SOAS University of London

Department of the Languages and Cultures of Japan and Korea

Survey of Pre-Modern Japanese Literature in Translation

Module Code:
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 2
Taught in:
Term 1


Year 1 Japanese or equivalent.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the course the students should have gained a broad knowledge of historical developments in Japanese literature and aesthetics from the eighth to nineteenth centuries.  They will have read extracts in English translation from each of the major genres and periods of Japanese literary history, and they will also have read one longer work (The Tale of Genji) in its entirety.

The students should have become familiar with the major works, authors, styles and a wide variety of native literary terminology. They will be expected to have gained an insight and appreciation into different ways of perceiving, experiencing and re-creating the world as recorded by people remote in time and place. The students will also have gained competence in a variety of different critical and theoretical approaches to these works, and will be able to use these approaches to formulate their own readings of classical literature.


This is a one term course taught over 10 weeks with a two hour lecture and a one hour tutorial per week.

Scope and syllabus

The course will be taught as a survey of pre-modern Japanese literature over its first millennium, from the eighth to nineteenth centuries.  Students will read, in English translation, examples of representative works from the classical, medieval and early modern periods. Works will include myths, waka poetry, aristocratic tales and diaries, military epics, nô dramas, haiku, kabuki and puppet plays.  Students will be expected to develop critical readings of these texts, based around a selection of major themes such as: poetry and poetics; religious and aesthetic ethos; and gender, sexuality and subjectivity.

Method of assessment

Two essays of 2500 words each (50% each). The first essay to be submitted on day 5, week 5, term 1 and the second on day 1, week 1, term 2.

Suggested reading

Students are required to read an unabridged translation of The Tale of Genji in preparation for the course. The recommended translations are those by Edwards Seidensticker (Knopf, 1976), Royall Tyler (Penguin, 2003), and Dennis Washburn (Norton, 2015). Please do not read the older Waley translation. As a guide to reading the text, Richard Bowring's Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji (Cambridge University Press, 2004) is also recommended.

  • Keene, Donald (1993): Seeds in the Heart. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Brower, Robert and Miner, Earl (1961): Japanese Court Poetry. Stanford: Stanford UP.
  • Heldt, Gustav (2008): The Pursuit of Harmony: Poetry and Power in Early Heian Japan. Ithaca: Cornell East Asia Series.
  • Wallace, John R. (2005): Objects of Discourse. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan.
  • Bargen, Doris (1997): A Woman’s Weapon: Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji. Honolulu: Hawai'i UP.
  • Marra, Michele (1991): The Aesthetics of Discontent: Politics and Reclusion in Medieval Japanese Literature. Honolulu: Hawai'i UP.
  • Terasaki, Etsuko (2001): Figures of desire: wordplay, spirit possession, fantasy, madness, and mourning in Japanese noh plays. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Schalow, Paul Gordon trans. (1991): The Great Mirror of Male Love. Stanford: Stanford UP.
  • Shirane, Haruo (1998): Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory and the Poetry of Basho. Stanford: Stanford UP.
  • Gerstle, C. Andrew (1986): Circles of fantasy: Convention in the Plays of Chikamatsu. Harvard UP, 1986.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules