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date: 26 June 2017

Reading Culture in Japan

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

Reading in Japan has a rich history replete with transformative moments. The arrival of Chinese logographs by the 5th century necessitated the development of reading mechanisms adapting the characters to the Japanese language, which had previously lacked writing. In the Heian court (794–1185), reading was often a social activity, incorporating performance. Small reading communities read romances aloud to one another, while poetry competitions involved intense bouts of composition and reading. During the medieval era (1185–1600), literature spread through the recitation of epic tales with musical accompaniment, while in early modern times (1600–1867), the gradual expansion of literacy combined with a print revolution fueled the emergence of socially and geographically diverse communities of readers. Alongside studies of medicine and Neo-Confucian thought, there existed a flourishing market in popular fiction. The arrival of modern printing technology at the end of the 19th century ushered in mass-market readership. Cheap printings of classic texts competed with popular serial fiction, both of which were encouraged by newspapers. During the early 20th century, reading came to be seen as an act of self-cultivation, but retained a social element, as students and educated urbanites read together and discussed literature. Contemporary Japanese society retains a strong emphasis on the social values of reading, understanding reading not primarily as an individual engagement with one’s interests, but rather as a means to acquire a consciousness of one’s group and nation. Newspaper readership continues to be enormous, and the influence exercised by newspaper corporations and prominent publishers in Japanese society is significant, shaping not only what is read but how. Japanese manga, meanwhile, continue to enjoy a diffuse range of reading communities that represent considerable wealth and influence. Such communities vary by gender, age, and political leanings, and demand media suited to their own particular reading practices and identities. Technological innovation has also facilitated new reading experiences, such as visual novels, a type of interactive fiction game popular among Japanese gamers. The Internet has given rise to virtual reading cultures, embracing both traditional print readerships and visual novel fandoms, further enhanced by ubiquitous smartphone use among readers of all ages. Tokyo’s book town, Kanda-Jinbochō, is a thriving cultural center, and book fairs and other events are widely celebrated.