You Gotta Know These Japanese Authors
Please note that unlike most of the other “You Gotta Know” articles, this one is primarily aimed at advanced college players. High school (and new college players) only really “gotta know” Lady Murasaki, Basho, Kawabata, and Mishima.
- Lady Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978 –c. 1015): Novelist, diarist, and courtesan. She was the author of the Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari), the first known novel; the diary Murasaki Shikibu nikki; and a collection of tanka poems. The daughter of the court official Fujiwara Tametoki, she sat in on the classical Chinese literature lessons that her brother received, in spite of the Heian traditions against higher education for women.
- Sei Shonagan (c. 966 – c. 1013): Like Lady Murasaki, Sei Shonagan was a lady-in-waiting of the Empress. Since Lady Murasaki and Sei Shonagan were contemporaries and known for their wit, they were often rivals*. Sei Shonagan’s only work is the Pillow Book (Makura no soshi), which is considered the best source of information about life at the Japanese court during the Heian period (784–1185).
- Zeami (1363–1443), also called Kanze Motokiyo: The second master of the Kanze theatrical school, which had been founded by his father, he is regarded as the greatest playwright of the No theater. He provided 90 of the approximately 230 plays in the modern repertoire. Among his best works are Atsumori, The Robe of Feathers, Birds of Sorrow, and Wind in the Pines. Also a drama critic, he established the aesthetic standards by which plays have been judged ever since. His Fushi kaden (The Transmission of the Flower of Acting Style) is a manual for his pupils.
- Matsuo Basho (1644–1694), a pseudonym of Matsuo Munefusa: Generally acknowledged as the master of the haiku form, the most notable influences on his work were Zen Buddhism and his travels throughout Japan. He is noted for works like The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no hosomichi), which includes descriptions of local sights in both prose and haiku. He took his pseudonym from the name of the simple hut where he retired: Basho-an, which means “Cottage of the Plaintain Tree.”
- Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1725): He was Japan’s first professional dramatist. Originally named Sugimori Nobumori, Chikamatsu wrote more than 150 plays for both the bunraku (puppet theater) and the kabuki (popular theater). Chikamatsu’s scripts fall into two categories: historical romances (mono) and domestic tragedies (wamono). One of Chikamatsu’s most popular plays was The Battles of Coxinga, an historical melodrama about an attempt to re-establish the Ming dynasty in China. He is also largely responsible for developing the sewamono (contemporary drama on contemporary themes) in the joruri, a style of chanted narration adapted to bunraku.
- Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892–1927): His mother died insane while he was a child, and his father was a failure who gave him up to relatives. Despite this inauspicious childhood, his 1915 short story Rashomon brought him into the highest literary circles and started him writing the macabre stories for which he is known. In 1927 he committed suicide by overdosing on pills, and his suicide letter “A Note to a Certain Old Friend” became a published work. Rashomon also was key to his international fame, when Kurosawa Akira made it into a film in 1951. One of Japan’s two most prestigious literary prizes is named for Akutagawa; it is awarded for the best serious work of fiction by a new Japanese writer.
- Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972): Recipient of the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature, he was the first Japanese author to win the Nobel. His works combine classic Japanese values with modern trends, and often center on the role of sex in people’s lives. His works are often only a few pages long, a form given the name “palm-of-the-hand.” He is best known for three novels: Thousand Cranes, based on the tea ceremony and inspired by The Tale of Genji; The Sound of the Mountain, about the relationship of an old man and his daughter-in-law; and Snow Country, about an aging geisha. A friend of Mishima Yukio, he was also associated with right-wing causes and openly protested the Cultural Revolution in China. He committed suicide two years after Mishima.
- Mishima Yukio (1925–1970), a pseudonym of Hiraoka Kimitake: He was a novelist whose central theme was the disparity between traditional Japanese values and the spiritual emptiness of modern life. He failed to qualify for military service during World War II, so worked in an aircraft factory instead. Mishima’s first novel, Confessions of a Mask (Kamen no kokuhaku), was successful enough to allow him to write full-time. His four-volume epic The Sea of Fertility (Hojo no umi, consisting of Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and The Decay of the Angel), is about self-destructive personalities and the transformation of Japan into a modern, but sterile, society. Mishima, who organized the Tate no kai — a right-wing society stressing physical fitness and the martial arts — committed ritual suicide after a public speech failed to galvanize the armed forces into overthrowing the government.
- Endo Shusaku (1923–1996): He converted to Catholicism at the age of 11, and majored in French literature. His first works, White Man and Yellow Man, explored the differences between Japanese and Western values and national experiences. Silence tells of the martyrdom of the Catholic converts of Portuguese priests. The Samurai recounts the tale of a samurai sent to establish trade relations between his shogun and Mexico, Spain, and Rome. The latter two novels are generally considered to be Shusaku’s greatest achievements.
- Oe Kenzaburo (1935–present): Novelist and recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature. His first work, Shiiku (The Catch in the Shadow of the Sunrise), describes a friendship between a Japanese boy and a black American POW, and won him the Akutagawa award while he was still a student. His early works are filled with insanity, abuse, perverse sex, and violence, but his later works — including A Personal Matter (Kojinteki-na taiken) and The Silent Cry (Man’en gannen no futtoboru) — reflect the experience of being the father of a brain-damaged child. His fiction centers on the alienation following Japan’s surrender, and his political writings focus on the search for cultural and ideological roots.
*Lady Murasaki wrote of Sei Shonagan: “Sei Shonagan…was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters, but…they left a great deal to be desired. Those who think of themselves as being superior to everyone else…will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people who have become so precious that they go out of their way to be sensitive,…trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial;…here is one who has managed to survive this far without having achieved anything of note.”