Genroku Era

Tokugawa urban culture thrived during the Genroku era, financially sustained by the merchant class. Merchants and samurai in Edo, Kyōtō, andŌsaka patronized the Bunraku and Kabuki theaters and the licensed urban quarters. Literature and art flourished as well, but government repression and fiscal irresponsibility created serious social problems.

Summary of Event

Genroku was the name of Emperor Higashiyama’s Higashiyama period of reign in Kyōtō. Emperors had limited authority, since the de facto ruler of Japan was the shogun in Edo. The shogun at this time, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi Tokugawa Tsunayoshi , became shogun in 1680 through the sponsorship of powerful aristocrats such as Hotta Masatoshi Hotta Masatoshi , but after Hotta’s assassination four years later, Tsunayoshi assumed full control over the government and nation. He took advice from an altruistic thinker, the distinguished Confucian Confucianism, Japan scholar Hayashi Hōkō Hayashi Hōkō (1644-1732), and from Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu , originally Tsunayoshi’s obsequious personal attendant, who became the shogun’s official chief adviser, or chamberlain. Hayashi counseled thrift and good government, while Yanagisawa catered to Tsunayoshi’s whims and had a reputation as a self-promoting schemer. [kw]Genroku Era (1688-1704)
Cultural and intellectual history;1688-1704: Genroku Era[2870]
Literature;1688-1704: Genroku Era[2870]
Theater;1688-1704: Genroku Era[2870]
Art;1688-1704: Genroku Era[2870]
Trade and commerce;1688-1704: Genroku Era[2870]
Government and politics;1688-1704: Genroku Era[2870]
Japan;1688-1704: Genroku Era[2870]
Genroku Era (1688-1704)

Because of contradictory advice from aides and his own erratic nature, Tsunayoshi promoted austerity among the people, harshly curtailed the authority of regional lords, and allowed favored court officials to do as they pleased. To make matters more difficult, Tsunayoshi prohibited the killing of living things, including fish, trying to force the entire nation to become vegan. He believed also that he had a strong zodiacal kinship with dogs because he was born in the Year of the Dog. So he ordered special facilities created around Japan for the protection of dogs. These measures made Tsunayoshi very unpopular, earning him the whispered epithet Inu-kubō, the dog shogun.

At the same time, Tsunayoshi and his retinue put in effort and money to promote learning, literature, and the arts, especially among the urban intelligentsia. Though it may not have been Tsunayoshi’s intention, his combination of lavish government spending and purchases, the growing demand for interest-bearing commercial loans by aristocrats impoverished by confiscatory government policies, and lax actual enforcement of regulations in the cities assisted the rise of the merchant class.

The result was a relatively affluent society, particularly in the big cities. Entertainers, artists, and writers prospered, catering to the wants of the shogunate, the urban merchants, and the favored aristocrats, and Genroku culture was born. Genroku culture flourished in the three great urban centers of Edo (modern Tokyo),Ōsaka, and Kyōtō, largely consisting of popular art forms that flourished in the entertainment areas of these three cities.

In Edo, Yoshiwara Yoshiwara was sanctioned by the shogunate as the sole area that permitted prostitution and its associated cabarets. There were similar entertainment districts inŌsaka and Kyōtō. The ambiance of these districts was known as ukiyo (floating world), in which no commitments were permanent and only the pleasure of the moment counted. This ambiance served as the basis of a variety of popular art and entertainment forms originating in the Genroku Era.

Two main forms of theater Theater;Japan , Bunraku Bunraku puppet plays and Kabuki Kabuki musical dramas, were popular in the entertainment areas of all three cities, though the leading Bunraku theater, the Takemoto-za, was in Ōsaka. This puppet theater was established and managed by Takemoto Gidayū Takemoto Gidayū , whose troupe of puppet masters and reciters performed many plays written for their theater by Chikamatsu Monzaemon Chikamatsu Monzaemon .

Chikamatsu also wrote scripts for the famous Kabuki performer Sakata Tōjurō Sakata Tōjurō , who performed inŌsaka and Kyōtō. Chikamatsu’s well-developed plots inspired more realistic action in Sakata’s performances, which had previously focused on dance moves, for the most part. This Kabuki style prevalent inŌsaka and Kyōtō was known as nuregoto (poignant performance) because it emphasized pathos in romance. In Edo, the Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjūrō I Ichikawa Danjūrō I[Ichikawa Danjuro 01 developed a new assertive style of his own: aragoto (bold performance), which focused on samurai behavior, giving Edo Kabuki a developmental lead. This aragoto approach soon came to characterize Edo Kabuki in general. Literature;Japan

Also in Edo, the classically trained painter Hishikawa Moronobu Hishikawa Moronobu explored new artistic media, developing woodblock prints, depicting popular Kabuki performers and Yoshiwara courtesans in black and white, with coloring painted in by hand. This form, known as ukiyo-e, was later printed in color. Moronobu also excelled in making book illustrations for literary classics and for topical albums of his own creation. Ukiyo-e

The Edo poet Poetry;Japan Matsuo Bashō Matsuo Bashō developed the seventeen-syllable haiku Haiku into a classical poetic form, used mainly in spontaneous sequential compositions at social literary gatherings. Influenced by Zen Buddhism, Bashō imbued his poems with many philosophical and aesthetic elements. He created his own school of haiku composition, spending his later years traveling around Japan, teaching the writing of haiku to regional groups of followers.

