A Short Story of Japanese Literature. Part 4

Japanese Literature in the Edo period from 1600 to 1868

Edo, today‘s Tôkyô, became the Japanese capital. There the Tokugawa clan presented the ruler of Japan, the shôgun. Kyôto, the old capital was still the residence of the imperial court and the tennô, who had no political power anymore. The country was held in strictly seclusion from nearly any other country.

Edo flourished as it became the political and economical centre and slightly turned also into the cultural place to be. From the mid-17th century onwards all main cultural activities happened in Edo, now a raising boom town.


The Japanese society undertook rapid changes during the Edo period. Traditionally the Japanese society was divided into a four class-system, the shinôkôshô 士農工商. The class of the samurai took the first place on top of the peasants, then craftsmen and artisans, who both were named chônin 町人, that is citizens. The Japanese nobility and clergy were located above the four classes. All other people were declared as outcasts, so-called burakumin, like wanderer, prostitutes, people with professions seen as unclean as butchers and grave diggers and the like. There were specific rules and laws for each class regarding every aspect of private and business life.


The installation of schools for everyone and the upcoming of the letterpress in the beginning of the 17th century gave a boost to education of the masses. Education now available on a broader scale to all citizens influenced the cultural and societal development. Japan showed a turn from a nobility culture into an urban culture; especially the chônin became more and more independent.

Japanese Fiction
At first Japanese classics were published. Then easy-to-read magazines, so-called kana-zôshi were printed and available for a broader readership.

Very famous is Ihara Saikaku 井原 西鶴 (1642-1693) as an author of this period, inventor of the ukiyo zôshi, magazines about the red-light districts. He is telling stories therein about the life of the chônin with all facets and particularly about Japanese amusement as well as given the reader an overview about morality and customs of traditional Edo-Japan.

Kenji Mizoguchi made a film of his Kôshoku Ichidai Onna 好色一代女 (The Life of an Amorous Woman) in 1952, named The Life of Oharu.


Ueda Akinari 上田 秋成 (1734-1809) wrote his well-known Ugetsu monogatari 雨月物語 (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), which includes fantastic tales and ghost stories. This work is one of the most popular anthology of Japanese literature.


Apart from the above mentioned titles a new literary entertainment genre was invented at the beginning of the 19th century. The yomi-hon, a storybook, became widely in vogue as it provided colloquial speech, popular themes and motifs. Kyokutei Bakin 曲亭馬琴 (1767-1848) was a very famous writer of this popular magazines mainly dealing with historical topics.


Many people liked to read and the literature targeted to the masses, often in form of
serialized novels. It was the beginning of Japanese fiction writing.


Matsuo Bashô 松尾 芭蕉 (1644-1694) was the most famous Japanese poet of his time. He became very popular for his poetry style called haiku 俳句, a short poem consisting of 17 so-called on, a unit in phonology often referred to as syllables, but this is not quite equal because of the specialities of Japanese language.

He was a former samurai who did not like his military life, but choose to study the way of Zen-Buddhism. He lived in a buddhist monastery in Kyôto and near Tôkyô, but little is known of his life until 1676.

He wrote several hundred verses and that makes him popular on a broader scale. Soon he gathered followers around him. They built him a hut of banana leaves which gave him the name bashô 芭蕉. Since 1684 Bashô made many travels through Japan and took up his work of travel diaries mixed with haikus and drawings. These are still popular today. He worked also together with other poets developing haiku no renga, which is a popular variation of collaborative poetry.


He was a master of poetry during his lifetime, who was respected and worshipped.

His most known poem is The Old Pond


furuike ya

kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto

Ah! The ancient pond

As a frog takes the plunge

Sound of the water


You can look up more of his works here.


Chikamatsu Monzaemon 近松 門左衛門 (1653-1725) was a Japanese playwright who wrote more than hundred plays. He is most famous for his Jôruri dramas of puppet theatre. In Japan this genre is regarded as serious literature. Apart from that Chikamatsu wrote several Kabuki plays. Best known is his The Battles of Coxinga 国姓爺合戦 Kokusen’ya Kassen of 1715.


ukiyo, floating world, is a cultural key term of the Edo period for the search of amusement, popular entertainment and development of urban fashion. The rise of the geisha-culture, theatre as Kabuki and Bunraku and the woodblock printing ukiyo-e gave rise to a new urban culture which is still well-known today.


End of Part 4 — to be continued …

Next: Part 5 Japanese Literature in the Meiji Era (1868-1912)