Japan Literature from the Origins to Heian Period Part I

By | January 22, 2022

According to Diseaseslearning, two events dominate literature: the introduction of Chinese civilization and culture, especially from the 5th century. onwards, and that of European civilization, officially adopted in the 19th century. 6 periods are commonly distinguished.

From the origins to the Nara era

Around AD 400, Chinese script was introduced to the archipelago from Korea and cultivated for practical purposes. Subsequently, with the introduction of Buddhism (552) and Confucianism, came the awareness that it was also a precious vehicle of political, philosophical and religious thought, an indispensable tool for the ruling class. The only documents that have come down to us from this era are some crude poems of inspiration contained in the Kojiki and the Nihongi , and 27 norito, emphatic religious allocutions, contained in the Engishiki.

The century of Nara (710-794)

Although subservient to the Chinese one, the indigenous civilization was favored in its development by the establishment of the capital in Nara. Culture was, however, the monopoly of the nobility and the Buddhist clergy, while the people were kept in ignorance, in which they remained for many more centuries. From this period, in addition to written bureaucratic documents, as usual, in Chinese, there are: two historical works, the Kojiki and the Nihongi ; the semmyō or miktonori, proclamations read to the people on various occasions and written in the official language of the time: we have 62 inserted in the Shoku Nihongi (followed by the Nihongi), historical work written in 797; the fudokidull monographs of the various provinces, of which we only have the entire one of the prov. by Izumo; the uji-bumi, genealogies of noble families, of which only that of the Takahashi family has survived. But the age of Nara is above all the golden age of poetry, which in the Manyōshū has preserved a unique and unsurpassed monument for sincerity of expression and freshness of inspiration. The main poetic forms represented in the Manyōshū are the “long poem” (chōka) which alternates lines of 5 and 7 syllables, and the “short poem” (tanka), abbreviated form of the previous one, consisting of only five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. Among the main authors represented in the anthology, we remember Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, who composed chōka and tanka both as an official court poet and on personal themes (love, detachment from the beloved, lament for death of his wife), using a very articulated and complex syntax to enrich the poetic fabric to the maximum. Alongside Hitomaro, Yamabe no Akahito, famous for short poems inspired by nature and the beauty of the landscape, Yamanoue no Okura, whose lyrics reveal the profound influence of Buddhism and a real interest in everyday human events, deserve a mention, and, among women, Nukata no Ōkimi.

Heian period (794-1185)

With the transfer of the capital to Heian (od. Kyoto) in 794, the golden age of classical Japanese literature begins, born in the aristocratic, elegant and frivolous environment of the imperial court, whence its formal refinement and delicate aestheticism, dominated by the ideal of mono no aware, the ability to understand and convey the “feeling that inspire things” with their beauty, albeit transitory and ephemeral. Many literary genres (such as the monogatari and the diary) and many literary institutions (such as poetic competitions or utaawase) were born in this period, rich in results in the artistic field, as well as in the political, social and religious fields. The world literary of the Heian era, at least in the second part, appears dominated by the presence of the woman who participates in the creative activity and imposes her own ideals and attitudes. One of the most eminent figures was the monk Kūkai (better known as Kōbō Daishi), author among other things of a treatise on Chinese poetics, the Bunkyo hifuron (“The secret casket of the mirror of poetry”, 810-20). With the 10th century, the influence of Chinese culture began to decline due to the emergence of a national emancipation which must also have important repercussions on literature. The poem has several official collections, among which the most important remains the Kokinshū (“Collection of ancient and modern poems”, c. 920). The main compiler, Ki no Tsurayuki, is also the author of the preface in Japanese, which represents not only the first, completed attempt at poetic criticism, but the manifesto of opera understood as a normative genre.

In the field of prose emerges the monogatari(“tale”, “novel”, “history”), which in the first examples still contains a large number of poetic compositions. Representative of this kind of prose and poetry is the Ise monogatari (“Tales of Ise”), perhaps dating back to the mid-10th century, perhaps older, by an anonymous author. Taketori monogatari (“Story of a bamboo cutter”) also dates back to the beginning of the century, presenting a more compact and articulated narrative structure and is considered by a long tradition to be “the archetype and initiator of all monogatari”.

Japan Literature from the Origins to Heian Period 1