Japan Literature – The Origins and Time of Nara

By | January 19, 2022

In its essential features, Japanese literature reveals a very particular taste for form, which gives color to the innate aesthetic sense that is in the prerogatives of the breed. In literature, a palpitating expression of the character of the people, as in art, the foreign model is visible everywhere, except for poetry, but always originally elaborated, singularly interpreted, and in tune and adequate to taste, needs, life, to the genius of the nation. It is precisely this assimilating faculty, but profoundly modifying and elaborating, which constitutes the salient and eminently original trait in the spiritual and material civilization of the Japanese people, and to which it owes, in substance, its rapid rise in the world.

In determining Japanese literary history, we must first of all take into account two major events: the introduction of Chinese civilization, active above all in the century. V d. C., and, later, in the century. XIX, that of Western civilization. But apart from external influences, the ties that bind the internal political events of a country to the development of its thinking are many, and for Japan so close, that it is necessary above all to resort to its political history if one wants to grasp the great evolutionary phases of the literary one. Thus, five major subdivisions result: 1. the origins (…- 710) and the time of Nara (710-794); 2. the classical age or Heian era (794-1186); 3. the decline (1186-1603), during the civil wars; 4. the rebirth under the Tokugawa (1603-1868); 5. the literature under the

The first act of Japanese literary evolution is the introduction of Chinese writing through Korea. WG Aston has shown (Early Japanese History, in Trans. Of the Asiatic Society of Japan, XVI) that this event, placed by tradition in 284 d. C., must be moved to 404. The hypothesis, previously supported by some, of the existence of an indigenous phonetic script, represented by the so-called jindai – moji seems to be definitively abandoned(characters of the age of the gods), of which there are various forms. The introduction of writing, accompanied and immediately followed by that of the classics, was not, of course, an isolated event, but must be placed in that flow of Chinese culture that the relations, now peaceful, now hostile, between Korea and Japan determined in this. At the end of the century V there are already the first official scribes in the provinces, with the task of taking note of events, while the organization of the state on the Chinese model is beginning. Under the Emperor Kinmyō (540-571) the first schools were founded, where Korean scholars taught medicine, chronology, classics, divination, etc. In 552, again for Korea, a powerful tool of culture was introduced with Buddhism, which will exercise a profound influence in all fields of social and intellectual activity and will be, in the words of BH Chamberlain, the Mentor under which the nation is educated. It is under the Empress Suiko (543-629) that, through the work of her son, Prince Shōtoku, a fervent apostle of the new religion and a lover of Chinese letters, that and these spread and begin to acquire importance; on the beginning of the century. XII, young people are sent to China for the purpose of study, while Korean and Chinese scholars continue to flow into the country to spread the arts, sciences, techniques, doctrines and philosophy of the Middle Empire. The profound changes brought about by all these contributions culminate, finally, in the reform of the Taikwa era (645-649) with which Japan was given an institution modeled on the Chinese one of the T ‘

Of this period of intense preparation, the only documents that have survived, to be considered the most ancient linguistic essays, are some archaic poems, composed between the century. V and VII, of a rough inspiration, simple in expression and superficial in feeling, therefore lacking in strength and depth, incorporated in the text of Kojiki (111 poems) and Nihongi (132 poems), and 137 norito or Shinto rituals contained in a great work on ceremonial (the Engishiki or Dispositions of the Engi era). I noritothey are speeches that were delivered, during the rites and official feasts held at the court, by priests of the two families of Nakatomi and Imibe, who had a monopoly on the things of worship. Their content is varied: now mythological, now narrative, now laudative; the language is that of compositions of the genre: dignified, high-sounding and emphatic; the periods are interminable and full of metaphors, repetitions, parallels of various kinds.

According to Cancermatters, a consequence of the adoption of the complicated Chinese bureaucratic system was the establishment of the capital in Nara (710). Consequently, this created conditions particularly favorable to the progress of the arts and letters, conditions that the continuous movements of capital, which had occurred until then, could not allow. Essentially, the Nara epoch marks a greater penetration of Chinese and Buddhist influences into the life of the nation. Buddhist aesthetics in architecture and the arts, the study of Chinese Buddhist scriptures also affect letters, but they enslave the national spirit so much that it is necessary many centuries before it, rising to self-awareness, can pass from the primitive phase. imitative to creative. Meanwhile, under the influence of Buddhism, the nation begins to think about its past. The awakening of historical curiosity thus leads to the compilation of two fundamental works for the study of indigenous traditions: theKojiki, in 712, and Nihongi, in 720, the first in Japanese, the second in Chinese. Apart from these two chronicles, the scarce prose of this era is mainly bureaucratic: laws, proclamations, ordinances, etc., written in Chinese; with the exception of a few documents, also of an official nature, which alone represent the prose of the time: the semmy ō or mikotonori, imperial ordinances directed to the people or to individuals, 52 in all, written in a style similar to that of the norito ; i f ū doki(descriptions of lands and customs), monographs on individual provinces, written only in part in Japanese, which give information on geography and local traditions, following a single scheme and without scrutinizing the materials used (of them we still have in full that of the province of Izumo, Izumo f ū doki, and passages by others); the ujibumi (uji, family; fumi, written), genealogies of families in which we give news of the traditions and deeds of their ancestors.

But the Nara era is especially notable for poetry. Poor of genres, without rhyme, Japanese poetry differs profoundly from Western. What distinguishes it from prose is the alternation of lines of 5 and 7 syllables, a quantity that seems to have become fixed very quickly, and to which poets of all ages have strictly adhered to. The number of verses thus made, making up the same poem, was varied; however, in the end, there is always an additional verse of 7 syllables. The resulting scheme: 5-7, 5-7… 5-7-7 constitutes the naga – uta or long poem, which was from the beginning followed by the tankaor short poem (scheme 5-7, 5-7-7). The latter then ended up remaining the absolute master of metric literature until today, although an even shorter genre, the haikai (scheme 5-7-5), rose in vogue in the century. XVIII. In addition to these formal characteristics, some rhetorical devices distinguish poetry, such as the makura kotoba (words-pillow), corresponding to the Homeric epithets, the ken – y ō – gen (dual use words), the j ō(prefaces), the discussion of which cannot take place here. This, in broad strokes, is the physiognomy of indigenous poetry, within the narrow limits of which, as Aston says so well, it is incredible how much happiness of phrase, melody of verse and true inspiration the Japanese have managed to compress, with the admirable effect of a few, skillful brush strokes. The following poem is a tanka:

A single monument has preserved the poetry of the Nara era, the Many ō sh ū (Collection of 10 thousand leaves; v.), A private anthology by an uncertain author, in the 4496 poems of which the figures of Kakinomoto-no-Hitomaro stand out., Yamabe-no-Akahito, Yamanoe-no-Okura, Ōtomo-no-Tabibito and Otomo-no-Yakamochi, all poets who lived in the century. IX, but of whose life little is known.

Written with only Chinese characters, very difficult to read, the Manyosh ū is a true literary gem, whose splendor has remained untarnished through the centuries. A fresh and delicate inspiration, a powerful lyricism, a fascinating spontaneity give this collection an important place in the indigenous poetic production.

Japan Literature - The Origins and Time of Nara