Monogatari (物語)

Monogatari are various events read by a narrator to the reader. The term has a broad meaning and applies not only to fiction but also to history and newspaper articles.

The definition of monogatari in Japan

In modern Japan, 'monogatari' is associated with a 'fictitious' 'tale' that has a shape as 'writing'which is told in an orderly way and has a coherent structure.
It is sometimes used as an English equivalent for 'narrative,' and often confused with an idea of 'story' or used together with the word 'story.'

The birth of Japanese monogatari

In the first place, the term 'monogatari' referred also to 'chatting' in literary works from the Heian period such as "The Tale of Genji." For example, 'conversation' between court women and meaningless 'sounds' which babies let out were considered 'monogatari,' too.
Therefore the word 'monogatari' may have been equivalent to 'having a talk.'
The possibility of 'monogatari' as 'chatting' at that time being passed down to this day is very low unless it was written down. Other than the works which are currently recognized as 'monogatari,' there seems to have been various 'lost and dispersed monogatari,' but we have to be careful about the difference between the current definition of 'monogatari' and what 'monogatari' meant in those days.

These 'monogatari' also contained a great number of works concerning real incidents and people from that time as well as what is called 'tsukuri monogatari' (fanciful tale) featuring fictitious characters. It was quite difficult to draw the line between fiction and nonfiction. For example, "Ise Monogatari" (The Tale of Ise) is a work that is called 'monogatari' because it was originally called that way and readers have enjoyed the work even though the main character was considered for a while to be a real person, ARIWARA no Narihira. Both 'true stories' and 'fictions' were considered 'monogatari' in the beginning, and it was difficult to tell them apart.

Moreover, complicated works such as "The Tale of Genji" include cases where, (1) within the 'monogatari' work itself (2) 'monogatari' that consist of the characters' 'chatting' (3) regarding opinions about 'monogatari.'
(1) to (3) can all be defined as 'monogatari.'
However, readers are forced to be aware of the simultaneous 'monogatari' found in several layers of a single work.
These matters suggest the wide definition of 'monogatari.'

It is considered that existing works of monogatari,' which are recognized as literature today,were those that survived among the various kinds of 'monogatari.'
These are the works that are classified as 'monogatari' in the narrow definition to be mentioned later.
From the viewpoint of the establishment of 'monogatari', it is necessary to distinguish 'monogatari' created after the early-modern/modern times as literary works from ancient 'monogatari.'
Strictly speaking, there is a difference between the underlying concepts found in ancient 'monogatari' and the concepts which were imported in modern times called a 'narrative' or 'story' in English but also translated as 'monogatari.'

The analysis and concepts of Japanese monogatari

From the perspective of 'narratology' in literary theory since the modern times, works which contain a plot tend to be widely recognized as monogatari.
It seems that the study of monogatari could have been influenced by the concept of a 'narrative.'
In the field of literary study, this is discussed in even narrower perspectives of 'narrative discourse,' 'narrative contents,' and 'narration.'
It is also often analyzed from the perspectives of 'plot,' 'story,' and 'narrator.'

The classical 'monogatari works' mentioned above are analyzed with these ideas, and such analysis sometimes bears results. Therefore, the concepts of classical 'monogatari' and those of the 'narratives', which came after the modern and postmodern eras may have become mixed. However, even if it is possible to analyze such classical works, it does not mean that they were written according to the same concept as a narrative.

Examples of Japanese monogatari

In Japan, 'monogatari' in a broad sense sometimes means a work that is told to others. In this sense, monogatari often are epical content. Moreover, literary works and styles before the modern times are sometimes called monogatari to differentiate from modern novels.

Monogatari' in the narrowest sense refers to the classical monogatari works which began with "Taketori Monogatari" (the Tale of Bamboo Cutter) and ended with Giko monogatari (pseudo-classic monogatari) in the Kamakura period. Examples would be: "Ise Monogatari," "Heichu Monogatari" (The Tale of Heichu), "Utsuho Monogatari" (The Tale of the Hollow Tree), "Ochikubo Monogatari" (The Tale of Ochikubo), "The Tale of Genji," "Eiga Monogatari" (A Tale of Flowering Fortunes), "Hamamatsu Chunagon Monogatari" (The Tale of Hamamatsu Chunagon), "Sagoromo Monogatari" (The Tale of Sagoromo) and "Torikaebaya Monogatari" (The Changelings).

Sometimes it also includes historical stories, war chronicles, and setsuwa monogatari (didactic tales). Moreover, light literary works such as "Ugetsu Monogatari" (Tales of Moon and Rain) can be included, too. Fairy tales, didactic tales, old tales, and folklores, such as "Otogi Zoshi", are sometimes called monogatari as well. These works are considered as examples of 'monogatari' that strongly retain the 'chatting' aspect mentioned above.


Monogatari in Japanese literature are classified into the following categories.

Tsukuri monogatari

Uta monogatari (poem tales), in which waka poems are used in the important parts of the plot as opposed to katari (prose recitation) monogatari.

Furu monogatari (old tales)

Giko monogatari (pseudo-classic monogatari)

Monogatari which contain moral lessons using similes are sometimes called 'fable'.

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The history of monogatari in a broad sense

The history of 'monogatari works' in the broadest sense, including 'narrative,' will be explained here.

The"Gilgamesh Epic", written in ancient Mesopotamia, is a famous ancient tale. The Mahabharata, which was created in ancient India, is well known as a long epic.

In Japan, "Taketori Monogatari" is known as the first 'monogatari' among existing works.
Murasaki Shikibu commented that it was 'an ancestor of monogatari.'