Theses Doctoral

Urban Fictions of Early Modern Japan: Identity, Media, Genre

Gaubatz, Thomas Martin

This dissertation examines the ways in which the narrative fiction of early modern (1600-1868) Japan constructed urban identity and explored its possibilities. I orient my study around the social category of chōnin (“townsman” or “urban commoner”)—one of the central categories of the early modern system of administration by status group (mibun)—but my concerns are equally with the diversity that this term often tends to obscure: tensions and stratifications within the category of chōnin itself, career trajectories that straddle its boundaries, performative forms of urban culture that circulate between commoner and warrior society, and the possibility (and occasional necessity) of movement between chōnin society and the urban poor. Examining a range of genres from the late 17th to early 19th century, I argue that popular fiction responded to ambiguities, contradictions, and tensions within urban society, acting as a discursive space where the boundaries of chōnin identity could be playfully probed, challenged, and reconfigured, and new or alternative social roles could be articulated.
The emergence of the chōnin is one of the central themes in the sociocultural history of early modern Japan, and modern scholars have frequently characterized the literature this period as “the literature of the chōnin.” But such approaches, which are largely determined by Western models of sociocultural history, fail to apprehend the local specificity and complexity of status group as a form of social organization: the chōnin, standing in for the Western bourgeoisie, become a unified and monolithic social body defined primarily in terms of politicized opposition to the ruling warrior class. In contrast, I approach the category of chōnin as a diverse and internally stratified social field, the boundaries of which were perpetually redefined through discourse and practice. I argue that literary depictions of chōnin identity responded not to tensions between dominant and dominated classes but rather to internal tensions within commoner society. Fiction written by and for commoners was focused on topics of everyday concern: how to make a living, how one should (or should not) exist within one’s family or community, how to advance (or merely maintain, or imprudently spend and exhaust) one’s social, economic, or cultural capital. I seek to replace the politicized trope of “chōnin literature” with an image of multiple urban literatures: a series of writings and rewritings through which urban writers and readers probed, questioned, and reimagined the range of identities that were possible to them.
To do so, I use an interdisciplinary method that draws from recent scholarship in social history and historical sociology on the status group system, building in particular on studies of the social structure of early modern urban space. The two-and-a-half centuries of the Tokugawa reign saw dramatic transformations in how urban identity was conceived. As a result of the increasing integration of early modern society, categories of identity that were once collective, external functions of social relationships and community membership came to be internalized and expressed by the individual as patterns of behavior, taste, and disposition—speech, sartorial expression, habits of consumption, aesthetic tastes, lifestyle, and so on—and the circulation of print media itself was part of these shifts, communicating new social and aesthetic norms across boundaries and to new readers. The readings that I develop in this dissertation are situated at key turning points in this overarching narrative. By contextualizing my close readings in relation to the shifting matrix of discourses, practices, spaces, and media forms shaping chōnin identity, I reveal how techniques of literary characterization were both shaped by and used to understand the contemporary urban world.
In Chapter 1, I offer a polemical reading of Nippon eitaigura (Japan’s Eternal Storehouse, 1688), a collection of stories of commercial success and failure written by Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693). Ihara Saikaku has often been taken as the archetypal chōnin author, and among his works, Eitaigura in particular is most regularly used by both historians and literary scholars alike as a document of chōnin values. Instead, I show the ways in which Saikaku’s text retains traces of the social diversity, class tensions, and shifting values within a heterogeneous and stratified social body. I argue that this text represents a dramatic shift in chōnin consciousness, wherein the nature of chōnin identity, which was originally a function of the urban ward (chō) as a local and organic urban community based on the concrete social relations of its members, is rewritten by Saikaku into a universalizable category of values and economic practice, prioritizing the interests of the house (ie) over the community of the chō.
One of the main ways in which the identity of the chōnin house was figured was in terms of a “house trade” (kashoku or kagyō), a term used to refer to the livelihood associated with a given household, while certain forms of identity performance and trespass were possible through cultural training in the leisure arts (yūgei). In Chapter 2, I use this binary as context for a study of the life and writings of Ejima Kiseki (1666-1735). Kiseki was born into a wealthy Kyoto merchant house, and had taken up writing as a form of leisure, but in his lifetime he saw his family business decline and was forced to make a living as a writer and publisher of fiction. His writing likewise depicts eccentric and profligate chōnin protagonists driven to dereliction by obsessive involvement in leisure practices. Focusing on Seken musuko katagi (Characters of Worldly Young Men, 1715) and Ukiyo oyaji katagi (Characters of Old Men of the Floating World, 1720), I argue that Kiseki playfully inverts the hierarchy of work and play in an attempt to imagine new possibilities of chōnin self-definition.
In Chapter 3, I examine the confrontation between bushi and chōnin concepts of social and cultural capital in the context of the Edo pleasure quarters. Here I focus on the sharebon (witty booklets), a genre of short, satirical fiction that grew in close dialog with the guidebook literature of the pleasure quarters, and the figure of the “sophisticate” (tsū or tsūjin): the paragon of urban fashion and savoir-faire. Where existing scholarship has assumed that this term refers to a concrete, specific leisure subculture, I argue that the tsū was an empty signifier used by authors of differing social positions to make competing claims for the nature of cultural capital, setting bushi intellectual ideals of classical erudition, written language, and specialist knowledge against chōnin cultures of improvisational wit, spoken language, and conspicuous consumption. I also argue that the sharebon itself played an overdetermined role in these dynamics, communicating norms of fashion and social grace to a wide readership while simultaneously throwing into question the authenticity of social performances based on such mediated knowledge.
Chapter 4 shifts to the lower margins of Edo commoner society. Here I offer a reading of the fiction of Shikitei Sanba (1776-1822), focusing on Ukiyoburo (The Floating World Bathhouse, 4 vols., 1809-1813) and Ukiyodoko (The Floating World Barber, 2 vols., 1813-1814), which depict the interaction of a range of generic middle- and lower-class social types in the context of the public spaces of Edo tenement society. Tracing the links between Sanba’s fiction and the emerging performing art of otoshi-banashi (the antecedent of modern rakugo storytelling) and the performance space of the yose, both of which emerged out of lower-class craftsman culture, I argue that Sanba constructs an image of the performative use of the voice as a tactic for navigating and integrating the margins and interstices of status-group society.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Shirane, Haruo
Suzuki, Tomi
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 29, 2016