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Introduction to Japanese Literature

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Japanese literature is intricately interwoven with Japanese cultural history. Entire university courses are developed on this topic. For our purposes, we attempt a concise historic overview touching on a few important points to provide the student with basic understanding. Yes there are many wonderful works that we are unable to address here. May this be an appetizer for those of you with discriminating tastes and a desire to learn more.

Prehistoric Periods

  • The Japanese Paleolithic Age dated from 30,000 to 10,000 years ago. Post WWII archaeologists have unearthed bits of pottery chips, but no remains.
  • Two Neolithic cultures followed:
    • Jomon (5000-250 B.C.) progressive development especially in pottery that follows typical Neolithic progression, dwellings were an open-floor plan covered with roofs and grouped together in a "u-shape" with a common area in the center, subsistence activities were hunting and fishing, gathering of natural plants
    • Yayoi (250 B.C.- 250 A.D.) Great strides were made in this culture with
      • more sophistication in pottery functionality through firing techniques
      • iron and bronze foundries for weapons and tools (suggests strong Chinese influence)
      • wet cultivation of rice
      • manufacture of cloth from plant fibers on home looms
      • establishment of Japanese Imperial family (legend tells us the first member was the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu)
      • Jimmo Tenno, first Emporer of Japan established the capital (before 400 A.D.) near present-day Osaka (this began the Yamato Period in Japan) 
        • The Emperor is a religious symbol, extolled as a god - but has no real power
      • Actual rulers were war lords or prime ministers this later became known as shogun. Inter-clan fighting to obtain position in the country, the Soga family was first to win position and held it by intermarrying daughters into the Imperial Court
      • The Imperial family was never replaced by the warlords - shogun, for only descendants of the gods could intercede for human kind - this relationship was too important to the culture to be compromised

History

  • In 206 B.C. to 220 A.D., the country was divided into more than 100 states. About 30 of these were under the control of a sorceress-queen named Pimiko who negotiated political relations with the Wei Dynasty of China. Japanese women held prominent political and socioeconomic positions and matriarchy continued until late in the 8th Century. Women became completely subservient to men after the 15th Century.
  • Near the middle of the 4th Century, Japan was united under the rule of Yamato
  • A great war on the Korean peninsula led to the subjugation of Korea to Yamato
  • The Yamato Court was enriched by Korean subjects and Chinese technical advisors and scholars who introduced Chinese written script and Confucian influence. Japanese scholars were also sent to China (so we see the influence of other Asian cultures upon Japan)
  • The Yamato Court lost influence through lost control of Korea, failed negotiations with China, in-fighting among the Yamato Court in struggles for power and renouncing of allegiance to the Court by some of the allied chieftains
  • Buddhism was introduced toward the end years of the Yamato Court. This was a major cultural influence on the country
    • 552 A.D., the ruler of Paekche (Korean ally of the Yamato Court) sent a letter requesting assistance and included a bronze statue of the Buddha along with letters of explanation, Buddhist scriptures and praise of Buddha. Although it must be remembered that China introduced Buddhism to Korea. According to tradition, a Chinese monk in the fourth century introduced Buddhism to the northern kingdom of Koguryo in Korea. A Central Asian monk is said to have brought Buddhism to Paekche sometime later, and Paekche to Yamato - thus began Japanese keen interest in Buddhism
  • Iname was a Shogun minister who wanted to facilitate Chinese influence in politics, social order and religion. His policies initiated  50 year war between those who supported Buddhism and those who clung to Shinto (worshipped natural powers and sacred natural sites)
  • Buddhism became the primary religion eventually and Iname's son, Umako was instrumental in furthering Chinese cultural influence in Japan
  • Over the next many decades, Buddhism continued to flourish, temples were raised, political systems matured and grew into a well-run government.
  • The Imperial Government was moved to the new capital of Nara in 710 A.D.
  • During the "Nara Period" (710-784 A.D.) Buddhism flourished under the promotion of Emperor Shomu and his Imperial Consor Komyo
  • The Great Buddha of Nara was installed in a monumental temple where it stands to this day as one of the wonders of the Asian world
  • The Japanese culture held on to its own basic tenets while it was influenced by so many other Asian cultures
  • Man'yoshu, (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) from the 8th Century A.D., is a poetry anthology of over 4,500 poems that speak to ancient life up until its own time of development - it is still revered in Japan today for its influence of Japanese culture and society

So the two important things to remember about this archaic period as it relates to Japanese literature is that it introduced writing and Buddhism.

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