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Japanese Essay

The type of prose held by many to be most characteristically Japanese is called (among other things) zuihitsu or essei. That the first term is a transliteration of a Chinese designation and the second derives from the West is a telling paradox, for Japan owes the existence of its literary tradition to China, and many of the assumptions that govern its modern genre framework to Europe. Accounts of this mode—or modes, necessarily— often dwell on whether and how the Japanese achievement may be successful or unique.
It is a debate that constitutes much of the writing itself, second only to the question of what zuihitsu, which literally means “following the brush,” is as a genre.
Just as they imported Chinese graphs to facilitate writing, so the Japanese accepted China’s distinctions between formal genres, such as poetry, history, or argument, and informal modes, including fiction and personal reflections. Literate Japanese men were expected to write in Chinese, and the work of one of them, Yoshishige no Yasutane’s (c. 931–1002) Chiteiki (982.; Record of the pond pavilion), a record of his pavilion and reclusive life, is recognized as an early landscape essay. It is more common, however, to list as the first essay in Japan Makura no sōshi (The Pillow Book) of Sei Shōnagon (c. 965–?), one of the brilliant literary women who wrote narrative fiction and memoirs of a psychological subtlety not rivaled in Europe until the development of the novel.
However, The Pillow Book’s heyday was not the height of the essay: that came with the maturation of hybrid Sino-Japanese language in medieval times. Hybridization is seen in syntactic parallelism and translation-equivalent phrases, as well as the high proportion of Chinese compound words. This blend of Chinese terseness with Japanese agglutination animates the famous opening meditation on the constantly metamorphosing nature of all things in Kamo no Chōmei’s (1155?–1216) Hōjōki (c. 1212; An Account of My Hut).
Today literary historians do not always treat An Account of My Hut as a zuihitsu, preferring his Shiki monogatari (Tales of the four seasons); An Account of My Hut is stylistically quite different from both The Pillow Book and Tsurezuregusa (wr. c. 1319 to as late as 1350; Essays in Idleness) by Kenkō (c. 1283–c. 1352), the third member of what became established at the end of the last century as a triumvirate. Essays in Idleness uses the hybrid style, and also harks back to The Pillow Book, often imitating its vernacular, whose purity was identified with the feminine. Although important essays centered on single themes exist, the definition canonized from the 18th century deemphasized them in favor of the fragmentary, seemingly random work that claims to have no purpose.
The first piece actually to use the word zuihitsu in its title, the Tōsai zuihitsu (Tōsai’s miscellany) of Ichijō Kaneyoshi (also known as Kanera) (1402–81), was not of this random type, being instead a collection of topically arranged anecdotes. Such compendia are usual for the Chinese suibi, which gave the name to the Japanese genre (although in China the designation biji or “records of the brush” is more common). In Korea, where they were also written in classical Chinese, the term chapki (miscellaneous record) is preferred to indicate literary miscellanies that may combine auotobiographical narration with other jottings. Throughout East Asia, “idleness” was held to be the key characteristic from which these writings emerged.
In a more Japanese vein is an admonitory work by Kanera, Sayo no nezame (1477; Awake in the night), which explains political leadership and literary studies to a woman who was virtually a shōgun (generalissimo) during the civil wars that tore apart the capital. It is an opinionated but elliptical work of criticism; only its audience is atypical.

Japan flag

Other medieval writers whose works are treasured include Shinkei (1406–75), a linked verse poet. Notes on his flight from the wars and contemplation of aesthetics are interwoven in Hitorigoto (1468; Solitary ramblings) and Oinokurigoto (1471–75; Old man’s prattle). Both internal commentary and the titles of Japanese essays are frequently self-denigrating and inwardlooking, claiming to be mere distractions or comforts to the author, yet the reader is also consoled by the unexpected intimacy.
Still other works, particularly much Buddhist writing, broadly qualify as represeatative Japanese essays. Shōbōgenzō zuimonki (1235–38; Record of Things Heard from the Treasury of the Eye of the True Teaching), the collected teachings of Zen master Dōgen (1200–53), Ichigon hōdan (Plain Words on the Pure Land Way), aphoristic statements by monks and recluses, and even Zeami’s (1363?–1443?) celebrated treatises on the Nō theater share similarities in organization and thought with more strictly lyric endeavors.
Oral teaching was a central practice of the literati, and when written, records of talks on poetry and similar subjects took on the form of discursive essays.
