Japanese literature for dummies Part 1

   A short introduction to Japanese Literature. Otherwise known as You’re-Not-Japanese-So-You-Won’t-Understand. It’s really short, because there’s absolutely no use in writing elaborated post on something that is highly personal. Books are personal, same as music. I may like something, but other people may hate it with passion.

   First thing first, I have problem with Asian literature, maybe Chinese the least. I can say I like particular authors, but don’t like the whole notion. And before anyone starts accusing me of lack of methodology and background – my last (almost, I’m still young!) 20 years have been spent with Japan, be it literature or other element of culture. I have also read hundreds of books, not wikipedia info about the plot, so everyone may gently bugger off. Oh yes, and I also teach Japanese Literature.
   That’s true, however, that I am a very simple girl and even though one Professors tried to convince me that Tanizaki is the greatest writer in this Galaxy, my simple and shallow mind just couldn’t see anything profoundly moving or at least entertaining in his novels. I blame it on my pop nature.

Let’s begin, shall we?

First of all, Japan wasn’t founded on February 11th 660 BC. Better – they never even saw the rice grain and iron in those lovely times, but experimented with millet and had fine pottery. Moving on.

   In 712 and 720 AD first chronicles were compiled, and those books were of highly political provenance – mainly to legitimize the (current) imperial line’s rights to the Eternal Throne. They differ (Kojiki written in a horrible mess of Japanese, man’yougana and stuff, Nihongi, the later one, written in Chinese) in style, language and slightly the approach (Nihongi having elements of Daoism ie.). But both of them are a mash-up of myths, legends, stories and history. With the last one being highly filtered through “our divine ancestors” glasses. You get my point. If anyone reads both of those and believes everything what is written there – sad to say, but you’re an idiot.
   Not that long after it, Fudoki were ordered to be compiled (sh*t, my syntax starts to resemble japanese) that is – nice descriptions of provinces, where ethymology of names should be listed, geography, agriculture, biosphere, and legends. So we know that long time ago in some province a shark ate a girl and father killed a shark (finding only a calf of daughter in shark’s stomach) but gods didn’t bring back the girl (calf?) to life. Funny thing is, in some provinces there were no sharks. The word wani that is nowadays used to signify the crocodile, back then meant some “sea monster”. Oh well, it’s fun to read stories where nothing means what it means, right?

   In the second half of the century an anthology of poetry was compiled that spanned through 4 centuries and included over 4.500 poems of different types (the longest having… 149 verses, and one busy man named Kakinomoto Hitomaro wrote this elegy). Japan doesn’t have the tradition of a long narrative literature. Yes, there are yukar transmitted orally by Ainu people, but Ainu tradition doesn’t belong to Japan tradition. Sadly as it is, Japanese never thought bears could be able to compose refined poetry about “is it plum blossoms or snow, I have no idea”.

But better check this lovely poem by a man who becomes Emperor Yuuryaku later on:

O maiden
with a basket,
a pretty basket,
with a scoop,
a pretty scoop,
maiden picking greens
on this hillside:
I want to ask about your house;
I want to be told your name.
In the sky-filling land of Yamato
it is I
who rule everyone
it is I
who rule everywhere,
and so I think you will tell me
where you live,
what you are called.
 (Man’yoshu IAN HIDEO LEVY)

 Don’t let this lovely, fluffy poem fool you. This amorous young man slaughtered half of his family and retainers in a power struggle. Oh, Japan was bloody then. And after that as well.

   Later on, Japanese poetry wasn’t as unrestricted, so naive and so… well, lovely. I have a weak spot in my mean heart for Man’yoshu poems. I like poets’ creativity, freedom of topics, even slightly awkward verse-combining. It’s much better than the later periods’ poetry.
Until 9th century nothing major happened because all courtiers, terrorized by Emperor Saga, composed kanshi, that is “chinese poetry”. Well, at least they thought it was chinese. They basically borrowed verses from chinese classics, sometimes changed word order, sometimes mixed with another author’s quote and voila! – a new poem was born. The chinese poetry most revered in Japan at those times, was based on that from Six Dynasties period (called in a very self-explanatory way “a poetry of moonlight and dew”, that is words, words, words, meaning absolutely nothing). And when this was popular in Japan, on the continent, the great Tang Dynasty was already crumbling. Them weird Japanese…

Chinese poem on topic “snow”:
Flying salt mingles with dancing butterflies,
Falling petals whirl onto a powder box,
Powder from a box whirls amid falling flowers,
Dancing butterflies mingle with flying salt.

   Then we had Kokinwakashuu (abbr. Kokinshuu), an anthology of 1.111 tanka (in 10th century), little poems consisting of 31 syllables (to be more precise – moras) put into rigid order of 5/7/5//7/7. Since vocabulary of tanka was restricted to around 2000 words and topics to: love, nature and seasons… we do get a lot of twins. Also, only aristocrats composed, because only they could read, and of course only they profoundly felt the pain of living in this world and watching petals falling and moon hiding behind mountains and snow in the garden. Basically – aware – our life is so short!

Ono no Komachi:

Did he appear
because I fell asleep
thinking of him?
If only I’d known I was dreaming,
I’d never have wakened. 

   Let me summarize the whole court poetry: I love her/him, she/he doesn’t love me, doors are closed, I cry glittering tears under the moon among the falling petals. End of the story.
But, what was also important was the technique of writing, using older verses was held in hig esteem. Frankly speaking, privacy, creativity and copyright were totally an alien concepts to Heian courtiers.

   Then we had monogatari genre. Starting from setsuwa (anecdotes) throughout uta-monogatari (stories to poetry) to full grown monogatari with some epic achievement all modern fanfic writers dream about – Genji monogatari. It’s long, 54 volumes. It’s boring – description of sleeves for 3 pages. And it’s pre-modern Twilight where the author, court lady under pen name Murasaki Shikibu, fell in love with the dumb… lamb… erhm… the hero. The birth of our Hikaru: “It may have been because of a bond in a former life that she bore the emperor a beautiful son, a jewel beyond compare.” I rest my case.
You can READ IT ALL HERE. Seriously, don’t bother though.

   Also we had nikki, that is diaries. Personal (written by women in Japanese) and official (written by men in Chinese mostly). First acclaimed diary (Tosa nikki) in Japanese was written however by a man – Ki no Tsurayuki (gender bender tradition is strong with this one).
Sei Shonagon wrote Makura no soushi, known under the English name as The Pillow Book and I have to disappoint all who might anticipate something – no, in the text there is no nekkid Ewan McGregor. Sadly. It’s rather a written piece resembling whining Tumblr users, only written by a slighty more educated lady. That’s all.

Then we had Gempei War and pfff… pinky aware flowery Heian was gone like that.
Stay tuned.

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About ethlenn

Just usual suspect
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