Pick of the Day : Japanese, the Wealth of Antiquity

In today’s Pick of the Day, for D’s Art Takes, I Divvya Nirula present my take on – “Japanese, the Wealth of Antiquity”

Japanese Literary history

Japanese has a rich literary and historical tradition. It also has a highly developed modern literary library. Apart from serious literature, it has a range of new styles of storytelling, like graphic novels. Japanese anime and Manga are popular all over the world. Developments in art simultaneous to writing have added to the complexity of Japanese heritage.

The written records of Japanese date to the 8th century. The oldest document is the Kojiki (712; “Records of Ancient Matters”). If the history of the language were to be split in two, the division would fall somewhere between the 12th and 16th centuries. This is when the language shed most of its Old Japanese characteristics and acquired those of the modern language.

For better understanding, it is better to divide the 1,200-year history. Old Japanese (up to the 8th century), Late Old Japanese (9th–11th century), Middle Japanese (12th–16th century), Early Modern Japanese (17th–18th century), and Modern Japanese (19th century to the present).

This is primarily because sourcing the exact origin of Japanese is tough. The search has been a subject of debate between many competing studies. One claims, the Japanese-Korean studies (still very influential), was first proposed much earlier at the end of the 18th century. Another claims the impact of the Chinese alphabet in the styles. The third suggests that it belongs to the Altaic portmanteau of languages, a group of other languages. Apart from these – there are several short-lived pseudo linguistic proposals and suggestions.

The Archipelago of Languages

The very notion of a single “Japanese language” is somewhat misleading. In trying to define what it is, we will inevitably run into another old problem. Namely defining what is a language and what is a dialect. For a practical approach to the problem, the tactic is based on the principle of mutual understanding. It can be understood that there are two Japanese languages. Japanese proper, which spans from the Southern Kyūshū to the Northern Honshū. In more recent times to Hokkaidō as well, and Hachijō. Its a practically moribund language, still spoken by a few elders on Hachijō Islands about 160 km into the Pacific Ocean from Tokyo Bay.

Linguists often contend that Japanese contains elements of Southeast Asian languages. The introduction of the Chinese writing system and literature (4th century CE) enriched the Japanese vocabulary. Initially, Chinese characters (called kanji in Japanese) was the Japanese script.

In the 9th century, two syllabaries, known collectively as kana (katakana and hiragana) developed. Since then, a combination of kanji and kana has been used for written Japanese. Although some 3,000 to 5,000 kanji are in general use, after World War II. The number of characters necessary for a basic vocabulary was now about 2,000, and the writing of these characters was simplified. Many thousands of Western loanwords, from English, have been adopted.

Some More Information

The distribution of Japanese nearly coincides with the territory of Japan. Japanese has two major dialects of Hondo and Nantō. The Hondo dialect is in use throughout Japan and falls into three major subdialects: Eastern, Western, and Kyushu. The Eastern subdialects came bout in the 7th and 8th centuries. (Popular as the Azuma or “Eastern” language)

After the 17th century, there was an influx of the Kamigata (Kinai) subdialect. Kamigata then became the base of standard Japanese. Among the Western subdialects, the Kinki version was long the standard language of Japan, although the present Kamigata subdialect of the Kyōto-Ōsaka region is of relatively recent origin.

The Kyushu subdialects have been placed outside the mainstream of linguistic change of the Western dialects and retain some of the 16th-century forms of the latter. They extend as far south as Tanega and Yaku islands. The Nantō dialects are used by Okinawa islanders from the Amami Islands in Kagoshima prefecture to Yonaguni Island at the western end of the archipelago. Long placed outside the mainstream of linguistic change, they strongly retain their ancient forms.

Japanese Literature

Japan has a rich history of literature and poetry. The earliest works of Japanese literature bore the influence of cultural contact with Chinese literature. The script was Classical Chinese. In the Heian period, Japan’s original kokufū culture (lit., “national culture”) developed and literature also established its own style.

The Heian period has often been referred to as the Golden era of art and literature in Japan. The imperial court patronized the poets. Reflecting the aristocratic atmosphere, the poetry was elegant and sophisticated and expressed emotions in a rhetorical style Heian literature (794–1185)

During the Edo-period literature (1603–1868) forms of popular drama developed which would later evolve into kabuki. The jōruri and kabuki dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1725) became popular at the end of the 17th century, and he is also known as Japan’s Shakespeare.

Matsuo Bashō (17th century) is the greatest master of Haiku. It was known as “hokku”. Haiku was influenced by Matsuo’s worldview. It is the encapsulating of a feeling of a scene in a few simple elements. He made his life’s work the transformation of haikai into a literary genre. Haikai involved a combination of meter and spiritual depth.

Fukuda Chiyo-ni , 18th century, is one of the greatest women Haiku poets. Chiyo-ni dedication toward her career paved a way for her career, also opened a path for other women to follow.

The Postwar literature From Japan

Japan’s defeat in World War II, deeply influenced Japanese literature. Authors wrote stories reflecting the disaffection, loss of purpose, and coping with the defeat of the populace. The literature of this time would pave the way for modern and esoteric writers.

The writers from the 1970s and 1980s were identified with intellectual and moral issues in their attempts to raise social and political consciousness.

Reading Recommendation

#1 Lost Japan by Alex Kerr, published by Penguin Books. Lost Japan is a fantastic book on Japanese culture. Kerr looks at famous traditions and arts from across Japanese history. He visits tea ceremonies, bunraku and noh theatre, calligraphy, and much more. He explores the history and traditions, the dedication and mastery, the origins and legacies of these various arts and crafts from Japan.

#2 Death in Midsummer and Other Stories, by Yukio Mishima. Published in 1953, by Sōgensha. It is a typical Japanese book that traces the inner lives of the people that inhabit the land.


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