Japan Literature During The Middle Ages (1186-1603)

By | January 20, 2022

According to Equzhou, the period is marked by intermittent wars that swept the entire country and marked the rise to power of the military class and the political decline of the court nobility; alongside the traditional genres, which maintain a close formal link with the past, original elements make their way: the chivalrous spirit and the influence of the new Buddhist religious schools, in particular Zen (➔ # 10132;) which, introduced in Japan in the 12th century. and protected by the new ruling class, he acted decisively on the development of the arts and literature.

In the field of short poetry the figure of Fujiwara no Shunzei dominates, judge of poetry competitions and compiler of the anthology Sanzaishū (“Collection of a thousand years”, 1187), who gave shape to the new poetic ideals of the yūgen(“mystery” and ” depth “, obtained with refined techniques of associations and allusions) and of sabi (beauty that accompanies images of loneliness and melancholy), also supporting the need to resort, in the poetic expression, to the language codified by tradition but renewed by new feelings. A pupil of Shunzei was the monk Saigyō, of Samuraic origin, one of the greatest Japanese poets, whose figure was surrounded by numerous legends. His main work, Sankashū(“Collection of the hermitage on the mountain”), includes about 2000 tanka, dedicated in part to the now conventional repertoire of poetry of his time, but which achieve excellent results in the themes of love and in expressing the feeling of the transience of things human. The time of Saigyō, Shunzei and his son Fujiwara no Teika, himself a famous poet, coincided with the reign of Emperor Gotoba, patron of many arts. He was responsible for the compilation of the poetic anthology Shin kokinshū (“The new Kokinshū”, 1201), entrusted to Teika, a collection composed of about 2000 poems that constitute a single sequence of narrative lyric.

Among the other poets of the time we remember Kamo no Chōmei, whose name is mainly linked to a prose text, the Hōjōki (“Memories of my hut”, 1212), a short, perfect essay of his vision of the world and of human life. He is also credited with the Mumyōshō (“Untitled Treatise”, 1209-10), an indispensable tool for understanding the poetic principles of the time. The genre, consisting of annotations and brief reflections (which had already given valuable results with Sei Shōnagon and Kamo no Chōmei), also finds one of its greatest expressions in the Tsurezuregusa (“Hours of idleness”), written around 1333 by Kenkō Hōshi, monk and hermit. Made up of a set of personal considerations, quotes, anecdotes and religious or philosophical aphorisms, it reflects the aesthetic concepts not only of the author but of his entire era. The prose narrative also includes some diaries written by court ladies: the Kenreimon´in ukyō no Daibushū (“Collection of Kenreimon´in’s lady-in-waiting”, possibly dated 1157), the Izayoi nikki (“Diary of the waning moon”, 1282) and the Towazugatari (” Unsolicited Tale”, 1313) of the lady Nijō, who deals with her love affairs with various court gentlemen and then, after her retirement from the world, her life as a recluse interrupted only by some travel.

In the field of monogatari, the most original and lively production of the period consists of the so-called gunki monogatari (“war tales”), inspired by the bloody civil wars that devastated the country and by the great military families that fought for political power. The Hōgen monogatari (“History of the Hōgen era”) and the Heiji monogatari (“History of the Heiji era”), by an unknown author, are very similar in subject, language and structure; of the most famous of tales of this genre, the Heike monogatari (“History of the Taira family”), there are three types of texts, each in several versions; the one to which we generally refer is in 12 parts, written in a mixed language of words and elements in pure Japanese and others of Chinese derivation; in its popular version it was declaimed by wandering monks and, taking up the theme of the struggle between the warrior clans of the Taira and the Minamoto, insists on the transience of every triumph and every greatness, an element that essentially constitutes the philosophy of the work. The Heike monogatari exerted a huge influence on all later literature, starting with the monogatari gunki appeared during the 14th century: the Taiheiki (“Chronicle of the great peace”, 1372), which describes about 50 years of civil war (1318-67), culminating in the ascent to power of the Ashikaga family; the Soga monogatari («History of the Soga»), dedicated to one of the most famous revenge in Japanese history, the one carried out by the Soga brothers, who in 1193 killed, after 15 years of waiting, the murderer of their father; and finally the Gikeiki (“Story of Yoshitsune”), a fictionalized version of the life of the most famous hero of the medieval epic, Minamoto no Yoshitsune.

In the 14th century. also the nōtheater (➔ # 10132;) was born, slowly developing from other forms of entertainment, many of which comic or popular; it reached its complete form, its completely original character and unsurpassed artistic levels thanks above all to the activity of two people, both men of the theater in the fullest sense of the word: Kan’ami and his son Zeami. Considered one of the most original dramatic forms, nō represents a brilliant synthesis of all the literary genres of the previous centuries, also creating new aesthetic values. Part of guiding the language of nō was also a poetic genre that was being perfected more or less in the same period, namely the so-called “chain poetry” (renga), originated from the classic tanka, born as a pastime and then developed into an artistic form; was generally composed of several poets, who proposed in turn an ‘upper’ part (composed of a succession of 5-7-5 syllables), and a ‘lower’ (7-7 syllables), conceived so that each of them formed a poetic unity with the previous one. Soon codified by precise rules that fixed its lexicon, rhythm and contents, it could reach up to a hundred lines and counts among its greatest poets N. Yoshimoto (14th century), Sōgi (15th -16th century) and J. Satomura (16th-17th century), to whom is due a style that gave the greatest emphasis to an uninterrupted progression of images.

Finally, in the period between the last decades of the 15th century. and the beginning of the 17th century, a last literary genre makes its appearance and develops: a composite narrative, an extension of the old monogatari, epic tales and anecdotal literature at the same time. The anonymous texts that initially circulated orally and found a circulation in print only in the following centuries, have been grouped under the general definition of otogizōshiand include love stories, Buddhist parables with a didactic background, heroic legends and marvelous destinies., stories of animals. In addition to having, directly or not, influenced subsequent literature and formed a new dramatic genre, the jōruri, they allow us to clearly grasp the moment of transition between the monogatari of the past and the new novel that would develop during the Tokugawa period.

Japan Literature During The Middle Ages (1186-1603)