Bloody Hell!

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  • Bloody Hell!Reading Boys Books in Seventeenth-Century Japan

    Both in and outside of Japan, the early history of Japanese woodblock-printed childrens literature continues to be insufficiently understood. Even the topic is controversial insofar as some contemporary scholars have denied the exis-tence of a Japanese childrens literature prior to the nineteenth-century impor-tation of Western notions of the child. By examining a young boys collection of picture books that were sealed inside a statue of the bodhisattva Jiz from 1678 to around 1980, the present article seeks to illuminate the contents and principal themes of boys booksan incipient form of Japanese childrens literature apparently written for and consumed by childrenpublished in the Kyoto-Osaka region in the 1660s and 1670s. In particular, the article takes up the issue of extravagant representational violence in a subset of four illustrated warrior tales with obvious links to the contemporaneous sekky and ko-jruri puppet theaters, exploring the salient features of those works in their historical and literary contexts.

    keywords: Japanese childrens literaturemedia violencemonstersYoshitsune-BenkeiOgurisekkyko-jruriykaikodomo no ehonirui-mono

    R. Keller KimbroughUniversity of Colorado, Boulder

    Asian Ethnology Volume 74, Number 1 2015, 111139 Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture

  • For contemporary historians of Japanese childrens literature, one of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century was a trove of ten illus-trated childrens books inside a sealed wooden statue of the bodhisattva Jiz in the Dainichi Hall of the former (now defunct) Izawaji Temple in Izawa-ch, Matsusaka City, Mie Prefecture. The seated Jiz image seems to have been carved by a master craftsman of the Nanbokuch period (13361392), and in 1950 it was designated an Important Cultural Property (jy bunkazai ) by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs. During the course of exami-nations and repairs in March 1915, December 1935, and August 1950, the statue was found to contain two paper-wrapped bundles of twelve small woodblock-printed books (ten of which were childrens picture books), a thick sheaf of used calligraphy practice paper, a copybook of warrior pictures, and a kawaraban (broadsheet). The objects were largely disregarded until 1980, when the scholar Okamoto Masaru, having seen copies of the books and broadsheet made in the fall of 1978, had the statue reopened to further examine its contents.1

    Recognizing the historical significance of the materials, Okamoto was amazed by what he found. The books, calligraphy paper, and broadsheet had all apparently belonged to the late son of a seventeenth-century merchant by the name of Obiya (sash-maker/seller) Jirkichi , who had placed them inside the image on the eleventh day of the ninth month of 1678 as a memorial offering for his child. Jiz was renowned in the medieval and early-modern periods for his salvation of children, and Jirkichis decision to seal a part of his dead son, represented by the boys books and calligraphy, inside a statue of the bodhisattva would have ensured the boys connection to Jiz in the afterworld. The boys name, Obiya Chkur , is written in a childish hand on the inside cover of two of the picture books, and the outer wrappings of the two bundles are inscribed with the incanta-tion namu Jiz daibosatsu , Hail the Great Bodhisattva Jiz and the boys posthumous Buddhist name, Eigaku Hisamoto Shinji . The boys age at the time of his death is unknown, as are the causes and circumstances of his demise. Okamoto speculates that Chkur was fifteen or sixteen years old when he died,2 but considering the awkward strokes of his signature on the inside cover of Tengu-zoroe (An assemblage of tengu), along with the date

    112 | Asian Ethnology Volume 74, Number 1 2015

  • kimbrough: boys books in seventeenth-century japan | 113

    Enp 6 (1678, the year of the boys death) written in the same unpracticed hand, it seems more likely to me that he was no older than eight or nine.

    Three of Chkurs ten picture books contain publication dates, including 1667, 1668, and 1677, and considering that the entire collection was sealed inside the statue in 1678, Okamoto concludes that all ten volumes were likely published in the Kanbun and Enp eras, between 1661 and 1677. This would make them roughly contemporaneous with the akahon (red books) of Edo, which are believed to have flourished between circa 1661 and 1748, but none of which can actually be dated to before 1678.3 Several of Chkurs books were produced by prominent Kyoto publishers of ko-jruri playbooks, including Yamamoto Kuhei , Hachimonjiya Hachizaemon , and (probably) Tsu-ruya Kiemon . Considering Izawa-chs proximity to the old capital, which Chkurs father would have had occasion to visit in connection with his busi-ness, and from which he may have been expected to bring back souvenirs for his son, Okamoto surmises that they were all published there. Thus, given the circumstances of their likely purchase and preservation, Chkurs bookseven the undated onesare renowned today as the oldest extant childrens books of the Kyoto-Osaka region.

    The status, or even presence, of childrens literature in premodern Japan is con-troversial among scholars today. Karatani Kjin, for example, argued in a work written around 1980 that insofar as the child is a Western European philosophi-cal construct, it was not until [the notion of] the child came to exist [in Meiji-period Japan] that literature and amusements for children appeared (Karatani 1993, 119). In a 2002 review of the multi-volume Nihon no jid bungaku [Japanese Childrens Literature], Joan Ericson likewise writes that childrens literature has a history rooted in state construction, nationhood and the arrival of modernity, and that in one of the volumes she reviews, Sekiguchi Yasuyoshi breaks new ground in pushing back the usual starting point in literature for children in Japanconventionally dated from Iwaya Sazanamis Kogane maru (1891)rooting it in a particular Sunday school tract of Christian missionaries pub-lished in 1872 (Ericson 2002, 105 and 106). On the other hand, Kristin Williams argues that childrens literature emerged [in Japan] as early as the late 1670s, and that although

    it faded in the late nineteenth century, displaced by modern childrens literature in movable type, Edo-period childrens literature lasted for over two hundred years, borrowed from and transformed literary and theatrical sources, influenced the visual imagination of adult popular literature, and helped to shape both Edo-period concepts of the child and Edo-period children themselves. (Williams 2012, 5)

    In my own writings on eighteenth-century childrens books (Kimbrough 2006a and 2008), I have implicitly sided with those who trace the history of Japa-nese childrens literature back to the early Edo period. As Williams has observed, much of the current controversy seems to stem from a basic lack of informationparticularly in English-language sourcesabout Edo-period publications for chil-

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    dren, as well as from the unfortunate tendency of some contemporary scholars simply to repeat what has become an entrenched common knowledge about the history of Japanese childrens literature. Thus, given the pressing need for more data in the field of Japanese childrens literary studies, the present article has two central aims: to introduce to English-reading audiences Chkurs unique collection of illustrated books and to reflect on the implications of those books for our understanding of the early history of childrens literature in Japan. Among Chkurs ten books are three concerning the exploits of the warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune (11591189) and his retainer Musashib Benkei , and I will argue that those works in particular demonstrate the presence of a kind of ultra-violent, non-didactic literature for children and young adults in the sev-enteenth century that was not unlike the sensationally violent penny dreadfuls and dime novels of nineteenth-century England and Americaworks written to entertain (rather than instruct) by appealing to a seemingly timeless and universal human fascination with bloodshed and brutality.

    Chkurs books

    It is hard to overstate the importance of Chkurs book collection, espe-cially insofar as it suggests a range of reading material that would have been deemed appropriate for merchant-class boys in the 1660s and 1670s. Like those of many boys today, Chkurs tastes (or perhaps those of his father and/or other relatives who likely bought the books) seem to have tended toward monsters, anthropomorphic animals, silly jokes, and violence. Unfortunately, one can only speculate as to what sorts of books we might have today if Chkur had been a girl. The books span a continuum between those that were published for very small childrenfor example, highly simplistic works like Tengu-zoroe, which are dominated by their illustrations and which contain very little supporting textand those that purvey more sophisti-cated narrative content, such as Oguri Hangan Terute monogatari (The tale of Oguri Hangan and Terute), that was based on a related theater book for adults and which would probably have been more interesting and appro-priate for older children. Based on the books relative contents, which suggest the gradual growth and maturation of a child, we can imagine that Chkurs father may have bought one or two volumes for his son every year until he died.

    One of the most remarkable aspects of the collection is its lack of obviously didactic content. The principal aim of Chkurs picture books, it seems, was to entertain rather than to inculcate or instruct. Other than a vague celebration of martial heroics, there is no explicit mention of Confucian, Buddhist, or any o