Japan’s 20th Century Literary Titans
Photo by Edson Chilundo via Flickr

Japan may not be the first country one thinks of when contemplating the novel, but the country has a thriving and influential literary scene, especially when it comes to modern fiction. Radically different authors such as Banana Yoshimoto, Kenzaburo Oe and especially Haruki Murakami, the literary world’s current Japanese darling, sit on bookshelves around the world.

But the Japanese also have a legitimate claim to having created that literary form – a thousand years ago. The Tale of Genji, written in the first decade of the 11th century, was a fictional account of the adventures of a young prince in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. Written by Shikibu Murasaki, a noblewoman of the Imperial court, the book is an insider’s look at the courtly manners (and romantic shenanigans) of Japan’s classical Heian period. It is arguably the first example of what we know as the novel.

But the novel didn’t really catch on until European and American novels brought to Japan in the late 19th century inspired the Japanese to try their hand at this “new” form. These days there are hundreds of popular Japanese writers writing novels, in everything from historical fiction to erotica to a recent form, the confessional “I-Novel.”

Many of those writers are forgotten as soon as they are published, but a handful of novelists from the 20th century are regarded as the giants who created modern Japanese fiction – much as Americans honor Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. That these writers led similarly dramatic lives only adds to their mystique. Below are six Japanese writers whose works form the basis for contemporary Japanese fiction, and whose lives, often tragic, influenced how the Japanese see their leading literary lights:

Natsume Sōseki (nee Natsume Kin’nosuke, 1867-1916) launched the modern Japanese novel with his satirical book I am a Cat, published in 1905, and he is widely regarded as Japan’s greatest writer. Since Murakami called him his favorite writer in 2014, Soseki has gained new readers around the world, but the Japanese have never lost sight of his greatness. His explorations of the endless conflicts of being Japanese – the tensions between desire and duty, the group and the individual, and Japan’s uniqueness and its place in the world – make him quintessentially Japanese.

Jun'ichirō Tanizaki Japan’s 20th Century Literary Titans

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965) is the author considered closest in stature to Soseki. Tackling then-taboo subjects such as sexuality and violence, Tanizaki was a controversial writer and passionate bohemian who was fascinated by the West as well as by Japan’s place in the world. But his works also explored the psychology of marriage and all manner of personal relations. He was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature the year before he died. Two novels to start with are The Makioka Sisters or his early Naomi.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) wrote numerous novels, but he is known to literary history as “the Father of the Japanese short story,” a form favored by many Japanese writers. His story “In a Grove” was the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1950 movie Rashomon. His name has been given to Japan’s highest literary honor, the Akutagawa Prize. Beset with physical problems and anxieties about his mental health, Akutagawa committed suicide at the age of 35. Sadly, few of his books are currently available in translation; the best bet is the collection Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories.

Yasunari_Kawabata Japan’s 20th Century Literary Titans

Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) was one of several writers who helped explain the inner lives of the Japanese, individually and as a people, as the country moved into and through the disaster of World War II. He was the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1968, for work that includes his novels Snow Country (originally published in installments) and Thousand Cranes (1958). His books are widely available in English.

Osamu Dazai (nee Shuji Tsushima in 1909-1948) was born into the upper class, but rebelled ceaselessly against life itself. His story is a long, lurid tale of suicide attempts, addiction (to morphine) and general psychological distress, and his books are autobiographical fictions about life before, during and after World War II. A young a fan of Akutagawa, Dazai made his own (first) suicide attempt in 1929. Fortunately, he was unsuccessful, for he went on to write some of Japan’s greatest novels, including The Setting Sun (about the loss of standing of the aristocracy under the American Occupation), and No Longer Human, a searing self-portrait. But the suicide attempts continued, and he was finally successful in 1948.

Yukio Mishima (nee Kimitake Hiraoka, 1925-70) was a controversial figure in Japan (and abroad) during the post-War period, for his haunting (and haunted) avant-garde novels such as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, as well as for his nationalistic bearings (he founded a right-wing militia the Tatenokai) during the American Occupation. Mishima, a direct descendant of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, wasn’t just a writer: He and the Tatenokai attempted a military coup in 1970, taking over a Japanese military base and, when it failed, committing ritual seppuku (also called hara-kiri). His books are widely available in English and include his semi-autobiographical novels Confessions of a Mask and Forbidden Colors, both about hidden homosexuality.

By David Watts Barton