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Japanese literature is, perhaps, richer in poignant stories than in humorous tales. According to ancient chronicles, even the Sun Goddess paid the high price for exploding in mindless mirth: she was seized by gods and forced to stay in the sky (Hoffman par. 1). The lack of humor could be explained by endless wars; nonetheless, even four hundred years of peacetime during the Heian Period were marked by the tears that “flowed and flowed, unconcealed and unashamed, for tears were a badge of sensitivity, and sensitivity was the highest human quality the age conceived” (Hoffman par. 3). Even though the ancient literature of Japan was shrouded in a vale of tears, laughter has managed to infiltrate it from time to time.
For example, Otomo no Tabito (665-731) in his Manyoshu called for happiness in this life (Hoffman par. 5). Heian peace also engendered wit that could be evident in Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. Interestingly enough, the fourteenth-century chronicles Taiheiki include the story of boisterous laughter; however, the source of humor is simultaneously admirable and terrible—self-inflicted death (Hoffman par. 7). The Edo period (1603-1868) was associated with protracted peace during which commercialization of society allowed to shift from warrior humor to commoner humor (Hoffman par. 7). The messages delivered by the novelists of Edo period were bawdy and crass. Humor was taken to whole new levels (Hoffman par. 7).
The aim of this paper is to explore the use humor and parody in the following works of Edo and Tokugawa periods: Shikitei Sanba’s Ukiyoburo, Ihara Saikaku’s Life of a Sensuous Man, and Hiraga Gennai’s Theory of Farting. It will argue that these works are, perhaps, the most poignant social satire of the Tokugawa and Edo periods.
Theory of Farting
Theory of Farting or Hohiron is an allegorical essay written by Hiraga Gennai (1728—1780) who is often referred to as “Japan’s da Vinci” due to his achievements in the fields of medicine, art, fiction, dramaturgy, poetry, and science among others (Borriello 141). The work is generally agreed to be a perfect example of kyobun or humorous prose that is similar to kyoka which is a form of comic waka. Hiraga Gennai was among pioneers of the genre who employed vernacular prose for lampooning societal mores of his time.
The essay tells the fictional account of an artistic performance by a farting man in the vicinity of Ryogoku bridge in Edo (Shirane 515). The performer is so talented that he can imitate various sounds ranging from rhythmical music of drums and flutes to thunderous noise of a waterwheel. A narrator of the essay has an argument with a spectator of the show who doubts the merits of the performance. The narrator provides a rational defense of the artist by criticizing other supposedly superior art forms. Using exaggeration for humorous effect Gennai states that with the help of nothing else but his ‘instrument’ “the Farting Man is blowing away all the other shows” (Shirane 518).
It could be argued that Gennai uses parody and humor in Theory of Farting to elevate the common men and lower those who believe they are better than ordinary people. The writer’s satire is full of wisdom that serves as a weapon against elegant. Namely, Gennai injects into his work rational arguments aimed at demonstrating the superiority of the zoku (common, vulgar) over the ga (elegant) (Shirane 512). The technique of deliberate criticism of the ga is employed in all Gennai’s satire.
Ukiyoburo or Floating-World Bathhouse is a collection of bath-inspired stories by Shikitei Sanba written during the late Edo period. The book is one of many author’s kokkeibon or humorous works; however, it is universally considered to be his masterpiece (Schalow and Leutner 158). Sanba was inspired by a masterful description of a public bathhouse inTravels on the Eastern Seaboard written by Santo Kyoden and decided to write Ukiyoburo (Shirane 1277). During the Tenmei era (1781-1789), common people immensely enjoyed hearing professional storytellers who were delivering humorous pieces about everyday lives of simple folks (Shirane 1277). This form of verbal entertainment is called rakugo, and it is associated with exaggeration of gestures and speech for humorous effect. The written version of such stories later transformed into kokkeibon (Shirane 1277).
