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Commentary Edo picture Books and the Edo period

1) Edo Period (1603-1867)

Note: The following sentences are excerpts from the narrations.

(♪) In 1600 the great Battle of Sekigahara was fought between two major alliances of warlords. (♪) Tokugawa Ieyasu, who led the victorious side, became shogun and set up his headquarters in Edo (present-day Tokyo). Some 260 years since then until 15th shogun Yoshinobu transferred political power back to the emperor in 1867 is called the Edo period.
(♪) The Edo period was the longest era of peace in Japanese history. The government established a policy of national seclusion, banning trade and interchange with other countries except for the Chinese and Dutch, and prohibiting Japanese from traveling abroad. During this interlude relatively untouched by outside influences, Japan, consisting of the chain of islands stretching along the fringes of East Asia, developed a distinctive national character and culture.

Edo Ryogoku suzumi no zu (Evening Cool at Ryogoku, Edo) By Utagawa Toyokuni


National Diet Library

(♪) In the early Edo period, the center of culture remained in the Kamigata area, where Kyoto and Osaka were still quite powerful cities. As time went on, however, the shogunal seat in Edo grew to become the political, economic, and cultural capital of the country. Particularly the merchant class, although they were at the bottom of the rigid Tokugawa social hierarchy of warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants, were able to amass considerable wealth as peaceful times continued, and they became the source of a rich and diverse new culture. (♪)

The fish market at Nihonbashi. Edo suzume (Sparrows of Edo) By Hishikawa Moronobu


National Diet Library

The fish market at Nihonbashi. Edo meisho zue (Album of Noted Places in Edo), vol.1


National Diet Library

New Year’s scene in front of a kimono shop. Matsuzakaya no zu (The Matsuzakaya) By Utagawa Kuniyoshi


Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library. Reproduction prohibited without permission.

2) Edo Culture

(♪) This is the era of the famous ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) woodblock prints. Among ukiyo-e are the bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) of Kitagawa Utamaro, Toshusai Sharaku’s yakusha-e (actor portraits), and the fukei-ga (landscapes) of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. The unique techniques used in ukiyo-e set in motion the Japonisme movement in art and influenced many European painters.

Fujo ninso juppin biidoro fuki (Ten Faces of Women/Glass Blowing)
By Kitagawa Utamaro

ca. 1792-1793

Tokyo National Museum
Image:TNM Image Archives

Sansei Otani Oniji no Yakko Edobei (Otani Oniji Ⅲ as Yakko Edobei)
By Toshusai Sharaku


Important Cultural Property. Tokyo National Museum
Image:TNM Image Archives

Fugaku sanjurokkei Kanagawa oki namiura (Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji: From the Bay Kanagawa)
By Katsushika Hokusai

ca. 1831

Tokyo National Museum
Image:TNM Image Archives

Tokaido gojusan tsugi: Kanbara (Fifty-three Stations on the Tokaido: Kanbara)
By Utagawa Hiroshige

ca. 1833

Tokyo National Museum
Image:TNM Image Archives

(♪) Kabuki became the leading form of dramatic entertainment for the common people. (♪) And in literature, share-bon (witty books), books whose stories take place in the pleasure quarters, as well as kokkei-bon (humorous books) featuring amusing tales of commoner life by Jippensha Ikku and Shikitei Sanba became popular. Commoner poetic literature such as haikai and senryu were also well received.

Scene inside a theater tent.
Nakamuraza naigai no zu (The Nakamura Theater Inside and Outside)
By Utagawa Toyokuni


National Diet Library (whole and partial views)

Crowds outside a theater tent.
Nakamuraza naigai no zu (The Nakamura Theater Inside and Outside)
By Utagawa Toyokuni


National Diet Library (whole and partial views)

Edo no hana Kyobashi natori Kyoden zo (Flowers of Edo: Portait of Santo Kyoden of Kyobashi)
By Meikyusai Eiri

ca. 1794-1800

Tokyo National Museum
Image:TNM Image Archives

Santo Kyoden (1761-1816) turned from ukiyo-e artist to become a leading author of kibyoshi fiction and sharebon satires. With the clampdown on morals under the Kansei Reform (1787-1793), he was censered and forbidden to write for 50 days. Along with Kyokutei Bakin (1767-1848), author of Nanso Satomi Hakkennden (Satomi and the Eight “Dogs”) he was one of the best-known professional writers of the time.

