Genroku Period


The Japanese Renaissance, or Tokugawa Period (1600-1868), begins roughly a 100 years later than the Renaissance in England (1485-1660), but has a similar importance in literary achievement, and is built on essentially the same political and social bases.  As Henry Tudor had established a political stability in England that encouraged the development of an urban middle class, and the "popular" arts that class chose to support, after his victory at Bosworth Field in 1485, Tokugawa Ieyasu did the same after his victory at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, establishing the bakufu, the government that ruled Japan until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 (while the Tudor period, proper, was over with the death of Elizabeth in 1603).

But the High Renaissance in Japan, the "Floating World" of the theatre, the geisha, and the great Japanese prints, is generally called the Genroku Period, which is a neat 100 years after what we call the Elizabethan Age, or its crowning glory in the career of Shakespeare, when, in Japan, there was a trinity of important literary figures in drama, prose fiction, and poetry.  Ivan Morris says of the Genroku Period, "Strictly speaking, this period lasted from1688 to 1703, but in effect it was an entire cultural phase that reached its peak in the 1690s." 1  How easily we might say the say about the Elizabethan Age, that was building through Elizabeth's reign, but reached its peak in the 1590s (in the career of Shakespeare), becoming the glory of English literature.    Drama probably was the most important genre in Japan, too--for the  floating world of the pleasure quarters and the great artists of the Japanese prints were strongly associated with the development of kabuki theatre (and we have  already considered Chikamatsu and his part in the development of both kabuki and bunraku (the puppet theatre).  But, each in his own field of literature, Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693)  in Fiction and Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) in Poetry were of equal reputation and popularity in helping to define that Genroku Period.

Saikaku had the tradition of The Tale of Genji in mind in writing his own fiction, but it could hardly be more different, for where Murasaki was writing courtly romance for an aristocratic audience (mostly of women), and wrote one great long novel, Saikaku was the first author of fiction to find a popular audeince in print, much the same as the writers developing the novel in the late Renaissance in England, and wrote several shorter novels, to be printed and illustrated, for sale to a middle class audience.  He would take stories from the merchant class in the cities, and wrote to their commercial interests, but with a lively humor and bawdy impulse.

The greatest poet of the age was Basho, the most popular of all Japanese poets and so stands as one of the most important writers in Japanese literature.

1Ivan Morris's Introduction to The Life of an Amorous Woman by Ihara Saikaku (New Directions: New York, 1963), p.  11.