Genroku Period in Japan

Genroku Period in Japan
Genroku Period in Japan

Between 1688 and 1704, a rapidly expanding economy resulted in the expansion of the three major cities in Japan—Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo (Tokyo)—and the emergence of an urban culture.

This was the result of 80 years of peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate, when many people chose to move from samurai castles or villages to urban centers. The Genroku period saw Edo as the administrative capital, Osaka as the commercial center of the country, and Kyoto, the former imperial capital, retaining some of the artistic talent.

Although the period covers the years 1688–1704, some cultural historians use the term to refer to the whole period, of the rule of the fifth shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, which lasted from 1680 until 1709. During this period, there was a massive increase in the number of towns people (chonin) who started to throw off the restrictions of the traditional Japanese lifestyle.

They indulged in creative expressions such as changes in dress, food, and customs. The emerging urban class accumulated possessions on a far wider scale than before and filled their houses with furniture and paintings. With more spare time they indulged in extravagance and devoted themselves to making and spending money.

At the end of the 16th century, improved printing techniques originally developed in Korea were introduced into Japan. By the 1670s, books were available more cheaply, and hence accessible to the urban middle class and wealthier artisans, satisfying their hunger for learning.

Typical books dealt with literature, history, and philosophy. In addition there were large numbers of books imported from China and Korea.

During the height of the Genroku period, stories were published that dealt with ordinary life in the cities and the exploits of samurai. One popular writer and poet, Matsuo Basho (1644–94), traveled extensively around Japan during the 1670s and 1680s and described the country as well as created an anthology of poetry, including some in haiku form.

There was also interest in more artists who produced woodblock prints in the genre known as ukiyo-e. Suzuki Harunobu (c. 1725–70) was the first artist to produce full-color woodblock prints, developing a multicolor technique using between four and 10 colors. As a result of advances in printing, illustrated books became popular, as well as handbills and advertising for theatrical performances and geisha houses.

In other areas of the arts, such as the Bunraku puppet theater and Kabuki theater, attendance increased with many ordinary people watching performances that had been the preserve of the daimyo and the samurai. Most actors who had previously worked in traveling troupes began to work in semipermanent theaters that allowed them to have a more settled life.

The result was that acting became a more respectable profession. Playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1724) was the first to use the Bunraku puppets to show everyday themes and ordinary emotions, writing a total of 100 plays, which were performed to large audiences.

Although the Genroku period came to an end in the early 18th century, the literary and artistic advances were to be revived again during the Bunka-Bunsei period (1804–29), when Edo emerged as the sole cultural center of Japan.