3) Kusazoshi, a form of Edo-period popular fiction.

(♪) Kusazoshi, a form of commoner literature, were books geared mainly to women and children. They were simply bound volumes comprised of about ten pages, and their straightforward combination of illustrations and use of the hiragana syllabary contributed to their great popularity among women and children in the mid-to late-Edo period. (♪)

Atariyashita jihondonya (An Edo Publisher’s Great Success)
By Juppensha Ikku


National Diet Library

The Jihondonya were the publishers and distributors of books in Edo. This book by Juppensha Ikku, author of Tokaido chu Hizakurige (Shank’s Mare on the Tokaido Highway) presents in humorously portrayed scenes the process of producing a best-seller.

page 1

page 2 & 3: Shows the publisher putting a formula into Ikku’s liquor so that he will write a great story.

page 4 & 5: Carving the blocks for the completed story.

page 6 & 7: The printer truns out copies of the pages.

page 8 & 9: Putting the pages in order.

page 10 & 11: Trimming the pages.

page 12 & 13: Putting on the covers.

page 14 & 15: Sewing the binding.

page 16 & 17: Publishing day arrives. People are immediately scrambling for copies.

page 18 & 19: The crowd in front of the bookstore. All copies are sold out.

page 20: On publishing day, it is said the publisher treated the author to soba (buckwheat noodles).

Back cover

(♪) The Edo picture books featured here belong to a subgenre of the kusazoshi known as aka-hon (red books). The aka-hon feature mainly legends and old tales. Among them were classic stories still read by children today like Momotaro (Peach Boy), Shitakiri suzume (The Tongue-Cut Sparrow), Hachikazuki hime (Princess Hachikazuki), Bunbuku chagama (Bunbuku’s Teakettle), and Sarukani gassen (The Battle of the Monkey and the Crab). (♪)

(♪) Aka-hon (red books) were so called from the background color of their covers. With the passage of time these picture books came to be called kuro-hon (black books), then ao-hon (blue books), and even later ki-byoshi (yellow covers). In the late Edo period there appeared gokan, which are compilations of several such books. (♪)

Ao-hon/Fuseya no kokubotan (Black Peony of Fuseya) By Ichihara Kido


National Diet Library

Ao-hon/Katsuragi no oji ikenie taiji (Prince Katsuragi Drives Away Demons)


National Diet Library

4) Picture Scrolls and Picture Books

(♪) The technique of illustrating stories and recording accounts of historical incidents on scrolls consisting of continuous pictures had a tradition going back to earliest blossoming of Japanese culture. (♪) A large number of picture scrolls remain from the olden times, including the famous twelfth-century scrolls Genji monogatari e-maki (The Picture Scroll of the Tale of Genji), Ban dainagon e-maki (The Picture Scroll of Ban Dainagon), and Shigisan engi e-maki (The Legends of Mt. Shigi). From the late Muromachi period to the early Edo period (16th-17th centuries) Nara e-hon (Nara picture books), in which colorful illustrations accompany fairytales, were produced in large numbers, many of which have also been preserved.

Shigisan engi e-maki: Hiso no maki (The Shigisan Engi Scroll: Flying Granary).
The first scene shows a bowl flying in and lifting the rice granary up into the air.

Late twelfth century. National Treasure.

Owned by Shigisan Chogosonshiji Temple. Photograph courtesy of Nara National Museum. (Whole and partial views)

(♪) Kusazoshi were meant to be read by commoners. Produced through the collaboration between writers and print artists, kusazoshi became an inextricable part of commoners’ lives. The publication of the long-cherished kusazoshi continued until the late nineteenth century when many miniature versions (mame-hon) were produced for children.

