A History of Japanese Literature/Book 6/Chapter 1

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YEDO PERIOD (1603–1867)



The student of Japanese history, in any of its branches, should note well the two dates which stand at the head of this chapter. They mark the beginning and end of that wonderful political organisation known as the Tokugawa Shōgunate. The first is the date of the establishment of his capital at Yedo by Tokugawa Iyeyasu, and the second that of the abolition of the office of Shōgun, and the resumption of sovereign authority by the Mikado after many centuries of abeyance. During this period a great wave of Chinese influence passed over the country, deeply affecting it in every conceivable way. Not only the constitution of the Government, but the laws, art, science, material civilisation, and, most of all, the thought of the nation as expressed in its philosophy and literature, bear profound traces of Chinese teaching and example. This wave has not wholly subsided even now, but it has ceased to be of importance, except, perhaps, in determining the moral standards of the nation, and 1867 is a convenient date from which to reckon the substitution of Europe for China as the source whence the Japanese draw inspiration in all these matters.

The latter half of the Muromachi period, coinciding with the second half of the sixteenth century, was a very disturbed time in Japan. The local nobles or Daimios, defying all control by the central government, engaged in continual struggles with one another for lands and power, and a lamentable condition of anarchy was the result. The first to apply a remedy to this state of things was one of their own order, Nobunaga, a man of resolute character and great military capacity. Aided by his two famous lieutenants, Hideyoshi and Iyeyasu, he succeeded in bringing most of the Daimios into subjection, and even deposed the Shōgun, although he was prevented by his descent from assuming that title himself. At his death in 1582, the reins of power passed into the hands of Hideyoshi, who completed the work which Nobunaga had begun. Under the titles of Kwambaku (Regent) or Taikō, he was practically monarch of Japan, until his death in 1598. Then Iyeyasu, after a sharp struggle, which ended in 1600 by the defeat of his opponents in the decisive battle of Sekigahara, succeeded to the supreme authority, and caused himself to be appointed Shōgun by the puppet Mikado of the day. He was the founder of the Tokugawa (his family name) dynasty of Shōguns, which lasted until our own time.

Iyeyasu was probably the greatest statesman that Japan has ever seen. By the organisation of that remarkable system of feudal government under which the nation enjoyed peace and prosperity for two and a half centuries, he solved for his day and country the problem, which will occupy politicians to the end of time, of the due apportionment of central and local authority. At no previous period of Japanese history was the power of the Central Government more effectively maintained in all essential matters, although in other respects the Daimios were allowed a large measure of independent action. Under this régime Japan increased amazingly in wealth and population, and made great progress in all the arts of civilisation.

As a consequence, the new capital of Yedo rose rapidly to importance. Under the regulation, established by Iyeyasu's grandson Iyemitsu, which compelled the Daimios to reside there for part of the year, leaving their wives and children as hostages during the remainder, its population attained to at least a million, and is believed to have been at one time considerably more.

It is not surprising that the enhanced political and commercial importance of Yedo should have brought about a displacement of the literary centre of Japan. Kiōto, especially during the early part of the Yedo period, continued to be a place of some literary activity, and Osaka became the cradle of a new form of drama, but Yedo attracted to itself all the principal learning and talent of the country. For the last two hundred years Yedo has been to Japan for literature what London is to the United Kingdom, or Paris to France.

There is another feature of the literature of the Yedo period which is traceable to the improved condition of the country. Authors now no longer addressed themselves exclusively to a cultured class, but to the people generally. The higher degree of civilisation which was rendered possible by an improved administration and a more settled government included a far more widely extended system of education than Japan had ever known before. And not only were the humbler classes better educated. They were more prosperous in every way, and were better able to purchase books as well as to read them. Books, too, were far more easily attainable than before. Printing, which in Japan dates from the eighth century, now for the first time became common.[1] Hideyoshi's armies, returning from their devastating raid upon Corea, brought with them a number of books printed with movable types, which served as models for the Japanese printers. Iyeyasu was a liberal patron of the printing-press. Since this time the production of printed books has gone on at an increasing rate, and they now form an accumulation which is truly formidable in amount.