Ukiyoburo is arguably a form of rakugo because it employs subtle exaggerations of dialogue that were inherent to the oral tradition of storytelling. The Sanba’s work does not have a structured plot: it simply depicts a wide range of characters from different economic strata, genders, and occupations (Shirane 1279). He derives humor and parody from insignificant incidents that stem from foolish behaviors of his characters. However, whereas the first volume of Ukiyoburo, “Men’s Bath,” is largely based on situational comedy at the expense of a doctor, a blind man, and a family man among others, the second volume, “Women’s Bath,” provides a harsh social critique (Shirane 1279). Sandba’s characters speak in a diverse range of dialects that were intelligible to his readers in order to transport striking contradictions between various social types exaggerated by the use of tongue-in-cheek dialogues (Shirane 1279).
Life of a Sensuous Woman
Life of a Sensuous Woman is a book by Ihara Saikaku that was published in 1682 (Shirane 107). It is believed that the writer originated a vernacular fiction genre called ukiyo-zoshi that was extremely popular in the late eighteenth century. Ukiyo-zoshi is an urban commoner literature that stems from the long tradition of the pleasure quarters guides that heavily emphasized on hedonism and exaggeration of reality (Shirane 107).
Life of a Sensuous Man is the second work of prose written by Saikaku who was recognized as a haikai master who had a distinctive language characterized by the use of earthy humor often referred to as “the Dutch style” (Shirane 109). Therefore, it could be argued that embarking on a journey of “five volumes and fifty-four sections” (Shirane 113) was rather an unusual literary exercise for the writer. Nonetheless, he managed to fill the Life of a Sensuous Woman with a great portion of social parody and humor that go “well beyond the stereotypes found in contemporary courtesan critiques” (Shirane 114). The book tells the story of a woman who goes through “a descending order of fates as a courtesan, geisha, teacher of courtly manners and calligraphy to young ladies, hairdresser, go-between for marital engagements, and finally as a common streetwalker” (Sheppard par. 4). Saikaku provides the narrative of the life of sinner who does not want to repent sins of her past with a cautionary smile. He mocks upper-classes of Osaka society revealing dark secrets of pious priests, wealthy samurais, lords, and merchants (Sheppard par. 5). His characters could be easily identified with actual people, and his witty moralizing often has a quality of spiritual melancholy.
It could be argued that Ukiyoburo by Shikitei Sanba, Life of a Sensuous Man by Ihara Saikaku, and Theory of Farting by Hiraga Gennai’s are, perhaps, the most poignant social satire of the Tokugawa and Edo periods. It is clear that the three writers prided themselves on appreciating the simple side of human existence. They lived in the culture dominated by samurais and merchants; therefore, they wanted to explore the lower tiers of the Tokugawa social strata. To this end, they used humor, parody, and satire as the most reliable instruments of targeting social ills. However, the writers did not criticize commoners; rather, they aimed their wit at the corruption of excessively biting social mores formed by Confucian teachings. The writers’ forays into the literary realm left Japanese culture with new genres and forms of artistic expression that could provide a firm ground for building new literary forms.
The analysis of the use of humor and parody in Ukiyoburo by Shikitei Sanba, Life of a Sensuous Man by Ihara Saikaku, and Theory of Farting by Hiraga Gennai’s has revealed that these works are, perhaps, the most poignant social satire of the Tokugawa and Edo periods. The three writers used humor, parody, and satire as instruments for targeting social ills and criticizing excessively strict class system that was mandated by the power of patriarchy and, often, hypocrisy. It could be argued that the messages delivered by the novelists of Edo period were bawdy and crass and that they took satire to whole new levels. Moreover, characters depicted in the three books speak in a diverse range of dialects that help to emphasize striking contradictions between various social types exaggerated by the use of tongue-in-cheek dialogues.
Borriello, Giovanni. “The Leonardo da Vinci of Japan: Hiraga Gennai (1728-1780).” Philology, vol. 58, no. 1, 2013, p. 141-146.
Hoffman, Michael. “Laughter the Best Medicine for Humanity.” The Japan Times. 2014, Web.
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Schalow, Paul, and Robert Leutner. “Shikitei Sanba and the Comic Tradition in Edo Fiction.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 46, no. 1, 2011, p. 158-160.
Sheppard, Robert. “Libertines and Sexual Excess in World Literature.” World Literature, Web.
Shirane, Haruo. Early Modern Japanese Literature. Columbia University Press, 2013.