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Japanese Culture and Literature Essay

The Japanese technology is leading the world these days. Especially with the mobile phone market is Japan far ahead of Europe and the United States. Although these progressions and innovations, two cliches still rule the thinking about the country. One is the fact that Japan is a small country, with no ethnic diversity, and has a high income per head. The other one is that Japan ‘imitates’; the idea that Japan does not make its own products, but tries to improve other products. Japan has of course its own creativity and its own cultural achievements, known throughout the world, such as the ‘tea ceremony’, ‘sumo wrestling’ and ‘sushi’.

Japan’s economy, culture and civilization changed rapidly when the cultivation of rice was introduced, from China, in the fourth century BC. The nomadic life they used to live was changed for an agricultural one. They started to settle in villages and a new sense of economy and cooperation was established. This new sense of economic thinking also brought forth an ideal that still holds in the Japanese culture: the need of the group is more important than the need of the individual. The Japanese civilization developed very late in comparison with the civilizations found in Egypt, Greece, India or China.

Japan, as consisting completely of small islands, stayed a long time being isolated from the rest of the world and therefore stayed a long time being a hunters-gatherers society. China had a great impact on the development of Japan. In the seventh and eighth century, China represented the most developed country in the world in those days. Before this Chinese influence that changed the political system in Japan, the political system consisted mainly of powerful warlords. These warlords and wealthy families established many different centers and Japan was not a unity.

Finally one family succeeded in taking the power over the southern and central islands. This clan and its ‘emperor’ started the imperial line. After this establishment, many Chinese political models were introduced in Japan. Taxation systems, new law codes and the whole political administrative system were copied. This Chinese model did not seem to be the best for Japan. Land was divided among the population equally and the taxes were also equal for all the people. The emperor was the ruler and had absolute power and the administrators were chosen through examination and ability. In Japan, the emperors ruled with the family and kinship ties.

There were no examinations or ability tests in the old Japan. The nobility did not want to leave their positions and government and laws started changing constantly. The introduction of Buddhism had a big impact on the Japanese society. The original Shinto religion was completed with Chinese and Korean Buddhism. Apparently, these two religions can co-exist well together. Buddhism can be seen as a ‘nature’ religion and because the people of Japan lived close to nature, this worked out fine. Shinto gave the people no hope beyond death, Buddhism did. Nature is not consistent, it is impermanent, and it keeps on changing and so does live.

This concept of impermanence is not only seen in the culture and religion of Japan, but also in literature. Literary themes like suffering, life struggles, awareness of the transient nature of earthly things, is represented everywhere. Japanese Culture and Literature The Manyoshu The Manyoshu is the oldest collection of Japanese poetry. The title means “collection of ten thousand leaves”. The translation of the Japanese symbol ‘leave’ can also be translated as ‘age’ or ‘generation’. Therefore the collection is sometimes said to be the “collection for ten thousand ages”, which can be interpreted as a collection for the generations to come.

At the time of the last dated poem, 759 AD, Japan had just changed into a society with a governing emperor, a new national identity and government and a new religious system. All these new influences came from neighboring country China, which had a big impact of the development of Japan economically, politically, religious and socially. Contacts with China also brought roads, irrigations works, harbors, new fabrics and pagodas to Japan. Japan was not just coping the Chinese ways, they made their own. This also meant the introduction of a new writing style, coming from the Chinese characters, but with a Japanese twist.

It is amazing to see that the quality of the poems of the Manyoshu is very high. The experience and finesse of the writers is special for this collection and hard to find again in the poetry written in later ages. The passion, sincerity and innocence are attracting many people to reading the poems. There are basically two principal written forms used in the poems. The first one is the ‘choka’. This is a long poem with an indeterminate number of lines of alternating five and seven-syllable lines, ending with two seven-syllable phrases.

It then has the pattern: 5-7-5, 7-5, 7-5, 7-5, … , 7-7. The second poem form is the ‘tanka’, a short poem, written with a total of 31 syllables in the pattern 5-7-5, 7-7. The Manyoshu is often said to offer everything to the reader because there is so much variety to be found. For some it is also proof of the Japanese identity with its great creativity and complexity. References Keene, Donald. (Ed. ). (1994). Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century. New York: Grove Press.

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