First off, a disclaimer: This is my first WordPress blog in the better part of a decade, the markup seems to have changed quite a bit since the early 2010s, and I was originally planning on making this a list of 10 misconceptions but made it shorter when I thought of another idea—an analysis of the gender-neutral third-person pronoun kare in a number of its uses in classical Japanese literature—that I’d like to write but not until this first of the “revived” Japanography entries is published.
Note that this is not a “Top 7” as (i) they are not arranged in order (although I did choose a major one for the No. 1 slot) and (ii) the list is not definitive and I hope to expand it later with “Another 7 Misconceptions about Japanese Literature” or maybe even “Another 10 Misconceptions about Japanese Literature”.
7. A haiku does need to contain a seasonal word
Since “haiku” is a modern development of the early modern hokku, and hokku, as the first link in a collaborative linked verse composition, needs to establish the seasonal setting, haiku, by definition, include seasonal words. A haiku that does not include a seasonal word is a senryū, and falls into a different poetic genre with a different history. Many modern English “haiku”, including seemingly all possible “haiku” in the American video game Ghost of Tsushima, play it fast and loose with this rule, but doing this means they are technically English senryū, not English haiku. (Source: Haruo Shirane “Satyric poetry: Kyōshi, Kyōka, and Senryū”, p. 509 IN The Cambridge History of Japanese Literature, Cambridge University Press 2016)
6. Vernacular prose fiction did not occupy a high place in the literary hierarchy of pre-modern Japan
During the Heian period (late 8th to late 12th century), a number of works of vernacular (Japanese, as opposed to Chinese) prose fiction began to appear in imperial court circles. The most famous of these, Murasaki Shikibu’s masterpiece The Tale of Genji (early 11th century) is often referred to as “the world’s first novel” because of the way it brilliantly and beautifully represents the inner thoughts and personal conflicts of multiple characters, whose responses are not only realistic for their own cultural context but feel more true-to-life than those of many characters in works written closer to our own time. Many other such works, such as The Tales of Ise and The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter (both late 9th or early 10th century), have had a similarly enormous impact on later Japanese culture, with the former being seen as the apotheosis of the Heian courtly elegance and the latter being adapted as major motion pictures on multiple occasions.
But the prestige of these works was not something that they enjoyed in their own time.
A fact that is widely known among scholars, but seemingly not well-understood among either the general public in Japan or casual consumers of Japanese literature overseas, is that, under the influence of early Chinese literary theory, vernacular fiction was at the very bottom of the hierarchy of literary genres, below vernacular poetry (waka; see 1), literary poetry and prose in classical Chinese (kanshibun), and histories, with philosophical and religious (i.e., Confucian and Buddhist) texts occupying the highest rung on the ladder. While waka, the second-lowest, did receive imperial patronage, with 21 imperial waka anthologies being compiled over a period of around five centuries, it was not until relatively recently that kokugaku (sometimes translated “nativist”) scholars like Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) argued for the overturning of the traditional hierarchy that prioritized writing in Chinese, and it wasn’t until the educational reforms of the Meiji period (1868–1912) that this attitude began to set in beyond a relatively small number of scholars.
Needless to say, during earlier times both the semi-literate majority and even the functionally literate minority—all the way up to Fujiwara no Teika, arguably the most important poet and literary critic in Japanese history, and to an extent recognized as such even during his own lifetime—frequently chose to read and write vernacular prose fiction, but this did not constitute a rejection of more prestigious categories of literature as it would perhaps be characterized by people describing it today. A comparison might be drawn to contemporary cinema: many people enjoy watching Marvel movies, including plenty of people who have also seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Citizen Kane, and Kwaidan, and their choosing to indulge in—and likely spend more money on—the former would never be taken as meaning they see it as more important or artistically valuable than the latter.
5. Not all Heian–Kamakura vernacular prose fiction was written by women
I don’t think this misconception is particularly widespread among people who could name more than one work of Heian vernacular prose fiction, but I’ve definitely seen the idea promoted on at least one blog (which I won’t link as a courtesy), so here we go. The misconception seems to originate with works describing The Tale of Genji, which often emphasize that the text is written in vernacular Japanese as opposed to Chinese because, at the Heian court, Chinese was seen as “unladylike” and that male courtiers of the time preferred to write Chinese.