Medieval essays can be quite short. Both brevity and the tendency toward a fragmented, incomplete treatment of topics have been linked to the literate elite’s difficulty in absorbing new and and confusing trends as their world dissolved. The later emergence of the 17-syllable haiku poem reminds us that brevity is considered a virtue in Japan; indeed, many essays are divided into passages of haiku-like length. Skepticism toward the verbal permeates some religious thinking, as in the Zen sects. Nonetheless, extensive volumes of criticism, transcripted interviews, for example the Zen priest Musō Soseki’s (1275–1351) Muchū mondōshū (1344; Dialogues in dream) and rambling discourses satisfy an equally fierce desire for verbosity.
The passion for words and knowledge yielded thousands of essays in the early modern period, many of them still unpublished. In the 1600s, Essays in Idleness and The Pillow Book enjoyed revivals, accustoming Japanese readers to desultory vignettes—often with a touch of didacticism—as a mode of essay, typified by Sano Shōeki’s (1610–91) Nigiwaigusa (1682; Musings on prosperity), a dilettante merchant’s musings. The youthful Yanagisawa Kien (1704–58) lovingly recalled life in the pleasure district of Yoshiwara in his celebrated Hitorine (1725; Sleeping alone). Lyrical essays may also be found in the genre known as haibun, light prose sketches combined with haiku poetry, such as Yokoi Yayū’s (1702–83) Uzuragoromo (1727–79; Patchwork cloak). Matsuo Bashō’s (1644–94) Genjūan no ki (1690; Prose Poem on the Unreal Dwelling), a meditation along the lines of An Account of My Hut, demonstrates the profundity attainable in a brief, allusive space.
At the same time, interest in Chinese models reached a new pitch. Lengthy productions like Muro Kyūsō’s (1658–1734) Sundai zatsuwa (1732; Miscellaneous talks by Sundai, selections translated as A Japanese Philosopher, and Other Papers upon the Chinese Philosophy in Japan), arranged under the Five Confucian Virtues, and Amano Sadakage’s (1663–1733) Shiojiri (1697–1733; Salt mounds) remain fascinating troves.
Partly from interest in the past, partly from thirst for novelty—strange tales were common—the intelligentsia was responsible for circulating such works. Ogyū Sorai’s (1666–1728) Narubeshi (1736; It should be), consisting of over 400 segments on language use, spurred a flurry of rebuttals. With the emergence of kokugaku, or national learning scholars, who unearthed texts of the Japanese past as an antidote to what they held were the crippling effects of China, Japanese zuihitsu were compared favorably to the Chinese. Motoori Norinaga’s (1730–1801) Tamakatsuma (1793–1812; The beautiful basket) contains 1005 segments reflecting his research and controversial ideas. His disciple Ishihara Masaakira (1760–1821)—whose Nennen zuihitsu (1801–05; Jotting year by year) defines the genre as a gathering of all that is seen and heard, of varying quality but honest intent, and defends Motoori’s use of it—was self-conscious about the native legacy and the virtues of its casualness. Matsudaira Sadanobu’s (1758–1829) Kagetsu sōshi (1818; Book of moon and flowers) is a late example of the impact of The Pillow Book even on a conservative interested in promoting Confucian principles.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, zuihitsu publication hit its first peak, in which authors of all stripes compiled useful information. Santō Kyōden’s (1761–1816) Kottōshō (1813; Collection of curios) is one encyclopedic example. Many works described the sights and sounds of ordinary life, as in Miyako no teburi (1808; Customs of the capital), the innkeeper Ishikawa Masamochi’s (1753–1830) elegant chronicle of Edo, the old name for Tokyo. Suzuki Bokushi (1770–1842) detailed the seasons of the countryside in Hokuetsu seppu (1837; Snow Country Tales). A major work that bridges Japan’s encounter with the West is Ryūkyō shinshi (1860, 1874; The new record of Yanagibashi), Narushima Ryūhoku’s (1837–84) document of the Yanagibashi pleasure quarter, written in a playful, ironical, Japanized Chinese.
Along with the momentous impact of Western fiction, forms of the essay flourished from the last quarter of the 19th century. A plethora of journalists arose to write for the many newly founded magazines and newspapers. Accounts of his travels to the West by Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834–1901) were bestsellers, while his Gakumon no susume (1872; An Encouragement of Learning) was indispensable to the modernization of Japan. Essays were the vehicle for introducing such unprecedented concepts as romantic love, the theme of Kitamura Tōkoku’s (1868–94) “Ensei shika to josei” (1892.; The world-weary poet and woman). Hiratsuka Raichō’s (1886–1971) manifesto Genshi josei wa taiyō de atta (In the beginning woman was the sun)—printed in the inaugural 1911 issue of Seitō (Bluestockings), a journal to promote women’s creativity—rocked society. The poet and critic Yosano Akiko (1878–1942) published collections of essays on social questions as often as twice a year, and debated with Raichō over the protection of motherhood.
