Japanese Literature: Effects of War and History

War has always had an effect on the world. It shapes the world and causes people and places to adapt to it. Does anyone ever stop to think that something as small as an author’s novels or a lonely poet’s rhymes can also change because of it? We all know about our own English literature, but does anyone know about any other place? Our own schools only focus on what happened in our history. There is so much more out there than just our history. Asia, Europe, Africa. All of these places have each set their own culture in the world and one of the most interesting just happens to be Japanese Literature. Japanese Literature has been one of the most changed and influenced writings especially during war time.

Each type of writing had its own beginning. Japan was originally based completely on Chinese writing. “At first, Chinese characters were used in Japanese syntactical formats, and the result was sentences that look like Chinese characters but were read phonetically as Japanese” (Japanese Literature). Characters were borrowed from a different culture altogether. There was no formal language or letters and Japanese characters were originally just plain old Chinese characters. What would happen is a word would be written with Chinese characters and then read as if it were Japanese. This was typically considered Kanji. After time passed, Chinese characters were further adapted and formed the “man'yōgana,” (Japanese Literature). This is considered kana or syllabic writing. This all started in the Nara period which was a time period up until the year 734.

War has always had an effect on the world. It shapes the world and causes people and places to adapt to it. Does anyone ever stop to think that something as small as an author’s novels or a lonely poet’s rhymes can also change because of it? We all know about our own English literature, but does anyone know about any other place? Our own schools only focus on what happened in our history. There is so much more out there than just our history.

One of first stories that were ever written in Japanese was the Kojiki. It was written in the year 712. It mainly told of Japanese myth and legends. There were no stories of bloodshed or of war.

War finally reared its ugly head in the 12th century and writings from the beginning of Japanese culture finally began to change. This first instance of war drastically changed society and so forth affected literature. The time period was known as the Kamakura period (1192-1333). The warfare brought about undisputed power military men or samurai and the new military was based on martial discipline. The moving of the capital to Kamakura caused the first change in literature. During this time period, women writers were extremely unheard of. “…There was hardly a woman writer of distinction between the 13th and 19th centuries…” ("Medieval Literature"). The current government had a lower view of women and therefore, men became more prominent writers for that time.

Not only did this time period bring about a change in authors, but it also revealed a more prominent type of writing. A new genre called the gunki monogatari, or war tales began to written. Most of the war tales that were produced were also mainly retellings of actually events that happened. In essence, one can say that the gunki monogatari are just simply history books that contain the countries past. Each story was also written by the court of government so it could be said that each report is official. The most famous tale written in this period of time is this Heike monogatari. This roughly translates to The Tale of the Heike and it was written around 1220 by a nobleman that presumably got his information from the recounts of some priests in the area. It retells the warfare of the Taira (Heike) and Minamoto (Genji) families as well as the rise and fall of the Taira family. The style of writing is something that is surprisingly superb. Despite the story having “effective scenes followed by dull passages,” ("Medieval Literature"), it provided a basic shape for many other authors to use the characters and the incidents contained within. This first main piece of literature is one of the most valuable tales in Japanese Literature as it shows the style of writing that started because of the wars that broke out before and during the Kamakura time period.

Another “war” going on at the same time was one of religion. Many medieval literary works were religious. When I say war, it’s obviously not meaning two different beliefs cause a feud between the people and started bloodshed. The word war here implies that there was a struggle between many different beliefs. Japanese religion is extremely diverse and each area gave praise to its own individual “god.” This type of war was fought over the novels and works that were written during this period. There were “specialized cults dedicated to particular deities, Bodhisattvas and celebrity icons flourished in the cities and surrounding communities, dominating the religious landscape and competing for a limited pool of potential devotees” (Kimbrough and Glassman). As mentioned above, this war was not bloody, but one of gathering followers. Specific sects of the many religions would try and coerce other people into following their word. There were people that worked as Preacher-Entertainers and they would line the roads of ancient villages and “perform.” These performances were pretty much like oral story tellings. On many occasions, the entertainers would extol, or praise, the Buddha’s in order to get people to pay temple donations for their sects. Not only did they praise, but they also used dirty tactics and would scare people by telling frightening stories of hell. Besides these oral battles, the books explained these practices as well. The Hojo-Ki, written in 1212 by Kamo Chomei, spoke of his own religious journey to enlightenment. This may not be as persuasive as some of the other works written in this time, but it provides a look at how literature was written by priests. “The elegiac beauty of its language gives this work, brief though it is the dignity of a classic” (Medieval Literature). Based upon this opinion, it’s easy to see that the “war” involving religion may not have been bloody, but it was a war all the same considering how much an impact that the Priests had in the world of words.