Fair enough, but if one looks at the other surviving monogatari (“tales” or “romances”, apparently having originally referred to accounts of the gods), the best-known today are almost certainly The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter and The Tales of Ise. Of these two, the former was likely written by a man, based, apparently, on content; the author is not known and none of the various attributions (all to men) have received much acceptance among scholars, but the consensus view seems to be that it was likely written by a male author (Donald Keene, Seeds in the Heart, p. 435; Katagiri Yōichi, NKBZ XII Taketori Monogatari, Ise Monogatari, Yamato Monogatari, Heich Monogatari, pp. 87–88). The latter is also of uncertain authorship, but it is most widely attributed, at least in an early form, to its apparent protagonist, the male waka poet Ariwara no Narihira.
Including these two and Genji, a total of around 20 monogatari from the Heian and Kamakura periods survive today, mostly by unknown or uncertain authors, and many of these are presumed, based on stylistic grounds or an interest in more “feminine” topics, to have been written by women, and indeed they likely were, with “Takasue’s Daughter” and a daughter of Minamoto no Yorikuni given the moniker “Senji” being important examples. But one of the few tales whose author is known beyond a reasonable doubt, The Tale of the Matsura Palace was written by Fujiwara no Teika. Teika, a male waka poet, was arguably the single most important figure in the pre-modern Japanese literary canon, having been responsible for editing and copying what would later become the definitive texts of Genji, Ise and other prominent works that were written centuries before his time and are now household names in Japan. Indeed, he is also responsible for a number of the attributions to the aforementioned Senji and Takasue’s Daughter.
It should go without saying that none of this is meant to imply anything stupid like that “women can’t write great literature” or to take away from the achievement of Murasaki. But on that subject…
4. The Tale of Genji wasn’t really the “first” anything
This is a bit iffy, but Genji‘s reputation as “the world’s first novel” is somewhat misleading without further clarification. It was one of a genre of what its author’s contemporaries called monogatari. The Tale of Genji itself, in the “Picture Contest” chapter, refers to an earlier work, which is still extant, as the ancestor of the monogatari. That work, The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter, is substantially shorter than the Genji, and in contemporary English terms it is closer in size to a “short story” than a “novel”, but the distinction is less one of length than of literary style, and it is not one that was recognized in pre-modern Japan. Or even in contemporary Japanese literary scholarship—modern scholars classify both The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter and The Tale of Genji as tsukuri-monogatari (i.e., works of pure fiction rather than quasi-biographical or historical accounts). And while Genji is the longest of the surviving monogatari (at least the longest of the ones that survive in a more-or-less intact state and whose length can be reasonably estimated), at least two earlier monogatari—The Tale of the Hollow Tree and The Tale of Ochikubo—are of a length that, if translated into a European language, they would be closer to a “novel” than a “short story”.
The Tale of Genji is really notable for its combining of elements found various earlier fictional narratives and “diaries” like The Tales of Ise and The Izumi Shikibu Diary that, if they were written in Europe or America today, would be called autobiographical or even historical novels into a massive, intricately detailed work of psychological fiction, which the others had done to varying degrees but never with the mastery of Murasaki Shikibu.
3. Women in the Heian period did read Chinese poetry and prose, even if they did not write it
If we accept that The Tale of Genji was written by a woman—a proposition accepted by virtually every modern scholar who has studied this question—then no one who has read an annotated Tale of Genji in either modern Japanese or English can doubt that its countless allusions to Po Chü-i and other Chinese poets demonstrate a strong familiarity on the part of the author. Meanwhile, Emperor Ichijō himself is said to have remarked that the Genji‘s author clearly had an understanding of the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan, compiled in Chinese in the early 8th century).
2. The Man’yōshū is not “Japan’s oldest poetry anthology”
This (and this and this and this and this and this) is a simple mistranslation: 日本最古の和歌集 translates as “Japan’s oldest anthology of waka poetry” (see 1 for what waka poetry is), but translations produced for western tourists of general newspaper readers tend to want to avoid specialist terms like waka. For this reason, 和歌集 is often carelessly mistranslated as “poetry anthology”, without a check being done to confirm that Japan’s oldest waka anthology is the same as its oldest poetry anthology. It isn’t: the Kaifūsō, an anthology of kanshi (poems in classical Chinese) by Japanese poets was completed at least a decade before the Man’yōshū.
