Eiji Yoshikawa: Japan's Legendary Writer of Historical Fiction

At present, the literary genre of historical fiction is no longer as popular compared to the previous years. With the technological boom, most novel nowadays tend to be more “forward-looking” - with the rise of science fiction and post-apocalyptic works. However, there are still enthusiasts who enjoy reading fictitious works with historical themes.

One of the major reasons why historical fiction, though overtaken by more modern fictional themes, remain to have a niche following - this genre transports back readers to a different period of time. Reading a good historical fiction novel allows the reader to “time travel” using his own imagination.

Meanwhile, the Japanese have long been known for having the highest regard for their culture and past. Given the immense sense of nationalism held by the Japanese, literary works such as historical fiction remain to pique the interest of many readers. For the Japanese, works like historical fiction provide a door to their past cultures and tradition which are two things they have preserved marvelously through modern times.

In twentieth-century Japan, there are several writers who were famous for the historical fiction genre. However, if there would be a debate on who is the most popular writer of the recent century perhaps one name would trump everyone else’s - Eiji Yoshikawa.

Who Is Eiji Yoshikawa: An Overview

The article will tackle Eiji Yoshikawa’s life, works, and legacy. As mentioned in the section above, Yoshikawa was a famous Japanese historical novelist - perhaps, arguably the most popular of his time. His works are rather interesting too. His most popular works are not original at all, but rather, are revisions of- classic historical literature.

By UnknownUnknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The reason why Eiji Yoshikawa’s works revolved around historical fiction is simple - he was extremely fascinated by them. As a writer, he was influenced by many Japanese literary classics. Some of his favorite works are The Tale of the Heike, Tale of Genji, Water Margin, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The fact that he had published his own re-telling of some of these stories just goes to show how deeply he was connected to these works.

As a writer, he maintained his own style of writing while re-telling the historical works mentioned above. He injected his own writing flair and made sure that his work was distinct from the original. For example, one of his works was a re-telling of historical novelist Taiko’s work. The original manuscript was very long - 15 volumes to be exact.

Yoshikawa revised Taiko's manuscript that was originally 15 volumes long and retold it in a tone that was more accessible for modern readers. By changing the re-telling of the book into his own style of writing, he was able to reduce the manuscript into just two volumes. This method was similarly done for a lot of his other novels.

By Miyamoto Musashi ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite having most of his work be inspired retelling of classic Japanese literature (and therefore are not originally his own), he still managed to create a massive amount of literary work that made a positive impact to society. As a twentieth-century writer who made old classical literature more readable for modern times, he was able to renew book lovers’ interest in the past.

In fact, while his work is not original, his work in retelling classic literary pieces was excellent enough to earn him accolades. In 1960, Yoshikawa was awarded the very prestigious Cultural Order of Merit. This was a feat on its own since it was the highest award which a man of letters could receive in Japan. With these awards, many people see Eiji Yoshikawa as one of the best historical novelists in Japan - if not the best.

The Young Eiji: Yoshikawa’s Path to Writing

An interesting fact about Eiji Yoshikawa is that his pen name was not his birth name. With the surname is correct, his first name is actually Hidetsugu Yoshikawa. He was born on the 11th of August in the year 1892. He was born in Kanagawa Prefecture, in a town that is now part of Yokohama in present-day Japan.

There are no such accounts of Eiji’s childhood of family’s socio-political background. However, early accounts of his life show that the Yoshikawa family suffered financially. Yoshikawa’s father had a business venture, which failed. This caused Eiji to stop going to school at a mere age of 11. From there, he stopped going to primary school and instead started working.

The young Eiji started working odd jobs ever since he was 11 years old. At the age of 18, he was working as a laborer in the Yokohama docks. It was during his stint hear where he almost met his demise through a near-fatal accident.

This was an interesting turning point in Eiji’s life because that incident made him decide to move to Tokyo and became an apprentice in a gold lacquer workshop. While this job is not at all related to writing, it was during this time in his life where he first developed an interest in writing.

Eiji’s first interest was comic haiku. He was very interested in the genre, to a point that he joined a poetry society. His first, amateur, literary pieces were comic haiku’s which he had written under the pseudonym "Kijiro".

With his newly-sparked interest in literature, he started writing his own novels. In 1914, at the age of 22, he won first prize in a novel-writing contest sponsored by Kodansha. His piece was entitled The Tale of Enoshima.

His first writing job was in a newspaper - the Maiyu Shimbun. joined the newspaper Maiyu Shimbun in 1921. He became part of Maiya Shimbun’s literary team at the age of 29. At 30, he started publishing serialized versions of stories, starting with the title Life of Shinran.

1923 was a memorable year in the life of Eiji - for both good and bad reasons. It was in that year when he married his first wife - Yasu Akazawa. However, that same year was also when Japan was struck by the fatal Great Kanto Earthquake.

