Mass Media and Literacy

Mass media played a major role in shaping Tokugawa society. The early bakufu looked with suspicion on popular publishing, mainly because of its potential to disrupt society by spreading rumors. During the seventeenth century, the bakufu was able to police the spread of rumors to some extent, but during the eighteenth century urban population growth and the development of informal news networks that linked major cities facilitated the rapid spread of sensational news. Moreover, starting in the late eighteenth century, the demand for ostensibly objective information began to transcend class and status groups. Certain types of news, especially natural catastrophes, were of interest to the entire society. In this context, information became an economically valuable commodity.[1] The bakufu attempted in various ways to restrict or regulate the public dissemination of information. For example, an edict prohibiting “the publication of popular ballads or items concerning 'strange events that have happened recently'” and threatening serious punishments for violators appeared in 1684. Significantly, this edict was reissued in 1698, 1703, and 1713, an indication that it was difficult or impossible for the bakufu to suppress information with popular appeal.[2] “Censorship was not a joke in the Tokugawa period,” concludes Peter Kornicki, “but neither was it applied so harshly or consistently as to shackle authors and publishers and force them to publish works of the kind that were acceptable to the Bakufu.”[3]

Sometimes the bakufu tried to leverage news networks by leaking or otherwise providing information to publishers. As early as the 1640s, for example, the bakufu cooperated with the commercial publishing of military mirrors, a genre of guidebooks that listed extensive information about bakufu and domain officials.[4] In the weeks after the Ansei Edo earthquake, detailed casualty statistics compiled by the City Magistrate's Office appeared in the popular press. Moreover, by publishing the names and deeds of businesses and individuals who received bakufu rewards for their contributions to the relief effort, the press helped multiply the impact of government aid. In other words, despite general distrust of the popular press, entities of the bakufu were willing at times to work with or leverage mass media.

One important issue connected with the spread of written information is literacy. Literacy is difficult to define and measure, but nearly all studies agree that literacy rates increased throughout the Tokugawa period and that they were substantially higher in urban areas compared with the countryside. Schooling of various kinds was one important contributor to literacy rates. Shimizu Isao posits that the availability of inexpensive popular prints itself encouraged basic literacy. In any case, prints produced early in the Tokugawa period featured very little written text. In nineteenthcentury prints, by contrast, the spaces between the illustrations were usually packed with text. In other words, literacy among townspeople was sufficiently high that prints with a high density of text became commercially viable.[5] In a thorough study of literacy throughout the Tokugawa period, Richard Rubinger concludes that “by the nineteenth century a relatively high percentage of the urban and working population may have had at least kana literacy,” referring to the kana syllabary that functioned like a basic alphabet.[6] Similarly, Kornicki concludes that urban literacy rates in the late Tokugawa period were high, in part because literacy was valuable “for reasons of employment, leisure, and dealings with the authorities.”[7] One other relevant point is that literate people were not the only consumers of the printed word because “reading aloud to groups helped overcome low rates of literacy,” a phenomenon that would have been especially common in densely populated urban areas.[8] Major earthquakes in early modern Japan produced large quantities of written materials, ranging from simple broadside prints to academic books. The content of much of this material reached a wide audience, either directly or indirectly.

  • [1] Kitahara Itoko, “Saigai to kawaraban: Sono rekishiteki tenkai,” in Kinoshita Naoyuki and Yoshimi Shunya, eds., Nyūsu no tanjō: Kawaraban to shinbun nishikie no jōhōsekai (Tōkyō daigaku sōgō kenkyū hakubutsukan, 1999), 25–26.
  • [2] Kornicki, The Book in Japan, 335.
  • [3] Ibid., 351.
  • [4] Berry, Japan in Print, 107–111.
  • [5] Shimizu Isao, Edo no manga (Kōdansha, 2003), 131–132.
  • [6] Richard Rubinger, Popular Literacy in Early Modern Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007), 160.
  • [7] Kornicki, The Book in Japan, 275–276.
  • [8] Henry D. Smith II, “The History of the Book in Edo and Paris,” in McClain, Merriman, and Ugawa, Edo and Paris, 336, 348. See also Gerald Groemer, “Singing the News: Yomiuri in Japan during the Edo and Meiji Periods,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 54, no. 1 (June 1994): 233–261.
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