Book Announcement: An Edo Anthology: Literature from Japan’s Mega-City, 1750 –1850

An Edo AnthologyAn Edo Anthology: Literature from Japan’s Mega-City, 1750 –1850

edited by Sumie Jones with Kenji Watanabe 

This is an anthology of literature centered in the city of Edo, now Tokyo, from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century. It includes many well-known masterpieces as well as unusual examples chosen from the city’s downtown life and counter-culture. Many of the translations presented are the first in the English language based on the first editions of the works.

During the 18th century, Edo became the world’s largest city, its population far exceeding that of London and Paris. The rapid expansion of the city and its flourishing economy encouraged the development of popular urban culture, particularly among the young. Quite aside from the established genres of poetry, drama, and prose, spirited young authors and artists worked together inventing totally new literary forms and genres that focused on the fun and charm of the city of Edo.

Desire for image and spectacle characterized popular culture. Edo’s urban consumers demanded visual and performed presentations in all genres of their culture. The habit of working as a team among creators was perfect for the market. The most Edo-esque were pictorial books in which the literary text and the picture shared each page, requiring that fiction writers, illustrators, woodblock carvers, printers, and publishers worked together. Kabuki plays were not written singly by playwrights, either: actors, managers, and picture artists had a say about the direction of the action and dialogue while the making of independent polychrome prints based on the plays received ideas from the playwright, the actors, etc. It goes without saying that a theatrical performance cannot be represented on paper, but special efforts have been made to include in this anthology as many illustrations as possible with permission from some of the leading museums and libraries in Japan. Three examples of the pictorial genre mentioned above are included in this volume with translated narrative text embedded within the pictures in the same manner as the original Edo books.

In spite of the dark reality of the period, thanks to the feudalistic political system, economic problems, and repeated disasters such as fires and famines, citizens in Edo enjoyed the consumerist opportunities afforded by the flourishing city, which in itself was their pride and joy. Popular interest in sex and entertainment highlighted the theatre district and the so-called “pleasure quarters,” which beckoned spectators and clients with elaborate fashion, luxurious cuisine, and highly-polished manners. These places became the chief backdrop for the literature and arts of the period.

The so-called “gesaku,” or “playful writing,” was invented during the 18th century by groups of samurai to which merchants soon joined. The works were comical and satirical, often poking fun at the government’s policies and samurai behavior at the same time parodying classics. The same gesaku spirit was reflected in various forms of poetry and drama. Super bestsellers that came about during the 19th century were lengthy series featuring heroic history, revenge drama, ghost and monster stories, romantic melodrama, and comedy depicting commoners’ lives. This anthology focuses on the popular sphere of literature and arts of the time representing a broad range of genres from the historical novel to love songs.

Imitating the custom of creative artists of the Edo period, specialists from the U.S., Canada, England, and Japan have collaborated in order to produce an interesting sampling of Edo works in the best possible translations. The resulting anthology is meant to “instruct and entertain,” as English wits put it, students in their classes as well as general readers interested in international literatures.

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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