Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011

Japan's first pop culture

Before Japan was unified in 1603 there was little in life for the masses beyond scratching a living or bearing arms for their betters. Then came peace, print — and small change — and soon they were reading novels, going to plays and enjoying the manga of their day.


Special to The Japan Times

Pop culture. Japan's today is thriving, vibrant, spreading, turning people the world over into manga/anime freaks and costume players.

News photo
Godmother of pop: Izumo no Okuni in full flamboyant cross-dressed regalia. Her dances and pantomimes on the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto with the troupe she trained gave rise to kabuki and to Japan's first-ever pop culture worthy of the name.

It's a new role for this once introverted, quietly workaholic nation. As recently as the 1980s, "culture" in Japan meant, if not corporate culture, then high culture. Pop culture — culturally if not commercially — was peripheral. Now it is central, one of the few buoyant sectors in a society that otherwise seems to have lost its way.

Four hundred years ago there lived a woman who might have foreseen it. She launched it. Popular culture before her is an oxymoron. Japanese culture was ancient, elegant, stately, nuanced, refined, classical, exclusive.

The rude masses had no part in it. They had their entertainments, circuslike and bawdy, courtesy of wandering musicians, dancers, ballad chanters, puppeteers, acrobats, swordsmen, animal trainers and the like, but if culture implies something transcending mere boisterousness, little of this qualified.

Japan's popular culture was born in a makeshift semi-outdoor theater on the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto, then Japan's capital, in 1604 — not far from the local execution grounds. Experts might balk at so sharp a turning point, but with due allowances made for gradual evolution and unsung forerunners, a dance spectacle staged there and then seems to have been a break with the past and a harbinger of the future. Modern anime fans might have found it right up their alley.

The mastermind was a dancer named Izumo no Okuni (ca 1571-ca 1615). She had grown up a shrine maiden doing devotional dances, and graduated to the river and other venues where she and the troupe she trained and led entertained the masses with songs, skits, flamboyant costumes and sexual innuendo — cross-dressing, for instance. She danced at court too, but her popular performances were described as "kabuki" — meaning "weird."

A collaborator who may or may not have been her lover was a dashing warrior named Nagoya Sanzaburo, known for wit, grace and a penchant for outlandish Portuguese attire — Portuguese traders and missionaries were then making early inroads. Sanzaburo was stabbed to death in a quarrel with another samurai.

"A few months later," writes journalist Mark Weston (in "Giants of Japan," 1999), "in the middle of a performance, a handsome young man wearing fashionable Portuguese garb leapt onto Okuni's stage and demanded to see her, claiming to be Sanzaburo's ghost. The audience quickly realized that the actor playing the ghost was none other than Okuni herself, and erupted in cheers. For several minutes 'Sanzaburo' danced sensuously with the actress playing Okuni, until finally an angry hunchback drove 'Sanzaburo' back to the underworld."

Heard the one about the woman who cut off her nose? It's from Japan's first bestseller — a humor anthology published anonymously in 1615 under the title "Today's Tales of Yesterday."

The woman's husband was ill, dying. The thought she might remarry was darkening his last hours. Remarry? Never, she vowed. She would shave her head, become a nun, pray for the repose of his soul. The husband was moved, but not satisfied. Shaved hair grows back; a woman's heart is weak. It was a lot to ask, he admitted, but would she cut off her nose? That would reassure him, and he could die at ease.

Very well, said the wife.

To everyone's surprise, the husband recovered — a happy turn of fortune's wheel, except that he was now the husband of a noseless woman. "I am ashamed to tell you this," he said, "but seeing your face makes me wish I were dead. There is no kind way to say it: I want you to leave."

She protested; he insisted. The case ended up in court. He told his story, she told hers. The magistrates deliberated and reached their decision: "Off with his nose!" And so it was done. "Hand in hand, the noseless man and the noseless woman returned home and lived happily ever after without incident."

News photo
Mass entertainment: An illustration from the early 1740s by Masanobu Okamura (1686-1764) of the Ichimura-za, a major kabuki theater in Edo (present-day Tokyo) that survived numerous fires and rebuildings until it was razed for the last time in 1932.

Once upon a time — this is from "Tales of the Floating World" (1666) by one of the first authors from the Edo Period (1603-1867) whose name survives, a onetime Buddhist priest named Asai Ryoi — a certain Hyotaro, scion of a Kyoto merchant house, became a slave to pleasure, specifically the varieties on offer at Shimabara, Kyoto's licensed erotic quarter.

One courtesan in particular consumed his attention, his energy, his fortune: "Being promised her true love until the end of time, he became so intoxicated with joy as to think less of his own life than of dirt. And all the while he was being fawned on and flattered by the hired jesters . . . "

His family remonstrated with him: "By her nature, a courtesan is a woman who . . . adorns herself, and so is quite alluring . . . Her lips languorous like a loose-wound spool, the fragrance of her perfume reaching to the skies. And how lovely when she moves, swaying back and forth; truly she could easily be mistaken for the living incarnation of the Amida Buddha! Compared with this creature, a man's wife can hardly seem to be more than a salted fish long past its prime!"

Well, that'll kick the nonsense out of the young fool.

"And the thankfulness you feel," the family elder continued, "just to hear the sound of her (the courtesan's) voice! What great priest could bestow on you words of enlightenment equal to this? . . . So please," he concluded, "we beseech you, cease this folly!"

A moral sermon in which the irresistibility of pleasure is emphasized to sound a warning risks going badly astray.

"Truly," replied Hyotaro, "I am most grateful for your kind advice."

Whereupon he "hurried out on his way to the Shimabara and, before long, using up all he had, ended up as yet another of those thread-bare bums, to the tune of the shamisen's 'te-tsuru-ten'!''

Edo Period Japan made a startling discovery starkly at odds with the grimly authoritarian current of the times — fun.

Fun sounds like something spontaneous; in Japan it had to be discovered, or invented. Prior to the Edo Period, this warrior-based, war-racked, fastidiously ceremonial society "had lived as though in a graveyard," as the eminent U.S. Oriental studies scholar Wm. Theodore de Bary puts it.

Five developments permitted the rising of the dead that in turn generated Japan's first ever pop culture — peace, a prosperous and expanding merchant class, mass literacy, money, and printing.

All appeared suddenly, transforming stately old Japan out of recognition — just as, 400 years later, the Japan of militarism and yamatodamashii (Japanese spirit) was transformed by a postwar infusion of American mass culture.

CONTINUED ON PAGE 2 >>



Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.