A History of Japanese Literature/Book 6/Chapter 5



Kangakusha—Fiction—Jishō and Kiseki—Jitsuroku-
Mono—Wasōbiōye—Popular Drama


The pursuit of Chinese studies reached its height in the eighteenth century. In its early years Hakuseki, Kiusō, and other distinguished men of letters still lived and wrote. They had numerous successors, who continued to bring out volume after volume of commentaries on the Chinese classics, works on government, the art of war, history, finance and political economy, ethics, metaphysics and religion, under which the shelves of Japanese libraries are groaning at this day. But, as the Heike Monogatari says, "that which flourishes must also decay." After the philosophers came the sophists. Japan had little more to learn from the Chu-Hi philosophy, and the renewed study of the ancient Chinese literature which it had promoted. The impulse derived from these sources had spent its force, though it continued to be indirectly felt in other departments of literature than the writings of the Kangakusha.

In the eighteenth century the Chu-Hi philosophy was no longer so universally recognised as the unquestioned standard of doctrine. Even in the preceding century there had been heretics, vigorously denounced by Kiusō, who followed the teachings of Wang Yangming,[1] a Chinese thinker who "endeavoured to substitute an idealistic intuitionalism for the scientific philosophy of Chu-Hi." Another heretic was Itō Jinsai (1627–1705), who was one of the founders of a new sect known as the Kogakusha, which set aside Chu-Hi's exposition of the Chinese classics, and sought to base a system of philosophy on the direct study of the works of Confucius. His son Tōgai (1670–1736), a distinguished scholar, followed in the same track as well as the still more eminent Ogiu Sorai (1666–1728). Tōgai was the author of Yuken Shōroku and Hyōsoku-dan, collections of miscellaneous writings in the Japanese language; and Sorai is remembered for his Seidan ("Talk on Government") and Narubeshi, both of which are in Japanese. Dazai Shuntai, also a heretical philosopher, was the author of a work on finance called Keizairoku, and of a volume of desultory essays, in a plain, straightforward style, entitled Dokugo ("Soliloquy"), which is much esteemed. All these were voluminous writers in the Chinese language.

Meanwhile the Chu-Hi or orthodox school of philosophy was not without its champions, and a war of contending sects arose whose wrangles disturbed Japan until the end of the century. The intolerance of all classes of Kangakusha for Buddhism, and the aversion and contempt of the Wagakusha (or students of the native learning and religion) for Chinese scholars and Buddhists alike, helped to increase the turmoil and confusion. Towards the end of the century this state of things became so unbearable that the reigning Shōgun, lyenari, was driven to apply a partial remedy. He prohibited all philosophical teaching whatever other than that of Chu-Hi and his adherents.

The Kangakusha, by their excesses and extravagances, were themselves responsible for the decay of their influence. Their admiration for things Chinese passed all reasonable bounds. Sorai, for example, spoke of himself as an "Eastern barbarian," and Chinese standards were blindly accepted as unquestionable rules of conduct both in private and public matters.

In the world of literature the most noticeable result of the Kangakusha craze (for such it ultimately became) was the neglect of Japanese composition. For all serious writings Chinese was preferred, and it was only for their lighter and more carelessly written works that these scholars condescended to use their own language. The native style was for a long time left mainly to the writers of fiction.

Jishō and Kiseki

At the beginning of the eighteenth century there was at Kiōto a bookseller and publisher whose place of business was known as the Hachimonjiya or "Figure-of-eight-house." The principal of this establishment was also an author, and in that capacity signed himself Jishō (spontaneous laughter). Associated with him was a writer who styled himself Kiseki. Kiseki was a broken-down tradesman of Kiōto, the heir of a long line of shopkeepers who had amassed wealth by the sale of a kind of sweetmeat or cake. Such part of their substance as had descended to him he wasted in riotous living, and was at last compelled to resort to authorship for a subsistence. At first Kiseki allowed his works to be published in Jishō's name; but as their popularity became established, he insisted on his own name also appearing on the title-page. Ultimately author and publisher quarrelled, and Kiseki opened an independent establishment, where a good number of his works were brought out. Some go so far as to say that Jishō never wrote anything, but that the books which bear his signature were in all cases really the work of Kiseki or other needy authors, whom he paid for their services. Whatever may have been the relations between them, the two names Jishō and Kiseki are constantly associated by the Japanese, just as we speak of Erckmann-Chatrian or Besant and Rice.

