History of Japanese Literature



Japan has two type of mana characters: kanji and kana. Kanji are derived from Chinese characters which made their way to Japan via the Korean peninsula in the 5th century. Kana are the phonetic simplifications combined in the written language. Lacking a writing system prior to the arrival of kanji, Japan has no historical records earlier than the 5th century. The development of kana was not instantaneous; it took quite awhile before kanji was modified leaving all early Japanese literature written in kanji.

Two of the oldest written works in Japan are the Tennouki and the Teiki, which are thought to have been genealogical records of the extended Imperial family.

Kojiki and Nihonshoki

The oldest historical work existing in Japan is the Kojiki (古事記). The Kojiki is a three volume set with the first volume dedicated to Japanese mythology, the second to the dynasties of emperors Jinmu through Oujin, and the third marks the reigns of emperors Nintoku through Suiko. The books were arranged by Hieda no Are and Oo no Yasumaro in 712 for the emperor Tenmu. Eight years later, in 720, Oo no Yasumaro and Toneri Shinnou finished a thirty volume work called Nihon Shoki (日本書紀). This book, through its chronology of emperors from memorable history, was an attempt to vindicate the role of the emperor as the political authority. Nihon Shoki has been edited and reissued many times. Here are a few of the titles: Shoku Nihongi (797), Kogo Shuui (c.

807), Nihon Kouki (840), and Shoku Nihon Kouki (869).


Local records began to be recorded in the year 713, as commanded by the then Emperor, Genmei. The Fudoki (風土記) became Japan’s first comprehensive local record. Out of the original records only one remains fully intact today, the Izumo no Kuni.

It covered what is now the Shimane prefecture. Lost are records from Hitachi (Ibaraki prefecture), Harima (Hyogo prefecture), Hizen (Nagasaki prefecture), and Bungo, (Ooita prefecture). The Fudoki are invaluable to local anthropologists as they detail a region’s mythology, religious practices, farming and industry, and general lifestyle.


The twenty volume Man’youshuu (万葉集) is the oldest anthology of poems in Japan. It was compiled by Ootomo no Yakamochi and others over an extended period until its completion in the mid-8th century. It includes approximately 4500 poems from a plethora of people including an exalted emperor, and an unknown peasant. The style of writing is predominately Man’you-gana (a phonetic form of writing), unlike the 751 anthology of poems, Kaifuusou, which is written in the more continental form of kanji.

Taketori Monogatari

In the latter portion of the 8th century, the capital of Japan was changed from Heijoukyou (what is now Nara) to Heiankyou (what is now Kyoto). Kyoto maintained Japan's imperial court and political power until the rise of military Governments late in the 12th century. Throughout this period, kanji was the writing style of choice for official documents and kana was used for personal communication.

Also during this period waka poetry and narrative literature flourished. The story that really codifies this age is Taketori Monogatori (Tale of the Bamboo Cutter) written in the 9-10th century about the beautiful Kaguya-hime (Princess Kaguya) of the moon.