At present, pre-1600 Japanese literature is customarily divided into three periods: an ancient period ending in 794, a classical period ending in the twelfth century, and a medieval period extending until around 1600. On the surface, this model appears to derive from political changes: the capital moved to Kyoto in 794, to Kamakura in 1185, and to Edo in 1603. However, the creation of an unusually short “ancient” period—less than 100 years between the first work of Japanese literature Kojiki in 712 and the move to Heian in 794—was in fact a late nineteenth-century development designed to ensure that vernacular Japanese literature would exist during Japanese antiquity. About half of the many histories of Japanese literature published between 1890 and 1912 use this model and end the ancient period in 794. Conversely, the other half group the eighth century together with the following period of “classical” literature, and end the ancient period prior to the 710 founding of Nara. The distinction correlates with two conflicting visions of antiquity: the former a romantic nationalist one in which pre-literate society harbors a native voice, and the latter of sociocultural evolution which labels the ancient period uncivilized or barbarous. The rise of the romantic nationalist model to undisputed status intersects with a number of related issues in the late Meiji period: the loss of status of kanbun writing after the Sino-Japanese war, an effort to masculinize the origins of Japanese literature, popular literacy contesting elite culture from below, and the efforts of Haga Yaichi, the model’s most influential proponent, among others. While recent histories of Japanese literature have gestured towards resolving the problems that this legacy internalized, the failure to reconceptualize the underlying chronological framework has resulted in these histories inheriting an inextricable, and at this moment, undesirable, link to the Japanese nation-state.
Matthieu Felt is Assistant Professor of Japanese in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Florida. Dr. Felt received his Ph.D. in Japanese literature from Columbia University in 2017. He is currently writing a book on the premodern and early modern reading and reception of the 720 Nihon shoki, Japan’s first official state history.