Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

The Buddha in Yoshiwara: Religion and Visual Entertainment in Tokugawa Japan as Seen through Kibyoshi

Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

The Buddha in Yoshiwara: Religion and Visual Entertainment in Tokugawa Japan as Seen through Kibyoshi

Article excerpt

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In recent years, the relationship between religion and popular visual entertainment has become a focal point of research on contemporary Japanese religion. Religious imagery and themes are ubiquitous in entertainment media such as anime and manga, from Tezuka Osamu's Buddha to Miyazaki Hayao's Spirited Away to Takei Hiroyuki's Buddha Zone (Thomas 2012). The use of religious symbols for popular consumption, however, is not unique to contemporary Japan. This becomes readily evident by turning to the rich visual and literary traditions of Tokugawa Japan. In particular, a genre of illustrated satirical fiction called kibyōshi ... (literally, "yellow covers"), which many describe as an ancestor of manga, serves as a compelling example of a premodern popular medium making extensive use of religious symbols for the purpose of entertainment. More precisely, the genre of kibyōshi is notable for its comical and humorous depictions of religious icons. A number of divinities serve as protagonists and play comedic roles in the satirical world of kibyōshi, sometimes at the expense of their sacrosanct status. For example, divinities in kibyōshi frequent the pleasure quarters of Edo and fall in love with courtesans (figure 1). They also suffer from financial difficulties due to a stagnant economy or personal debt. Venerable deities are rendered susceptible to mundane human emotions and limitations. This unusual juxtaposition is one of the hallmarks of the genre of kibyōshi.

As Thomas argues, "parodic or irreverent portrayals" of religious icons is also a prevalent theme in today's manga and anime. A recent example of this is Saint Young Men by Nakamura Hikaru, in which the Buddha and Jesus live as roommates in contemporary Tachikawa and enjoy their vacation in modern- day urban living (Thomas 2012, 8, 14-15). As will be discussed more below, it is problematic to presume a direct historical link between manga and kibyōshi, yet humorous appropriations of religious icons represent a technique that can be traced back at least to the late eighteenth century, when kibyōshi was one of the most widely read genres in the city of Edo.

This article will historicize the relationship between religion and popular visual culture through an analysis of kibyōshi and the representations of various divinities therein. Kibyōshi artists produced comedic effects by placing kami, buddhas, and bodhisattvas in profane and iconoclastic situations. Despite its irreverent or playful stance on religion, kibyōshi served as an important avenue through which a significant number of individuals interacted with religious symbols in the late eighteenth century. This is an aspect of Japanese religion that is impossible to grasp through an analysis of documents produced by religious professionals alone.

First offering an outline of the genre of kibyōshi and its relationship to contemporary visual media, this article will then focus on a select number of deities that figure prominently in the genre of kibyōshi. Divinities that appear in kibyōshi were those that were familiar to residents of Edo, including figures such as the Seven Lucky Gods (shichifukujin ...), Kannon, and Jizō. For the sake of convenience, the article will discuss one deity or a group of deities at a time. It should nonetheless be pointed out that explicit denominational lines are mostly disregarded in kibyōshi. Kibyōshi artists often introduced multiple deities in a single title and gave them a variety of comical roles to play. The malleability of religious icons is an enduring feature of visual entertainment in Japan.1

What is Kibyōshi?

The designation kibyōshi refers to satirical illustrated fictions that enjoyed a wide readership during the roughly thirty-year period between 1775 and 1806, primarily in Edo. Its name, "yellow covers," derives from the fact that many kibyōshi had yellow or yellow-green covers. Scholars generally classify kibyōshi as a subgenre within the wider rubric of illustrated storybooks called kusazōshi . …

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