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Japanese Prose

Updated on January 2, 2012

From the tenth century, the travel diary and personal diary became popular prose forms. The Tosa Nikki (The Gossamer Years), covers the life of a prime minister's second wife between AD 954 and 974, and the Genji Monogatari (c.1010) describes the loves of Prince Genji in such a sensitive and elegant style that many consider it to be the world's first important novel. It influenced later writing for centuries, although a parallel comic tradition of the same period failed to survive.

In the twelfth century, the Konjaku Monogatarishu, a collection of folk tales and religious stories, was published. It strongly influenced later mediaeval prose writers who composed tales on such themes as wicked stepmothers. The travel diary tradition persisted but the essentially masculine world of the samurai under the mediaeval shogunates inhibited the output offemale writers. It did, however, give rise to a new genre, called the gunki monogatari (war tales).

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, short stories came into vogue and later, under the Tokugawas, the widespread use of printing produced a new era in prose writing, exemplified by the novelist Saikaku. Saikaku developed a trend for stories of the 'floating world' of pleasure which dealt with the lives of prostitutes and women of the merchant class. His work was the highlight of a literary renaissance in the seventeenth century.

The next century saw the rise of professional authors writing in a variety of prose styles. Generally, however, their output was as unimpressive as the work of poets in the same period.


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