After almost losing his life (yet again) during the Great Kanto Earthquake, this experience strengthened his determination to make a career out of writing. He worked even harder, and in the following years, he was able to publish his own stories through Kodansha - the same company who held the writing contest which he joined in his younger years.

Eiji was able to publish several of his articles in various periodicals published by Kodansha. As a result, later on, it was Kodashna who recognized Eiji as their number one author. Although at the time, Eiji Yoshikawa used 19 different pen names or pseudonyms before settling on Eiji Yoshikawa.

Eiji Yoshikawa first used what would be his last pen name when he published the installment pieces of his work Sword Trouble, Woman Trouble. This is also the pen name which would stick to the mind of Japanese household readers after he published the installment pieces of Secret Record of Naruto in the newspaper Osaka Mainichi Shimbun. It was this literary piece that skyrocketed Eiji Yoshikawa’s writing career to fame, and paved way for his next works to be noticed by the public.

The Final Chapters in Eiji Yoshikawa’s Life: War, Divorce, and Death

By the 30’s, Eiji Yoshikawa has already established his name among many Japanese households thanks to his contributions in various local newspapers. However, this decade also marked a tumultuous part of Eiji’s personal life and would last for a few years.

During this period, Eiji’s writing started having darker undertones. His work became introspective as a reflection of the troubles he was experiencing in his personal life. His marriage with Yasu Akazawa was already falling apart.

By User Alkivar on en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite his troubled personal life, Eiji kept on writing. He made his big break in 1935 when he published a serialization entitled Musashi. The story of Musashi revolved around the most famous swordsman in feudal Japan named Miyamoto Musashi. His work was a fictitious literary work, rather than an autobiography. His work was published in the Asahi Shimbun, and his name was cemented as a legend in the genre of historical adventure fiction.

Aside from problems in his personal life, Japan was also experiencing tumultuous years at the beginning of the twentieth century. 1937 marked the beginning of Japan’s war with China. This changed Eiji’s course of writing for a while, as the newspaper he was working for (Asahi Shimbun) sent him as a field correspondent to write about the war.

It his deployment as a field correspondent, Eiji divorced his wife Yasu Akazawa. He then married Fumiko Ikedo, who became his second wife. Despite being focused on documenting the Sino-Japanese war, he still continued writing novels. While he was in the field, Eiji started reading Chinese literature. Among his famous work during this period are serialized re-telling of two Japanese classics - Taiko and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Being a correspondent during the Sino-Japanese war and having experienced the Second World War exhausted Eiji. Hence, when the war ended, he decided to take a break from writing for a while. During his retirement, he settled in Yoshino (which is Oumeshi in present-day Japan) where he enjoyed a quiet retirement on the outskirts of Tokyo.

After two years of taking a break from writing, Eiji Yoshikawa returned to writing in 1947. He started publishing his works again in the Asahi Weekly where he had started writing again. His post-war works remained popular in the Japanese literary world, including New Tale of the Heike, and A Private Record of the Pacific War.

Fifteen years after he returned to writing again, Eiji Yoshikawa died. He was diagnosed with cancer in the last few years of his life and had died from complications that were related to it in 1962. Eiji was 70 when he passed away.

Ome Tokyo’s Eiji Yoshikawa Museum and the Eiji Yoshikawa Foundation

As of 2017, Ome, Tokyo held a museum dedicated to Eiji Yoshikawa’s legacy. Unfortunately, as of December 2017, there were rumors that the museum would be permanently shut down after it’s usual winter hiatus. The Yoshikawa Eiji Cultural Foundation managed by Eiji’s son is in charge of operating the Yoshikawa Eiji House and Museum. With the threat of impending closure, Eiji’s son is considering the option of donating the building to Ome’s Municipal Government instead.

The foundation dedicated to Eiji Yoshikawa’s legacy is run by his eldest son, Eimei Yoshikawa. The operations of the foundation are costly, amounting to an average of 20 Million Yen annually - inclusive of the operating costs of the Eiji Yoshikawa Museum. This has led the foundation to consider closing the museum or ending sponsorships of historical prizes under Eiji’s name.

The museum was opened in 1977, celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2017. It houses a lot of valuable memorabilia related to Eiji Yoshikawa, including manuscripts of his famous literary piece “Miyamoto Musashi”. Visitors would also be surprised to find paintings made by the deceased author himself.

The museum is also situated in a very nostalgic place for Eiji. It is located adjacent to the house where Eiji lived for the most portion of his life. After opening in the late 70’s (more than a decade after his death), the museum used to receive a large number of visitors. In fact, the Eiji’s fanbase was so big at the time that there were almost 200 thousand visitors every year.

Unfortunately, the numbers of visitors dropping by the museum have declined significantly in a span of four decades. In 2017, there were only 10,000 accounted visitors in the museum for a whole year. This decline is not only attributed to Eiji’s popularity declining - his work is still rather popular in Japan. Instead, it is directly linked to a major decline in Ome’s tourism.