Japanese literature, the body of written works produced by Japanese authors in Japanese or, in its earliest beginnings, at a time when Japan had no written language, in the Chinese classical language.
Both in quantity and quality, Japanese literature ranks as one of the major literatures of the world, comparable in age, richness, and volume to English literature, though its course of development has been quite dissimilar. The surviving works comprise a literary tradition extending from the 7th century CE to the present; during all this time there was never a “dark age” devoid of literary production. Not only do poetry, the novel, and the drama have long histories in Japan, but some literary genres not so highly esteemed in other countries—including diaries, travel accounts, and books of random thoughts—are also prominent. A considerable body of writing by Japanese in the Chinese classical language, of much greater bulk and importance than comparable Latin writings by Englishmen, testifies to the Japanese literary indebtedness to China. Even the writings entirely in Japanese present an extraordinary variety of styles, which cannot be explained merely in terms of the natural evolution of the language. Some styles were patently influenced by the importance of Chinese vocabulary and syntax, but others developed in response to the internal requirements of the various genres, whether the terseness of haiku (a poem in 17 syllables) or the bombast of the dramatic recitation.