Morishima Churyo (1756-1810) & Late-Edo Fiction


A review of The World Beyond the Walls: Morishima Chūryō (1756-1810) and the Development of Late Edo Fiction, by William Fleming.

William Fleming’s dissertation uses the writings of Morishima Chūryō 森島 中良 (1756-1810), a prolific literary figure virtually unknown in Western scholarship, to explore new perspectives on early modern Japanese popular fiction (gesaku). By examining both Chūryō’s fiction and nonfiction writings in connection to other intellectual discourses of the time, including nativist studies, vernacular Chinese, Dutch and Western Studies, and Russian texts, Fleming not only dispels any notion of Tokugawa Japan as a nation cut off from foreign influences, but also shows how Chūryō’s ethnographic and linguistic inquiries in his nonfiction studies informed and transformed his gesaku writings in the genres of the fashion-book (sharebon), the comic-book (kibyōshi), and narrative fiction (yomihon). By tracing Chūryō’s impact on the general movement of gesaku away from works evoking sharp humor dependent on the privileged knowledge of an elite minority, to a broader focus on lighthearted fiction introducing unfamiliar locales, exotic cultural traditions, and voices in dialect, the dissertation illustrates the formative nature of Chūryō’s gesaku in the development of a popular fiction for the masses.

The first chapter provides an overview of the life and work of Chūryō, including a lively account of his role in the literary world, particularly his relationship with his mentor, Hiraga Gennai 平賀 源内 (1728-1780), their early collaborative works in the theater, and the range of Chūryō’s early nonfiction works. Using his nonfiction studies to inform his fictional writing was a strategy that Chūryō would continue throughout his career.

Chapters 2 through 4 focus on the fashion-book. Two distinct characteristics of early modern urban culture — the rapid growth of a commercial print industry and the establishment of a licensed quarter — are relevant to the rise of the genre, whose characteristics included an exposé of sophisticated urban culture with meticulous attention to fashions and customs, but also an increasing focus on realistic, vernacular language reflecting a polyphony of voices. Chūryō’s first fashion-book, Shinmeidai (“Shinmeidai: The Courtesan’s True Nature Revealed,” 1781), incorporates these characteristics, but with one unexpected difference: the one who possesses knowledge of the exotic, unfamiliar culture is not the urban sophisticate, but a rustic country hick who speaks a regional dialect incomprehensible enough to require a glossary. This focus on the rural as the unfamiliar is then pushed even further in Inaka shibai (“A Provincial Production,” 1787), a work whose title reflects the author’s complete abandonment of the urban setting. Chūryō incorporates ethnographic information and realistic dialogue, and uses local dialect to transform the tone of the humor. Drawing on parallels to nativist theory emphasizing the pristine nature of rural culture and language, Fleming goes on to explain that “his is not humor arrayed against the unsophisticated masses (the yabo), but with them, and an appreciation of the text’s many comic qualities was no longer dependent on the privileged knowledge of the few. This was a literature of and for the masses, and it offered a template for a new variety of gesaku” (p. 216).

Chapter 4 discusses the incorporation of many aspects of this new template in subsequent works such as Jippensha Ikku’s 十返舎 一九 Hizakurige (“Shank’s Mare,” 1802-1822), illustrating the importance of Inaka shibai as a precursor to the humor-book (kokkeibon). Chapter 5 shifts to a new genre of fiction, the comic-book. Chūryō now moves beyond the borders of Japan, drawing on his nonfiction studies of the Dutch language, and Western culture and technologies. His focus, however, is the same; references to Western culture are not used to exclude, but rather to make the exoticism of Western medicine and technology accessible to a general Japanese readership.

In Chapter 6, the discussion turns to three of Chūryō’s yomihon, beginning with his first, Kogarashi zōshi (“Tales from the Withering Wind,” 1792). Chūryō typically focused on little-known source material, this time turning to the Chinese stories of Pu Songling 蒲松齡 (1640-1715). These yomihon stories adhere relatively closely to the source material, suggesting that the challenge of adapting the works to the Japanese context may have been much of the appeal. Chūryō’s ability to transform them to a Japanese setting, with new language and cultural context, also draws on his growing interest in nativist and antiquarian studies. His unpublished lexicon of vernacular Chinese, which he also worked on through this period, reflects his now-familiar pattern of merging his scholarly interests and his works of fiction. Chapter 7 focuses on a much later yomihon entitled Izumi no Chikahira monogatari (“The Tale of Izumi Chikahira,” 1809). As Fleming explains, this final work, containing elements from numerous sources, serves “to expand our understanding of the views of fiction and the theater articulated in A Provincial Production and elsewhere, to recover further glimpses of the world beyond Japan’s borders, and to offer a closing perspective on Chūryō’s life as a whole” (p. 431). Again Chūryō uses Chinese source material, but this time blends it with contemporary political issues in northern Japan and Russia. Fleming’s careful analysis once again teases out the elements which draw on the real, but “refashioned in a hybrid fictional realm” (p. 474). Finally, frequent references to the theater pay homage to his mentor Gennai, thus bringing Chūryō’s career full circle.

Although the dissertation begins and ends with works reflecting Chūryō’s indebtedness to Gennai, Fleming carefully and convincingly traces the manner in which Chūryō’s gesaku not only led him to construct his own literary path, but to significantly impact the trajectory of popular fiction. Throughout the dissertation, Fleming draws on an impressive array of sources, both primary and secondary, to untangle the complex dialectal nuances and intertextual meanings embedded in the texts, as well as connections between elements in the works, intellectual discourses of late Edo, and real-world events. The dissertation concludes with approximately sixty pages of annotated translations — an excellent companion to the dissertation, but also well-crafted and simply entertaining in their own right. In addition to dispelling the notion of Tokugawa Japan as a “world within walls,” this work will undoubtedly be a welcome addition to the growing but still sparse English-language material available on the complex and relatively little-studied tradition of gesaku, as well as the work of Chūryō himself.

Kelly Hansen
Assistant Professor
Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages
San Diego State University

Primary Sources

Manzōtei Morishima Chūryō no bunji
Morishima Chūryō shū
(in Sōsho Edo bunko)
Shin Nihon koten bungaku taikei
Sharebon taisei

Rare books collections including those of the National Diet Library and Waseda University

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2011. 591 pp. Primary Advisor: Adam L. Kern.

Image: Excerpt from Ichikawa Gakuzan 市川 岳山 (1760-1847), Shirandō shingen kaizu 芝蘭堂新元会図 (New Year’s at the Shirandō Academy, 1795). Waseda University Library.

1 comment
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like