(Friday Night History) Gesaku

There’s a rule for good satire: punch up.

This was no less the case in the Edo period. And one of the major genres through which this happened is called gesaku. While a lot of what we usually focus on in this podcast pertains to the warrior caste or those immediately adjacent to it, gesaku was primarily the domain of everybody but the samurai. These commoners used it as an outlet through which to talk romance, satire, religion, comedy, and much more.

In the first place, gesaku is actually an umbrella term. It means “playful writing,” and has a wide range of subgenres, most notably senryu poems, kibyoshi, dangibon, sharebon, kokkeibon, ninjobon, kusazoshi, and yomihon. Kokkeibon and kibyoshi, in particular, translate well to modern form. Kokkeibon is a gesaku subgenre, usually illustrated, and telling the story of commoners’ lives with a heavy focus on humor. An especially notable example of kokkeibon is Jipppensha Ikku’s Tokaidochu Hizakurige, which was translated into English by Thomas Satchell in 1960 as Shank’s Mare. Hizakurige is a lively slapstick story of two friends from Edo, Yaji and Kita, who travel west along the Tokaido Highway on pilgrimage to Ise Grand Shrine. Hijinks ensue, and continue through a sequel. Kibyoshi, on the other hand, are illustrated– think of them as proto-comic books– where text was woven into the images. These ranged from ten to thirty pages.

But remember, folks, this was the Edo period, where although the commoners held an increasing share of the country’s wealth, it was still the warrior caste that was in the exalted position in the societal hierarchy, and which possessed a monopoly on government and state-sanctioned violence. So we need to sidebar and talk about a daimyo named Matsudaira Sadanobu here.

Self-portrait by Matsudaira Sadanobu (image in PD)

Matsudaira Sadanobu was the son of Tayasu Munetake, one of the sons of the 8th shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune. Tayasu Munetake headed one of the Gosankyo or 3 Lords, the families that held daimyo-level income but who were not daimyo, instead being tasked with producing a ready supply of alternate heirs should the main Shogunal lineage die out, as it had before Yoshimune’s time. Sadanobu was adopted out to the Hisamatsu-Matsudaira family of Shirakawa domain in northern Honshu. The Hisamatsu-Matsudaira family was a cadet branch of the Tokugawa clan, and while it wasn’t too powerful in its own right, it still had that prestige by osmosis– however, it was also in the grip of financial crisis when Sadanobu was adopted in. He attained fame in his domain as well as in Edo for getting the domain’s finances back into working order, and used this fame as well as his birth family’s connections to get an appointment as the Shogunate’s chief councilor in 1787. In his tenure as chief councilor, he championed a series of political reforms called the Kansei Reforms, which aimed to straighten out the Shogunate’s faltering finances, make contingency plans for future disasters in the form of granaries, stabilize the population (and thus the tax base) in the countryside by sending peasants who’d moved to Edo back home to their villages, and more. But it had a darker side, in which it also attempted to legislate morality, by cracking down on gesaku and its authors.

So against the backdrop of these reforms, we need to talk about one of the most notable authors of gesaku, a late 18th century author and artist called Santo Kyoden.

Portrait of Santo Kyoden by Chokyosai Eiri, circa 1795 (held by Metropolitan Museum of Art, image in PD)

Kyoden was born into a family of lumberyard pawnbrokers, but became a skilled ukiyo-e artist and prolific author. It was Santo Kyoden who, in a 1788 gesaku work, defined the characteristics of the Edokko, the quintessential Edo townsman, as follows– translation as appearing in Gerald Groemer’s translation of Nishiyama Matsunosuke’s book Edo Culture:

1. He receives his first bath in the water of the city’s aqueduct; he grows up in sight of the gargoyles on the roof of Edo castle.

2. He is not attached to money; he is not stingy. His funds do not cover the night’s lodging.

3. He is raised in a high-class, protected manner. He is quite unlike either warriors or country bumpkins.

4. He is a man of Nihonbashi to the bone.

5. He has iki (refinement) and hari (strength of character)

But as Nishiyama observes, these characteristics were more imaginary than based in fact, as they don’t mesh with the realities of life in Edo. For example– Nagoya, not Edo Castle, had gargoyles (shachihoko) on its roof, and the aqueducts of Edo had dirty water, not anything to bathe in. Nishiyama argues that this has more to do with poking fun at hoity-toity people from the Kansai region (central Japan, the greater Kyoto-Osaka area) than anything real about life in Edo for people from Edo. At any rate, what’s certain is that Santo Kyoden was a renowned, beloved author and artist, and apparently one of the first to turn writing from something simply done for the love of it, to a career on which one could base a living. And he did not spare the powerful from his satirizing, not one bit!

