Theses Doctoral

Valences of Vengeance: The Moral Imagination of Early Modern Japanese Vendetta Fiction

Atherton, David Carl

The Edo period (1600-1867) was an era of revenge, both in lived reality and on the printed page. During the Edo period, revenge for the murder of a senior family member was considered a virtuous act of filial piety, and, following certain bureaucratic protocols, it was legal for junior family members to pursue a lethal vendetta (katakiuchi) against the murderer. Over one hundred successful vendettas were carried out over the nearly 270 years of Tokugawa rule, events which formed the ground for a vast number of semi-fictional retellings and purely fictional works, many of them penned by some of the period's most famous authors. As an act of virtuous violence, charged with meanings that were deeply entwined with the fundamental values of early modern Japanese moral ideology, vendetta constitutes a unique point of access to the early modern moral imagination. I argue that this unique status enabled the literary topos of vendetta to speak powerfully to the desires and anxieties of early modern readers, constituting a site in which the demands of social obligation, the power of social norms and discourses, the moral relations of class and gender difference, and the ideologies that ordered visions of community and human relationships could be examined, affirmed, re-imagined, challenged, and critiqued, through the complex representational possibilities of literary art. Adopting a comparative approach that places texts, authors, and historical moments in dialogue and that emphasizes the involvement of these works in their broader sociocultural contexts, I explore the work performed by one of the most vital literary topoi of early modern Japan.

I begin in Chapter One by situating the vendetta fiction of the Edo period within a broader literary and discursive trajectory by identifying patterns in the formation of the vendetta topos across works that predate the founding of the Tokugawa shogunate. Exploring the ways these earlier texts imagine the figures of avenger and enemy and the status of virtuous violence, I argue that vendetta has always been characterized as possessing a disruptive potential that can unsettle orders of authority and social hierarchies, and challenge figures of power and status. In Chapter Two, I consider the early modern legacy of this critical potential by examining popular vendetta fiction's representation of the fundamental social relationships--with the household, status community, and ruling authority--that governed the constitution of selfhood in Edo Japan. Through the liminal figure of the avenger, as a character whose pursuit of vengeance affirms those relationships while temporarily loosing him from their bonds and protections, I demonstrate the ways revenge fiction re-imagined and critiqued the individual's relationship with these primary communities. In Chapter Three, I demonstrate that this critical potential of the vendetta topos could also be turned to explore and expose even moral aspects of early modern society not closely connected to revenge. By examining the ways the late 17th century author Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693) uses the frame of vendetta to invert and challenge the anxieties that attended lower-class working women in contemporary discourse, I show that vendetta fiction could be a powerful site for wrestling with the moral and social contradictions wrought by the changes of a modernizing urban economy. Finally, in Chapter Four I argue that the critical potential of vendetta fiction operates not in spite of, but through the literary conventions that coalesce into formulaic elements during the vendetta literature boom at the turn of the 19th century. Drawing on theories of melodrama to explore the ethical-aesthetic mode that dominates the representation of revenge in these texts, I argue that they expose the contradictions and repressions inherent in the virtues the shogunate was actively propagating in a bid to bolster its moral and political authority as part of the Kansei Reforms of 1787-1793. Throughout these chapters I seek to show the ways in which a body of popular texts that has been largely overlooked as bloodthirsty and formulaic was a critical, active agent in constituting the ways early modern authors and readers imagined and sought to understand their world.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Shirane, Haruo
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 19, 2013