5) Red Books and Children

(♪) Now, how were the aka-hon so popular among children, actually sold? In Toshidama ogi uri (The New Year’s Fan Seller) performed by the kabuki actor, Danjuro II, there is a line that mentions the term “new year’s aka-hon” along with fans, tobacco, calligraphy brushes, and packaged snacks as among the things that were given to children as New Year’s presents.
We can picture just-published aka-hon being given to children as presents. The fact that these books were handed out at New Year’s may be the reason why many aka-hon stories have auspiciously happy endings. (♪)

Kabuki nendaiki (Chronology of Kabuki Plays)

National Diet Library (Whole and partial views)

Here you can see the red books in a box of New Year’s gifts sold by Danjuro. (Ichikawa Danjuro Ⅱ in “Keisei Fukubiki Nagoya”)

Hatsuuma By Suzuki Harunobu

ca. 1768-1769

Tokyo National Museum
Image:TNM Image Archives

Hatsuuma, the first day of the Horse in the second month by the lunar calender, was around late February to early March. The first day of school at the terakoya is said to have been set on Hatsuuma.

(♪) One may imagine how the hearts of Edo children leapt as they read tales of Momotaro fighting the ogres. They must have become engrossed in Kintaro’s adventures as he wrestled with bears and boars. Surely they admired the lovely beauty of the mouse who became a bride? (♪)

6) Spread of Popular Education

Oshiegusa nyobo katagi (Textbook for the Model Woman), Cover of Ⅱ
By Santo Kyozan. Illustrated by Utagawa Toyokuni Ⅲ.


Suzuki Juzo. Reproduction prohibited without permission.

(♪) Another factor sustaining the popularity of aka-hon was the high literacy rate among commoners. Many children (including girls) mainly of the increasingly wealthy merchant class, were sent to private schools called terakoya. School life is vividly portrayed in Terako tanka (School-day Verses), to be introduced in this exhibit. At these schools, children were taught basic skills such as reading, writing, and use of the abacus. This literacy made possible a large reading market.

Shobai orai (A Guide to Commerece)

Late eighteenth century.

Courtesy of Kimura Yaeko.

Textbook used for teaching commoners’ children to read and write at terakoya.

Senjimon (The Thousand-character Text)


Courtesy of Kimura Yaeko.

A textbook from China with verses for children using one-thousand characters, none used more than once.

Terako tanka (School-day Verses)

Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library. Reproduction prohibited without permission.

Terako tanka (School-day Verses)

Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library. Reproduction prohibited without permission.

(♪) By the nineteenth century, Edo had grown into a city of one million people, about the same size as London and Paris at the time, and in Edo, there were over 800 book-lending stores. Kusazoshi publishing would not have flourished if it had not been for the spread of basic education and a growing readership.
(♪) Studies of the history of picture books often focus on modern and contemporary works. But we now know that among Edo picture books are many fascinating works that have heretofore gathered little attention, but which feature stories that are familiar to us even today. Among aka-hon and miniature mame-hon works in the subgenre of kusazoshi are many that are worth reading even today.
Now let’s take a close look at the picture books of Edo. (♪)

Imayo mitate shinokosho shokunin (The Warrior, Farmer, Artisan, and Merchant Classes of Today: Artisans). By Utagawa Toyokuni Ⅲ.


Suzuki Juzo. Reproduction prohibited without permission.

Book publisher’s workshop (the craftsmen are all pictured as beautiful women).

Imayo mitate shinokosho shonin (The Warrior, Farmer, Artisan, and Merchant Classes of Today: Merchants). By Utagawa Toyokuni Ⅲ.


Suzuki Juzo. Reproduction prohibited without permission.

A shop selling books and color woodblock prints (the merchants are all pictured as beautiful women).