Afro-Asian Literature: Japan | LET Reviewer


  1. Identify outstanding writers and their major works in Afro-Asian literature
  2. Be familiar with the literary history, philosophy, religious beliefs and culture of the Afro-Asian nations
  3. Interpret the significance and meaning of selected literary pieces
  4. Point out the universal themes, issues, and subject matter that dominate Afro-Asian literature

Religious Traditions

Two major faiths were essential elements in the cultural foundations of Japanese society.

  1. Shintoism or ‘the way of the gods,’ is the ancient religion that reveres in dwelling divine spirits called kami, found in natural places and objects. For this reason natural scenes, such as waterfall, a gnarled tree, or a full moon, inspired reverence in the Japanese people.
  2. Zen Buddhism emphasized the importance of meditation, concentration, and self-discipline as the way to enlightenment. Zen rejects the notion that salvation is attained outside of this life and this world. Instead, Zen disciples believe that one can attain personal tranquillity and insights into the true meaning of life through rigorous physical and mental discipline.


Poetry is one of the oldest and most popular means of expression and communication in Japanese culture. It was an integral part of daily life in an ancient Japanese society, serving as a means through which anyone could chronicle experiences and express emotions.

  1. The Manyoshu or ‘Book of Ten Thousand Leaves’ is an anthology by poets from a wide range of social classes, including the peasantry, the clergy, and the ruling class.
  2. There are different poems according to set forms or structures:
    • Choka are poems that consist of alternate lines of five and seven syllables with an additional seven-syllable line at the end. There is no limit to the number of lines that end with envoys or pithy summations. These envoys consist of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables that elaborate on or summarize the theme or central idea of the main poem.
    • Tanka is the most prevalent verse form in traditional Japanese literature. It consists of five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables including at least one caesura, or pause. The tanka often tells a brief story or expresses a single thought with the common subjects which are love and nature.
    • Renga is a chain of interlocking tanka. Each tanka within a renga was divided into verses of 17 and 14 syllables composed by different poets as it was fashionable for groups of poets to work together during the age of Japanese feudalism.
    • Hokku was the opening verse of a renga which developed into a distinct literary form known as the haiku. The haiku consists of 3 lines of 5-7-5 syllable characterized by precision, simplicity, and suggestiveness. Almost all haiku include a kigo or seasonal words such as snow or cherry blossom that indicated the time of year is described.


Prose appeared in the early part of the 8th century focusing on Japanese history.

  • The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, a work of tremendous length and complexity, is considered to be the world’s first true novel. It traces the life of a gifted and charming prince.
  • The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon represents a unique form of the diary genre. It contains of vivid sketches of people and place, shy anecdotes and witticisms, snatches of poetry, and 164 lists on court life during the Heian period.
  • Essays in Idleness by Yoshida Kenko was written during the age of feudalism. It is a loosely organized collection of insights, reflections, and observations, written during the 14thcentury.

Major Writers

  1. Seami Motokiyo. At age 20 not long after his father’s death, he took over his father’s acting school and began to write plays.
  2. The Haiku Poets
    1. Matsuo Basho (1644–1694) is regarded as the greatest Haiku poet. He was born into a samurai family and began writing poems at an early age. Basho means banana plant, a gift given him to which he became deeply attached.
    2. Yosa Buson (1716 – 1783) is regarded as the second-greatest haiku poet. He lived in Kyoto throughout most of his life and was one of the finest painters of his time. Buson presents a romantic view of the Japanese landscape, vividly capturing the wonder and mystery of nature. 
    3. Yasumari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. Three of his best novels are Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and Sound of the Mountains. He committed suicide shortly after the suicide of his friend Mishima.
    4. Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965) is a major novelist whose writing is characterized by eroticism and ironic wit. His earliest stories were like those of Edgar Allan Poe’s but he later turned toward the exploration of more traditional Japanese ideals of beauty. Among his works are Some Prefer Nettles, The Makioka Sisters, Diary of a Mad Old Man.
    5. Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970) is the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka, a prolific writer who is regarded as many writers as the most important Japanese novelist of the 20th century. His highly acclaimed first novel, Confessions of a Mask is party autobiographical work that describes with stylistic brilliance a homosexual who must mask his sexual orientation. Mishima committed seppuku (ritual disembowelment).