Ihara Saikaku Ihara Saikaku began his career in Ōsaka as a poet, famous for long tour de force chains of linked haiku, composed extemporaneously at public gatherings. Saikaku subsequently switched to fiction, writing episodic picaresque novels Novel;Japan , spiced with erotic elements and with characters from the merchant or samurai classes. These novels were successful and lucrative prototypes of the popular Edo novel form known as ukiyozoshi, the “floating world” narratives of the less-decorous aspects of merchant and samurai life.

Ogata Kōrin Ogata Kōrin and his brother Ogata Kenzan Ogata Kenzan were Kyōtō artists who flourished in the nurturing climate of the Genroku era. Painting;Japan Their family had an exclusive textile and kimono business, and their father Sōken’s customers included the shogun’s family in faraway Edo. Sen learned painting and calligraphy from famous Kyōtō masters, but Kōrin and Kenzan were the first family members to become professional artists. Kōrin worked as a painter of multipanel pictures, mostly of landscapes, birds, or flowers, which were mounted on standing screens, establishing the Rinpa Rinpa school , or Kōrin school of screen painting. His younger brother Kenzan, who later moved to Edo, was an outstanding potter, making unique porcelain objects known as Kenzan-yaki (Kenzan-fired pieces). Pottery, Japan

The Genroku era concluded with a series of tragedies and disasters that symbolically and materially signaled a leveling of the flourishing artistic and literary cultures. The suppression of the Asano Asano incident (1702-1703) clan and the confiscation of all its property in Kansai by Tsunayoshi’s close associates triggered a murderous attack on the Edo mansion of one of Yanagisawa’s cronies by clan warriors in December, 1702, followed by the mass suicide of the Asano warriors in February, 1703. On November 22, 1703, an earthquake and tsunami damaged Edo and nearby areas, followed a week later by a firestorm that destroyed most of what remained of Edo.


As the Genroku era came to a close, one year after the Asano incident, the Kabuki star Ichikawa was stabbed to death by a disgruntled musician during a performance. Chikamatsu, who was moved by the bravery of the members of the Asano clan in the face of repression and injustice, wrote the play Kiban Taiheiki in 1706 to honor them. It was well received by a public weary of Tsunayoshi’s regime and was followed by later plays on the same theme, notably Takeda Izumo’s Kanadehon Chūshingura in 1748.

There were more Chūshingura plays over the years, followed by motion pictures and television series in the twentieth century.

Whereas the great cultural achievements of the Genroku era remain highly valued, Shogun Tsunayoshi and his advisers and associates gained little or no credit for these achievements, being consistently portrayed as villains on stage and in historical fiction. Popular resentment of Tsunayoshi contributed significantly to the public devaluation of succeeding shoguns, making it easier for the Tokugawa shogunate to be overthrown in 1867-1868, which restored the authority of the Meiji emperor.

Further Reading

  • American Haiku Archives. The Floating World: An Evocation of Old Japan. New York: Universe Books, 1989. A collection of Edo period poetry. Illustrated with ukiyo-e prints.
  • Bell, David. Chūshingura and the Floating World: The Representation of Kanadehon Chūshingura in Ukiyo-e Prints. Richmond, Surrey, England: Japan Library, 2001. A detailed examination of the Chūshingura story in ukiyo-e prints and on stage in eighteenth century Japan. Includes a bibliography of further reading.
  • Bodart-Bailey, Beatrice, ed. Kaempfer’s Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999. A firsthand description of Tsunayoshi’s Japan by Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716), a German physician and natural scientist who visited Edo.
  • Drake, Christopher. “Collision of Traditions in Saikaku’s Haikai.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 52, no. 1 (June, 1992): 5-75. A good starting place to review Saikaku’s achievements as a poet and literary innovator. Includes a detailed comparison of Saikaku and Bashō.
  • Gerhart, Karen M. The Eyes of Power: Art and Early Tokugawa Authority. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999. Focuses on art patronage by the Tokugawa shogunate in the seventeenth century.
  • Kita, Sandy, et al., eds. The Floating World of Ukiyo-e: Shadows, Dreams, and Substance. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001. This illustrated catalog showcases ukiyo-e works archived at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Bibliography.
  • McClain, James L., and Wakita Osamu, eds. Osaka: The Merchant’s Capital of Early Modern Japan. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999. A social and cultural history of early modernŌsaka, with emphasis on the Genroku era.
  • Totman, Conrad. Early Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. The most readable and authoritative full-scale account in English of three centuries of Tokugawa history.
  • Traganou, Jilly. The Tokaidō Road: Traveling and Representation in Edo and Meiji Japan. New York: Routledge Curzon, 2004. A history of travel on the old Tokaidō Road between Edo and Kyōtō, recorded in literature and art, with related studies of cartography, transportation, and communication in Tokugawa and Meiji Japan.
  • Ueda, Makoto. Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. A chronologically organized anthology of 255 of Bashō’s poems, each accompanied by the original Japanese text (transliterated into Western characters) and literal translations. Also includes commentary by Japanese poets and critics from the late seventeenth to the late twentieth centuries.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Hishikawa Moronobu; Ihara Saikaku; Matsuo Bashō; Tokugawa Ieyasu; Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. Genroku Era (1688-1704)