The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)





Post-war Japanese writers


1946 Haruo Umezaki’s collection of short stories Sakurajima is published. The tales, which made his name, touch on aspects of Japanese life in World War II, such as kamikaze pilots.

1951 Shōhei Ōoka’s most famous novel, Fires on the Plain, is published. Like Umezaki’s Sakurajima, it reflects the author’s wartime experiences, including Japan’s defeat by US forces on Leyte island in the Philippines.


1962 Kōbō Abe’s novel The Woman in the Dunes is a bleak and disturbing tale about an amateur entomologist who is held captive in an escape-proof shack at the bottom of a pit of sand in a remote village.

In the decades leading up to World War II, Japan was an aggressive military state, occupying parts of China. Its strict code of literary censorship tightened even further during wartime. The relaxing of these restrictions at the end of the war saw a flowering of literary voices.

Freedom and diversity

Many of the “first generation” of post-war writers (those whose first work was published in 1946–47) focused on the subject of wartime experiences. However, with the appearance of a second generation (1948–49), and a third (1953–55), the only theme that united the authors was the freedom that allowed them to flourish. This resulted in a period of intense creativity and productivity.

Yukio Mishima (1920–1970), was of the second generation, and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is often said to be his finest work. It tells the fact-based story of an ugly, stuttering young monk who comes to hate all beauty, especially the 550-year-old Zen temple in Kyoto, decorated in gold leaf. Initially, it represents to the monk the transitory nature of life and beauty, but comes to dominate his thoughts as a bullying presence, and one that he cannot escape. The novel was extremely popular – a compelling study of madness that leads to destruction, but also a meditation on beauty itself, of which one of the most beautiful aspects is Mishima’s prose.

"It is no exaggeration to say that the first real problem I faced in my life was that of beauty."

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

See also: The Love Suicides at Sonezaki