This is an extract from my Gas-Lamp Fantasy Role-Playing supplement on Japan.
Japanese Literature: Prose
This section covers prose and poetry: Theatre has a separate section.
The earliest surviving works of Japanese literature date from the 7th century AD. They were written in Chinese.
In the 10th century diaries rose to prominence as prose forms, including The Tosa Diary of Ki Tsurayuki (935); and The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu. Many of these diaries were written by ladies of the court. Murasaki Shikibu also wrote the more famous Tale of Genji.
The Kamakura period produced the classic and atmospheric novel Tale of Matsura Shrine by Teika. Diaries continued to be popular in this period: some of them more poetry than prose. Collections of religious or demotic tales became popular, as did tales of war and battle, including such works as The Tale of the Heike (1220).
In the Muromachi and Azuchi-Momoyama periods (1338-1600) short stories continued to remain popular, although they did not quite reach the literary highs of the past.
During the Tokugawa period (ending in 1867) printing was used more extensively in Japan. This allowed reading matter to spread, so that there could be a popular literature, rather than such works being for the select few. The Japanese had known about printing for hundreds of years but, in the past, had reserved its use for religious works. The first printed, commercial works appeared in 1609.
Literary works in the 17th century were kana books. This was a catch-all term which included a wide number of subjects, from fiction to religious works to factual works. The most important works of the 17th century were probably Tales of the Floating World by Asai Ryoi; and the classic The Life of an Amorous Man (1682) by Saikaku, which helped change the world of Japanese literature, with a literary renaissance in the following decades.
More fiction was produced but, with some exceptions, the quality began to decline towards the end of the 18th century. The most important work of that period was probably the collection of supernatural stories Tales of Moonlight and Rain (1776), by Ueda Akinari.
Comic fiction grew in popularity, such as Travels on Foot on the Tokaido, published in the first quarter of the 19th century.
In the last couple of decades Western literature has finally begun to penetrate into Japan. Early translated works include Self-Help by Samuel Smiles, and Ernest Maltravers, by Lord Bulwer-Lytton, the latter novel appearing under the title Karyu Shinwa (A Spring Tale of Blossoms and Willows). It is certain that, in the years ahead, even more Western works will enter Japan.