This course surveys the nature, history, and distinctive features of Japanese literature and cultural history from the beginnings through the threshold of modernity. Featuring Japanese texts from the seventh through the twentieth centuries, we learn to appreciate their relevance in the historical and cultural context in which authors wrote them, in the broader context of literary traditions from around the world, and for the humanistic and aesthetic powers, which makes them poignant to us today. We will examine various genres of poetry, historiography and mythological lore, prose tales and fiction, diaries, essays, Noh and puppet plays, short stories and novels. Through close readings of original texts in translation, we will address larger questions such as: what is the cultural, social and aesthetic meaning behind the various genres Japanese authors developed? How did it shape the content, purpose, form, and dissemination of their works? Why and how did Japanese literature develop in intense dialogue with older Chinese precedents? Why did authors write in two different literary languages, vernacular Japanese and literary Chinese and how does that make Japanese literature world historically distinctive? Where and how is Japanese literary heritage alive and creative today, in Japan and the world?
Surveying thirteen centuries of one of the world’s most enduring literary traditions will give us the privilege to witness in fast-motion, like in a historical laboratory, how Japanese authors increasingly enjoyed adapting, satirizing, and rewriting earlier themes and models as their literary tradition grew older, while also constantly developing new forms suited to the urgent needs of their time. Includes an eco-literature lab, a creative writing lab, and a history-writing lab for collaborative experimentation.