Edging Toward Japan: One of Japan's greatest literary forms is on the front page
By Damian Flanagan
You often hear of people from abroad becoming interested in uniquely Japanese literary forms such as the haiku or tanka poetry. I must confess that although I appreciate fine poets such as Masaoka Shiki and Hagiwara Sakutaro, short poetry is not something that particularly grips my interest.
And then, while I love novels and short stories written in Japanese, I can't particularly argue that they differ in any significant way from what you find in many other countries. Even styles of essay writing such as "Zuihitsu" (literally, "following the pen"), supposedly a distinctively Japanese form of free-wheeling writing, is in truth nothing different to what you find in English.
But there is a Japanese literary form that I do find fascinating. This is the Japanese newspaper article which sits at the bottom of most front pages. Leading examples are the "Yoroku" ("Musings") column in the Mainichi Shimbun or the "Tensei Jingo" ("Vox Populi, Vox Dei") column in the Asahi Shimbun.
How do you even describe what this column is? It's not an op-ed or an editorial, though it has some elements of overlap, often commenting on some topical issue of the day, though retains the licence to link that commentary to artistic musings and diverse, unexpected mental connections. It's really a type of "free thought", beautifully written and stimulating. Very often it is the best thing in the whole newspaper.
But the other thing that has long caught my eye about these columns is their extraordinary conciseness, being only around 600 characters, which is equivalent to about 250 words.
A standard article in an English newspaper is about 800-1000 words and anyone who has ever written an article, essay or speech will know what a challenge it can be to cram everything you want to say into that length.
But Japanese newspapers operate on much tighter word limits. The typical "large" article for a Japanese paper will be only the equivalent of about 400-500 words in English, requiring a doubling up of word ruthlessness and density of meaning.
Yet even within those demanding limits of word-intensity, the "front page reflection" article (for want of a better phrase) stands as a thing apart, something so rich in ideas, artistry and beauty that it is impossible to believe that there is only the equivalent of 250 words contained within it.
For me, they are one of the ultimate Japanese literary forms. (What you've just read is 400 words by the way).
(This is Part 11 of a series)
In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.
Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).