Kyoden first satirized the Kansei reforms in Nitan no Shiro Fuji no hitoana kenbutsu, and modeled the plot of Jidai Sewacho tsuzumi after the murder of Tanuma Okitomo. He poked fun at the Reforms again in Koshi-jima toki ni aizome, and then drew illustrations for Ishibe Kinko’s kibyoshi work, Kokubyaku mizu-kagami.

At this point, the authorities felt that they’d had enough of this uppity townsman who wouldn’t stop making fun of them, and fined Kyoden. But in response, Kyoden released 3 more books, after which Matsudaira Sadanobu personally ordered Kyoden placed under house arrest and manacled for fifty days.

But Matsudaira Sadanobu had a secret: he was a Santo Kyoden fanboy, and he was an author of gesaku himself!

Hypocrite, much?

Yes, Sadanobu had Kyoden put under house arrest and manacled, but he also made sure to get an autograph from the man. And much more surprisingly, Sadanobu himself was the author of Daimyo Katagi, whose first half is in kibyoshi style and whose second half, written in sermonizing dangibon style, is a gesaku rant par excellence, about daimyo being posers! Historian Haruko Iwasaki even argues that Sadanobu was an avid reader of gesaku beyond the work of Kyoden alone, and that his work is particularly influenced by a then-recent work called Kyogen-zuki Yabo Daimyo (The Naive Daimyo Infatuated with Kyogen), which was written by Kishida Toho and illustrated by Kitao Masayoshi, published in early 1784. Kyogen is the comedic theatrical form that provides the lighter interludes that punctuate a longer series of Noh plays. Sure enough, the unnamed, hapless lord in Daimyo Katagi becomes obsessed with theater, falling asleep on-stage after a rehearsal one day, only to be visited by a Chinese sage in his dreams and yelled at. The sage’s rant is so incandescent that at times it seems worthy of Lewis Black’s rants. His invective tears apart everything from the daimyo’s meaningless pursuit of martial arts without understanding of what fighting actually is, to the lack of practicality of people who claim to understand military engineering without due diligence to matters of logistics and personnel, and even issues of medicine, religion, and decorum don’t escape the sage’s tirade. It’s really quite something, and I encourage you to follow the link and read Haruko Iwasaki’s translation for yourself. She translated it in 1983, and you can read it here– if you’re listening to the podcast, follow the link.

While Sadanobu went to great trouble to hide it, his personal attendants discovered Daimyo Katagi among his papers after his death, and they and their descendants were responsible for seeing it to publication in the Meiji era.

While the Kansei Reforms had a chilling effect on the freedom of non-warriors to poke fun at those in power, gesaku came back in force a few decades later. And even today, gesaku continues to revereberate via modern adaptations: Hizakurige got an outlandishly surreal, slapstick-heavy, anachronism-heavy movie rendition in 2005 as Mayonaka no Yaji-san Kita-san. I think Santo Kyoden would’ve approved.

Bans pass, politicians pass, but satire is eternal.

The Tokugawa Shogunate is dead. Long live gesaku!


  • Hibbett, Howard. Chrysanthemum and the Fish. (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2002), p. 91.
  • Haruko Iwasaki, “Portrait of a Daimyo: Comical Fiction by Matsudaira Sadanobu.” Monumenta Nipponica Vol. 38, No. 1 (Spring, 1983), pp. 1-19. Available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/2384009
  • Matsudaira Sadanobu, “Daimyo Katagi.” tr. Haruko Iwasaki. Monumenta Nipponica Vol. 38, No. 1 (Spring, 1983), pp. 20-48. Available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/2384010
  • Nishiyama Matsunosuke, Edo Culture. Translated by Gerald Groemer. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), p. 51.
  • Ooms, Herman. Charismatic Bureaucrat. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), p. 141.
  • Totman, Conrad. Early Modern Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 415-416.
  • ___. Politics in the Tokugawa Bakufu. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 225.

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