Postwar Japanese literature, a brief survey of the field

World War II was crucial for the development of the field of Japanese literature. Many of the early scholars in the field studied Japanese language during the war and used their skills in service to the military through the war and the subsequent occupation of Japan. Enamored of Japan, its culture, and its relatively unknown literary traditions, people such as Donald Keene entered academia as a scholars of Japanese literature following their service. While Keene stands out as a particularly influential scholar, other pioneers from the early postwar era include Edwin McLellan, Ivan Morris, and Edward Seidensticker.[1] These were scholars and translators whose work was necessary to bring an entire canon into English.

The fifties and sixties were the heady days of Japanese literary translation. Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon brought Japanese film to the Western cultural elite, and people clamored for more exotica from America’s erstwhile enemy.[2] Many of these works predated the war, but some translations came from works published only a few years earlier in Japan. Brewster Horowitz’s 1955 translation of Osaragi Jirō’s 1949 novel Homecoming, for example, was at the forefront of this burst of translation activity.[3] It was in the decade following Homecoming that the canon of modern Japanese literature began to be codified, namely Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, Kawabata Yasunari, and Mishima Yukio. It was these three authors who came to symbolize modern Japanese literature for the English reading public well into the nineties. These writers had the benefit of a public eager for their work and skilled translators. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that Seidensticker’s efforts led directly to Kawabata’s Nobel prize.

Despite the dominance of these three writers, other authors continued to be translated. These included Dazai Osamu, Enchi Fumiko, Endō Shūsaku, Ibuse Masuji, Ariyoshi Sawako, Ōoka Shōhei, Abe Kōbō and Nobel Prize winner Ōe Kenzaburō. While few achieved the fame of the big three, these others became available for use in courses taught first by these scholar-translators and then by their students. In the nineties, other writers emerged in translation, most notably, Murakami Haruki, whose international reputation exceeds that of Mishima. Murakami’s generation of authors includes Nakagami Kenji, and Murakami Ryū and is often grouped with the slightly younger writers Banana Yoshimoto, Yū Miri, and Yamada Amy. The nineties are also when Japan’s foremost environmental writer, Ishimure Michiko, first appears in English with Livia Monnet’s translation of her 1972 novel Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, some key translated writers include Tawada Yōko (who is also an active German language writer), Hideo Levy (American-born Japanese language writer), detective fiction writers such as Kirino Natsuo, and contemporary poets such as Itō Hiromi. Despite the clear shift in scholarship from translation to criticism, there is much that remains untranslated and scholars of Japanese literature continue to translate important works into English.

Although much of the work of the earlier generation of scholars was in translation, some of Donald Keene’s most important contributions to the field are his literary histories. Keene first published an introduction to Japanese literature (ancient times to the present) in 1955, but his four-volume history of Japanese literature remains the standard overarching literary history. The volumes on modern Japanese literature, Dawn to the West, first published in 1984, defined the field.[4] Though some of Keene’s positions seem outdated today, and the work has some noticeable omissions, the monumental study includes information on most major trends and authors from the start of the Meiji era until the suicide of Mishima Yukio in 1970. While only about twenty percent of the work specifically focuses on the postwar era, it nevertheless provides background information and introductions to a wide range of literary texts from that time.

Whereas many of the early scholars made their reputations in the field of translation, the second generation made significant contributions in critical studies of Japanese literature. Many of these were-single author studies that spanned pre and post war. Some important examples of single-author studies include Anthony Chamber’s and Ken Ito’s studies of Tanizaki’s oeuvre (1994 and 1991 respectively), Mark Williams’s study of Endō Shūsaku (1999), John Treat’s study of Ibuse Masuji (1988), Phyllis Lyons’s study of Dazai Osamu (1985), Michiko Wilson’s study of Ōe (1986), Roy Starr’s studies of Kawabata and Mishima (1998 and 1994 respectively) or Eve Zimmerman’s study of Nakagami Kenji (2007). Single-author studies are less common now, but remain important contributions to the field.

Starting in the early eighties, feminist theory played an important role in the field. Early studies that look at postwar literature from that angle are Noriko Mizuta Lippet’s 1980 book Reality and Fiction in Modern Japanese Literature and Victoria Vernon’s Daughters of the Moon (1988). Again, much of the work involved translations and anthologies such as Japanese Women Writers, This Kind of Woman, and To Love and To Write brought a heightened awareness of heretofore neglected female authors to the field.

