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Japanese literature spans a period of almost two millennia. Early work was heavily influenced by Chinese literature, but Japan quickly developed a style and quality of its own. When Japan reopened its ports to Western trading and diplomacy in the 19th century, western literature had a strong effect on Japanese writers, and this influence is still seen today.

Works created in the Nara Period include Kojiki, Nihonshoki , and Man'yoshu. The language used in the works of this period differs significantly from later periods in both its grammar and phonology. Classical Japanese literature generally refers to literature produced during the Heian Period, what some would consider a golden era of art and literature. Editing anthologies of poetry was a national pastime. Medieval Japanese Literature is marked by the strong influence of Zen Buddhism, where characters are priests, travellers, or ascetic poets. Also during this period, Japan experienced many civil wars which led to the development of a warrior class, and subsequently to the mystique of the Samurai, with war tales, histories, and related stories. Other important tales of the period include Kamo no Chomei's Hojoki and Yoshida Kenko's Tsurezuregusa. Other notable genres in this period were renga, collective poetry and Noh theater. Literature during this time was written during the largely peaceful Tokugawa Period (commonly referred to as the Edo Period). Hokusai, perhaps Japan's most famous wood block print artist, also illustrated fiction as well as his famous 36 Views of Mount Fuji.

Tsuga Teisho, Takebe Ayatari, and Okajima Kanzan were instrumental in developing the yomihon, a more literary style of book, less dependent on illustrations, that was influenced by Chinese vernacular novels such as Water Margin. Another early pioneer of the yomihon, Ueda Akinari initiated the modern tradition of weird fiction in Japan with his Ugetsu Monogatari and Harusame Monogatari. Natsume Soseki also wrote the famous novels Botchan and Kokoro. Ozaki Koyo, Izumi Kyoka, and Higuchi Ichiyo represent a strain of writers whose style hearkens back to early-Modern Japanese literature.

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