Edo period illustrated books

Since starting to collect Edo period prints (ukiyo-e) a few years ago, I also started to collect a few of the Edo period books. The books were usually illustrated by the same artists that produced prints and so it is another way to extend my interest.

In the Edo period literacy in the cities of Japan was fairly high – some put it at 80% and so, with the advent of cheap printing techniques, there was a boom in the production and consumption of what we’d probably call “pulp fiction” for the masses. Censorship was still rife and so it wouldn’t have been possible to produce literature based on living people (the Tokugawa state was very sensitive to even slight criticism) so these tales were usually based on ancient history or on Chinese legends. 

Different classifications of Edo literature

  • Ehon just means “illustrated book” and so covers most of the genres that I am interested in. Most of these are either fully or partially illustrated, with a colour illustration by a notable ukiyo-e artist featuring on the first page/cover. Often these were sold in pairs so that when both books were brought together their covers formed a complete picture.
  • Kibyoshi were the first popular adult comic books, written from 1775 to the early 1800s. They are humorous and satirical stories of urban culture with images filling a page and the white space filled with text. Each volume would be just 10 pages and there would be about 2-3 volumes per book – averaging 30 pages in total. Kibyoshi means “yellow books”, from the colour of the covers.
  • Gokan are what I have most of in my collection. They became popular after kibyoshi and were produced until the end of the 19th century. They were often irreverent adaptations of long tales, illustrated and written for a wide range of readers. I’d class these as probably the first pulp fiction. Gokan means “bound books” because they were often sold with many chapters bound together.

This is an interesting article explaining the development of popular literature in the Edo period.

Muromachi Genji Kocho no Maki (室町源氏胡蝶巻)

Probably the most famous Japanese classical book is “The Tale of Genji” (Genji Monogatari), an 11th century story of Heian-period gallantry and romance set in the royal court. The book is written in a very difficult style for modern Japanese people to read and so is quite a difficult classic to study. I expect it would be rather like modern people reading Old English or Shakespeare at his most cryptic … a classic, but a difficult book to get into.

This edition is one of the most popular pastiches of this work – known as “Rustic Genji”. It brings the story into the Muromachi period – an era full of intrigue and spices up the story with modern references that readers would have been able to identify with. The aim of the book is clearly to appeal to the masses because it is illustrated AND the text is written in syllabic kana script, which would have been easier for less well educated people to read.

Other editions were written for different audiences and set the takes in more modern settings, or in the case of the shunga versions, in a landscape of promiscuity.

I think this is a fairly contemporary mid 19th century reprint (the colours seem different from “originals”) of a famous gokan – I quote from wikipedia:

Nise Murasaki inaka Genji (偐紫田舎源氏), translated variously as The Rustic Genji, False Murasaki and a Country Genji, or A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji, is a late-Edo period Japanese literary parody of the Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. The work, by Ryūtei Tanehiko (柳亭種彦) (1783–1842) with illustrations by Utagawa Kunisada, was published in a woodblock edition between 1829 and 1842 by Senkakudō.

The parody shifts the time-frame from the Heian period to the Muromachi period, and replaces inserted waka poetry with haiku.

It was the best-selling example of the genre known as gōkan (合巻), a popular literary form that merged image with text. The plot centres on the outlandish adventures of Ashikaga Mitsuuji, second son of Ashikaga Yoshimasa, while seeking to recover a stolen sword, mirror, and poem, upon which the security of the realm depend. The preface to the first chapter introduces the character Ōfuji, whose nickname is Murasaki Shikibu. In the preface to the tenth chapter, Tanehiko describes his own literary project:

When I first began to write The Rustic Genji an aged friend said to me: “You should try to the best of your ability to preserve the language of the original and not alter the story. It will probably then be of some use to young people who haven’t read The Tale of Genji.” But a young friend said, “You should vary the plot. Weave in effects from Kabuki and the puppet theatre. Surely there can’t be anyone who hasn’t read Genji.”


Ōmisoka Akebono Sōshi (大晦日曙草紙)

I have absolutely no idea what this story is about but it seems to be very popular (there are a few different print runs of it) and it seems to be set at New Year’s Eve (Ōmisoka akebono). 

  • The title translates roughly to “New Year’s Eve Grass Paper” but I suspect a lot has been lost in Google Translate!
  • published in 1840 by Tsutaya Kichizō
  • artist Utagawa Kunisada I
  • created by “Kyosan-saku” (Santo Kyozan, 1769 – 1816)
  • https://www.library-noda.jp/homepage/digilib/wako/206.html

Hakkenden (Tale of Eight Dogs)

To quote the Kuniyoshi Project:  “By a rather complicated set of circumstances, Fusehime, the daughter of Lord Anzai of the Satomi Clan, gives birth to eight great warriors, each fathered by a dog.  The majority of the novel’s 181 chapters relate their swashbuckling adventures.”

Frank Witkam:  It’s part of a series of illustrated books (known as gokan) based on Kyokutei Bakin’s bestseller Chronicle of the Eight Dog Warriors. A bit like a manga version of a famous novel today. It was aimed at low literate readers due to the accessible script used (kana). Some Japanese scholars argue women also read these books. Gokan followed after kibyoshi. (From early 19th century to end of 19th century, kibyoshi around 1780s-early 19th c) Generally gokan ran much longer, the word gokan means “bound books”, because they would be sold bound together, some ran for decades, while kibyoshi were only published in 1 or a few books. They look similar though with text mixed with images, a bit like manga or comics. Many illustrated books of this type were first illustrated by the writer. Most illustrators would adapt them without even reading the story. Hokusai was known to sometimes ignore instructions from the author.