A visual guide to modern Japanese fiction (II)

The following diagram provides a visual representation of the development of narrative fiction in postwar Japan, beginning in 1945. The diagram is original, although it is modeled on similar diagrams found in such sources as Akiyama Ken and Miyoshi Yukio, eds., Genshoku: Shin Nihonbungaku shi (Bun'eidō, 2016). The diagram may be used freely in printed form as long as an appropriate attribution is given. Online reproduction is prohibited.

The chief problem in the postwar period is that literary histories tend to stop identifying specific groups of writers quite early. In fact, comprehensive literary histories typically end with the appearance of Murakami Haruki in the 1980s, although they also dedicate sections to women writers (Kōno Taeko [1926-2015] and Tsushima Yūko [1947-2016], for example) and touch on the sort of cultural diversification represented by such writers as Kin Sekihan (Kim Sok-pom, b. 1925), an ethnically Korean (zainichi) writer; Ōshiro Tatsuhiro (1925-2020), the first Okinawan to win the Akutagawa Prize; and Nakagami Kenji (1946-92), of burakumin ("hamlet people") origin. Commonly accepted periodization does not get far beyond postmodernism in terms of style or the end of the Shōwa period (1926-89) in terms of chronology.

The early postwar period saw the reemergence of established literary figures like Tanizaki Jun'ichirō and Kawabata Yasunari. These writers more or less picked up where they had left off before the war, publishing some of their most representative works in the 1950s and 1960s even though they were considered to belong to an older generation of writers. The Burai-ha ("Decadent") writers were a younger set of writers who had begun publishing in the 1930s and were deeply affected by Japan's defeat in World War II, adopting a nihilistic, free-agent stance toward postwar Japanese society. Dazai Osamu, who committed suicide in 1948, is surely the best known of this group and is still widely read.

Two magazines are considered most representative of the literary establishment in the immediate postwar period: Shin Nihon bungaku (New Japanese Literature, founded in 1946) and Kindai bungaku (Modern Literature, also founded in 1946). The former marked the rebirth of proletarian literature in the wake of postwar democratic reforms; the latter looked to such Western philosophies as Marxism and existentialism for models of literary engagement. Both groups were alike in their openness to the outside world and their interest in establishing Japan's place in a cosmopolitan context. This bifurcated cohort of writers is sometimes classified under the umbrella term the Postwar School, but often a distinction is made between a First Postwar School and a Second Postwar School, as indicated in the diagram. The distinction is somewhat arbitrary and based mainly on a short lag in terms of when the writers debuted, with writers born in the 1920s more likely to be placed among the "second" postwar generation and considered to have more aggressively rejected the prewar Japanese autobiographical style.

A certain amount of arbitrariness also characterizes membership in the Third Generation of New Writers, who got their professional start around the time of the Korean War (1950-52) and may perhaps be distinguished from their "postwar generation" seniors in the way they evinced a distrust of any ideological point of view, preferring to adopt a more narrowly personal approach to their materials. The Third Generation writers themselves were all old enough to have taken part in the war.

Once we come to writers who were too young to go to war, easy categorization becomes even more difficult, and instead we find references to the decades in which authors made their debuts, beginning from around the mid-1950s (the third Shōwa decade). This period marks an expansion of literary activity as evidenced in a growing public interest in both serious and popular fiction and the publication of various series of collected works, paralleling the commercial success of the "one-yen books" (enpon) of the 1920s. Literary sensations like Ishihara Shin'ichirō (1932-2022) arrive on the scene, and -- as in music and other aspects of popular culture -- young people start playing an active role in the production and consumption of culture. Ōe Kenzaburō, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, is just one prominent example of this cohort.

The last identifiable "generation" of writers not categorized by decade or reign name is the so-called introverted generation (naikō no sedai, a term coined by the critic Odagiri Hideo in 1971) that began publishing from around 1970. These writers -- including Ogawa Kunio (1927-2008), Kuroi Senji (b. 1932), and Furui Yoshikichi (1937-2020) -- are usually characterized as being primarily personal in focus and distinctly non-ideological in approach. In that respect, like the Third Generation writers, they can be said to demonstrate an affinity with the prewar tradition of the I-novel (watakushi shōsetsu).

In terms of literary history, a major postwar break seems to have come in the mid-1970s, with the debut of Murakami Ryū (b. 1952) signaling the start of what has turned into categorical fragmentation and a postmodern diversity that now itself threatens to be at least partially subsumed by a flood of visually oriented (manga) and non-print media (film, TV, anime, streaming, even gaming narratives), making it necessary to reconsider what the term "literary" means in a contemporary cultural context.


Postwar Showa Fiction

  • Shin gesaku-ha: 新戯作派(無頼派)
  • Dai-ichiji sengo-ha: 第一次戦後派
  • Dai-niji sengo-ha: 第二次戦後派
  • Dai-san no shinjin: 第三の新人
  • rōtaika no fukkatsu: 老大家の復活
  • sanjūnendai no sakkatachi: 三十年代の作家たち
  • naikō no sedai: 内向の世代

Diagram by the Jlit website (jlit.net).