A slightly later development explored themes, such as war, rather than authors. There are several monographs focused on representations of the war, most notably, John Treat’s Writing Ground Zero (1995), but also David Stahl’s work on Ōoka Shōhei and the Pacific War (2003). Davinder Bhowmik’s work on Okinawa in Writing Okinawa (2008) also includes the war, but is a more general study of Okinawan writing since the early twentieth century. There are also a few works specifically devoted to the postwar era, some notable examples include Van Gessel’s Japanese Fiction Writers since World War II (1997), the edited volume Ōe and Beyond (1999), Susan Napier’s study of Mishima and Ōe (Escape from the Wasteland, 1996), and Douglas Slaymaker’s The Body in Postwar Japanese Fiction (2004). Some of this work is related to the shift toward cultural studies in the field. A crucial example of this shift is Ann Sherif’s work on Japan’s Cold War (2009), which explores literature, film, law, media, and translation.

More recently there has been a focus on sexuality, ecocriticism, and minority literatures, along with the cultural turn in Japanese literary studies. Often translation was at the forefront. Stephen Miller’s 1996 anthology of Japanese gay literature, Partings at Dawn, covered the span of Japanese literary history from pre-modern times to the present. Jim Reichert and Jeffrey Angels critical work on same-sex love appeared not long afterward. While both Reichert’s book, In the Company of Men (2006), and Angles’ book, Writing the Love of Boys (2011), are centered on the prewar period, Angles’ conclusion carries his study into the postwar and he has some articles on postwar queer poetry. Ecocritical scholarship in the field is best represented by Karen Thornber’s broad pan-Asian study Ecoambiguity. Another trend has been greater attention to minorities in postwar Japanese fiction. A key text here is the edited volume Representing the Other in Modern Japanese Literature: A Critical Approach by Mark Williams and Rachael Hutchinson (2006). Eve Zimmerman’s book on Nakagami Kenji addresses burakumin caste discrimination, Davinder Bhowmik’s work looks at Okinawans as minority, and other studies and anthologies of translations have considered Korean-Japanese (zainichi) writers (see for example the anthology Into the Light, released in 2014).[5]

It is hard to predict the future of postwar Japanese literary studies, but it seems clear that the earlier need for translations will not diminish and that the field will continue to be eclectic in its range. The cultural turn is here to stay and many scholars trained in literature have turned their attention to anime, manga and popular music.[6] There is no dominant theoretical stance, nor is there a unified focus on material. The field is still young and the possibilities for new scholarship are many.


[1] Norma Field has called Keene “the most consistently prolific scholar-promoter of Japanese literature throughout the postwar decades.” “‘The Way of the World’: Japanese Literary Studies in the Postwar United States.” In The Postwar Developments of Japanese Studies in the United States (Leiden: Brill, 1998) 237.

[2] Scott Miller has attributed this boom to the popularity of Japanese film at the time. See his Historical Dictionary of Modern Japanese Literature and Theater (Scarecrow Press, 2009), 150.

[3] Sōseki’s Botchan was published in 1919, but the real boom began with Homecoming and Edward Seidensticker’s translation of Tanizaki’s 1929 novel Some Prefer Nettles, both of which were published in 1955. The following year, Donald Keene’s anthology of short stories and excerpts gave readers an opportunity to be exposed to a range of modern writers, including a few pieces from the postwar era from Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, Dazai Osamu and Hayashi Fumiko. For more on the translation of Japanese literature in the postwar era see Edward Fowler, “Rendering Words, Traversing Cultures: On the Art and Politics of Translating Modern Japanese Fiction.” Journal of Japanese Studies 18, no. 1 (1992): 1–44.

[4] Dawn to the West is divided into two volumes, one on fiction and one on poetry and drama. As the title implies, these works situated Japanese literature vis-à-vis European literature and did so with a clear break at the start of the Meiji period.

[5] While not a literary study, John Lie’s book Zainichi treats some zainichi authors.

[6] For example, John Treat, Susan Napier and Michael Bourdaghs. Ann Sherif’s work on the Cold War is also in this vein.