Arguments and debates about the nature of argumentation evolved, with the allowance for following one’s brush acting as a kind of reassurance.
Writers known for forging new forms of literature appropriate to the modern experience continued to extend the zuihitsu inheritance. Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902), notorious for proposing that traditional verse forms were doomed, linked zuihitsu to the possibilities for improving Japanese literature and creating a new colloquial written language closer to speech. His Fudemakase (1884–92; Leaving it to the brush) and Gyōga manroku (wr. 1901–02; Stray notes while lying on my back), the latter published posthumously after his death from tuberculosis, were widely read. Shiki introduced the concept of shasei (copying from life) into the modern literary scene. Shimazaki Tōson (1872–1943), identified with the so-called “Inovel” form that draws part of its inspiration from personal essay conventions, practiced this mode of creative literary observation in his Chikumagawa no suketchi (1911–12; Chikuma River Sketches). Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916), a renowned and versatile novelist, wrote both literary criticism drawn from his two-year stay in London and the highly regarded occasional piece Garasudo no uchi (1915; Within My Glass Doors). Dōba mango (1919), critical remarks by Saitō Mokichi (1882–1953), the chief modern tanka poet, drew the acclaim of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892–1927), whose own Shuju no kotoba (1923–25; Fool’s words) is a masterpiece of the aphorism.
The Taishō period (1912–26), when Japan experimented with democracy and cosmopolitanism, heralded a boom in zuihitsu. In 1923, Kikuchi Kan (1888–1948) founded Bungei shunjū (Literary spring and autumn), which to this day publishes numerous essays, while a journal entitled Zuihitsu began after the Tokyo earthquake.
Terada Torahiko (1878–1935), a physicist who wrote under the sobriquet Fuyuhiko, is credited with formulating the first original style—frank, expansive, and “scientific”—for the modern essay. Established themes mold the work of Nagai Kafū (1879–1959), chronicler of old Tokyo and its commodified women. His Ame shōshō (1918; Quiet Rain) is reminiscent of hermitage accounts (altered by time in America, France, and the gay quarters), and his miscellanies from “Dyspepsia House” (Danchōtei) were as copious as any earlier author’s scribblings. Irony and style mark the accomplishments of career essayists such as Uchida Roan (1868–1929). Taikutsu tokuhon (1915–26; Boredom reader) is Satō Haruo’s (1892–1964) splendid contribution to the heritage of desultory writings, in which humor is rarely far from the surface.
The mid-1930s brought another wave of zuihitsu popularity, in the midst of which many questioned the randomness and superficiality of Japanese essayism, including those such as Nakano Shigeharu (1902–79), poet and Marxist revolutionary, whom literary history lauds for his trenchant critique of the culture. The desire to guard the “real Japan” defined literature in some of its best and worst moments, but ultimately did not impede the writing of significant works or the delineation of the crisis of modernity. In 1933,
Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s (1886–1965) In’ei raisan (In Praise of Shadows) exulted in a fading past of dark beauty. That same year, Yanagita Kunio’s (1875–1962) Tōno monogatari (1910; The Legends of Tōno), the first of many ethnographic accounts modeled on zuihitsu, was “discovered” and Japanese folklore studies blossomed.
Hagiwara Sakutarō (1886–1942), poet and essayist, found in Yasuda Yojūrō’s (1910–81) Nihon no hashi (1936; Japanese bridges) a transcendent aestheticization of bridges read by many as a call to battle, the first work of Japanese literature with the requisite intellection to be called an essay. Yasuda’s name has been expunged from lists of important essayists, perhaps due to his sympathy with the Japanese war effort.
One essayist who drew acclaim in the 1930s, Kobayashi Hideo (1902–83), remains a pillar of Japanese literature. Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972), himself a perceptive judge, praised Kobayashi in 1931 as the first modern literary critic. “Influential” hardly describes the path of his career up to the classics Mujō to iu koto (1946; On impermanence) or Kangaeru hinto (1964; Hints for thinking). After him, the value of Japanese criticism was no longer in doubt.