Kiseki died about 1736, in his seventieth year, and Jishō in 1745, at an advanced age. In a preface to his last published work, the latter commends to the favour of the public his son Kishō and his grandson Zuishō, who were authors of writings of a similar character to those for which the Hachimonjiya had acquired its reputation. One of these, printed in 1746, contains a catalogue of one hundred and three publications of this notorious press. The names of a considerable proportion are sufficiently indicative of their character. They are pornographic novels, tales, or sketches. Even when the title is a harmless one, the reader after a few pages is pretty sure to find himself introduced to one of the Kuruwa or brothel-quarters of Kiōto or elsewhere, and the manners and customs of these places furnish a large part of the subject-matter.

There is a reason, if not an excuse, for the prevailing choice of this unsavoury topic by Japanese writers of fiction during the Yedo period. There was no social intercourse to speak of between men and women of the better class. Whenever reasons of economy did not stand in the way, the women lived a very secluded life, seeing no men but their near relations. Their marriages were arranged for them, and romantic attachments were extremely exceptional. The manners and customs of the respectable classes of society were therefore not a promising field for the writer of fiction. He preferred the freer atmosphere of the Kuruwa, to which pretty gardens and handsome buildings, with the showy education and gay costumes of their inmates, lent a superficial appearance of elegance and refinement. The element of romance in the lives of these women was perhaps small, but it existed, and it was far more natural to credit them with romantic adventures and passions than their more immaculate sisters. And if the novelist's description of these places as the home of wit and jollity, and the natural resort of all young men of spirit and fashion, had a tendency to corrupt public morals, it is also to be remembered that the class of readers whom he addressed were not particular in these matters. It was a case of populus vult corrumpi, et corrumpitur.

The most famous of the Hachimonjiya publications is a work entitled Keisei Kintanki (1711). Jishō's name appears on the title-page, but it is probably one of those which were really written by Kiseki. It is not a novel, but a debate on a subject of which I must renounce the attempt to give an idea. In so far as mere words go, there are more objectionable works, but the whole attitude of the author is profoundly immoral. What is specially unpardonable is his irreverent use of terms borrowed from the Buddhist religious vocabulary, and the scandalous way in which here and elsewhere the great names of Japanese history are dragged by him through the mire. Its humour, however, is undeniable.

A somewhat less objectionable work is the Oyaji Katagi or "Types of Elderly Men," by Jishō and Kiseki. It is a series of racy, lifelike sketches of "The Gourmand," "The Devotee," "The Valetudinarian," "The Patron of Wrestlers," with others which need not be specified.

This was followed by a number of similar works, such as Musuko Katagi ("Types of Youths"), Tedai Katagi ("Types of Merchants' Assistants"), Musume Katagi ("Types of Girlhood"). The last-named work has a preface, which makes what I have no doubt is a sincere profession of the most unexceptionable moral aims.

The Kokusenya Minchō Taiheiki, by Kiseki, is a version, with variations, of Chikamatsu's well-known play. The practice of novelising dramas is more common in Japan than the reverse process. As has been already explained, there is far less difference between these two forms of composition than in European literature.

The Fūriu Gumpai Uchiwa is a romance of the olden time, related in the Hachimonjiya manner. Other romances are the Shōnin Gumpai Uchiwa (Kiseki, n. d.), Fūriu Saikai Suzuri, and Fūriu Tōkai Suzuri.