Let’s jump ahead a little bit to the time just before World War II. Japanese publishing companies were booming in this time. There were higher literacy rates, more time for reading itself and even popular authors beginning to emerge and put their work out there for people to read. This took a major drop though once the next world war started. Once Japan started to become more involved in the war and become a known presence, the government began to tighten its reigns. The Japanese government had a “goal of mobilizing the masses and winning the war” (Kawana 154). It laments terms the government was going to do whatever it felt was necessary in order to get support from the public. This could be anything from publicizing it more so people know about it, to controlling certain aspects of the area. In this case, Literature is the area that is the focus.

People can voice their own opinions in their work so that naturally brought attention to the government officials. Censorship began to happen to literary works. There were many methods put into place such as “general surveillance of the media to targeted persecution of individual authors” (Kawana 154). This pretty much means that the government would watch all literature that would be published and kept an eye on it so that anything that was viewed as saying the war was wrong could be changed. It went so far that even particular authors were watched very closely. These works were outright banned, and some were changed to become more governmentally correct. It even got so bad that some works were altered so much that the author had no way to reconstruct it and some authors couldn’t even recognized their own work. Soon, authors began to realize the government’s standards for censorship and refrained from publishing anything that could be deemed as unacceptable. The war brought down a strain onto the literature of that time.

On the other hand, war can affect literature in a good way. More and more publishing of novels that promoted the war and the government were on the rise. In fact, they were actually encouraging these types of works. It would help further the cause of the government and get people to believe what they were doing was right which is pretty much another way to censor the “real” type of literature that was not being published. The “Nihon bungaku hōkoku kai (Association of Japanese Writers in the Service of the Nation) was established in 1942 with the goal of disseminating pro-government ideology through literary works” (Kawana 155). In simpler terms, this group was made to get the word out about the governments views and goals through their work. In this case, war did help produce more literature instead of disclosing it but it was only literature made to spread the cause of someone else.

Critics during this time, however, view all the work during World War II as propaganda. Many critics dislike the work that is written during wartime due to it “…lacking the richness and variety of literary works published in the previous decade” (Kawana 155). Literature during war is often used to get the word out about a cause. There is no diversity to it and so there is no difference to it. Different authors would just say the same thing as each other. Another good point to be made is that critics also view “the wartime period often appears as a glaring void or an aberration in many of the notable tsūshi (historical surveys) of modern Japanese literature published after the war” (Kawana 155). In truth, most war related literature is mainly about furthering the cause. This fact stated above shows that during many times in war there was a lacking of diversity and that it was until all before or after war that literature would rise and produce wonderful works.

In conclusion, Japanese Literature is one of the many things that we are not taught about. As such, literature is a tangible thing. Many things can affect it and the one thing that always has a major effect on it is war. At times of war, like the civil wars, literature is changed and most of the time they are recollections of what happened and then further along in history most literature published is just made to further the cause of the government. Often times, literature has to recover after a time of war to begin to show promise again and as such shows how war truly impacts it heavily.

Works Cited

"Japanese Literature." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 Feb. 2012. Web. 02 Apr. 2012.

Kawana, Sari. "Reading beyond the Lines: Young Readers and Wartime Japanese Literature." Book History 13.1 (2010): 154-184. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

Kimbrough, Keller and Glassman, Hank. “Vernacular Buddhism and Medieval Japanese Literature” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 36.2 (2009): 201-208. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

"Medieval Literature: Kamakura, Muromachi, and Azuchi-Momoyama Periods (1192-1600)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica.Web. 02 Apr 2012.


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