Japan Literature During The Period of Tokugawa (1603-1867)

By | January 21, 2022

In 1603, the creation of a new government in Edo (od. Tokyo) by I. Tokugawa brought peace and order to the country that had been ravaged by civil war. Edo became the political, economic and cultural center of the Japan, but, for a certain period, the cradle of culture continued to be the kamigata, that is the area around the ancient capital Kyoto, even if the literature was no longer exclusive. product of the military nobility, but passed into the hands of professional writers, masterless samurai and members of the new, emerging artisan and merchant bourgeoisie. The first half of the 17th century. appears as a period of transition: the three genres of poetry, novel and drama are best represented respectively by Bashō, S. Iharaand M. Chikamatsu. The first brought to perfection the poetic genre of haikai, which would soon develop from new perspectives. Composed, in its most essential form, of only 17 syllables (according to the scheme 5-7-5), the haikai acquired with Bashō the unmistakable elliptical and evocative character given by the richness of the allusions, by an impressionistic technique and by the necessity, impressed by the author, to dissolve human emotions in the impersonal essence of the universe and nature. It follows that the condition of haikai is the presence not of a logical structure but of the ability to perceive and express the object of the poem, eliminating what is not essential. Bashō is famous for his “journals along the way” (michi no nikki), works in prose dotted with haikai, written on the occasion of the numerous trips that led him to travel the country. The most famous remains Oku no hosomichi (“The narrow way to the north”, posthumously, 1703), relating to the journey made in the northern regions of Japan. As a haikai author, S. Ihara also initially gained fame, but he linked his name above all to the novel, creating a new genre, the ukiyozoshi (“Tales of the floating world”), dedicated to the life, fears, aspirations and failures of the merchant class to which he himself belonged. Often cynical, mocking and unscrupulous, Ihara summarizes in his novels the hedonism, and above all the irrepressible and physical vitality of his times. Her most famous stories, Kōshoku ichidai otoko (“Life of a libertine”, 1682), Kōshoku ichidai onna (“Life of a worldly woman”, 1686) and Kōshoku gonin onna (“Five women who loved love”, 1686), while emphasizing the fleetingness of pleasures, they concentrate on passions such as sex and money. Ihara had many imitators (among the most brilliant, K. Ejima), but none was able to match him for his inventiveness, the ability to grasp the aspirations of his contemporaries, the flexible and brilliant language.

During the 17th century. two new popular dramatic forms developed in contrast to the nō theater, now an art form monopolized by the military nobility in power: it is the jōruri, or puppet theater, and the kabuki, which tradition would like to have started with a woman, Okuni, but that soon turned into a show performed by male actors only, also in female guises. The jōruri owes its extraordinary success above all to M. Chikamatsu, who probably began writing his plays around 1677 in Kyoto, and then from 1706 in Osaka. He excelled above all in the so-called sewamono, dramas inspired by contemporary events and characters drawn from everyday life, merchants and prostitutes, who acquire a tragic dimension in the conflict between the passions and ethical values ​​imposed by the social order, a conflict that often leads them to suicide. To this genus belong Sonezaki shinjū (“Sonezaki’s suicide lovers”, 1703), Meido no hikyaku (“The courier of the afterlife “, 1711) and Shinjū Ten no Amijima (“Amijima’s suicide lovers”, 1720); but Chikamatsu was also acclaimed as the author of grandiose and melodramatic historical dramas, among which Kokusen´ya Kassen (“The battles of Coxinga”, 1715) dominates. The century which followed the death of Chikamatsu (1724) has been defined by many as the golden age of Edo literature, a city that became the center of active production. The haikai tradition was carried on by Yosa (or Taniguchi) Buson, by I. Kobayashi and other minors. The period was characterized above all by a huge variety of prose genres, produced by numerous authors of remarkable craft and talent.

A separate discussion deserves the intense activity of scholars and intellectuals aimed at re-examining and interpreting the classical heritage. Defined as kokugakusha (“scholars of national studies”), they include Kamo no Mabuchi and Motoori Norinaga among the most important names. The latter is responsible for the most complete philological commentary on the Kojiki of the Nara era, as well as the studies on the monogatari Genji, which reveal a new methodological approach. In turn, a philologist and scholar was A. Ueda, also author of two works of fiction of singular interest: the Ugetsu monogatari (“Tales of rain and moon”, 1769), a collection of 9 ghost stories, and Harusame monogatari (“Tales of the Spring Rain”, 1808), short stories with a perfect dramatic structure, erudite philological reflections and considerations on the history of the past. Among the writers who were active in Edo, Japan Hiraga, man of the world, frequenter of the pleasure districts, extravagant scientist and inventor as well as a man of letters, is the author of an ironic and desecrating book, Fūryū Shidōken den (“The beautiful story of Shidōken “, 1763). In the last period, the name of S. Tamenaga isremembered, representative of the genre defined ninjō-bon (“love stories”), destined to exert a profound influence on the narrative of the following period.

According to Computerminus, Jippensha Ikku and S. Shikitei were the most acclaimed authors of comic-picaresque novels, while Kyokutei (or Takizawa) Bakin devoted himself for about 28 years to his masterpiece, the Nansō Satomi hakkenden (“The story of the eight heroes of the Satomi family” , 1814-42), divided into 98 parts and comprising about 400 characters. In the Edo century, kabuki theater also triumphs, more dramatic than jōruri and which, instead of the purity and dignity of the former, makes the most of the energy emanating from the personality of the main actors. Among the writers active in Edo, we remember Japan Namiki and especially N. Tsuruya, whose works are characterized by a strong predilection for dark colors. Horror and perversion dominate the scene of his most famous plays, Tōkaidō Yotsuya kaidan (“A tale of ghosts in Yotsuya along the Tōkaidō”, 1825) and Sakura hime Azuma bunshō (“Princess Sakura, documents from the east”, 1817), marked from an open eroticism. Not very different in this respect are the works of M. Kawatake, animated by a great ability to create credible characters and a language of profound poetry.

Japan Literature During The Period of Tokugawa (1603-1867)