The popularisation of literature during the Yedo period worked for evil as well as for good. Many wholesome moral and religious treatises were brought within the reach of the nation generally, and knowledge was greatly extended. But, on the other hand, the average level of taste and refinement was distinctly lowered, and notwithstanding the well-meant but spasmodic attempts of the Government to repress it, a flood of pornographic fiction not easily to be paralleled elsewhere was poured out over the country.

For the Buddhist religion the Yedo period was a time of decadence. Its continued popularity is attested by the vast number of temples which were erected everywhere, and by the hosts of monks who were maintained in idleness. But its influence was on the wane. While Confucianism became the creed of the strong, governing military caste, Buddhism attached itself to the broken fortunes of the Mikados and their court. The nation generally was gradually awaking to a fuller and more vigorous life, and homilies on the instability of human things, the vanity of wealth and power, the detestableness of violence and cruelty, the duty of abstinence from the grosser pleasures, and the beauty of a life of seclusion and pious meditation, were no longer so much to their taste. The moral principles which animated politics and literature were now drawn from the more robust and manly, if more worldly, teachings of the Chinese sages. But of this more remains to be said hereafter.

Towards the end of this period there was a partial reaction in favour of the old Shinto religion. It proved to be only an eddy in the main current of the national thought, and is chiefly important politically as one of the disintegrating influences which led to the breaking up of the Tokugawa régime.

Compared with the writings of the Heian or classical period, the Yedo literature is infinitely more voluminous, and has a far wider range of subjects. It comprises history, biography, poetry, the drama, essays, sermons, a multitude of political and religious treatises, fiction of various kinds and travels, with a huge mass of biblia abiblia, such as dictionaries, grammars, and other philological works, bibliographies, medical works, treatises on botany, law, the art of war, commentaries on the Chinese classics (in themselves a host), expositions of Buddhist doctrine, cyclopædias, antiquarian and metaphysical works, guide-books, and so on.

But while the new literature is much richer and of a more vigorous growth than the old, there is a sad falling off in point of form. With few exceptions it is disfigured by the grossest and most glaring faults. Extravagance, false sentiment, defiance of probability whether physical or moral, pedantry, pornography, puns and other meretricious ornaments of style, intolerable platitudes, impossible adventures, and weary wastes of useless detail meet us everywhere. There is no want of ability. Plenty of genuine wit and humour is to be discovered by those who know where to look for it. True pathos is to be met with in works otherwise highly objectionable; excellent moral advice is only too abundant; there are graphic descriptions of real life, prodigious fertility of invention, a style frequently not devoid of elegance, and generally a far wider range of thought in political and social matters than the hedonist literature of ancient Japan could boast. It is the writer "totus teres atque rotundus" whose absence is so conspicuous. Sane thought, sustained good writing, disciplined imagination and some sense of order, proportion and consistent method are sadly to seek in the profusion of written and printed matter which this period has left to us.

The Japanese language underwent considerable change at this time. To supply the needs of the new civilisation a vast increase of the vocabulary became necessary, and Chinese words were adopted so freely that they now far outnumber those of native origin. As in English, however, the latter retain their position for all the essentials of language. At the same time the simplification of the somewhat cumbrous grammatical system of the old language made still further progress.

In this period the colloquial speech, which had been gradually diverging from the written language so far as at last to necessitate separate grammars for its elucidation, began to show itself in literature. Whether its partisans will succeed in erecting it into a literary dialect remains to be seen. Up to the present their success has not been very conspicuous. It will require far more cultivation than has yet been bestowed upon it to make it equally concise and perspicuous, and to give it the same range of varied expression, as the ordinary literary language.

The "Taikōki."

One of the earliest works of the Yedo period is the Taikōki, a biography of the Taikō, or Regent Hideyoshi, in twenty-two books (eleven volumes). Although written only twenty-seven years after Hideyoshi's death, there had already been time for his history to acquire a certain legendary quality. The first chapter exemplifies the propensity of ignorant mankind for surrounding the birth of great men with miraculous occurrences. The Taikōki cannot be given a high place as literature, but it is valuable for the contemporary documents which it contains, and has supplied material for a number of later works bearing the same or similar titles. It was written in 1625 by an unknown author.

  1. See papers on the "Early History of Printing in Japan," by Sir Ernest Satow, in the Japan Asiatic Society's Transactions, vol. x. 1, and x. 2.