It is not easy to discover in the works of these writers passages which are suitable for quotation in these pages. The following is an outline of a story from the Zen-aku Mimochi Ōgi, or "Good and Evil Conduct Fan," a series of moral tales, signed by Jishō and Kiseki:—

"Piety has its Reward"

There was once an ink-maker of Nara, named Kurosuke (Blackie), tolerably well off, but not rich. He was a very pious man, and went every day to the shrine of Kasuga, near that city, to pay his devotions. One day, as he went to make his usual morning prayer, he met a white-haired man in the garb of a Shinto priest, who told him that on his way home he would find a reward of his piety at the great Torii (Shinto archway) leading to the shrine. He accordingly found there a purse of fifty gold kobans. He took it home, intending to advertise it, and so give the loser an opportunity of making a claim. Meanwhile Kurosuke heard a sound of great lamentation which proceeded from the house of a neighbour. It appeared, on inquiry, that the father of the family had gone security for a friend who had absconded, leaving him liable for a sum of one hundred rios. It was totally impossible for him to raise this amount. The creditor offered to take thirty, but even this sum was far beyond his means. His daughter (the experienced reader of Japanese novels knows what is coming) then offered to let herself be sold to a Kuruwa in order to provide the needful money, and an establishment of this kind, far away in Chikuzen, was selected, so as to lessen the family disgrace as much as possible. It was the lamentation at her approaching departure which had drawn Kurosuke's attention. He concluded that with the gift of the gods he could not do better than release this unhappy household from their difficulty. So he paid the thirty rios, and returning home, deposited the balance of the money in the domestic shrine and went about his business. Now his wife, of whom he had made a confidante, was a foolish woman. She took it into her head that her husband had stolen the money. Full of this idea, she must needs let their landlord know of her suspicions. And so from one to another the matter became public property. Kurosuke was arrested, and although he told the true story over and over again, nobody believed him. The authorities directed that he should be detained in custody until the loser of the money should appear to corroborate his statement. At last the original owner came forward. She was a young widow from a distance, who had meant it for the erection of a stone lantern in front of the shrine, in memory of her deceased husband, and on her relating the circumstances of its loss, Kurosuke was at once released. He obtained the magistrate's permission to divorce his wife for her treacherous conduct, and married the widow. They adopted the young girl who had been saved from a life of shame, and were happy and prosperous ever after, leaving children and grandchildren who handed down their name. This true story is told to this day as an example of the saying that "piety has its reward."

The Hachimonjiya continued its activity until the end of the eighteenth century. Meanwhile other houses had sprung up, first at Kiōto and subsequently at Yedo, to supply the public demand for literature of this kind. Their publications, known as share-bon, or witty books, were of so outrageous a character that the Government at last (in 1791) interfered, and visited both authors and publishers with severe but not unmerited punishment. Non ragioniam di lor.

With all their faults, Jishō and Kiseki must be pronounced the truest representatives for their time of the characteristic qualities of the Japanese national genius. They fill an important place in the history of Japanese literature, continuing the tradition of Saikaku by their graphic and humorous descriptions of real life and manners, while they far excelled him in culture and literary ability. They have been called realistic writers by some native critics, and when we think of the extravagant and unreal romances so much in vogue at a later period, they must be admitted to have considerable claim to the title. But in fidelity to the facts of everyday life and actual human nature, unsophisticated by superfine Chinese ethical notions, they fall short of some of their successors. Their works are by no means uniform in this respect, and some of them contain a large element of romance.


In the Heike Monogatari and Taiheiki we have seen examples of what may be called "history paraphrased." The authors of similar works in the eighteenth century went a step further. They treated real personages and events with still greater freedom, and thus produced what, notwithstanding the name Jitsuroku-mono ("True Record"), was in reality closely akin to the historical novel. Their favourite themes are battles and vendettas, warlike exploits, and the disorders which from time to time disturbed the peace of the Daimios' Governments. Their style is for the most part plain and unadorned, but not without a certain naïve charm, and their works are still popular, although the authors' names have long been forgotten.

Among the principal works of this kind may be mentioned the Ōkubo Musashi Yoroi, Onna Taiheiki, Mikawa Go Fudoki, Taikōki, and the Ōka Seidan. The Taikōki, written in the early years of this century, relates the history of the famous soldier and statesman Hideyoshi in a highly imaginative fashion and at enormous length. It is to be distinguished from the earlier Taikōki already noticed, and from subsequent works with the same or similar titles.

