Sharebon, the Demimonde & Edo Aesthetics

A review of Sharebon and the Courtesans: A Phase of Edo Aesthetics as the Dispersal of Ideology, by Nahoko Fukushima.

The aesthetics Fukushima finds in the sharebon center on “refinement as vulgarity, and vulgarity as refinement” (p. 383). The sharebon is a genre of Japanese light fiction concerned with the pleasure quarters or demimonde, and the best-known examples of sharebon date from the late eighteenth century (p. 15). Fukushima’s emphasis is on the outer “wrapping” of sharebon. She draws attention to the way that the title, preface, physical format, and identification of the author suggest a refinement at odds with the earthy content of these books (p. 181).

The first chapter, “Sharebon and Share,” provides an overview of the genre and its relationship to other literature of the demimonde. Fukushima lays out five meanings for the share of sharebon. Share indicates the genre’s exclusive focus on the demimonde, its relationship to pretending or mimicry, its frequent word play, its emphasis on stylishness, and its manner of alluding to Chinese courtly elegance only to vulgarize or waste that elegance. Each of the remaining five chapters centers on one of these meanings.

In her second chapter, which addresses “The Edo Demimonde and Tokugawa Society,” Fukushima explains the economic and political realities surrounding prostitution in eighteenth-century Edo Japan. Whereas sharebon tend to focus on the patrons’ experience of the demimonde, Fukushima addresses the legal and ethical status of women, who could be sold into indentured servitude as courtesans without their consent. The chapter brings out the contradictory ideological positions applied to the demimonde in the eighteenth century. Although the demimonde was stereotyped as lacking virtue, a courtesan whose sale alleviated her parents’ poverty could be considered a filial daughter. On the other hand, men who squandered their parents’ money on courtesans would be considered unfilial sons. Fukushima’s discussion of the “paradoxical sacred/ignoble face of the courtesans in Edo discourse” is relevant not only to the place of sharebon in Edo aesthetics but also to other fiction, poetry, drama, and art of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century Japan, in which the demimonde figures prominently.

The third chapter points out similarities between the physical format of sharebon, such as Yūshi hōgen (Vagabond Dialect, 1770), and the formats of more serious genres. The lowbrow sharebon are designed to mimic the appearance of refined guidebooks or other reference works, albeit in smaller form. Within the covers of sharebon are more examples of mimicry or pretending. Fukushima places the reading of sharebon in the context of parlor games and other group entertainments, like the mimicking of actors’ voices (pp. 126-31, 142-43). She draws attention to historical punctuation, a layer of meaning that could otherwise be lost in translation (pp. 132-41).

The fourth chapter focuses on word play and jokes in sharebon in order to further elucidate the “aesthetics of refinement within vulgarity” (p. 174). Fukushima highlights examples of “samurai dandyism” and of playful allusions to Chinese classical texts. The aesthetics of expending “excess energy” and “an excess of cultural capital” in vulgarity during the long peace of Edo-period Japan is compared to Georges Bataille’s notion of the potlatch (pp. 179-80). Fukushima discusses the spread of education and literacy in the Edo period, which she relates to the need for samurai to distinguish themselves from the agricultural peasantry on some basis other than military skills during this time of peace. She gives examples from Chinese poetry and Japanese prose to unpack the nuances of yūshi and hōgen that readers would have seen in the title of the representative sharebon Yūshi hōgen. Fukushima patiently explicates several other examples of Edo humor and word play, demonstrating the laughs that come from contrasting the elegant and the mundane.

The idea of stylishness, particularly as it relates to the authors of sharebon and their “literary cliques,” is the focus of the fifth chapter.  Fukushima argues that the authors of sharebon would have found literary collaborations and gatherings desirable enough to motivate pretended collaboration, as in the case of one author using a different pen name to sign a preface than that used for the main part of a book. Fukushima sees competency in Sino-Japanese (kanbun) as one key to identification with literary cliques at the time. Fukushima looks at changes in how sharebon were signed over the genre’s history and examines the derivations of particular pen names.

The sixth chapter is Fukushima’s longest. Fukushima addresses the impact of the Chinese preface to Yūshi hōgen on three levels: a first impression of erudition based on the use of Chinese (p. 296), a suggestion of Chinese classical allusions during a “pre-reading” glance at terms related to flowers and trees (p. 298), and a “line-by-line reading” that reveals the full meaning of this praise for women in the demimonde. In her line-by-line reading, Fukushima explicates allusions to Chinese poetry and other literature familiar to the original readers, bringing out the evocative nuances of words such as “peach” and “peony” as well as the layers of meaning in terms directly related to the demimonde. Fukushima shows that the author subverts elegant diction, combining the vulgar with the refined in order to generate “humor and ironic beauty” (p. 294). Fukushima again turns to the potlatch to show the significance of literary works in which samurai authors displayed and “wasted” their excess erudition and Chinese learning by using it for humble or “vulgar” purposes.

In her conclusion, Fukushima highlights the contradictions in samurai identity in the eighteenth century as seen in sharebon. While aspiring to both courtly elegance and Chinese erudition, samurai literati and others involved in the production of sharebon also played with these ideals in ways that allowed them to “explode their own pretensions” (p. 382). The ability to mix refinement and vulgarity was a prerequisite for achieving the stylishness celebrated in sharebon.

Fukushima’s work matters because she reveals what literati held as important—not only what ideas they played with, but also how their work and play were interrelated. The breadth of research on Edo-period education, law, politics, and ideology presented in the context of providing background information on samurai and the demimonde is a real contribution to what is available in English on these topics. Fukushima’s emphasis on the Chinese learning that eighteenth-century literati took for granted is particularly valuable since this aspect of Edo-period Japanese literature is often underappreciated. Fukushima deals with the pleasure quarters and issues related to prostitution with sensitivity, showing the moral dilemmas involved for patrons and prostitutes as well as the possibilities for ironic humor that these dilemmas created for authors.

Kristin H. Williams
Newhouse Center for the Humanities
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
Wellesley College

Primary Sources

Sharebon taisei 洒落本大成

Dissertation Information

University of Michigan, 2011. 412 pp. Primary Advisor: Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen.


Image: “Haneda Ferry and Benten Shrine,” from Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Brooklyn Museum collection)

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