The novel in Japan is both very old and completely modern.
Novels in a nearly modern sense were being written in the 10th and 11th century. The most famous novel from this era is The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari) written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady at the imperial court. Genji provides the reader with a superb view of the life, morals, and interests at the highest level of Japanese society. The fictional Genji was a son of an emperor who was, like the best of his contemporaries, refined and civilized. He could compose poems with less than a moment’s notice, a primary means of sophisticated communication at the time. He also mixed perfumes to perfection (this was both a sign of a refined man and a olfactory requisite since bathing occurred only once or twice a year). Written by a woman as was most prose literature at the time, the novel carries a clear story line and development. After the Heian period, novels declined in popularity and virtually disappeared for centuries.
In the Edo period, novels of a kind reappeared, but most of them are more accurately collections of short stories designed to appeal to the merchant and artisan classes in particular. They may have been short of well-developed plots, but they were long on entertainment. Titles like Ihara Saikaku’s The Life of an Amorous Woman or the companion volume The Life of an Amorous Man angered Edo’s police because the novels were frivolous and nearly pornographic, but both were in keeping with the trends of the day. Most importantly for Saikaku, they sold well.
It was not, however, until Western novels were discovered in the middle of the 19th century that the modern novel developed. It was an import, but it was one which quickly was mastered and popularized. Soon novels were being produced in prodigious numbers. Shimazaki Toson was one of the primary novelists of his period, but others like Natsume Soseki also sold large numbers. Both have been translated into English and have had great success outside of Japan either in translation or in movie adaptation.
The novel in Japan is more autobiographical than in the West. Certainly Toson wrote from his own experience and so too did Tanizaki Jun’ichiro whose Some Prefer Nettles depicts the writer’s own attempt to arrange for his unwanted wife to marry a good friend. These types of autobiographical novels give readers great insight not only into the personal lives of writers, but also into the stresses and strains of life to which the writers as artists were perhaps particularly sensitive. Soseki, for example, shows himself and by extension the whole of his 19th century generation on the verge of massive psychological breakdown.
Kawabata Yasunari was the first Japanese novelist to win a Nobel prize for literature, but it could easily have gone to a large number of other novelists: Endo Shusaku, Abe Kobo, or Mishima Yukio, just to name a few authors well known outside Japan. For many decades, Japanese literature was little unknown outside the country, but since 1945 many of the finest novels have been translated widely sold abroad.
Novels, and reading in general, are so popular in Japan that in terms of quantity written they might put to shame their counterparts outside the country. Both the number of titles published each year and the number of volumes of individual popular novels sold is extremely large. One reason may be because of long commuting times. Aside from rush-hours (when it seems simply too crowded to breath much less read while standing), trains and buses are full of reading commuters. Many publishers aim specifically at this market by putting out smaller-than-paperback-size books. Another reason is the near 100% literacy level which was achieved early in the twentieth century. Popular and elite culture were firmly developed and successful writers have been able to earn a handsome living by the pen.