An even more popular work was the Ōka Seidan, which purports to be a collection of causes célèbres tried by a judge named Ōka Echizen no Kami, famous for his impartiality and acumen. He was Machibugiō or civil governor of Yedo, a post which carried with it high judicial powers, under the Shōgun Yoshimune, in the early part of the eighteenth century.

The Ōka Seidan consists of forty-three stories, some of which are founded on fact, though the hand of the romancist is readily distinguishable in all. It may be cordially recommended to European students for its simple, unpretentious style, which is entirely free from the irritating tricks of the writers of superfine Japanese.

The most interesting of the stories related in this bulky volume is the first. It is an account of an attempt by a scoundrelly young Buddhist priest, named Tenichi Bō, to pass himself off on the Shōgun[2] as a son of his by a woman whom he had known in his youth. In order to carry out this design, he and his accomplices commit some forty murders and other crimes. By means which recall the devices of a famous claimant of our own day, they persuade the merchants of Ōsaka and Kiōto to advance them large sums of money wherewith to furnish Tenichi Bō with an outfit suitable to his supposed station. He then proceeds to Yedo with a train of several hundred followers, and takes up his residence there in a handsome yashiki, built specially for his reception from the funds supplied by his deluded adherents. The Shōgun is strongly inclined to recognise him; but Judge Ōka, at the imminent risk of receiving an invitation to commit hara-kiri, urges caution. He ultimately succeeds in tracing out, by his detectives, the whole history of Tenichi Bō's criminal career, and the story ends dramatically with the arrest, exposure, and execution of the chief culprits. It is true in all its more important features.

The Jitsuroku-mono were suppressed by the Shōgun's Government in 1804, as containing matter injurious to the fame of Iyeyasu, the deified founder of the dynasty, and his lieutenants. At the same time all mention of real personages belonging to the military caste who lived after 1573 was prohibited in works of fiction. The Jitsuroku-mono continued, however, to be read in manuscripts, which formed a substantial part of the stock of the circulating libraries.

"Wasōbiōye" (1774)

Wasōbiōye is a sort of Japanese Gulliver. The hero drifts out to sea from the port of Nagasaki in a fishing-boat, and reaches the Land of Perennial Youth and Life, the Land of Endless Plenty, the Land of Shams, and finally the Land of Giants, meeting with numerous adventures, which are related with no little humour. This work has not been treated as a very important contribution to Japanese literature. Mr. Chamberlain, who has translated the best part of it for the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan,[3] speaks of it as of no particular importance or celebrity, and the native writers of literary history take no notice of it whatever. It appears to me that it is deserving of a more favourable judgment, and I confess that I prefer it to the more celebrated work suggested by it, namely, the Musōbiōye of Bakin. I transcribe from Mr. Chamberlain's version a passage which will give some idea of its character:—

