Ask just about anyone with a keen interest in Japan to name their favorites from the nation's rich literary history and they are likely to rattle off a few famous names. But ask the same person for their favorite Japanese critics, and stony silence is likely to ensue.

Surely this is right and proper? We tend after all to think of fiction as "creative" and primary, and criticism as "reactive" and secondary, footnotes that can safely be skipped.

That would be to misunderstand, however, how "creative" the greatest critical thinking is. In fact, it is often defining works of criticism that have constructed the frameworks in which so-called creative writers operate. Nowhere is this more true than in Japan, where cultural critiques have repeatedly transformed the intellectual and artistic landscape.