Movement: Edo
Dates: 1603 - 1868

Edo-period literature

Literature during this time was written during the largely peaceful Tokugawa Period (commonly referred to as the Edo Period). Due in large part to the rise of the working and middle classes in the new capital of Edo (modern Tokyo), 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.

Many different genres of literature made their début during the Edo Period, helped by a rising literacy rate among the growing population of townspeople, as well as the development of lending libraries. Ihara Saikaku (1642–1693) might be said to have given birth to the modern consciousness of the novel in Japan, mixing vernacular dialogue into his humorous and cautionary tales of the pleasure quarters, the so-called Ukiyozōshi ("floating world") genre. Ihara's Life of an Amorous Man is considered the first work in this genre. Although Ihara's works were not regarded as high literature at the time because it had been aimed towards and popularized by the chōnin (merchant classes), they became popular and were key to the development and spread of ukiyozōshi.

Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694) is recognized as the greatest master of haiku (then called "hokku") His poems were influenced by his firsthand experience of the world around him, often encapsulating the feeling of a scene in a few simple elements. He made his life's work the transformation of haikai into a literary genre. For Bashō, haikai involved a combination of comic playfulness and spiritual depth, ascetic practice, and involvement in human society. In particular, Bashō wrote Oku no Hosomichi a major work in the form of a travel diary and considered "one of the major texts of classical Japanese literature."

Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703–1775) is widely regarded as one of the greatest haiku poets. Before her time, haiku by women were often dismissed and ignored. Her dedication toward her career not only paved a way for her career but it also opened a path for other women to follow. Her early poems were influenced by Matsuo Bashō, although she did later develop her own unique style as an independent figure in her own right. While still a teenager, she had already become very popular all over Japan for her poetry. Her poems, although mostly dealing with nature, work for unity of nature with humanity Her own life was that of the haikai poets who made their lives and the world they lived in one with themselves, living a simple and humble life. She was able to make connections by being observant and carefully studying the unique things around her ordinary world and writing them down.

Rangaku was an intellectual movement situated in Edo and centered on the study of Dutch (and by subsequently western) science and technology, history, philosophy, art, and language, based primarily on the Dutch books imported via Nagasaki. The polymath Hiraga Gennai (1728–1780) was a scholar of Rangaku and a writer of popular fiction. Sugita Genpaku (1733–1817) was a Japanese scholar known for his translation of Kaitai Shinsho (New Book of Anatomy) from the Dutch-language anatomy book Ontleedkundige Tafelen. As a full-blown translation from a Western language, it was the first of its kind in Japan. Although there was a minor Western influence trickling into the country from the Dutch settlement at Nagasaki, it was the importation of Chinese vernacular fiction that proved the greatest outside influence on the development of Early Modern Japanese fiction.

Jippensha Ikku (1765–1831) is known as Japan's Mark Twain and wrote Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige, which is a mix of travelogue and comedy. Tsuga Teisho, Takebe Ayatari, and Okajima Kanzan were instrumental in developing the yomihon, which were historical romances almost entirely in prose, influenced by Chinese vernacular novels such as Sangoku-shi (三国志, Three Kingdoms) and Suikoden (水滸伝, Water Margin).

Two yomihon masterpieces were written by Ueda Akinari (1734–1809): Ugetsu Monogatari and Harusame Monogatari. Kyokutei Bakin (1767–1848) wrote the extremely popular fantasy/historical romance Nansō Satomi Hakkenden over a period of twenty-eight years to complete (1814–1842), in addition to other yomihon. Santō Kyōden wrote yomihon mostly set in the red-light districts until the Kansei edicts banned such works, and he turned to comedic kibyōshi. Genres included horror, crime stories, morality stories, comedy, and pornography — often accompanied by colorful woodcut prints.

Hokusai (1760–1849), perhaps Japan's most famous woodblock print artist, also illustrated fiction as well as his famous 36 Views of Mount Fuji.

Nevertheless, in the Tokugawa period, as in earlier periods, scholarly work continued to be published in Chinese, which was the language of the learned much as Latin was in Europe.


  • Aston, William George. A History of Japanese Literature, William Heinemann, 1899.
  • Birnbaum, A., (ed.). Monkey Brain Sushi: New Tastes in Japanese Fiction. Kodansha International (JPN).
  • Donald Keene
    • Modern Japanese Literature, Grove Press, 1956. ISBN 0-394-17254-X
    • World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of The Pre-Modern Era 1600–1867, Columbia University Press © 1976 reprinted 1999 ISBN 0-231-11467-2
    • Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, Poetry, Drama, Criticism, Columbia University Press © 1984 reprinted 1998 ISBN 0-231-11435-4
    • Travellers of a Hundred Ages: The Japanese as Revealed Through 1,000 Years of Diaries, Columbia University Press © 1989 reprinted 1999 ISBN 0-231-11437-0
    • Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from the Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, Columbia University Press © 1993 reprinted 1999 ISBN 0-231-11441-9
  • McCullough, Helen Craig, Classical Japanese prose: an anthology, Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-8047-1628-5
  • Miner, Earl Roy, Odagiri, Hiroko, and Morrell, Robert E., The Princeton companion to classical Japanese literature, Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1985. ISBN 0-691-06599-3
  • Ema Tsutomu, Taniyama Shigeru, Ino Kenji, Shinshū Kokugo Sōran (新修国語総覧) Kyoto Shobō © 1977 revised 1981 reprinted 1982

See also

  • List of Japanese writers
  • List of Japanese classical texts
  • Japanese poetry
  • Aozora Bunko – a repository of Japanese literature
  • Japanese detective fiction
  • Japanese science fiction
  • Light novel


Further reading

  • Aston, William George. A history of Japanese literature (NY, 1899) online
  • Karatani, Kōjin. Origins of modern Japanese literature (Duke University Press, 1993).
  • Katō, Shūichi. A History of Japanese Literature: The first thousand years. Vol. 1. (Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International, 1979).
  • Keene, Donald. Japanese literature: An introduction for Western readers (1953).
  • Konishi, Jin'ichi. A History of Japanese Literature, Volume 3: The High Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 2014).

Primary sources

  • Keene, Donald. Anthology of Japanese literature: from the earliest era to the mid-nineteenth century (Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2007).

Online text libraries

  • Japanese Text Initiative, University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center
  • Premodern Japanese Texts and Translations, Michael Watson, Meiji Gakuin University


  • Japanese Literature Publishing Project, the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan
  • Japanese Book News Website, the Japan Foundation
  • Electronic texts of pre-modern Japanese literature by Satoko Shimazaki
  • List of literary awards for fiction and nonfiction.

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