"Now you must know that, as in this country there were no such phenomena as death and disease, none of the people knew what death or disease felt like, though they were much given to speculating on the subject. Some few volumes of the Buddhist Scriptures that had been brought over in ancient times from India and China, described heaven in such glowing terms that they were filled with quite a desperate admiration for death, and distaste for their own never-ending existence, so much so that when, as a rare exception, any of their countrymen chanced to die, he was envied in the same manner as in Japan would be envied one who should have obtained immortality. They studied the 'art of death' as it were the art of magic, retiring to mountain districts and secluded valleys, where they subjected themselves to all manner of ascetic privations, which, however, rarely obtained for them the desired effect. In the matter of food, all such articles as ginseng, wild potatoes, eels, wild duck, &c., which increase the action of the kidneys, and strengthen the spleen and stomach, were feared and avoided as being poisonously life-giving; whereas what people of rank and consideration highly prized and delighted in were such viands as were likely to cause the eater's death. Thus mermaids were unusually cheap and plentiful—plentiful as cuttle-fish on the coast of Idzumi—and you might see slices of them piled up on dishes, as well as whole ones hanging from the eaves of every cook-shop. But nobody who was anybody would touch with the tips of his fingers a fish so apt to poison you to life, and it was accordingly left to the lowest of the populace. The globe-fish was much esteemed, commanding a high price, and a favourite dish to set before the most honoured guests was a broth made of this fish powdered over with soot. These would not, of course, in this Land of Perennial Youth and Life, actually kill a man. But still the poison would have a certain slight effect, making him feel giddy for half-an-hour or so, and giving him sensations as pleasurable as that experienced by us Japanese after drinking rice-beer. 'Ah,' he would exclaim, 'this is what death must feel like!' and he would clap his hands and dance and sing, and believe himself to have attained the very acme of felicity. If, in trying to say something flattering about a friend's child, a caller were to remark on its apparent healthiness, both father and mother would remember his words with uneasiness; whereas, if he should say, 'The little thing doesn't look as if it would live long,' he would give the parents the greatest pleasure, and they would reply, 'Ah, if only what you say may come true!' "

Popular Drama

The eighteenth century was the flourishing period of the Japanese popular drama. Nearly everything of note in this department of literature belongs to it. Chikamatsu, it is true, began his career somewhat earlier, but all his principal works date after 1700. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, on the other hand, the writing of Jōruri has almost altogether ceased.

Chikamatsu was succeeded by Takeda Idzumo, who wrote about the middle of the century. Most, however, of the plays commonly attributed to him were composed in collaboration with other writers, some being the work of as many as five or six authors. It seems to have been the usual practice at this time for playwrights to work together in this way. A committee having been formed, the proceedings began by the president giving out a subject. At a subsequent meeting each member offered his suggestions as to its treatment, and the work of composition went on in concert, nothing being accepted until it met with the general approval.

One of the best known works of Idzumo is a historical play of five acts, founded on the fortunes of Sugawara Michizane, a celebrated statesman of the ninth century, who was deified after his death as Temman Tenjin, and is now worshipped as the god presiding over penmanship. It is entitled Sugawara denjiu tenarai no Kagami or "Mirror (that is, History) of the Transmission of the Art of Calligraphy by Sugawara" (1746). The names of four authors appear on the title-page.

A still more famous drama by Idzumo and two collaborators is the Chiushingura[4] (1748) or "Magazine of Faithful Retainers." Chikamatsu's five-act arrangement was at this time no longer adhered to, and the Chiushingura is in eleven acts or scenes. It is a version of the favourite story of the forty-seven Rōnins. There are no fewer than forty or fifty plays on this subject, some of them, however, being mere adaptations of previous works.

In their general character, Idzumo's plays greatly resemble those of his predecessor. There is the same overcrowding of exciting incidents, the same mixture of comedy and tragedy, and the same desire to shock the audience with brutal murders and other enormities enacted on the stage, and to pander to their lewder tastes. But although it is heresy to say so, I confess to a preference to Idzumo over his more famous master. The improbabilities are not quite so startling, the personages are several degrees nearer to ordinary humanity, and their sentiments are somewhat less unnatural and less stilted in their expression. The poetical element is, perhaps, thinner, but that, to the European reader at least, is a doubtful disadvantage.

Idzumo died in 1756. He was followed as playwright for the Takemoto theatre by Chikamatsu Hanni, who did his best to attract audiences by startling novelties and spectacular effect. He reduced the share given to poetical narrative, and depended more on dialogue. But in his hands the Jōruri declined sensibly. The public got tired of it, the Takemoto Za went into bankruptcy, and after the end of the century this kind of drama became practically extinct.

  1. See Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, vol. xx. p. 12; also Dr. Knox's translation of Nakai Tojiu's Okina Mondo, in vol. ii. of the Chrysanthemum.
  2. Arai Hakuseki's patron, Yoshimune.
  3. Vol. vii. (1879).
  4. Translated into English by Mr. F. V. Dickins, under the title Chiushingura; or the Loyal League: a Japanese Romance.