanboku (* 1755, † 1829), famous for his dark, realistic-naturalistic contemporary dramas, and Kawatake Mokuami (* 1816, † 1893), who wrote dramas with a grotesque touch and advocated realistic historical drama.

Japanese Literature 2