A chief problem posed by “zuihitsu booms” was whether any distinct essay form existed in Japan. As Hagiwara lamented, all novelists write zuihitsu as well. Since there is often little formal difference between the novel as practiced by many Japanese and the essay, commentators raise the question whether the short pieces by Shiga Naoya (1883– 1971), “deity of the novel,” would not be better termed zuihitsu. Even the decadent author Dazai Osamu (1909–48), who considered zuihitsu—his travel essay Tsugaru
(1944), for example—to be different from fiction may, in the judgment of others, have written his masterpieces in the genre. Japanese critics confound the issue further by applying this caveat which seems appropriate to confessional fiction—zuihitsu tell the naked truth about an author. This points to a fundamental and perhaps counter-intuitive contrast. Where the I-novel is based on presumptions of necessary sincerity, zuihitsu are more distanced, more opinion than experience. Rather than creating an interiorized portrait that frequently drives the reader away with its blunt crudity, or flaunts marks of intimacy that imply the reader is being made privy to a vast private world (the Inovel mode), zuihitsu build an image of a personality one would like to sit down with for a long chat. In fact, the zuihitsu is that long chat—by the brazier in winter, in a cotton robe sipping astringent tea in summer, according to practitioner and theorist Kuriyagawa Hakuson (1880–1923)—artlessly orchestrated for the maximum comfort of the guest, but with the host all the while complaining that he or she is unprepared and failing miserably as a companion. The author, in other words, claims not to be exposing anything, and waves the reader away with social gambits that make the audience all the more willing to listen. Thus, paradoxically the I-novel author’s strategies of self-exposure lead to a fundamental posturing that hides as much as it reveals, while the zuihitsu author’s postures of nonchalance and disinterest leave the reader feeling he or she has uncovered the author’s core.
Zuihitsu today retain overwhelming popularity, and are often hailed as congenial to the Japanese world view. Women maintain their presence, with Kōda Aya (1904–90), daughter of Kōda Rohan (1867–1947), whose own essays were much loved, observing her father’s death (Shūen [1947; Last moments]) and the domestic world. Epoch-defining works continue to be written. Sakaguchi Ango (1906–55) shocked postwar Japan out of its nostalgia by undercutting the received meanings of culture and authority with his Darakuron (1946; On decadence). Taiyō to tetsu (1965; Sun and Steel), Yukio Mishima’s (1925–70) statement of literary and political ideals, would later be understood in the context of his ritual suicide. The most significant essays of the postwar period, Nobel prize winner Ōe Kenzaburō’s (1935–) Hiroshima nōto (1965; Hiroshima Notes), mark his transition from spokesman for the young generation to the atomic bomb-aware and ill-appreciated conscience of a contemporary Japan he faults as irresponsible. At the end of the millennium, the essay endures as the form through which writers seek consolation and identification of what is irreducibly Japanese in their world.


Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the MidNineteenth Century, edited by Donald Keene, New York: Grove Press, and London: Allen and Unwin, 1955; revised edition, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968
Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology, edited by Helen Craig McCullough, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990

Further Reading
Ariga, Chieko, “Dephallicizing Women in Ryukyo Shinshi: A Critique of Gender
Ideology in Japanese Literature,” Journal of Asian Studies 51 (August 1992):565–86
Beichman, Janine, Masaoka Shiki, Boston: Twayne, 1982
Fowler, Edward, The Rhetoric of Confession: Shishōsetsu in Early Twentieth-Century Japanese Fiction, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988
Hare, Thomas Blenman, “Reading Kamo no Chōmei,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 49 (June 1989):173–228
Ivy, Marilyn, “Ghastly Insufficiencies: Tōno monogatari and the Origins of Nativist Ethnology,” in her Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995:66–97
Karatani, Kōjin, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1993
Keene, Donald, World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the PreModern Era, 1600– 1867, New York: Grove Press, and London: Secker and Warburg, 1976
Keene, Donald, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, vol. 2: Poetry, Drama, Criticism, New York: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1984
Keene, Donald, Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, New York: Holt, 1993
Koschmann, J.Victor, Ōiwa Keibō, and Yamashita Shinji, editors, International Perspectives on Yanagita Kunio and Japanese Folklore Studies, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University ChinaJapan Program, 1985
LaFleur, William R., “Inns and Hermitages: The Structure of Impermanence,” in his The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983:60–79
Ninomiya, Masayuki, La Pensée de Kobayashi Hideo: Un intellectuel japonais au tournant de l’histoire, Geneva: Droz, 1995
Rodd, Laurel Rasplica, “Yosano Akiko and the Taishō Debate over the ‘New Woman’,” in Recreating Japanese Women, 1600–1945, edited by Gail Lee Bernstein, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991:175−98
Silverberg, Miriam, Changing Song: The Marxist Manifestos of Nakano Shigeharu, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990
Tansman, Alan, “Bridges to Nowhere: Yasuda Yojūrō’s Language of Violence and Desire,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 56, no. 1 (June 1996):35–75
Treat, John Whittier, “Ōe Kenzaburō: Humanism and Hiroshima,” in his Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995:229–58
Wolfe, Alan, Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990

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