Curiously, the most notable instance of an English-speaking lay person getting this one right appears to be none other than Donald Trump. Or, rather, whoever wrote Donald Trump’s speech for his visit to the Imperial Palace. Trump side-stepped the problem by calling it “a collection of ancient Japanese poetry”, and interestingly the text of his speech uses the Hepburn romanization Man’yōshū rather than the simplified Manyoshu. These two factors strongly imply that Trump either had a specialist in Japanese literature write his speech (not likely) or whoever wrote the speech got their information from English Wikipedia rather than any of the major news sources that got it wrong: I’m frankly not sure if that’s a good thing or not. 😅
1. Haiku is not the only genre of classical Japanese poetry
The standalone hokku, later to be renamed “haiku”, was actually a relatively late development of classical Japanese poetry.
The origins of Japanese poetry actually go back to the pre-historic, pre-literate period, as many of the poems/songs included in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki (two historical works compiled in the early 8th century) appear to have been passed down orally. Such verses are referred to by modern scholars as Kiki-kayō (“songs in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki“), and are primarily in the tanka (5-7-5-7-7) and chōka (5-7-5-7-5-7-5-7-…-5-7-7) metres. Other poetic forms that existed in the 8th century and earlier are the sedōka (5-7-7-5-7-7) and bussokuseki-ka (5-7-5-7-7-7). These forms are all found in the Man’yōshū, a monumental anthology that was completed in the late 8th century but includes a substantial number of poems going back to the mid-7th century. The bussokuseki-ka, although under-represented in the Man’yōshū, also survives in a stone inscription on a Buddha’s Footprint monument at Yakushi-ji Temple, dating to the mid-8th century.
These four forms—the tanka, the chōka, the sedōka, and the bussokuseki-ka—are collectively called uta (“poetry”) or waka (“Japanese poetry”, as distinguished from kanshi, or poetry in classical Chinese), with the former term being more common in pre-modern times and the latter being preferred by modern scholars. However, by the early 10th century, when the next major anthology of Japanese poetry was compiled, all but the tanka had practically gone extinct, and so from this point on uta or waka came to refer almost exclusively to poetry in the 5-7-5-7-7 metre. For this reason, modern scholars tend to refer to this type of poetry in a classical (pre-Meiji) context as simply waka, and use the word tanka to refer to either (a) modern (post-Meiji) poetry or (b) the 5-7-5-7-7 poems included in the Kojiki and Man’yōshū as opposed to their other poetry.
There was also linked verse, or renga, whose traditional origins are attributed to a poetic exchange in the Kojiki between the pre-historic Prince Yamato-takeru and an old man. During the Heian period, renga were mostly tan-renga, or “short linked verse”, typically either with one poet composing the first part of a waka (5-7-5) and another poet completing the waka (7-7) or the inverse (7-7 then 5-7-5). This would later evolve into the chō-renga or kusari-renga (“long linked verse” or “chain linked verse”), which typically involved more than two poets and could go on much longer than 31 syllables. Renga became the dominant literary form in the Japanese middle ages (late 12th to early 17th century); while waka maintained a certain amount of prestige due to its association with courtly culture, and many nobles as well as members of the ascendant military class composed waka, modern literary critics generally show much more favour to the renga of this period. The Shinkokin Wakashū, compiled at the very beginning of this period, is generally seen as the last of the great waka anthologies, while the prestige and popularity of the renga continued to grow.
Toward the end of the middle ages, poets started to compose haikai, consisting of the first verse of a haikai (literally “humorous” or “irreverent”) renga. It wasn’t until more than a century later that Matsuo Bashō would elevate this new genre. But waka continued to enjoy great literary prestige: it remains to this day Japan’s national poetic form, and is the form practiced at the New Year’s poetry gathering at the Imperial Palace each year. And yet, every time I speak to other westerners about waka, I get the question “Oh, is that like haiku?” and when a Japanese period film includes a reference to waka this is frequently distorted in the English subtitles (or at least in the film’s reception in English-speaking countries).
Hopefully, this blog entry will have sufficiently explained why, no, waka isn’t like haiku; haiku is like waka.